Jun 032018
 
three reels

In order to earn enough money to rescue Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), the girl he left behind, Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) teams up with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and they join a gang of bandits led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson). When the job goes south, they are forced to take on a more dangerous heist for mob boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), this time with the aid of Qi’ra, who now works for Vos, and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover).

By the time I post this, the world has formed its opinion on Solo: A Star Wars Story, and that opinion is “Meh,” Which is too bad as it deserves better. Not a lot better, but better. It is a fun actioner, with plenty of scenes of mayhem and explosions and shootouts, putting it far ahead of any recent Bond film. And it doesn’t make any big mistakes. It has far fewer flaws than most of the previous franchise films. Specifically, the acting is solid, which is something that a majority of Star Wars films can’t claim.

Still, it is hard to get passed how unnecessary the film is. It exists to answer questions I wasn’t interested in having answered or specifically wanted to remain unanswered. Where did Han and Chewbacca meet? Where did Han get his trademark gun? What was the Kessel run like? How did the card game that got him the Milenum Falcon play out? How did Han get his last name (I didn’t even know that was a question I wasn’t interested in until it was answered). If you were curious about any of these, then Solo is intended for you. I was not curious.

But then the Star Wars franchise is filled with films that are either unnecessary or damage previous films, or both. Only the original and The Last Jedi seem to avoid this, and I wouldn’t bet money on The Last Jedi. And Solo does little damage to the world, and only a bit more of Han (reducing his mystique and screwing with his arc in the first trilogy), and as this film is so easy to ignore, those end up having little effect, so we’re back at it being unnecessary.

But I get the “Meh” response. Solo avoids the lows of previous installments, but also never hits the highs. They’ll be no compulsion to fast forward through sections once Solo is available for home release—the way I assume everyone who still watches it does with The Phantom Menace—but also less of a drive to watch it at all. The words that keep coming to mind are “fine” and “satisfactory.” So, call it “Meh +.”

The basic story of a failed heist leading to a bigger heist and people and groups not being what they originally appeared is a workable foundation for a film. It isn’t novel, but is the stuff of a good old fashioned western. The characters aren’t terribly strong or interesting, but they aren’t (with the exception of an android that suffered under the rewrites) annoying either. Vos is a nasty villain, exactly the kind of part Bettany eats up, and Lando is goofy in a good way. My only complaint with the movie they made is that it is too dark. Gritty does not equal low light. Perhaps when they run the conversions for Blu-Ray someone will turn up the brightness a tad.

Of course the real problem is that this isn’t the movie they should have made. If Disney had to make a Han Solo movie, it should have been a comedy, and apparently that was the plan when Phil Lord and Chris Miller were directing. Han and space pirates lend themselves to comedy and you could have had a memorable film that found its own place in the Star Wars franchise. But executives got scared, and brought in workman director Ron Howard to make a safer film. It doesn’t look like much is left of the Lord/Miller take, except a few jokes (too few) here and there that are the best part of the movie. The failure of Solo is in imagination. Solo is a good movie and better than most action films, but it isn’t special. It takes no risks. It sits comfortably within the Star Wars canon, bringing in nothing new. Star Wars (A New Hope to you kids) was fresh and exciting. Solo is pleasant and predictable. It was tailor-made for the fanboys who were upset that The Last Jedi wasn’t exactly what they imagined when they were six. You should never give the fans what they want, and more often than not, they will decide they didn’t really want it after all.

May 052018
 

A top 10 list of superhero film scores is ever-so-slightly more meaningful than many other cinematic top 10 lists because it gives you the 10 scores to listen to–because that’s it. There are 10 good ones. After that, we’re pretty much done and even at 10 we’re starting to get a bit wobbly at the end (though the quality rapidly rises). Recent years has given us an amazing number of excellent superhero films, but not scores to go with them.

I evaluate superhero scores a bit differently than film scores in general in that they require memorable themes (instead of it just being a really good idea). A good superhero score can’t just be backing for the action. It needs to encapsulate the hero. The score needs a melody that defines the hero, or the villain, or the love interest, or perhaps the hero’s home. Better yet, all three, though unlike Star Wars, it is hard to find a score that does more than one of these. And I’m talking about an easy to recognize, catchy theme here. The score needs more than that theme, but without it, it fails.

I’m looking at original scores here, so Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t make the list. And don’t expect to see a sequel on the list that just rearranges themes used in the first film.

 

#10 – Supergirl (Jerry Goldsmith)


Goldsmith was given an impossible task: follow John Williams’s Superman score. Be like it, but different. He does an amiable job. His Supergirl theme is not as hummable as it should be, but it is decent, and the whole of the score works nicely as an imitation.

 

#9 – Captain America: The First Avenger (Alan Silvestri)


Silvestri did his homework. After listening to this I want to go sell some war bonds. We’re not going subtle here; this is all heroism and patriotism rolled up in an orchestral ball.

 

#8 – Wonder Woman (Rupert Gregson-Williams/Hans Zimmer/Junkie XL)


Gregson-Williams took the catchy electric-cello theme that Zimmer & Junkie XL had created for Wonder Woman’s overlong cameo in Batman vs Superman and made something artistic with it. His score has all of the goodness of Zimmer, with 80% less crassness.

 

#7 – The Incredibles (Michael Giacchino)


Jazzy and retro, this may be the most listenable score on this list separated from its film. Where it suffers is from being so derivative. John Barry turned down the job and it does sound like Barry’s understudy showed up to make as “Barry-like” a score as possible. But it has a nice swingy style and tells us who these folks are and what this world is.

 

#6 – Thor (Patrick Doyle)


Hey, what do you know, a score with multiple musical themes. Boyle’s work has all the heroics and twice the grandeur, while also being the most emotional score on this list.

