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]

Jul 262018
 

jameswhaleHis background was in set design, but he learned directing quickly and had his own style that elevated him above the other directors of the time. He looked at the world as a gothic playground, filled with the strange and wonderful and terrible. Even when the material was less then brilliant (silly melodramas were the rage in the early ‘30s), Whale’s style could make the picture interesting.

He is mostly remembered now for his horror pictures, though he directed more melodramas than monster movies, and also made a good number of comedies. His career died with the release of The Road Back (1937), a sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front. Rumor has it that Whale’s cut was good, but we’ll never know as Universal, recently under new management, gave in to German demands and edited the picture to remove content that the Nazi’s found unflattering. Whale was not silent with his feelings about the management of Universal, which resulted in him finishing up his contract assigned to poor projects.

He only made 21 films before retiring in his early fifties. While he can be considered one of the truly great film directors, a majority of those films are deeply flawed, suffering most from terrible acting, though the ridiculous scripts come in a close second. I can’t say why he didn’t rein in his actors when they were emoting all over the walls. I cannot understand how he made the overwrought nonsense The Kiss Before the Mirror the same year he made the masterpiece The Invisible Man. But when he could find the right actors, and the right script for his mentality, he could create marvels. And I enjoy at least parts of even his worst films because there’s always something special in them.

I’ll give an honorable mention to WaterlooBridge (1931) simply because it is the only film of his beyond the eight below that approaches being good.

 

#8 – By Candlelight (1933) — A romantic comedy of mistaken identities and class conflict. The casting doesn’t quite work, but Whale is in fine form, if not particularly flamboyant, and the end product has a subtle charm.

#7 – Remember Last Night? (1935) — A bunch of terrible rich people have a wild drunken party and wake up the next day with no memory and a dead body. The two most likable of the crew set out to solve the mystery before they get arrested. It is genius for the first two acts, but slips toward the end simply by becoming more conventional. I think of it as The Old Dark House with bright lights.

#6 – The Old Dark House (1932) — The signature James Whale film—his mastery of shadow and movement, control of everything in the frame, and exuberant and quirky sense of humor. But The Old Dark House has nothing but Whale’s style, but that style is enough. [Also on The Great Actors List for Boris Karloff] (My review)

#5 – Show Boat (1936) — The main melodramatic storyline was tiring on stage and is equally so here (though it really does manage to jerk the tears), but the racial material is dynamite (and was at the time, needing a special exemption from the censors to cover mixed-race marriage, a subject the censors were “protecting” people from…), and multiple songs are classics. I could have used a lot more of the Black characters and less of the leads, but still, this is a movie to see. Consider it an antidote to Gone With the Wind. Though successful, it broke a studio and killed the Laemmle dynasty.

#4 – The Great Garrick (1937) — One of the best comedies of ’37, in which a band of French actors attempt to humiliate the English star David Garrick by pretending to be all of the workers and guests at a country inn, but things become complicated when an unconnected woman (Olivia de Havilland) stumbles into their performance. The supporting cast, including Edward Everett Horton, are as good as the leads. [Also on The Great Actors List for Olivia de Havilland]

#3 – The Invisible Man (1933) — Whale’s second Universal Monster is almost as good as his first, and skating on a major success, he relaxed and let himself go, adding a great deal of comedy. It was also the big break for the greatest character actor of all time, Claude Rains.

#2 – Frankenstein (1931) — How many films have had this kind of effect on pop culture? The Monster that is as iconic as Mickey Mouse is not from the book, but was created here, a combination of the creative minds of Whale, actor Boris Karloff, and makeup expert Jack Pierce. The theme that science should not mess in the realm of God is not actually the theme of this film, but people thought it was, and so started a non-stop river of mad scientist films, none of which came close to this one or its sequel. [Also on The Great Actors List for Boris Karloff] (My review)

#1 – Bride of Frankenstein (1935) — Arguably the greatest horror film of all time, and the greatest sequel of all time. It is (without argument) Boris Karloff’s best performance. With Frankenstein, Whale held back a bit, but with this film, he gave in completely to his instincts. It is weird and wild. Sure it is horror, but it is also black comedy and satire. [Also on The Great Actors List for Boris Karloff] (My review)

 

 

 

Jul 102018
  July 10, 2018

WS_Van_DykeSometimes greatness comes from complicated technique, superior skill, and slow, methodical work. Sometimes it’s knowing when to get out of the way and just get things done. Van Dyke was in the second category. Nicknamed “One-take Woody,” Van Dyke was know for his quick work and keeping under budget. The studio loved him for his speed, but this meant they often gave him lesser projects where getting the film out the door in a hurry was the most important factor. His greatest success came with William Powell and Myrna Loy in the Thin Man series, where script and actors were the thing, so quick shots weren’t a detriment. He also worked with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy multiple times, which is a plus or minus, depending on how you feel about those two stars. They tire me quickly.

