Sunday, January 6, 2013

Pauline Kael: Some Classic Film Criticism

This is a random selection of good Pauline Kael insights into movies, most of which I’ve taken from this website. I call it ‘Classic Film Criticism’ not because she’s always right or fair. I don’t mean to defend all the opinions expressed here by any means. But she’s always engaged and alert - even when watching trashy films - and she gets into the nitty-gritty of acting, directing, script, music, cinematography, etc and says interesting things about them. She had a vast knowledge of not only cinema but also other artforms and she used that to make often interesting comparisons. She was also a brilliant summariser who always personally engaged with the film in a way that’s sadly lacking in much highbrow, theory-based film criticism these days, written by people who seem to have never read a novel or a history book, and who can tell you all about every -ism under the sun but don’t know the difference between a flat performance and a great one.

It should be mandatory for any professional critic to have a basic level of commitment to the film itself and also an ability to pick apart what’s good and bad about it. Many critics working for magazines and newspapers today really don’t seem to have that, and they could learn a lot from these pieces. Pauline Kael’s attention to detail and the complex honesty of her responses is proof that if you approach a film without jargon or theories, but with open eyes and a clear intelligence, wonderful things can result. You might not become as good as critic as Kael - for that you’d also have to develop a fine writing style, a wicked wit, an enormous cultural knowledge and an ability to make insightful comments about actors and acting- but it’d be a start.  

If you like these check back again later because I’ll add more examples as I gradually get through all her reviews in the coming months.

See also: Pauline Kael’s Funniest lines

Adalen 31 (Sweden, 1969) 
An extraordinarily sensitive re-creation of a strike and riot that altered the course of Swedish political life, seen through the eyes of an adolescent boy whose father dies in the events. Bo Widerberg, whose previous film was ELVIRA MADIGAN, wrote and directed this beautiful yet uninspired piece of work; lush and lyrical as it is, it's fundamentally didactic, with stereotyped social-realist characters. And because Widerberg seems to work best in vignettes and to have architectural problems when he's working on such a large scale, his argument isn't clear; he makes the little points but not the big ones. So when the violence erupts, we don't really understand its political significance-we're left "appreciating" it, in a rather embarrassed way, for its pictorial values.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (US, 1989) 
The elements are here for a fantasy on the order of THE WIZARD OF OZ and PINOCCHIO and the 1940 THE THIEF OF BAGDAD; the Baron and a 10-year-old girl (Sarah Polley) voyage to a city on the moon, fall into the fire god Vulcan's foundry inside the belching Mt. Etna, and are swallowed by a monster fish. Yet the picture is dry and choppy and remote. The design (by Dante Ferretti) and the cinematography (by Giuseppe Rotunno) are sometimes magnificent, and there are scenes that are near-inspired. Something is missing, though: a bit of conviction-of ardor and awe. Gilliam's hip silliness is deflating; his gifts-his gagster's prankishness and his sense of beauty-don't harmonize. The picture is almost devoid of emotional shadings.

Against All Odds (US, 1984) 
Suggested by the 1947 Jacques Tourneur suspense film OUT OF THE PAST, this revved-up picture is of the "everybody uses everybody" genre, set in swank surroundings and outfitted with electronic music to make you twitch. With a plot that borrows from CHINATOWN and NORTH DALLAS FORTY, it has so many convoluted double crosses that each time you're told what was "really" going on behind the scene you just witnessed you care less.

Alphaville (France, 1965) 
Jean-Luc Godard ventures into science fiction, with mixed results. The picture is brilliant, yet it's no good. Godard found enough of the future in present-day Paris to create a vision of a new world without constructing sets; it's a sleek, dark, glittering society-at first, the dehumanization is funny and alluring and a little eerie. The modern corridors and ramps and the flickering lights suggest something almost supernaturally impersonal. But the people of Alphaville are ruled by a giant computer, and soullessness can be very monotonous.

Anne of the Thousand Days (US, 1969) 
This version of the events that led Henry VIII to make himself head of the Church of England is intelligent from line to line, but the emotions that are supplied seem hypothetical, and the conception lacks authority. Richard Burton's Henry is conceived as a weak, tentative, somewhat apologetic monarch, and though Burton delivers his speeches with considerable sureness and style, his performance is colorless; it's almost as if he remembered how to act but couldn't work up much enthusiasm or involvement. Genevive Bujold's Anne Boleyn is a clever, wily, sexually experienced young girl who keeps the King waiting for her sexual favors for six years-until he can marry her and make their children heirs to the throne. Bujold works at the role with all her will and intelligence, and her readings are often extraordinary, but she's too tight and too self-contained; one admires her as an actress but does not really warm to her performance.