 

#5 – The Shadow (Jerry Goldsmith)


This score stands out over others I rate higher because it has a greater influence on its film. Only my #1 has more. At times it feels like the film was written around the score. Luckily that works. The music feels more pulp then the rest of my choices, as it should, and is one of the two where darkness mingles with the heroism.

 

#4 – The Avengers (Alan Silvestri)


We all know it: The Avengers form a ring as the camera sweeps around them and the music soars. This is THE cinematic superhero moment. It doesn’t get better or more iconic and it wouldn’t work without the musical theme. This is heroism.

 

#3 – Batman (Danny Elfman)


And here’s our other score with a touch of darkness. That makes sense since the character of Batman was based on The Shadow. I like the themes better in the previous few entries, but Elfman’s overall score is such a perfect fit for Burton’s Batman that it rose a few ranks. (I did not take points off for the pop-rock songs that shouldn’t have been inserted into the film.)

 

#2 – The Mark of Zorro (Alfred Newman)


Yes, Zorro is a superhero, and no, that doesn’t let in every adventure hero. He has skills beyond human capabilities, he wears a costume complete with a mask, he has a secret identity, and he fights for goodness. If Batman is a superhero, then so is Zorro. And The Mark of Zorro‘s score is wonderful. Its only failing is being a bit repetitive, but then so are most scores.

 

#1 – Superman (John Williams)


There was never a question. Williams‘s Superman score stands as the greatest of the genre and nothing comes close. It’s easy to forget what a mess the film is. Part of that is due to Christopher Reeve, but the rest is the score. After the amazing opening, somehow I can even take post-acting Marlon Brando seriously for a few moments. There are so many great themes running through this score, including Superman’s (Main Title March), Lois’s, the villain’s, and even the Planet Krypton’s. This earns its top spot and I doubt it will ever be beaten.

 

May 042018
 

So, I was in a mood, so decided to escape with one of the most emotive film composers. He’s also one of the best; I only place Erich Wolfgang Korngold clearly above him. Williams’s music as made films work. Without the power of this themes, many of our modern film “classics” would just be nice. He made them something more. So, let’s get to the best. I will be counting franchises as a single entity.

 

#10 – 1941


Ah, time and fandom has not been kind to 1941, but if you want jaunty, military-type scores, it takes work to beat this.

 

#9 – NBC News


Yup, John Williams composed the NBC music theme, and it’s great. It was part of a package usable by related news organizations to give them a air of importance.

 

#8 – Harry Potter


Can you think of Harry Potter without hearing this music in your head? It is actually entitled “Hedwig’s Theme” which I find rather odd, but it has the right feeling of creepy and adventure so I suppose the name doesn’t matter.

 

#7 – Close Encounters of the Third Kind


1977 was a big year for Williams (more on that later). His beautiful score was needed for a film that picked a ridiculous pseudo-science topic that was all the rage amongst the stupid in the ’70s and wanted to elevate it to religious ecstasy. The music did the trick.

 

#6 – Fitzwilly


I’m guessing this is less well known. Fitzwilly is one of my favorite Christmas films and Williams’s score perfectly merges the upper class feeling with a touch of dishonesty and a lot of fun.

 

#5 – Raiders of the Lost Ark


If you are going to make an old fashioned heroic adventure, you need an old fashioned adventure theme. As soon as you hear this you know you are in for a good time.

 

#4 – The Olympics


Let’s face it, The Olympics aren’t really important, but they sure feel important with this music. Williams wrote at least four different pieces for four different Olympics. If I was separating out “songs” or breaking up franchises, he’d have two in the running from his Olympics works: Summon the Heroes (Atlanta) and Fanfare and Theme (LA), though the second is closer to an arrangement of a previous song, Bugler’s Dream.

 

#3 – Superman


No superhero score has come close to this one. And few heroic themes can compete. It’s easy to forget what a mess the film is. Part of that is due to Christopher Reeve, but the rest is the score. After the amazing opening, somehow I can even take post-acting Marlon Brando seriously for a few moments. Again, if I was looking at best Williams songs, this film would have three in the fight: Main Title March, The Planet Krypton, and the Love Theme.

 

#2 – Star Wars


Would Star Wars have become a cultural icon without Williams’s score? I doubt it. It embodies heroism, fun, and adventure. It makes things that would otherwise be silly seem reasonable and fun. It elevates everything. That opening announces that the cinema world has changed. Individual highlights include the Main Title, The Imperial March, Princess Leia’s Theme, and Duel of the Fates.

 

#1 – Jurassic Park


Of all of Williams’s works, this is the one I just sit and listen to. Of course it is amazing in the film. It has a touch of melancholy and a whole lot of wonder. Clearly Steven Spielberg had no interest in the “don’t play God” theme, but Williams put the nail in it. How can you not want to make dinosaurs that will kill you with that music playing. I want to create a few that will slaughter everyone right now.

Apr 282018
 
one reel

Batman interrupts Gorilla Grodd’s time-travel plot with the result that the gorilla, Batmaan, Robins 4, Alfred, Catwoman, Joker & Harley, and a bunch of other villains who get little screen time, are sent back to Japan. Batman shows up two years later than the rest. In that time the criminals have taken over with Joker as the lord of lords. The Robins have joined up with a ninja-bat cult. From then on it is punching, sword play, explosions, giant robots, and monkeys.

I assume the idea for this film came from a string of Batman of Shanghai shorts that were quite clever. How did they go so wrong? Batman Ninja is atrocious. It’s what you show someone if you want them to hate Batman, comics, superheroes, and anime. DC Animation had been having a rough patch but with the recent Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay, things were looking up. And then this happened.

