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Blogs on Film

Making Good Movies on the Cheap

The cost of making movies seems to climb every year, with $100 million productions being common nowadays. Yet few people would argue that Hollywood’s product is better than it was when budgets were smaller. It takes money to promote a movie and to get big stars in a movie, but fundamentally you can make a good movie pretty cheaply. And I admire the people who are inventive and unpretentious enough to go for it on a low budget, like the subjects of the documentary American Movie (which I recommended here) or Robert Rodriguez, who penned the Rosetta Stone of such filmmakers: Rebel Without a Crew.

X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (Trailer) - YouTube

For example, I recently watched X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes, one of Roger Corman’s many low budget horror/sci-fi films. He used a common strategy for such films, which is to cast someone who used to be an A-list star but whose career is waning enough that he will take a smaller check. In this case it was Ray Milland, who clearly didn’t think the film was beneath him and turned in a good performance. The sets are spare, the actors are few and other than Milland, unknown. But it’s completely watchable and engaging. It doesn’t try to be a blockbuster extravaganza life-changing piece of cinema. Rather, it tries to entertain for 79 minutes and it does, on what is clearly a modest budget.

A film that is an even bigger triumph of low budget movie making is Rocky. Yes, Rocky, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, spawned a billion-dollar film franchise and was a world-wide hit, was a low budget film. Burgess Meredith was in the Ray Milland position; something of a name in the past but now affordable. All those shots of Rocky running around Philadelphia were an economy, using the new Steadicam technology to generate emotional momentum without having to build sets or hire extras (Mostly it’s ordinary Philadelphians volunteering to do cameos). The romantic ice rink scene with Rocky and Adrian was supposed to happen with many skaters and a crowd, but they couldn’t afford that so they set the scene instead at a time when the rink is closed.

And the climactic sequence is a work of genius in inexpensive film production. Before the final fight, Stallone’s shorts didn’t match the banner image of Rocky and his robe was the wrong size, but they couldn’t afford to switch props so they simply rewrote the script to have Rocky comment on the errors and make him that much more pathetic. During the fight itself (embedded below), the arena is dark because it was mostly empty — they had run out of budget for extras. Stallone’s dad is the guy ringing the bell for rounds and other friends and family pitched in as extras to stretch the dollars. They could not afford many re-shoots so if you watch carefully you will see that the people watching the fight were moving around to give the impression of a full arena (you can also see the Steadicam in some of the overhead shots and that some the key punches actually miss — a “rib shot” to the hip for example).

With such a sparsely populated set, it was impossible to portray a big crowd reaction. So what did director John Avildsen do? When Rocky first decks Apollo Creed, Avildsen cannily cuts to the neighborhood bar, so that a small number of actors can give the audience a scene of excited, cheering people packed in close and rooting for Rocky.

Inspired, resourceful work by everyone involved, on what was then a slender budget of about a million dollars. And note to Hollywood, it returned an over 200 to 1 profit so it isn’t true that you can’t make money in Hollywood without a gazillion dollar production behind you.

Categories
Comedy Romance

The Court Jester

Sometimes comedy in the movies gets a bit ahead of current cultural tastes. But the joy of TV re-runs, DVDs, streaming, and the like is that as audience sensibilities catch up, a film whose wit eluded people at the time of its release can be recognized as a comedy classic.

This has been the fate of several big name comedy films made in the 1950s, including the Truman Capote-scripted Beat the Devil, a dud at the time now regarded as a cult classic. An even better example, and one that should be in every discussion of the best comedy scripts in Hollywood history, is 1956’s The Court Jester. A big budget bomb at the time, this film is now deservedly recognized as a complete delight, for laughs, for music, and for a tour-de-force performance by the amazing Danny Kaye.

The chortle-filled script of Co-Producer/Directors Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, like those of Monty Python and The Simpsons much later, piles jokes on top of each other without seeming to mind if many viewers miss some of them. In the typical 1950s comedy film, the dialogue about how “The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle” would be THE joke of that scene. And, at one level, that would have been fine, because the wordplay by itself is gutbusting. But why not have Danny Kaye’s armor struck by lightning, causing it to magnetize, to throw some physical comedy on top of the verbal jokes? And again, Python-style, why have boring credits when you could put a bunch of sight gags and a ridiculous song in there as well?