An honorable mention for the twenty good minutes of the otherwise painful San Francisco (Full Review Here). And a bigger honorable mention for his uncredited work on The Prisoner of Zenda; both he and George Cukor were brought in to reshoot the action scenes. And a final honorable mention for Hide-Out (1934); Robert Montgomery is poorly cast as an gangster hiding with an innocent farm family, but Maureen O’Sullivan is adorable.

His top 8:

8 – Rage in Heaven (1934) — A tense thriller where Robert Montgomery plays a paranoid nut-case who is jealous of his wife (Ingrid Bergman) and his “best friend” (George Sanders). More stylish than most of Van Dyke’s film, it excels in its performances. (My Review Here)

7 – Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) — The first of the Weissmuller Tarzan films that follows Jane’s father’s search for an elephant graveyard until they run into Tarzan. Weissmuller is an impressive Tarzan, but this is Maureen O’Sullivan’s show. [Also on The Great Actors List for Maureen O’Sullivan]

6 – Penthouse (1933) — It was a trial run for The Thin Man, with a pre-code twist. Warner Baxter stars as a lawyer detective who’s friends with hoods. He teams up with a call girl played by Myrna Loy and is helped by a mob boss (Nat Pendleton, who was Lieutenant Guild in the Thin Man series). Baxter is no Powell, but the pre-code stuff helps (in questioning her allure since he didn’t jump into bed with her the night before: “I didn’t exactly have to fight for my honor. A few more weeks of this and I’ll be out of condition.”)

5 – Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) — The 4th Thin Man film and the 4th best. Powell and Loy are as good as ever, the dialog is solid, and the mystery is fun. It is now clear that adding a child was a bad idea, as well as a servant, but otherwise, the series is still going strong. [Also on The Great Actors List for Myrna Loy]

4 – I Love You Again (1940) — It may not be a Thin Man movie, but it’s still Powell and Loy. This time Powell has been an obnoxiously straight-laced boor who wakes up after a blow on the head to realize he’s had amnesia for years, and is really a con artist. [Also on The Great Actors Lists for William Powell and Myrna Loy]

3 – Another Thin Man (1939) — The third Thin Man film and its nearly as good as the first two. Nick and Nora have to deal with murder connected to Nora’s father’s business partner. Like the others, it is great fun. [Also on The Great Actors Lists for William Powell and Myrna Loy]

2 – After the Thin Man (1936) — Much like the first Thin Man film, but with Jimmy Stewart added, this is a very close second place. Taking place soon after that film, the pair is summoned by Nora’s snobbish family because a husband is missing and Aunt Katherine wants to avoid scandal. The relationship is wonderful, the humor is spot on, and the mystery is engaging. [Also on The Great Actors Lists for William Powell and Myrna Loy]

1 – The Thin Man (1934) — She’s a rich socialite; he’s a retired PI (now living the high life on her money) who gets sucked into a murder case. Funny and charming, this introduction of Nick and Nora Charles is as good a time as you can have at the cinema. I lucked out, getting to see it on a big screen around 50 years after its release. The mystery stuff is good, but it is the husband and wife interactions that make this film special; they are my favorite couple after Gomez And Morticia Addams. [Also on The Great Actors Lists for William Powell and Myrna Loy]

Jul 092018
 
four reels

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has only a few days left of his house arrest—a result of his plea deal from the events of Civil War—and is about to start a security business with Luis (Michael Peña) and his team. He hasn’t heard from Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) for a time; they are displeased with him and on the run due to those same Civil War events. But then an overly-realistic dream of Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) brings the estranged team back together as Hank now has a way to retrieve Janet from the quantum realm if he can use the information in Scott’s head. All they have to do is avoid FBI agent Woo (Randall Park), crime-boss Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), and mysterious super-opponent Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), while getting help from an ex-shield scientist (Laurence Fishburne), and not putting Scott’s ex-wife (Judy Greer) or daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson)in danger.

Ant-Man and the Wasp seems relaxing after the last two MCU films as the stakes are personal, not global or universal, and while nicely tied in to the other films, stays mainly in its own box. It’s a light, fun romp and feels much like the previous Ant-Man, except they listened to Guardians of the Galaxy enough to make retro-music more prominent (The Partridge Family…Huh).

While this is a near non-stop action film, the constant movement is the least important element and occasionally is too much. Ant-Man and the Wasp is more of a romantic comedy and that’s what works best. It is the character moments between our leads where the real fun is. Rudd and Lilly have have much better chemistry than before, as do both with Douglas. Peña and his gang have great gags, and while she is low on jokes and time, Pfeiffer is an excellent addition. What I wanted was these people playing off each other and that’s what I got. There were big laughs and strong emotional beats. Even the stuff with the child was strong.