The April Fools (US, 1969) 
An attempt to revive the madcap-romantic comedy, with Catherine Deneuve (a bit glazed) and Jack Lemmon (rather mournful and too sappy) as the lovers. The director, Stuart Rosenberg, didn't have the right light touch, but one can still perceive what was intended in Hal Dresner's script, despite the movie's lumpiness.

Barefoot in the Park (US, 1967) 
This movie version of a Neil Simon comedy hit is a trifle and almost amusing in a harmlessly, pleasantly stupid way. What Neil Simon can't seem to get rid of are those terrible moments of dramatic untruth-"I love you very much" and "I want a divorce;" they crunch like nutshells in a candy bar. If he could manage without them, he'd have candy so perfectly digestible people wouldn't know if they'd eaten it or just seen an ad for it.

The Blue Angel (Germany, 1930) 
Dietrich's Lola Lola is a rather coarse, plump young beauty; as she sings "Falling in Love Again," her smoldering voice and sadistic indifference suggest sex without romance, love, or sentiment. The pedant becomes her husband, her slave, her stooge; he travels with the café troupe, hawking dirty pictures of his wife. Dietrich is extraordinary, and THE BLUE ANGEL is a movie you can admire sequence by sequence, because it's made in an imaginative, atmospheric style, yet you may feel that you don't really like it on an emotional level; the sexual humiliation gets very heavy in the scenes in which the teacher, now a clown, returns to his home town and to his old classroom.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (US, 1969)
Natalie Wood is the wrong kind of actress for this material; she's still doing what she was doing as a child-still telegraphing us that she's being cute-and when she tries hard she just becomes an agitated iron butterfly. But the scenes involving Gould and Cannon are small miracles of timing; Cannon (who looks a bit like Lauren Bacall and a bit like Jeanne Moreau, but the wrong bits) is also remarkably funny in her scenes with an analyst (played by the analyst Donald F. Muhich). You can feel something new in the comic spirit of this film-in the way Mazursky gets laughs by the rhythm of cliches, defenses, and little verbal aggressions.

A Clockwork Orange (UK, 1971) 
At the movies, we are gradually being conditioned to accept violence as a sensual pleasure. The directors used to say they were showing us its real face and how ugly it was in order to sensitize us to its horrors. You don't have to be very keen to see that they are now in fact de- sensitizing us. They are saying that everyone is brutal, and the heroes must be as brutal as the villains or they turn into fools. There seems to be an assumption that if you're offended by movie brutality, you are somehow playing into the hands of the people who want censorship. But this would deny those of us who don't believe in censorship the use of the only counterbalance: the freedom of the press to say that there's anything conceivably damaging in these films -- the freedom to analyze their implications. If we don't use this critical freedom, we are implicitly saying that no brutality is too much for us -- that only squares and people who believe in censorship are concerned with brutality. Actually, those who believe in censorship are primarily concerned with sex, and they generally worry about violence only when it's eroticized. This means that practically no one raises the issue of the possible cumulative effects of movie brutality. Yet surely, when night after night atrocities are served up to us as entertainment, it's worth some anxiety. We become clockwork oranges if we accept all this pop culture without asking what's in it. How can people go on talking about the dazzling brilliance of movies and not notice that the directors are sucking up to the thugs in the audience?

Doctor X (US, 1932) 
The title role, Dr. Xavier, is played by Lionel Atwill, an expert at polished menace; he can be wonderful in the way he examines a corpse while commenting "Strangely enough, only the left deltoid has been severed." His suavity is heavy, though, and he weighs this picture down a bit. The director, Michael Curtiz, plays things too straight; he doesn't have the perverse comic sense of a James Whale. (There are bits-such as talk of cannibalism, and a doctor unscrewing his artificial arm-that cry out for the sort of twist Whale would have given them.)

