Friday, September 30, 2011

Hot Tub Time Machine

2010, US, directed by Steve Pink

There can be no claims of false advertising with Hot Tub Time Machine: it does indeed feature the eponymous time-travel device, and it's about as silly as you might expect, though at least there's a certain unpretentious honesty on the filmmakers' part. It starts out brightly enough: most of the best jokes are in the first half, at which point the script-writers seem to run out of steam. The second half is a kind of manic, higher-pitched repetition driven mostly by energetic performances from Craig Robinson, by far the most sympathetic of the central quartet of time-travelers, and an incredibly profane Rob Cordrry. John Cusack, by contrast, is reliably catatonic in John Cusack style; although he's listed as a producer here, he gives off the air of a man who can't quite believe, after a quarter century in the business, that he's reduced to starring in fare like this.

Central Park

1932, US, directed by John G. Adolfi

Central Park manages to squeeze an awful lot into a running time of less than an hour - hoodlums, robbery, a beauty contest, gunplay, a kindly cop about to retire, a love story, an escaped lion, a mad prison escapee, and plenty of Depression-era background colour, including some nice footage of the eponymous green space. It's a little frantic at times with so much ground to cover, though the scenes between Joan Blondell and Wallace Ford have a lovely feel of two confused souls finding some solace, while Guy Kibbee as the aforementioned cop is terrific, playing a character who has a surprising kinship with the live-and-let-live Pacific island store owner he plays in the same year's Rain.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Turn Back the Clock

1933, US, directed by Edgar Selwyn

It's a Wonderful Life is surely the most famous version of the old "What if I'd had a different life?" (or in this case "wife") plot, but this is an energetic variation, scripted by Selwyn and Ben Hecht, which focuses on the comedic possibilities for most of the running time. Lee Tracy, as the man who gets to see his alternative path, is aware more or less from the beginning of what's happened to him, though his manic delight in being granted a do-over causes consternation among those close to him until he figures out a way to channel both his knowledge of future events and his energy. As with so many 1930s films, there's virtually no fat. Barely any time seems to pass between Tracy's return to his humble soda jerk origins and his appointment as a presidential adviser, with the film skipping huge chunks of time from one scene change to the next, but the narrative remains entirely coherent despite the frantic pacing. While I found Lee Tracy to be a mis-cast distraction in Doctor X, he's perfect here, over-caffeinated in precisely the spirit of Hecht's snappy dialogue.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Quick Millions

1931, US, directed by Rowland Brown

Before he turned saintly, circa 1938, Spencer Tracy played many a roughneck, and in Quick Millions he provides a pre-Scarface template for a criminal rise to the top. George Raft practices for his turn in that film by playing the same right-hand-man role here, although he is in rather more loquacious form than in Howard Hawks's film. The early 1930s seem to be littered with people who have an extraordinarily single-minded attitude to success in their chosen profession, and the fast-paced style of the early talkies tend to reinforce the sense of a dizzying ascent: the to-the-point montage sequences compress events so that in no time a two-bit hoodlum is making deals with the major players, although director Rowland Brown also makes time for insightful character asides, particularly when Tracy tries to show he's qualified to hang with the city's older money. The finale intercuts scenes at a church with an outbreak of violence, a good four decades before Francis Ford Coppola alternates between the same elements in The Godfather.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hell's Highway

1932, US, directed by Rowland Brown

Like Scarface, which appeared the same year, Rowland Brown's film takes a social problem and exposes it to the harsh light of day as part of a call to government action, though on this occasion the issue is the treatment of miscreants behind bars rather than the actions of those same miscreants in the streets. That alone marks the gulf with today's cinema. It's hard enough to imagine a mainstream drama concerned with the treatment of prisoners in quasi-privatised work camps, never mind one that sees the government as a likely source of assistance, since these days prison administrations seem as likely to be in cahoots with private enterprise as they are to be concerned with prisoner welfare. Where's the Hollywood exposé of Joe Arpaio's methods?