As for all that action, some of it ranks with the best that Marvel has done. If this isn’t my new favorite car chase movie, it is certainly a contender. The fights, particularly those involving The Wasp, flow really nicely giving the MCU a much needed super-powered female bad-ass. Plus she’s sexy as hell, almost as sexy as Pfeiffer.

The whole mix is a bit over-stuffed. There was no need for any villains and certainly not multiple ones. Scott and Hope and Hank are perfectly capable of generating their own problems without bad-guys. But because there is so much going on, everything gets a little less time. I’d have traded away Ghost for a few more minutes of Janet or an extra few minutes of Hank fuming at Scott. Luckily the character stuff doesn’t stop during the fights (ear communicators are sure handy in a script) but there’s just too many characters.

The science is all on such a nonsense level that it didn’t bother me. I don’t need to understand anything; I just have to not see that it is wrong. The only thing that troubled me is they never stated anything about the hardness and stability of reduced items so I did find myself asking why a tiny building didn’t break.

For a film that does stand alone, it has major implications for Avengers 4 (the quantum realm is going to be popping up again quite soon I’m betting) and I was pleased how they slipped that in. It was an organic part of this film; that it looms as a possible answer for how to deal with what happened in Infinity War seems almost coincidental.

Like all MCU films there are after credit sequences, the first of which had the greatest effect on an audience since the one in Iron Man introduced Nick Fury. There was a combination of laughter and “Wows” with a man nearby exclaiming “Oh, they did that. They just did that! Oh!” That kind of reaction is usually a good sign.

 Reviews, Superhero Tagged with:
Jul 042018
 

Michael CurtizThe greatest director of the studio age and by my account, the greatest director of all time, Curtiz was a master of the craft, and exercised his skills across genres. He helmed melodramas, adventure films, Noirs, comedies, romances, musicals, mysteries, horror pictures, histories, war films, literary movies, westerns, and whatever else there is. This put him on the outs with auteur theorists, who judge a director’s quality on his tendency to do the same thing over and over. Curtiz told stories and gave each what it needed—it wasn’t all about him. Andrew Sarris, film critic, adherent to the auteur theory, and idiot, did his best to tear down Curtiz as his versatility didn’t fit the theory (although he admitted that Casablanca was special and was the one film that screwed up his theories).

He often worked with Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Humphrey Bogart.

Curtiz is nearly as famous for being a horrible person as he is a great director. He was abusive to actors and crew. A few actors could get along with him (Bogart managed), but many tell tales of his tyranny and Errol Flynn physically attacked him after Curtiz caused the deaths of over 20 horses on the set of The Charge of the Light Brigade (the outcry resulted in an animal welfare law being passed).

I could give every film not on the list below an honorable mention because even when a film didn’t work, Curtiz’s direction did, so I’ll show discretion. Doctor X (1932) is a flawed gem, one of the first two-strip Technicolor films (Full Review). And an honorable mention for the faux biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy. It’s cloying and non-stop lies, with horrible makeup, but the songs are good, the direction is superb, and Jimmy Cagney’s dancing is fascinating. And I’ll add one for The Sea Wolf, that is too unpleasant to be one of the greats, but then it was intended to be unpleasant and in that it is a great success.

Is 8 best are:

#8 – Four’s a Crowd (1938) — Errol Flynn is a charming cad who runs positive PR for the worst people. It’s a romantic comedy and one of the multiple Curtiz/Flynn/de Havilland films. [Also on the Best Actors lists for Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland]

#7 – Romance on the High Seas (1948) — A strange kind of musical as the music is pleasant, but barely registers as this plays out more like a romantic comedy. This was Doris Day’s first film and her best. Curtiz said it was because she was natural and fought to keep her that way. It also gave perpetual supporting actor Jack Carson a leading role—he deserved many more.

#6 – White Christmas (1954) — There’s no better icon of the light, colorful, and joyfully shallow side to Christmas than this bright and shiny musical. Oh, it hasn’t got a brain in its cute little head, but brains can be over rated. The songs are great, the dancing is wonderful, and the schmaltz is thick. (Full Review) [Also on the Best Actors list for Bing Crosby]

#5 – Captain Blood (1935) — The first (time-wise) of the three great Curtiz/Flynn Swashbucklers. Flynn is a physician forced into piracy. This is where non-silent Swashbucklers found their footing. (Full Critique) [Also on the Best Actors lists for Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone and Olivia de Havilland]

