Saturday, June 26, 2010

Alphabetical film festival

I decided to take advantage of some re-arranging of our basement to finally attempt to organize our DVD collection. The first thing I did was to take our favorite films and put them together upstairs. Now the problem is, what makes a DVD a "favorite"? For the purposes of our home furnishings, a favorite is a movie that we would like easy access to because we're likely to watch it often. There are movies I like and appreciate, like L'Avventura or The Bank Dick or The Scarlet Empress, that I'm glad we own because I'll want to see them again, but they're not ones I'd pull off the shelf with frequency.

It wasn't hard to pick 100 or so discs to put on three shelves upstairs (and, to be honest, most of these are my favorites--Don pretty much goes along with me when it comes to classic movie favorites, and I was kind enough to let him include films like Chicken Run and The Incredibles, movies I'd never choose to watch a second time, let alone 6 or 8 or 10 times, on these shelves). Then Don had a flash of inspiration: we should spend the next several months watching all our favorites in alphabetical order as they appear on the shelves.

Easy enough, it would seem. So we embarked on our little festival. As we made our way through "A," however, I realized there was a problem. Some films that we would certainly count as favorites are either part of a boxed set (such as the Marx Brothers' Animal Crackers) and stored elsewhere or are shelved in our Horror Movies collection upstairs (Angel Heart). The solution is allowing ourselves, when we come to the end of a letter, to search through our other "holdings" to see if we've missed a movie that should be on our favorites shelves. We’re planning on making ourselves watch each movie in its turn; the only exception we’ll allow is if we’ve seen the movie already in the past 6 months or so. We’ve also decided that if we come to a film and don’t want to watch it, we’ll remove it from our favorites shelf.

So I’m going to try and write at least a little about each movie we watch over the next several months. I have a difficult time writing critically about movies that I have loved and that have been part of my movie-watching DNA for a long time, but here I can post at least a sentence or two, and wax poetic if I feel the need. If the films are not in strictest alphabetical order, it’s because we’ve backtracked to include those missing films from other shelves:

AIRPLANE!: Along with Blazing Saddles, the best of the self-referential Hollywood satires. Actually, this one isn’t so much a satire as a parody since it’s simply making fun of specific genre conventions (in this case, disaster films) rather than making any kind of pointed commentary about the genres (which Blazing Saddles does, but more on that in the B’s). The silly, scattershot jokes still hold up: the couple arguing over the loudspeakers about what goes on in the red and white zones, the soldier who thinks he’s Ethel Merman, the black jive talkers who have to be translated for the white stewardess. The running gags involving pilot Peter Graves and the little boy he takes a shine to (“Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?”) are still funny but also a little shocking, and I don’t think they could get away with these lines in a movie made today. It’s great fun to see serious actors like Graves and Robert Stack and Leslie Nielsen make fun of their personas, though this became Neilsen’s stock in trade for the next 20 years. And whatever happened to the handsome and charismatic Robert Hays?

ALL ABOUT EVE: Still probably the wittiest Hollywood movie ever, with tons of quotable lines, though many don’t mean much without the context of the film behind them:

“Fasten your seat belts--it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

“You’re maudlin and full of self-pity--you’re magnificent!”

“She’s a girl of so many rare qualities.”

“The atmosphere is very Macbeth-ish...”

“You have a point; an idiotic one, but a point.”

“She looks like she might burn down a plantation” (said about Marilyn Monroe)

“Where is Princess Fire and Music?”

The story, about an aging actress who becomes the object of devious machinations by a novice actress who wants to take over her next stage role, remains interesting, largely because the characters are all so interesting. And while the writing is enormously rich, it’s the delivery by a great cast that really makes this worth watching over and over. Bette Davis is spectacular and remarkably watchable in every scene she’s in (which is most of them), Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter are wonderful, and Anne Baxter and Gary Merrill are solid (though the less said about Hugh Marlowe as the playwright, the better), but the real secret weapon in the film for my money is George Sanders as the nasty but powerful drama critic Addison DeWitt. His every line reading drips with acid, he makes his stock character fully dimensional (a careful viewer will realize he’s not quite as evil as he’s made out to be by Davis and Merrill), and he and Baxter (pictured above) are absolutely thrilling in their climactic verbal battle in her New Haven hotel room. That scene is first-class acting and helped win Sanders a much-deserved Oscar for the film. I could watch this film once a month.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The End of Charlie Chan?

