Aug 272018

johnhustonNo one burst into cinema like Huston. His first film was a masterpiece, his greatest, and the best first film of any director. He arose as the perfect director, and for ten years he defined genius behind the camera. Far more of a rebel than Welles, he squeezed art out of Hollywood against its will. He had ten years like few others.

There’s that old line about the candle that burns brightest?

Huston was known to live wildly, selfishly, and cruelly. He was also thought to be a great deal of fun if you were the right person, which no doubt is in part due to his hard-living ways. As a young(ish) man, attacking life, he filled his films with a reckless power and his vision of what could be, as well as the sins that men are prone to. He lost that in later years, when mortality was on his mind, along with regret, and the strength seemed to drain from his work.

It is strange to see a director whose films looked so beautiful early on and end up looking like TV movies. He worked with some of the best cinematographers in his first ten years (Arthur Edeson, Jack Cardiff) while he ended his career with the guy who shot Freddy vs. Jason.

His greatest successes were with Humphrey Bogart, who he directed six times (and wrote the screenplay for an additional two films). Five of those make my list of Huston’s best; it would be six if I was counted the writing-only gigs as High Sierra would come in around 6th.

An honorable mention for Prizzi’s Honor (1985), which doesn’t hold up as a whole, but the scenes with his daughter, Anjelica, are gold. And one for Moby Dick (1956), which had a too young Gregory Peck forced upon him by the studio (Huston himself would have been better in the part) and never achieves greatness, but is probably as good a film as will be made from the classic and complex novel. And finally an honorable mention to his attempt at a counterculture poem, A Walk with Love and Death (1969); it isn’t good, but it is interesting.

His eight best:

#8 – The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) — A spy who-done-it that is remembered mainly for its many disguised cameos. While watching it is all about trying to figure out if some odd looking character is really a star under layers of makeup. It’s not a top notch film, but fun.

#7 – The Asphalt Jungle (1950) — Huston had made beautiful, nightmare Noirs. Here he made a bleak, gritty one, with weak, stupid people doing weak, stupid things, and it’s hard to look away. (Full review)

#6 – Across the Pacific (1942) — Huston reunites with Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, and Sydney Greenstreet to try and recapture the magic. This is no The Maltese Falcon, but for a war-time, spy, propaganda film, it’s about as good as they get. Astor is a decade too old for her girlish beauty role (they really should have changed the line about her being a nineteen-year-old’s dream), but the chemistry is there. It is a shockingly non-racist film for the time.

#5 – Key Largo (1948) —  Another collaboration with Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. As good as Bogart is, it is Edward G. Robinson, in one of his two best performances, and Claire Trevor who really nail this one. Both, in different ways, are so sad. [Also on the Best Actors lists for Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson]

#4 – The Man Who Would Be King (1975) — His one great film of his last thirty years. Perhaps it was because Huston planned the film in the ‘50s when his thinking was still vibrant. Sean Connery and Michael Caine play former soldiers and conmen who go into hard to reach lands and one is made the god-king of the local tribe. It’s a reminder of what Huston once had done.

#3 – The African Queen (1951) —  John Huston and Bogart could do no wrong. Bogart’s only Academy Award and well deserved. Basically a two person show with him and Katherine Hepburn. [Also on the Best Actors lists for Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn]

#2 – The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) — Huston and Bogart team up yet again in a stunning movie that tackles the nature of greed and evil. Brilliant from start to finish. This is where the “stinkin’ badges” line comes from. [Also on the Best Actors list for Humphrey Bogart]

#1 – The Maltese Falcon (1941) — A film that changed history. Great actors giving great performances with a great director and a great script and great themes. Damn! The camera work is the best I’ve ever seen, and that ranks about 7th on the list of why this movie is wonderful. (Full Critique) [Also on the Best Actors list for Humphrey Bogart]


Aug 172018
  August 17, 2018

Much of my disagreement with the general view of film critics of the 1950s comes down to a disagreement on method acting. Which is to say, they like it, and I hate it. Now it is important to note I’m speaking about method acting in film, which is a very different topic than method acting in theater, and more specifically, I’m talking about what is generally known publicly as method acting in film as opposed to what acting instructors might call method.

