"It Happened Here" (1966)
The banality of evil is amply dramatized in this creepy English "what if" story, which tells the hypothetical story of what happened to Great Britain after the (fictional) defeat at Dunkirk, and subsequent triumph of the British brownshirt movement. Propaganda techniques and Nazi philosophy are skillfully shown at work in a German-run, wartime London. The ideology itself is less terrifying than the easy, matter-of-fact way that the characters adopt it, an entirely plausible and horrifying pragmatism which meant to mirror the German experience and project it onto a nation supposedly immune to the lure of totalitarianism. If this independent film had been made in today, it could be subtitled "England's Willing Executioners..." As deceptive on as many levels as the movement it depicts, this is a genuinely horrific, economically rendered movie, worth checking out, lest we be doomed to repeat the lessons of pseudo-history.
"The Cat's Meow" (2002, Lion's Gate)
Peter Bogdanovitch skillfully retells one of Hollywood's great legends, of an apparent murder carried out on media tycoon William Randolph Hearst's yacht in September, 1924. Kirstin Dunst is brilliantly cast as Hearst's lifelong mistress, actress Marion Davies, and the supporting cast in this fluid, Altman-esque ensemble piece is also quite strong. The script could have been more merciless towards Hearst (longtime nemesis of Bogdanovitch's patron, Orson Wells), but the humanity it imparts on the bazillionaire is what makes this a real film, and not just another movie. Nice to see an old pro back in the saddle!
"The Glass Mountain" (1949)
An interesting British melodrama about a popular opera composer (my, how times have changed!) who ditches his wife to follow his Muse. Italian opera singer Tito Gobbi has a major role as the interpreter of his work. What's most amazing about this film, though, is how strongly actor Michael Denison resembles both George Harrison and Richard E. Grant. Positively eerie.
"The Spy In Black" (1939)
An early British WWII film, featuring Conrad Veidt as a German naval officer, afoot on a sinister mission in the Northern UK. This film was apparently the first pairing of director Michael Powell and producer Emeric Pressburger; the plot is pretty thin, but has a few interesting, offbeat Powell-ian moments, including a great comedic scene when Veidt's cover is blown and he takes control of the situation. Interesting to see how, at this early stage in the war, the German baddie was still allowed the trait of military honor.
Milos Forman's brilliant, fictionalized biography of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in which the devil gets his due, or at least a little sympathy. F. Murray Abraham is exceptional as Mozart's tortured rival, who instantly recognizes Mozart's brilliance, but seeks to bury it trhough court entrigues and machinations. Magical, clever filmmaking. Stunning cinematography.
"Personal Property" (1937, MGM)
A so-so screwball comedy, indifferently staged and poorly directed, starring Jean Harlow in one of her last roles, and Robert Taylor in an unconvincing turn as a happy-go-lucky bon vivant playboy, who falls under Harlow's spell... Mostly filled with ineffective routines, though Reginald Owen steals the show as Taylor's priggish older brother, with some choice physical comedy late in the show... But otherwise this is pretty mediocre.
"Green For Danger" (1947)
A mildly wacky British thriller, set during the war, and filled with odd little turns. The Inspector who shows up to solve the case (which was pretty simple) is a Kooky Character, sort of a forerunner of the BBC-TV detectives of decades to come (or a pallid echo of Poirot; take your pick...)
"Two For The Seesaw" (1962, MGM)
Yeesh. What a dud. One of those dreadful Sixties Dramas (please note the portentious use of Capital Letters) that are Boldly Adapted from a Stage Play, and full of Psychology-laden monologues and horrendously overwritten, absurdly unnatural-sounding repartee. Shirley MacLaine is a "bohemian" Jewish girl, living in the nutty clamour of Greenwich Village (which we see very little of, sadly), and Robert Mitchum is the "square" from Omaha who barges into her life and begins bossing her around, in an effort to redefine his Lost Masculinity. The film is interminable and way too stagey. MacLaine has some winsome moments, and the B&W cinematography is kinda nice, but nothing can save this overly-mannered shipwreck from foundering, again and again, on the shoals of its own pretensions. I guess in some ways I feel lucky that I wasn't living in New York back in the Kennedy era, when you'd have to go to the theatre and take this sort of boring pseudo-sermonizing seriously.