The Charlie Chan series had something of a bad reputation for a while, not because they're bad movies (most of them are perfectly acceptable B-range detective films) but because the lead character, a Chinese police inspector who lives in Hawaii, was always played by an Anglo actor in "slant-eyed" makeup and with a heavy halting accent. Yes, to modern audiences, this can come off as uncomfortable at best and offensively racist at worst, and I understand why some people choose not to view these films. The fact is that in 30's and 40's Hollywood, an Asian actor would never have been cast in a lead role, so Chan would never have hit the big screen at all if a white actor hadn't played the part. And the movies did provide some jobs for Asian actors; Keye Luke and Victor Sen Yung got started by playing sons of Chan, and both went on to long acting careers. Though Chan's sons were usually buffoonish comic characters, they were also very modernized (and Americanized) characters, and their buffoonery was related not to their race but to their youthful age and inexperience. In several of the films of the 30's, Chan would sometimes be the victim of casual racism, and his character would always remain dignified and ultimately always got the upper hand over the racist.

Several years ago, Fox Movie Channel ran restored prints of many of the Chan films and caught some flack in the media for doing so. Eventually, however, all of the existing 23 Chan movies made by Fox from 1930 to 1942 (a couple of early ones are missing) would wind up on DVD in very nicely packaged boxed sets, all of which include interesting extras, including featurettes and commentaries. Warner Oland played Chan for most of the run until his death in 1938, after which Sidney Toler took over. In 1944, the series, with Toler still in the lead, went to poverty row studio Monogram with some drop in quality--though truth to tell, Fox had been producing the films on the cheap for several years, so over the entire run, the drop in quality seems gradual rather than sudden. A boxed set called The Charlie Chan Chanthology from MGM (which is now out of print) included 6 of the Monogram films. Before the series finally ended in 1949, 11 more followed with Toler, and after his death in 1947, Roland Winters. These have been difficult to run across, but now 4 of those films have been released in a set as a part of the TCM Spotlight series from Warner Home Video. The fact that it's called simply Charlie Chan Collection without a "Volume 1" subtitle appended doesn't give me hope that the rest of the Monogram films will wind up on DVD soon, but you never know. And though these films don't measure up to the best of the Fox Chans, two of them are actually quite enjoyable, and the other two are, if nothing else, interesting for completist fans.

Three of these films, all from 1946, feature Sidney Toler and all more or less follow the same simple formula: someone is threatened, someone is murdered, Chan takes on the case, often as a favor to the local police, and one of his sons winds up bumbling around playing detective and getting in trouble. All three films have a little something in them to make each stand out a bit. The best of the batch is Dark Alibi, in which Chan works to figure out how innocent men are being framed for bank robberies--it turns out that someone is expertly faking fingerprints left at the scene. Eventually there is a murder, some scenes in an atmospheric theatrical warehouse, and a well-shot truck chase at the climax. Mantan Moreland, one in a string of black actors who provided the stereotypical lazy and/or scared valet or driver or butler in many of the Chan films, plays Birmingham Brown; he is paired here with Ben Carter as his brother and the two do some nice double-talk scenes--and to his credit, Moreland grates on the nerves much less than Stepin Fetchit does in Charlie Chan in Egypt. The real highlight of the film is the very last shot in which Chan actually enters into the double-talk conversation, looks at the camera and says how nice it is to talk to people who understand him! Benson Fong is son Tommy Chan, and he is the least Americanized of the Chan sons, retaining more of an accent than any of the others who played sons.

Dangerous Money begins with a wonderfully atmospheric scene on a fogbound ocean liner as a Treasury agent, on the trail of some "hot money" and stolen art, is knifed to death on deck. Here we have a traditional situation in which the detective and the suspects are stuck together in a single isolated setting, which you would think would be good for the mystery plot, but really isn't. The suspects are a rather dismal lot, though there is a kinky little surprise near the end when one of the women is unmasked as a man in drag (it's not really be a surprise, but it's a fun moment nonetheless). The bumbling idiots this time around are Victor Sen Yung as Jimmy Chan and Willie Best as Chattanooga Brown, Chan's valet. There are fish in an ichthyology museum stuffed with stolen money and a mildly amusing scene in which Best fights a stuffed octopus (which reminded me of poor Bela Lugosi's more seriously intended octopus scene in Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster).