#4 – We’re No Angels (1955) — Humphrey Bogart’s last great performance in a picture that’s far too obscure. It is a Christmas comedy and absolutely lovely. He plays one of three escaped convicts who end up playing angels to a family. [Also on the Best Actors list for Humphrey Bogart and Basil Rathbone]

#3 – The Sea Hawk (1940) — The last of the three great Curtiz/Flynn Swashbucklers, it shares much of the cast and crew with Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood. Besides being a fine adventure film, is was a solid piece of propaganda for an England that needed it. (Full Critique) [Also on the Best Actors list for Errol Flynn]

#2 – The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) — The greatest classic Swashbuckler and one of the Best films ever made. It is beautifully shot, with a wonderful score and a strong supporting cast, and it made Errol Flynn an icon. Curtiz was brought in when director William Keighley failed to pull off the action scenes. The studio knew Curtiz could do wonders with Flynn though Flynn was none-too-happy about it as the two hated each other. (Full Critique) [Also on the Best Actors lists for Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone and Olivia de Havilland]

#1 – Casablanca (1942) — The finest of Curtiz’s film and one of the finest period. It is a true masterpiece in every way. It is startlingly good. Books have been written about why it is such a great film, so I won’t bother to explain it. [Also on the Best Actors list for Humphrey Bogart]

Jun 262018
 
two reels

Clark Kent (Jerry O’Connell) is worried about his relationship with Lois Lane (Rebecca Romijn), and vise versa, as his secret identity is getting in the way. Meanwhile, Lex Luther (Rainn Willson) has discovered a strange object hurtling toward Earth and he speculates that this may be his way to get back at Superman. The object crashes into the sea, and releases Doomsday. The rest of the Justice League (Rosario Dawson, Nathan Fillion, Christopher Gorham, Matt Lanter, Shemar Moore, Nyambi Nyambi, Jason O’Mara) take on Doomsday, but it will be up to Superman to deal with the monster in the end.

Why did they choose this story to animate? The Death of Superman is known as one of the worst stories in comics history. It was a cheap, sleazy cash grab. The story was barely a story: Big troll shows up and punches Superman to death; the end. Doomsday is one of the dullest DC villains. He has no personality and even a bland design. The only plus, and this is certainly not clearly a good thing, is that at the time it was first published, people actually thought that DC might kill off Superman for good. Sounds silly, but I remember this. But we know now that he’s just going to pop back up, so in a story where Superman dying is all that there is, the fact that we know that he doesn’t leaves us with nothing.

Ah, but there’s more. They already did it. In 2007, DC animation produced Superman/Doomsday, which is based on The Death of Superman comic. If that wasn’t enough, Superman was killed at the end of the live action Batman v Superman after fighting Doomsday, and came back in Justice League. So, it’s been done to death…

Yet here we go again, and it’s about as good as it could have been, which isn’t that good. The animation is a few steps up from Superman/Doomsday, though a few steps down from what we’d expect in a theatrical release. The voice talent is solid, with O’Connell, Romijn, and Fillion (in a long cameo) as standouts, giving their characters the emotion needed for a story so low on plot. And the dialog isn’t embarrassing.

Since the main plot is just one never-ending battle (so long… so very long), the video is filled out with the relationship tension between Lois and Clark. This might have worked in 1950 or 1960, but we are fifty years too late to do a “Gosh, Clark has a secret” story. We all know his secret. We’ve all know how Lois will react. You can’t build tension when everyone watching knows everything that’s going to happen. (Sure, they might assume a couple five-year-olds don’t yet know about them, but if that’s the target, then maybe cut the vulgarities).

Much like the recent Justice League film, The Death of Superman brings home how silly the Justice League is as an organization, or how pointless any superhero not named Superman is. All of them combined are but a bug next to the blue boy scout. That fact makes the first part of the overly long fight even worse as the rest of the League apparently are the worst strategists in history.

It ends as the comics did, which means there’s a part 2 coming next year: Reign of the Supermen. And they’ve set it up to play out just like the comics, which I’ve been told repeatedly by Superman fans is probably the second worst Superman story…after this one.

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Jun 192018
  June 19, 2018

de-havillandHer stage role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream led to the movie of the same name, and by the same director, and that led her to a contract with Warner Bros. Her later conflict with the studio resulted in a court case that gave all actors more freedom.

Her most frequent co-star was Errol Flynn. They worked together in eight films: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), Dodge City (1939), Four’s a Crowd (1938), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), Santa Fe Trail (1940), and They Died with Their Boots On (1941), and appeared separately in a ninth film, Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943).

She was frequently directed by Michael Curtiz, who she hated as a tyrant, though she admitted that he was a great director who know how to tell stories.