"St. Martin's Lane" (1938, Paramount)
A heart-wrenching, crushingly tender tragicomedy, showing an intimate portrait of the lives of England's professional buskers, or street performers, who were on the run in the face of the modern entertainment industry. Vivian Leigh, Rex Harrison and Charles Laughton star in this powerful film, which demolishes the pollyanna-ish conventions of the American-style, Busby Berkeley-Harry Warren musicals. Laughton steals the show as Charlie, the leader of a struggling busking troupe, in a heartbreaking performance that paved the way for his famous turn as the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Beautifully shot, but also with a dynamic and well-written script, this movie doesn't have a weak moment in it. I'd never heard of it before; now it's one of my favorite films.
"The Lion Has Wings" (1940, United Artists)
An effective and explicitly propagandistic wartime docudrama, co-directed by the ever-quirky Michael Powell, and clearly aimed at a hometown audience seeking reassurance during the ongoing German Blitz. Merle Oberon and Ralph Richardson star as a British couple doing their bit to beat back the Hun, but in truth the acting parts are the least noteworthy aspect of this feature-length film, which is structured more like a newsreel than a drama. The opening sequences, which feature a clever montage that juxtoposes the wholesome, modern look of freedom-loving England with the sinister, humourless world of the Nazis, has some great footage and several interesting aspects. The apparent faith in modernity (as extolled in the newly-built high-rise tenements and lengthy footage of wartime industrial production) and the uniquely Powell-ian sense of humor which frames the narration are equally of note... The second half of the film involves a recreation of an early RAF bombing raid on the mainland, and a lengthy dramatization of how the Brits would fend off German bombers through a combination of ground artillery and plane-to-plane dogfights. The film was probably also meant to act as disinformation: we are shown an elaborate, James Bond-ish, secret control center which coordinates information phoned in by local "plane watchers," when in fact Britain had already developed a radar defense, which proved key to their success in controlling the airspace over the English Channel. Likewise, there is no mention of the controversial "lend-lease" arrangement, set up with the nominally-neutral United States, which had not yet joined the war. Finally, this pro-RAF film proved to be rather prophetic, as it was produced and released just before the airborne Battle of Britain, which was one of the pivotal fights of the War. A fascinating and somewhat quaint bit of wartime propaganda.
"Dogtown And Z-Boys" (Columbia Tristar, 2002)
The first time I saw this amazing documentary was when the punky types on the night shift at my local video hut were watching a bootleg VHS copy a few months before the video actually came out. Nearly every customer in the store craned their necks up towards the screen, and sat transfixed, watching the history of modern skateboarding unfold onscreen. [Note to self: if it was that absorbing in the video store, be sure to get it when it comes out!]
Dogtown And Z-Boys is a thoroughly engaging, well-produced film which recalls the dim, pre-punk origins of the skateboarding scene that came out of LA in the 1970s and has grabbed hold of antisocial daredevil types across the world ever since. I was transfixed by this film, from beginning to end, and found there wasn't a dull moment or false note in the entire production. I should hasten to add that I have never been much of a skateboarding fan; when I moved to Berkeley in the mid-1980s, skateboarding was already firmly identified with punk rock rebelliousness, with swarms of leather- and denim-clad losers barrelling down the sidewalks at top speed, tediously intent on messing with the minds of all the uptight squares who dared to be less cool than they were. As a punk rock fan who prefers walking to knocking others off the sidewalk, I intensely dislike the culture of show-offy, in-your-face self-centeredness and machismo that skateboarders have adopted; in the 1990s, when the scene went mainstream and became commercialized as an "extreme" sport, it became even that much more tedious and trivial. But this film shows where it all started, with a motley bunch of scruffy teenage Santa Monica beach bums who took the elegance and attitude of the world's best surfers and adapted it to the humble (and then quite primitive) skateboard. The documentary appealed to me both aesthetically and personally -- the Dog Town skateboarders were all undeniably hella cool, and their story is pretty amazing. Also, I remember having the same sort of restlessness and rebelliousness during the post-hippie, pre-punk years of my adolescence, and watching the old footage of the Dog Town crew, I was powerfully reminded of my own proud years as a 1970s juvenile delinquent. The film's tone rang true, which isn't surprising since it was produced by guys who were part of the original Z-Boys clique. It's a captivating, funny, stylish and very creative film, which exhalts a sexy urban subculture without exploiting its subjects or leaving out any members of the audience who might not skate themselves. Great soundtrack, too. A+ all the way around.
