Monday, February 22, 2010

Not Seeing Avatar?

Forbidden Planet: Just one of the many movies I'd rather be watching than Avatar.

I don't really have anything against James Cameron or mega blockbusters. I don't hate Avatar. (How could, I haven't seen it.) I just don't have any interest in seeing this movie. I felt the same way about Titanic, and I managed to avoid seeing that. When Titanic took over the world, I made a little web page, "The last people on Earth who haven't seen Titanic." So I thought I'd do it again.

Maybe it's just that I don't like being bossed around. So many people have said, "oh you have to see Avatar." That kind of word of mouth praise, just works in reverse for me. Please don't flood this page with comments about how great Avatar is, ok. I just don't care. If you do want to comment about some other sci fi movies, classic film or even movies in general, then please, by all means, go for it.

I'm also starting a Facebook group as a place for people to hang out who are not seeing Avatar. It's gonna be a whole thing, I promise.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Secrets of a Secretary (1931)

Claudette Colbert and Herbert Marshall in Secrets of a Secretary. Thanks to Trouble in Paradise for the image.

Claudette Colbert plays, Helen Blake, the secretary in question, whose secrets include: an ill-advised marriage to an fortune-hunter who left her to become a gigolo the moment he found out her father was broke, the fact that her employer is cheating on her fiancee, that she is in love with said fiancee and he is in love with her. It gets even more complicated when its revealed that her employer's lover is none other than her not-quite ex. Herbert Marshall plays the fiancee, an English Lord Danforth who gets stood up so much that he falls in love with the secretary whose job it is to continually inform him that her boss has been detained by some mysterious engagement or another. The film is unusually frank, even for pre-code and one sequence inter-cut Lord Danforth and Helen enjoying an innocent dinner while Helen's boss, Sylvia Merritt visits her lover's seedy hotel room.

Later that night, Helen and Lord Danforth decide to go dancing at the club where her ex now works. There's a great moment when Helen realizes the cheesy crooner in the floor show is her husband. Lord Danforth sneers at the gigolo, laughing about the kind of man who would do such things and the kind of woman who would be taken in by him. The irony is that his fiancee was with the guy hours earlier and of course, Helen, looks particularly miserable as she reveals that he's her husband. I have a perverse love of these kinds of scenes in movies and especially when they happen to Herbert Marshall. He always underplays, and its wonderful to watch him squirm quietly as he processes this plot complication and attempts to find something to say to Helen that will make him seem less of an ass.

Mary Boland plays Sylvia Merritt's socially obsessed mother and though she gets little screen time, as always, she makes it count, providing the film's only comic relief. It's a sad commentary on the lack of longevity for female actresses, that though she was only ten years older than the romantic lead in this film, she ends up playing his mother-in-law to be.

Secrets of a Secretary depicts a woman working, earning her living and freeing herself of relationship mistakes. Her job is somewhat humiliating given that a few years earlier she was herself attending the types of parties for which she now sends out RSVPs on behalf of someone else. She describes herself as "an upper servant" and it reminds me of the fact that the boss falling for his secretary is merely an updating of the old "master of the house falls for his governess" plot. Though there is that fairytale aspect to the story, there isn't the feeling that the heroine can't manage by herself. Indeed, it is only after she deliberately makes herself prime suspect in her husband's murder in order to preserve Lord Danforth from scandal, that she really needs the guy's help.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

In Priase of Mediocrity: Girls Dormitory

A good film is always a joy to watch. Sometimes a bad film can be a joy just because it's fun to mock it or to laugh at the unintentional humor. But I want to talk about something that is rarely loved--the mediocre film. The main joy that I get from mediocre films is re-writing them in my head. Often these movies have a great deal of potential and you can see where the writers went wrong. The Norma Shearer/Herbert Marshall melodrama, Riptide, for example was just begging to be produced as a comedy. I spent more time imagining the scenes re-written as farce than I did watching the movie. Any movie is worthwhile that lingers in your mind for more than the run-time of the film. This probably accounts for why I give so few negative reviews to films on my blog.