The Trap has another group of suspects in a isolated setting: a Malibu beach house where a group of chorus girls are staying with their bandleader, press agent, doctor, and wardrobe mistress, resting up before the next tour. Marcia is the much-disliked star of the show who at least two of the girls wouldn't mind seeing dead; she knows some secrets about the others that they don't want revealed. When Lois is found dead, strangled after doing some dirty work for Marcia, suspicion is placed on the Chinese and French girls (San Toy and Adelaide), since garroting is an exotic foreign method of murder. San Toy calls her boyfriend Jimmy Chan to help out, and Charile and Birmingham show up as well, just in time for Marcia's dead body to be found. The group of suspects is a little more colorful here than in Dangerous Money, and Yung and Moreland are about as tolerable as they were in the other films. Minerva Urecal plays the landlady, who comes off a little like a fat Mrs. Danvers (from Rebecca). Kirk Alyn, whose claim to fame is being the first actor to play a live-action Superman (in a 40's serial), is a cop. Supposedly, Toler was so sick with the intestinal cancer that killed him just a few months after shooting wrapped that he could barely stand up or deliver his lines, but any drop-off in Toler's acting as Chan had, in my eyes, been happening gradually during his tenure in the role, so I couldn't tell that he was appreciably worse here. In fact, this is overall one of the better Toler Monogram films, and along with Dark Alibi, a highlight of the set.

The last film in the box, The Chinese Ring (1947), is the first one with Roland Winters (at right) playing Chan. A Chinese princess visiting Chan at his house in San Francisco is killed via poison dart in Chan's study. As she's dying, she scrawls "Capt. K" on a piece of paper. Of course, there are two "Captain Ks" among the suspects, one of them played by Philip Ahn, a Korean-American actor who went on to play Master Kan on the TV show Kung Fu. Moreland and Yung are back, going through their sidekick paces to even less effect than usual. Winters, another Anglo actor, seems quite uncomfortable as Chan. When Toler took over for Oland, the change was barely noticeable as the two men's looks, make-up, builds, and voices weren't that different; here, Winters seems like he's playing a completely different character--and indeed, the plot is actually a remake of Mr. Wong in Chinatown, one in another Monogram series about a Chinese detective, played by Boris Karloff. This film, though worth watching for die-hard Chan fans, does not make me want to see any of the other Winters films.

The biggest surprise here is how stylish and well directed most of these films are, much more so than almost any other Monogram films, and even more than some of the later Fox films. The plots and actors are par for the course, but these films utilize better sets than usual and there are some interesting camera movements from time to time. Sadly, there are no extras at all, so this set can hardly be seen as a must-have for classic detective-film buffs (unlike the Fox sets), but the prints are mostly in excellent shape. Only a handful of Chan films remain unavailable on DVD, mostly with Roland Winters; for the sake of the series, it would be nice to have the rest, but this one could stand as a fitting epitaph if no more are forthcoming.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Retellings 2: "All this talk of blood and slaying has put me off my tea."

Disney has done a retelling of a classic story that they themselves told over 50 years ago: Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. This might be the first time Disney has remade one of their own classic-era movies, though calling this a remake of their 1951 film is a bit of a stretch: the original was an animated musical, whereas this version, directed by Tim Burton, is not a musical and is only partly animated, using a mix of CGI and live action. Without rehashing too much of my recent review of two earlier Alice films, the challenge of adapting Carroll's work (most versions incorporate the original Wonderland story and its sequel Through the Looking Glass) is that there really is no traditional narrative arc. Alice's adventures are dreamlike, not logical, and don't exactly have rising and falling action or climaxes. Burton's version has some pluses, but stumbles in its use of a logical storyline with overused elements of quest and coming-of-age narratives.