If you’d previously enjoyed any of these characters, then prepare yourself for moron Batman and his zingy, upbeat son Damian Wayne, and of course, Damian’s intelligent monkey friend. Yes, that’s “monkey friend.” Finally, Batman gets the Speed Racer treatment, but not on as mature a level. I was waiting from Damian to gleefully say how great the Mach 5 is. Instead he happily yelled about the spirit of the monkey.

The dialog made me wish for a silent film. Everyone speaks in puns, clichés, and info dumps. We are well passed embarrassing here. Everything the Joker or Harley say is annoying and anything Batman says, including his bizarre soliloquies, are too stupid to let invade your brain. You’d do better blasting any random heavy metal album—it’s not as if anything said will make the picture make sense—as then you might construct a fun music-video. Magic bats attack. Wooden fortresses combine to make a giant robot. Alfred has acted as a butler for two years—possibly for Catwoman—for no reason. The Penguin has somehow found penguins in Japan which he keeps around ice (no mention of where he got ice from). The Joker is a skilled samurai. A ninja bat cult has a submarine. The Batmobile works without fuel. Monkeys leap on each others shoulders to form a super monkey. And it goes on like that. Things happens because they happen, not because it makes a coherent story or it fits the characters.

The anime-style animation is no help. Some of the basic design work isn’t bad, though it is used poorly. At times Batman Ninja is less of an animated movie and more a motion comic. Actually hand-drawing the frames might have helped, instead of what they did, which was doing some shading on computer graphics. Here and there I could see the potential—usually in those too-often still moments—that is never fulfilled. As a whole, it is ugly.

Batman Ninja isn’t a waste of time. It is so much worse. Want to keep kids away from comics? Show them this.

 Reviews, Superhero Tagged with:
Apr 272018
 
2.5 reels

The 19th MCU film finally brings Thanos (Josh Brolin) front and center. The Mad Titan sets out to collect the six infinity stones—the most powerful items in the universe—which will allow him to carry out his fiendish plan. Five of those gems have appeared in previous MCU films and two still remain on Earth, which is going to bring him into conflict with The Avengers, The Guardians of the Galaxy, and just about everyone in those previous 18 films (which is way too many actors to list here).

I consider myself a fan of the MCU movies and think each one is good. But Avengers: Infinity War is not a movie. It is half a movie. And I don’t mean it is incomplete the way Star Wars flicks are, but the way Lord of the Rings films are. Watching Infinity War is like watching The Two Towers without knowing anything about The Return of the King. The audience audibly moaned when the credits popped up.

Except it is worse.

Why? Because Infinity War is about gathering six magic stones, one of which can rewrite reality, and another can rewind time. That means until we are done, absolutely nothing is determined, and we are not done. Did a battle happen? Maybe. Maybe not. Did a character die? Maybe. Maybe not. No decision, no action, and no result are permanent. Nothing that happened in 149 minutes is set, and more than that, you will know for certain that at least part of this film will be undone. So nothing means anything and nothing has weight.

So, is Avengers: Infinity War good? I don’ know. And I won’t know until the untitled Infinity War Part 2 comes out next year. The best that I can say is that it is generally a lot of fun while watching. The action is well choreographed and there’s a lot of it. There are many funny moments (particularly with Thor), and the character interactions are enjoyable. So as a theme park ride, I recommend it. As an artistic creation, I’ll tell you later.

This is the most “comic book” of the MCU films: everything is bright and shiny and fast. There’s no time spent on slow development or movement or anything that isn’t part of the larger racing story. Characters say they should go to Place-B; next time they pop up on screen they are in Place-B. Multiple romantic relationships are presented as fait accompli. There is easily six hours more of this movie that we don’t see, containing what happened between the scenes. I’d have liked some of that, but I admit this way, it isn’t boring. A couple characters make some silly decisions clearly just to move along the plot—far too clearly as they aren’t hidden under explosions and punches—but those are minor problems (for now, until I find out what is real). The only thing that took me out of the film was a lack of nudity. Yes, I can accept super magic rocks but I cannot accept that Thor’s clothing doesn’t burn.

I felt cheated at the end. I rushed out to see Infinity War to avoid spoilers without knowing that it couldn’t be spoiled as nothing really happens. It would have been far better to wait a year and watch it all together.

[Update after Avengers: Endgame] Well, that was no help. Endgame did not correct any of the flaws of Infinity War, except it did finish the story. Generally, it made things worse. Multiple previous MCU movies were twisted around, having their character development or message reversed or ignored in Infinity War, and Endgame doubled down on that. The combined two part movie is lackluster and a weak finale to the original Avengers. The uncertain moments in Infinity War led to nothing of interest in Endgame. Finally, this franchise looks less like refreshing, exciting, fantasy pop art, and more like the giant ticking machine run by a mega-corporation that it is. Endgame, and thus, Infinity War, cannot even masquerade as being made for art or to tell a story. They were made to make money. Sure, movies generally are, but it’s nice if that’s a little less obvious, or at least if there is some secondary motivation visible.

Now with both finished, I rate Infinity War at 2½-Reels, and only that high because it is a film that loses too much when taken to a smaller screen. If you haven’t seen it, chances are you won’t be able to in a theater, in which case, think of it more of a 2-Reel film, i.e. good enough for free TV, but not something worth buying.

