June 25, 2011

Rear Window (1954)

I'm sorry to say I only had room for one Hitchcock picture on this list, and Rear Window seemed like it would be the most representative.  He is the "master of suspense" after all, and in Rear Window - a movie in which basically nothing happens for one and a half hours - he very nearly succeeds in producing suspense devoid of context, right out of thin air.  This he manages through the meticulous presentation of information; taking care in what we know, and when, and how.  Sometimes James Stewart will take a moment to brief another character (and us) on the story so far, but initially we are allowed to discover almost everything on our own, just by watching.  Soon his questions become our questions, and we are drawn in through participation.  And as the benign alternatives are gradually eliminated, suspense is not built by shadows or scary music, but by logic.  The movie would never work if Hitchcock didn't trust us to draw our own conclusions, or if we were too lazy to draw them.

On the Waterfront (1954)

A rough, boorish and callous film, not always easy to approach or relate to - like many of its characters.  If the bleak, almost cheap-looking photography doesn't make the point, the music should do the rest (by Leonard Bernstein, composer of West Side Story).  It's sparse, but quite overbearing when it appears, almost to the point of absurdity.  Definitely not pretty, but it drives home the point that this is not a refined story about refined characters.  None of them are masters at what they are doing, but instead often flailing about as they take their first steps into new territory.

June 23, 2011

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

I find it fascinating that, so far, most of the movies chosen for being the most financially successful of their decade have been among the least well remembered.  I'd never even heard of Mickey or The Big Parade before starting my research, and The Best Years of Our Lives only sounded hazily familiar.  Some featureless drama among many; fodder for AMC/TCM.  Yet both Mickey and Big Parade turned out to be my favorite movie of their respective decade, and, while I'd be pushing it to rate The Best Year of Our Lives above Casablana or Kane, it was certainly a pleasant surprise.  A warm, unassuming slice of Americana, devoid of artistic ambition perhaps, but also of ego or cynical manipulation.  Oh, it's manipulative alright, and oh-so-convenient, but not cynical about it.  It's just that it has a little less than three hours to tell over 15 million stories.

June 19, 2011

Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and Double Indemnity

Well, I've recently returned from an Alaskan cruise with my family, which I wish I could blame for not writing more reviews.  But truthfully it's been a combination of laziness and some trepidation in finding something worth writing about some of the most written-about movies ever produced.  Not to mention that, as I said in an earlier post, the history of movies from Birth of a Nation to Gone with the Wind felt like a fairly tidy whole.  To go beyond that is a little like starting again, but this time pushing off into broader, darker, and more tumultuous waters.  Which I imagine is much like what filmmakers of the time felt like as well.

Again, there is little I could say about these mega-classics that hasn't already been said.  So I just want to summarize some of my strongest reactions to each.

April 30, 2011

His Girl Friday (1940)

I've been slacking with my reviews lately.  I blame Gone with the Wind.  It was just so... so... much, that after that other movies just seem too mundane to be worth commenting on.  In fact it felt much like this film project was already over, because we have, if you think about it, already come full circle.  Sixteen weeks ago we saw the also epic and industry-defining The Birth of a Nation, which even shares many story elements with Gone with the Wind, especially in the first and early second acts.  From those primitive beginnings, pretty much all the major filmmaking techniques have now been realized.  Everything D. W. Griffith set out to do has been revisited and perfected is one monumental effort.  At least according to the standards of the time, Gone with the Wind was very much the Ultimate Movie.

So where do we go from here?  I realize now that the '30s really were the true Golden Age of Hollywood; the period that is the most "classic."  What sets the next phase of film history apart is a more visible effort to push boundaries; deconstruct old ideas; play with form and tone.  Because, in the wake of the Ultimate Movie, what else was there to do?

April 17, 2011

Gone with the Wind (1939)

So, that was Gone with the Wind, was it?  Far more complicated than I expected.  On just about every level.  I don't even know where to begin.

I guess I'll start with Scarlett.  Lots of people seem to hate her (such as my wife).  I didn't.  I didn't like her either - she's hardly a very sympathetic person (and would likely scorn you for pitying her).  But I think the movie's portrayal of her speaks well of it, and is indicative of its general approach.  While there are rose-colored glasses aplenty for the fairy tale of the Old South and especially that whole slavery thing, regarding its leads I found the movie impressively observant and even handed.  Scarlett is simply presented as a hard-headed woman with "gumption," as the novel's author, Margaret Mitchell, put it; neither demonized nor sugar-coated.  The consequences of her actions do not leave any single, simplistic conclusion to draw about her, except that she's complicated and willful and fun to watch.  As Garry Marshall put it in the movie Soapdish: "Stable?  I'm stable.  Who wants to watch me on television?"

Gone With the Wind (1939)

Let me preface this review by saying that the movie wasn't as bad as I remembered it being.  Don't get me wrong - I still didn't like it - but this time I dislike it for different reasons than I used to.  This is interesting to me, because ordinarily if I don't like a movie I simply never watch it again.  So this is quite possibly the first time I've ever rewatched a movie I didn't like, and therefore I am a bit surprised at what I took away from it.

April 14, 2011

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

In which images of patriotism evoke a craving for mystery meat, Frank Capra demonstrates his eerie precognition skills, country bumpkins become U.S. senators, and politics is SERIOUS BUSINESS.  Intrigued?  Then it’s time for Mandie to review Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.