Friday, April 19, 2013

March 2013

For a variety of reasons, I saw only one new release in the theater this month. That's OK—I have about a million movies on my hard drive. Funny how certain stars—Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotten, Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck—kept cropping up. Here's what I saw in March.

STOKER (2013)—This film's trailer advertises it as a creepy psychological horror story, and certainly that's what it wants to be, or should have been. Indeed, elements of the film are undeniably beguiling. Nicole Kidman's husband has died, and she shares her home with an unsmiling, resentful daughter (Mia Masikowska). Enter Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), the dead husband's brother, whom nobody seems to have known about (the first of several implausibilities in this picture). Charlie is a handsome, smooth-talking figure who attracts both women, adding a touch of incestuousness to the proceedings. But is Charlie what he appears to be? Of course not. The movie takes its sweet time revealing the mystery; director Chan-wook Park, in his first English-language movie, is preoccupied with style, style, style, and doesn't bring enough cold-blooded terror to the table. Good performances from the leads, however. (6)

SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943)—Alfred Hitchcock frequently called this his favorite of all the films he directed, and by and large, it's an expertly crafted thriller, featuring Teresa Wright as a California girl whose mysterious Uncle Charlie—that's right, I saw two creepy Uncle Charlie movies in a row—comes to town. The viewer is tipped at the very beginning that Joseph Cotten is very likely a Boston Strangler-type killer, and the cops are hot on his trail. He tries to blend in with the residents of Santa Rosa and his blood relatives, but his pretty niece slowly starts to piece together the truth. This was a lively, old-fashioned thriller that only lost me at the very end, with its preposterous, though typically Hitchockian, finale, which takes place on a train (where else?). Interesting to see Hume Cronyn in his film debut. (8)

GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT (1946)—The year's Best Picture winner is an agonizingly dated affair, with Gregory Peck as a journalist who pretends to be Jewish in order to write a magazine exposé about anti-Semitism in America. I know this was considered a heavy, controversial film in its time, but it is unbelievably tame now and frankly quite ponderous throughout. (Wouldn't an actual Jew be able to write a much more compelling article?) There's a love story between Peck and Dorothy McGuire that starts off nicely but the two leads end up bickering through most of the film, and Peck becomes massively boring and self-righteous. (At one point, there's a conversation about somebody who told an off-color ethnic joke, and you'd think they were discussing the Holocaust.) There are some nicely written scenes amid all this, but overall, I was way too irritated by the anachronisms and self-righteousness. (5)

SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN (2012)—Here's the real-life story of Rodriguez, a very talented folk guitarist-songwriter who failed to sell many copies of his two LPs back in the early '70s, but who gained notoriety in South Africa. Decades after he was rumored to have killed himself onstage, some fans decide to track down the real story of their musical hero, and uncover some startling facts about him. This documentary is constructed as a kind of mystery story, and the light that's shed on it is revelatory—as is the striking music made by the singer at the center of it. Spellbinding, confounding and ultimately moving, this film is a genuine stunner. (9)

THE ADMIRABLE CRICHTON (1957)—I've now seen Kenneth More in several films, including Genevieve (1953), The Thirty-Nine Steps (1959) and The Greengage Summer (1961). He was an extremely popular British performer and the star of dozens of movies, but I've never been able to get used to him onscreen—I don't really like the look of him. Having said that, he's quite good in this remake of J. M. Barrie's 1902 stage comedy. I first became aware of it when John Cleese (as Basil Fawlty) mentioned it on Fawlty Towers, sarcastically referring to his bumbling manservant Manuel. In The Admirable Crichton, a butler finds himself stranded on a deserted island with his high-society overlords, but quickly finds himself in charge when he proves infinitely more resourceful and cunning than his spoiled and elegant employers. It's an entertaining lark with a bit of a romantic subplot thrown in. (8)

