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Doctober II #5 – The Great White Silence (1924)

the-great-white-silence-images-f58fc9a1-8e7a-4bde-bd6a-55ac4c79620The Great White Silence (1924)
Directed by: Herbert Ponting
Written by: Herbert Ponting
Starring: Captain Robert Falcon Scott

The history of the documentary stretches back as far as the dawn of film as a medium, giving audiences a look at everyday events, wars, medical breakthroughs, foreign cities and ways of life, and in the case of The Great White Silence, expeditions. Herbert Ponting’s 1924 documentary chronicles the infamous Terra Nova Expedition of Antarctica, which took place between 1910-1913, and led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott.  Ponting is thought to be the first man to shoot motion photography on the frozen continent, making him a pioneer of both the film and journalism industries. Along with key moments of the expedition, Ponting became one of the first men in history to shoot footage of seals, killer whales, and penguins in their natural habitats.  Without men like Herbert Ponting, we probably wouldn’t have somebody like Sir David Attenborough and documentaries as epic in scope as Planet Earth.

The goal of the Terra Nova Expedition was simple: Captain Scott and his English crew were to plant a Union Jack flag on the South Pole, sailing to Antarctica from New Zealand.  Scott and his crew were to race a team of Norwegian’s to the destination, with the goal of both groups being the planting of their respective flag.  Along the way, Ponting documents the animals brought aboard the ship for the expedition (more than a dozen ponies, dogs, and a cat with a heck of a name), the massive glaciers and ice shelves along the way, and we get to know our crew by watching them celebrate, receive haircuts, and just generally take in the breathtaking scenery at the end of the earth.  Ponting gives the audience a sneak peak of the antiquated technologies used to travel, including primitive snowmobiles, and dog and pony-led sledges.  He carefully and comically chronicles his time spent with a large group of penguins, detailing their mating rituals, nesting habits, and other characteristics of the arctic birds.  Eventually Robert Scott and his four-man expedition team leave base camp for their ill-fated trip to the South Pole, leaving behind Ponting and smaller support teams to plant supplies for the journey back, and to document Antarctic life.  Captain Scott and his four crew mates would never be seen alive again, and Herbert Ponting and the support crew would travel back to England, with the film eventually being pieced together and released to the public.

The tragic story of the Terra Nova Expedition is one of the most famous stories of exploration in modern history, and watching it happen through the lens of Herbert Ponting in The Great White Silence is nothing short of extraordinary. Ponting’s camera captures sights and wonders that had never been seen by the common man at the time, and his attention to detail and appreciation for Antarctica’s desolate beauty is what makes The Great White Silence stand apart from almost any other documentary I’ve ever seen.  He gives equal weight to wildlife and to the continents many massive natural ice formations and glaciers, giving insightful and often very humorous commentary through the use of title cards between these scenes.  Ponting’s playful storytelling style works perfectly for the first two acts of the film, and then he switches to a much more serious and fact-driven tone when chronicling the tragic adventure of Robert Scott and company.  Even though he wasn’t actually with the five men at the time of their demise, he perfectly tells their story.  We find out how long it took the men to reach the South Pole, what exactly went wrong, when certain crew members were lost to the elements, and what led to the demise of the entire party. Ponting goes from playfully sly to dreadfully serious in his tribute to the five brave explorers, and it couldn’t have possibly been done better in my mind.  The Great White Silence truly is one of the greatest pieces of movie history that I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching, almost entirely due to the creative choices of its director. Ponting has an eye for scenery, and a knack for storytelling, and he uses them to craft what I consider to be one of the most perfect documentary films ever created.
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What I Liked:

  • The pacing is consistent and break-neck, even in the film’s more playful first acts.
  • Ponting spends just the right amount of time with his subjects (seals, penguins, killer whales, the crew), never stopping on any one subject for too long.  His camera respects all forms of life equally, and sees the value in all of their stories.
  • The framing of several shots was astounding, particularly when the Terra Nova first comes into contact with mountainous glacial ice shelves.  Another highlight is a naturally formed ice cave on the frozen continent.
  • Ponting’s inter-titles are hilarious, especially in his dealings with the crew and the colony of penguins.  His storytelling is unique and at times intentionally misleading for comedic effect.  My favorite example of this is “Soon after we had started on our way, an epidemic broke out aboard…of HAIRCUTTING!”
  • The director clearly had a great deal of respect for Captain Robert Falcon Scott, as his story is told with the utmost sincerity and gravity.  Herbert Ponting quotes from Scott’s journal, giving us a first-hand recollection of the events and letting us picture it for ourselves, since no real footage of the events exists.  
  • The BFI’s 2011 restoration of The Great White Silence features a haunting score by Simon Fisher Turner.  It suits the film perfectly, and compliments the visual storytelling.  They have also touched up the surviving sources, creating an incredible presentation for a film nearly 100 years old – and featuring footage from 1910-1913.

What I Didn’t:

  • Having been released in 1924, The Great White Silence is dated in its social conventions and in its science.  If you can’t handle the fact that Ponting’s views don’t match those of contemporary society’s, this film probably isn’t for you.  The primary example being the aforementioned cat with the peculiar name – the poor black cat’s name was literally the “N” word.  Despite this, the film has age remarkably well in other respects.

Herbert Ponting’s visual diary of the Terra Nova Expedition is truly something that must be seen to be believed.  It’s breathtaking in its beauty, incredibly funny and playful in some of its storytelling, and ultimately tragic and heartbreaking in the end.  The Great White Silence stands as one of the greatest achievements in documentary history, and has instantly become one of my all-time favorite films. The fact that it exists to this day is a blessing to moviegoers around the world.  I urge you to see this film at some point during your lifetime, there’s almost no chance you won’t be blown away.  The Great White Silence is a masterpiece, and gets my highest recommendation.

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Doctober II #3 – Hearts and Minds (1974)

heartsandmindsdvdHearts and Minds (1974)
Directed by: Peter Davis
Written by: n/a
Starring: n/a

The Vietnam War has been said to be one of the United States’ most fatal mistakes in modern history, and no matter what your politics are, it’s likely that you agree with this notion.  Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds takes a good hard look at how America got into this mess of a war, how it affected their soldiers and the people of Vietnam, and points fingers at the people responsible.  We travel to Vietnam to view the destruction of villages, to speak to wounded and mourning Vietnamese, and get up close and person with US soldiers still on the ground. Back home in the United States, Davis manages to capture revealing interviews with high-ranking officials who either supported or opposed the war, with soldiers whose lives have been drastically altered from their time in the jungle, and anti-war protesters who knew it was a mistake from the word go.

Hearts and Minds undoubtedly has a bias, but it’s hard not to when dealing with one of the darkest, most pointless wastes of human life in modern history.  Peter Davis captures a great deal of anger, confusion, and disenfranchisement, felt by everybody from politicians to civilians.  It’s tragic to see such a large number of people lose faith and patriotism due to something that could have been so easily avoided.  It’s a feeling that has persisted in American people ever since the Vietnam War, and one that was exacerbated by later wars in the Middle East. Many of those interviewed attempt to frame the war in different ways that fit their personal narrative, and yet none of them manage to justify the horrific actions and decisions that took place over a period of nearly two decades.  This is the brilliance of Hearts and Minds, nobody makes it out looking saintly or evil – everybody realizes that mistakes were made and corrective measures should have been taken.

Peter Davis captures many intimate and heartbreaking moments throughout Hearts and Minds that it’s difficult to pick out highlights.  Some of the moments that touched me the most were an interview with a Vietnamese man building coffins for young children killed in bombing runs, a scene in an American classroom where an army official explains to young students that they will most likely have to go to war someday, and an interview with an American soldier who was accidentally hit by a US napalm run, burning his pants clean off.  He remarks about how hard it is to fight a battle when you’re not wearing drawers, almost making the viewer forget about the horrific loss of human life going around all around him.  Memorable moments like these would lead to Hearts and Minds winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1975.  My only substantive complaint about the film is that it can at times be very heavy-handed, trading subtlety and honesty for something that comes off as less genuine, but included in the film only to get a point across.  These heavy-handed moments just aren’t necessary, as anybody viewing the film is intelligent enough to put two and two together themselves.
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What I Liked:

  • Interviews with Vietnamese and American soldiers are very well-balanced, both of whom are given a great deal of respect.
  • People from all walks of life are featured: Vietnamese farmers, soldiers, prostitutes, US soldiers and protesters, high-ranking politicians and military officials.  
  • The film is edited to be told in a completely non-linear way, which works very well for what is effectively a look back at a period of nearly two decades.  We’re not burdened with dull stories of the politics that led to the war, we just dive in head-first.  
  • Some of the footage captured is horrifying, including US soldiers burning down Vietnamese villages, children and civilians retreating from napalm and bombing runs, soldiers in the middle of firefights defending their positions, etc.  We’re thrown right into numerous battle scenes and left wondering how the footage was obtained.
  • Both Democratic and Republican politicians are heavily criticised, with nobody escaping from the line of fire.  Even the US President’s involved in the two decades are heavily implicated.
  • Peter Davis goes a great length to human the Vietnamese people after two decades of blatant hatred and racism against them.  When soldiers refer to them using racial slurs or about how inhuman they are, Davis makes you feel guilty because you know that things aren’t black and white, and that these soldiers have essentially been brainwashed to hate something they don’t understand.

What I Didn’t:

  • The film becomes unironically heavy-handed and sentimental in its last act, the most notorious example being: overlapping the words of General William Westmoreland talking about how life is not important to the Vietnamese, coming immediately after a scene in a Vietnamese cemetery, featuring grieving children and parents.  Instead of being touching and genuine, it feels like too much, and that Davis is going too far to push his viewpoint – which is already shared by the majority of viewers.
  • I would have appreciated the use of subtitles for the Vietnamese instead of narrated translation, as certain things can be lost in translation or skipped over in this manner.

Overall, Hearts and Minds is an incredibly effective anti-war documentary, and perhaps one of the most all-encompassing and important views of how so many Americans became disenfranchised with their own society and government.  It’s a difficult look at one of the most regretful periods in modern American history, and doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to pointing fingers and showing the audience why it was such a tragic period.  It’s expertly crafted and edited, capturing many memorable and heartbreaking moments that never would have been witnessed otherwise.  Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds is recommended, but may not be for the faint of heart.

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Classic Musicals #1 – Top Hat (1935)

TopHatORGITop Hat (1935)
Directed by: Mark Sandrich
Written by: Allan Scott, Dwight Taylor, Ben Holmes, Ralph Spence, Karoly Noti (based on Scandal in Budapest by Sandor Farago, A Girl Who Dares by Aladar Laszlo)|
Starring: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are perhaps the most famous early Hollywood on-screen duo, charming American audiences with their unique song and dance productions.  The two Hollywood stars made ten famous musicals together in the period of about a decade, starring in multiple Oscar-nominated pictures, setting box-office records, and creating an untouchable legacy in the process.  1935’s Top Hat is the pair’s fourth, and arguably most successful, collaboration.  Musical numbers like “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails”, “Cheek to Cheek”, and “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to be Caught in the Rain)” have made Top Hat the most iconic and memorable Astaire and Rogers film, becoming the second highest-grossing movie of 1935, and even earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.  Director Mark Sandrich had previously worked with Astaire and Rogers in their highly successful 1934 film The Gay Divorcee.  Sandrich would continue working with the two throughout his stay at RKO Pictures, directing films like Follow the Fleet, Shall We Dance, and Carefree.  Sandrich’s most iconic picture would come after his departure from RKO, in the form of Holiday Inn, starring Astaire and Bing Crosby, and introducing “White Christmas” to the world.  Top Hat has also been praised for its elaborate and marvelously choreographed tap dancing sequences, elegant set design, and its lighthearted screwball nature.  While many cite Top Hat as the most successful pairing of Astaire and Rogers, historians and critics have noted the superior choreography of the dance numbers in the slightly less appreciated Swing Time (released a year later in 1936).  Top Hat remains beloved by fans of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and studied for its impeccable choreography and musical numbers.  It currently resides in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, where it will continue to charm audiences for generations to come.

The story of Top Hat is a relatively simple one: We follow the famous American dancer Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) in London for latest new show.  The new musical hit is being produced by the esteemed, but bumbling, Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton).  While in his London hotel room, Jerry meets a young woman named Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers), who has become annoyed at the sounds of Jerry’s late-night tap dancing on the floor above her.  The American dancer falls in love with Dale at first sight, and immediately sets his sights on charming the young woman, pursuing her all around the city.  He eventually follows her all the way to Venice after his show premieres to rave reviews.  Dale is in Venice visiting her friend Madge Hardwick (Helen Broderick), and modelling the fashions of renowned designer Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes).  After a series of mix ups and a bad case of mistaken identity, Dale mistakes Jerry for Horace Hardwick, who just happens to be married to her friend Madge.  After being outraged by Jerry’s marriage proposal (and still believing him to be the husband of her dear friend), Dale instead agrees to marry the Italian designer Alberto Beddini.  Can Jerry and Horace clear things up with the women who have won their hearts, or will this case of mistaken identity prove too much to handle? Find out the answer to that question – and see some wonderful musical numbers in the process – in Mark Sandrich’s 1935 film Top Hat!

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Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire doing what they do best in 1935’s Top Hat.

I’ll start with a major confession right off the bat: It took more than three viewings of Astaire and Rogers’ Top Hat for me to fully appreciate and understand the praise leveled at the film.  On my initial viewings I was charmed by the opening act of the film, but ultimately lost interest in the messy story of mistaken identity and all the zaniness that it brings to the table for all characters involved.  Determined to see this one through to the end, this amateur reviewer let the film digest in my mind over the course of a week, re-watching the film and individual scenes, until I finally came to appreciate more than Top Hat’s incredible musical numbers.  The biggest struggle I encountered with Top Hat was the sparse musical numbers coupled with the incredibly dry wit of the film’s screenplay.  Whereas many modern day musicals are rather over-the-top in their comedic and emotional delivery, Top Hat maintains a good-natured and subtle sense of humor throughout, never pandering to an audience looking only to be thrilled by song and dance set pieces.  For this, I can only applaud the four credited (and one uncredited) writers of the script for creating a picture that charms not only in its music, but also in its story and character development. What could very well have been nothing more than a showcase for the dancing and singing abilities of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers instead is turned into a genuinely charming, funny, and witty screwball comedy.

The surprisingly smart script is paired with incredible music by Irving Berlin and Max Steiner, who together wrote some of Astaire and Rogers’ most iconic numbers.  These include “No Strings (I’m Fancy Free)” – where Astaire proudly declares that he doesn’t need a woman in his life, and famously lulls Ginger Rogers to sleep by being her personal “sandman”, “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to be Caught in the Rain)” – where a madly in love Astaire tries to charm Rogers in a park on a rainy night, “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” – which sees Astaire mockingly and playfully guns down a chorus of men with his cane, and finally “Cheek to Cheek” – the musical number that has become one of the most famous songs shared by the two actors, which sees Astaire once again try to woo the hesitant and rather confused Ginger Rogers.  This being my first ever exposure to the work of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, one can’t help but immediately notice the incredible on-screen chemistry shared by the two actors.  They play incredibly well off each other comedically, and compliment one another perfect in their musical sequences – Astaire playing the role of the cocksure famous dancer, and Rogers playing the strong, but hesitant woman who suspects his intentions may not be entirely noble.  Complimenting their chemistry is the energetic, but patient, direction of Mark Sandrich.  His camera perfectly follows the fluid movements of both dancers, and also isn’t afraid to sit and observe a scene if it calls for it.  Quick edits and unique high angle shots are wonderfully employed to capture the film’s more elaborate dance numbers, creating a sense of wonder seen in many of Hollywood’s early musicals.  If I have one minor complaint about Top Hat, it would be that the madcap and zany nature of its middle act stands out awkwardly when sandwiched between the incredibly charming and romantic first and last acts.  This isn’t a major issue, nor does it completely ruin the film’s flow; the transitions between these acts just stands out as being slightly abrupt and awkward.

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Fred Astaire’s famed “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” dance number.