Two of her most acclaimed films don’t make my list. The Heiress gets by on one memorable speech, but the rest is slow and unengaging; it contains one of the worst performances in the golden age of film as Montgomery Clift searches for an accent. As for The Snake Pit, the music is bombastic and it is edited like a ‘50s exploitation thriller. It is one of those films that got credit for its social effect; it was responsible for improvements in the US mental health system. It was more important than great.

First, a dishonorable mention for her weak silly performance as Melanie in the atrocious Gone with the Wind (full review here).

And an honorable mention for The Dark Mirror, where de Havilland gives one of her best performances as a pair of twins, one evil. It gets a bit silly and becomes far too predictable, but it has a nice Noir style.

#8 – Light in the Piazza (1962) — A surprising good film they’d never make today. Olivia de Havilland plays the mother of a girl whose brain injury keeps her as a mental ten-year-old. Now beautiful and in her twenties, she catches the eye of a rich and suave Italian who is attracted to her love of life. de havilland wins on acting, but Yvette Mimieux and George Hamilton steal the picture based on pure charisma. This is a thoughtful and romantic film.

#7 – The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) — The least of the major British-in-colonial-India adventure films, mainly due to the weak romance (poor Olivia de Havilland gets stuck with the worst role of her career). It is also bizarrely historically inaccurate (they didn’t even get the guns right, much less the reason for the charge) and the production was so vile it caused animal welfare laws to be passed. But Errol Flynn is charming, the combat exciting, and it all looks spectacular. [Also on the Errol Flynn list]

#6 – Four’s a Crowd (1938) — Errol Flynn is a charming cad who runs positive PR for the worst people and de Havilland is the spoiled and silly daughter of one of those terrible people. It’s a romantic comedy that also includes Rosalind Russell and Flynn & de Havilland’s frequent co-star, Patric Knowles. [Also on the Errol Flynn list]

#5 – My Cousin Rachel (1952) — A gothic love story and mystery. Is de Havilland a murderess or is Philip just a fool? Well, Philip is certainly a fool in any case. Richard Burton seems too old for the part of a naive youth (Burton never appeared young), but is still compelling. de Havilland is stunning, and I can believe Philip falling instantly for her.

#4 – It’s Love I’m After (1937) — An unfairly forgotten farce, with Leslie Howard as a ham actor in a tempestuous relationship with Bette Davis’s equally over-the-top actress. (It was their third collaboration). Olivia de Havilland, looking like a teenager, plays a girl obsessed by Howard’s Basil Underwood. Both Howard and Davis are naturals at playing hams.

#3 – The Great Garrick (1937) — One of the best comedies of ’37, in which a band of French actors attempt to humiliate the English star David Garrick by pretending to be all of the workers and guests at a country inn, but things become complicated when an unconnected woman (Olivia de Havilland) stumbles into their performance. The supporting cast, including Edward Everett Horton, are as good as the leads.

#2 – Captain Blood (1935) — The first of the de Havilland/Flynn films and the first true Swashbuckler of the Sound era. Errol Flynn is a physician forced into piracy and she’s the governor’s daughter. (Full Critique) [Also on the Errol Flynn list and Basil Rathbone list]

#1 – The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) — The greatest classic Swashbuckler and one of the Best films ever made. It is beautifully shot, with a wonderful score and a strong supporting cast, including de Havilland. It is here that Errol Flynn became an icon. (Full Critique) [Also on the Errol Flynn list and Basil Rathbone list]

 

Back to all Best Films By The Great Actors Lists

Jun 142018
  June 14, 2018

Music can make or break a movie. This was unknown in the late 1920s when talkies began; it was assumed audiences wouldn’t accept music without an onscreen source. But they learned, and film became better for it. I wanted to take a look at my favorite film composers (and simply figure out who are my favorites).

I’m saying “favorite” instead of “best” because I don’t feel I have the qualifications to say the latter. I’m reasonably knowledgeable on film and feel confident in making qualitative statements on the art form, but I haven’t studied music and don’t know the language nor the nuances. I can say how a piece of music affects the plot or emotion of a film, but I don’t want to limit this discussion to how well a score worked in a film, so “favorite” it is.

I started going the standard route and making a top 10, but my list grew to more than ten, and I found myself comparing composers I’d rather separate—particularly when the 3 fighting for the top spot were each from a different era. So, I ended up with a top 6 list (six seemed like a nice number) for each of the Golden, Silver, and Modern ages.

The Golden Age
The Silver Age
The Modern Age


 

My Favorite Golden Age Composers

The Golden Age of Film Composition roughly equates to the Golden Age of Hollywood, running from the very late 1920s to 1960. It was a time when studios controlled filmmaking and composers worked on a weekly salary, rattling off scores on an assembly line, without any ownership of their work. It was also a time when these composers were assured of work, had studios and musicians on hand to work with as well as other composers to bounce things off of. And since the studio owned all, composers could take a melody from one work and insert it into another, giving it their own spin, or six composers could all work simultaneously on a score. This meant that low budget films could have amazing scores that aren’t possible today.

