A Matter of Life and Death

Dir: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1946. Starring: David Niven, Kim Hunter, Robert Coote. Classics.

On the DVD for A Matter of Life and Death, Martin Scorsese tells a story about how, when he was growing up, the filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger sort of felt like some mythical, lost duo of directors whose work was massively overlooked and re-edited, only to be fully appreciated in the '80s once Scorsese had the power to do so. Watching their films now makes that story seem almost under-exaggerated as every film that comes out on DVD is confoundingly innovative, as if it will be made ten years into the future. And this is no exception to the film, A Matter of Life and Death, a rich, complicated fantasy that leaves so many similar films of the time in its dust.

David Niven plays WWII fighter pilot, Peter Carter, who makes one last radio call to a female soldier, June, as his plane is crashing. Coming to terms with his death, Niven uses the call to calm his nerves and over the course of the conversation the two fall in love, having never met.

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Posted by:
Eric Branscum
Mar 30, 2010 5:59pm

A Night At The Opera

Dir: Sam Wood, 1935. Starring: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Margaret Dumont, Kitty Carlisle, Allan Jones. Classics.

The Marx Brothers - Groucho, Chico, and Harpo - were actual brothers (their early stage act included another brother, Gummo, and in a couple early films he was replaced by Zeppo). Going from Vaudeville to Broadway then to the big screen, the Marx Brothers were a completely original act. Their formula, which is still in use today, was the classic snobs vs. the slobs, but what really made them memorable was the mix of smartass one-liners (from Groucho and Chico) and fantastic physical comedy (usually associated with the mute Harpo). After a half dozen films that progressively got better they really hit their stride with Duck Soup in 1933 and then made their true masterpiece with their next film, A Night At The Opera, a perfectly subversive film and still one of the funniest screen comedies of all time.

Groucho plays Otis B. Driftwood, a con man working the Opera scene in Italy. He is hired by the clueless widow, Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont), to help her break into proper society. Meanwhile the egomaniacal star of the opera, Lassparri (Walter Woolf King), abuses his dresser (Harpo) and sexually harasses the company’s young ingénue, Rosa (Kitty Carlisle), who is in love with the less successful, but equally talented tenor, Riccardo (Allan Jones, playing the Zeppo, straight man role). Riccardo is managed by Fiorello (Chico) who hustles Otis into signing him to a contract. As the opera company sets sail to New York the three Marx Brothers follow it in order to help the young lovers reunite, make some cash, and bring down the arrogant Lassparri.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Apr 25, 2011 3:04pm

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

A Star is Born (1937)

Dir: William A. Wellman. 1937. Starring: Janet Gaynor, Norman Maine, May Robson. English. Drama.

A Star is Born. What a title. It promises greatness, wish fulfillment and a kind of immortality. What could sustain such a fire? What could possibly bring forth such legendary light? Even a star has humble beginnings and we meet our speck of star dust in a provincial home on a snowy day in Smalltown, USA. It is classic Americana movie making that marries depression era silents to the slow emerging prosperity of WWII America still harboring a romantic vision of manifest destiny.

There is an embittered aunt, a struggling pop, a bright but unformed kid brother, but most importantly and impressively a wise grandmother played with brilliance by May Robson. If you ever need inspiration watch her speech to Janet Gaynor's young and determined Esther, as she encourages her to follow her dreams of being an actress in Hollywood. It practically sings with the spirit of the wild west, not to mention female empowerment.

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Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Jan 21, 2008 3:54pm

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein

Dir: Charles Barton, 1948. Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, Glenn Strange. Classics.

Zombieland, The Fearless Vampire Killers, Shaun Of The Dead, An American Werewolf in London... All often funny and often scary. All entertaining horror comedies.

Who would guess that the grandaddy of them all, the film that created the genre, came from two near dead franchises combining forces to create a classic and a landmark in the merging of film genres?

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Feb 22, 2010 4:03pm

Bad Day at Black Rock

Dir: John Sturges, 1955. Starring: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis. Classics.