While it may have taken me longer than most to find something to sink my teeth into, Top Hat managed to win my appreciation – and a place in my heart – after multiple viewings.  The pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are still unrivaled as a musical duo, and the chemistry, passion, and charm they bring to the big screen has to be seen to be believed.  While I may not be an expert of song or dance, I can certainly appreciate that the onscreen pair are some of the very best to ever appear on film.  Top Hat brings with it a solid and truly funny screenplay, incredibly memorable and well-choreographed dance numbers, and high-energy direction that suits the tone of the film perfectly.  Whether you’re a fan of dance or not, Top Hat is a film you should see in order to fully appreciate the evolution of music and dance in the movies.  Top Hat is highly recommended.

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50’s Sci-Fi Feature #6 – The Blob (1958)

c2399714c67c31cf8024534d98bd2d5dThe Blob (1958)
Directed by: Irvin Yeaworth
Written by: Kay Linaker, Theodore Simonson (Story by Irving H. Millgate)
Starring: Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut, Earl Rowe, Olin Howland, Stephen Chase

When you hear the description “characterless, personalityless ball of red slime terrorizes a small Pennsylvania town”, do you get excited for the nearly 90 minute journey that is 1958’s The Blob?  Contrary to what my disappointed sarcasm may convey, The Blob was the film I was most excited to see during our epic 50’s Sci-Fi marathon. Boy, did I set myself up for one of the bigger disappointments of my tenure as an amateur movie blogger.  Originally paired with a similarly low budget science fiction effort entitled I Married a Monster from Outer Space, The Blob eventually proved to be too successful to only serve as a drive-in B-flick.  Directed by the virtually unknown Irvin Yeaworth, who made a career out of directing and producing lower budget sci-fi fare like 4D Man and Dinosaurus!, as well as hundreds of short religious and educational films and videos, it’s a wonder how The Blob was nearly as successful and memorable as it eventually became.  More notable than its director, the film stars one of Hollywood’s greatest early action stars in Steve McQueen.  With an unestablished cast and crew, The Blob is something of an oddity when compared to the five other films we’ve had the pleasure of covering.  The script features none of the smart subtext or social commentary found in many of those previous films, and the film brings few original ideas or set pieces to the table.  So why is it that we’re still talking about the movie more than fifty years after its release?  That’s a great question, maybe somebody reading this review will be able to answer it for me, because I’m all out of ideas.  Made on a meager budget of just over $100,000, The Blob was a tremendous financial success, grossing more than $4 million at the box office. The most notable thing about the film (apart from its surprising financial success), is the fact that it helped to launch the career of future mega star Steve McQueen.  The Blob served as McQueen’s major motion picture debut, and the film’s success likely aided him in scoring bigger projects like The Magnificent Seven.  In his debut, the nearly 30-year old future star of Bullitt unconvincingly plays a teenager who tries to save the town from the slow-moving alien gloopy gloop.  Irvin Yeaworth’s classic film was remade thirty years later under the same title, taking a slightly darker crack at the story.  While 1988’s reimagining of The Blob has managed to accrue a rabid cult following, that film somehow managed to be an even bigger flop both critically and financially.  Studios have been looking at re-launching the premise for a third attempt for decades now, so it’s only a matter of time before The Blob hits the big screen once again.

The Blob begins with teenagers lovers Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen) and Jane Martin (Aneta Corsaut) doing what young people in love do best down at the ol’ lovers’ lane.  The pair are soon interrupted by a nosy meteor that crashes nearby, so they decide to chase after it.  We cut to an old man who finds the meteor before the young couple can, and discovers that it is filled with a jelly-like substance.  In the blink of an, the substance latches itself onto the man’s hand. Unable to remove it from his skin, the old man runs into the road where Steve and Jane nearly hit him.  Finding the man in a state of shock, the young couple decides to bring him to the local doctor in order to have it checked out.  Once at his office, Doctor Hallen (Stephen Chase) takes the patient in and asks Steve and Jane to go back out and find the crashed meteor.  Almost as soon as our lead characters have left the doctor’s office, the blob fully consumes the old man and goes after the doctor and his nurse.  By the time Steve and Jane make it back, it’s too late.  By now, the blob has become even greater in size and speed, and is quickly making its way through every living thing in the rural Pennsylvania town. Our two teenage (you’re still a teen at 27, right?) heroes manage to amass a small band of friends to track down the blob and stop it at any cost.  They manage to track the blob to Steve’s father’s grocery store, but are overpowered and cornered by the strange mass.  When they emerge, the two realize that the blob has made its way to the local movie theater, where hundreds of unsuspecting townspeople have no idea that the horrific and certain death is slowly creeping towards them.  Can Steve and Jane save their friends and family from the creeping terror, or will the blob of unknown origins prove to be too much for humans to stop?  Find out in 1958’s The Blob!

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Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen) and Jane Martin (Aneta Corsaut) as our two lead characters in 1958’s The Blob.

If you haven’t been able to tell up to this point, I have to break the news and let you know that I didn’t get a whole lot out of The Blob.  Maybe my expectations were too high going into the film, or maybe my previous viewing of the 1988 remake gave me more of a lust for blood and horror, or maybe it simply isn’t a great film worthy of decades of praise and analysis.  Whatever the reason, I’m at the very least glad that I’ve finally crossed it off the never ending list of films to see.  While The Blob isn’t the worst film I’ve ever sat through (I watched it twice, for what it’s worth), it’s riddled with too many problems for me to consider it worthy of the amount of praise it’s received in the 58 years since its release.  The premise of the film is incredibly unique and full of potential, but the screenplay and uninspired direction neuters most of what could have been so great about a killer alien blob.  Instead of taking an exciting and thrilling approach to the looming terror of the blob, the film spends a LOT of time just kind of…idle.  Even though we spend a lot of time with Steve and Jane, we never really get to know who they are.  Most of their key character traits are delivered to the audience through laborious expository scenes, making them infinitely less interesting or compelling than if the script had taken a subtle, natural approach.  With no assistance from the script, lead actor Steve McQueen displays almost none of the charisma or charm that would make him a Hollywood icon later in his career. Nobody in The Blob feels remotely believable in the roles they’ve been given.  I suppose it doesn’t help the immersion factor when we’re given a cast of people in their mid-late 20’s playing kids in their late teens.  When things finally get exciting and the film is reaching its boiling point, I found myself not caring anymore because the buildup left too much to be desired.  Instead of building to a reveal of the blob, we see the creature (?) immediately, and see everything it’s capable of doing within the first thirty minutes of the film.  By giving us everything we could possibly want upfront and leaving few questions unanswered, the filmmakers give viewers very little to grasp onto for the last hour or so.  The blob itself is a great idea in theory, but the film’s special effects just look silly and cheap when the camera lingers too long – which it often does. On the plus side, The Blob features some incredibly vivid and bright colour photography courtesy of De Luxe color and cinematographer Thomas E. Spalding.  The photography makes watching the film incredibly easy, as it constantly looks interesting despite featuring bland (sometimes almost non-existent) direction.  Luckily, director Irvin Yeaworth manages to get a few scenes right.  Specifically, the famous movie theatre set piece is something that just has to be seen by horror or sci-fi fans.  The tension in these scenes is palpable, and feels unlike anything else found in The Blob.  The creeping horror brings a great deal of real dread with it, and makes it without a doubt the most memorable thing about the film.  The shots of the blob oozing through the movie theatre’s ventilation system is horrifying and subtle, and as a viewer you feel for every single person unknowingly sitting in the dark with the thing.  If only the movie as a whole was as great as these moments.

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The culmination of The Blob‘s famous movie theater set piece.

The amount of love and praise given to The Blob over the years is something I just can’t wrap my mind around.  While I see a lot about the film to enjoy or appreciate, the project as a whole is far too problematic for me to look past all of its flaws.  The film looks great and has one of the greatest set pieces found in any film during our 50’s Sci-Fi marathon, but it’s not enough to offset the sloppy and flat out dull writing, the uninspired and amateurish direction, and the miscasting of most of the principal cast.  The Blob is deserving of a truly memorable and grotesque big screen adaptation, as the idea is terrific despite its inherent goofiness.  Unfortunately, the 1958 original isn’t the memorable or fun thrill ride it could and very well should have been.  The Blob is not recommended.

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50’s Sci-Fi Feature #5 – The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

IncredibleShrinkingMan-posterThe Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
Directed by: Jack Arnold
Written by: Richard Matheson (based on The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson)
Starring: Grant Williams, Randy Stuart, April Kent, Paul Langton, Billy Curtis

The Incredible Shrinking Man might be the most horrifying and surreal of any film we’ve taken a look at during our 50’s Sci-Fi marathon.  The 1957 classic may come off as pulpy, completely unbelievable, and hackneyed, but what we have here is a genuinely original and interesting picture.  Based on acclaimed writer Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man and produced by Universal Pictures, it’s no wonder Jack Arnold’s film had endured the test of time and stands as a classic all these decades later.  Rather than capitalizing on the paranoia and distrust of Western culture of the time, Shrinking Man explores themes of masculinity and what happens when a man can go no longer be a traditional man.  Director Jack Arnold made an entire career out of directing cult science fiction fare that would grow to be hailed as classics by modern historians and critics.  His filmography includes sci-fi classics like It Came From Outer Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tarantula, and the Peter Sellers comedy vehicle The Mouse That Roared.  The film stars Grant Williams as Scott Carey, and Randy Stuart as Louise Carey, Scott’s wife.  While Grant Williams was never quite able to relive the success of The Incredible Shrinking Man, his co-star Randy Stuart had an impressive career that saw her work side by side with established leading actors like Clifton Webb, William Holden, and Cary Grant, as well as being featured on many acclaimed television shows.  Despite its relative lack of star power or budget, The Incredible Shrinking Man was both a critical and financial success, doubling its budget at the box office and earning acclaim for its intelligent script and incredibly exciting action set pieces.  The film is also notable for winning the first official Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, one of the highest annual honors for science fiction, horror, and fantasy films.  Like many of the other films covered during our 50’s Sci-Fi marathon, The Incredible Shrinking Man has the honour of sitting in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

The film begins with Scott Carey (Grant Williams) and his wife Louise (Randy Stuart) alone on a boat one evening.  While Louise is below deck, a strange cloud touches down upon the boat and coats Scott’s exposed skin in an odd mist-like substance.  Thinking nothing of the incident, the couple go back to their California home and everything continues on in a perfectly normal manner.  That is, until six months later when Scott notices that his normally perfectly tailored clothes have become too big for him.  After his clothing situation continues to get worse and worse, Scott sees his family physician who assures him that he’s in perfect health and shouldn’t worry about anything.  After Louise notices a significant decrease in her husband’s height (she no longer needs to stand on her tiptoes to kiss him), the two seek out an x-ray for proof.  Scott learns from an investigative medical team that the mist he was exposed to what radioactive, and his molecular structure has been rearranged as a result.  Scott continues to shrink in size and must quit his work as a result.  He can no longer do simple things he has been doing for his entire life, and relies on Louise and his brother Charlie (Paul Langton) for support.  Eventually a supposed cure is found, which arrests Scott’s shrinking problem, but does not return him to his former height.  After a period of stabilization, Scott realizes that he is once again rapidly shrinking. Soon, Scott is small enough to live inside a dollhouse.  His relationship with Louise rapidly disintegrates, and his own household cat soon becomes a danger to Scott’s life.  After a particularly close call with the cat, Scott becomes trapped in the basement of his home, from which he can find no escape.  Louise and Charlie assume that the cat has killed and eaten Scott, and the two mourn the loss of their beloved Scott.  Now a widow, Louise arranges to move from the house she shared with her husband.  Can Scott find his way out of his own dangerous basement before it’s too late, or will the mysterious radiation side effect take his life before he can reach his wife?  Find out the answer in 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man!

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A shrinking Scott Carey (Grant Williams) in 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man.

Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man is without a doubt the biggest surprise I’ve had watching a film for quite some time.  I went into it fully expecting to laugh at the schlocky story and to poke fun at its dated ideas and special effects, but I did none of these things.  Instead, I found myself constantly being challenged by the challenging ideas regarding masculinity and what it means to be a man – specifically a man in an era when women were still held down on such a wide scale.  While the idea of a man shrinking to a size so small that he’s forced to live in a dollhouse (and eventually fight to the death with a spider) may seem silly at first glance, the ideas presented in The Incredible Shrinking Man are horrifying.  Everything that defined Scott Carey as a modern American man is taken away from him in a matter of months.  He loses his wife, his job, his friends, his hopes and ambitions, and even his very own identity. Those are incredibly high stakes no matter who you ask, and none of them are played for cheap laughs in the film, nor are they are handled clumsily by the filmmakers.  Jack Arnold’s direction of the film is quite wonderful, presenting a believable case of a man shrinking and being unable to stop it.  His serious handling of a subject matter that could so easily be played in a comedic way deserves a great deal of praise.  Instead of laughing at or rolling my eyes at the ever-changing life of Scott Carey, I was genuinely drawn into the story and found myself sympathizing for this poor man.  I suppose it helps that the screenplay was adapted by the author of the original story, the great Richard Matheson.  Matheson’s handling of his own adaptation is subtle and delicate, perfectly bringing to life an almost impossible concept – radiation poisoning that leads to shrinking.  While the subject matter found in The Incredible Shrinking Man is different than most sci-fi films of the era, it still manages to tap into the general fear of atomic power.  The nature of Scott’s sickness is completely unique and has never been seen before, and the entire thing is chalked up to being a side effect of prolonged exposure to radiation.  The fear of the unknown powers held by atomic energy can very much be felt in the early moments of the film.  These themes help Shrinking Man stay relevant in the same ways as its more paranoid contemporaries, and is probably one of the many reasons this picture still holds up today.  While the performance of Grant Williams’ performance doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, his presence in the film is just emotional enough to make the audience feel for Scott Carey.  The incredible special effects that seemingly shrink Williams down to the size of a spider hold up incredibly well for what is essentially just Grant Williams playing with life-sized props.  The film takes a dramatic shift in tone once Scott has been lost in his basement, turning into a much quieter, desperate film.  We see Scott struggle to find sources of food, battle with nature, and struggle for survival amongst things that were once simple household objects to him.  The tone here is much darker than the first two acts of the film, and helps really elevate the stakes to a truly remarkable level.  The last act of the film is where The Incredible Shrinking Man truly shines, as we get to marvel at the film’s incredible set pieces and special effects.  This all builds to the film’s incredibly sudden and pitch black ending, giving the audience a simultaneous sense of hope and doom.  No matter how you interpret the film’s bleak ending, it’s one that will no doubt resonate with you long after the credits have rolled.

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One of the most famous set pieces in Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man.

The Incredible Shrinking Man continues a long streak of incredibly impressive and timeless science fiction tales that have managed to stand the often brutal Hollywood test of time.  By handling its subject matter in an evenhanded and mature way, Richard Matheson’s already terrific subject matter is elevated to a whole new level.  What should be a completely forgettable and schlocky B-movie is instead an incredibly memorable experience that takes a good hard look at masculinity in 1950’s America, the uprising of women in the workforce, and of the unknown nature of atomic energy.  The film soars above many of its contemporaries by featuring tremendous and believable special effects, a solid lead performance, and some great effort from a veteran director and writer.  The Incredible Shrinking Man is highly recommended.