THE ABCS OF DEATH (2013)—A horror anthology in 26 parts, one for each letter of the alphabet. It's an extremely mixed bag—there are numerous foreign-language segments (including Spanish, French Japanese); a few are wordless, many are surreal and/or bizarre in nature, and there are occasional stabs at comedy, a couple of animated efforts, and wildly uneven degrees of quality. Not one is truly horrifying or suspenseful; it's more of a gross-out movie than anything else, with lots of gore, blood, vomit, shit, flatulence…even adolescent boys' sweat licked off a gymnasium bench by a perverted janitor. About 11 of the segments I felt were at least worth watching, while the rest were too bizarre, foolish, childish, self-referential or inane for my taste. The highlights involve a slow-motion dogfight ("D is for Dogfight"), a man with an unwanted spider in his apartment ("E is for Exterminate"), a talking bird that doesn't know when to shut up ("N is for Nuptials"), and a Mexican woman forced into prostitution—and worse—in order to feed her kids ("P is for Pressure"). And this may be the first major release to bring the unjustly neglected topic of erotic Japanese lesbian flatulence-sniffing to the screen ("F is for Fart"). (6)

O (2001)—This modern-day retelling of Shakespeare's Othello has been on my radar since it was released. In this version, Mekhi Phifer  is a black high-school basketball player who has a beautiful girlfriend (Julia Stiles), a best-friend teammate (Andrew Keegan) and another very jealous teammate (Josh Hartnett) who conspires to make Phifer go nuts by making him think his squeeze and best pal are doing the mattress mambo. Held back from its initial release because of the Columbine shootings (it was completed in 1999), it's quite dramatic and well acted—I'm glad I finally got around to viewing it. (8)

SCREAM OF FEAR (1961)—An absorbing, very well-plotted Hammer shocker, but the same capsule film review that inspired my viewing of it actually spoiled the twist ending! The paralyzed daughter of a man she hasn't seen in years begins to suspect that foul play is afoot when she comes to visit. Could the disarmingly friendly stepmom actually be behind it? A beautiful girl, some creepy goings-on, an undetermined evil…all the right ingredients, and it would been even better had I not known about the finale. (8)

THE FURIES (1950)—I had never even heard about this Western before I stumbled onto a very positive capsule review of it. I found it online, downloaded and watched it fairly quickly, and…wow! What a perfectly acted, involving drama in the desert! Walter Huston runs his cattle ranch, known as The Furies, with his daughter (Barbara Stanwyck), and as much as they adore each other, there's a big conflict on the horizon. This movie has it all—greed, selfishness, spite, lust, all of the greatest human emotions! I enjoyed it so much that I totally abandoned my "must-see movies" list and turned my attention to movies written by Niven Busch (author of the novel on which this movie is based). (10)

DUEL IN THE SUN (1946)—Amazingly, the second of four Niven Busch-authored films turns out to be another soapy classic! Jennifer Jones is a half-breed orphan who goes to live on a ranch owned by some family "friends," two of which include Gregory Peck, playing an enormous a-hole, and his dad Lionel Barrymore, playing an exact replica of wheelchair-bound Mr. Potter from It's a Wonderful Life (this was released the same year!). Nice-guy Joseph Cotten and mom Lillian Gish represent the kinder part of the family. More lust, more scandal, more greed…and it's even got Walter Huston from The Furies! Director Martin Scorsese claims this was the first movie he ever saw, and it remains one of his very favorites. (10)

PURSUED (1947)—Another excellent Niven Busch Western. Here he contributes an original screenplay rather than the source novel; it features Robert Mitchum as an innocent cowboy targeted for murder by a jerk (Dean Jagger), which puts a damper on Bob's romance with Teresa Wright. Superbly paced drama told largely in flashbacks. (9)

TILL THE END OF TIME (1946)—Fourth and final Niven Busch film (based on his novel They Dreamed of Home) isn't a Western, but a postwar drama about what happens after several soldiers (among them Guy Madison and Robert Mitchum) return home after WWII. But mostly it's about cigarette-smoking war widow Dorothy McGuire and her romance with one the marines. Compared favorably by critics to The Best Years of Our Lives, an extremely similar story and much more popular movie than this, although End of Time came first. I found it a bit draggy and uninteresting, although the ending picks up a bit. I have amassed a few more Busch movies, which I hope to get to in the weeks and months ahead. (6)