In theater things get more complicated as there’s really no single “method.” Rather one school of acting (Stanislavsky’s) was split into three schools (with Lee Strasberg’s being the one most name-dropped) that all approached the method in different ways. The core idea is to find the emotional center of the character, but how that’s done and what that means varies. These three schools then splintered into a dozen or more major schools and hundreds of minor ones, where the teachers modified “the method” to form their own system. Method acting has been described as a cult of personality where students kneel before their specific prophet, and I think that view has merit. But that’s talk of philosophy, and in the theater, what matters is the performance. So if one of these method schools produces superior actors, it’s a bit silly to condemn the school for a stupid philosophy. There is one aspect of that philosophy I will touch on, as I think it is always a problem, though perhaps one that can be overcome by the virtues of the training. The problem is that method acting always focuses on the actor, not on the story. It is about finding the emotion, not necessarily showing that emotion (although all schools that I’ve heard of do try for that expression as a dependent goal), and more importantly, it is not about getting a performance that will work best with others, building to a collaborative story. It is always about the self first.

But that’s theater. And method acting is a very different creature in film. What does method acting mean now? As it is popularly used, it is about the actor losing himself in the part, taking on the attributes of his character both on and off set. The biggest recent examples would be Jared Leto sending rats and used condemns to his co-stars, Wesley Snipes hiding out in his trailer and communicating only through post-it notes that he signed “Blade,” and Christian Bale screaming at and physical attacking crew members. But that isn’t method acting. That’s just bad diva behavior that is crossing into a personality disorder. None of that has anything to do with acting; it’s just being an ass. Montgomery Clift did not spend his off time during From Here to Eternity starting knife fights with anyone chubby. He drank. Apparently a lot. Which is reasonable.

Similarly, people like to call it “method” when an actor changes his body for a role, but that’s got nothing to do with method acting (it’s almost the exact opposite). You don’t get much more of a change than Charlize Theron’s for Monster, but she laughed between takes and specifically stated she wasn’t method in the part. The disconnect can be seen when Robert De Niro’s physical change for Raging Bull is said to be method, but Chris Pratt’s was not for Guardian’s of the Galaxy.

The term “method acting” has become close to meaningless in film as it no longer refers to the training the actor has received, but what stupid things he’s doing. Oh, there’s some actual method actors about, but you can’t tell them apart from non-method actors by watching the finished product. Some are thought to be very good; Daniel Day-Lewis is generally considered a great actor and his method training is given some of the credit, but there’s nothing about what he’s done on screen that is fundamentally different. And that’s not how it once was.

Once upon a time, there was no method acting in film. And then at the very end of the 1940s, things changed. Three men appeared: Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and James Dean. Oh, there were others with the training such as Rod Steiger, but there weren’t any print campaigns on him. It was all about the Trinity. They were the first generation movie method actors, and they were different.

They were also pretty men, two of them (Clift and Dean), extraordinarily so. If you think that’s not relevant, then you don’t know Hollywood. Also, I point you back to Steiger, who was not considered pretty. It was Brando who was most important, in the short term, though it was the other two that gave him longevity. What did they do? They died. Dean died quickly, at the peak of his fame, so he’s always remembered as he was. Clift got into a car accident also at the peak of his fame, and then slowly killed himself, but he too has been sealed in a time capsule. They didn’t have a chance to make fools of themselves the way Brando did, (The Island of Dr. Moreau leaps to mind).

But in 1951, no one was laughing at Brando. He burst into cinema with A Streetcar Named Desire and people at the time were very confused. Critics loved it, so they called it realistic, and as Brando was a method actor, they called his acting realistic. I can’t figure how they could be so wrong. There’s nothing “realistic” about either A Streetcar Named Desire or Brando’s performance. That is not, on its own, a condemnation. It wasn’t supposed to be realistic. They took a stage play, with a stage director (Elia Kazan), and all the major actors from a stage company, except for Vivien Leigh, who’d played the part on stage for a different company, and they slapped in on film. It’s a stage play and it feels like it and every single actor plays it that way. Hell, Kazan even shrinks the apartment set as the film progresses to show Blanche DuBois’s feeling of claustrophobia—life was closing in on her. This isn’t realism. It’s representational.

People get it now, or at least some people do, where now is the last thirty years. Roger Ebert calls method acting hyper-realism. What Brando was doing wasn’t what a human would actually do, but a way to represent emotions. No one would yell “Stella” as he does, but reality isn’t the point. The point is feeling that emotion, the need and desire and self-loathing, without any connection to how things are. And he succeeds. You do know how Stanley feels. And so would those people sitting in the back rows of the theater. Kazan and Brando seem to have forgotten that cameras can pick up subtlety.