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50’s Sci-Fi Feature #4 – Forbidden Planet (1956)

ForbiddenplanetposterForbidden Planet (1956)
Directed by: Fred M. Wilcox
Written by: Cyril Hume (story by Irving Block, Allen Adler)
Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen, Warren Stevens, Jack Kelly, Robby the Robot

Forbidden Planet’s oddball send-up to the likes of Sigmund Freud and William Shakespeare is far and away the most fantastic of the 50’s Sci-Fi features we’ve taken a look at thus far during our marathon.  Taking place light years away from the planet earth and featuring a very small cast of characters, the science fiction extravaganza paved the way for future massive franchises like Star Trek, Lost in Space, and Doctor Who.  Forbidden Planet was a trailblazer in a variety of ways, being one of the first motion pictures to take place outside of the planet Earth, showing humans travelling faster than light speed, featuring a believable talking robot as a fully-fledged supporting character, and scored entirely electronically for the first time in film history. These features may not seem like much in 2016, but they all had a part in making science fiction and fantasy film-making what it is today.  Director Fred M. Wilcox’s ambitious loose adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest is without a doubt the most successful film in the filmmaker’s short filmography, elevating him from being a mere footnote in film history.  Forbidden Planet stars Academy Award nominee Walter Pidgeon as Dr. Edward Morbius, the lone human inhabitant of the planet Altair IV.  Alongside the veteran Pidgeon are television star Anne Francis as Dr. Morbius’ daughter Alta, eventual comedic legend Leslie Nielsen as Commander John Adams, leader of the expedition to Altair IV, and Robby the Robot, Dr. Morbius’ highly advanced robot.  Production of the film took place for a little over a month in the Spring of 1955, and believing that Forbidden Planet would have mass appeal, the filmmakers were given a budget of nearly $2 million to work with.  The “Robby the Robot” prop itself cost more than $100,000, and continued to be used for decades in television and films in various capacities.  Upon its initial release in March of 1956, Forbidden Planet was a modest box office success, earning more than $2.7 million from general audiences.  Though the film’s box office performance didn’t exactly change the game or set the film world ablaze, its success ultimately led to the mass production of space-set science fiction movies for decades to come.  Its critical success saw it nominated for an Oscar, and today Forbidden Planet sits in the prestigious National Film Registry.  It is remembered by audiences to this day for being a truly daring and visionary picture that dared to explore the outer reaches of the universe.

The film is set in the distant 23rd century, and takes place entirely on the planet of Altair IV, where a mission is underway to discover the fate of an expedition from two decades earlier.  Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) is seemingly the only expedition member still in contact with the ship, and he warns the ship not to set down, as he cannot guarantee their safety.  Throwing caution to the wind, Commander John Adams (Leslie Nielsen) decides to land on Altair IV to investigate the situation.  The crew is greeted by Robby the Robot (Marvin Miller), a technical marvel built by Morbius.  Robby the Robot has been programmed to never harm human beings, more or less following the Three Laws of Robotics established by famed sci-fi author Isaac Asimov.  The advanced robot leads the crew of the ship to Dr. Morbius, who shows tells them the fate of his crew from 20 years earlier, and shows off his technical prowess by explaining Robby the Robot’s programming to never harm human beings.  Morbius’ daughter Alta (Anne Francis) is soon introduced to the ship’s crew.  It is immediately apparent that there’s something very peculiar about the way Dr. Morbius and his young daughter have managed to survive and thrive on the apparently hostile Altair IV.  Overnight, the crew’s ship is sabotaged by an unknown force, and Dr. Morbius is confronted by Commander Adams.  He denies any involvement and shows Adams ancient technology discovered by the former inhabitants of Altair IV.  The next night, a crew member is killed by the unknown force, and further alarms are raised by Adams and his crew.  Can Commander Adams convince Dr. Morbius to let them take highly important ancient technology back to earth for study, or will the lone inhabitant of Altair IV do what he can to maintain his intergalactic paradise?  Find out in 1956’s game changing Forbidden Planet!

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Robby the Robot and Cook (Earl Holliman) in 1956’s Forbidden Planet.

Having heard little about Forbidden Planet before seeing it, I had always assumed it was an early ultra low budget, Roger Corman-esque production.  This assumption proved very wrong indeed, as I quickly found out that Forbidden Planet has a lot more to offer than just being a schlocky and disposable science fiction flick.  What it brings to the table is genuine intelligence and charm, more so than I ever could have expected from such an early Hollywood venture into outer space.  From the very first minute of the film, Forbidden Planet is colorful and visually interesting in almost every frame.  Though the planet of Altair IV feels very earth-like in many ways, the planet still manages to be different enough to be constantly intriguing.  Despite his relative lack of big budget experience, the film’s journeyman director (Fred M. Wilcox) manages to make the film visually interesting with tight framing and a wandering camera.  It helps that Wilcox is working with a solid screenplay by writer Cyril Hume, who effortlessly blends hard science fiction concepts with expository scenes.  Hume’s script never sacrifices its quality to explain concepts directly to the audience, instead going for a more subtle approach using elements of traditional sci-fi and horror films, mixed with dry wit and a Shakespeare inspired story structure.  Forbidden Planet’s script is partially inspired by The Tempest, following the same general story arc and hitting many of the same milestones along the way.  This inspiration helps to elevate Forbidden Planet’s story from silly science fiction fantasy to a legitimately unique and inspired tale.  The story never pauses long enough to become dull or overstay its welcome, instead constantly introducing new ideas to the audience.  As soon as you think you know a character like Dr. Morbius or Commander Adams, their characters are turned upside down and new elements of their personalities are uncovered.  I found myself actually caring about the three principle characters in Forbidden Planet, something that hasn’t happened during the course of our ongoing 50’s Sci-Fi marathon.  The pacing of the story alone is a sign of how strong Cyril Hume’s writing is, and helps the movie remain engaging even six decades after its release.  While I wouldn’t exactly call it the perfect science fiction film, I very much appreciated everything it was able to bring to the table, and the tremendous influence it had on the medium.  The introduction of Robby the Robot alone was very forward-thinking and progressive for the time, giving an artificial life-form a degree of autonomy, as well as a somewhat human personality.  By the end of Forbidden Planet, you can’t help but wonder what science fiction would look like today if the film had never been released.

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Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, and Leslie Nielsen in the classic science fiction film Forbidden Planet.

Forbidden Planet laid the groundwork for the next sixty years of science fiction films, and captured the imaginations of generations of moviegoers.  The colorful and interesting visuals, solid direction, and excellent script form an incredibly engaging tale of interstellar exploration, thirst for power and knowledge, and the search for answers.  The film was far ahead of its time, and its influence on the genre simply cannot be underestimated by viewers.  While some elements don’t hold up to today’s standards, it remains an interesting case study for what science fiction films can be, and a reminder of how simple the genre was before the film’s release.  Forbidden Planet comes highly recommended.

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50’s Sci-Fi Feature #3 – Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Film1956-InvasionOfTheBodySnatchers-OriginalPosterInvasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Directed by: Don Siegel
Written by: Daniel Mainwaring (based on The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney)
Starring: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones

As previously mentioned in my review of 1954’s Them!, science fiction and horror films of the time were chock full of political and social allegory that resonated with audiences for decades.  Much of this can be credited to the burgeoning Cold War: the imminent threat of nuclear extermination, the ongoing Red Scare, and the subsequent inability of American’s to trust their fellow man.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers is perhaps the most famous and subtle example of this paranoia, creating a hell of a legacy for itself in the process.  The film is based on writer Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, which has been the basis for nearly every remake and re-imagining to be released since 1956.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by cult movie master Don Siegel came out at the perfect time to resonate with audiences who felt they could relate with its subject matter.  It was filmed in just 23 days, and with a budget that had been cut significantly which restricted the use of big name actors that Siegel initially wanted to use.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers starred Golden Globe nominee Kevin McCarthy and television star Dana Wynter, though the Oscar winning Anne Bancroft had been considered by Siegel before the film’s budget slash.  After a re-shoot to lessen the harshness of the film’s original ending and numerous poorly received pre-screenings, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was ready for a successful countrywide release.  Despite being largely ignored by critics upon its original release, the film still managed to earn more than six times its meager budget of slightly over $400,000.  The paranoid adaptation of Jack Finney’s influential novel is now seen as an all-time classic of the science fiction genre, has spawned countless remakes, send-ups, and tributes, and currently sits in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

The film begins with a paranoid and clearly disturbed man being detained in a California hospital.  He introduces himself as a doctor, and begs for the acting doctor to hear out his story.  The doctor in custody begins to tell his story, which leads directly into a feature-length flashback sequence.  We learn the crazed doctor is Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), who we see meeting with multiple patients.  All of Bennell’s patients suffer from “Capgras delusion”, or the belief that a loved one has been replaced by an identical looking impostor.  His former girlfriend Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) has recently returned to town, and she soon finds out that her cousin Wilma fears that her Uncle Ira may also be an impostor.  A psychiatrist Dr. Dan Kauffman (Larry Gates) assures Dr. Bennell that they’re merely experiencing an epidemic of paranoid hysteria.  Later that night, Dr. Bennell’s friend Jack Belicec (King Donovan) discovers an undeveloped body identical to his, and then another is quickly found in Becky’s basement.  Before they can call for help and arrange for more witnesses, the bodies mysteriously (and conveniently) vanish.  Bennell and friends eventually come to the conclusion that the entire town is being replaced with doppelgangers when they fall asleep.  The gang splits up, half to go to the next town over in order to seek help, and Dr. Bennell and Becky seek shelter and avoid falling asleep until backup arrives.  Soon, Bennell and Becky realize that they’re alone in this fight against what they call “pod people”, as even their closest friends and family members succumb to the invaders.  Can humankind prevail against a force they have no idea is coming, or will the invading pod people wipe out humankind, starting with the town of Santa Mira, California?  Find out in Don Siegel’s 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers!

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Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter on the run in Don Siegel’s 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Having seen and loved Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I was incredibly excited coming into Siegel’s original take on the source novel.  While I have to report that I prefer Kaufman’s darker and schlockier take on the story, I’m also happy to say that say that this film is so far the best I’ve seen during my feature on 1950’s sci-fi.  The film has an incredibly tight run-time at just barely over 80 minutes long, and hits every important note needed of an effective thriller without creating unnecessary filler.  The characters and their interactions with each other all have a purpose, and the story clips along at a brilliantly fast pace.  One of the things I appreciated most about Invasion of the Body Snatchers was the setting in the small California town of Santa Mira.  Don Siegel and cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks do an incredible job of mapping out the town, especially its most notable and relevant locations like Becky’s apartment, Dr. Bennell’s office, and the highway leading out of town.  All this mapping and world-building is done in less than 90 minutes, a feat that most science fiction or horror films couldn’t do even with more than two hours at their disposal.  Don Siegel progressively ratchets up the tension as the film chugs along, creating a palpable sense of dread and paranoia.  Not only do our lead characters not know who to trust or where they can seek refuge, but the audience is constantly kept guessing as well.  When you’re not even sure whether or not your two main characters are still human, you can rest assured that the film is doing an incredible job at keeping you on your paranoid, irrational toes.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a genuinely scary film in a lot of ways, because more often than not what you aren’t seeing is infinitely scarier than what you are.  The images of the townspeople slowly being consumed by the pod people swimming through your head as Dr. Bennell and Becky struggle to stay awake and alive are undeniable, and help the film to feel highly effective.  Along with incredible atmosphere and world-building, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a very well acted film considering its lack of major star power and budget.  Kevin McCarthy shows us that he can flip the proverbial switch and play both crazed and paranoid in one moment, and a strong, confident leader in others.  Dana Wynter’s Becky is very competently played as well, but she doesn’t get nearly as much important screen-time as McCarthy does.  Supporting our lead players is a tremendous script, never wasting a moment of precious screen-time as previously mentioned.  The paranoia of McCarthyism and the fears of imminent Red invasion are weaved into subtle allegory that never overpowers, but is also very clearly there to anybody looking for it.  I can’t imagine growing up in an era where North American’s could not trust anybody they don’t directly know, but this film gives a great (if exaggerated) sense of what it must have been like for some.

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Dr. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) taking it to a potential pod person in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

In short, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a masterpiece of classic horror and science fiction.  Tight direction, a terrific script with little exposition, good lead performances, and an undeniable sense of dread, paranoia, and fear help to make an experience that goes mostly unmatched all these years later.  Don Siegel’s film may have been topped by later efforts, but the film stands as a fantastic example of anti-McCarthyist art that will and should be analyzed for years to come.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers gets my highest recommendation for all sci-fi or horror fans.

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50’s Sci-Fi Feature #2 – Them! (1954)

Them02Them! (1954)
Directed by: Gordon Douglas
Written by: Ted Sherdeman, Russell Hughes (story by George Worthing Yates)
Starring: James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness

One of the most charming things about classic science fiction films is that many of them were somehow able to reflect the real fears and concerns of western society, but project it onto something so mundane and have it be so horrifying.  Them! does just that, taking America’s post-war blues and fears of atomic weapons and using giant monster ants to get the message across.  While it may sound goofy all these years later, Them! has been remembered as one of the great pieces of 1950’s sci-fi for a reason.  Prolific child-star turned director Gordon Douglas was the perfect fit for an ambitious B-project like Them!  Douglas had previously directed dozens of films of various genre, size, and scope, but found arguably his greatest success with this Warner Brothers produced science fiction allegory.  The film starred big screen heavy hitters like the Academy Award nominated James Whitmore and future Gunsmoke television star James Arness.  In a classic bit of movie magic, Whitmore was forced to wear lifts in his shoes to compensate for his utterly average height when standing next to the taller Arness.  As a short man myself, I feel every bit of James Whitmore’s humiliating pain.  The two relatively big name actors, a competent director, and groundbreaking and innovative special effects led to Them! becoming Warner Brothers’ biggest success of the year, and would ultimately help the film cement its place in sci-fi and horror history.  It made $2.2 million at the box office, and helped to kick-start generations of “creature features”, often imitating but never duplicating the critical and commercial success of Them!  The Academy Awards honored the film’s special effects with a nomination for Best Special Effects, but the award ultimately went to the bigger budget screen adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Them! starts with two police officers finding a small girl wandering around the hot New Mexico desert.  The young girl is in shock, so the two officers get her to safety and begin to retrace her steps.  After finding no sign of the girl’s family, the girl hears a high-pitched squeal carried by the wind, unbeknownst to the officers around her.  Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) is one of the responding officers to the scene of a general store that has been completely decimated from the outside.  The owner is found dead, and a large barrel of sugar is found smashed to pieces.  His partner Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake) is killed by an unknown entity while Peterson is filing a report away from the general store.  The deaths of the general store owner and Trooper Blackburn pique the curiosity of the FBI, who sends Special Agent Robert Graham (James Arness) to aid in the investigation.  Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter Dr. Pat Medford (Joan Weldon) join Graham on the trip.  Dr. Medford is able to revive the small girl from her catatonic state, prompting her to scream the words “them!” over and over without any sort of explanation.  The team soon comes face to face with the source of all the chaos in the New Mexico desert, a colony of genetically mutated giant ants.  The first encounter ends after the use of an automatic machine gun, but the group learns that the creature was merely a forager from the colony.  A plan is concocted to gas the ants out of their nest with the use of cyanide, with the team descending into it in order to eliminate any leftover ants.  While inside, Dr. Pat Medford discovers that two queens had hatched and escaped from the nest to establish new colonies.  Can the team stop them with the power of brute human force, or will the mutated ants prove too much to bear?  Find out in 1954’s Them!

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Sandy Deschner as the young catatonic girl who unknowingly sets off the events in Them!

I was originally going to review another film as my second feature of this spotlight, but I felt compelled to write about Them! as soon as the credits rolled.  I went into it expecting nothing but a fun, mindless cheesy science fiction flick, but what I got was so much more.  While it might not be nearly as thought provoking or innovative in hindsight, this is a film that was doing a lot of new and original things at a time where studios weren’t taking many major risks.  Allegory always seems like a better idea in genre films, and it works perfectly in Them!  The fears of the common American citizen can be felt towards the end of the film, especially when the research team finds out the scale of the colony and what the ants are capable of.  They know that they’ve indirectly lent a hand in their creation by allowing atomic weapons to be created, and they know that they must now stop something that’s far more powerful than they themselves are.  The entire first act of the film with the little girl being found has enough atmosphere to match even the best modern sci-fi/horror films.  The fact that the audience doesn’t see the actual ants right away is another effective decision, forcing viewers to create their own monstrosities in the theatre of the mind.  While none of the performances are exceptional (or even noteworthy), it’s probably worth mentioning that the entire principal cast has really solid chemistry together, with no one performance trying to hog the spotlight.  This isn’t exactly a character study as much as it is a “giant monsters destroy things and get destroyed” kind of film, which makes the unmemorable performances a lot easier to swallow.  The direction fits under this “good, but ultimately forgettable” umbrella as well, which I pretty much expected from a journeyman director like Gordon Douglas.  He does his absolute best to hide weak moments in the special effects using dust storms and playing with light and darkness effectively, which helps the creatures feel much more imposing and threatening.  Other than hiding some potential weak SFX, Douglas doesn’t do anything particularly interesting with his camera, nor does his direction stand out in any way.  The best part about Them! is without a doubt its screenplay, which says a great deal about the aforementioned nuclear holocaust fears and Cold War-era paranoia, but does so in a fairly subtle and evenhanded way.  The film’s message is obvious and anybody with any knowledge of the time period can figure out where it’s going and why it’s stressed so much, but it never overshadows the best part of the film: giant, badass killer ants.  The effects hold up better than those previously seen in something like previous year’s The War of the Worlds, mostly due to the decision to not overexpose the ants and the effective use of animatronics.