I wish the screenplay for Bad Day at Black Rock was taught in screenwriting classes as a model example of how to craft a perfect thriller. Ideally it might inspire a confidence in economic storytelling that students today would have little familiarity with. An incredibly suspenseful movie that lasts just 81 minutes, Bad Day at Black Rock could be the perfect corrective to every lousy impulse by movie executives to lard up a story with overkill. I think that’s the real problem with modern studio fare. Lest their movies be ignored by an increasingly fractured and distracted audience, movies nowadays are oversold into oblivion. Even trailers are exhausting to watch. It’s a simple case of too much information at every turn. As far as Hollywood is concerned, a film that treats the audience like adults with the capacity to figure things out for themselves is a risky prospect for the 15-year-old fan boy market and, at this point, what’s not good for the fan boys is not good for Hollywood’s bottom line. And this all-pervasive tendency for movies to be too long and too obvious even extends to the contemporary thriller where it tends to spoil them from the outset.

The mantra of a good screenwriter is "show, don’t tell" but the inclination of most movie people nowadays is show, tell, and then add a commentary track to the DVD that spells out even more useless information. It can be said that independent film has created a forum for more offbeat storytelling, but there was a time when a good story was enough reason for a big studio such as MGM to produce it. Which brings us to the case of Bad Day at Black Rock. It represents the antithesis of the overkill approach.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 11, 2009 5:45pm

Born Yesterday

Director: George Cukor, 1950. Starring: Judy Holliday, William Holden, Broderick Crawford. English. Classics.

When I read the play "Born Yesterday," a comedy written by Garson Kanin, I was dying to watch the adapted classic film. The tale itself is so simple yet brilliant: a Pygmalion story. A man shapes a woman into his likeness and then falls in love with her. Add on a backdrop set in post-World War II in a hotel with a view of the White House, and the story becomes politically analytical. Kanin weaves his characters and elements together so flawlessly, in a manner that asks the audience to think about morality, social class, relations between the sexes, and intelligence subconsciously, while watching the plot unfold.

I finally had a chance to watch the film, and Judy Holliday and William Holden arrested my attention full-heartedly.

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Posted by:
Tiffany Huang
Apr 27, 2009 12:18pm

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Dir: Richard Brooks, 1958. Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Burl Ives. Classics.

I've seen other movies with Elizabeth Taylor in them. She is particularly wonderful as a sickly child serenely accepting her impending death in the Orson Welles version of Jayne Eyre. Still, her performance as Maggie in Tennessee Williams's steamy Southern melodrama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  is what I'll always remember most vividly.

It was the fifth Tennessee Williams play to be adapted for the movies and is perhaps the most famous example of his hot-and-bothered Southern style being given the celluloid treatment. Paul Newman plays Brick, the alcoholic son of a Mississippi plantation owner (Burl Ives) with the excellent name of Big Daddy. Brick's wife, Maggie, struggles to understand why their marriage has deteriorated to the point where he barely looks at her. This is understandably unconscionable because his wife is Elizabeth Taylor in her prime as one of the most gorgeous women of her day.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Apr 3, 2011 6:11pm

Christmas in July

Dir: Preston Sturges, 1940. Starring: Dick Powell, Ellen Drew, Raymond Walburn, Alexander Carr. Classics.

Snarky critiques of the American success story – a myth so painfully central to the national psyche – are few and far between now and they are certainly hard to imagine coming out of 1940, a time when a nation shell-shocked by the Depression still had fresh memories of being sedated by Busby Berkeley musical fantasies and stylish gangster wish fulfillment crime dramas. But writer/director Preston Sturges was too funny, clever, and probably a bit East Coast elitist to let such a sacred cow of our national mythology go unskewered.

Sometimes I think Sturges is a bit too clever for my taste. With many of his movies there is the unsavory sensation of an author laughing at his own jokes too loudly. Some of them, such as The Palm Beach Story, seem less hilarious than just smug - too many playboys in tuxedos shouting, old mustachioed men harrumping, and women in gowns winking. But Christmas in July – with its ridiculous brevity (it’s only 68 minutes long) – is a short, sharp, shock of hilarity. Really, it is. Dick Powell plays a frustrated accountant who anxiously wants to be a success in life. Though he was known first as an awe-shucks sort of song-and-dance man from various Berkeley musicals, Powell was later often cast as a cynical anti-hero in many detective roles. In this film we get a little of that coolness from his slightly sarcastic tone and weary demeanor.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 18, 2013 4:51pm

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
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