Apr 162018
 
3,5 reels

Amanda Waller (Vanessa Williams) reactivates the Suicide Squad, this time with Deadshot (Christian Slater), Harley Quinn (Tara Strong), Captain Boomerang (Liam McIntyre), Killer Frost (Kristen Bauer van Stratten), Bronze Tiger (Billy Brown), and Copperhead (Gideon Emery), to retrieve a magical device. It is of immediate importance to her, as well as to several major villains, and could be useful later to most every criminal alive. The team sets out in an RV, following clues to the object while fighting two teams of even greater deviants who are also searching for it. Should they fail, Waller will set off the explosives she’s placed in their skulls. To succeed they are going to have to kill a lot of people, but then, that’s what they like to do. [And that’s all I’m saying. Most reviewers are giving out spoilers, including what the squad is going after, why, and specifically who they meet, all of which is better left unknown.]

Who’d have thought DC could get tone right? The previous attempts at Suicide Squad movies (Batman: Assault on Arkham and Suicide Squad) had some good points, but failed in important ways. What was needed was a lack of restraint. If you are going to make a film about villains being forced by a villain to fight other villains, then you need to wallow in it. Forget juvenile comic book morality as well as redemption arcs and heroics. Everyone involved is sick and twisted, so let them show that off in all its grunge-tainted glory. And that’s exactly what we get. Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay is exploitation gold (or pyrite as gold is not the target) and a schlocky good time.

It starts with music straight out of Rodriguez & Tarantino’s Grindhouse (along with faux scratches in the film in case you missed the idea) and that sets the right tone. The whole film feels like what you’d get if those two filmmakers made a DC flick—and now I really want them too. This is gory, violent fun, pure and simple. It’s just about taking a road trip with some disturbed people as they run into even more disturbed people. And there’s none of the normal comics purity to get in the way. People die. Lots and lots of people. And they bleed. If this was live action it would earn its R-Rating. As animation, and not particularly good animation (though not bad enough to be annoying), it should have been given a PG13 as the gore is not going to upset anyone. But if you describe the decapitations and impalings, you can see where the R came from. And While Hell to Pay leans into violence more than sex, at least it doesn’t feel prudish. There’s also a lot of humor, so somebody learned their lesson about dark things not needing to be dour.

This is the busiest film yet from DC Animation. A lot happens, but it isn’t rushed. There’s a large cast of characters, all with their own personalities, motivations, and ticks, multiple battles, intertwined story lines, a great deal of movement, and even non-violent character interactions, and it fits together nicely. The trick was giving us only what we need. There’s no long character introductions (or the three intros we got for each of the major players in the live action Suicide Squad) or pointless conversations. There’s no fat.

While a return to form for DC Animated Films, Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay isn’t flawless. Two issues drag it down. The first is common to all DC team-ups: They can’t work out the power levels. Since some characters are massively stronger than others, the only way battles can work is if the most powerful characters act stupidly. Notice how Superman had to be otherwise engaged, or dead, during most of Justice League so there was some point to Aquaman being around to punch things. It is a tricky problem, so these filmmakers, as always, took the easy way out. To get Harley into the fray with her baseball bat, Deadshot has to pause before shooting and Killer Frost has to do nothing half the time. There’s no way Harley would get a chance to do anything if Frost just froze everyone, so she doesn’t. And this is far too noticeable.

The other major issue appears with all Suicide Squad appearances: They aren’t an interesting group. Captain Boomerang is tedious (in the comics and movies) and this incarnation’s noble bad guy— Bronze Tiger—barely counts as a character. He’s a martial artist. Wow. Harley can be fun, and for this grouping Copperhead and Killer Frost are fine in supporting roles, but the others are drab, making the team drab. The biggest problem, as always, is Deadshot. He may be the least interesting character DC ever created. I don’t care about his daughter fixation and “he shoots good” is not special in a world of gods and monsters. DC keeps wanting to turn him into an anti-hero that we care about (see the live action Suicide Squad) and that doesn’t hold up. But since he is so dull, he’s easy to write for (making a coherent plot for Harley would be difficult as she has no interest in acting coherently). So we get a lot of Deadshot, and I never want a lot of Deadshot. If they’d dropped him (and Boomerang and Tiger) and slotted in a few more colorful villains, it would have been more fun.

But they used who they used, and with this crew, they did very well. When considering the overall quality, my rating is a bit generous, but I’m concerned with if you should see the film, and the answer is that you should.

 Reviews, Superhero Tagged with:
Apr 072018
 
one reel

Forty years after Michael Myers went on his one and only killing spree, a pair of stereotypically douchie podcasters get access in Michael in the asylum he’s been locked up in all this time. Because we know it is a stupid thing to do, they bring with them his mask. Soon after, the bus transferring Michael crashes and he escapes to randomly run into those podcasters. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), who is mentioned to NOT be Michael’s sister, has turned into an angry prepper. She’s estranged from her daughter, Karen (Judy Greer) because of her combat-training version of motherhood and has a difficult relationship with her granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak). Allyson’s father is awkward and her boyfriend is a jerk and this and that that don’t matter but fill up about 30 minutes of screen time. Eventually Michael starts killing people, most of whom don’t have any relation to the plot, but also a babysitter who happens to be Allyson’s best friend as the universe thrives on coincidences. Naturally this leads to a battle between the Strodes and Michael.

Can I call it a major flaw of Halloween 2018 that it is a sleazy cash-grab when Halloween II, 4, 5, 6, H20, and Resurrection, along with the unnecessary Rob Zombie remakes, are already clearly sleazy cash-grabs, and the original was sold as “Murderer stalks teen babysitters”? It isn’t as if the whole franchise isn’t a sleazy cash-grab, but it stands out so in this case. Perhaps if writer/director David Gordon Green and his co-writers Jeff Fradley and Danny McBride had anything to say about middle-aged PTSD Laurie Strode, the cash-grab nature wouldn’t stand out so. Maybe if they hadn’t already made a sequel where they brought back Curtis as a troubled Laurie and ignored most of the previous sequels, but that was H2O. Maybe if this film didn’t make constant references to the sequels that are no longer cannon (though I found those the most amusing part of the film). Though really, it was always going to appear to be a sleazy cash-grab because that’s what it is.