The studios rejected modern (for the 1930s) symphonic music trends, as well as pop music (except in musicals), instead bringing back a more romantic orchestral style.

Another way to define The Golden Age would be as the era of Max Steiner. No one really knew what to do with music when the talkies began—notice how many films didn’t have any. Producers thought audiences wouldn’t accept music without a source, and besides, if there’s dialog, what do you need music for? It was Max Steiner who answered that question with his score to King Kong. Music could mirror, magnify, or simply create the emotion needed for a scene.

Honorable mentions go to Dimitri Tiomkin (High Noon) and Miklós Rózsa (The Thief of Bagdad), the two members of the Golden Age pantheon of film composers who didn’t make my top 6.

My Top 6:

Max Steiner

(The Big Sleep, Adventures Of Don Juan, King Kong)
A child prodigy and grandson of Richard Strauss, Steiner was conducting by age twelve, and composing by fifteen. His career took off in London, but WWI forced him to move to the US where he was a successful conductor of Broadway shows before moving to Hollywood in ’29 and setting the course of film music for the next thirty years. Some later critics have derided him, the Father of Film Music, for sticking with the rules, but then, they were his own rules.

 

Franz Waxman

(The Bride of Frankenstein, The Philadelphia Story, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde)
Classically trained, but also skilled in pop music, Waxman worked as an orchestrator in the German film industry until he was attacked by Nazis due to his Jewish heritage. James Whale knew of his work in Germany and brought him in to score The Bride of Frankenstein. For a time he was the head of Universal’s music department, but he gave that up to focus on composition.

 

Bernard Herrmann

(The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, North by North West, The Day the Earth Stood Still)
Herrmann was know for being brilliant, having an economic style, and being a pain in the ass. He hated title songs for movies, so wouldn’t do them. He was known to belittle his colleagues and was disliked by several of the other composers on my list. He made his name as a conductor and composer on radio, where he worked with Orson Welles and it was Welles who pulled him into Hollywood. Later he worked with Hitchcock, creating some of the most honored scores ever, and greatly enhancing the films. In the late ‘50s and ‘60s he composed a series of memorable works for science fiction and fantasy films, but after he fell out of favor, both due to his refusal to change with the times and his abrasive personality.

 

Alfred Newman

(The Mark of Zorro, The Prisoner of Zenda, Airport)
Another child prodigy, Newman’s best known work now is the 20th Century Fox Fanfare (you know, how Star Wars starts…). Growing up in a time when everyone wasn’t insane about keeping children wrapped in cotton, Newman was a paid classical pianist at twelve, on the vaudeville circuit when he was thirteen, and an orchestra conductor at fifteen. He worked with the best of the best on Broadway, and accompanied Irving Berlin to Hollywood in 1930, where he became the Godfather of Film Music. He is almost the anti-Herrmann, as he was known to be polite and generous, with the ability to change his style to fit the occasion, and was respected and held in awe by those who worked under him. For decades, his was the last word in film music (even over Steiner).

 

Hans J. Salter & Frank Skinner

(The Wolf Man, The Son of Frankenstein, Creature from the Black Lagoon)
Skinner was a swing-band composer from the Midwest while Salter was a classically trained Austrian who’d come to California to escape the Nazi’s, and they meshed perfectly. The team collaborated on dozens of films while under contract with Universal pictures, who then reused their melodies in many other films (later Mummy and Sherlock Holms movies simply repeat their earlier scores). It is difficult to say how much of Universal’s music of the ’30s and ’40s they were responsible for as they went uncreditied–and when credited, the credits are often wrong, naming only one or the other–but several hundred is a good guess. They were the backbone of Universals music department and wrote for all genres (Salter was proudest of his work in musicals), but it is their work in 1930s/40s monster movies for which they are best remembered now. Each was later nominated for Academy Awards, but that work wasn’t as innovative as their incredible earlier works.

 

Erich Wolfgang Korngold

(The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, Captain Blood)
Yes, yet another child prodigy—Mahler declared him a genius at age 9, he composed a ballet at 11, and his operas were in production by the time he was 18. He was an acclaimed classical composer. When asked to compose for film, he was excited by the prospect, as it was a new form, yet romantic like his opera work. Famously, Robin Hood saved his life as the job caused him to get on a train right before the Nazis came. Korngold was a different level for film scoring and changed how film scoring was seen—people now accepted it as art. He worked differently than most film composers, without synchronizing points; he simply watched the film and composed. No one has ever done it better. He is the inspiration for the best modern film composers (John Williams has stated that his Star Wars scores were directly influenced by Korngold).