The film is set in Olde England, where crafty royals, dastardly nobles, and noble craftys all involve themselves in the succession of the king. Thrown into the mix is Hubert Hawkins (Kaye) a song-and-dance man who gets intertwined with the plotting and repeatedly gets mistaken for someone else in situations of romance and peril. There is swordplay, there are castles and jousts, there are $4 million in production values (which was a lot of money in the 1950s).

But plot schmott, this is film as fun. And who could be of greater service in that endeavour than Danny Kaye, in one of his finest moments as an entertainer? He handles the physical and verbal humor equally well, seems at home both in the dueling scenes and in romantic moments, and sings and dances as well. Because he doesn’t seem to be taking anything too seriously, it’s very easy to laugh along with him.

Basil Rathbone, as the villainous Lord Ravenhurst, gamely mocks his role in another of my recommendations, The Adventures of Robin Hood. He is an absolute hoot and the final fate of his character is priceless. Mildred Natwick is so funny that I literally cried from watching her expressions and listening to her delivery of great comic lines. And Angela Lansbury, as a besotted adolescent of a princess, shows great comic touch.

We sometimes say “They don’t make ’em like that any more”. But this film deserves a higher compliment, which is that they didn’t make ’em like that then, but they learned how by watching groundbreaking films like this.

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Categories
Action/Adventure Drama

The Claim

Mark Twain said that “A ‘classic’ is a book that everyone praises and nobody reads”. I suspect that Thomas Hardy’s novels fall into this category. Admittedly, I think that because my dear mother suggested that I read “The Return of the Native”. After I finished it, I asked her why she recommended such a lousy book and she sheepishly confessed that she’d actually never got round to opening the copy she’d bought 40 years ago in a fit of high-mindedness.

But, whatever you think of Hardy’s “classic” novels, it’s hard to deny that they have resulted in some fine film adaptations. One of these is Michael Winterbottom’s 2000 Western The Claim. Loosely based on “The Mayor of Casterbridge”, the film tells the story of the Mayor of the town of Kingdom Come (a glum, effective Peter Mullan) whose considerable fortune and power derives from one awful, hidden sin early in his life. Fate comes to call in the form of the woman from his past (Nastassja Kinski) and her daughter (Sarah Polley, in an award-winning performance). Meanwhile, the Mayor must handle his tempestuous mistress (Milla Jovovich, who has sex appeal to burn) and the railroad engineer (Wes Bentley) who will decide whether the new line will run through Kingdom Come or not.

The tragic story the film tells may play out a bit more slowly than some viewers would prefer, but this gives the time and space for the strong cast to show us the multiple facets of their characters. Some people are worse than others, but no one in this movie is one-dimensional, which adds real psychic weight to the proceedings. Moreover, this is a staggeringly beautiful film at which to look, thanks to the Alberta scenery and Alwin Kuchler’s cinematography. Michael Nyman’s rich musical score also adds to the sensual pleasure.

Indeed, I liked The Claim so much that I forgave my mother for her book recommendation and let her watch my copy. She liked it too, even though I am pretty sure she never read the Mayor of Casterbridge either.

Categories
Comedy Drama

Impromptu

Artistic stars of 1830s Paris are brought vividly to life in the high-spirited and entertaining 1991 film Impromptu. Directed by Tony-winning Sondheim collaborator James Lapine, the film stars Judy Davis in a bravura performance as George Sand. She spends the film avoiding prior lovers (including Mandy Patinkin as Alfred de Musset) and chasing a new one, Frederic Chopin (Hugh Grant, in the sort of gentle and innocent performance that he could credibly give before we all came to know more about him). Liszt (Julian Sands) and Delacroix (Ralph Brown) are also on hand for the frolic, most of which takes place at a French country home presided over by a culture-starved and rather daffy Duchess (Emma Thompson, who is very funny).

If you are one of those film goers who laments the lack of strong, intelligent woman characters in most Hollywood productions, you will find Judy Davis’ performance particularly enjoyable. The screen writer, Sarah Kernochan, is justly known for creating multi-faceted female characters. She and Davis give the audience a George Sand who is complicated, passionate, endearing and also at times maddening. (Not incidentally, in the art imitates life department, Sand here is a brilliant woman absolutely intoxicated by a man’s musical ability, and Kernochan is married to Lapine).

Partly a fictionalized look at high culture and fame and partly a romantic romp, this movie includes not a dull or unappealing moment. The wonderful music and art direction add further pleasure to Impromptu, making it a complete and satisfying piece of cinema.