This film has nothing to say and little to do. It just had a bigger advertising budget. I’d have thought it might have gone the feminist empowerment route, but nope. In fact it is shockingly weak there. With 40 years to prepare, shouldn’t Laurie be more prepared, or more badass. Sarah Connor she’s not. OK, so if the film isn’t going that direction, then it could go into realistic territory and delve into trauma. But nope, there’s only lip service—lots and lots of lip service. At least they could have chosen one of the female characters to be the lead instead of flopping around between them. Hell, you pay for Jamie Lee Curtis, you stick with Jamie Lee Curtis.

I wonder if it might have been better to leave out the theme music. That music is so good, and the rendition in this score so well rendered, that it makes the film’s lacking in every other way so much more obvious. Every time that music starts for the briefest moment if feels like Halloween might be something. And then it isn’t.

The other films in the franchise are Halloween (1978), Halloween 2 (1981), Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988), Halloween 5 (1989), Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995), Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (2002), and the remakes Halloween (2007) and Halloween II (2009).

Mar 252018
  March 25, 2018

howardhawksHawks has the most masculine style of any of the great directors. His films were about men and for men. The relationships that matter were between men, and the only way a woman could have power in a Hawks film was by taking on masculine traits and becoming one of the boys. Thus was born the Hawksian Woman, best fulfilled by Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Barbara Stanwyck and Lauren Bacall. In a sideways fashion, this made Hawks a (occasionally) feminist director. This testosterone-drenched style can become obnoxious in a very serious film, but worked great with humor.

Besides his manly-man style, and those aggressive Hawksian women, he was known for his quick dialog—with actors often speaking over each other—and his willingness to take on any genre. He made westerns, Film Noirs, comedies, musicals, war films, gangster films, action movies, dramas, and maybe a science fiction film (see the honorable mention).

Like Hitchcock, Hawks had a tendency of remaking his own films. A Song is Born (1948) is a remake of the far superior Ball of Fire. Rio Lobo (1970) is a rough remake of El Dorado (1967) which is a rough remake of Rio Bravo (1959).

Honorable mention for The Thing from Another World (1951), for which he is uncredited, and may or may not have directed.

#8 – El Dorado (1967) — Hawks worked best with humor. Rio Bravo took the plot seriously and it is hard to sit through. For El Dorado he shot the same plot, but with everything lighter and a good number of jokes.

#7 – Ball of Fire (1941) — A screwball comedy with Gary Cooper as a hopelessly naĂŻve professor researching slang and Barbara Stanwyck as a showgirl in need of a place to hide. The plot fizzles at the end and Cooper is miscast, but Stanwyck sells the show. [Also on The Great Actors List for Barbara Stanwyck]

#6 – I Was a Male War Bride (1949) — No one starred in more good films than Cary Grant. This one is fluff, but it is fun fluff, with Grant as a French soldier who marries an American and then tries to get to America on a law that assumes the spouse will be female.

#5 – Bringing Up Baby (1938) — THE iconic screwball comedy sees the nearly sociopathic Katharine Hepburn tricking the drab Cary Grant into helping her retrieve her leopard. [Also on The Great Actors List for Katharine Hepburn]

#4 – Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) — You can spend days analyzing the subtext of this Jane Russell/Marilyn Monroe musical, which ends with Monroe’s Lorelei Lee giving a defense of gold digging that is impossible to refute. The Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend number has become iconic.

#3 – To Have and Have Not (1944) — “You just put your lips together and blow.” Humphrey Bogart fell in love with his young costar, Lauren Bacall, and so did I, and Hawks found his ideal Hawksian Woman. [Also on The Great Actors List for Humphrey Bogart]

#2 – His Girl Friday (1940) — Who’d have thought gender-swapping one of the leads in a dramady newspaper play would produce this brilliant work. It has all the meaning and fun of the original, and extra layers of romance and feminism. It is extremely fast paced and very funny. Cary Grant excels as a fast-talking (very fast-talking) cad and Rosalind Russell is his equal. [Also on The Great Actors List for Cary Grant]

#1 – The Big Sleep (1946) — Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall make film magic and Hawks sculpts it all perfectly. This is my go-to film. I may have seen it more than any other. It is a joy, yet it still qualifies as Film Noirs. It’s funny, violent, twisted, nasty, and a great time. (Full Critique) [Also on The Great Actors List for Humphrey Bogart]

 

Mar 222018
  March 22, 2018

GeorgeCukorCukor was known as “the woman’s director” as he had a reputation for getting good performances from actresses, but he could have earned the title because of his focus on films targeting women: romances and melodramas. His pictures heavily featured the social elite and often compared life with a performance. He’s a fine director, but I’ve never found anything outstanding about his skills. Rather it was in collaboration (with writers, cinematographers, and actors) where he excelled. His greatest artistic success came from his collaborations with Katharine Hepburn.

An honorable mention for his week as director on The Wizard of Oz and for him getting fired from Gone With the Wind for telling David O. Selznick, accurately, that the script was garbage. And then there’s My Fair Lady. If I’m being fair, it should appear on the list below, and above the 8th slot. But no matter how good it might be, I’m always hit on how disappointing it is. It is good, but it should be much better. The ending is wrong, the sets are poorly designed, the “Get Me To the Church” number is far too long, and Audrey Hepburn isn’t Julie Andrews.