There's a fierce energy to Rowland Brown's filming, and a bluntness in the way he depicts the physical realities of the prison camp - the dreadful food, the constant effort to save money at the prisoners' expense, the brutal work regime in which any hint of exhaustion is interpreted and punished as serious insubordination - that's mirrored in the physical presence of his lead, Richard Dix, the alpha male among the prisoners. Both Brown and Dix's character, Duke Ellis, pair a certain bullishness with strategic cunning, eyeing opportunities to make their points with either fists or brain as the occasion demands. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Forest for the Trees

2003, Germany, directed by Maren Ade (Original Title: Der Wald vor läuter Baumen)

Maren Ade's film school graduation project, The Forest for the Trees is a challenge to watch: with no histrionics or sentimentality, it charts the disintegration of a personality under what seem like banal strains - a new job, a new town, the struggle to define oneself and to find friends that aid in the endeavour. Technically, there are certainly rough edges, with the video sometimes looking washed out, but the nuanced performances, and Ade's acute observation of interactions between her characters, down to subtleties of tone and choice of words, give the film considerable power. It's rather like watching a show like The Office at times, where the film's ability to gnaw at the viewer stems from the recognizable reality it depicts, particularly the slightly off-key central character, though there's barely a note of humour throughout.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Revenge of the Nerds

1984, US, directed by Jeff Kanew

I'm not sure if it's chutzpah or complete obliviousness, but there's something impressive about the way that Revenge of the Nerds attempts to balance surprisingly inclusive views on Nerd-dom with extraordinary retrograde sexual politics, creating a safe house, literally, for all those excluded by the jock element on campus while happily invading the privacy of the sorority sisters. The energetic playing and direction almost make up for the contradiction -- there's a terrific shot of the nerds rampaging through a sorority house, the camera pulling back as they advance toward it -- while the filmmakers capture rather well, if in wildly exaggerated form, the way in which college can seem like a social experiment in which classes are at best a distraction from the wider education that's going on. There's not a single moment dedicated to the classroom experience, for instance, and the one time the jocks assemble for football drills the coach realizes, as the sequence concludes, that the team has forgotten to practice.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

The Passing of the Third Floor Back

1935, UK, directed by Berthold Viertel

Yet another viewing prompted by David Cairns, who wrote at length about the film a couple of years ago, The Passing of the Third Floor Back puts Conrad Veidt in the difficult position of needing to be compelling while remaining saintly. As John Milton well knew, the devil is generally a more eye-catching character than the angel, but Veidt controls his performance, and particularly his voice, to hypnotic effect in order to counter-balance Frank Cellier's exuberant playing of Mr. Wright, the film's representation of all that is wicked.

As David notes in his piece, the religious symbolism is often quite overt, using crossed shadows, for instance, though to rather different effect than in Hawks's Scarface. The texture of secular London life of the period is equally present - references to the tenements that give Mr. Wright his filthy lucre, the organ grinder and his monkey, the joyous day out on the steamer. The cross-section of English society as gathered together in the boarding house also gives the film ample room to explore contrasts and contradictions in Britain's inter-war class system, too, although it's occasionally a struggle for the film to reconcile those differences with the narrative's need to bring the lodgers together in specific scenes.

I'm not all that familiar with the details of Berthold Viertel's career, but this feels like a much more personal outing than the following year's Rhodes of Africa, with its rather plodding narrative; the visual touches that render this film so consistently interesting are far less noteworthy in the biopic, too, although Viertel does create an interesting tension between the oppositional role that Paul Kruger is supposed to occupy and his rather endearing onscreen presentation. It's not hard to sense an echo of the contrast between Veidt and Cellier, both physically and psychologically, in the dynamic that operates between Walter Huston as Rhodes and Oscar Homolka as Kruger; Cellier re-appears in a small part in the later film, too, as a more sympathetic London striver.

The picture above is lifted directly from David's piece on MUBI; I couldn't make anything decent from my copy of the film, which is rather frayed around the edges.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Mid-August Lunch

2008, Italy, directed by Gianni Di Gregorio (original title: Pranzo di ferragosto)

Most of the reviews I've seen for Gianni De Gregorio's film use the word "slight" or some variation, which as far as I can tell is another way for the writers to express the idea that the film is light on plot. That's true - the film is about a few days in the life of a middle-aged slacker, played by the director, while he looks after his mother and several other older women - but the implication that the film itself is thus somehow lacking in substance is entirely misplaced. De Gregorio was one of the many writers credited on Matteo Garrone's film Gomorra, and there's a surprising continuity between the two films - an opening that takes one to the heart of the matter with virtually no context for instance, but particularly the rich series of character portraits, each carefully delineated so that we're able to follow the dynamic that develops between the unlikely group. Equally, there's a profound sense of place, of the details of Rome's August rhythms far from the tourist trail, with De Gregorio indulging his love for the city in the wonderful moped sequence that simultaneously pays homage to Nanni Moretti's very different celebration of Rome in 1994's Caro Diario.  In its quiet way, the film also eviscerates the lip-service paid to the cult of the "mama", revealing the reality for all too many older women without ever allowing the tone of the film to become embittered. Terrific performances all around, too, dignified and honest.


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Most of the images here are either studio publicity stills or screen captures I've made myself; if I've taken your image without giving you credit, please let me know.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States