It’s A Wonderful Life

Dir: Frank Capra, 1946. Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers. Classics.

Somehow I never got hip to It’s A Wonderful Life until more recent years. Though it’s been a Christmas season staple ever since the 1970s when its copyright fell into the public domain, it managed to elude me my entire childhood. I think I may have blown it off as corny or lightweight, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s A Wonderful Life, besides being incredibly moving, has themes that still pack a wallop.

On first viewing it may take some nudging to get past the set up concerning stars talking and angels and what not. The Our Town piece of Americana, its lovable small town, seems overly clichéd at first glance until you realize this is the movie that invented it. There is a reason these ideas are now called "Capraesque." This and other films (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Meet John Doe, etc.) established director Frank Capra and his wholesome characters whose decent values can take on the world as a style all its own. And then the great Jimmy Stewart enters the picture and anchors it with an epic performance.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Dec 16, 2010 5:10pm

Strangers on a Train

Dir: Alfred Hitchcock, 1951. Starring: Robert Walker, Farley Granger, Marion Lorne, Ruth Roman. Classics.

For some perverse reason I’ve never been much of a Hitchcock fanatic. It’s cinephile heresy to say so, I know, but his films, for the most part, just leave me cold. Most are beautiful, icy, and calculating experiments in psychological terror and you can’t really argue with that nifty a gimmick. But it’s the way he approached character in such clinical fashion that has always led me to stick up for his slightly less celebrated contemporaries (Nicholas Ray comes to mind). The artistry of his psychological subtext can be bewitching (as with Vertigo) or chilling (as in Psycho), but I find their formalism alienating or perhaps only in relation to their director’s iconic status. I’d rather watch Johnny Guitar or In a Lonely Place over any Hitchcock film any time.

With Hitchcock plot seemed to take precedence over character. It’s as if he started with the devising of an elaborate trap and then got around to filling it in with a variety of types. I’ve always thought that to Hitchcock characters were victims there to be fixed onto a fresh web of plot and observed as some kind of predator crept up to feast. There is plenty of psychological depth to his characters - think Jimmy Stewart’s unforgettable haunted detective in Vertigo - but not a whole lot of warmth or charm or whatever it is that makes us like a character, monster and hero alike. As a contrast, this was never the way with Welles who reveled in the vulnerability of even his most diabolical heavies. Hitchcock, like his artistic descendant David Lynch, loved to find the perverse in the ostensibly “normal” but the ultimate point was more akin to an extremely dark joke than a tragedy. He was not really any kind of humanist. He is, after all, the director who famously said all actors should be treated like cattle.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Dec 7, 2010 5:17pm

March Of The Wooden Soldiers

Dir: Gus Meins, Charley Rogers, 1934. Starring: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Charlotte Henry, Henry Brandon. Classics.

There’s a strange history of strange little holiday/family/fantasy films where the concepts were so "out there" you have to wonder, what were they thinking? From Santa Claus Conquers The Martians to that Michael Keaton reincarnated as a snowman flick, Jack Frost, there's a long list of these oddities. Perhaps one of the first and best is the bizarre Laurel & Hardy vehicle March of the Wooden Soldiers (originally it had the same title as Victor Herbert's 1903 operetta it's kinda-sorta based on, Babes in Toyland). For decades this has had perennial holiday showings on television (with different versions, all with different lengths) so now it's probably one of the best known Laurel & Hardy feature films.

The plot goes something like this... Living in a Shrek-like Mother Goose all-star fantasy town called Toyland, Laurel & Hardy play two men who share a bed named Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee. Their neighbors include the creepy looking Cat (with the fiddle) and the Three Little Pigs and an even more disturbing looking version of Mickey Mouse (played by a monkey in a costume). Stan and Ollie live with Widow Peep (Florence Roberts) and her daughter Little Bo (Charlotte Henry). Unfortunately, even in Toyland reality can set in. Peep is going to loose her pad - the mortgage is owned by the vile Silas Barnaby (one of film history's great villains). Little Bo has a relationship brewing with Tom-Tom, The Piper's Son, but Barnaby will forget the back money owed him if she will do the unimaginable - marry him. Meanwhile, hoping to score the cash from their boss, the Toymaker, Stan and Ollie lose all hope of that when they piss off Santa Claus, messing up his order for wooden soldiers (he didn't want life size ones). Eventually, after numerous frame-ups and punishments, Barnaby is exposed as a criminal. Barnaby leads an attack on Toyland by the scary monsters who live on the outskirts of town, Bogeymen. Stan and Ollie fix their blunder by using their oversized wooden soldiers to fight off the Bogeymen.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Dec 1, 2010 1:15pm

To Kill A Mockingbird

Dir: Robert Mulligan, 1962. Starring: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, Brock Peters. Classics.

One of the great American books, To Kill A Mockingbird, makes for one of the great American films. Horton Foote (Tender Mercies) compactly adapts Harper Lee’s dense semi-autobiographical novel. Now an adult, Scout Finch recounts two summers in her childhood during the Depression in a sleepy little Alabama town. She and her brother Jem befriend a boy named Dill (based on Lee’s lifelong friend, Truman Capote), while her father Atticus, a righteous lawyer (righteous, in an admirable way), defends a black man accused of rape. Scout learns many simple lessons and the film, with such simple qualities, packs a gentle emotional wallop.