Doctor Zhivago (US, 1965) 
…And in this movie, so full of "'realism," nothing really grows-not the performances, not the ideas, not even the daffodils, which are also so "real" they have obviously been planted for us, just as the buildings have been built for us. After the first half hour you don't expect the picture to breathe and live; you just sit there. It isn't shoddy (except for the balalaika music, which is so repetitive you could kill the composer); it's stately, respectable, and dead. Though not in itself a disgraceful failure, it does have one disgraceful effect: the final shot of a rainbow over the huge dam where Zhivago's lost daughter is working. This banal suggestion that the suffering has all been for the best and that tomorrow will be brighter is not only an insult to the audience, it is a coarse gesture of condescension and appeasement to the Russians. Would Lean and Bolt place a rainbow over the future of England?

Dog Day Afternoon (US, 1975)
The most touching element in the film is Sonny's inability to handle all the responsibilities he has assumed. Though he is half-crazed by his situation, he is trying to do the right thing by everybody-his wife and children, the suicidal Leon, the hostages in the bank. In the sequence in which Sonny dictates his will, we can see that inside this bungling robber there's a complicatedly unhappy man, operating out of a sense of noblesse oblige. Pacino has a telephone conversation with Sarandon that by ordinary dramatic standards goes on too long, but this willingness to violate ordinary practice permits the two actors to go further and further emotionally. Lumet keeps so much low comedy and crazy melodrama going on in the bank, on the street, among the police, that he can risk the long, quiet scenes that draw us in. (He doesn't even use a musical track.)

Don't Bother to Knock (US, 1952) 
Marilyn Monroe as a psychotic babysitter. She wasn't yet a box-office star, but her unformed-almost blobby-quality is very creepy, and she dominated this melodrama.

Fat City (US, 1972) 
Set and shot in Stockton, California, this John Huston movie about boxing is almost a really memorable movie, but it suffers from a central piece of miscasting. Stacy Keach is catatonically drab as Tully, the boxer on the skids. The film is beautifully acted and directed around the edges, but it also suffers from a tragic tone that has a blurring, antiquing effect. You watch all these losers losing, and you don't know why they're losing or why you're watching them. Their losing appears to be a plot necessity for the sake of a faded idea of classical structure. In the role of a nice, dumb young fighter, Jeff Bridges helps to compensate for the missing center. He doesn't have much chance for characterization, but the way he moves is so unobtrusively natural and right that you feel you know the kid and understand him.

Flash Gordon (US, 1980)
It's like a fairy tale set in a discotheque in the clouds. Up there, the arch-fiend Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) toys with Earth until three Earthlings-Dr. Zarkov (Topol), the golden-haired Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones), and the cuddly Dale Arden (Melody Anderson)-go up in a rocket and crash-land at Ming's palace in Mongo. This picture has some of the knowing, pleasurable giddiness of the fast-moving Bonds. The images are flooded with the primary colors of comic strips-blue and, especially, red at its most blazing; the designer, Danilo Donati, and the cinematographer, Gil Taylor, make the colors so ripely intense that they're near-psychedelic. Ming's daughter, the tiny, voluptuous Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), wiggles and slinks through the palace wearing a shimmering scarlet jump suit; she's a flaming nympho and a perfect little emblem of camp. There's a wonderful, fairy-tale form of Russian roulette, when Flash and Timothy Dalton (as the dashing Prince Barin) take turns putting a hand into the crevices of a gnarled tree trunk, risking the fatal bite of the resident monster. The director, Mike Hodges, gets right into comic-strip sensibility and pacing.

Fletch (US, 1985) 
Although Joe Don Baker, as a dimply, crooked police chief, has a good moment or two, the movie is really nothing but a star turn for Chase, who is required to be laid-back, deft, and, regrettably, more clever than anybody else. His line readings are beautifully timed, but smart-aleck facetiousness and smugness are built into the conception of the character; Fletch is the narrator, and even when he's talking to someone, most of the time he's putting that person on and joking directly to us. Ritchie gets everything he can out of Bergman's dialogue; he keeps the picture moving along, and its casual tone might be likable and diverting on television. In the theatre, it isn't enough, the casualness doesn't pay off, and the picture just drifts by.