In this version, set in the Victorian age in which Carroll's books are set, Alice is a teenage girl on the verge of womanhood; at a big summer lawn party, her simp of a boyfriend is set to propose publicly, but she's not ready for marriage. During the party, she sees a white rabbit in a waistcoat hopping through the shrubs and follows him down a rabbit hole to Wonderland (or Underland, as its inhabitants call it). The cleverest conceit here is that Alice has been here before, in half-remembered dreams from her childhood, and all the folks she runs into, from the Rabbit to the Caterpillar to the Mad Hatter, keep asking if she's the right Alice. Of course, she has to come to realize who she really is and embrace her destiny, which is to free the Wonderlanders from the tyranny of the Red Queen by fighting the monstrous Jabberwocky with the Vorpal Sword, as foretold by a magical manuscript.

The best part of the film is the first half-hour or so, before the narrative kicks in, when Burton is more or less directly adapting Carroll. The atmosphere is appropriately magical and a little creepy, and the characters are realized wonderfully, most of them acted by people in motion-capture outfits and produced on screen by a combination of live faces and CGI bodies. Best are Alan Rickman as the Caterpillar and Stephen Fry as The Cheshire Cat. Of the two name-above-the-title stars, Helena Bonham-Carter shines brightest as the whimsically wicked Queen; Johnny Depp, as the Hatter, seems to be acting (or overacting) in a whole different film, one in which he might have been good, but it's not this one. A little bit of Depp in an orange fright wig and crazy green eyes goes a long way, and by the end I had lost all interest in both Depp and the quest storyline. Anne Hathaway as the White Queen is supposed to be a "good guy," but she's actually rather creepy; ironically, an actor who has made a career out of creepy roles, Crispin Glover, is remarkably understated as Stayne, assistant to the Red Queen. Mia Wasikowski does a very nice job as Alice. Visually, Burton comes close to getting it right, but he needed a different screenplay. This is now in DVD from Disney, though not in 3D as it was exhibited theatrically.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Retellings 1: "When the wolfbane blooms"

Two recent event movies have just been issued on DVD (one was a hit, one was not) and both are retellings of classic stories. The Wolfman continues Universal Studios' misguided attempts at revitalizing their horror franchises of the 30's and 40's, though this one gets marks for atmosphere and for sticking with the original storyline. Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr. in the 40's, Benico Del Toro here) returns to the family mansion on the moors after his brother is found dead and horribly mutilated. His father (Claude Rains then, Anthony Hopkins now) welcomes him with not quite fully open arms, and he gets involved with an old gypsy woman (in 1941, the wonderful Maria Ouspenskaya; in 2010, the very good Geraldine Chaplin) and an attractive young woman named Gwen (Evelyn Ankers/Emily Blunt, both of whom are stuck in thankless roles). Talbot winds up getting bitten by a wolfman and turns into one himself, with tragic consequences.

The biggest difference between the two versions, aside from the obvious upgrade in makeup and gore effects in the current film (and the new movie making "wolfman" one word rather than two), is the identity of the lycanthrope who gives Talbot the bite. [SPOILER] In the Chaney version, it's the gypsy woman's son, a relatively unimportant character played by Bela Lugosi; here, it's Talbot's father, which could have been an interesting twist if the screenplay had actually made either the son or father a rounded character. But that doesn't happen. I have never liked Del Toro, as I find him to be an mumbling, unattractive, uncharismatic block of wood, but at least here, he doesn't mumble. Hopkins is very good as usual; it seems as if he's operating at half-speed, but his half-speed is just dandy. (At least he's not just phoning it in, as Michael Caine and Sean Connery do sometimes.) Emily Blunt, who I like, is totally wasted.

There are two other good things here. One is the gray Gothic atmosphere--I'm kinda tired of all the color-leaching that's the craze these days, turning all action movies into gray-blue-white with occasional blood-red smudges across the screen, but it works here. The other is the wolfman makeup and effects in general. Especially effective is the way the beast runs, starting on two legs then crouching down to four. It's obviously CGI but it works. The DVD contains a longer unrated director's cut which is usually the occasion for harder-than-R-rated gore, but here, much of the missing footage is actually interesting backstory in the beginning which helps us understand the characters a bit more, and contains a nifty cameo by Max Von Sydow who is missing from the theatrical cut. Next time, Tim Burton's Alice.