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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying & Learned To Love The Bomb

Dir: Stanley Kubrick, 1964. Starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Peter Bull, Slim Pickins. Classics.

In the heart of the Cold War, after the Cuban missal crisis, fresh from the assassination of President Kennedy, the world seemed to be on the brink of nuclear destruction. It was a tense era, as reflected by a number of the paranoid films that were produced - Fail-Safe, Seven Days In May, On The Beach, to name a few. Knowing the world it was released into makes the attitudes of the "black comedy" Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Learned To Love The Bomb, particularly black. While many Americans had fall-out shelters in their backyards, Stanley Kubrick's film was laughing at the ridiculousness of world annihilation, while wondering who are the hopeless leaders we have entrusted with our nukes and our planet’s future?

Kubrick co-wrote the script with satirist Terry Southern (The Loved One, Easy Rider), kinda sorta based on a novel Red Alert, an actual thriller by Peter George. Dr. Strangelove was the final film of Kubrick’s outstanding black and white period, following his other classics, The Killing, Paths Of Glory, and Lolita, a foursome as relevant and as diverse as any young American director has had. And like Lolita, Dr. Strangelove would be a showcase for the acting range of Peter Sellers. Here he would take on three utterly different roles, to much acclaim.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Feb 16, 2011 1:04pm
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