Wednesday, February 29, 2012

February 2012 Recap

13 Features
The Narrow Margin (1952) *****
Ink (2009) **
The Gunfight at Dodge City (1959) ***
Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) ****
Return to Oz (1985) ****
The Thin Man (1934) ****
The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) ****
Exit Smiling (1926) ****
Port of Shadows (1938) ****
Roman Holiday (1953) *****
Two O'Clock Courage (1945) ****
Desperate (1947) ****
The Black Book (1949) **

Smallville Season Five
Robin Hood
Wanted Dead or Alive
The Oscars

Girly Movie Catching Up Club.

I did finish Ink. I'm not going to write anything because I'm mostly in agreement with the haters. I refer you to Chris' posts.

I'll watch Brandon is Lonely later this week.

What's the next movie? I need to update my queue to get back on track. I'm ready for March Movie Madness!

My Essentials: Roman Holiday

It's hard to believe now that this soft romantic once maintained that he hated romantic comedies.

I was oh so ignorant.

About 15 years ago, I watched Roman Holiday. My hard cynicism was no match for the sneaky sincerity of this princess-meets-reporter joy ride. I was unprepared for a film that dared to explore real emotions in a real situation, laying the charm on heavy all while continuing to be real. Because in this tale, there is no escape from the drudgery of personal responsibility without consequences. There is a reluctant acceptance of the necessity of duty. And that was refreshing to this young man who had been lied to by so many foolish late 20th century romcoms.

I had never seen a romantic comedy that was this honest or, more importantly, this joyous. The romance that occurs is believable because we've seen the tangible joy involved in it.

I cry at the end of Roman Holiday. I try to hide it. It's still true. I blubber like a baby on the inside. Every time.

In the end, Roman Holiday is a brave movie. I admire its courage. Each time I see it, I am astonished that it ends the way it does.

Completely perfect and utterly essential.

A weekend to make up for a month

"Eat" may have been too strong of a word in describing the actions of my VHS player. "Chewed up and caught in its teeth" better describes what my VHS player did to Exit Smiling. After some careful extrication work, I was able to get the tape back where it should be. Then, I tried again. The worst that could happen was the same thing all over again. Fortunately, there was no further incident.

Exit Smiling uses dramatic irony just right. When our heroine saves the day at the last by using precisely those ambitions that she's been ridiculed for, she is never praised or rewarded. She's forgotten, unthanked, and left behind. There's a sweetness in this sadness, though, rooted in the unwavering positive attitude of our protagonist. She counts it all joy and so, by extension, must the audience.

Exit Smiling is thoroughly enjoyable in that "steady smile punctuated by guffaws" sort of way

Port of Shadows is enjoyable in a very different way. It is earthy and tough. Even the humor in it has a sharp edge.

Even so, there is a thematic connection between Smiling and Port. To paraphrase Port, that if we love life enough, maybe she'll love us back. Both protagonists make unselfish choices that end in personal loss. But, in the process of acting out these choices, they love and live brighter and louder and more truly than ever before. It is precisely in the moment of self-abegnation that these two are most fulfilled in their own selves.

In both films, it is the villainous characters who seek to fulfill their own selfish desires at the expense of others. It doesn't end well for these characters.

Spoilers for Port follow.

"It's horrible to love like Romeo when you look like Bluebeard!" may be my favorite line from Port of Shadows. The self-deception on display is epic. This man has a black heart, maybe blacker than Bluebeard's. Devoid of gratitude and convinced that it is his looks that make him unattractive, he is blind to his own moral failings as he expresses outrage at all others. When this man is killed in a fight over a girl, we do not shed any tears (though we may feel a twinge of sadness for this real character with complicated emotions and motivations).

When the protagonist dies nearly immediately afterward, we feel differently. The "simple twist of fate" that conspires against him is clear. Life may be a Bitch out to get him, but what's really clear here is that he's finally lived and loved worthily.

Mann-ic Month

It's fairly well-known that Anthony Mann had a good run of noir-ish 'b' pictures before making his masterpieces in the Western genre. Unfortunately, these pictures remain seldom seen. Fortunately, I had a chance to catch three of these mid-to-late-40s gems in the past few days.