I am not fond of Brando performance in Streetcar, but I can’t argue that it doesn’t fit the film. No one in it is subtle. No one is real. It’s emotions turned up to 11, then turned up some more, and projected into space.

The problem with method acting comes when this artificial, hyper-realistic acting style is placed in a film that’s actually supposed to be realistic. On the Waterfront isn’t shot as a stage play. It’s shot as if this is reality. But Brando continues to over-emote. He isn’t showing us the external Terry, but the internal one, which conflicts with the film’s style. The same can be said for Clift in A Place in the Sun, as well as From Here to Eternity (although it is hard to call From Here to Eternity realistic with their sandy beach sex scene and the he-man machine gun heroics at the end, but in general, it is trying to be, while Clift is not). These hyped-up performances reached their ridiculous peek in Rebel Without a Cause, when James Dean screams, “You’re tearing me apart!”.

Now that’s some overacting. Has any teen (Dean was 24) ever done that? Has any human? Put this into a film now and it’d be laughed off the screen. I’m betting it would have been in ’55, but Dean was dead by the time of release and no one was in a mood to laugh at him.

So our Trinity was all about hyper-emoting. Again, in the right kind of movie, that could work in theory, but I want to get a bit more specific. Brando and Kazan have both stated that the heart of method acting—of what they were trying to put on screen—was unpredictability. That was the key, that the audience never knows what the character will do next. Brando said that at any moment he might explode out, or he might not. You’d never know. And here we have a huge problem with story. How a character reacts is not supposed to be random. It is supposed to build upon the character’s past actions and visible personality, and it’s meant to further the story. But if a character just “explodes” at any time, then that’s not a character, or a story. That could work if we’re talking about The Joker, but for most any other character, it’s a mess. These explosions of emotion don’t tell us anything about the character (except he might be psychotic). It does, however, explain scenes in Streetcar and Rebel.

Now if you are going to “explode” emotionally, what do you do? You can’t “explode” calmly. Pretty much, explode means violence, of one kind or another. So we’re left with attacking someone/something, sexually assaulting them, or throwing a tantrum. And that’s what we get. This is the biggest change that the first gen method actors brought to ‘50s cinema: they’d suddenly attack or throw a tantrum. And to make it an “explosion,” they’d tend to act overly subdued, and mumble, until the big moment. And this was not the norm for male leads of the ‘30s or ‘40s. That’s the visible change. Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, and Laurence Olivier did not suddenly drop to the floor crying, kicking their legs in the air. Nor did they scream and sweep the dishes off the table. This was new. Well, more or less new. It’s why I’ve stuck to male pronouns above. Because actresses had done this before. Bette Davis made a career out of having fits. Not that it was any more realistic for women to act this way than men, but it’d popped up for years in film for women. Was it a good change? I’d have suggested a better way to go would be to stop having women throwing tantrums than to start having men do it.

The sudden excitement about this new form of acting wasn’t so much about a new form, but rather having a few males act in ways that had been acceptable only for females in the past. A few emotionally vulnerable pretty men… Yeah, marketing was involved.

Alright, so Brando, Clift, and Dean were focusing on their own emotional states and “exploding” randomly. That sounds problematic to any kind of production, but I can imagine it being workable in the theater. But films aren’t made like stage plays. Scenes aren’t shot sequentially. Often full scenes don’t exist at all. An actor’s emotion rarely has anything to do with the emotion the audience feels. Hitchcock famously demonstrated this “Kuleshov effect” by taking a shot of an actor and splicing in different shots of what the actor was reacting to. If a shot of a mother and child is placed between the shots of the man, his smile displays kindness. But if a shot of a women in a bikini is put between those same shots, then that same smile means lust. There’s no change in the acting. Films aren’t created on set, or on a stage, but in an editing room. A jigsaw of pieces are put together to make the puzzle. So even if your film was an overly emotive representational one, this form of method acting would have no advantage.

Hitchcock had a horrible time with Clift. He wanted Clift to look up after coming out of a church, but the actor couldn’t find any emotional reason for looking up. Of course the reason is that it will have an effect when edited in—the actor’s feelings of the moment were (and are) irrelevant. The actor is trying to make his own movie, and actors simply can’t do that. It doesn’t work. Hitchcock suggested his paycheck be his motivation.

