Category: Essays

Apr 20 2014

‘The Big Trail’ on TCM

The defining word in the title of Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail is big. The 1930 drama built around a wagon train traveling the Oregon Trail from the banks of the Mississippi to the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest was the first outdoor epic of the young sound era of cinema. It’s a simple story with a vast cast of characters embarking on the promise of a new start in the untamed wilderness of the American west, led by a strapping, plainspoken young scout in buckskin named Breck Coleman. And it introduced American audiences to the actor who would become one of the biggest stars to ever dominate the big screen: John Wayne, who anchors the film in his first significant screen role as Breck.

The silent cinema had presented its share of grand western epics and pioneer odysseys, among them James Cruze’s The Covered Wagon (1923) and John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924) but nothing approaching that scale had yet been attempted since the transition to the talkies. Walsh had already embarked on Hollywood’s first outdoor western with In Old Arizona (1928), but he had to hand the directorial reins of that film over to another when he lost his left eye in a freak automobile accident; a jackrabbit jumped through the windshield of his car and he lost his left eye to the shattered glass. He was determined to make The Big Trail his own and he had big ideas for the film.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Plays on TCM on Monday, April 21

Apr 20 2014

‘Sagebrush Trail’ on TCM

John Wayne was a busy actor in the 1930s. After taking his first lead in the epic The Big Trail (1930), an ambitious early sound western that became an expensive failure for Fox, the strapping young actor was tried out in college films, sports movies, dramas, and comedies, but it was in westerns and action films where he found the success. He quickly established himself as a reliable young hero in dozens of low budget westerns, most of which ran under an hour. The double feature was coming into popularity and westerns were an inexpensive way to get a second movie on the bill, or even play top of the bill in rural theaters.

Monogram was just the company to supply those films and in 1933 they hired Wayne to an eight-picture deal. Sagebrush Trail (1933) was his second picture for Monogram.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Plays on TCM on Tuesday, April 22

Mar 28 2014

Animals to Arks, How ‘Noah’ the Movie Compares to the Bible

The new movie Noah, director Darren Aronofsky’s $130 million epic retelling of the story of Noah’s Ark and the Great Flood, carries this advisory: “While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide.”

Russell Crowe in Darren Aronofsky's 'Noah'

Noah has been banned in some Middle Eastern countries, and attacked by some Christian critics for taking liberties with scripture. Aronofksy told the New Yorker that “Noah” is “the least biblical biblical film ever made,” hardly the kind of comment to calm the faithful

Fair disclaimer, but it’s likely not one that will reach all filmgoers who see “Noah” with the expectation that the Aronofsky’s version will closely mirror the biblical series of events. For a little scriptural background and film fact-checking, Steven D. Greydanus, a film critic for the National Catholic Register and his own website, Decent Films, and a Bible student at the Archdiocese of Newark viewed the film before its release. The experts’ general verdict: there’s a lot that closely mimics the epic story, but some liberties are taken. Warning: Spoilers for the film obviously follow.

Is the word God missing from the film as some critics have charged?

No, says Greydanus. “For the most part, God is referred to in the film as ‘the Creator’ and this is a creative choice that I think does a lot for the film. It helps to defamiliarize the language somewhat, it makes the figure of God a little more mysterious to us.” But His name is clearly spoken when Ham, second son of Noah, says to Tubal-cain: “My father says there can be no king. The Creator is God.”

Continue reading at NBCNews.com

Mar 27 2014

Arnold Schwarzenegger tries to muscle his way from action hero to actor

Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of the savviest stars of his era. He carefully cultivated a screen persona built on his distinctive physique, his instantly recognizable Austrian accent, and a self-aware sense of humor behind his imposing muscles.

'Sabotage'

His characters were all variations on a theme. Whether he was Conan, the Terminator, the Last Action Hero, or a cop going undercover as a kindergarten teacher, he was still simply Ah-nold. It was a winning formula for a good long run, but Schwarzenegger’s star power was already fading when he turned to politics in the early 21st century, a dated relic in a movie culture looking for younger, fresher models.