Girl's Dormitory (1936) had every promise of being a bad film: a somewhat lurid title, the whiff of scandal, and an unseemly love triangle between two teachers and a pupil at a vaguely European boarding school. Perhaps if this film had been made a few years earlier it could have really sunk deep in the swamp of these tantalizingly tawdry motifs. It might have even elevated itself to the status of legendary camp or better yet, it could have miraculously become a good film. It might have actually made an honest exploration of the various power imbalances inherent in May-September romances. It could have been "Lolita" ahead of its time. Simone Simon would have made an astoundingly effective Lo. Though she was 26 in 1936, she came off as younger even than the 19 years she is supposed to be in the film. She also has a worldliness about her that it is probably simplistic to describe as merely "French," an epithet hurled at her in one scene. She instinctively knows that her older, stodgy, quarry is going to need more prodding than usual. It's too bad for the film that her rival doesn't have those same Gaelic instincts. Speaking of Lolita, there is even a creepy scene in the movie where Herr Director Stephen Dominik (Herbert Marshall) talks with nostalgia about what Marie (Simon) was like when she came to the school at age 15. Another scene, in which Marie unceremoniously dumps Dominik, shows me that the filmmakers understood some of these imbalances but weren't brave enough to spell them out. Marshall creates Humbert Humbert twenty years before Nobokov even dreamed of him, briefly, in that scene as a mixture of heartbreak, humiliation and utter desperation plays across his face.

What we are left is a post-code romance that is set-up to be fairly formulaic and even there it could have turned out to be a better movie than it did. Everything in the movie is crying out for Dominik to realize his mistake and admit that he's in love with fellow teacher, Anna, ably played by Ruth Chatterton. With more loose ends than an old tapestry, a very short run-time at under 80 minutes, it seems like the filmmakers just panicked and left the audience with an unsettling, contrived "happy" ending between Dominik and Marie. This is further confused by the presence of a very young Tyrone Power whom I was completely convinced was brought on board in the final reel to remove the young girl from the neck of our very middle-aged hero. (Marshall was actually 46 when he made this movie, though he makes a fairly convincing 37. He did have a baby face. ) I guess I wanted The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer: the uncomfortable older man played for laughs juxtaposed with a comically serious young heroine. I would have even been happy with the story left as melodrama, as long as it had a different ending, not so favor of youth and beauty.

One of the more glaring unresolved plot dilemmas is the investigation into Marie's supposed affair which is sparked by a pretend love letter she writes to Dominik. After a group of hard-nosed faculty threaten to call the girl's invalid mother into the school, she runs away in a rainstorm, Bronte style, nearly jumps off a cliff and spends enough of the night unchaperoned in a cabin with the good Herr Director to cause suspicion. Instead of seeing this as an admission of guilt or evidence of a deeper conspiracy, these teachers, whose actions were unbelievably prosecutorial to begin with, suddenly have a change of heart and see her disappearance as proof that she wasn't guilty. It gets worse. Dominik is made aware that Anna is in love with him, but this revelation has no effect on him, despite the three or four scenes to the contrary earlier in the film. I can see problems for his character either way he chooses to go. Sting didn't write "Don't Stand So Close to Me" in a vacuum. This situation could pretty much wreck his career no matter what. There is a narrow ledge that comedy walks to rid itself of the taint of unfair scandal, and it usually involves a public trial in which the true feelings of all the characters are revealed. Frank Capra knew this which is why he employed the device so often. Though the movie had a golden opportunity for such a set-piece through the investigation, it is never utilized.

The few people whom I've seen comment on this film have felt that it simply puts forth outdated mores. When one of the teachers says "After all, she is 19. My mother had two children by the time she was that age," it caused me to involuntarily squirm in my seat. Perhaps audiences in 1936 were OK with characters marrying young or more ready to accept the idea of an older man with a much younger woman, but I still think they would find the notion that a middle-aged man would throw over the very attractive and devoted colleague for a girl half his age to be a bit foolish. I can't imagine that audiences would buy the way in which Chatterton gracefully bows out, counseling both of them as her friends as an acceptable fate. It's made worse by the fact that all this is done off-screen and is summed up in an after-the-fact conversation at the end of the film. And what about the disadvantages for Marie? Is she going to wake up some day at 35 and find her self married to an old man? I simply refuse to buy the "outdated" argument. The mores described in this movie are more than just outdated, they are simplistic, wrong-headed and they must have appeared so, even in 1936. Indeed, the contemporaneous New York Times review says as much, while going on at length about the charms of Si-MOAN Si-MOAN.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Fandom Secrets: Classic film edition

Grey Coupon (best screen name ever) on the skiffy Battlestar boards recently posted a link to this awesome website fandom secrets. People log in anonymously and post secrets that they would never want to admit to their fandoms. Most of the postings are about obscure anime or Doctor Who, but the occasional classic movie secret pops up.