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The famous first encounter with a giant mutated ant in 1954’s Them!

Overall, Them! is an incredibly fun science fiction film that in no way feels like it should be nearly as good or important as it is.  At face value, none of the cinematic aspects of the film actually stand out as being different or even anything more than competent, but it just somehow works.  Them! gets by on having a tremendous script that plays its hand at being allegorical, but never opts for heavy handedness that would overshadow the intentions of the B movie that it really is.  The special effects look incredible for the time period, and the atmosphere during the first and lasts acts of the movie feels perfectly chilling and creepy.  Them! is a hell of a good time, and is highly recommended for anybody who loves some allegory in their giant ant movies.

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50’s Sci-Fi Feature #1 – The War of the Worlds (1953)

Film1953-TheWarOfTheWorlds-OriginalPosterThe War of the Worlds (1953)
Directed by: Byron Haskin
Written by: Barre Lyndon (based on The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells)
Starring: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Bob Cornthwaite, Lewis Martin, Sir Cedric Hardwicke

H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds is one of the most famous science fiction stories of all-time, largely in part to how many times the story has been adapted and improved upon.  The classic novel led to Orson Welles’ infamous panic-inducing radio drama, which would originally lead to a big screen adaptation of the novel, and that film led to countless remakes.  The original film version differs greatly from the novel, mainly by setting it in modern America, rather than the Victorian England setting of the Wells story.  The film instead takes place after the first two World Wars, which saw humans banding together to defeat a common enemy, a theme that becomes important in the film version.  The War of the Worlds was directed by former special effects artist Byron Haskin, and it would go on to be the biggest success of his long career.  Haskin teamed up with his friend and producer George Pal, making it one of the many successful projects the two underwent together.  The special effects experience and knowledge held by the film’s director would lead to an Academy Award win for Best Visual Effects, and would cement the film’s legacy as a special effects marvel.  The film stars Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, both of whom had successful careers as television actors, and would both later appear in cameo roles in Steven Spielberg’s modern take on the story.  The War of the Worlds was a massive financial success, becoming the highest grossing sci-fi film of 1953, and spawning a great deal of imitators in the years to follow.  The tremendous success and influence of the original film has been mostly overshadowed by Steven Spielberg’s highly successful (and arguably much better) 2005 reimagining of the story.  Today, Byron Haksin’s The War of the Worlds sits in the National Film Registry, and is looked back upon fondly by historians for pushing the boundaries of the genre.

The War of the Worlds begins with a montage of Earth’s first two World Wars, with a narrator remarking how much technology has rapidly advanced throughout these decades.  The narrator then gives us a quick explanation of the harsh conditions on Mars, and explains the motivations for its inhabitants wanting to scout the planet Earth for eventual relocation of the remaining Martians.  We meet a scientist named Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), just as a large meteor-like object is touching down on Earth.  Dr. Forrester and his troupe go to investigate the crash site, where he meets Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson) and others.  Later that evening, after most of the crowd has called it a day, the “meteor” opens up and the inhabitants found within kill all those in the area of impact.  All technology in the town is disabled by the invading Martians after an EMP is set off, causing the United States military to investigate the invaders.  Reports from all around the world are soon received with similar stories, meaning that the invaders are here to conquer.  After an attempted peace offering, the Martians destroy the military’s best with little effort and move on to the next town.  Dr. Forrester and Sylvia take shelter in an old farmhouse, where the two fall in love.  After a close encounter with the invaders, the two manage to steal a sample of alien DNA and escape to the relative safety of Dr. Forrester’s Pacific Tech.  When they are, the doctor, Sylvia, and their fellow survivors and military officials begin to develop weapons of mass destruction in order to take down the seemingly indestructible Martian ships.  Can humankind overcome the impossible odds stacked against them, or will the Martian invaders squash human beings from existence?  Find out in the iconic 1953 film The War of the Worlds!

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Ann Robinson and Gene Barry, stars of The War of the Worlds.

I was thirteen when I saw Steven Spielberg’s epic reimagining of The War of the Worlds, and it instantly became one of my favorite films as an adolescent. While I don’t look back on it with the same fondness I once did, the film inspired me to read H.G. Wells’ terrific novel, and launched my love for all things science fiction.  It took me a decade to finally get around to seeing the original film, and I can definitely see why 1953’s The War of the Worlds was so influential on the genre.  While I can’t say that I’m in love with the film by any means, I also can’t deny the fact that this is a very fun, very fast moving action sci-fi flick.  Its groundbreaking use of special effects haven’t aged well, but they’re still incredibly charming today in all of their faults.  The heat ray weapon used by the Martians is still really effective, even if the actual effect looks completely silly with actors just kind of disappearing.  The effect used in Spielberg’s film where those affected by the weapon “disintegrate” into dust doesn’t look great today either, so it’s clearly a case of the effect being hard to realize visually.  Despite the charming goofiness of the heat rays and the actual snake-like alien ships, the design of the aliens themselves is quite creepy and definitely adds to their presence.  Of course, it helps that we very rarely see the creatures through the film’s last half, adding to the uneasiness felt by their presence.  Aside from some obviously dated effects, The War of the Worlds features consistently flat and unremarkable direction from Byron Haskin.  While the Martians feel like a threat throughout, it has almost nothing to do with Haskin’s steady and lazy direction.  Haskin’s direction doesn’t do much to detract from the overall film, but it does absolutely nothing to add to it.  The direction brings the film down from what could have been incredible heights, making it instead feel like what it is: a pretty good science fiction film that was ahead of its time in terms of visual effects.  On top of unremarkable direction, the lead performances in The War of the Worlds are nothing to write home about.  Both Gene Barry and Ann Robinson do an admirable job of being likeable protagonists, but they never quite go into the territory that Spielberg brought Tom Cruise’s multi-layered loser father character to.  While this isn’t exactly a quiet character study, the lack of any sort of depth or development certainly doesn’t help the film’s case.  Luckily for science fiction fans, The War of the Worlds still feels significant because of its ridiculously fast pacing.  It never pauses for too long, never focuses on insignificant side stories or characters, but instead gives it to us straight.  At the end of the day, isn’t that what everybody wants from a cheesy, fun sci-fi flick?

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The iconic Martian spaceship design from 1953’s The War of the Worlds.

Overall, The War of the Worlds isn’t a great film.  I’m not even completely convinced that it’s a really good film, to be honest.  What we have here though is an incredibly charming and fun (albeit goofy) thrill ride.  While the special effects may seem dated to most today, they do the trick in getting the audience engaged enough to buy into the fantastic story at hand.  The direction and acting may be completely ordinary, but that doesn’t hinder The War of the Worlds the same way it would completely destroy most films.  If you want a fun piece of American history to digest after something with a little more weight like Spielberg’s 2005 film, this might be your ticket.  It may not wow you like it did for audiences in 1953, but it’s a hell of a good time.  The War of the Worlds is cautiously recommended.

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Women in Film Feature #8 – The Piano (1993)

The-piano-posterThe Piano (1993)
Directed by: Jane Campion
Written by: Jane Campion
Starring: Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Niell, Anna Paquin

New Zealand born film director Jane Campion is one of only four women to ever be nominated for Best Director by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  With her incredibly successful film The Piano, she became the second woman ever nominated for the prize, nearly two decades after Lina Wertmuller’s nomination for her film Seven Beauties.  Campion also became the first female winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Palme d’Or – a record that stood for two decades.  Her films have been praised for their quiet beauty, their adherence to realism, and for their use of gender-central themes and ideas.  While her career has not again reached the highs of The Piano, Campion’s latest work on the television show Top of the Lake has highly acclaimed, with a second season currently in the works.  Jane Campion’s achievements in the early 1990’s cannot be understated, as her success helped propel female directors like Sophia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow to elite status in Hollywood, tremendous critical acclaim, and to their eventual Academy Award nominations.

Before her incredible success with 1993’s The Piano, Jane Campion saw critical acclaim with two independent features, 1989’s Sweetie, and 1990’s An Angel at My Table.  The Piano saw Campion working with a higher budget than ever before, with the film costing $7 million.  The film was an enormous financial success upon its release and critical acclaim, bringing in an incredible $140 million at the box office and later with rentals.  The Piano stars Holly Hunter as its lead character Ada McGrath, Anna Paquin as her daughter Flora, and Sam Neill and Harvey Keitel as the men competing for Ada’s love and affection.  For the role of Ada, director Jane Campion wanted Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Isabelle Huppert.  Due to various scheduling conflicts with Weaver and Leigh, eventual star Holly Hunter was looked at and ended up fighting harder for the role than Huppert did.  The fighting paid off for Holly Hunter, as her incredible silent performance was rewarded with an Academy Award for Best Actress at the 1994 Oscars ceremony, earning her a great deal of acclaim and solidifying her as one of Hollywood’s greatest actresses of the period.  On top of Hunter’s Best Actress win, The Piano earned another acting award, this time a Best Supporting Actress award for Anna Paquin.  At just 11 years old, the win made Paquin the second youngest Oscar winner ever.  The film was nominated for 8 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Costume Design.  Campion herself picked up an award for Best Original Screenplay, but the film was beaten out in other major categories by Steven Spielberg’s seminal film Schindler’s List.  Jane Campion’s The Piano remains one of the most critically hailed films of the 1990’s, and stands as a modern triumph of what women can do with the medium when given equal opportunity to do so.

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Ada McGrath, her daughter Flora, and the titular piano in Jane Campion’s 1993 film.

The Piano opens by explaining that a young, mute Scottish woman named Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) has been sold by her father for marriage to a man in New Zealand by the name of Alisdair Stewart (Sam Niell).  Ada has not spoken a word since the age of six, and nobody knows exactly why.  Ada brings her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) with her to New Zealand, along with her prized hand-crafted piano.  The young woman is seemingly only to express herself through the playing of this piano, and she spends much of her time learning and playing.  Once in New Zealand, the mother and daughter duo are taken in by Alisdair, who instructs his crew of Maori men to leave the piano on the beach, as it is far too heavy to carry all the way back to their new home.  Alisdair turns out to be not quite the gentle and charming husband Ada would have preferred, instead quickly becoming quite jealous and controlling over his new wife and daughter.  Ada gradually grows closer to Alisdair’s friend Baines (Harvey Keitel), who in turn purchases the piano and brings it up from the beach so that Ada can play when they are together.  Baines soon falls in love with the mute woman, setting off a chain of events between himself, Ada, and Alisdair and ensuring that none of them will ever be the same again.  Will true love prevail, or will the bitter jealousy of one man ruin things for all parties?  Find out in Jane Campion’s acclaimed The Piano.

Jane Campion’s The Piano was my first experience with her works, and I came out of the experience pleasantly surprised.  I have always wanted to see both Sweetie and An Angel at My Table because of their status as independent hits, and now I have more motivation than ever before to do so.  The Piano is such an incredibly memorable experience in many ways, including some truly incredible performances, terrific direction from Campion, and breathtaking photography by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh.  The film manages to tell a truly powerful story without ever having its lead character speak, and without sinking into melodramatic territory, which happens too often in stories of love triangles and forbidden romance.  Jane Campion deserves a great deal of credit for her subtle but effective screenplay, which treats every character as a flawed human being, never romanticizing or villainizing any one character no matter how easy it may be to do so.  Campion’s writing never goes for the “easy” win, and instead she opts to take a much more treacherous path in making the audience feel for the character in The Piano.  Campion’s writing and direction can also be credited in aiding the entire cast in delivering highly memorable performances, even earning two Oscars in the process.  Holly Hunter’s silent and moody performance as Ada is one I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget, as she conveys so much without ever saying a word.  Hunter’s dark eyes do all of the speaking for her, telling the audience more in one glance than many actresses could in an entire monologue. Holly Hunter’s Ada is both passionate and reserved, and the audience can always feel the emotional tug-of-war that is trying to drag her into the mud.  The supporting cast of Anna Paquin, Sam Neill, and Harvey Keitel all give tremendous performances in their own right, but are all eclipsed by Hunter’s hauntingly beautiful portrayal of Ada McGrath.  While The Piano can seem slow and dreary at times, there don’t seem to be many wasted moments in the film’s run-time.  Every scene feels like it has a place in either setting the atmosphere of our New Zealand location, establishing the motivations and drives of our cast of characters, or moving the central story forward.  What starts as a relatively mundane costume drama eventually turns into a fiery, brooding story of one woman’s awakening.  Had Campion kept the script’s tragic original ending, the film would have received an even more positive reaction from me.  It’s a shame that it was released the same year as Schindler’s List, because Jane Campion’s The Piano would otherwise fall very neatly into the canon of terrific and important Best Picture winners.

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Flora (Anna Paquin) and Ada (Holly Hunter), the mother-daughter duo in Jane Campion’s The Piano.

While its slow-moving nature may turn off some potential viewers, there’s absolutely no denying the power and importance of Jane Campion’s 1993 romantic drama.  The Piano features too many incredible elements to be forgotten by critics or audiences, including a career-best performance by Holly Hunter, a solid cast of young and veteran supporting performers, tremendous writing and direction from Jane Campion, and rich, dark cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh.  While the idea of a forbidden love triangle may not immediately set your world on fire, the film’s tragic and triumphant story of an independent young woman finding strength and motivation to escape from a toxic situation should be more than enough to arouse your interest.  Jane Campion’s The Piano is easily one of the best films of the 1990’s, and a landmark moment for women in film.  It’s highly recommended.

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Women in Film Feature #6 – Jeanne Dielman (1975)

JeanneDielmanJeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
Directed by: Chantal Akerman
Written by: Chantal Akerman
Starring: Delphine Seyrig, Jan Decorte, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Henri Storck, Yves Biscal

On October 5, 2015, the world lost one of its all-time greatest arthouse directors; one who changed the landscape of filmmaking for women worldwide.  Her name was Chantal Akerman, and her suicide marked the end of an era for international and arthouse cinema.  Her prolific body of work is full of brilliantly inventive films that most people have never seen or heard of, or just haven’t been released to the public in any form.  Chantal Akerman is famous for her documentation of the mundane, for her painfully long takes, and the detached yet incredibly personal nature of most of her films.  Often blurring the lines between documentary and fiction, Akerman had an incredible eye for realism and for the beauty in the little things; something that many established directors seem to forget about as their films becoming bigger and louder.  As modern female directors take on ambitious and award-winning films, they can all thank Chantal Akerman and her incredible body of work for paving the way in the industry.  Her contributions and influence on the medium are innumerable, and much of her work is ripe for rediscovery by a whole new generation.