So, the top 8 Cukor films that aren’t disappointing are:

#8 – A Double Life (1947) — It won Ronald Colman a best acting Oscar. He plays an actor who is far too method, so playing Othello turns out to be a very bad idea.

#7 – Pat and Mike (1952) — The 1st of four Katharine Hepburn film on this list and the 1st of two Hepburn/Tracy films. It tries to wave a feminist flag, but in 2017, it feels like it does the opposite. Still, it has some funny moments. [Also on The Great Actors Lists for Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn]

#6 – Adam’s Rib (1949) — Another Hepburn/Tracy film, this one setting them as competing lawyers. The best bits come from a young Judy Holliday as the defendant who shoots her unfaithful husband. [Also on The Great Actors Lists for Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn]

#5 – Les Girls (1957) — Cukor’s first “normal” musical (as A Star is Born is a tragic drama first) isn’t all that normal as it’s primarily a comedy, one with an art film basis. It was Gene Kelly’s last MGM musical, and it’s smart and fun. (My review)

#4 – The Women (1939) — An all female cast made up of most of MGM’s big names deal with male infidelity, pettiness, and backstabbing. It sounds serious, but it’s mostly comic.

#3 – Dinner at Eight (1933) — MGM pulled out all the stops, combining all their biggest stars in one film: John and Lionel Barrymore, Jean Harlow, Marie Dressler, Billie Burke, Wallace Beery. It’s melodrama and comedy about the lives of sad people who mostly deserve their misery. As was usually the case, Cukor worried mainly about the acting, shooting it like a stage play. Luckily, he got some great performances.

#2 – Holiday (1938) — Often overlooked, this Grant & Katharine Hepburn romantic comedy has always been a favorite of mine. Grant plays a vunderkin whose set to marry the good sister of a high society family, but he wants more than money which doesn’t go over well with the family, except for black sheep Hepburn. This is where you go if you want depth and philosophy with your comedy. [Also on The Great Actors Lists for Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn]

#1 – The Philadelphia Story (1940) — This seems a case of Cukor getting out of the way of Katharine Hepburn’s vision. It is the essential romcom, and was the perfect vehicle for its three leads, Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, and Cary Grant. None of them ever had a role that more completely played to their strengths. This is as witty as film gets. [Also on The Great Actors Lists for Cary Grant, James Stewart, and Katharine Hepburn]

Mar 182018
 

AlfredHitchcockNormally my lists of the Best Films of the Great Directors will be top 10 lists, but for Hitchcock, I decided something more comprehensive was in order. He has plenty of masterpieces on his resume, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t a few misfires—quite a few actually. And a few real stinkers: Frenzy…Wow…Just…Wow. So in ranking Hitchcock’s films, I’ll stick with the good ones. The rest I’ll group either with the complete failures or with the also-rans. After all, it doesn’t matter that Secret Agent is worse than Topaz if you should skip both.

Another factor with Hitchcock is that he was not the most original of directors. When he found something he liked, he stuck with it. Many of his films are variations on a single story and single theme and employ the same plot devices. He would build tension in the same way from film to film, and use similar climactic scenes. These tendencies do effect my ranking. Young and Innocent would rank higher if The 39 Steps and North by Northwest didn’t exist (not to mention Saboteaur).

I’m sticking to English language, feature talkies; there are 44 of them.

Skippable: The Skin Game (1931), Rich and Strange (1931), Number Seventeen (1932), Secret Agent (1936), Waltzes from Vienna (1934), The Paradine Case (1947), I Confess (1953), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Marnie (1964), Torn Curtain (1966), Topaz (1969), Frenzy (1972), Family Plot (1976).

The Also-rans: Murder! (1930), Juno and the Paycock (1930), Sabotage (1936), Jamaica Inn (1939), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), Saboteur (1942), Lifeboat (1944), Spellbound (1945), Rope (1948), Under Capricorn (1949), Stage Fright (1950), The Wrong Man (1956).

Which leaves:

#17 – Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941) — Strictly work-for-hire, the plot—a stupid and rich couple find out they aren’t really married—is pure screwball comedy, but Hitchcock had little interest or skill with that subgenre so it comes off as an uneven amalgamation of styles. Robert Montgomery lacked the charisma to play such an idiot (Cary Grant could have done marvels with it, and did so in a similarly-themed film) and Hitchcock didn’t know how to work with Carole Lombard. It’s just amusing enough to separate itself from the also-rans.

#16 – Blackmail (1929) — I can’t call this a great film, but it is fascinating. Britain’s first “all-talking picture,” has silent segments, poorly matched dubbing, and generally bizarre sound. It also has all the suspense and voyeurism that marked Hitchcock’s career.

#15 – Young and Innocent (1937) — Hitchcock made a lot of semi-remakes of The 39 Steps. This one is closest in tone. Espionage has been replaced by a normal murder, but otherwise it’s much the same and equally as enjoyable. By the way, were there a lot of Blackface bands at fancy hotels in 1937? It’s a pertinent question.

#14 – The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) — Regular folks (well, regular rich folks) stumble into spies and an assassination plot. Their daughter is kidnapped and they set out to save her while staying very British. It’s a solid thriller, though only Peter Lorre and Cicely Oates, as the villains, are memorable. Points for lacking the song Que Sera, Sera.

#13 – The 39 Steps (1935) — The basis for the rest of his career, The 39 Steps is a spy thriller, as concerned with romance and marriage (and the trouble with that institution) as it is with suspense. Robert Donat is a bit dry for my liking, but is serviceable (and Hitchcock had plenty of chances to “re-cast”).