Categories
Horror/Suspense

It

Most made-for-television movies are disappointing. Most movies based on Stephen King books, likewise. But here’s a nightmare-inducing film that overturns both those rules: The 1990 adaptation of It. Ask an adult who saw it many years ago what they remember and you may hear, after a shudder, the half-whispered words “That clown…”.

The plot (including the ending) is a bit inscrutable at times, but it runs something like this: In 1990, in the small town of Derry, Maine, a horrifying clown named Pennywise (A ghoulishly good Tim Curry) is preying on children. One adult resident of the town, Mike Hanlon (Tim Reid, who like the many other experienced adult TV actors in this film is solid throughout), begins to remember that he and his friends were terrorized by Pennywise as children. He contacts each of them, now successful adults, and they too awaken from a strange amnesia. They suddenly recall that as socially rejected kids, self-dubbed “The Loser Club”, they banded together to successfully combat Pennywise. Now they know that Pennywise is but one manifestation of a deeper, darker force which slumbers beneath the town, re-awakening every 30 years to feed again. “It” has returned, and The Loser Club must reunite to save the children of Derry and also conquer the demons that haunt them as adults.

A Member Of The Losers' Club From The 1990 'IT' Miniseries Has A ...

The film is structured in two parts, which were originally shown over two nights on television. In the first, we meet the central characters as children, battling It in 1960. The second part focuses mainly on the adults in 1990. However, this section of the movie cannily injects flashbacks to the 1960 part of the story, which helps hold interest over the 3+ hour running time because the child actors are so compelling and the scenes with Pennywise menacing the children are so chilling.

There are many shocks and screams here, but as with much of King’s best work (e.g., Stand by Me), there are also remarkable insights into the world of children and warm portrayals of life-changing friendships. The small budget shows here and there: Not all the special effects are first-rate and there are no Hollywood mega-stars in view. But the story is gripping enough, the actors appealing and talented enough and the scares plentiful enough to make It one of the best horror films in television history.

And remember: “They all float!”

Categories
Comedy

A Christmas Story

Some mediocre films earn a reputation as “American Classics” entirely because the producers and marketers (or the critics and other members of the chattering class) have so declared them, and the rest of us are cowed into submission. But sometimes a movie attains this status honestly by slowly and steadily building a following because it really deserves one. A Christmas Story very much belongs in the latter, authentic set of American classics. When it was released in 1983, it was shown in less than a thousand theaters and was outgrossed by such unmemorable cinematic products as Porky’s II: The Next Day, Two of a Kind, and High Road to China. But it became more and more popular each year on television (Thank you, Ted Turner) such that you can hardly find anyone today who doesn’t smile at the memory of this warm and funny film.

The great talent behind this movie about a boy’s overwhelming craving for a particular Christmas present is Jean Shepherd, who wrote the script based on his novel “In God we trust. All others pay cash”. He narrates the film while never being seen, apart from a cameo as a grouchy Christmas shopper. Shepherd recollects events as an adult while 12-year old Peter Billingsley, as his younger self (“Ralphie”), gives one of the best comic performances by a child actor in cinema history. Billingsley’s gestures and expressions coupled with Shepherd’s wry narration make a superb comic one-two punch. Daren McGavin and Melinda Dillon are perfect as Ralphie’s very human parents because they are solid actors who also happen to look like real parents (in Hollywood today, the parts would likely have gone to a rap star and a supermodel).

What Ever Happened to the Kids from A Christmas Story?

The film charms both because it pokes fun at the silliness of which children are capable (e.g., Ralphie’s rich fantasy life) while also respecting the earnestness of which they are capable (e.g., It *is* a breach of etiquette to go straight to a triple dog dare without an intervening triple dare). It is sweetly nostalgic about childhood without overly romanticizing it. And it holds up very well under repeat viewings, as the countless people who will watch it again this holiday season will attest.

And remember: “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid”.

Categories
Mystery/Noir

Ride the Pink Horse

Ride the Pink Horse' Hits Criterion: Edges of the Frame

I have recommended Dorothy Hughes’ dark novel In a Lonely Place and its classic film adaptation. Almost as good is a 1947 adaptation of a crime thriller she set in her home town of Santa Fe, New Mexico: Ride the Pink Horse. Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, two of Hollywood’s finest screenwriters, adapted her book, contributing their trademark biting noir dialogue along the way.