Chantal Akerman’s most famous film came incredibly early on in her career, after just a handful of shorts, and a feature length film that went unfinished by the director.  1975’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles was Akerman’s first shot at working with a “big” budget, working with just $120,000 in grants at her disposal.  Director Chantal Akerman opted to shoot the film with a cast and crew composed of mostly women, a feat that hadn’t been attempted at the time. While she struggled with finding working women for certain technical positions, she ultimately prevailed and proved leagues of naysayers wrong.  The incredibly ambitious project ran for 201 minutes (or a little over 3 ½ hours) when finished, making its mundane and repetitive premise even more effective. The film opened at the Directors Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975, and was met with mixed reactions by the unsuspecting crowd.  Luckily for Akerman, the film quickly became a tremendous financial and critical success, and at just 25 years old she was instantly recognized as one of the most progressive and unique filmmakers of the time. Jeanne Dielman was praised by critics for its ability to hold the attention of audiences, despite the film’s incredibly long run-time and the film’s slow and repetitive nature, as well as for the minimalistic, calm and reserved lead performance by Delphine Seyrig.  Jeanne Dielman was incredibly successful among feminist critics of the time, who recognized the picture for its use of an all-female crew, and for being so open and honest about the subservience of the housewife. Though the film wasn’t released in the United States until the early 1980’s, its influence has been felt by some of the country’s most ambitious filmmakers, most notably Palme d’Or winning director Gus Van Sant.

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Delphine Seyrig as the titular Jeanne Dielman in Chantal Akerman’s groundbreaking 1975 film.

The story told in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles seems simple at first glance, but there’s much more to it than meets the eye.  We follow the titular Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) in real time through three seemingly normal days.  On the first day, Jeanne cooks, cleans, and interacts as much as she possibly can with her disconnected teenage son Sylvain (Jan Decorte).  Jeanne’s schedule is incredibly well-rehearsed, and seems almost ritualistic.  Not a single minute is wasted, and never once does she seem unfocused or unproductive. During the afternoons, she is visited by men who pay her for sex.  These visits help to pay Jeanne and Sylvain’s comfortable life, and seem nearly as ritualistic and rehearsed as her chores are.  The men stay for a short while, and when they’re finally gone Jeanne quickly returns to her routine of cleaning and preparing dinner for her son.  Jeanne’s meditative and ritualistic life begins to slowly unravel on the second day, after she wakes up unexpectedly early and is expected to fill an extra hour of her day.  Not knowing what to do with the time, Jeanne sits and broods, giving into the anxiety and darkness that she so desperately tries to escape with her methodical regimented schedule.  This extra hour unnerves Jeanne, and causes her to make small mistakes like drop a clean spoon and overcook the potatoes she has been preparing for dinner.  These imbalances in Jeanne’s perfectly planned life slowly begin to eat away at her, and eventually cause her to lash out in the film’s quietly explosive final moments.

Jeanne Dielman is a film that I’ve been dreading having to dive into for years now. I’ve always been curious and interested in the experimental aspects of it, but so turned on by its slow nature and ridiculously long running time.  Those reasons, and the fact that it paved the way for so many females in the film industry, are exactly why I chose to finally cover Jeanne Dielman.  Though it wasn’t quite love at first sight, I can say with every bit of certainty that the film is a masterwork in pacing, and in never quite letting the audience get ahead of the story being told. Chantal Akerman’s camera pauses for long stretches as Jeanne Dielman goes about her daily rituals and perfectly rehearsed habits, and it’s very haunting to watch unfold.  The subtle and deliberate pacing of the film never once lost my attention, and always had me trying to understand Jeanne Dielman as a character. She has completely given into the complacency of being a mother, and seemingly has no hobbies or interests outside of cooking, cleaning, and having loveless and passionless sex.  She doesn’t say a great deal, and yet somehow still manages to be completely enthralling because of Delphine Seyrig’s incredible performance. Seyrig’s titular Jeanne Dielman is perfect and believable in every single way.  The way Seyrig does small things like perfectly flattening the sheets on her son’s bed or clean out the bathtub, makes it seem as if the actions have been performed thousands of times before.  When something goes wrong in Jeanne’s routine, you can tell just by the look on Delphine Seyrig’s always emotionless face.  It’s not showy or large in any way, but I can safely say it’s one of the best and most dedicated performances I’ve ever seen from anybody on film.  If the lead performance wasn’t compelling, Chantal Akerman’s film simply wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does.  She absolutely made the right choice in casting a veteran actress like Seyrig, and perfectly compliments the incredible performance with the most meditative direction, writing, and pacing I’ve ever seen.  Though Jeanne Dielman is a long film, it never feels played out or tedious – aside from the banality that Akerman wants the audience to feel through the use of repetition.  When things start to get more interesting in the second day, the film starts to feel claustrophobic and ultimately feels soaked in dread.  This all comes to a perfect crescendo in the final moments of the film, and Akerman’s direction makes the moment we’ve been waiting more than three hours for feel like just another insipid moment in Jeanne’s life.  It’s beautiful.

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Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) and her son Sylvain (Jan Decorte) in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

While I can safely say that few people reading this are going to enjoy any aspect of Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, the influence it has had on modern filmmaking is undeniable.  Chantal Akerman’s exercise in patience and deliberate pacing paved the way for countless generations of award-winning female filmmakers and other behind-the-line roles.  The lead performance by Delphine Seyrig is undeniably great in its focused and meditative nature, and make this a can’t miss experience.  It may be a while before I revisit Jeanne Dielman, but I can promise you that I’ll never forget my first experience with the film, and with the work of Chantal Akerman.  Though it isn’t for everybody out there, Jeanne Dielman comes highly recommended.  

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Women in Film Feature #4 – To Each His Own (1946)

apv6i8xcTo Each His Own (1946)
Directed by: Mitchell Leisen
Written by: Charles Brackett, Jacques Thery, Dodie Smith
Starring: Olivia de Havilland, Mary Anderson, John Lund

The great Olivia de Havilland is perhaps one of the most under-appreciated actresses of her time, as her name is very rarely thrown around with contemporaries like Hepburn, Bergman, Davis, Stanwyck, and Bacall.  She was not somebody I was overly familiar with before selecting one of her most acclaimed roles as a feature, but I sure am glad I chose her over many of my other options.  Olivia de Havilland is a two-time Oscar winner, and currently stands as the oldest living actor to have won a prestigious Academy Award.  The younger sister of fellow actress Joan Fontaine, Olivia got her start in industry working side-by-side with Errol Flynn, one of the biggest male stars in the early days of sound films.  From there, she featured prominently in a supporting role in Gone with the Wind, being nominated for her very first Academy Award.  Though she is known best for her roles in romantic melodramas of the era, her range as an actress led her to be nominated for a total of five Oscars, as well as a host of other awards and honors. This is most evident in Anatole Litvak’s 1948 drama The Snake Pit, where de Havilland plays a woman in an insane asylum who can’t remember why and how she got there.  Her tumultuous relationship with sister Joan Fontaine would have fans debating for decades over which was the best of the siblings.  Whatever the answer may be, the talented sisters remain the only siblings in history to have both won Academy Awards for leading roles.

By the time Olivia de Havilland would star in the acclaimed To Each His Own in 1946, she was already a bonafide star in the industry and would be at the top of her game for the next decade.  Director Mitchell Leisen had worked with the stunning actress just five years before, in Hold Back the Dawn; which saw multiple Oscar nominations and would give the young de Havilland her first nod for the Leading Actress award. The prolific director had nearly fifty directing credits to his name by the end of his career, and had worked with great actresses like sister Joan Fontaine, Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, Marlene Dietrich, and Claudette Colbert.  Despite working with some of the industry’s very best, his biggest successes seem to have come in early collaborations with Olivia de Havilland in the starring role.  Legendary screenwriter Charles Brackett (of Ninotchka, Ball of Fire, The Lost Weekend, and Sunset Boulevard fame) both wrote and produced To Each His Own, adding his impressive reputation to melodrama.  As such, the picture was nominated for Best Writing at the Oscars, and Brackett’s screenplay helped Olivia de Havilland take home her first major acting award.  Today, To Each His Own is woefully ignored and overlooked among film enthusiasts, and is mostly relevant for being one of de Havilland’s greatest roles and performances.  The film’s highly melodramatic nature mixed with a very strong female lead character and a positive message at its core shows that the film is still highly relevant (if slightly dated and on the nose) today, and is ripe for potential of being rediscovered by a whole new generations of moviegoers.

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Olivia de Havilland as Judy Norris tending her father’s hometown shop in 1946’s To Each His Own.

To Each His Own begins with Judy Norris (Olivia de Havilland), an aging fire warden in World War II era London, recounting her life story to her colleague Lord Desham (Roland Culver) during a down period for the two.  Through a series of flashbacks, we see young Judy as she lives her life in her small hometown of Piersen Falls.  She is very popular among the locals because of her idealistic and kind-mannered nature, and has the eye of multiple bachelors in town.  Uninterested in any of the townspeople, Judy falls in love with a pilot named Captain Bart Cosgrove (John Lund) who flies into Piersen Falls to promote the purchase of war bonds.  The two share a single night together, and Captain Cosgrove flies off to another town.  Soon, Judy finds out that she is pregnant with Cosgrove’s child, and that she may require a life-saving operation that would result in her losing the child.  After hearing of the untimely death of Captain Cosgrove, Judy changes her mind about the operation and decides to have the baby on her own, without the knowledge of the townspeople.  In order to keep her reputation as a stand up citizen in her hometown, Judy decides to leave her baby on the doorstep of a friend with multiple, who would “find” the baby and offer it to Judy because another child would just be too much. Unfortunately for Judy, the baby is given up for adoption after a series of unfortunate events to a couple who have just lost their own young child.  Judy pledges her entire life to reuniting with her young child, now known as Gregory or “Griggsy”.  She does this by aiding Griggsy’s adoptive mother with the young child, and constantly checking in on the family.  After some tension between the women, Judy is forbidden from seeing the young boy and moves out of Piersen Falls to start anew.  Will Judy Norris ever reunite with her son, or will the boy grow up and never recognize that he in fact has two loving mothers in his life? Find out in Mitchell Leisen’s Academy Award winning To Each His Own!

Being able to discover great new films is my absolute favourite part of doing these spotlights, especially since I always make a point of only seeking out unseen films. To Each His Own might be one of my favourite discoveries yet, especially since it’s something I went into with literally no expectations at all.  Olivia de Havilland was an absolute revelation, and I can’t believe I hadn’t seen her in a starring role until this film.  She brings so much power and grace to the character of Judy Norris, who is quite possibly one of the all-time great mothers in film. Her performance never feels cheap or too melodramatic, and instead oozes hope and idealism.  She never bows down to a male character who isn’t her own son, which is another thing I absolutely loved to see in a film from this time.  The direction by Mitchell Leisen isn’t anything to phone home about, but he obviously knew how to command one hell of a performance out of Olivia de Havilland and the rest of the supporting cast, most of whom give good or at least passable performances.  The other shining light of To Each His Own is its Charles Brackett-penned screenplay, which packs tremendous emotional punches over and over again, but also isn’t afraid to insert some clever humor here and there. These comedic moments come mostly from small supporting players (often children) throughout, and helps to ease the tension the audience feels by watching a loving mother come so close to her own child, yet never manage to get the necessary words out to him.  The film moves at a great pace, not getting to Judy’s brief romance with Captain Cosgrove until more than twenty minutes in. We get a feeling for the town of Piersen Falls and the people who live within, and best of all get to spend some quality time really getting to know Judy Norris and her motivations as a character.  Things really speed up when Judy leaves her hometown for greener pastures, seeing her run her own small business empire with the help of a friend wonderfully played by Bill Goodwin.  To Each His Own never lingers for too long, yet always manages to remind you as a viewer what is really at stake with all of Judy’s successes.

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Olivia de Havilland accepting her Oscar for Best Actress from presenter Ray Milland at the 1947 Academy Awards.

It’s really too bad that To Each His Own has been so overlooked for such a long time now.  While it doesn’t reinvent the wheel in any way, there’s a lot about it to really admire and fall in love with.  Its melodrama feels realistic and mostly deserved, feeling more like the more subtle work of the great Douglas Sirk than your typical Oscar fare of the time.  It features a truly incredible performance by Olivia de Havilland, who plays a strong and loving mother who never lets anybody get in the way of her relationship with her son.  It’s incredibly progressive and despite aging quite a lot in some ways, still feels pretty relevant today.  It allowed de Havilland to really show off her skills as a leading lady, and led to her taking far more interesting and successful roles in the coming years. The film features a sharp screenplay with little to no wasted time, and the two hour run-time goes by almost too quickly.  To Each His Own had me in tears when the credits rolled, something I can’t say for many of the movies I’ve reviewed here on my blog.  While it’s certainly not perfect, it managed to easily worm its way into my heart.  To Each His Own is highly recommended.  

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Women in Film Feature #3 – Gaslight (1944)

gasl2Gaslight (1944)
Directed by: George Cukor
Written by: John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, John L. Balderston (Based on Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton)
Starring: Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty, Angela Lansbury

The Swedish born Ingrid Bergman has starred in some of the most iconic films of the 1940’s and 50’s, and yet remains undiscovered by an entire generation of people unenthused with the pictures, and uninterested in their storied past.  With an impressive resume of films including Casablanca, Notorious, Spellbound, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Anastasia, Murder on the Orient Express, Autumn Sonata, and a thematic trilogy of films with director Roberto Rossellini, Ingrid Bergman has an entire body of work ripe for discovery.  Renowned in Hollywood for her naturalistic performances, Bergman helped change the way actresses were viewed during the golden age of American films.  On screen, she was graceful, subtle, and effortlessly realistic – which stood out in an era filled with over-the-top damsel in distress performances by some of her contemporaries.  Ingrid’s realism focused performances managed to win her two Academy Awards for Best Actress, one for Best Supporting Actress, and saw her nominated a further four times throughout her career.  Her work with directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Roberto Rossellini, Ingmar Bergman, George Cukor, Leo McCarey, and Michael Curtiz remain some of the most acclaimed films of their time, and have ensured that Ingrid Bergman’s place in Hollywood history is rightfully recognized.

The man of the hour in 1944’s Hollywood was undoubtedly the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock.  With a Best Picture win just a few years previously for Rebecca, and a slew of hit American films under his belt, the man had quickly managed to leave an impression on other filmmakers of the time.  There’s no doubt in my mind that director George Cukor took a page (or an entire chapter) out of Hitchcock’s book when approaching the story of Gaslight.  Soaked in an atmosphere of dread, featuring incredibly suspenseful moments, packed with twists and turns, and filled with good performances, it has all the makings of a Hitchcock film.  Cukor had made a career as a director for hire for major studios throughout the 1930’s, and had succeeded in eventually making quite a name for himself.  With a pair of incredible performances from leads Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, a tight and thrilling screenplay, and dark and moody cinematography, it’s no wonder why Cukor’s Gaslight instantly became one of the director’s biggest hits.   The film earned seven Oscar nominations including major categories like Best Picture, Best Actress (Ingrid Bergman), Best Actor (Charles Boyer), and Best Supporting Actress (Angela Lansbury).  The highly acclaimed Swedish-born actress Ingrid Bergman took home her first of three statues for her performance in Gaslight, praised for her portrayal of a paranoid and desperate woman trying to a solve a deadly mystery with suspects right under her own nose.  Gaslight is also notable for being the on-screen debut of prolific actress Angela Lansbury, multiple time Academy Award nominee, and star of the long running hit show Murder, She Wrote.  The film is seen as being somewhat dated to today’s standards, but remains an incredibly effective and suspenseful look at the forced descent into madness of a woman by a man who has managed to make his way deep into her heart.

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Paula (Ingrid Bergman) and Elizabeth (Barbara Everest) in 1944’s Gaslight.

Gaslight begins on a murderous note, with opera singer Alice Alquist turning up dead and her jewel-seeking killer fleeing the scene after being interrupted by a young woman.  The young woman is Paula (Ingrid Bergman), Alice’s niece.  The young Paula is sent to Italy soon after, in order to study under a famed opera singer, and so that she can hopefully forget about the events she saw unfold on that fateful night.  Soon, Paula meets a charming and wealthy man by the name of Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), and the two quickly fall in love and marry.  Gregory convinces Paula that returning to London and living in her aunt’s vacant house would be best for her mental recovery, and the two set off for their new home.  Alice’s belongings are tucked away in the attic in order to help Paula adjust, and a young maid named Nancy (Angela Lansbury) is hired.  After accidentally finding a letter addressed to her late aunt and being forbidden by her husband to read it, Paula begins to notice odd occurrences around her new home.  The home’s gaslights begin to dim and brighten at random, pictures disappear off the walls, and she loses prized possessions from the safety of her own person.  To top it all off, the new maid seems to have taken a disliking to Paula, but her husband ignores all signs of this.  Convinced by Gregory that she’s imagining all of these events and that she’s still reeling from the trauma of seeing her aunt’s murder, Paula begins to doubt many aspects of her own reality.  She is soon isolated from outsiders by those inside the house, and her sanity is called into question by her husband.  Is there more at play than just a woman losing her mind, or is Paula being influenced by an insidious power?  Find out in George Cukor’s Gaslight!