So I decided to start my own secret livejournal community where you can log in anonymously and post stuff about classic movies that you maybe don't want to admit to people who know your online self. Truth be told, I've already told all the world all my worst classic film secrets. If you don't believe me, I direct you to the following posts about Gregory Peck and Submarine films. I may throw a few up there myself just to get you started. The one I posted here came from Fandom secrets, though for the life of me I can't imagine a fandom where people would ridicule you for preferring Cary Grant over the stars of Pirates of Caribbean. Perhaps its that this person is very young and feels embarrassed that they have a crush on a dead guy. Welcome to my life, anonymous 14-year -old POTC fan, welcome to my life.

While we are on the topic, I'd like to say that I actually invented my own fandom secrets, when I was a teenager. I kept a photo album with all my weird celebrity crushes called "secret loves." There was the movie star that I adored (Bill Murray) even though he was way outside the realm of traditionally handsome. There was the couple I shipped because I worshipped her fashion sense and his taste in old movies (Laura Holt and Remington Steele), the dead guys (Laurence Olivier, Cary Grant) and the handsome and distinguished newscaster who was only a few years younger than my dad (Tom Brokaw). About that last secret, I will now confess in this very public space that when I visited Mount Rushmore as a teenager I made my friend sit through the entire educational film at the visitor center because it was narrated by a certain South Dakota native.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Dracula '79

Night Fever: Frank Langella oozes an oily charm as Dracula. His seductions are aided by the smoke machine that follows him around.

This movie came up in my Tivo's fortnightly scan for Laurence Olivier. Though this is a dangerous period for his films since he was in the habit of acting for anyone who paid him to help abate personal debt, I thought it would give it shot since it also stars Frank Langella who is in the news these days because of Frost/Nixon. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Dracula (1979) wasn't as cheaply made or poorly acted as I expected. To the contrary, the whole cast is excellent, the script, though not true to Bram Stoker, is at least intelligent and the production values are first-rate.

Director John Badaham (Saturday Night Fever) has a leaden touch when it comes to creating a gothic atmosphere with a gloomy washed out color pallet, acres of spiderwebs, bug eating coffin bearers and an elaborate insane asylumn set. Sometimes his effects connect with the viewer to produce genuine horror, such as the scenes of the madhouse in an electrical storm or Dracula crawling up and down buildings, but other times it all just a bit much. The most successful aspect of the movie is the relationship between Dracula and his intended victim/bride Lucy (Kate Nelligan). The pair have genuine chemistry and when she arrives at his run-down abbey for an ill-advised dinner the mood shifts from spooky to romantic.

The script moves the setting from Victorian era forward twenty or thirty years to the the early twentieth century to give more a leeway to turn Lucy into a headstrong, modern heroine. Trevor Eve gives a subtle performance as Lucy's fiancee, Jonathan Harker, who can't quite wrap his Edwardian man-brain around the fact that his girl would prefer to sleep in a coffin with the undead than wait out their long engagement.

As I watching the movie I got the feeling that I had seen it before. The love scene with Dracula in Lucy's room with its cheesy effects sequence seemed familiar. After a bit of research, I think I was remembering Love at First Bite (1979) which had a comic version of this scene. The spoof film had an inspired piece of ironic casting with supernaturally tan George Hamilton as the Count.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Phantom Menace (1999)

This movie is ten years old. Wow. Ten years since George Lucas went from creator of beloved universe to "childhood memory rapist" as some of the most disappointed fans put it. Ten years since the greatest confluence of hype and mediocrity in the history of cinema. Had Lucas made a decent movie in that ten years, all would be have been forgiven, but sadly the other to "prequel" movies were just as deeply flawed in different ways as "Episode One."