The story opens with a man named Gagin (Robert Montgomery) arriving in a town near the U.S.-Mexico border. The disillusioned, rootless, ex-GI is the ultimate film noir protagonist (though the cynical, hard drinking ,private eye vies for the distinction) and Gagin is the apotheosis of the type. Gagin’s come to town to find the mobster Frank Hugo (Fred Clark), who killed his army buddy. But Gagin’s not there to murder Hugo, or even to turn him over to the federal agent (Art Smith) who’s been on Hugo’s trail for years. Rather, the cynical Gagin just wants a payoff for some incriminating information he possesses. Intrigue and brutality follow.

The story unfolds a bit too slowly, but atmosphere fills in nicely for plot development, including what for the period was an unusually positive portrayal of Mexican culture and Mexican people. Gagin is dismissive of the locals at first, but in addition to helping him survive, they prove to be almost the only decent people in a town populated with violent gringos like Gagin and Hugo. Thomas Gomez is particularly compelling as the operator of a merry go round (hence the film’s name). For his performance, he became the first Hispanic actor in history to be nominated for an Oscar.

Thomas Gomez in Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

The key creative force behind the film is Robert Montgomery (father of Elizabeth of Bewitched fame), who had just left MGM because they didn’t want to let him direct the films in which he starred (Even if profitable, his famously gimmicky Lady in the Lake may have been why). Producer Joan Harrison was open to Montgomery working on both sides of the camera and got Universal on board. He fares well as a director here, giving the talented supporting cast a chance to shine (indeed they outshine him, his acting is only okay).

Montgomery also continues his penchant for unusual visuals. The opening tracking shot, which runs for several minutes, is extremely well done and one wonders if this was a rehearsal for cinematographer Russell Metty, who later created with Orson Welles probably the most famous opening extended take in history (in Touch Of Evil). I also liked how in Montgomery’s first meeting with femme fatale Andrea King, he puts the camera behind his character, looking over his shoulder at her as they size each other up. We can see her face, but we can’t see his, which is unnerving in a way that works. There’s also a creative if brutal shot from a camera on a merry go round, repeatedly giving the audience a glimpse of an ongoing beating.

Ride the Pink Horse was hard to find for many years, but you can probably track it down on line or on a classic films channel. It’s worth the extra effort to view this sturdy and unusual entry in the noir genre.

Categories
Blogs on Film

What Do American Audiences Consider Obscene?

I caught Coppola’s classic at a U.S. hotel not long ago, and the way it was edited for television audiences reveals something fascinating about American sensibilities. The scene in which Sonny Corleone is executed was presented uncut.

Played by James Caan, Sonny is trapped in his car at a toll booth by another vehicle full of gunmen, who riddle him with machine gun bullets, as do other assassins who had been hiding in the booth. Gasping and covered in blood, he staggers out of his car to be hit with a sustained volley of machine gun fire that makes his body convulse repeatedly. He then falls dead in a bloody heap, at which point one of the killers walks up to his body and unloads the rest of his ammo into him point blank. The killer then kicks Sonny’s corpse in the head for good measure. Wholesome all-American fun; wish my kids could’ve seen it.

In contrast, another scene was edited for television. Michael and Apollonia Corleone’s wedding night in Sicily is extraordinarily sweet as played sensitively and without dialogue by Al Pacino and Simonetta Stefanelli. Michael and his young bride are alone in the bedroom. She is clearly a virgin, both excited and at the same time frightened. Michael doesn’t rush her. He waits for her to step toward him, and then cradles her face and kisses her gently on the forehead and then — the censors get out their scissors. In the original movie, but not on television, Apollonia’s breasts are briefly visible before the couple embrace and passionately kiss. Sure they just got married in a Catholic Church, sure they love each other, sure the woman is portrayed as a human being and not an object but hey, the sight of breasts might scar the innocent so out it goes.

I have seen the Godfather on television in Spain and in Sweden and in both countries the wedding night scene was uncut, whereas the scene of Sonny’s execution was edited to be shorter and less graphically violent. Apparently people in those countries have a different sense than Americans about what is shocking and obscene and what is not.

The other comparison point that comes to mind is what I have learned in my career from combat veterans. Sadly enough, many psychiatric hospitals have former soldiers in them who saw something like what happened to Sonny Corleone and never got over it. In contrast, I have never had a never heard of VA patient who had to be hospitalized for PTSD because he once saw a pair of breasts and never got over it.

