Category: Essays

Oct 07 2014

‘Destroy All Monsters': Rumble in the Jungle with Godzilla and Friends

The original Godzilla (1954), especially the original Japanese release, is more than a mutant monster movie of the atomic-scare fifties. It is a stark disaster thriller that evokes the terrors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the lingering poison of the nuclear radiation. The two destructive forces come together in a screaming atomic lizard, a dinosaur roused from dormancy by the lingering radiation and set loose for a new nuclear holocaust, and the black and white photography lends an atmosphere of dark and doom.

'Destroy All Monsters'

The sequels are a different story. The films went color. The special effects of cities stomped to rubble by a radioactive dinosaur became a kind of giddy entertainment instead of a nightmarish metaphor. And as far as the movies were concerned, Godzilla was no longer a post-nuclear plague unleashed upon Japan let alone a villain. He was a character in its own right and the stories that followed his 1954 debut mutated (so to speak) into monster smackdowns that allowed audiences to root for his victory against a new menace to civilization without any sense of irony. While not exactly a friend of mankind, he turned into a protector of Earth when it is threatened by other monsters and, later, alien invaders. This was Godzilla’s turf and no one was muscling in.

Destroy All Monsters (1968), the ninth Godzilla film and the twentieth kaiju (giant monster) movie from Toho, returned Godzilla godfather Ishiro Honda to the helm.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Oct 05 2014

Essay: ‘The General’

This essay was originally written for the Silent Fall 2014 program presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival on September 20, 2014

'The General'

No silent moviemaker ever engaged with the machinery of modern life as resourcefully as Buster Keaton did. From One Week (1920), his debut as a solo director after his apprenticeship with Fatty Arbuckle, to The Cameraman (1928), his final masterpiece, Keaton routinely sparred with the mechanized world. He could be confounded in his early shorts—sometimes modern conveniences got the best of him—but as Keaton moved into feature films and matured as a filmmaker, his characters persevered in the struggle, thanks to a combination of curiosity, commitment, and ingenuity. Whereas Chaplin waged war against the machines with underdog defiance, Keaton mastered the magnificent marvels of modern engineering to triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds. In The Navigator (1924), Keaton tamed an abandoned luxury liner and emerged with one of the biggest hits of his career. After making three features of a more modest scope, The General (1926) marked his return to filmmaking on an ambitious scale. Built around a majestic prop that becomes a character in its own right—a locomotive steam engine—it is still filled with intimate moments. It is a grand achievement.

The story of The General comes from a chapter of Civil War history, a true tale of Union spies who infiltrated the South, stole a passenger train in Georgia, and drove it north pursued by Southern conductors who eventually captured the raiders. According to Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, his reliable collaborator and gag man, handed him William A. Pittenger’s account of the incident as a potential project. Keaton streamlined the story to a deceptively simple structure of two mirrored chases—one north to recapture the stolen engine and another back south—as well as added a love interest and a kidnapping to make the rescue personal. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he took on the perspective of the South.

Continue reading at San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Sep 21 2014

‘Focus’ on TCM

The feature film debut of celebrated photographer and commercial director Neal Slavin, the 2001 drama Focus is based on Arthur Miller’s 1945 novel about a meek, quietly conformist personnel manager at a New York company whose life is transformed after he gets a new pair of glasses. “They make you look Jewish,” his mother complains, and sure enough longtime neighbors and co-workers start looking askance at him. William H. Macy plays Lawrence Newman, a Presbyterian who traces his American ancestry back to the 18th century and a life-long single man who cares for a wheelchair-ridden mother. When he falls under suspicion of Hebrew ancestry, his middle class Brooklyn neighborhood puts him on “the list” and the anti-Semitic harassment begins, as it does with the Jewish news agent on the corner (played by David Paymer). Laura Dern co-stars as Gertrude, a New York girl who is herself mistaken for Jewish when she interviews for a job at Lawrence’s company, which has a strict hiring policy: Christian only.

Focus is based on the sole novel by playwright Arthur Miller, which was written while World War II was still being fought and published in 1945. “It was probably the first novel about anti-Semitism ever published in this country,” said Miller in a 2001 interview, and it made some publishers nervous at the time.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Shows on TCM on Tuesday, September 23

Sep 18 2014

‘Aaron Loves Angela’ on TCM

Like his father, celebrated “Life” magazine photo-journalist turned novelist and filmmaker Gordon Parks, Gordon Parks, Jr. made the jump from still photography to filmmaking. And also like his father, he had his greatest success in the so-called “Blaxploitation” genre, the low-budget action and crime films with African-American stars and generally urban settings that became successful in the 1970s. Where Parks Sr. had his first box-office hit with Shaft (1971), Parks Jr. made his directorial debut with Super Fly (1972), starring Ron O’Neal as a flamboyant drug dealer trying to make one last big score.