Fool for Love (US, 1985)
You'd think that if anybody could film Sam Shepard's 1983 play and keep it metaphorical and rowdy and sexually charged it would be the intuitive Robert Altman, but the material seems to congeal on the screen, and congealed rambunctiousness is not a pretty sight. The play-a carnal (and existential) screwball comedy-is about the no-exit tormented sex relationship between Eddie, a broken-down rodeo cowboy (Shepard), and his half sister, May (Kim Basinger), who lives in a cheap motel "on the edge of the Mojave Desert." It's counterculture macho (circa EASY RIDER) gone mythic. Though this stuff isn't much, it might get by if it were just faster and more kinetic, if there were less mood and atmosphere, and Eddie and May were ferociously passionate and excitable. But Sam Shepard's adaptation opens out the play and the steam escapes. And Altman directs this adaptation almost reverently, as a series of near-static pictures. As Eddie, Shepard is a feeble presence; when he delivers Eddie's lines they have no visceral force. Kim Basinger works hard and she has a flushed, smeary-faced, wounded quality, yet she lacks spirit. Randy Quaid gives the role of Martin, May's gentleman caller, a solid, hick doggedness (and Shepard does his best acting in his hipster-outlaw gamesmanship with Quaid). As the Old Man, the lovers' father, Harry Dean Stanton has the right tequila-swigging grunginess though he doesn't seem to have any idea what he should be doing.

Fort Apache, The Bronx (US, 1981)
It takes a long time for an actor to develop the assurance that the trim, silver-haired Paul Newman has acquired, and there's a bloom on everything he does in the role of Murphy, the veteran of 18 years on the New York police force, who has spent most of those years in the rotting 41st Precinct, in the South Bronx-the most shattered, crime-ridden section of the city. Murphy and his young partner, Corelli (dark-haired, loose-limbed Ken Wahl), do the best they can in dealing with muggers, arsonists, pimps, pushers, and killers-one of them a fellow-officer, Morgan (Danny Aiello), who throws a Puerto Rican teenager off a roof. The film is an attempt to show urban crisis in extremis, and it's an expression of disgust at racism. But the director, Daniel Petrie, glides over the action, levelling things out, shooting on the hellhole Bronx locations as if he were making a travelogue. Heywood Gould's script, which is based on the accounts of two policemen (Thomas Mulhearn and Pete Tessitore), is an intricately designed mixture of street vaudeville and drama of conscience. The film has many of the ingredients of a shocking, memorable movie, but it's shallow and earnest. Its point is that Murphy's faith in the police is undermined by Morgan's racist action; Murphy can't understand how a cop could do such a horrible thing. For the movie to be really good he would have to understand all too well. It's a mess, with glimmerings of talent and with Newman's near-great performance.

From Here to Eternity (US, 1953)
This was the movie of its year, as ON THE WATERFRONT was to be the next year, and not just because each swept the Academy Awards, but because these films brought new attitudes to the screen that touched a social nerve; they weren't the same kind of winner as BEN-HUR. Yet a displacement occurs in the course of the action here: Prewitt's fate gets buried in the commotion of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. And Clift's innovative performance was buried in the public praise for Sinatra and Lancaster.

Funny Face (US, 1957)
Fred Astaire as an Avedonish fashion photographer who discovers Audrey Hepburn working in a bookshop and takes her to Paris to model clothes for a Vogue-like magazine. The Givenchy clothes are lovely; the sequences (which Avedon supervised) of Astaire taking photos are often amusingly, romantically misty; best of all, the George and Ira Gershwin score has some of the fresh spriteliness it must have had when it served the original Funny Face on Broadway 30 years before (also with Astaire). This big Stanley Donen musical isn't all it should be, though. You keep wanting it to turn into wonderful romantic fluff, but it's only spottily successful. The Leonard Gershe script (which has no relation to the earlier show) is weak, particularly in Astaire's role, and the movie emphasizes Astaire's age by trying to ignore it. And it's a sour idea to use a Sartre-like thinker (Michel Auclair) as the villain, a philandering phony. Hepburn's rescue from European sex-mad intellectualism by clean-minded, all-American-boy Astaire is so cheap and false a plot development that the picture's sophistication sinks into a very unphotogenic miasma. Still, Hepburn is a charming sidekick for Astaire, and the satirist Kay Thompson is agreeable as the rangy, hard-boiled fashion editor.