This was 1962 disguised as the Depression. An innocent ‘62, pre-assignation of JFK and MLK; pre-Vietnam War making the front pages; pre-Black Panthers and "black power." When the naive still believed that one crusading white man could potentially save a black man’s life. And though in the end Atticus doesn’t actually succeed (thematically it has something to do with why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird), it has enough of an impact on a child that she could grow up to be a great writer. Though in real life, unfortunately, Harper Lee would never write another book again, instead becoming Capote’s babysitter (Lee, along with Emily Bronte and John Kennedy Toole, would be one of the great one-hit wonders in literature history).

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Sep 23, 2010 1:15pm

Citizen Kane

Dir: Orson Welles, 1941. Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Everett Sloane, Agnes Moorehead. Classics.

Just because Citizen Kane is often cited as the greatest film ever made or the most important film of all time and just because you might have had to watch it in an "intro to film" class does not mean it’s homework. Unlike other landmark filmmaking oldies such as Birth Of A Nation or Battleship Potemkin, Citizen Kane is not a snoozer - it’s really amazingly entertaining. (Actually the "Odessa Steps" scene in Battleship Potemkin is a rather gripping piece of editing, but the rest of it is rather boring.) With his first film, Citizen Kane, the twenty-something wunderkind, Orson Welles, took on the Hollywood establishment (as well as William Randolph Heart’s publishing empire) and changed film, but most importantly made a fun, fun movie that still holds up quite well today.

The complicated plot of Citizen Kane famously mirrors the life of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst. As a boy Charles Foster Kane is taken from his mother when he inherits a small newspaper. Eventually he grows up to be Orson Welles. The film follows him from a cynical kid fresh out of college who thinks it would be fun to run a newspaper, to old age when he dies a miser and an extreme treasure hoarder. But what really made Citizen Kane revolutionary in 1941 was the way the story was told (besides Gregg Toland’s groundbreaking camera work). It opens with a long Newsreel documentary after Kane has died which tells his life story (though a press eye view). On his deathbed his last word was "Rosebud" and” a group of reporters sets out to find what or who was Rosebud. They interview the key people in his life, each telling different versions of Kane’s story, in flashbacks, from their perspective.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Sep 2, 2010 2:14pm

Make Way for Tomorrow

Dir: Leo McCarey, 1937. Starring: Victor Moore, Beulah Bondi, Fay Bainter. Classics.

One of the things I love about discovering old movies is finding something that seems well ahead of its time. It’s always revelatory to find cinematic evidence that not every film can be easily placed into an obvious time frame. Sometimes the writing or acting can just seem more modern than one would have thought for the era in which the film was released. Citizen Kane changed everything about what one could do with a movie and it looks even more incredible when viewed in comparison with the other films that were released at the same time.

Make Way for Tomorrow, in a modest kind of way, is such a film. It’s a family centered drama about a rather unremarkable situation and that alone is rather unique when compared with the kinds of historical epics and glamorous escapist fare that was the norm for what people expected when they went to the movies in 1937. It’s a film that has more in common with the films of, say, James L. Brooks than anything that was contemporary with the film. An elderly couple loses their home and each must move in with one of their adult children. Their separation and the agony it causes them are barely understood by their children with their own families who live in different parts of the country and seem entirely oblivious to the sadness the situation has caused their parents.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Aug 13, 2010 6:08pm

Compulsion (1959)

Dir: Richard Fleischer. Starring: Orson Welles, Diane Varsi, Dean Stockwell, Bradford Dillman. Classics.

The son of the legendary animator Max Fleischer, film director Richard Fleischer had a long and often successful career, but he produced an extremely mixed bag of work. It included the good (small thrillers like The Boston Strangler and the noir train flick Narrow Margin, as well as Disney’s big-budget 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea); the bad (Neil Diamond’s The Jazz Singer and countless other mediocrities); and the ugly (the over-produced musical Doctor Dolittle and the famously bad, 1969's Che!). The courtroom murder drama Compulsion is one of his more interesting films, maybe his best. In 1924 the real life thrill-kill murder of a fourteen-year-old suburban Chicago boy by college prodigies Leopold and Loeb stunned the nation. Represented by the most famous lawyer of his day, Clarence Darrow, their trial becomes the first "trial of the century" (later Darrow would also defend John T. Scopes of the "Scopes Monkey Trial" fame). Before Compulsion their story had inspired the gimmicky Hitchcock film Rope and, later, a number of films and plays, including Swoon and Funny Games which were also able to explore the two killers' potential sexual nature a little more in depth.