For his fourth and final feature, Parks Jr. took on a more intimate and personal story. Aaron Loves Angela (1975) is a tough and tender coming of age drama set in Harlem.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Plays on TCM on Thursday, September 19

Sep 17 2014

Why ‘Goldfinger’ at 50 remains the definitive James Bond movie

Goldfinger was the third Bond feature but the first Bond blockbuster, an instant smash hit that turned the series into a phenomenon. Fifty years after its Sept. 17, 1964 London premiere, which was overrun by fans fighting to get into the theater, it remains the definitive big-screen incarnation of the world’s most famous secret agent.

Sean Connery and Shirley Eaton in 1964's 'Goldfinger'

“Of all the Bonds, Goldfinger is the best, and can stand as a surrogate for the others,” wrote Roger Ebert in 1999. “If it is not a great film, it is a great entertainment, and contains all the elements of the Bond formula that would work again and again.”

The first two Bond films — Dr. No and From Russia With Love — were both unabashedly sexy and brutishly sexist, cartoons of glib machismo with martini wit and international flair. Sean Connery brought his Bondness to life with a mix of charm, arrogance, elegance and rough-and-tumble toughness.

Today you can see them as time capsules of Mad Men fantasies of masculinity with comic-book action. Goldfinger not only ups the ante on every level, it adds a few new elements that made the series.

Continue reading at Today.com

Sep 10 2014

‘Horses of God': The Making of a Martyr

There’s not one reason why a young boy can turn into a suicide bomber. There are many of them.
—Nabil Ayouch, director of Horses of God, in a 2014 interview with Dan Lybarger

In 2003, just a couple of years after the Twin Towers attack, twelve suicide bombers blew up multiple targets in Casablanca. The bombers were all young men recruited from the slums of Sidi Moumen. These attacks did not cause much of a ripple in the western press—Muslims killing Muslims doesn’t inspire the kind of outrage that sells papers or grabs cable news channel eyeballs in the U.S.—but it was shocking event in the Arab world. It’s the inspiration for Horses of God, a fictional story rooted in the real life experiences of hundreds of thousands boys and men in the Arab world.

'Horses of God'

Four boys kick around a soccer ball in the dusty streets and desolate empty lots of Sidi Moumen, an immense, impoverished shantytown on the outskirts of Casablanca. They’re kids like any other, paling around in wild packs of ragamuffin gangs and playing makeshift soccer games that have a tendency to end in scrappy brawls, but their horizons are limited by their circumstances. The bird’s eye view of the camera reveals the startling proximity of this desperate slum with the cosmopolitan cultural capital of Morocco—and of North Africa at large—but from the vantage point of these boys in the garbage-strewn streets it could be on another planet. Their dreams of a better life come not from experience but television, where they have the choice of European football matches and mom’s glamorous soap opera fantasies. The realities of survival are much less romantic.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Aug 29 2014

‘Don’t Turn ‘Em Loose’ on TCM

The violent and energetic gangster thrillers that thrived in the early sound era were all but forbidden after the production code was imposed in 1934. The studios responded by transforming them into social dramas and promoting the forces of law and order and moral values into the leading roles. That’s more or less the approach of the 1936 drama Don’t Turn ‘em Loose, which takes on corruption and incompetence in the parole system through the story of brutal criminal Bat Williams, played with a cunning charm by Bruce Cabot. He pours on the sincerity while making his case for early parole then pulls a heist the very day he’s released, killing a man in the escape with cold-blooded efficiency. But he has a double life. To his family, he’s Robert Webster, globe-trotting engineer working jobs in Europe and South America, his cover for when he’s on the lam or in prison.

Lewis Stone takes top billing as the father, a schoolteacher whose resemblance to Judge Hardy from the Andy Hardy movies is only enhanced by his penchant for making speeches and moral proclamations, and Nella Walker has a remarkable resemblance to Fay Holden, who played Ma Hardy in the MGM series.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Plays on Saturday, August 30 on TCM

Aug 22 2014

‘Pay or Die!’ for TCM

Allied Artists had such success with their 1959 picture Al Capone, starring Rod Steiger as the infamous mobster, that the studio teamed up again with director/producer Richard Wilson for another Italian mobster movie, this one set in early 20th Century New York City. Pay or Die! (1960) is based on the true story of New York Police Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino, an Italian American police detective who earned the respect of the immigrants in Little Italy and formed the Italian Squad of the police department in 1905 to battle the Mafia.

Ernest Borgnine plays Joe as a dedicated officer determined to win over the largely Sicilian immigrant population of his neighborhood, a group that brought its mistrust of the police with them from the old country, where police corruption was rampant. Though 17 years in America, he still speaks in stilted, somewhat broken English, a holdover from his self-taught American education, but he overflows with praise for the melting pot of America. Borgnine spoke fluent Italian and had no trouble with the Italian dialogue, which was peppered through the dialogue with the Little Italy locals.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Plays on Saturday, August 23 on TCM

Aug 21 2014

Rediscovery: Orson Welles’ ‘Too Much Johnson’

Joseph Cotten channels Harold Lloyd in 'Too Much Johnson'

Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the slapstick stylings of Orson Welles, the boy wonder of Broadway!