"Signs" (Buena Vista, 2002)
M. Night Shamalayan may be starting to wear thin in his role as a thinking-man's spooky movie director, but there is still something cool about a horror/sci-fi film in which not a single gun is fired even though the aliens turn out to be really mean and evil. The director's constant deflation of the expected cliches of Hollywood action films is in itself a welcome change of pace, and the scene in which the "action" (the aliens taking over out world) is passively watched on TV by our stay-at-home human heroes is both brilliant and sadly realistic. The Day Of The Triffids ending is only one of many nice pop culture references -- although the movie as a whole could have been much, much better, it was still pretty darn good. The scariest scenes were real nailbiters, and cleverly rendered through pyschology and suggestion, rather than the same old CGI special effects. Worth checking out. (At the Orinda Theatre.)
"On Approval" (1943)
Clive Brook and Beatrice Lillie star in this arch (and, for the time, fairly risque) English comedy about a would-be couple trying out "married life" for a month before they tie the knot. Complications ensue, but this movie is less about the actual plot than about the tart zingers the "bad" character toss about like darts from a quiver. There are some real zingers, perfectly delivered and deliciously, unrepentantly mean-spirited. A fun movie, considered by many to be one of the best British comedies ever made.
"Eden Valley" (Amber Entertainment, 1994)
A British "dogme" film? Made by the Amber Production Team, and starring the magnificently weatherbeaten Brian Hogg along with the homely-yet-magnetic Darren Bell, as Hogg's ne'er-do-well son, raised in the city as a troubled latchkey kid, and back on the farm after a scrape with the law. A brilliant depictation of the abruptly rural culture in backwoods Yorkshire, this film combines professional actors and locals to weave a charming, if ultimately rather bleak picture of country life modern Britain. (A real eye-opener for anyone lamenting the loss of the olden days... they ain't gone anywhere up there, apparently...) Clean, compelling storytelling, and a nice departure from the too-smooth predictability of Hollywood and its imitators. Plus, a fascinating glimpse into the world of the horseracing style known as "trotting."
"Under The Roofs Of Paris" (1930, Filmsonar)
A heartbreaking, beautiful portrait of urban life in the City of Love. This was director Rene Clair's first sound film, built around the concept of following a street musician through his daily life. Clair uses the occasion to play with the concept of sound recording: many dramatic scenes are played out silently, while an entire apartment building softly hums the catchy tune sung by chanteur Albert Prejean; in the film's climactic scene, a record on the stereo begins to skip as rival suitors quarrel over the Roumanian belle, Pola Illery. The sound design is as playful as it is inventive, and Clair's command of image and editing is superb. Fans of French musette music owe it to themselves to check out this film, which skillfully depicts the nightlife inside one of a Parisian bal mussette dancehall, populared as it was by seedy ruffians and disheartened lovers. A wonderful film; highly recommended.
"God Told Me To" (1976, Larco)
Cheapo horror director Larry Cohen followed up his modest success with the monster-baby classic It's Alive with this weakly realized ultra-cult flick. The main attraction is, I suppose, Cohen's apparent attempt to co-opt and cash in on every single type of '70s exploitation trend he could think of: demon movies, anti-establishment political paranoia thrillers, blaxploitation, cop flicks and sci-fi, flying saucer conspiracies. If he could have afforded an actor who knew how to high-kick, it probably would have been a kung-fu action film as well. Trouble is, even though there are interesting elements to the script, the film is so appallingly low-budget, sketchily written and poorly acted that it's difficult, in all honesty, to recommend it to any but the most devoted fans of trash culture. (I kind of liked it, but my wife loathed it and got a horrible migrane before the tape was over...) The strident antireligiousness and misogyny are both remarkable, particularly Cohen's graphic inserts of female genitalia that are as grotesque as they are gratuitous: no wonder you never heard of this film. There are a couple of choice cameos, though, particularly from actors who play various blank-brained murderers. Most significant celebrity sighting: Andy Kaufman as a robotic, hypnotized killer cop, and Sylvia Sidney as a traumatized retiree. Sleazy, semi-middle/lowbrow and resolutely trashy.
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