Saturday, November 22, 2014

Hotel Torgo (2004)

Short documentary on the making of the now-infamous 1966 low-budget horror film MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE, which was notable for having been directed by a local El Paso fertilizer salesman and has earned the dubious distinction in many circles as the worst film ever made. The doc, directed by Aaron Allard, James Lafleur, and Marco Pazzano, is a fascinating glimpse into regional filmmaking, and the resources that MANOS' director, Hal Warren, drew on to put his rather bizarre vision on the screen.

The thrust of the documentary are the interviews with historian Richard Brandt, and Bernie Rosenblum, who acted in MANOS as well as pulling double duty on seemingly a dozen other crew positions. Rosenblum's stories about the production are delightfully funny and often quite interesting as an insight into the intentions of the filmmaker. His account of the film's disastrous premiere is especially of interest as an indicator of how audiences -- even the very local audience for whom the film was a major event -- reacted to the film at the time of its release. There are also visits to the locations that were used for the house and the Master's lair, neither of which seem to have changed much in the intervening 40 years. An entertaining and revealing doc about a film that has endured much longer than anyone involved in its creation would have expected.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

One of Spielberg's finest films, encompassing many of his favorite themes. It's one of the few major Hollywood films to deal intelligently (though still, at times, perhaps a bit too sensationally) with the possibilities of extraterrestrial life and alien abduction, and Spielberg wisely focuses on how a chance UFO sighting forever changes a simple Indiana family man's perception of the universe and his place within it. Richard Dreyfuss delivers one of his finest performances as Roy Neary, whose obsession with the UFO he has witnessed and his subsequent efforts to make contact with the aliens erodes his family and personal life, filling him instead with a singular purpose.

Although it is not primarily a special effects picture, much credit has to go to photographic effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull, who achieves some really magnificent imagery here. The spaceship is an incredible piece of artistry and design, and Trumbull's effects inspire the requisite amount of awe and wonder, without which the film would fall apart.

It is Spielberg's emphasis on the human condition that make the biggest impression, however. The scenes of Dreyfuss' mundane home life reveals the banality of the existence he has been living, making his character's curiosity about "what's out there" all the more profound. Spielberg does a remarkable job capturing that sense of wonder that keeps people watching the skies. Indeed, the film's rather protracted conclusion reveals perhaps too much detail, removing some of the mystery that comes from things left unseen. Perhaps that's why the ending -- in which the alien beings and the fate of their abductees are revealed -- seems a bit anticlimactic. As well-done as it undoubtedly is, it's simply too literal, and thus a bit of a let-down from the preceding events of the film.

However, the ending does force the viewer to ask themselves if they would leave behind their family, their home, and indeed, their very beliefs, in exchange for the experience of making contact with extraterrestrials and traveling with them to places unknown -- questions we may find ourselves pondering on clear nights under the vast expanse of shining stars, and wondering what's out there.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

One of the real delights to come out of Hollywood screen comedy in the past 30 years has been the collaborations of comedian Steve Martin and director Frank Oz. Their finest film -- certainly my favorite, anyway -- is this 1988 comic crime caper, about two con men: one a dapper English gentleman-thief (played to perfection by Michael Caine), the other a rather loutish and crude American (Martin) who find themselves as rivals working their confidence schemes in the town of Beaumont-sur-Mer, on the French Riviera. Trying to outwit each other, the men make a bet that whichever one can successfully scam the fortune of a newly-arrived, naive young woman from the Midwest (Glenne Headley) will have complete run of the territory, although this task turns out to be far more complicated than either of them had anticipated.

The film feels like a throwback to those continental heist pictures of the '60s, filled with impossibly sophisticated characters and exotic locations. There are also very funny moments of low humor, especially involving Martin's unforgettable impersonation of "Ruprecht the monkey-boy". Although Martin is at his comic peak here, Michael Caine very nearly steals the film from him, as the suave, elegant crook -- the kind of role that David Niven specialized in years earlier.* It's great fun watching them match wits, trying to one-up each other in surprising and unexpected ways. Oz has to be given much credit for keeping the proceedings reined in enough that they never go too far, never disrupting the tone or style he has achieved so well. His impeccable gift for directing comedy has never been better served than it is here. Certainly one of the best comedies of the decade.

*Upon further research, I learned that this film was indeed a remake of a 1964 Universal comedy, THE BEDTIME STORY, which indeed starred David Niven in the role played by Michael Caine here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Turks & Caicos (TV, 2014)

An offbeat but gripping political thriller produced for British television and aired on PBS as part of the "Masterpiece Contemporary" anthology series. Bill Nighy plays Johnnie Worricker, a former MI-5 agent who gets involved with an eccentric and unorthodox CIA agent (Christopher Walken) to bring to justice a group of businessmen who have been defrauding the US government for millions of dollars in the process of building prisoner-of-war camps.

Writer-director David Hare crafts an exciting political mystery around this premise, creating in the process an odd contrast between the contemporary setting and the seemingly-deliberate stylistic throwback to what feels like it could have been a late '80s-early '90s erotic thriller, complete with a moody, saxophone-heavy jazz soundtrack and little touches, such as tape-recorded answering machines, that seem slightly anachronistic. Whether or not this is intentional, I'm not sure, but it undoubtedly contributes to the fun and off-kilter tone of the piece. Hare also successfully implies a much larger and overwhelming sense of political conspiracy that moves well beyond the immediate characters and surroundings, wisely avoiding needlessly-complicated set pieces in favor of emphasizing the tensions and relationships between the characters and the various political organizations involved.