While George Cukor and company may have taken many a page out of Alfred Hitchcock’s style book, there’s something very different and special about the way Gaslight plays out.  Its twists and turns aren’t quite as “big” as some of Hitchcock’s most effective moments, but Cukor instead opts for subtlety and making the audience think really hard.  The well-paced direction focuses on getting to know our principal characters initially, and then takes a sudden and hard turn into one woman’s battle for her own sanity.  The attention to detail and art direction is something to be admired, as the sets and costumes create a realistic and fully-immersive portrait of the film’s time and setting.  The real shining feature of Gaslight though, is its acting.  Cukor’s film is more than anything a moody and dark showcase for four incredible talents to give their absolute best performances possible.  The audience knows the twist from the very beginning, making Ingrid Bergman’s supposed descent into madness a truly frustrating and infuriating experience for viewers.  Bergman’s performance as the tortured Paula is incredible, as it’s never played in an over-the-top fashion.  Paula is a believably traumatized young woman who may have put what little trust she had left into somebody that is completely toxic for her.  Supporting Ingrid Bergman’s Oscar-winning performance is a delightfully evil Charles Boyer as Gregory, Paula’s charming husband.  Boyer’s Gregory is sly, cunning, and has a silver-tongue when it comes to dealing with his wife, and every scene featuring the two becomes a subtle and suspenseful power play.  Even Hitchcock would have trouble making a character so hateable and yet so fully-realized at the same time, but Cukor pulls it off masterfully.  Worth mentioning is the debut of Angela Lansbury, whose turn as the maid Nancy earned her an Oscar nomination as well.  Nancy aids in creating the tense and toxic atmosphere that is slowly driving Paula insane, and the very young Lansbury is perfect for the role.

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Oscar-winner Ingrid Bergman and Best Actor nominee Charles Boyer in George Cukor’s terrific Gaslight.

While it may not be a completely unique or unpredictable tale in the modern age, George Cukor’s Gaslight is an incredible tale of a web of lies, deceit, betrayal, and madness.  It gives Alfred Hitchcock’s very best a run for its money, and has been undoubtedly influential on modern day suspense pictures.  Guillermo del Toro should have taken a page out of George Cukor’s book when making 2015’s Crimson Peak, as the two films share a great deal of similarities.  Gaslight features an Oscar-winning performance from one of Hollywood’s most talented actresses, a terrific and believable antagonist, subtle and deliberate pacing, and hopelessly bleak atmosphere aided by the dark and foggy cinematography.  It’s slow, maddening, and chock full of incredibly admirable qualities.  George Cukor’s Gaslight is highly recommended.

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Women in Film Feature #2 – Now, Voyager (1942)

now-voyager-05-poster-e1446403178223Now, Voyager (1942)
Directed by: Irving Rapper
Written by: Casey Robinson (Based on Now, Voyager by Olive Higgins Prouty)
Starring: Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Gladys Cooper, Janis Wilson

Bette Davis made a legendary career out of subverting the expectations of actresses in a time where beauty and bust meant a great deal more than raw talent ever did.  Her piercing dark eyes, dark blonde hair, and often serious demeanor won the hearts and minds of millions during the golden age of Hollywood.  While Davis had a unique beauty of her own, it certainly wasn’t comparable to contemporaries like the Ingrid Bergman’s, Joan Fontaine’s, and Olivia de Havilland’s of the film industry – but that’s exactly what set her apart and made her such an anomaly in an industry of beautiful people.  The winner of two Academy Awards for Best Actress, Bette Davis is now looked back upon as one of the most influential presences in early Hollywood history.  Her incredible range made her a believable star in a wide range of genres, including period piece dramas, romantic films, and over-the-top thrillers and mysteries.  Known for consistently playing strong female leads and intelligent modern women, Davis was a trailblazer for women young and old during her six decades of critically acclaimed performances.  Bette Davis is perhaps best remembered for her late career appearances in films like All About Eve, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and Dead Ringer, as well as highly acclaimed early performances in the Oscar-winning Jezebel, Dark Victory, The Letter, and The Little Foxes.   Her ten career Academy Award nominations (including two wins) has only been rivalled by two other actresses – Katharine Hepburn and Meryl Streep.  Her incredible legacy lives on to this day, and her acclaimed performances are still being studied and talked about long after the late actress has passed on.

Now, Voyager comes more than ten years into the career of Bette Davis, one which had already seen five Oscar nominations and two wins.  Davis was very much cemented as one of the best actresses in the world, and seemed as if she could do no wrong.  The film’s director, Irving Rapper, was a relatively close friend to Davis when he broke out as a filmmaker in 1941.  She would star in four of his early films, with Now, Voyager without a doubt being the best received film of the bunch.  Rapper would earn an early Best Picture nomination for his film One Foot in Heaven, and is perhaps best known today for 1956’s The Brave One, written by the blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo.  History has not been very kind to Irving Rapper, as he is very rarely mentioned in conversations when talking of great American directors of the golden age.  The film was adapted from a novel by Olive Higgins Prouty, most notable for penning the highly acclaimed Stella Dallas, which was also adapted to the big screen to a great critical reception.  Prouty’s Now, Voyager is noted for its progressive attitudes towards the use of psychotherapy and towards mental illness in general.  Bette Davis was originally uninterested in the part, and had to be talked into starring in the film under the notion that it would give the women in American something to look forward to, and distract them from the ongoing war the country had just stepped into.  Mostly uninterested in participating in so-called “women’s pictures”, Davis’ performance would soon be regarded as one of the strongest of her early career.  Davis picked up a nomination for Best Actress at the Academy Awards, serving as her sixth in total.  Now, Voyager also saw Gladys Cooper nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and even took home a statue for Best Score.  Today, the film is remembered for its terrific performances, and the highly melodramatic nature of its complicated love story.  In 2007, the film was honored with preservation in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

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Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) and her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper) in Now, Voyager.

Irving Rapper’s Now, Voyager begins by introducing us to a young Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis), an unattractive spinster who is constantly under the supervision of her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper).  Charlotte is the fourth child in the family, and is seen as something of an accident to her aging mother.  Fearing for the mental state of young Charlotte, her sister-in-law hires a psychiatrist, Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains), who recommends the young woman have a brief stay in a sanitorium.  Away from the control of her mother, Charlotte transforms into a beautiful, confident, and powerful woman.  Instead of go straight home back to the clutches of her mother, the newly blossomed Vale woman opts for a long voyage at sea.  On her trip she meets Jeremiah (Jerry) Durrance (Paul Henreid), a handsome married man travelling with his friends.  Charlotte and Jeremiah quickly fall into a forbidden and doomed romance.  Jeremiah feels he cannot leave his strict and uncaring wife because of their young daughter.  The two decide it best to never meet again, and say farewell after a few days in Rio de Janeiro.  When she finally arrives back home, Charlotte’s family is shocked to see what has become of the once fragile and neurotic girl.  Her mother disapproves of these improvements, and sees to destroying the newly won confidence of her youngest child.  Eventually, Charlotte becomes engaged to a wealthy man named Elliot Livingston (John Loder).  Despite the engagement, she cannot seem to shake the feelings she holds for Jerry.  His sudden reemergence into her life complicates her relationship with Elliot, so the engagement is called off and Charlotte’s entire life is flipped upside down.  Can the blossoming Charlotte overcome her spiteful mother and score the man she loves, or will the pressure and outside influences be too much for her?  Find out in 1942’s Academy Award nominated Now, Voyager.

The great Bette Davis is a performer who I’ve always admired, and whose most famous performances I’ve never been able to shake.  Her turn in All About Eve is perhaps one of the best performances in film history, and I’m still having nightmares about the terrifying Baby Jane Hudson in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  Davis’ performance in Now, Voyager will undoubtedly sit among the actresses most memorable performances in my book, as it’s easily the most memorable thing about Irving Rapper’s film.  What starts as Davis playing a meek, scared, and uninteresting young woman turns into the strong, independent, highly-intelligent Charlotte Vale we come to love by the film’s climax.  Davis’ performance is fragile at times, and incredibly strong in other moments.  Charlotte’s overcoming of her mother’s influence over her is incredible to watch unfold, proving to the old hag that she’s no mistake.  Davis is restrained and deathly serious in these interactions, and perfectly melodramatic in every scene shared with Paul Henreid’s smooth as butter Jerry Durrance.  While over dramatic romance may not have been Bette Davis’ cup of tea, the delightfully hammy actress was just so damn good in them when the material was as strong as her acting chops were.  Starring alongside Davis is Gladys Cooper in an Oscar-nominated performance as Charlotte’s harsh mother.  Cooper is equally as impressive in the role, and by the end of her arc makes the audience hope for the worst for Charlotte’s bitter mother.  Now, Voyager may be a touch too much for some, but I found it to be completely watchable for its entire two-hour runtime.  I found myself rooting for Charlotte to overcome her mother, to blossom fully into this beautiful, smart woman, and to marry the man of her dreams and rescue him from the misery he himself is faced with.  The setup of Charlotte overcoming her mother and Jerry overcoming his wife’s harsh grip is interesting and feels completely natural in the way it unfolds.  While I wasn’t sure about the involvement of Jerry’s young daughter, the last act of the movie ended up being one of the absolute best things about the film.  It’s infectiously hopeful and optimistic, and allows Davis’ Charlotte to finally bloom.

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Bette Davis and Janis Wilson in Irving Rapper’s Now, Voyager.

While it may feel dated and hackneyed to today’s standards, Now, Voyager is a delightfully watchable romantic drama feature a stellar performance from one of America’s all-time greatest screen performers.  The picture features a great supporting cast held up by veteran Gladys Cooper in a tremendously hateable role.  The film’s tremendous award-winning score makes the many romantic and triumphant moments feel truly special, and the iconic ending of Now, Voyager will make even the most hardened moviegoers swoon.  While it may not be high art by any degree, this is a film I could watch over and over again and never get bored with.  Now, Voyager is highly recommended.

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Women in Film Feature #1 – Alice Adams (1935)


p5209_p_v8_aaAlice Adams (1935)
Directed by: George Stevens
Written by: Dorothy Yost, Mortimer Offner, Jane Murfin (Based on Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington)
Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Fred MacMurray, Fred Stone, Ann Shoemaker, Frank Albertson, Evelyn Venable, Hattie McDaniel

Katharine Hepburn is an actress who left quite possibly the single greatest impression on Hollywood films in the entire history of women in film, only being matched quite recently by the terrific Meryl Streep.  She was an actress praised for her range, starring in dramas, romances, comedies, and everything in between, but never did she allow her male counterparts to outshine her on the screen.  Instead of portraying female characters who were weak and subservient to their husbands, boyfriends, fathers, bosses, etc., Kat typically chose strong-willed parts that better fit her more progressive views.  Any woman currently wearing jeans, khakis, or anything or the sort also has Katharine Hepburn to thank, as her fashion sense on and off the screen led to generations of her fans being influenced by her stylistic choices.  Hepburn’s career would span more than six decades, see a record four Academy Award wins, as well as another eight nominations for the award.  Hepburn’s most famous works include Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, Adam’s Rib, The African Queen, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and On Golden Pond.

George Stevens’ 1935 film Alice Adams is the early project that helped to push Kat into the spotlight after suffering from a brief slump period following her first Oscar win for 1933’s Morning Glory.  The project would not only rejuvenate the career of its star, but would also serve as a launching pad for director George Stevens – who would go on to direct Hepburn again to an Academy Award nomination in Woman of the Year in 1942.  Stevens would go on to direct such acclaimed films as Gunga Din, The More the Merrier, The Talk of the Town, A Place in the Sun (for which he won his first Academy Award for Best Director), Shane, Giant (which netted him his second Oscar for Best Director), and The Diary of Anne Frank.  Alice Adams would see Katharine earn her second nomination for Best Actress at the Oscars, with her performance being praised for the hope, optimism, determination, and stubbornness found in her titular character who is fighting an uphill battle against the social class system so that she can impress the man she truly loves.  Alice Adams was adapted from the novel of the same name by Booth Tarkington, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1922.  The film adaptation was praised for taking Tarkington’s biting social commentary and turning it into a loyal yet humanistic and accessible picture for all to enjoy.  Starring alongside Hepburn is a young Fred MacMurray, star of such future films as Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity and The Apartment, and the television hit sitcom My Three Sons.  Though it would take more than thirty years for star Katharine Hepburn to win her second Academy Award, Alice Adams is an important moment in her early career that could have done just as much to hinder it as it did help propel her into the mainstream.  She would star in acclaimed dramas and comedies for decades after playing the titular Alice Adams, finding a place in the hearts of moviegoers worldwide.

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Katharine Hepburn and Grady Sutton during the early dance scene in 1935’s Alice Adams.

Alice Adams tells the story of young Alice (Katharine Hepburn), the youngest member of the Adams family.  The family consists of Mr. Adams (Fred Stone), Mrs. Adams (Ann Shoemaker), and Alice’s older brother Walter (Frank Albertson).  The family lives in poverty, and there is a great deal of tension between all members: Mrs. Adams is frustrated with her husband’s lack of ambition and with the limited potential of Alice due to their social standing, Mr. Adams is ill and being kept on salary by the factory he works at, and their son has a gambling addiction that is slowly tearing him apart.  At the beginning of the film, Alice attends a high class dance without a date, so is escorted to the event by her brother.  Once there, she is quickly taken by the handsome and wealthy Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray).  Russell notices young Alice as well, and is immediately charmed with her personality, despite the very clear class difference between the two.  Following the dance, Arthur begins to court Alice, who tries desperately to cover up her own social class and the poverty her family lives in.  Arthur looks the other way on each occasion, even ignoring petty town gossip about Mr. Adams.  Eventually, Alice is talked into inviting the charming Arthur Russell to dinner at the Adams residence, where the family desperately tries to act as a cohesive and wealthy unit.  Will the Adams family be able to charm the wealthy young man into making things serious with their ambitious daughter, or will the class divide between the two families prove to be too much?  Find out in George Stevens’ Oscar-nominated Alice Adams!

The idea of somebody pretending they’re of a social class above or below their own is an age-old story in the land of Hollywood, and one that seemed to work a great deal in the golden age of films.  Alice Adams tells a very familiar story and hits all of the major notes along the way, but does it with such passion and charm that it’s impossible to not recognize this as at least a noteworthy early effort from its cast and crew.  George Stevens directs the film with such a soft hand that it’s almost impossible to tell that it’s coming from the same man who shot the epic tale Giant just two decades later.  It’s intimate and personal, but never delves too deep into any of the characters or their motivations.  The restraint shown by Stevens and his cinematographer Robert De Grasse keeps things flowing smoothly, and never pauses for too long for fear of losing its audience.  The photography is soft and soaked in beautiful shadows, making it feel at times like a picture with a much higher budget.  The single best thing about Alice Adams (and probably the only reason people are still talking about it today) is the performance of a young Katharine Hepburn.  Her portrayal of Alice is strong-willed and overly-ambitious, and Hepburn’s real-life persona fits the bill perfectly.  You can feel the heartbreak and frustration felt by each member of the family when faced with the difficulties of living in poverty, most notably with Alice.  She tries her absolute best to impress a man who is technically far out of her league, arguably going much further than she ever should have dared.  She’s blinded by her love for a man she hardly knows, and can’t see that he doesn’t even care about the social difference with which she’s so obsessed with.  The harder she tries to push the issue with Arthur, the more she risks pushing this man away and out of her life forever.  Hepburn is absolutely terrific in the film, and her Academy Award nomination was well-deserved.  Fred Stone is also very good as Alice’s ill father, showing off a great deal of comedic abilities in his sympathetic (but stubborn and cowardly) supporting character.  Another standout is the very young Fred MacMurray, who was never known for his great performances.  MacMurray does just enough heavy lifting to believable as the wealthy Arthur Russell, and is incredibly charming (and dreamy) in the role.  On a minor note, it’s incredibly difficult to see the way African Americans are portrayed throughout the film, especially after my marathon on Black Directors where everybody on screen was treated equally, regardless of race or class.  It’s not something I can hold against the film because of the era it was made in, but that doesn’t mean I can’t cringe during certain (admittedly very minor) moments.