Phantom Menace was always my favorite of the prequels because though it is long, uneven, busy, overblown and creaky it had a few advantages over the later installments. The twenty year hiatus allowed Lucas to indulge the audience a bit in seeing the origins of characters from the original trilogy. The later installments do this as well, but it seemed more ok, somehow to indulge in this one. The first time R2 saves the day, a character actually shouts, "that little droid did it!" Moments like that worked for me in 1999 and they are still fun. Phantom Menace also has Liam Neeson, which the later films do not. By being the first Jedi in his prime that we'd seen, fans finally got to do more than just dip their toe in lightsaber fights, mind tricks and that special combination of kung fu and pseudo religion that we'd been teased with in the original trilogy.

I dragged Episode One out recently because my kid plays with my Star Wars toys and he has taken a shine to a twelve inch figure of Qui Gon. He was so happy to find out that there was a "Qui Gon movie" as he calls it, that I dug it out for him, even though I was pretty sure it was a little old for him. Maybe it's just not old enough since he was bored a great deal. He watches Cars which is just as long and more character-driven. He liked certain action set pieces, but there are too many talky meeting scenes that aren't really made any more bearable by the fact that the people in them are crazy long-necked aliens. They still suffer from Dam Busters syndrome.

The effects were a major selling point of the movie and I think they still hold up. I'm no huge expert in this area, though. I still watch the unadulterated Original Trilogy (no special editions, thank you) without being bothered by the effects. Heck I watch Errol Flynn movies and am not bothered by the effects. The film is busy, but not as cluttered as the last two installments in the prequel trilogy.

George Lucas really only has one way of ending a movie. An outnumbered squadron of underdogs must blow something up (a death star, a shield generator, a control ship, a series of Dams that provide hydroelectric power for Nazi Germany....oh wait, that was Dam Busters again) before a bunch of other characters get wiped out. There will be spectacular effects as the squad moves through a purpose-built landscape that only exists to give some variety for the matte painters and to tantalize the viewer with how spectacular it all is. This may sound harsh, but I really mean it as a compliment. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies are to dancing on improbable staircases what Jedi Knights are to fighting in reactor cores. Any franchise with a successful formula has to simply shuffle the elements and give the people what they want. In that respect, The Phantom Menace is more of a success than a failure.

Dead Again Again (1991) is an innovative and intelligent contemporary noir film directed by Kenneth Branagh with a really original premise. I'm not going to go into the plot in depth, because watching it unravel is one of the joys of this film. I will tell you that Kenneth Branagh plays a detective, Mike Church, who tries to help an amnesia victim (Emma Thompson) recover her memories with the help of a hypnotist (Derek Jacobi). Andy Garcia and Robin Williams have interesting small parts and Seinfeld fans may be surprised to see "Newman" (Wayne Knight) turn up as Church's assistant.

The movie takes on the conventions of noir, and most of the familiar tropes are here: a beautiful, possibly deadly lady in distress, supposedly helpful people leading the detective astray, and lots of scenes of driving around Los Angeles chasing down leads. The plot has enough twists for a couple of M. Night Shyamalan movies and benefits from an amazingly able cast. If anything the acting talent is almost a bit distracting. Not that they over- play their roles, but it can be difficult to forget that you are watching some of the most accomplished Shakespearean actors alive doing what amounts to a pulp thriller.

I think the reason Branagh, Jacobi and Thompson were drawn to the material is that it becomes a philosophical meditation on reality and imagination and deals with a lot of themes that are present in Hamlet in particular. What is sanity? What is reality? What is the point of revenge? Once a cycle of murder and revenge is set in motion, can anything stop it? Do we have free will or are we the pawn of fate? What if we are just acting out a drama that has occurred before? Is there an afterlife and can it connect with this life? Who is real and who is a "player?" All that sounds like pretty heady stuff for noir, but I promise that the Dead Again is completely entertaining in a surface way as well.

The ending of the movie is a bit of a mess. The final action is 30 seconds drawn out to five minutes of slow motion with confused editing. I could see that Branagh was aiming for a bit of Vertigo mixed with Spellbound, but he is no Alfred Hitchcock. There are worse sins than for a movie to be too ambitious and the strength of Dead Again is that you probably be thinking about it long after it's over.