The writer, Meyer Levin, had attended the University of Chicago at the same time as Leopold and Loeb. Compulsion, his "non-fiction novel" (years before Capote coined the phrase) renamed all the players and was seen through the eyes of a school reporter, Sid (Levin himself?) and his innocent girlfriend. As adapted for the screen by Richard Murphy (Panic In The Streets), Artie Strauss (Bradford Dillman) and Judd Steiner (Dean Stockwell) are a pair of well off college brats with brilliant minds. Artie is the more outgoing, while the even more genius Judd is an introvert. They plan and almost pull off the "perfect crime," the murder of a young neighbor. Unfortunately, Judd leaves his glasses at the crime scene and Sid (Martin Milner) finds them. As the young men think they are toying with the cops using Nietzsche's superman theory, they slowly spins more webs, getting themselves in deeper and deeper, until finally the cops crack them.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Aug 9, 2010 6:31pm

A Place In The Sun

Dir: George Stevens, 1951. Starring: Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters. Classics.

The "American dream." Many of the WWII GIs and their wives thought they were living it. It was the goal. A place of respect in society. Materialism. Love. It was all promised…Or so they thought. The flaws in the dream were gradually exposed throughout the '50s and especially into the '60s. One of the first to do so was the great filmmaker, George Stevens, a WWII vet himself (he shot some of the most important war footage ever recorded, the liberation of Paris and the Nazi camp in Dachau). Using Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel, An American Tragedy, as a springboard, Stevens showed the horror of the ambitious dreamer (it was also made into a rarely mentioned film by Josef von Sternberg in 1931).

What is now considered Stevens' so-called American Trilogy begins with A Place In The Sun and then goes on to include his greatest masterpiece, Shane, and then James Dean’s final film, the overlong Giant. He would follow up the cycle with the touching, but stagy, The Diary Of Anne Frank, in ’59. Unfortunately his disastrous biblical epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told, in ’65 would more or less send him into early retirement as a director (he would pop out once more, five years later, for the Warren Beatty snoozer, The Only Game In Town). A Place In The Sun, in retrospect, is the perfect peek into the dark side of America in 1951. George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), a modest, steady young man, accepts a job from his rich uncle at a factory. He gets involved with a mousy co-worker, Alice (Shelley Winters), eventually knocking her up, a major inconvenience when he meets and falls for the boss’s wealthy, fast lane daughter Angela (Elizabeth Taylor at her most stunning). The two have an intense chemistry for each other. George gets a taste of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, but he is stuck with his whiny pregnant girlfriend who is basically blackmailing him into marriage. George will do whatever it takes to get rid of Alice so he can get his share of what he thinks the world owes him.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jun 2, 2010 6:14pm

Hud

Dir: Martin Ritt, 1963. Starring: Paul Newman, Melvyn Douglas, Patricia Neal, Brandon De Wilde. Classics.

Antihero. The character you are suppose to be rooting for but find his actions unheroic. Today it’s commonplace in films and fiction. In 1963, the only antiheroes were usual gritty private eyes in dime store novels or gangsters. Then came Paul Newman as Hud. He represents the end of the old cattle ranchers era. It’s a battle of wills with his aging proud father for the soul of his innocent nephew and for the ethics that the family will use in its business dealings. You want to root for Hud. He’s so cool, its megastar, Paul Newman. He has moments of vulnerability when you can see why his heart is so hard. But by the end his selfishness and amoral nature make him so unlikeable. It also makes for an amazing story.

In Paul Newman’s monster-sized career, perhaps only Bogart, Nicholson and maybe James Stewart have ended up with so many iconic roles. As far as performances go, Newman was always good; the consensus would say that his performance as the broken down, drunken lawyer in The Verdict is his masterpiece. I would nominate Hud for second place on his Hall Of Fame chart. And that is saying a lot, with so many other important roles to chose from: The Hustler, Cool Hand Luke, The Color Of Money, Nobody’s Fool and the underrated Hombre to name a few, were all fantastic. Not to mention the crowd pleasers like The Sting and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid which are beloved by many.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
May 12, 2010 4:45pm

Doctor Zhivago

Dir: David Lean, 1965. Starring: Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Rod Steiger, Alec Guinness. Classics.

The third film in director David Lean’s "How To Make An Epic" Trilogy, Doctor Zhivago followed The Bridge On The River Kwai and Lawrence Of Arabia. It may not carry the same critical cache today - some find it too soapy and less "important" - but it’s just as entertaining and just as impressive as his previous two epics. This period for Lean from ’57 to ’65 followed his rather dated Criterion Collection endorsed British period of the '40s and early '50s. And then his follow up to Zhivago five years later, Ryan’s Daughter, does not quite hold up today. But his follow up to that, his final film, the underrated A Passage To India in ’84, is rather interesting and showed the seventy-something director still working with all his powers, if not quite the scope.

Doctor Zhivago could be used for any class on film symbolism. It‘s constant: the leaves falling from the sunflower, the melted snow, the electricity of the cable cars, the deliberate use of the color red standing out among the drab colors. Robert Bolt’s concise script helps to spell out the character's feelings without the actors ever having to proclaim them. It all works to boil down Boris Pasternak’s epic novel of adultery before, during, and after the Russian Revolution. In terms of history class, along with Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Franklin Schaffner’s Nicholas And Alexandra, Warren Beatty’s Reds, and Woody Allen’s Love And Death, you have everything you could ever want to know about that period in Russia, or at least everything I know about it.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
May 6, 2010 12:01pm
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