The Green Man (UK, 1957) 
Alastair Sim is so limpid of eye, so arch in speech, and so gentle, unctuous, and tragic of demeanor, that he suggests the modern epitome of agonized courtesy: the undertaker. In this macabre farce, he is cast just one jump away: as an assassin with the soul of an aesthete. It's unlikely that anybody in the history of movies has ever matched Sim's peculiar feat of flipping expressions from benign innocence to bloodcurdling menace in one devastating instant. As the assassin, he dispatches an assortment of expendable types: headmasters, businessmen, dictators, et al., but gets snarled up while trying to liquidate a distasteful cabinet minister. The picture isn't genteel: it has the virtues of English comedy combined with the more energetic style of satirical American comedy-it makes you laugh out loud.

The Grey Fox (Canada, 1982) 
This first feature, directed by the Canadian Phillip Borsos at 27, after a number of highly regarded documentaries, has spectacular work by the British cinematographer Frank Tidy; the images are dense and ceremonious, and the picture has the most lovingly photographed rain since MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER….Farnsworth is a superb camera subject, with a lulling sexual presence, and he and Jackie Burroughs, who plays a red-haired suffragette, do some highly photogenic flirting. The movie is like the book Wisconsin Death Trip with a romantic bandit at its center.

The Homecoming (US, 1973) 
Harold Pinter's mannered, floating ominousness has been used to tone up many movies (it was at its most effective in his script for ACCIDENT), but his own plays-The Caretaker, The Birthday Party, and The Homecoming, too-transfer to film badly. When this play is presented on the stage, the tensions bounce around, and one can respond to the actors' relish in their roles, but on the screen the material is so lethally set that Pinter sounds Pinteresque. The movie seems cheaply theatrical, with cryptic reversals of attitude, and sudden outbreaks of violence and sex, plus a coronary and some unspecified sort of seizure.

Humain, trop humain (US, 1972) 
A study of assembly-line work. Louis Malle shot this 77-minute documentary in the Citroen assembly plant in Rennes and at the 1972 Automobile Show in Paris. The film is not a confirmation of the typical movie view of factory labor as dehumanizing, nor does it make any large claims about the workers' being happy. Malle's film is so open and neutral a look at the work process that although one may feel that it gets beyond the usual bromides, it still doesn't seem to go very deep. The surfaces of the auto industry are very photogenic, but there are no revelations in this film.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (US, 1939) 
Playing Quasimodo (Lon Chaney's old role), Charles Laughton seems determined to outdo Chaney's horrifying makeup. With only one eye and a hump so big his head seems to be in the middle of his chest, this Quasimodo is so distorted and misshapen that little of the human being, much less of the actor, survives. It's an appallingly masochistic performance. The adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel (by Sonya Levien and Bruno Frank) seems rather perfunctory, but the film, directed by William Dieterle, is an elaborate, well-photographed mixture of historical spectacle and Grand Guignol.

Hustle (US, 1975) 
As a Los Angeles police officer, Burt Reynolds despairs over the American loss of innocence and, since the system is rigged on the side of the rich, he takes the law into his own hands. He's a romantic-liberal Dirty Harry in this sloshy melodrama, which is caught between the pulpy weltschmerz of the writer, Steve Shagan, and the harshness of the director, Robert Aldrich. When Aldrich tries for tenderness, it turns to sleaze.

The Hustler (US, 1961) 
The dialogue comes out of the 30s and borrows heavily from Clifford Odets. A character does not ask a simple question like "Are you his manager?" He asks, "Are you his manager? His friend? His stooge?" And there's a tortured, crippled girl (Piper Laurie) who speaks the truth: she's a female practitioner of the Socratic method who is continually drinking her hemlock. The picture is swollen with windy thoughts and murky notions of perversions, and as Eddie's manager the magnetic young George C. Scott seems to be a Satan figure, but it has strength and conviction, and Newman gives a fine, emotional performance. You can see all the picture's faults and still love it. It's the most vital and likable of Rossen's movies.

if…(UK, 1968) 
Can it be meant to be a story of the revolutionary spirit of the young when it's so full of bile about youth? Anderson devotes most of his energy to the meanness of the students. And it's really not a rebellion of the young that he shows us but a rebellion of a self-chosen few-three boys (and a girl picked up along the way) who set fire to the school on Speech Day and start sniping at those who flee the fire, including the rest of the young. Their way of destroying the prison is to kill the inmates. The conspirators are cleaning out the whole mess, apparently-killing everybody, because nobody's fit to live. The last shot is a glamorous and apparently approving closeup of the hero as he fires away, like Robert Taylor aiming at "the Japs" at the end of BATAAN. There are so many muddy undercurrents in this film that even the best sequences are often baffling, and the ways in which Anderson tries to illustrate the desire for freedom don't carry any conviction.