 


 

My Favorite Silver Age Composers

The idea of a “Silver Age” of film music can be considered a marketing gimmick. The term was apparently first used by a CD house as a way of grouping ‘60s and ‘70s scores in sales brochures, but it is a useful distinction. The Golden Age was defined by a style of romanticism and by creation under strict control by the studios. The Silver Age, then, was when composers broke free of studio control (as well as support) and when jazz became a major factor. Scores tended to either be influenced by pop jazz or be written for the sweeping dramas that were popular at the time. If the Golden Age was the era of Max Steiner, then the Silver Age was the era of Henry Mancini. It faded out when John Williams became the most prominent figure.

Honorable mention goes to Earnest Gold (Exodus), who could never repeat that success.

My Top 6:

Neal Hefti

(Barefoot in the Park, How to Murder Your Wife, The Odd Couple)
It doesn’t get more Silver Age than Hefti. His background was not in classical music, but as a swing and jazz trumpeter. He played with Woody Herman and wrote the arrangements for Count Basie, before leading his own big band. He wrote both for film and television, always with a light, springy flair. His most significant impact on pop culture was the theme to The Odd Couple—that played non-stop for the entire ‘70s—and the theme to the TV show, Batman. (Note: Hefti has a version of The Odd Couple theme with lyrics… Avoid it).

 

Maurice Jarre

(Lawrence of Arabia, The Man Who Would Be King, Lion of the Desert)
Jarre trained at the Conservatoire de Paris; he was an orchestral composer, though strangely turned to synthesizers in his later years. It was his early work that defines him. He continued well into the Modern Age, but in the end it is all about one movie, and really, one theme. He’s the man who wrote the notes that will describe T.E. Lawrence for eternity, and that’s not a bad legacy.

 

Akira Ifukube

(Godzilla, The Three Treasures, Children of Hiroshima)
Radiation exposure forced him to abandon physical labor and become a composer. Brought up around the traditional music of Japan, Ifukube merged this style with Western classical music. He was mainly interested in creating orchestral works, but he took on work in the film world and had a particular flair for marches. While he composed for 250 movies, in the West he is almost exclusively known for his Godzilla scores.

 

Henry Mancini

(The Pink Panther, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, A Shot in the Dark)
That he played with the Glenn Miller Orchestra should surprise no one. That he learned film composing under the care of Hans J. Salter & Frank Skinner (check out the Golden Age above) as part of Universal’s in-house team is far less obvious. He supposedly had a good deal of input on the score for The Creature From the Black Lagoon. But his swing/jazz side re-emerged while writing pop songs and teaming with Blake Edwards on a series of comedies.

 

John Barry

(Zulu, Goldfinger, Body Heat)
Barry is the man who put James Bond to music. He was a jazz trumpeter who picked up work as an arranger, and later composer. The Bond folks brought him in to fix the main theme (for legal reasons he is credited as the orchestrator on that song), and then a year later to step in for a pop musician who it turned out couldn’t read music. After that, the next eleven Bond films were his. His style was a blend of classical—particularly Russian classical—and jazz.

 

Elmer Bernstein

(The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Ten Commandments)
Bernstein arranged music for Glenn Miller before starting a career as a concert pianist, a career that was cut short by a call from Hollywood. However, the House Un-American Activities Committee derailed that for a few years until he was hired to score The Man With the Golden Arm, and ushered in the Silver Age. His twisting jazz was a revelation to the film world and made him much in demand. He was equally at home with large orchestras and epic themes, finding inspiration from Aaron Copland (who had championed him at a young age). His Western scores feel strongly of Copland. He in turn became an inspiration for Horner, Goldsmith and Williams of the Modern Age.


 

My Favorite Modern Age Composers

The Modern Age of Film Composition can be sloppy to define and it often simply means “after the studio system died,” but that leaves a lot of different styles, and a whole lot of time. I’m using the notion of a Silver Age, in which case, the Modern Age began in the late ‘70s. It was a time when jazzy scores were going out of style, and while a bit of electronica and rock were edging in. But mainly it was the return to the bold and thematic symphonic works that had marked the Golden Age. I connect it to the emergence of the tentpole popcorn film. The pivotal scores were not written for dramas, or war films, or religious epics as had been previously the case, but for science fiction and fantasy films. It is the age of John Williams.

I fear at times that the Modern Age has ended, and we don’t know it yet (Williams is no spring chicken) and the new age is one of pure bombast, with Han Zimmer as the new icon… And no one wants that.