Nighy and Walken are especially fun to watch. Nighy brings just the right amount of "secret agent cool" to the part without losing any of the character's world-weary sadness and sincerity; indeed, one of the most effective aspects of the character is his touching friendship with a local policeman and the native islanders. Walken is clearly having a ball playing the two-faced CIA agent, delivering very much an over-the-top "Christopher Walken performance" that borders on the comical and absurd at times, and yet it fits right in with the off-balance world that Hare has created in this unique thriller. The top-notch supporting cast includes Winona Ryder, Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Rupert Graves and Ewen Bremner. This was a follow-up to David Hare's earlier "Johnnie Worricker" thriller PAGE EIGHT (2011).

Monday, November 10, 2014

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Could this be the crowning achievement of the Hollywood studio system? It's certainly a perfect example of what that system, and especially MGM -- the mightiest of studios -- was capable of producing at its peak. It holds up as a phenomenally entertaining and exceptionally well-mounted production, one that never grows dull even after multiple repeat viewings. Frank Lloyd had purchased the rights to the novel by James Norman Hall and Charles Nordhoff, based on the events of the 1787 mutiny on board HMS Bounty, and in turn sold the rights to MGM on condition he could direct. Lloyd and Irving Thalberg produced the film for MGM, pouring the studio's full resources into the production as their big blockbuster film of the year, and the results are nothing less than spectacular. Charles Laughton gives one of his finest performances -- in a career full of fine performances -- as the brutal and sadistic Captain Bligh. Clark Gable's noble, heroic Fletcher Christian rivals his performance as Rhett Butler in GONE WITH THE WIND as his best work. The 132 minute running time flies by -- thanks to the excellent script and editing, there isn't a wasted moment in any of it. Every scene, indeed every shot, achieves its maximum potential. A truly masterful combination of art and entertainment.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Life With Father (1947)

A delightful and charming film, adapted from the Lindsay-Crouse Broadway hit about late-19th century Wall Street broker Clarence Day, whose devoted wife and children slyly but lovingly undermine his authority as the head of the household. A nostalgic look at the past and a richly-developed family comedy, the Broadway show was the longest-running non-musical play at the time, and the film adaptation, produced by Warner Bros. and directed by Michael Curtiz, appears to try very hard to stay true to its theatrical origins. The results work well due to Curtiz' expert direction, which manages to remain visually interesting throughout, achieving some subtly effective camera movements within the limited space of the Madison Ave. house and courtyard set. Indeed, it appears little effort was made to open the play up for the screen at all -- with only a few exterior street scenes taken on the backlot -- but when the source material and performances are this strong, it's hard to argue with the approach. It is more low-key than one might expect from a 1940s Hollywood comedy, trading the fast pace and clever dialogue of the screwball style for a slower, warmer, genteel kind of humor that arises naturally out of the characters.

The production design, costumes, and Technicolor cinematography all evoke a strong period atmosphere, bathed in hazy, pastel tones that conjure up a wistful sense of nostalgia for times gone by. William Powell gives one of the very best performances of his career as the stern but affectionate father, with Irene Dunne equally superb as his wife, and the two create a genuinely touching and rich screen couple. They are ably supported by Elizabeth Taylor in a really sweet and charming performance, as well as the fine character actors ZaSu Pitts and Edmund Gwenn.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

The Call of the Wild (1935)

Rousing good adventure yarn, from the Jack London classic. The combination of director William Wellman and star Clark Gable is an inspired match for the material, bringing out all the rugged, masculine qualities of the story. This is exactly the kind of role Gable could play better than anyone else, and he gives one of his best performances here, achieving a real chemistry with co-star Loretta Young. Jack Oakie is the likable comic support, and he does his usually fine job in that capacity. The script, by Gene Fowler and Leonard Praskins, provides a winning combination of humor and romance between the action, and Wellman balances all of these elements expertly.

It's a handsomely-shot production, too, with location footage combined with indoor sets that convincingly give the impression of the great outdoors, greatly enhanced by Charles Rosher's striking cinematography. Special mention should be made of the excellent direction of the animal actors, too, especially of the expressive and really quite touching performance of the lead dog, Buck. Wellman's eye for expansive scenery and the natural beauty of the wilderness adds immeasurably to the power of this great film, really one of the best of its kind made in Hollywood.

Death Comes to Pemberley (TV, 2014)

Two-part miniseries, produced for British TV and aired on PBS as part of the "Masterpiece Mystery" anthology program. An elaborate yet tasteful adaptation of P.D. James' novel, which incorporates the characters from Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" into a mystery plotline involving the murder of a British soldier in the woods on the Pemberley estate. I have not read the James novel, but it's an interesting concept to watch a murder mystery unfold in the world of Jane Austen with her familiar characters, and the adaptation to the screen appears to  have been served quite well by writer Juliette Towhidi. Director Daniel Percival manages to create real suspense out of the tensions between the characters and situations; his handling of the climax, with its last-minute race to the rescue, is especially effective. The production design is, not surprisingly, first-rate and at times stunning in its opulence. The fine cast includes Matthew Rhys as Darcy, Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth, Matthew Goode as Wickham, Tom Ward as Col. Fitzwilliam, and Trevor Eve as Sir Selwyn Hardcastle, who acts as the investigator in the case. Recommended for Austen fans and "whodunit" enthusiasts alike.