Illicit Interlude (Sweden, 1951) 
Bergman found his style in this film, and it is regarded by cinema historians not only as his breakthrough but also as the beginning of "a new, great epoch in Swedish films." Many of the themes (whatever one thinks of them) that Bergman later expanded are here: the artists who have lost their identities, the faces that have become masks, the mirrors that reflect death at work. But this movie, with its rapturous yet ruined love affair, also has a lighter side: an elegiac grace and sweetness.

Kagemusha (Japan, 1980) 
The film's style is ceremonial rather than dramatic; it's not battle that Kurosawa is interested in here but formations in battle regalia. He appears to see war as part of the turmoil of life, and he asks us simply to observe what he shows us. Perhaps he thinks that this way the horror will reach us at a deeper level. But he's also in love with the aesthetics of warfare-he's a schoolboy setting up armies of perfect little soldiers and smiling at the patterns he has devised. These two sets of feelings may have neutralized KAGEMUSHA-put it at a remove and made it somewhat abstract. The film seems fixated on mountains, triangles, and threes.

A Passage to India (UK, 1984)
This admirable version of E.M. Forster's 1924 novel about the tragicomedy of British colonial rule was adapted, directed, and edited by David Lean, who knows how to do pomp and the moral hideousness of empire better than practically anybody else around. He enlarges the scale of Forster's irony, and the characters live in more sumptuous settings than we might have expected. But they do live. Ashcroft comes through with a transcendent piece of acting as Mrs. Moore, and Judy Davis is close to perfection as the repressed Miss Quested, who longs for adventure; they are the two women whose attempt to get to know the Indians socially results in a charge of attempted rape against Dr. Aziz, played by Victor Banerjee, a fine, fluid actor who's like a piece of erotic sculpture. If Lean's technique is to simplify and to spell everything out in block letters, this kind of clarity has its own formal strength. It may not be the highest praise to say that a movie is orderly and dignified or that it's like a well-cared-for, beautifully oiled machine, but of its kind this PASSAGE TO INDIA is awfully good, until the last half hour or so. Having built up to the courtroom drama, Lean isn't able to regain a narrative flow when it's over; the emotional focus is gone, and the concluding scenes wobble all over the place. With the exception of Alec Guinness (whose caricature of an inscrutable Brahmin is simply in the wrong movie), the cast is just about irreproachable.

Persona (Sweden, 1966)
. and there's one great passage: the nurse talks about a day and night of sex on a beach, and as she goes on talking, with memories of summer and nakedness and pleasure in her voice and the emptiness of her present life in her face, viewers may begin to hold their breath in fear that the director won't be able to sustain this almost intolerably difficult sequence. But he does, and it builds and builds and is completed. It's one of the rare truly erotic sequences in movie history.

The Petrified Forest (US, 1936)
Leslie Howard is all forehead as a world-weary, desiccated intellectual who arrives on foot at a gas station and Bar-B-Q in the Arizona desert; Bette Davis is an ardent, fresh American girl, eager for experience, who lives there with her grandfather (Charley Grapewin). For a guy who's supposed to be burnt out, Howard sure has a lot of talk in him, and it's fancy and poetic as all getout. ("All this evening I've had the feeling of destiny closing in," and so on.) There's no way to say this stuff without sounding affected, and every now and then Howard hits really embarrassing false notes--but who else could embody this Robert E. Sherwood literary conceit and do it as well? Davis, surprisingly, plays her part very simply and doesn't overdo it. In a jumper with a white blouse, wearing bobby-sox and a ribbon in her hair, she's very appealing, and she says her lines as if for the first time--she's almost the only one in the cast (except for Grapewin) who does.