Two O'Clock Courage could easily be described as 'screwball noir'. It's a murder mystery, cleverly developed in a unique way by having the main character start the film with amnesia. Much to his chagrin, this man with no memory finds himself the prime suspect in a murder investigation. After being nearly run over by an unusually attractive female cab driver, he is assisted by the same woman, quickly falling in love as the two navigate a world of mystery together. My brief synopsis doesn't do it justice. This film is a delight from start to finish.

Desperate is an example of the "screw your characters until it can't get any worse and then make it worse" genre. One bad event follows another. A good husband, married four months, takes on a delivery job to make some extra cash. Unknowingly, he's been drafted to help commit a crime. When he discovers what illegal activities he's been tricked into doing, he attempts to stop the activity instead of playing along. Things go bad from there. There's some nice character stuff here, but the real star is the atmosphere. It's thick, thick, thick with menace. Another joy from start to finish.

The Black Book is historical epic as noir, detailing the activity of a resistance group during the French "Reign of Terror". I hate to say that this one was a total disappointment. The history is simplistic. The character relationships are hard to care about. The dialogue is often goofy if not stupid. I'm not a fan. I'm not even a fan of the John Alton cinematography. No amount of prettily crafted shadows can save this stinker.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

February Failures

I'm not meant to watch movies in February.

I watched Buchanan Rides Alone way back at the beginning of the month. The whole movie is pleasurable, but the ending shootout across a bridge is sublime.

Ink crashed my computer.

I watched Return to Oz in preparation for writing a "My Essentials" post only to discover that I no longer consider this childhood favorite essential. I have become a grumpy old man.

I love The Thin Man. I'm embarrassed to say that I watched it in fits and starts, bits and pieces, five to ten minutes at a time. I couldn't concentrate. You know I'm going through a funk if Powell and Loy can't keep my attention.

I've been uninterested in Smallville, even though the past few episodes have been better than the filler episodes that have been all too common lately.

Arrietty was a delight. So, there's that.

I tried watching Texas Killing Fields. I got twenty minutes in and decided that I didn't care about it and didn't want to put in any more effort. I stopped watching.

I watched a few episodes of the TV series Wanted Dead or Alive. It's decent. It's easy to forgive slight flaws when you've got so much packed into 25 minutes.

I'm off today and was all excited to attack a pile of TCM recordings on VHS that my mother sent to me. I got about twenty minutes into Exit Smiling, a silent comedy, and was really enjoying it. I pressed stop to leave the room to use the bathroom. Instead of just stopping, the VHS player ejected the tape and decided to eat part of the tape in the process. Now, I can't finish the movie and I'm afraid to put any other tapes in the machine. I'm reminded now of one more reason why I was so happy to leave VHS behind.

I haven't watched Lonely are the Brave. I've got no NWI. I'm tempted to cancel my disc plan, too. Port of Shadows is still sitting on the shelf unwatched.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The death of the Western

Like the rest of y'all, I'm looking forward to Brandon's reporting to us as he explores the 1960s. Maybe more than the rest of you, I'm interested in the Westerns he'll write about.

I just now finished watching The Gunfight at Dodge City. Directed by a "b" movie workman. Featuring a screenplay by one of the guys who cooked up the story for The Narrow Margin. The DP worked on B-pictures and settled in TV work. I'm not sure what sort of box office draw McCrea had in '59, but I doubt that he was at the top of the list at this time. All this to say, Gunfight is firmly a B oater. As such, it is, of course, thoroughly enjoyable.

More than this, though, I was struck by how self-aware the script is. This isn't quite some pop po-mo meta-Western. It's really not that at all. But, it does play with the genre in a self-conscious way. It suffers some as a talky picture. There's a lot of talk about what makes a man and what constitutes a position of authority and different types of people. There's a really obvious moment when the saloon mistress talks about the corrupt sheriff switching his hats from white to black depending on whom he's interacting with.