Honorable mention: James Horner (Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan).
My Top 6:

Danny Elfman

(Batman, Nightbreed, Sleepy Hollow)
While the Modern Age composers tend to have classical training, Elfman is different. While expressing an interest in the earlier film composers, he came from a rock and ska band. He only wrote for film because his brother directed a low budget picture, but that lead to Tim Burton asking him to compose the score for Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure—the start of a long and successful collaboration. His scores feel one part Korngold, one part Silver Age Herrmann, and one part pop.

 

Alan Silvestri

(Back to the Future, The Abyss, The Avengers)
Silvestri is a prime example of the Modern Age, and follows in the footsteps of Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams, though he doesn’t go as strongly for the personal themes the way the others do, and so, is a touch less memorable. He is best known for his work on Robert Zemekis films, writing the scores for 16 of them.

 

Christopher Young

(Hellraiser, Hush, The Glass House)
Young was a jazz drummer before discovering the film scores of Bernard Herrmann. He created a “heavy” sound that he uses in many of his soundtracks. He primarily works on horror films. While effective, his works are not always memorable, blending together. His standout is his amazing work on Hellraiser.

 

Basil Poledouris

(Conan The Barbarian, Starship Troopers, Flesh & Blood)
The master of orchestral power, Poledouris took his inspiration from the Golden Age’s Miklós Rózsa. While he worked repeatedly with Paul Verhoeven, his defining collaboration was with writer/director John Millus (who was never accused of being subtle, or sane). Poldeouris’s brawny style fit Millus’s he-man sensibilities, resulting in his masterpiece, the score to Conan, which I judge as the finest score of the ‘80s, and arguably of the Modern Age. Unfortunately Poledouris couldn’t retain that level—there simply weren’t enough epic films. Imagine what he could have done with The Lord of the Rings.

 

Jerry Goldsmith

(Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Mummy, Patton)
Jerry Goldsmith started deep in the Silver Age—his soundtracks for the Flint films are filled with playful pop jazz that fits next to Hefti and Mancini. He had no problem diverging from the norm, such as with his score for Planet of the Apes and Alien. But in the end I had to place him on the Modern list as his best known score, that for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, is, after Williams’s Star Wars score, the work that most exemplifies the era. He started composing and arranging for CBS radio, and then Television, before turning to film in 1957.

 

John Williams

(Jurrassic Park, Star Wars, Superman)
As the defining composer of the Modern Age, Williams did it right, by training with the major figures of the earlier ages. As an orchestrator, he worked with the Golden Age’s Waxman, Herrmann, and Newman. As a studio pianist, he performed under the Silver Age’s Bernstein and Mancini. Skilled in Jazz, his earlier work leans toward the Silver Age, but he burst out with compositions that called back to the romanticism of the Golden Age. His style is a reflection of Korngold, while his philosophy his pure Steiner.

Jun 082018
 
one reel

A nun commits suicide at an abbey known for evil activities. The Vatican sends mystery-solving Father Burke (Demian Bichir) and clairvoyant Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) to investigate. The nuns of the abbey are all weird, some paranoid and abrasive and some ghostly and evil. Their only help comes from Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), a local who found the body of the nun. As soon as they arrive, a non-stop sting of random ghostly/demonic events occur, the sort that would lead anyone to get the hell out of Dodge immediately, but they stick around so that more random ghostly/demonic things can happen.

The Conjuring films, based on the writings of a pair of sleazy conmen who lied about “demonic activity,” were extremely successful, so New Line Cinema has made and is making a string of sequels and prequels, jettisoning the claim that any of this is true. The Nun is the latest, taking a minor evil from The Conjuring 2 and Annabelle: Creation and giving it a back-story. And you end up with what you’d expect from a cash-grab film in a lucrative franchise. It’s got a decent budget and a skilled cast and crew. The sets are great and they’re obviously using good equipment. And either these are great actors or director Corin Hardy knows how to milk the best from mediocre ones.

But with all that good stuff, we’re still stuck with a film that had no reason to be made. They didn’t have a story to tell. So they came up with a vague foundation, and then filled in most of the runtime with “evil stuff happens.” There’s no reason for any specific thing. The priest gets attacked early on and buried in a coffin. Why? Why not just kill him if you can dig a grave, drag a guy in, and fill in the dirt? Blood flows on the stairs, just because. Visions occur (so many visions), but except for one dealing with Mary, none of them matter. Some ghost nuns want to talk while other ghost nuns very much don’t. Why? There’s no way to tell if something is dangerous because anything can happen. I wonder if any of this stuff was scripted before they started shooting, or if they just came in each day and said, “Hey, what can the makeup people and set dressers do that will look cool or at least scary?” But it isn’t scary because it is so random. Horror needs a structure, and something approaching rules.

Also, if you are going to steal your big moment, steal from something better than a Tales From the Crypt movie.

They had everything they needed to make a first class horror film, except a story and a theme, and it turns out those are important.