#12 – The Lady Vanishes (1938) — The Lady Vanishes is a fun spy romp, if uneven. As we know that the lady has indeed vanished, the thirty minutes of people saying she hasn’t get old, and the male lead is introduced as an ass, but eventually our couple get on the same page. While often pointed to as iconic Hitchcock, it is actually iconic Sidney Gilliat, a producer/writer/director—in this case writer. Two years later he would write the similarly-toned Night Train to Munich in the same shared universe, and include the comic characters Caldicott and Charters. He would later team with Frank Launder for a slate of comedies, including the St. Trinians films.

#11 – The Birds (1963) — As a whole I always find The Birds lacking. The characters are neither likable nor realistic, and incredibly stupid (maybe don’t ask “Why?” over and over of people who clearly don’t know). but it has moments that are some of the greatest ever filmed. The crows outside the school is enough to make this a must-see film.

#10 – Vertigo (1958) — Jimmy Stewart overacts and is miscast (Hitchcock blamed Stewart for the box office failure, and rightly so) and the early exposition scene is clunky (explaining to us what acrophobia is, their relationship, and that he’s quit the force even though the characters clearly would not be having the conversation at this time), but Kim Novak is solid (even if the director thought she was wrong for the part) and the colors sell the story. It’s Hitchcock finest use of color. The actors—and characters—can’t express the obsession the film wants to wallow in, but the cinematography can. Vertigo was pulled out of circulation for thirty years, so critics tend to overrate it, but it is still very good.  [Also on the James Stewart Great Actors List]

#9 – Rear Window (1954) — Hitchcock takes his obsession with voyeurism and makes it literal. As always Jimmy Stewart dialed it one notch too high (Hitchcock did little to direct him, letting him do as he pleased). The plot doesn’t matter. This is a film about watching a film.  [Also on the James Stewart Great Actors List]

#8 – Shadow of a Doubt (1943) — No spies here. This is evil slipping into a small town filled with innocent and stupid people. I find it the darkest of Hitchcock’s films because of that childlike world. Joseph Cotton often faded as a hero, but he simmers as the villain. The story maps on to Dracula, which gives it an extra layer. Like Vertigo, there are no surprises.

#7 – The Trouble with Harry (1955) — A very British comedy set in the US. Unlike Mr. & Mrs. Smith, this script plays to Hitchcock’s humorous strengths. The characters are quirky and exceptionally calm as they bury and rebury and re-rebury a body.

#6 – Psycho (1960) — I wonder if anyone nowadays understands the brilliance of the stunt-casting of Janet Leigh? Or if anyone at the time knew that Anthony Perkins would make such an impression as the killer that his career would never be able to escape it? Like The Birds, the parts are better than the whole, but those parts are fantastic. [Full Review]

#5 – Strangers on a Train (1951) —Farley Granger is the somewhat bland and angry hero who wants to divorce his cheating wife. Robert Walker is the psychopath who suggests they “trade murders” when they meet on a train. Granger’s work is very serious, but Walker inhabits an off-kilter world of pitch-black comedy. Hitchcock has never been sicker and more joyful.

#4 – Dial M for Murder (1954) — The perfect cozy mystery, its strength is in keeping the story focused and claustrophobic. It has been criticized (mistakenly) for its two greatest assets: not opening up the play and being very British. Ray Milland makes a wonderful urbane villain and John Williams is superb as the inspector. Both he and Grace Kelly would return the following year for the next film on this list. [Also on the Ray Milland Great Actors List]

#3 – To Catch a Thief (1955) — Cary Grant was Hitchcock’s best leading man, and here he is at his most Cary Grantish. This is Hitchcock in fun, adventure mode. Grace Kelly is one of the best of his icy blondes, and is a good equal for Grant. [Also on the Cary Grant Great Actors List]

#2 – North by Northwest (1959) — The culmination of Hitchcock’s career, it was all leading to this. He remade his innocent-on-the-run film until he got it perfect. This is perfect. [Also on the Cary Grant Great Actors List]

#1 – Notorious (1946) — Hitchcock’s masterpiece. A darker Cary Grant then normal, still charming, but with an edge. It’s spies and cruelty and self-loathing and love and it is remarkably moving. Ingrid Bergman is captivating and Claude Rains puts in another of his perfect supporting roles. [Also on the Cary Grant Great Actors List]

Mar 172018
 
two reels

A meteor strike on a lighthouse creates The Shimmer, an area of strange plant and animal growth. No one who enters has ever returned and no communication from within has been received. Then Kane (Oscar Isaac), who’s been missing for a year after entering The Shimmer, appears in his house and begins spitting up blood. His soldier-scientist wife Lena (Natalie Portman) is brought to the secret Southern Reach base, where they keep Kane in seclusion. Lena joins the next team that will be entering The Shimmer, along with psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), geomorphologist Cass (Tuva Novotny), and physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson). Once inside The Shimmer, they find mutated plants and animals everywhere, many dangerous, and little that makes sense.

I liked Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, but would never have chosen to make a movie from it. But then Alex Garland (late of Ex Machina) really didn’t. He made a movie of things he vaguely remembered from the book. The characters don’t feel the same, the plot is only loosely connected, and the theme is different. There’s really not much from the book except “weird area,” odd female team, and a lighthouse. Changing the story from that of the book was a good plan as I call it un-filmable as is, but Garland lacked a clear vision. He knew he wanted a cool looking Shimmer, but beyond that he never decided on a story.

His plot isn’t much: The team traipses through the mysterious land on their way to the lighthouse, and strange stuff happens. That’s OK. He didn’t need a lot of plot if he had something else to offer. Theme is the obvious place to go, and Annihilation has a theme: self-destruction. That’s rammed down our throats pretty hard. Great. But he has nothing to say about it. What about self-destruction? What insight does he have to offer other than the word “self-destruction”? Fine, films aren’t good with thought anyway; they are about emotion. But Annihilation doesn’t make us feel anything about self-destruction either. It is tense, and no doubt it will make many viewers tense, but “tense” is not the same as self-destructive.