The thing resolves neatly in a standard street gunfight, but the unalloyed heroism of the moment is undercut by an unusual voiceover narration that repeats an important pre-credits monologue about killing men that the film starts with.

At another moment, McCrea's Bat Masterson gives a speech about his take on law enforcement being that "there's a law" and that it "will be enforced." Later, however, when the law is used maliciously against a friend, Masterson turns his back on enforcement in favor something right apart from and against the civil law.

I'm just pecking out impressions. I don't think that Gunfight is much more than an enjoyable (and in so many ways typical) standard Western film. I do find it interesting as a signpost on the road of the Western no longer believing in some of its tropes in an entirely unexamined way. Mann and Boetticher and old masters like Ford and Hawks were similarly challenging the foundations of the Western in a grander way. Peckinpah and Leone would eventually continue the dismantling through the 60s (even as dudes like Hathaway would stubbornly assert the old ways).

I'm not sure what I'm getting at. I'm rambling. I guess that I'm just agreeing with Brandon that something transitional was happening around '59-'60. Take a look at the 500 Westerns page. Look at the old masters still making Westerns in '59, then look at the lists from the following years. There's a sea change. How the West Was Won is the big bloated end of the old Western in '62. The new style and new themes had already been intimated throughout the 50s, but they explode in the 60s and 70s as the former "purer" unselfconscious ways fade away. By '69, the Western had completely died. Of course, I believe in resurrection. The Western was reborn and transformed even as it was dying. It lives strong now. There have been multiple deaths and resurrections since the 70s (just as there were in different ways pre-50s; transition to sound, maturing of themes, etc). Quantity may be lacking at this point in film history, but we've been blessed with quality. The Coens' True Grit is about as good as it gets. Meek's Cutoff is a tremendous achievement in transforming and maturing the genre in a direction that has never fully been explored. No film project has me more excited than thinking about Aaron Katz shooting a Western. The genre has died many times. It is alive and well in 2012.

End ramble.

Friday, February 10, 2012

My Essentials: The Narrow Margin

Brandon started his "essentials" posts a couple of years ago now (though he hasn't had any recently). It's about time I imitated his example.

The Narrow Margin is essential.

I admit to being predisposed to like it.

I lived right next to a train station for about half of my life.

I love train movies. The Lady Vanishes might be my favorite Hitchcock film. I'm the only one in CR5FC to defend Unstoppable. I'd love to get the chance to see James Benning's RR. I sometimes spend half an afternoon meditating on the idea of RR. I often dream of trains.

The train is the constant presence in Narrow Margin. The sound of it is always present. The narrow confines of the train naturally limit the action; the environment bottles up actualities until the pressure is unbearable. Within this space and this time, something MUST surely happen.

A gangster's widow is willing to testify in a court of law. Ruthless men are willing to kill her to prevent this. One policeman, Detective Seargent Walter Brown, is charged with stopping this from happening. He doesn't like the woman he's protecting. He doesn't like his situation.

Narrow Margin rides the noir rails right to the end. Characters are never quite what they seem. Black and white are all mixed up in shades of gray (or maybe Brown?). The world, unlike the train, goes off the rails at times.

Brown does what is right because it's right. Decidedly not because he likes it. It's often a character flaw (often a weakness for a woman) that gets noir men in trouble. Just as often, the strong noir men are strong because they've clung to a moral code even when it doesn't feel good and is not easy.

This widow doesn't seem to deserve kindness. Her existence and predicament are the cause of Brown's partner's death. A good man dies. A worthless woman lives.

Brown knows that it is his job to risk his life for the worst of the worst.

He knows that compromising his code to give up the worst, even to give them over to the natural conclusion of what their life has been, is worse than death. Given a task, a man must perform it with integrity.

So, the code is still black and white. There's often only a narrow margin between the two colors, but the distinction remains. The world in which this code is played out, however, is a wash of gray.

Finally, isn't Marie Windsor one of the greatest actresses ever?

Don't read anything else about this film. Avoid spoilers. Watch it because I told you to. Because out of all the movies out there, this one is... Essential.