Not exactly how we think of Welles, is it? We know he had a rich career both on radio and on the New York stage before he made Citizen Kane, but the few comedies he made were far outnumbered by the dramas and the thrillers and the literary adaptation. Yet after his first attention-getting success with Voodoo Macbeth for the WPA, Welles took a sharp turn to farce with his follow-up, Horse Eats Hat, which also had the honor of presenting Joseph Cotten in his first starring role.

There is no film record of Horse Eats Hat or any of his stage comedies and, though he had developed a few proposals for screen comedies, no producer ever took him up on them. So apart from a few cheeky supporting roles, a couple of TV appearances and fragments from unfinished projects, the record shows Orson Welles as a grand artist of serious subjects and baroque tastes.

That alone is reason enough to hail the discovery, restoration and presentation of the long-thought-lost Too Much Johnson, a tribute to the silent slapstick shorts of Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. It is an unfinished project in its own right but is nonetheless complete enough in this “The Films Reimagined” form to reveal a side of Welles so rarely exhibited to the public. That it was made three years before Citizen Kane makes it an invaluable find, a glimpse of the artist exploring the new medium of film with a natural affinity for the possibilities inherent in cinema. But that’s a matter of historical scholarship. What matters to the rest of us is that Too Much Johnson is funny, clever, cheeky, inventive and genuinely accomplished, which makes it worth watching on its own modest yet playful merits.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Aug 18 2014

‘The Spellbinder’ on TCM

Lee Tracy was Hollywood’s specialist for fast talking shysters, con-men, and underhanded newspapermen in the 1930s. With his nasally voice, staccato delivery, wise-guy manner, and diminutive size, he had a knack for comic characters and he was kept busy playing cynical reporters and press agents during the pre-code era. He was also a heavy drinker with a reckless lifestyle off screen, which ended more than one studio contract. By the mid-thirties, Tracy was without a studio and freelancing on smaller films. He made The Spellbinder (1939) for the B-unit of RKO and journeyman director Jack Hively, who rose up from the editing room to the director’s chair.

Jed Marlowe is a classic Tracy role, a silver-tongued lawyer who befuddles witnesses on the stand and manipulates juries with theatrics, but apart from the shenanigans behind the scenes of the first trial (he pays off a small company of actors to play his client’s family in court) there’s no comic twist here. He’s a cynic when it comes to law but a doting, protective single father when it comes to his teenage daughter Janet (Barbara Read). She adores him and plays hooky from finishing school to watch him defend his client Tom Dixon (Patric Knowles) for murder. Knowles was a handsome British import whose poise and confidence landed him a few leading roles but mostly was relegated to supporting parts. He played drama, comedy, and adventure with equal success. For The Spellbinder he played another of his specialties: the charming cad.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Plays on TCM on Thursday, August 21

Aug 17 2014

‘The Second Time Around’ on TCM

Go west, young widow. That’s the advice that Debbie Reynolds takes in The Second Time Around, a lighthearted family western set in the early days of the 20th century, when New York City was the height of modernity and Arizona was still a territory in the final throes of the wild west. Reynolds is Lucretia “Lu” Rogers, the inspired mother of two young children who wants nothing more than to follow the dream she shared with her late husband: to take their family west and raise them in the wide open spaces of the last American frontier. And so she does, leaving the children in the temporary custody of her mother-in-law and traveling to the town of Charleyville, Arizona, to set up housekeeping so she can bring the children out. When plans don’t work out, she takes a job as a ranch hand on a tiny spread owned by the flinty but soft-hearted Aggie Gates (Thelma Ritter), a tough old bird who takes a maternal interest in Lu.

Steve Forrest co-stars as Dan Jones, the devilishly charming proprietor of the Lucky Devil who takes an instant interest in Lu, and Andy Griffith is the gallant Pat Collins, a rural farmer with a plainspoken decency behind his trademark drawl and rural homespun manner. It’s another man entirely, however, who changes the course of her life: the crooked, bullying sheriff of Charleyville, who so rouses Lu’s ire that she challenges him in the town’s first election after Arizona is admitted as the 48th state in the nation.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Plays on TCM on Wednesday, August 20

Aug 05 2014

‘Hi, Nellie!’ on TCM

Paul Muni won fame for his versatility on both stage and screen, transforming himself almost completely for his roles, and for the seriousness of his dramatic portrayals. His career spans from the ambitious thug turned gangland boss in Scarface (1932) to historical figures in The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and The Life of Emile Zola (1937) to the aging doctor dedicated to helping the urban poor in The Last Angry Man (1959). For his sixth film, the 1934 release Hi, Nellie!, Muni took on something different: his first screen comedy.

Hi, Nellie! is a newspaper picture, a genre that thrived during the depression thanks to its high energy press room scenes, hard-boiled reporters, snappy patter, and street-smart sensibility. Muni plays Samuel “Brad” Bradshaw, a tough, up-from-the-streets editor of a big city newspaper, taking on the task with the soul of a reporter and a code of ethics that balances headline scoops with responsibility to the news.

Continue reading on Turner Classic Movies

Plays on TCM on Wednesday, August 6

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