Some historians want to point out that the coming of the Trinity was the beginning of the great blossoming of film method acting. But it wasn’t. It was the end. And that’s easiest to see when the second generation came in. Paul Newman is the perfect example, as he’d trained at the same school as Brando and was brought in once as “a similar type” to push Brando into taking a role (so this new young pup wouldn’t get it). When Newman started to rise, things had changed, as had film method. You can see it in 1958’s Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. There’s lots of emotion, and Newman even gets the seemingly require method temper tantrum. But it is less fake. Newman understood there was a camera involved, so he played to it, not the back rows. Those outburst were more subtle, more real. The hyped-up acting was gone. His tantrum was still odd (but Cat On a Hot Tin Roof was based on a play, so some stagey action is expected), but it seemed like something that a person might actually do. He expressed emotion, lots and lots of emotion, but expressed it, not represented it. Within a decade, the peculiar acting style of the Trinity was gone. Even Brando pulled it in (sometimes…). This overwrought, theatrical acting had appeared, made a splash in a few pictures, and then faded, and everyone once again acted as if they knew that this was a film, not an open air production. And because it was gone so quickly, critics and the public didn’t have the time for the new smell to fade, and to see that it was all pretty silly. By then the films and actors had been declared to be great, and no one likes to contradict themselves. And with two martyrs, emotionally, people just clung to a greatness that never was.



Aug 172018
two reels

He-man Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (Dwayne Jonson)—for some reason using the name Davis Okoye, but he’s just The Rock—pretends to be a special forces trained killing machine, who loves animals. He’s also a primatologist, which in this film does not require any scholarly training; it just means you hang out with apes and joke around, when not massacring bad dudes who messed with the animals. He’s buddy-buddy with George, the albino gorilla. Unfortunately George runs into a genetic re-writing mist that squirts out of a container that fell from a space station, turning George into a giant monster with anger issues. Far worse, similar mists also effected a wolf and an alligator, giving us a whole lot of monsters headed toward Chicago. Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) shows up to exposition all over The Rock so that he knows about the evil corporation behind it all. The Rock and the Doc abandon all the characters that we were introduced to in the first act to go save George and Chicago, now working with their new friend, the secret agent cowboy (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). It looks like there’s going to be a lot of giant monster battles…but not for a very, very long time.

It isn’t a problem that Rampage is unrelentingly stupid. This is a film about a giant gorilla, an even bigger flying wolf, and a gigantic armored alligator, so being smart was never going to be a thing. But it does matter how it is stupid. Wolf with wings? That’s fine. Shooting The Rock right in the stomach so he dies, and then having him pop up five minutes later acting fine with the explanation that the bullet missed all the vital organs? That’s not fine. Also on the not fine list is that modern weaponry seems to have no effect on these beasties. Look, I can accept a giant Earth moth that responds to fairy songs and has attack pollen, so I’m not that picky. I don’t need smart; just don’t keep rubbing the stupid in my face.

But the stupid would be easier to take if the rest worked. If we got tossed into some good monster on monster action. But Ramage has a lot of time to waste and waste it it does. It spends more time with character beats than with mayhem, and all the character stuff (except between The Rock and George) is awful. We spend time with three characters around the primate center: a manager-type and two students. We get a reasonably good idea of what the manager is like, and we get to see the students’ single defining traits (he’s a coward, she’s got the hots for our star). And then… they’re gone. Did they get killed to provide motivation? Nope. They just stopped being in the picture. So, why did we spend time with them? Cut them, and that’s more time with a flying wolf eating people. Its far worse with The Rock and the Doc, as their “character development” isn’t just unnecessary, it’s painful: Brother with cancer; jail time; The Rock seeing how mean people are. Oh, the emotional depth… Yeah. When the point of your film is to have a giant ape punch a giant wolf, maybe you shouldn’t be going for serious emotions. That or write better dialog and have the actors at least try and express those emotions. And all that character stuff comes to nothing. Zero. There’s no payoff. The only thing needed is that The Rock and George like each other, and we even get too much of that. Everything else is waste of time. So much time.

What we have here is a bad script, with bad dialog and bad plot points, brought to life with bad acting, that fills in the time between monster fights. OK. That’s pretty standard in the Daikaiju film world and can be a good time, as long as there’s plenty of that sweet, sweet monster goodness. But there’s not “plenty.” There’s not enough. What little we get is fine, though nothing special. The CGI is pretty good. The fight sequences aren’t great and have too many long shots, but they’ll do. There just aren’t enough of them.

Rampage is forgettable and I suspect it will be forgotten.

Aug 092018
  August 9, 2018

billywilderWilder started as a writer, first in Berlin, then in the US where he worked on the masterpiece Ninotchka before he added directing to his resume. He is probably the finest writer/director of all time.