So he’s trying something different with “Sabotage” (opening Friday), a hard-edged urban action thriller from David Ayer, who wrote “Training Day” and directed “End of Watch.”

Continue reading at Today.com

Mar 26 2014

‘Man of Iron’ on TCM

Not to be confused with the 1981 award-winning Polish drama of the same name by Andrzej Wajda, Hollywood’s Man of Iron of 1935 is the story of a well-liked shop foreman in a thriving machine works plant who is promoted to the front office and gets distracted by his new affluence and the plotting of a jealous rival. Based on the 1934 novel Story of a Country Boy by Dawn Powell, it stars Barton MacLane, a familiar face in Warner productions of the thirties, in his first starring role and co-stars Mary Astor and fellow contract players Dorothy Peterson (memorable in Hitchcock’s wartime thriller Saboteur, 1942), as the salt-of-the-earth wife that attempts to keep him grounded, and John Eldredge as the dandy of a front-office schemer. It runs a brief, busy 61 minutes.

Warner Bros. had just launched a low-budget unit under the supervision of Bryan Foy, one of the “Seven Little Foys” of vaudeville fame. Foy had left the stage for the movies in the 1920s, churning out comedy shorts and inexpensive features (including Warner Bros.’s first all-talking picture Lights of New York, 1928), and earned the name “The Keeper of the Bs” when he was promoted to the head of the B-movie unit at Warner. Man of Iron was one of the first films released under Foy’s watch.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Plays on TCM on Thursday, March 27

Mar 21 2014

‘Divergent’ battles to become next ‘Hunger Games’-style hit series

It’s easy to compare “Divergent,” which opens Friday, to “The Hunger Games.” Both are dramatic visions of bleak futures where society is segregated into social groups and a strong young woman must fight for her very life against her world’s restrictions.

But can “Divergent,” based on a best-selling three-book series by Veronica Roth, soar to “Hunger Games” levels at the box office?

Thanks to the runaway successes of “Hunger Games” and the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” films, every studio is desperate to establish its own young-adult franchise. Emphasis on the desperation. The failures outnumber the hits: “Beautiful Creatures” and “Ender’s Game” failed to connect, “The Chronicles of Narnia” fantasies and “Percy Jackson” young gods adventures fell off, and “The Mortal Instruments” is in development limbo.

Theo James and Shailene Woodley

To succeed where others failed, “Divergent” needs to avoid the pitfalls of the weaker franchises and learn the right lessons from the success stories.

Offer a strong, empowered female lead
Give credit to this new wave of YA franchises for the proliferation of roles for young women in dynamic, heroic roles. The superhero films haven’t offered much in the way superheroines yet (there’s Black Widow and …. um …). But “Harry Potter” gave us Hermione and “The Hunger Games” transformed steely survivor Katniss into a ferocious warrior. Tris, the young woman looking for her identity among the Dauntless soldiers of the “Divergent” world, is courageous, committed, and her own woman in a culture of conformity. She’d make Katniss proud.

Continue reading at the Today Show website

Mar 18 2014

‘Easy to Love’ on TCM

Easy to Love (1934) is the kind of witty drawing room comedy that Hollywood specialized in during the twenties and thirties, full of high society folks, brazen affairs, jealousy, romantic games, and risque wit, all swirling around bright, busy farce. Based on the 1930 Broadway play As Good as New, it’s set in the mansions and playgrounds of the urban elite, outfitted in handsome evening wear and gorgeous gowns, and filled with volleys of clever quips and veiled suggestions under the cover of social decorum.

Adolphe Menjou and Genevieve Tobin star as John and Carol, a seemingly happily married couple who spend their evenings in the company of Charlotte (an elegant Mary Astor), a beautiful artist, and Eric (the eternally hapless Edward Everett Horton), a fussy industry kingpin known as “the sardine king.” It’s quite a quartet: John loves Charlotte, Charlotte loves John, and Eric loves Carol. It would all be quite neat except that while John and Charlotte carry on a passionate and well-ordered affair, Carol still loves John and, after putting a private detective on the case, she makes her plan to win him back by fighting romantic fire with fire.

