11 March 2011

Media Month: February 2011

Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931): From early high school English classes through the entirety of my adulthood life, the “Universal Horror” film I’ve seen the most is unsurprisingly James Whale’s Frankenstein. Admittedly, it’s not a film I’ve always professed an open fondness for, but it’s a classic of its genre and its era that’s always been easy to appreciate and grows on one with time. The impressive art direction and production design set the mold for other standard “horror” films. If Whale doesn’t capture the exact scientific and philosophical dimensions of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, he does capture the conflicting emotions that surround dichotomies — life and death, homicide and self-defense, innocence and guilt, organic and artificial lifegiving, release and responsibility, etc. — and manages to turn one classic into new one. ★★★★½ (of five)

My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava, 1936): The infinitely charming William Powell is Godfrey, a “forgotten man” living with other neglected men near the city dump. He’s picked up by Irene (Carole Lombard), the younger daughter in a wealthy and obnoxious family, to be their new butler. (“Can you butle?” “Butle?” “Yes, we’re fresh out of butlers.”) The film is often referred to as an early screwball comedy, but it’s screwball in premise only; it’s better to consider this film a sly, stylish, and impeccably escapist Depression-era comedy of errors that jabs at the ineptitude and misplaced melancholy of the well-to-do. I won’t reveal the film’s pivot point, but knowing what you likely know about comedies of errors and mistaken identities, you can probably guess who has a surprise in store for the rest of the characters. ★★★★ (of five)

Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946): “I hate you so much that I would destroy myself to take you down with me”—if there’s a better line that encapsulates the essence noir, delivered with more firepower than Rita Hayworth brings to Gilda, I’ve yet to hear it. The screenplay, by Jo Eisinger and Marion Parsonnet, crackles with snappy dialogue, and it establishes a strong triangulated conflict between Hayworth’s Gilda, her ex-husband, Johnny (Glenn Ford), and his employer, Ballin (George Macready), Gilda’s new husband. The production values, including Rudolph Maté’s cinematography and the numerous costumes, are particularly noteworthy for their style. Hayworth is absolutely stunning in Gilda and brings to the film a disarming amount of eroticism and sex appeal. But what makes the role one for the ages is not just that she looks nice but that she plays dirty. ★★★★½ (of five)

The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1948): Welles’ noir is another in the long line of director vs. studio skirmishes that marked the early part of his career. This time the feud was with Columbia Pictures, which meddled with the film’s final editing and tinged most of this love-and-deception story with damning averageness. Still, the film maintains what seems to be Welles’ frenzied, energetic imprint on the scenes themselves. And the film has its list of high points as well. Surely it must be one of the first depictions of a rendezvous in an aquarium, where there are startling juxtapositions of ugliness and beauty (Rita Hayworth contrasted with a moray eel, anyone?). The cinematography is also a typical Wellesian adventure, with oblique angles and impressive crane shots and moody lighting. The first forty minutes or so are routinely melodramatic, but in the film’s second half, the viewer can see what truly interested Welles about the project — the breakdown of language (the overlapping dialogue is a particularly nice touch) and the literal hall of mirrors that comes with romantic and relationship betrayal. The final moments are almost worth the wait alone, as Welles dives into one of the most avant-garde cinematic sequences to come out of a Hollywood studio before 1970. ★★★½ (of five)

The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980): Director David Lynch entered the mainstream with this tale of “John” Merrick, an Englishman with such severe deformities that worked in a carnival sideshow as the “Elephant Man.” Merrick, played with extreme poignancy by John Hurt, is rescued from the sideshow by Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) and exposed to the harsh realities of bourgeois society. The film is shot in stunning black and white and has impressive production design and makeup. As is par for the course with Lynch, there are a few wanderings down the rabbit hole in this story, but a surprising amount of the tension and examination stays surface level. The Lynchian motif of macabre-vs.-mundane circles back on itself as the film considers what it means to be exploited and whether a tolerance of exploitation shifts according to the perpetrator (and is Lynch a perpetrator of exploitation as well?), and as it considers how an outcast will always be an outcast, no matter how welcoming society seems. Perhaps it’s the fact that the experimental Lynchian elements are restrained that I’m led to wish he’d indulged his bizarreness a little more and let the simmering elements boil over. ★★★★ (of five)

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper, 1991): This documentary is a helpful, if at times irksomely self-mythologizing, secondary text to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 masterpiece Apocalypse Now. Bahr and Hickenlooper weave together interviews of the film’s central figures with Eleanor Coppoala’s filmed diary during the process of shooting Apocalypse Now. There isn’t a lot of thematic ground covered in Hearts of Darkness that can’t be deduced from a careful reading of Apocalypse Now, but the documentary functions on its own as a look into the turbulence of the creative process, particularly of those who become focused to the point of madness on achieving a certain artistic vision. The documentary’s glimpses of how Apocalypse Now could have been are more satisfying and thought-provoking than what was re-edited into the original for Coppola’s 2001 experiment, Apocalypse Now Redux. ★★★★ (of five)

Dexter (Seasons 1-3; 2006-09; Showtime): The television adaption of Jeff Lindsay’s novels about a blood splatter analyst with the Miami Police Department who’s also a serial killer himself is an addicting, satisfying romp through abnormal psychology. Dexter Morgan operates under a code of his deceased father, who taught him to let loose his inner darkness on the city’s worst of the worst. What I admire most about this show, now in its fifth season, is its tremendous sense of plotting—the writing crew certainly knows how to craft stories that span over multiple episodes and hook the audience. On an episode-to-episode basis, the writing can be a little too campy for its own good. (The voiceover, which I initially couldn’t stand, has grown on me out of exposure and exhaustion; I simply can’t think of any other way to give the audience that much access to Dexter’s inner monologues.) And of course I greatly admire Michael C. Hall, who perfectly straddles the line of civil and creepy. ★★★★ (of five)

Community (Season 1; 2009; NBC): One of the more inventive current network television shows begins rather formulaically but eventually finds its own voice by the end of the first season with meta-humor, parody, and a whole-hearted embrace of the quirky. That’s a good thing, too, because sustaining an entire television series on the odd characters and relationships that take form in a community college environment would have likely proved impossible. Instead, Community becomes a send-up of American entertainment that occasionally verges on absurdity. (One character, a student who possibly has Asperger syndrome and relates to the world through TV and film, becomes central to a GoodFellas spoof and is given the opportunity to say the line “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be in a Mafia movie” in voice-over while the screen freeze-frames on his face.) Why the show isn’t receiving more critics’ and industry accolades is beyond me. ★★★★ (of five)


Tony Dayoub 18 March, 2011  

I've been here a few times but haven't had the chance to say so yet: I'm glad you're back!

Excellent capsule reviews.

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