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Alice Adams (Katharine Hepburn) and Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray) in George Stevens’ Alice Adams.

Alice Adams is an above average film made memorable by a single performance, which serves as the film’s greatest advantage.  Katharine Hepburn is terrific as the titular Alice, and there’s no wonder why the role saw her once again grow in esteem of American audiences.  Director George Stevens shows some early promise for what would be an incredible career, but never quite pulls the trigger on what could have truly been a remarkable film.  The finished product serves as a showcase for one of history’s greatest actresses, and little more.  It’s charming, funny, sweet, and sappy, but probably isn’t the kind of thing you’ll be thinking about long after the credits have rolled.  Alice Adams is recommended.

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Black Directors Feature #8 – Menace II Society (1993)

MPW-26165Menace II Society (1993)
Directed by: Allen Hughes, Albert Hughes
Written by: Tyger Williams (Based on a story by: Allen Hughes, Albert Hughes, Tyger Williams)
Starring: Tyrin Turner, Jada Pinkett, Larenz Tate, Samuel L. Jackson, MC Eiht, Glenn Plummer

Following the enormous success of John Singleton’s hit Boyz n the Hood, films set in South Central Los Angeles were going for a dime a dozen, and the hood drama was becoming all the rage in early 1990’s North America.  In 1993 – just two years following that hit – the Hughes Brothers, Allen and Albert, made their high profile directorial debuts with the surprise hit Menace II Society.  The film takes a great deal of thematic and stylistic inspiration from the aforementioned Boyz n the Hood, which was the case for a great deal of films of the time.  The twin brothers capitalized on its success the same way Gordon Parks Jr. did with Super Fly after his father’s hit Shaft was met with such widespread acclaim.  The pre-production and casting phase of the movie went through various stars before shooting could begin, with hugely popular rappers MC Ren of N.W.A. fame and Tupac Shakur both attached to the project at some point.  Tupac’s involvement is perhaps most notorious, as it resulted in a lawsuit after the hip hop star assaulted one of the film’s directors following a series of arguments about the religious views of one of the film’s primary characters.  The film stars future big names like Jada Pinkett, Samuel L. Jackson, and Larenz Tate.  Shot on a budget of only $3.5 million, Menace II Society was a modest hit at the box office, raking in a very impressive $30 million and ensuring that Allen and Albert would find Hollywood careers soon after. Menace II Society was made with positive reviews upon its release, helping the small production slide into a more mainstream audience.  The film was noted for its gritty portrayal of young black Americans in South Central, holding no punches when it came to the violent content displayed on-screen.  It received an award at the 1993 Independent Spirit Awards, and was regarded by many critics as one of the better films to see a release that year.  The Hughes Brothers have continued to work in Hollywood since their successful debut, directing hits like Dead Presidents, From Hell, and most recently The Book of Eli.  In 2013, Allen Hughes would make his solo directorial debut with Broken City, temporarily leaving Albert to work on projects of his own.

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Tyrin Turner (Caine) and Larenz Tate (O-Dog) in 1993’s Menace II Society.

We follow young Caine Lawson (Tyrin Turner) as he struggles with living life in South Central as a young, underprivileged man of color.  Caine’s father was killed in a drug deal, and his mother is currently a heroin addict.  The young man has grown up with his grandparents, who are proud of what he has accomplished despite everything.  What they don’t yet know is that Caine is a drug dealer himself, and associates himself with a group of young gangbangers.  After being an accessory in a brutal convenience store shooting that his friend Kevin (or O-Dog) (Larenz Tate) triggered, Caine’s life as a young dealer will never again be the same.  After being carjacked and seeing a friend killed, Caine, O-Dog, and A-Wax (MC Eiht) track down the murderers and kill them, furthering the cycle of violence.  Caine and O-Dog are soon recruited by a local thug named Chauncy (Clifton Powell) for more petty crimes, but are arrested after the police are tipped off about their activities.  Caine is suspected by the police for taking part in the convenience store killings, but the evidence is too shaky to prosecute the young man.  Soon after being released, Caine finds out a fling of his has resulted in a pregnancy, and his partnership with Chauncey quickly begins to deteriorate after aggressive behaviour from both parties.  Will Caine and his friends be able to escape from the hood lifestyle that has claimed the lives of so many of their peers, or will the cycle of violence make its way back to them?  Find out in The Hughes Brothers’ Menace II Society.

There’s a lot to admire about The Hughes Brothers’ debut feature, especially because of its status as a first-time project from both men.  Menace II Society feels incredibly competent in the way it’s directed, with its camera never stopping for too long, and instead constantly moving and jumping around as Caine’s situation gets more and more dire.  The editing and cinematography are two more elements to be appreciated, especially because of the relatively low budget of the film.  South Central feels hot and grimy during the movie’s many daytime scenes, with its night scenes giving a sense of dread and mystery lying in the darkness of the hood.  The very large problem with Menace II Society comes in the form of its script, which is far too problematic for this to be a “good” film in my books. Where Boyz n the Hood realistically portrays young people in desperate situations doing desperate things, Menace instead opts for a great deal of incredibly violent sequences that don’t do anything to further the stakes at hand.  There’s absolutely nothing subtle about any moment found in Menace II Society – in fact, I’m not even sure if the film would know the definition of the word.  The characters suffer greatly from poor writing, with not a single character except for Caine’s grandparents and lover being sympathetic in any way. When the violence erupts on screen, you feel absolutely nothing for these young men. There’s no sense of hatred, despair, or empathy – instead, even the most brutal moments are met with a shrug of the shoulders and the hope that maybe the next scene will be more impactful.  But that next impactful scene never comes.  The performances found in the film are surprisingly good, especially given the material they’re left to work with.  The standout performance comes from Larenz Tate, who plays O-Dog.  Tate’s young character is truly despicable in almost every scene of Menace II Society, never making a single good or unselfish decision in his actions.  He views violence as an afterthought, and never seems to hesitate when acting out violently.  Tate’s performance is delightfully fun to watch, despite the very clearly horrific things he’s doing.  Samuel L. Jackson’s brief showing is also a delight, but is ruined by more senseless and emotionless violence found in the film’s screenplay.

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Larenz Tate as O-Dog in The Hughes Brothers’ Menace II Society.

Menace II Society is an ambitious and incredibly well-made directorial debut from two men who clearly have great chemistry together when working behind a camera.  Unfortunately, it learns nothing from its admiration of Boyz n the Hood, and instead uses the opportunity to festishize hood violence.  The film’s script is a tragedy, as it eclipses some very good performances from a talented young cast, and a well-made picture on most technical levels.  If you’re looking for a highly dumbed-down version of Boyz n the Hood, this one may just be up your alley!  If you’re looking for something a little more substantial and meaningful, especially in the realm of African American filmmakers, then I would steer clear.  Menace II Society is not recommended.

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Black Directors Feature #7 – Malcolm X (1992)

large_tl3Bxpv6pLhm6gZOtokQuqPw7BuMalcolm X (1992)
Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Spike Lee, Arnold Perl (Based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X, Alex Haley)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman, Jr., Delroy Lindo, Spike Lee

One of the greatest biopics in film history about one of the world’s most important social activists in history, released in a notably strong year for Hollywood, and made by one of America’s most controversial and misunderstood filmmakers – what on earth could go wrong?  Spike Lee’s Malcolm X came out after a string of critically acclaimed hits from the young director.  How does one follow a filmography with titles like She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, and one of the most important movies of the 1980’s – Do the Right Thing?  By making a film about one of the most important and divisive figures in modern American history, that’s how.  The pairing of Spike Lee and Malcolm X seems like a natural pairing in retrospect, but at the time lead up to its release the film had a great deal of naysayers and non-believers waiting for the epic project to crash and burn.  But it didn’t, and instead Spike Lee and star Denzel Washington crafted one of the most intimate, epic in scale, and meaningful biographical dramas ever made.  Covering the man’s young adulthood from his less than glamorous life of crime, to his time in prison that directly led to his adoption of the Islamic lifestyle, to his later political and religious activism in the American South, ultimately leading to the tragic and complicated demise of Malcolm X.  It was critically acclaimed from the moment it was released to the world, landing on many critics top 10 lists for 1992, was highly praised by legendary film director Martin Scorsese, and even ranked as Roger Ebert’s favorite film of the year.  Malcolm X was nominated for two Academy Awards – Best Actor in a Leading Role (Denzel Washington) and Best Costume Design.  Unfortunately for Spike Lee and his labor of love, the epic biopic was released in a year where Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven dominated the awards season, and films like Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, James Ivory’s Howards End, Robert Altman’s The Player, Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game, and others like The Scent of a Woman and Chaplin hogged the spotlight.  Washington’s loss to Al Pacino for Best Actor has gone down as a tragic mistake for the Academy, giving the award to an actor who had never won the award, instead of one who truly had the best performance of that year.  Fortunately, Lee’s Malcolm X is now looked back upon as one of the best films of the decade, and lives on in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.  Since his critically acclaimed effort on Malcolm X, Spike Lee has made numerous acclaimed films, spanning a wide variety of genres, most notably documentaries like 4 Little Girls, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, and its follow up If God is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise, along with narrative films like 25th Hour, Bamboozled, Summer of Sam, Inside Man, and his most recent Chi-Raq.

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Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in his pre-Nation of Islam days.

Told in three separate acts, Malcolm X explores the entire adult life of the man himself.  Each act takes place in a different period of Malcolm’s life, and chronicles his rise from a relative nobody to one of the most influential and controversial men of his time.  The film begins with Malcolm (Denzel Washington) getting involved in the Harlem crime scene, committing petty crimes for West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo), a crime boss.  We also come to find out what has happened to Malcolm’s family – his father was murdered by white supremacists when Malcolm was a child, and his mother was institutionalized after displaying signs of mental illness.  After a falling out with Archie, Malcolm flees to Boston and takes up a different style of crime.  Soon enough, his luck runs up and Malcolm and his friend Shorty (Spike Lee) end up in prison, where Malcolm is to serve a ten-year term.  The second act in the film sees Malcolm trying to survive the harsh conditions of prison.  He meets a man with some pull named Baines (Albert Hall), who slowly introduces him to the ways of Islam, and Malcolm becomes a bona fide member of the Nation of Islam.  The third and lengthiest portion of the movie sees Malcolm under the tutelage of Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman, Jr.), the leader of the Nation of Islam.  Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm form a strong bond, and the young man quickly rises up the ranks of the NOI.  Eventually, Malcolm meets his future wife Betty (Angela Bassett), who becomes a major influence on his life.  After travelling to Mecca, Malcolm’s beliefs are views are shaken and he begins to view things differently than the way the Nation of Islam has taught him to believe.  This sets in motion the events that will ultimately lead to the assassination of the charismatic civil rights activist, and the rest, for better or worse, is history.

There are very films sitting at the 200 minute mark that I’ve enjoyed every single second of, but I can say without a doubt that Malcolm X belongs to that very exclusive and prestigious club.  The 1992 biopic could have just been yet another run of the mill and standard story of an incredibly important man in history, which is why I’m so thankful for Spike Lee’s involvement in the project.  His passion for Malcolm X and the history of African Americans in the United States can be felt throughout the 200 minutes, and Lee’s timeless directorial style elevates it from what many would consider “Oscar-bait” into a truly brave and outstanding production from all perspectives.  After seeing and being highly disappointed by Lee’s acclaimed film 25th Hour, I thought that nothing in his filmography could ever reach the highs of movies like Do the Right Thing and Chi-Raq, but boy was I wrong.  Malcolm X may be not only the greatest biopic ever made, but also my favorite Spike Lee joint.  Nearly every aspect that I can think of featured in Malcolm X is outstanding, from the production design to the acting.  Every act feels different in its tone and deals with different themes, from discovering oneself in the first, to finding answers in spirituality in the second, and later to making profound discoveries about yourself and changing major views you once passionately held true.  The locations and costumes help bring the world around us to life, and allows the audience to completely sink into the era.  The true standout here is very clearly Denzel Washington in his portrayal of the titular X.  His portrayal always exudes the confidence that Malcolm X so clearly had in order to go so far at the rate he did, but also gets across the overly-serious nature of the man, as well as his later struggles with his faith in the Nation of Islam.  I’ve never seen Denzel better than he was here, and it’s a damn shame that he didn’t take home the Oscar on the fateful night in March of 1993.  Backing up Washington’s performance is a terrific roster of supporting players like Angela Bassett, writer-director Spike Lee himself, Albert Hall, and Al Freeman, Jr.  I firmly believe that Washington’s performance wouldn’t have been half as great as it was if it weren’t for incredible direction by Spike Lee.  If anything, the man knows how to direct an actor to a terrific performance, and this is easily his finest work.  Spike’s usual stylistic flashes are toned down in Malcolm X’s first half because of its historical and serious nature, but they’re still noticeable when they’re there.  The final act of the film is drenched in style, including montages and the incredible arson scene.  His quick editing style matched with the use of occasion long takes to get a point across works tremendously, especially in the film’s final twenty minute stretch.  While the death of Washington’s Malcolm X is incredibly hard to watch, the impact it has is a testament to the power of the picture.  You know it’s coming for three hours, and yet it still manages to shock and move you when the time finally comes for it.

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Denzel Washington as the titular Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s 1992 joint.

Please – if you haven’t seen Spike Lee’s Malcolm X before reading this review, for the love of all things holy do yourself a favor and track down the film.  While the run-time may scare some viewers away, I can promise you that the experience flies by, especially once X has gotten out of prison and embraced his new found way of life.  This is an incredibly moving and powerful film about a man who I greatly admire, flaws and all.  It does his life and accomplishments justice, and still isn’t afraid to look at Malcolm X with a highly critical eye.  I firmly believe that this is Spike Lee’s greatest accomplishment, and a treasure of African American cinema.  Whether or not you have interest in the subject matter or the man, see this movie as soon as you can.  It’s a masterpiece on every level.  Spike Lee’s Malcolm X gets my highest recommendation.

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Black Directors Feature #6 – Boyz n the Hood (1991)

Boyz_n_the_hood_posterBoyz n the Hood (1991)
Directed by: John Singleton
Written by: John Singleton
Starring: Cuba Gooding, Jr., Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, Larry Fishburne, Nia Long, Angela Bassett, Tyra Ferrell

From the dirty streets of 1970’s New York featuring pimps, prostitutes, dealers, mobs, and crooked cops, to the corruption and confusion of the Senegalese government and its people, we arrive in the hoods of 1990’s South Central L.A., with our first truly modern film of the marathon.  Instead of the complications involving crooked and underage officers of the law, high-scale drug pushing, and complicated governmental affairs, we see young men and women risking their lives on a daily basis, just living from day to day.  Given few opportunities by the leaders of their country and the educational establishments of the time, many of them are forced to take up arms in order to defend themselves and their families from hostiles.  Director John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood was an incredible and unique vision at the time of its release, garnering universal acclaim from critics and audiences.  The film was praised for its terrific lead and supporting performances, the tight and concise screenplay with little wasted moments, and for its down-to-earth and unsentimental look at the urban lives of young black Americans.  Boyz n the Hood would go on to earn over $55 million at the box office in its North American release, all this on a meager $6.5 million budget.  On top of its massive critical and box office success, at just 24 years old John Singleton would become the youngest person ever nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards, as well as the first ever African-American honored with the nod.  The film earned nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, but lost to the much more popular The Silence of the Lambs and Thelma & Louise, respectively.  Despite not picking up any major awards, Boyz n the Hood and director John Singleton have been honored in other historically significant ways.  The film now sits in the American Library of Congress’ National Film Registration, and has gone on to influence two generations of black filmmakers in America and abroad.  It’s also notable for jump-starting the career of future Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding, Jr., and served as the big screen debut of N.W.A. rapper-turned-actor Ice Cube.