“The basic principle of good screen fare is the same as the basic principle of the solar system,” according to the film’s director William Keighley. “No matter what kind of stars you’re dealing with, you must observe the natural law of attraction and repellence.” In other words, casting is key.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Plays on TCM on Thursday, March 20

Mar 17 2014

‘The 10th Victim’: Give the People What They Want

Before The Hunger Games, before Battle Royale, before The Running Man, there was Elio Petri’s The 10th Victim. Based on Robert Sheckley‘s short story “The Seventh Victim” (Petri upped the body count), this 1965 feature is set in a near future of unlikely fashions and pop-art stylings, where comic books are the literature of the day and murder games have become the dominant form of media entertainment. The government-sponsored “The Big Hunt” is the original Survivor as a series of one-on-one bouts: “a real chase, a real victim and a real killing,” promises the cheery TV host as he outlines the rules for the home viewing audience.

Ursula Andress in 'The Tenth Victim'

It’s ostensibly “a safety valve for humanity” but Petri’s wry perspective reveals the activity as less primal scream than the logical evolution of today’s reality TV fad. The hunter is given a target and the victim has to be on guard to pick out a potential assassin from the crowd. These games don’t play out in a controlled arena but in the streets and sometime in the nightclubs of the real world, where the occasional civilian becomes collateral damage. And unlike the usual dystopian portraits of kill-or-be-killed games, which invariably play out as a form of punishment and social control by an oppressive regime, this game is completely voluntary. No surprise, there’s no shortage of competitors. The lure of celebrity, prize winnings and endorsement deals apparently trumps survival instinct. Or maybe it’s just a matter of a population so narcotized into numbness that they jump at anything that can offer them a sensation outside of their consumer bubble.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Mar 16 2014

Fernando Di Leo’s Anti-Mob Movies

'Kidnap Syndicate'

Fernando Di Leo, the godfather of the poliziotteschi (Italy’s brutal take on the crime thriller genre of the seventies), dismantled the anti-hero glorification of the mafia in the Milieu Trilogy—Caliber 9 (1972), The Italian Connection (1972), and The Boss (1973)—with an unflinching portrait of its corrupt values. There was no criminal code for these mercenary mafia soldiers and self-serving bosses, merely greed and survival (as discussed in yesterday’s Keyframe story on Di Leo). For his next bout with organized crime, Di Leo cast his lens beyond the insular mob world to the culture at large and found that corruption seeped into every level of law and order. While it’s not quite accurate to call Shoot First, Die Later (1974), Kidnap Syndicate (1975), and Rulers of the City (1976) a trilogy in their own right, together they offer a companion series to his mob trilogy where victims of the mafia’s indifference to civilian lives take on the syndicate. Not of idealism, mind you, simply out of vengeance and rage.

Shoot First, Die Later stars Luc Merenda as a hotshot cop on the Milan strike force. Young, good looking and always at the center of big, splashy cases, Domenico Malacarne is the department poster boy for police heroism and he kicks off the film with a ferocious car chase that rivals The French Connection. (It’s the first of two riveting sequences coordinated by French stunt driver Remy Julienne, both among most impressive car chases I’ve seen in seventies cinema.) Little does the media or his own father, a modest and idealistic career cop in a sleepy station in a Milan suburb, know that he’s on the take. Not until a request from the mob puts him in a compromising position and his father in the cross-hairs of the mob.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Mar 15 2014

Fernando Di Leo, in the Shadow of ‘The Godfather’

Fernando Di Leo was, in the estimation of genre-hound Quentin Tarantino, “the master” of the Italian crime movie, or the “poliziotteschi.” A violent action genre that picked up the escalating violence of American films like Dirty Harry and The French Connection, films where blood spattered and cops got their hands dirty, it was never as popular an export as the spaghetti western (which is displaced on Italian screens) or the giallo (which took the violence to surreal, sadistic extremes) but it sure put that distinctly Italian stamp on the genre. At its best, it brought the mercenary cynicism and greed of the spaghetti western into the contemporary urban milieu and, in the shadow of The Godfather, undercut the romantic notions of family and honor with a ruthless portrait of cutthroat underworld capitalism and unforgiving vengeance.