To make us feel what it needed to, to feel something about self-destruction, Garland would have had to focus it through the characters, and that’s where things go really wrong. The characters don’t work. Lena is the major problem as she’s our portal, but we learn nothing about her. We spend a lot of time with her in an excessive number of flashbacks—I’m pretty sure there are flashbacks in flashbacks—but we get nothing from her in those. Portman plays it with maximum steeliness. We are not brought into her life, to feel what she feels and to empathize. We are kept on the outside, looking in, ticking off boxes. She’s a biologist; check. She’s had an affair; check. None of it means anything. We aren’t shown, but told (just as in an incredibly awkward conversation Cass rattles off each one of the women’s psychological problems—just telling us, not making us feel them). That doesn’t mean we aren’t shown that these women are a mess, but not in any way that relates to who they are and what they’ve gone through. They’re just all unstable. And as this is cinema, where realism rules unless shown otherwise, there really needs to be a reason why any of these five would be allowed to go on any mission. The actual reason for the character’s strange behavior—and I suspect many of the somnambulist acting choices—is that they acted odd in the book. They act hypnotized here because they were hypnotized in the book. But they aren’t in the film. That plot thread is missing. Likewise Ventress was creepy because she was using post-hypnotic suggestions to get the others to do problematic things—but that’s not in the movie. So they should have been behaving like humans, and having reasonable conversations. But oh well, that doesn’t happen.

Lena "doing" science

Lena “doing” science

The critics who like this movie keep saying this is “smart science fiction.” No. No it is not. There is close to zero science fiction in this film. It is fantasy. These scientists do not do science. Cass and Anya do nothing at all that could be considered competent. The only psychology Dr. Ventress manages is to blurt out that everyone is self-destructive. Lena just picks up samples, says the word “mutation” a lot, and looks at cells under a microscope that always are dividing when she glances. As for the physicist, her only contribution in the entire film is to say that The Shimmer is refracting everything, including genes. That’s not physics. That’s not a scientific statement. It barely has meaning at all, and the little it does have is poetic. That’s all fine, but these are supposed to be scientists doing…science, instead of whatever the hell it is they are doing. But then they have no plan of any kind. Really, they have no idea what they are doing, where they are going, what to do if something goes wrong, etc. (Maybe a planning meeting might have been a good idea.) This is not smart science fiction. It’s pulp adventure, more or less.

Garland had to come up with an ending as the book wasn’t going to help him there, so he did. He answered all the questions and ties things up. His answers don’t mean anything and his way of tying things up comes out of nowhere, is not earned, and screams of having no idea what to do with the material (which I’m sure is the case since Garland proudly said that he didn’t reread the book nor ever pick up the other two volumes). But I suppose having an ending is better than the alternative.

OK, it isn’t all a train wreck. There’s some fine art design involved with The Shimmer and the outdoor cinematography is generally very good. And as mentioned, it is tense. So if you want a dumb little dark adventure flick about dim unrealistic characters traveling through cool sets and fighting nasty mutants, then this will do. Looking for smart science fiction, or depth, or emotion, then you best look elsewhere.

Mar 062018
  March 6, 2018

maureen-oharaO’Hara was a young stage beauty when Charles Laughton became captivated by her eyes, put her under contract, and changed her name to O’Hara. While starting off her film career as a maiden in distress and a gypsy girl, she is best known for a stream of Swashbucklers. In each she played a “fiery” red head—a welcome change from the more timid female characters that filled the genre, but not entirely a successful one as these ended up more often annoying than strong. As such, only two of my top eight O’Hara films are Swashbucklers.

#8 – Jamaica Inn (1939) — An early Hitchcock thriller that has as much of Charles Laughton’s fingerprints on it as the director’s. It was O’Hara’s first big role and her first time using her screen name of “O’Hara” instead of “FitzSimons.”

#7 – The Spanish Main (1945) — A standard but enjoyable Swashbuckler with Paul Henreid as the noble pirate and O’Hara as her normal moody maiden. Call it a solid second tier adventure film. (Full Review)

#6 – The Quiet Man (1952) — An over-rated but still good dramady romance with John Wayne trying for a human role for a change and not quite making it. Romance, not to mention dramatic acting, was not in his range. Parts of the film are silly—the never ending fight and the cross-country dragging of O’Hara are the most obvious—but enough works, including O’Hara, to make it a fun film.

#5 – At Sword’s Point (1952) — A surprisingly good Swashbuckler considering the silly premise. The sons and daughter (O’Hara) of the original Musketeers must save France once again.

#4 – The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) — Charles Laughton again dominates a picture on this list, at least behind the scenes. He brought O’Hara into the production, and she outshines him. This is the best adaptation of the novel, and the one that influenced all those that followed.

#3 – The Parent Trap (1961) — A joyful family film that’s funny and romantic while escaping the saccharine tones that infected so many Disney films of the time. Hayley Mills plays identical twins attempting to reunite their divorced parents, Brian Keith and O’Hara.

#2 – Our Man in Havana (1959) — A darkly comedic satire on spies and politics, shot in Cuba just after the revolution. Alec Guinness stars as a vacuum cleaner salesmen who fakes being a spy. O’Hara is his assistant, sent from London to help him in his “fine” work. (Full Review)

#1 – Miracle on 34th Street (1947) — A Christmas classic. O’Hara is one of the romantic leads as a mother who doesn’t want her child to be raised with fantasy, but is overshadowed by Edmund Gwenn’s Kris Kringle. (Quick Review)