Re-Animator (US, 1985)
Adapted from a series of six stories that H.P. Lovecraft published in 1922, this horror film about a medical student with a fluorescent greenish-yellow serum that restores the dead to hideous, unpredictable activity is close to being a silly ghoulie classic-the bloodier it gets, the funnier it is. It's like pop Bunuel; the jokes hit you in a subterranean comic zone that the surrealists' pranks sometimes reached, but without the surrealists' self-consciousness (and art-consciousness). This is indigenous American junkiness, like the Mel Brooks-Gene Wilder YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, but looser and more low-down. (RE-ANIMATOR wasn't submitted to the Ratings Board.) This is the first movie directed by Stuart Gordon (one of the founders of the Organic Theatre, in Chicago); the actors he picked perform with a straight-faced, hip aplomb. Herbert West, the re-animator, is played by Jeffrey Combs with pursed lips and a clammy-prissy set of the jaw. David Gale is the hypocritical lecher who loses his head, Robert Sampson is the Dean, Barbara Crampton is the Dean's creamy-pink daughter (who's at her loveliest when she's being defiled), and Bruce Abbott is her adoring fiance.

Red River (US, 1948)
The screenplay is by Borden Chase and Charles Schnee, from Chase's story "The Chisholm Trail," but as Chase admitted, it's actually MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY turned into a Western, with Wayne as Captain Bligh and Clift as Fletcher Christian.

The Search (US, 1948) 
Clift gives the movie (which has that postwar U.N.-Marshall Plan piety running through it) a shot of excitement. His gestures and vocal rhythms and his emotional rapport with the child are different from the acting that moviegoers had been familiar with; he's sensitive and engaging in a new stylized, yet realistic, way.

A Separate Peace (US, 1972) 
Not shameful, exactly; not much of anything. John Knowles' prep-school novel hasn't been dramatized; the director, Larry Peerce, seems to think that conversations in lyrical places are all that's needed to make a movie. It's all chatter.

The Set-Up (US, 1949) 
This intelligently modest, low-budget film about a shabby, aging prizefighter (Robert Ryan) is generally considered a classic. It's not a great movie, or even a very good one (it's rather mechanical), but it touches one's experience in a way that makes it hard to forget. (Maybe that's why so many movies have imitated it, even though it wasn't a commercial success.)

The Seven Percent Solution (US, 1976) 
The film is somewhere between the genial "little" English comedies of the '50s, with their nifty plots and overqualified performers, and the splashy, stylized James Bond pictures. Chief among the overqualified performers, who seem to be having an actor's holiday, is Laurence Olivier, in high form as the criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty--a prissy, complaining old pedagogue. Olivier plays the role with the covert wit that is his specialty.

Shalako (US, 1968) 
As the hero of this Western, Sean Connery is tough, like the Clark Gable heroes but smarter and smoother--somewhat less fatuous. Like Charlton Heston, Connery plays conventional heroes the way most actors play villains--scowling and sullen and insolent, not so much the good guy as the rugged superman casually contemptuous of the amenities observed by mere good guys. He has more presence and style (even in his indifference) than this picture deserves. It's one of those movies in which the hero has to be a man of few words because if he ever explained anything to the other characters they wouldn't get into the trouble they get into that he has to get them out of, and there wouldn't be a movie.

Shanghai Express (US, 1932) 
In this glossy mixture of sex and intrigue, Shanghai Lily and her exquisitely stoic beloved (Clive Brook) fall into the hands of sinister Chinese revolutionaries led by Warner Oland. (He gets to deliver a camp classic--"The white woman stays with me.") When this Oriental chieftain questions Lily about why she's going to Shanghai, she answers "To buy a new hat." The scriptwriter, Jules Furthman, must have had a special affection for that line, because he gave it to Lauren Bacall, in her debut film, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, in 1944. Directed by Josef von Sternberg, this movie has style--a triumphant fusion of sin, glamour, shamelessness, art, and, perhaps, a furtive sense of humor.

The Wild Bunch (US, 1969) 
Pouring new wine into the bottle of the Western, Peckinpah explodes the bottle…

Zoo in Budapest (US, 1933)
A lovely, romantic fantasy, with the radiant Loretta Young as a girl who runs away from an orphanage, spends the night in a zoo, and meets a handsome, nonconformist zoo attendant (Gene Raymond). The entire beautifully produced movie takes place during that night in the zoo. Rowland V. Lee directed, and Lee Garmes did the memorable cinematography--tranquil visions of swans and herons on a moolit lake, and, at the end, when the police arrive and the whole zoo has gone mad, a glimpse of the porcupines in a panic.

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