The thing that people sometime miss with Wilder is that he always made comedies, just sometimes those comedies pretended to be dramas. He excelled in pitch black comedies, where murder was part of the gag. Double Indemnity only makes sense when you look at it as the wonderfully nasty little comedy that it is. Wilder was known as a cynic, and that’s clear in practically every film. He was also a bit of a romantic which blends remarkably well with his harsh view of society and humanity.

This is a list of Wilder’s best films as a director, not writer, though the only change would be Ninotchka taking a high position.

First, an honorable mention for The Lost Weekend, which is pretty much perfect for what it is, which is 100 minutes of suffering porn. It starts nowhere and ends nowhere and outside of “alcoholism is bad,” it doesn’t mean much (a point driven home by the writer of the source material’s suicide—the weekend was just a regular weekend in his life and meant nothing more or less than any other horrible weekend).

Another honorable mention goes to The Front Page (1974); it’s reasonably faithful to the stage play and feels even more faithful. It was cynical enough already that Wilder didn’t need to change a thing.

And finally an honorable mention for Ace in the Hole (1951), which would have taken the #8 slot if the last act was half as strong as the first two. It’s more cynical than Sunset Boulevard and nastier than Double Indemnity. When it gets this dark, is a dark comedy still a comedy? Kirk Douglas stars as a twisted reporter who uses a cave-in to his own advantage, and so does everyone else. This has to be a comedy, because if you take it as a drama, it’s too harsh to handle.

His 8 best:

8 – Kiss Me Stupid (1964) —  It’s a satire, and people who somehow think it is a romantic comedy get very upset when they see that the male characters are all slime. Yes, as a romantic comedy it isn’t good. It’s also pretty bad as a western and as a documentary on ancient China. As a vicious satire on small town America, celebrity, and the American way of life, it’s kinda brilliant.

7 – Sabrina (1954) — Sabrina (Audrey Hepburn), the chauffeur’s daughter, has a crush on David (William Holden), the playboy of the house. When time abroad turns her into a suitable target for his shallow affections, older brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart) sees trouble and tries to break things up. Hepburn is an obvious choice for a romantic comedy, but Bogart? But it works. [Also on the Great Actors Lists for Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, and Audrey Hepburn]

6 – Stalag 17 (1953) — I really don’t know how Wilder pulled this off. No one else could have. It’s a dark prisoner-of-war film where the Nazis are taken quite seriously and yet it bounces into pure comedy, before bouncing back into drama. William Holden, in one of three great films he made with Wilder, plays a selfish, cynical hustler who deals with the Germans… And he’s the hero. He won the Oscar for his performance, and he deserved to. [Also on the Great Actors List for William Holden]

5 – Witness for the Prosecution (1957) — A courtroom thriller, it is the best adaptation of an Agatha Christie story, and is often mistaken for a Hitchcock film. It’s Marlene Dietrich’s best film, and arguably Charles Laughton’s. The rest of the cast (Tyrone Power, Elsa Lanchester, John Williams, Una O’Connor) all sparkle. The dialog is fast and funny, and the mystery is solid, with one of the great film twists.

4 – The Seven Year Itch (1955) — Perhaps the perfect sex comedy (cleaned up for ‘50s morality), it is a witty farce where a married man, left alone for the summer, fantasizes about the bombshell who moves in upstairs. While Wilder may have found working with Marilyn Monroe a chore, he sure knew what to do with her, directing two of her four great starring roles.

3 – Double Indemnity (1944) — The quintessential Film Noir. In a meaningless world, two jaded people, one a sleazy insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray), the other a sociopathic trophy wife, decide to commit murder. It’s brilliant. (Full critique) [Also on the Great Actors Lists for Edward G. Robinson and Barbara Stanwyck]

2 – Sunset Boulevard (1950)Sunset Boulevard takes on the film world, which it loves and loathes simultaneously, showing how it uses up people. It’s a twisted comedy that sees life through a fun-house mirror. It has amazing performances and Wilder’s most interesting cinematography; it’s one of the top Noirs. (Full critique) [Also on the Great Actors List for William Holden]

1 – Some Like It Hot (1959) — Often cited as the greatest comedy of all time, it is certainly a contender. If you haven’t’ seen it, go see it now. It’s a buddy, drag, romantic comedy with gangsters and music. What’s not to love? [Also on the Great Actors List for Jack Lemmon]