'Caliber 9'

The films of Fernando Di Leo are the poliziotteschi at its best and four of his films in particular dismantle the pulp glorification of the mafia: Caliber 9 (1972), The Italian Connection (1972), and The Boss (1973), which make-up his Milieu Trilogy, and his postscript Rulers of the City (1976). Like most directors in the industry, di Leo worked in the popular genres of the day, writing spaghetti westerns and directing a handful of giallo and sexploitation pictures before making Caliber 9, his first mob movie. It opens on a scene like something out of a spy thriller—packages passed from hand to hand, a covert trade-off in the subway, and back through the daisy chain of handoffs until the new package is brought back home—and Di Leo admires the precision of the operation. And then it all descends into startling brutality after the mob payout is stolen. It’s an inside job and everyone who touched the package is systematically tortured and murdered with a flamboyance that would be perversely comic (death by dynamite) were it not so sadistic. They’re not guilty, merely expendable.

And that’s just in the first act.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Feb 28 2014

Can DiCaprio beat McConaughey? Fearless Oscar predictions give awards an edge

This year’s Academy Awards, which air Sunday, is a real contest in most categories. Sure, Frozen has a lock on best animated feature and best song (just ask all those parents of young kids who still can’t “Let it Go”), while Gravity is a shoo-in for the technical categories.

The rest of the race is a little more competitive. Is the best picture battle coming down to the soaring space drama of Gravity vs. the grim historical events of 12 Years a Slave? Will Matthew McConaughey take home best actor, or does recent buzz for Leonardo DiCaprio hint at a surprise? Here are our predictions, all based on a mix of scrupulous research, previous winners, personal opinion, and pure speculation.

Matthew McConaughey in 'Dallas Buyers Club'

Best actor
America loves a comeback story and Matthew McConaughey is the story of the year. After coasting through endless romantic comedies and lightweight adventure pictures, he reinvented himself with a series a roles that cast his easy charm in challenging characters. Ron Woodruff in Dallas Buyers Club is the culmination of that transformation and it’s just the kind of character conundrum that Oscar loves to honor. But just when it looked like McConaughey had it in the bag, the buzz for Leonardo DiCaprio’s adrenaline-charged performance in The Wolf of Wall Street began to grow, at least as measured by the conversation on social media. And let’s face it, it takes real strength to sustain that kind of energy and compete with Scorsese’s runaway filmmaking.

Continue reading at Today.com

Feb 25 2014

Liam Neeson and Kevin Costner Bring Experience to Action Cinema

Liam Neeson in 'Non-Stop'

When did Liam Neeson, that Oscar-nominated rock of an Irish actor who starred in Schindler’s List and Michael Collins, become the toughest action hero of the day?

When actors pass 50 they generally transition into, let’s say, less physically demanding roles. You know, fathers and mentors and sturdy authority figures offering sage advice to the younger folk doing all the running around. But at age 55, Neeson took the lead in Taken as a retired special agent who cuts a violent swath through the French underworld to find his kidnapped daughter. He’s since led The A-Team, battled a pack of wolves in The Grey, and gone continental badass again in Unknown and Taken 2.

It turns out that old dogs can indeed learn new tricks and this month he’s got competition. While he takes on hijackers in a transatlantic flight in Non-Stop, a title that could just as easily describe Neeson’s reinvigorated career, Kevin Costner heads back into the field as a veteran Secret Service agent on the trail of a terrorist in 3 Days to Kill.

Continue reading at Today.com

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