 

Categories
Blogs on Film

Sidney Lumet’s Many Contributions

Sidney Lumet | Biography, Movies, & Facts | Britannica

In the wake of his passing, tributes to Hollywood legend Sindey Lumet focused mainly on 12 Angry Men, The Verdict, and Dog Day Afternoon, all worthy pieces of cinema (Serpico is less so, in my opinion). He deserves credit for at least two other things.

First, he largely rescued Sean Connery from Bondage by casting him in meaty dramatic parts as Connery’s interest in Bond was waning. The Hill, The Offence, and The Anderson Tapes remain highly watchable today, and they showed the film world that Connery had a lot more talent than his role as 007 let him exercise.

Second, Lumet made one of the best Holocaust films ever, The Pawnbroker. From slump-shouldered Rod Steiger, Lumet coaxed a performance that is the actor’s best — better even than his more heralded role as Sheriff Gillespie in In the Heat of the Night. And the classic Lumet claustrophobic New York sets work perfectly to help us feel Sol Nazerman’s agony and his inability to escape the horrors of the war and memory.  Sadly, the film isn’t watched as often as Lumet’s other great movies, probably because it’s simply emotionally harder to experience (The Verdict is also a portrait of overwhelming loneliness but it ultimately treads more gently on the viewer’s spirit because it has an uplifting ending). But it remains one of the high points of Lumet’s distinguished career.

Categories
Comedy Musical

The Music Man

The Music Man is a joyous, funny and romantic musical that has been lifting hearts for decades. Iowa native Meredith Willson laboured for years to fashion the tale of a fast-talking huckster who comes to fleece the small town rubes of River City and finds more than he bargained for, including romance with the lovely local librarian. The role of the would-be con man, Professor Harold Hill, made Robert Preston a huge Broadway star. Cary Grant saw the play many times, and Hollywood legend holds that he was asked to essay the part of Hill in the 1962 movie adaptation. He allegedly responded “Not only will I not accept the role, but if you don’t get Preston to do it I will not even watch the movie”.

Since at least the time of Clara Bow, Hollywood casting directors have debated whether particular actors have “it”. Well, whatever “it” is, Preston’s got “it” in abundance. Hill is not a nice person. He wants to mulct the town into investing in a boys’ band it doesn’t need and he hopes to seduce and abandon the goodly Marian the Librarian along the way. But the second Preston comes on screen, everyone is cheering for him to pull it off. He is not, truth be told, a great singer at the level of Gordon MacRae, but he is a great actor and an irresistible charmer on screen.

If asked to think of a fresh-faced musical film actress with great pipes and screen appeal, most Americans of a certain generation would come up with Julie Andrews, perhaps remembering Shirley Jones only as the mom on a TV show that their kids watched. But Jones, who plays Marian, was a very big star in her day, and deservedly so. And she wasn’t just effective at playing wholesome All-American innocents as in this film and Oklahoma!: She after all won an Oscar for playing a vengeful prostitute in Elmer Gantry. Of the principals of the Music Man, she is far and away the best singer, and she also conveys warmth, fire and depth as Marian, the unmarried small town lass with a much-gossiped about past.

4YE's Big Movie Binge: The Music Man (1962) – 4 Your Excitement

Preston and Jones are the hubs of the show stopping numbers, including “Ya Got Trouble” and “76 Trombones”. Except for Shipoopi, with singing and dancing by Buddy Hackett (Ack! – but at least he makes a good comic sidekick for Preston), there isn’t a less than good song in the film, and the music grows on you with repeated listenings.

It is worth mentioning also, given that so many child stars came to bad ends, that little Ronny Howard has a nice part in the film. He went on as we all know to become one of the great movie directors of his generation, which based on the little singing he does here was a wise decision.

Some NYC and LA-based film critics have read this film as a condemnation of the ignorance and small-mindedness of Iowans, which to me seems like coastal snobbery not borne out by facts. Yes, the people in the town are sometimes petty and are easily taken in by the conniving Professor Hill, but Wilson also shows us that River City is a place of simple decency, youthful idealism and of course honest, redeeming love in the person of Marian. The movie thus stands as one of the three best statements of everything that is good about Iowa (The other two of course being Field of Dreams and the nearly all-white 2008 democratic caucus nominating Barack Obama).

Here is one of the lesser known but still marvelous numbers from the movie, showing off Preston’s smooth con artist ways and the mellifluous voices of the Buffalo Bills.