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Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and Ricky (Morris Chestnut) in 1991’s Boyz n the Hood.

Boyz n the Hood follows the life of young Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), who we see grow up from a potentially troubled but intelligent young man, to a responsible young man with the successes of adulthood within his line of sight, and all the potential needed to become something truly great.  After getting into a fight at school and disobeying the rules set by his intellectual mother, Tre is sent to live with his somewhat estranged father Jason (or “Furious”) Styles (Larry Fishburne) in order to have a responsible and influential male figure in his life.  The downside to living with his intelligent and responsible father is now having to grow up in the ghettos of the Crenshaw district of South Central Los Angeles.  Tre grows up with friends Doughboy (Ice Cube), his step-brother Ricky (Morris Chestnut), and Chris (Redge Green), and the four of them regularly see and hear things like shooting, drug dealers, gangs, and burnouts.  After establishing our principle cast and the neighbourhood these boys are living in, we jump seven years into the future.  We come to find out that Doughboy has just recently been released from prison, and is now a member of the Crips, Tre’s friend Chris is in a wheelchair after complications from a gunshot wound, and Doughboy’s brother Ricky has a young son and is being scouted for a scholarship by a local university.  The four of them reconnect in many ways, but all parties involved know just how different they all are from each other, and just how much hood life has affected their lives.  Eventually, Tre and Ricky are put in immediate danger after inadvertently getting involved in business between Doughboy and his Crip friends, and Ferris (Raymond Turner) and his gang, members of the rival Bloods.  Can Tre and Ricky live up to the potential that their family and friends see in them, or will the violent and complicated hood lifestyle of South Central L.A. ruin their chances at a truly good life?  Find out in John Singleton’s Oscar-nominated Boyz n the Hood.

After hearing about this film for years and often unfairly dismissing it as just another dated 1990’s social issue movie, I’m so incredibly glad to say that I couldn’t have been further away from the truth.  Boyz n the Hood is hard-hitting, emotional but never hackneyed, and features an incredible cast and crew of people who should have had far more successful careers than they’ve had to date.  This is a truly memorable and heavy experience, which is something I never expected to see – especially from a first time director and a cast of young and relatively inexperienced actors.  The real shining beacon here is John Singleton, who both wrote and directed the film.  His script has incredible weight to it, but is never afraid to use comedy and lighter moments to develop its world and the characters living in it.  Tre, Ricky, and Doughboy all feel like three-dimensional character, and it helps the film’s heavier moments feel that much more impactful.  Recurring themes like the aggressive and racist police officer reminds the audience that little changes in this neighborhood, and creates a sense of hopelessness and despair.  You want so badly to see these young men and the people in their lives succeed, but you can very clearly see how much of an uphill battle it is.  Singleton’s direction is far more restrained than most first time directors have ever been, never afraid to linger on a scene for a few extra frames in order to get a point across.  The acting is another commendable aspect of the film, especially in performances from Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Tre, and Ice Cube as Doughboy.  Both men are starring in their first leading roles on screen, but have the presence and command of far more experienced actors.  It’s a shame that Cuba’s career went so downhill after his Oscar win for Jerry Maguire, because he’s incredibly talented as both a dramatic and comedic actor.  It’s so easy to get behind Tre as somebody with a great deal of potential trapped in a confusing world, mostly because Cuba plays him perfectly as a brave and idealistic young man.  Ice Cube’s performance as Doughboy made me long for more dramatic roles from the former rapper, because his performance steals the show in the film’s climax.  You can see the pain in his eyes in every scene, especially in moments where he interacts with his more successful younger brother, and his mother who is clearly playing favorites.  He quickly goes from being an unlikeable character to somebody you desperately hope can escape from the lifestyle he’s made for himself.  Another standout supporting player is Larry Fishburne, who plays Furious, Tre’s father.  Furious is the most positive influence these young men have in their lives, and he does everything in his power to make sure that his young son doesn’t end up like so many others in the neighborhood have.  Fishburne brings his wealth of talent and experience to the role, and perfectly suits the wise young father-figure who watches over the neighborhood, damning the community for their constant infighting.  His passion and frustration is clear in every single scene Fishburne is involved in, and his scenes in the final act help remind us just how much is at stake here.

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Larry Fishburne as Furious in John Singleton’s classic Boyz n the Hood.

If you can’t tell from reading this, I loved every minute of John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood.  It has an incredible message that still rings true to this day, and is a subtle and touching look at the lives of relatable young people in a perilous situation.  While it’s undeniably full of social commentary, every second of it is handled gently.  It’s a film that should still be shown to young people around the world, as it’s a damning condemnation against violence and hatred, especially within America’s black community.  Boyz n the Hood is masterfully written and directed by a filmmaker who I hope has a resurgence someday, because his work on this movie is truly remarkable.  The acting from the entire cast is incredible, especially in its highly emotional final act.  It’s a relevant and entertaining look at a lifestyle that is often ignored in Hollywood, and is absolutely an essential film from its time period.  John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood gets my highest recommendation.

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Black Directors Feature #5 – Killer of Sheep (1978)

KILLER OF SHEEP (1977)Killer of Sheep (1978)
Directed by: Charles Burnett
Written by: Charles Burnett
Starring: Henry G. Sangers, Kaycee Moore, Charles Bracy, Angela Burnett, Eugene Cherry, Jack Drummond

Charles Burnett is widely known as perhaps one of the most under-appreciated and underrated film directors in modern American history, largely due to his work on 1978’s Killer of Sheep.  Burnett wrote the film during his time at UCLA, and quickly went to work on making his screenplay a reality.  Casting friends, family members, and colleagues in the film, Burnett completed Killer of Sheep and spent less than $10,000 in the process.  He opted for a documentary-like style throughout the film, with the camera servicing almost as a fly on the wall for the moments caught on scree.  Burnett’s style is highly reminiscent of films made during the period of Italian neorealism in the 1940’s and early 50’s, a movement that created critically acclaimed classics like Bicycle Thieves, Rome Open City, Nights of Cabiria, Stromboli, and Umberto D.  Though Killer of Sheep is regarded as a triumph today, the film had an incredibly tough time playing to audiences of the time.  Its low budget nature and low quality prints made it hard to screen to mass audiences, and the film’s use of licensed music created legal complications for a wide release.  After fading into relative obscurity for a number of years, Killer of Sheep was restored and remastered and given a theatrical and home video release in 2007 – nearly thirty years after its completion.  Charles Burnett would get the opportunity to work with higher budgets in the 1990’s, directing the acclaimed To Sleep with Anger and later The Glass Shield. Despite having all of the acclaim and talent in the world working on his side, Burnett has opted to make a career out of documentary film-making and various made for television movies, including one for the Disney Channel titled Nightjohn, and an ABC film called Selma, Lord, Selma.  Despite never quite making it into the history books as an all-time great filmmaker with a catalog of revered classics, Charles Burnett has managed to stay relevant and on the cutting edge of his industry in whatever field he chooses to work in.  His influence on independent film-making and black films is undeniable, and the craft and skill he puts into his work is to be greatly admired.  All-time great or not, Burnett will be forever remembered for groundbreaking films like Killer of Sheep, and for carving out his own path in the film industry, and constantly (and admirably) doing it the way he wants to do it.

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Stan (Henry G. Sanders) in 1978’s Killer of Sheep.

Killer of Sheep takes a documentary-like approach to the lives of a black family in the Watts district of 1970’s Los Angeles.  As such, there isn’t much of a coherent narrative to summarize.  Instead of a flowing act-to-act style story, the film observes their real, mundane lives and makes it something to truly behold.  We see Stan (Henry G. Sanders), a father who spends his time working at a slaughterhouse in the area.  It’s implied that the constant slaughtering of these animals is having a subtle effect on his family life, as we see through Stan’s interactions with his wife, son, and daughter.  Stan’s life is dull, grey, and monotonous, and it causes him to ignore the need for affection that his family yearns for.  The story is told through a number of events, none of them following any sort of strict timeline.  We see Stan nearly become embroiled in some nefarious criminal activities, be offered a job working in a shop owned by a white woman, and his attempts to purchase and transport the engine of a car.  What we really see though, is a disillusioned man struggling with existential ideas that are much bigger than himself.  He feels powerless in changing the course of his own life, probably feels trapped in the beautiful and loving family he has crafted for himself, and completely jaded with the life he is currently living.  Killer of Sheep is an experimental film that is nearly impossible to summarize in a coherent manner. It’s a film that needs to be seen in order to be fully comprehended.

Sometimes all you need when analyzing and trying to make up your mind about an experience like this is perspective.  After taking in all of Killer of Sheep and enjoying it – but not quite understanding it – I took to the internet and read some pieces on the film.  When I came across several references towards Killer of Sheep being heavily inspired by the works of Italian neorealists of the 40’s, everything suddenly clicked for me.  The story here is completely secondary to everything that Burnett is trying to get across with his film.  This isn’t a preachy, cliche-ridden drama like so many black films before and after it had been, but instead an unflinching look at the everyday lives of a family, in particular its patriarch.  It’s fitting that I watched Killer of Sheep and Touki Bouki in the same evening for my first viewing of both films, as they both take a very similar approach stylistically and thematically.  Both films are about people who are unsatisfied with their surroundings yearning for something far more grand, but never knowing quite what they want.  The same disconnected, fly-on-the-wall, almost documentary-like style is employed in both films, making both works feel far more powerful in the delivery of their messages.  The absence of a coherent narrative often throws me off for films like this, but Stan is an incredibly interesting lead character, and I found myself really compelled and wanting to know what he was going to get into next.  Director Charles Burnett shows some truly incredible talent in Killer of Sheep, often making neighborhoods in Watts resemble war-torn suburbs, further stressing the disillusionment and sense of un-fulfillment that Stan is feeling.  Everywhere the camera goes something interesting is happening, whether it’s in the background or front and center.  My favorite scene in the film is a very small, beautiful moment that sees Stan’s wife working in the kitchen while his young daughter sings along to the radio in the next room over.  The scene is incredibly simple and in no way technically impressive, but it managed to really touch me in a way I can’t quite describe.  Stan’s family is very lovely despite everything they’re up against, and yet our lead character can’t see just how much he’s taking them all for granted.  Instead, Stan is focused on fixing his car and setting his sights on escaping in whatever mental or physical way he possibly can.

KILLER OF SHEEP (1977)

Stan’s daughter (Angela Burnett) and a young neighborhood boy in Charles Burnett’s incredible Killer of Sheep.

While it may not be an action thrill ride, nor is it the most beautiful and stylistic film you’ll ever see, Killer of Sheep is an incredible piece of art from a filmmaker who has all the talent in the world.  The existential themes of longing for more, escape, and disillusionment are something that many of you can relate with.  It’s a film that resonates with you long after you see it, and one you may not be able to fully appreciate after just one watch.  It’s thematically rich, with an incredible script and a compelling lead character.  It may not be for everybody reading this, but I’m so glad to finally be able to say that I’ve seen Charles Burnett’s incredible debut.  Killer of Sheep is highly recommended.

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Noirvember Feature #7 – D.O.A. (1950)

DOA1950D.O.A. (1950)
Directed by: Rudolph Maté
Written by: Russell Rouse, Clarance Green

Starring: Edmond O’Brien, Pamela Britton, Luther Adler, Beverly Campbell, Neville Brand

Rudolph Maté, director of my next subject D.O.A., had humble beginnings in the film world as a cinematographer.  He is responsible for shooting some of the best films of the 1930’s and 1940’s, and his resume includes: two silent films with the legendary Carl Theodor Dreyer (Vampyr and The Passion of Joan of Arc), William Wyler’s Dodsworth, Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, Leo McCarey’s Love Affair, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, Charles Vidor’s Gilda, and finally Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai.  Maté’s resume is undoubtedly impressive to say the least, and this experience behind the camera definitely helped shape what would become a prolific career as a director.  As a director, Rudolph Maté helmed a great deal of film noirs like Forbidden, The Dark Past, Union Station, and The Green Glove, most starring up-and-coming stars like William Holden, Tony Curtis, and Glenn Ford.  On top of his noir catalog, Maté directed a great deal of westerns, adventure and action, and science fiction films of the era.  He was something of a director for hire, but it very clearly paid off for him with many of his films receiving technical Academy Award nominations.  D.O.A. is perhaps the film Maté is best remembered for, and it is seen as one of the better film noirs of the 1950’s by many critics.  The film stars Academy Award winning Edmond O’Brien (also featured in 1946’s The Killers) as Frank Bigelow, and prolific television stars Pamela Britton as Paula Gibson.  

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Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) walking into the police station in the riveting opening of 1950’s D.O.A.

D.O.A. follows a dead man named Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) – only he’s not actually dead just yet.  Frank has been fatally poisoned by an unknown party for reasons he’s not quite sure of.  The film starts shockingly with Bigelow walking into a police station to report his own murder, yet he’s surprised to find that the police are expecting him. From there, we’re treated to a long series of flashbacks showing Frank’s life as an accountant.  After departing for a vacation and not bringing along his girlfriend Paula Gibson (Pamela Britton), Frank finds himself in a daze after a visit to a wild nightclub.  It is at this nightclub that Frank Bigelow unknowingly seals his own fate and drinks the poison that will slowly lead to his demise.  Doctors conclude that there is no way to combat the poison in Frank’s system, and give him a number of days to live.  Using the last of his time on earth, our protagonist tracks down suspects who may have been involved in his eventual murder.  He pays visits to a wild array of characters and receives varying levels of hospitality in return.  Eventually we come to find that not only has Bigelow has become embroiled in a transaction of stolen iridium (for which he served as the notary public), but he has also unveiled something much more personal about his murderer.  Will Frank Bigelow bring his murderer to justice, or will his time run up before cracking the case?  Find out by watching D.O.A.

Unfortunately there had to come a time during the marathon where a film just didn’t resonate with me at all.  As much as I hate to have to write these words, that film is Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A.  It isn’t a complete failure by any means, but the film seems so unsure of itself at times.  The script is a mess, and it took me two watches to completely follow along and understand the roles that our wide assortment of side characters played.  D.O.A. starts with a terrific and compelling opening scene, but very quickly follows into the incredibly long, painfully unfunny, and tedious vacation part of the film.  The exposition here is quite heavy, and yet it’s still never completely clear to me what was going on.  There’s just so much going on throughout the film, and none of it ever really has the time to grow into something truly memorable or significant.  Luckily, Edmond O’Brien’s central performance is very good, and gives the audience somebody to root for.  His character may not be well-developed or entirely three-dimensional, but it’s still a great deal of fun to watch his encounters with the potential suspects.  Speaking of the suspects, it was never entirely clear to me why some of these people were being approached by Bigelow.  I understood the motivations at times, but I was left scratching my head more often than not.  Luckily for me, when things finally ramped up in the story, I was instantly hooked regardless of what I thought about the actual story unfolding.  Another good aspect of the film is that Rudolph Maté’s cinematography background absolutely pays off in spades here.  The composition of shots and direction is smooth, subtle and clearly very well-trained, and Maté and his team brings out some of those beautiful noir motifs that I love so much.  

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Overall, D.O.A. is something of a mixed bag.  Even now, a few days removed from the film, I’m not entirely sure what to think about it.  It has many admirable elements and even some very exciting chase sequences, but nothing that I’ll be able to remember in vivid detail a week from now.  Rudolph Maté is a director whose body of work I’d like to explore in more detail, but D.O.A. has made me slightly wary of doing so.  It’s not a bad film, but it certainly isn’t a great one either.  I suppose you can’t win them all.  I would recommend you view D.O.A. at your own discretion.

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