Thursday, November 15, 2012

This Week In Tickets: 5 November 2012 - 11 November 2012

I joke about living at the Brattle during programs like this, but this week shows just how true that can be. I've got it in the back of my head to treat the Universal Centennial program like a film festival and come back with full reviews, but I'm pretty sure there's just no way to get to everything I want to.

This Week in Tickets

The one time during the week I went anywhere else was on Tuesday, when I worked from home on purpose (it's usually a matter of missing my connection at Alewife) so that I could get to the polling places. Not that one vote in Massachusetts was going to affect the outcome of the Presidential election, but it also couldn't hurt. That it got me able to (just) make a 6:40pm screening of Holy Motors was gravy. Kind of lumpy gravy that isn't quite so hot as you'd like it to be, but worth a try, and I'm glad I saw it then because Kendall Square was cancelling a bunch of shows over the weekend to fit more screenings of Lincoln in. This sort of thing happened before digital, but I imagine copying a DCP from one computer to another is a heck of a lot easier than screwing around with interlinking projectors.

Around that, lots of Universal classics. I finally saw the Spanish Dracula, finding it decent but mostly a curiosity (although I like the Tod Browning/Bela Lugosi Dracula more than I love it). The Brattle had Universal's first feature, Traffic in Souls, coincide with their "Wordless Wednesday" series (it would have been a double feature, but one digital file/DVD was missing). Thursday was a double feature, but the scheduling meant I missed one - boo to a bunch of VHS found footage taking the 9pm slot so you had to be at the theater by five to see The Good Fairy! boo! - and almost considered giving My Man Godfrey a pass, but come on! Similar double-feature scheduling meant I only saw the James Whale Show Boaton Friday, but a double feature of similar films noir, Black Angel and Phantom Lady was no problem on Saturday, even if I did have to wait a bit to see Tremors afterward.

I actually feel bad for missing the Western double feature on Sunday, but I was kind of wiped out after hitting Skyfall and the grocery store and a couple more errands. I'd seen both of them before anyway, but still...

Dracula (1931, Spanish)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal Centennial, 35mm)

To a certain extent, the Spanish-language version of Dracula is almost better as a legend than an actual movie: Little-seen before being restored in the mid-nineties, one could pass around second-hard descriptions of a more gothic atmosphere coming from shooting at night or superior performances without actually confronting the reality - every lost or secret film is better in the imagining, or as a reward for tracking it down.

Most viewers will spot the biggest difference before the film starts running, though: The more familiar version starring Bela Lugosi and directed by Tod Browning runs a tight 75 minutes; this one is nearly a half hour longer, and while 104 minutes is not an unusual length for a modern film, consider that the two were made from the same screenplay (give or take a Spanish translation); the Spanish version is 40% longer than the English. And you can tell; seeing them as a double feature, the Browning version feels relatively tight, while George Melford's is much more relaxed, to put it mildly. It drags in the middle, and while Melford, co-director Enrique Tovar Avalos, and cinematographer George Robinson make a movie that arguably looks better than Browning's, one will be hard-pressed to find an extra minute in it that feels like it was left out of the other. The opening scene is fairly telling; it feels like it is following the script very literally, while Browning and his cast had chances to improvise and tighten things up.

I do suspect that the cast here is generally better than its English-language equivalent; Barry Norton's Juan Harker is less a block of wood than David Manners's John, for instance. The tragic exception, unfortunately, is Carlos Villarias as the title character. He actually bears a fairly striking resemblance to Bela Lugosi which is only accentuated by placing him in the same costume and doing the makeup the same way. And that's what he's up against: Despite the producers' initial reluctance to cast him, every choice in pre-production was made with Lugosi in mind - and the script was based upon a play in which Lugosi had excelled - and while there are signs of a potentially more active, virile count in Villarias's performance, it's hard to shake the impression that he's imitating Lugosi, even if the reality is that he has little choice in the matter.

And so, the Spanish-language Dracula has a hard time emerging from the shadow of its brother, though it might be impressive enough if seen on its own.

Dracula (1931, English)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 5 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal Centennial, 35mm)

For all that the "Spanish Dracula" sometimes pales in comparison to this version, the classic version is not without its faults. The story is thin and sometimes unbalanced; the cast sometimes struggles to give their characters personalities rather than just fill needed spots in the story. Even cut much tighter than the Spanish version shot at the same time, getting from Renfield meeting the Count to Team Van Helsing actually fighting him seems to be a bit of a trudge.

On the other hand, it's got Bela Lugosi in his most iconic role, and that's something you can build a movie around. Like many roles of this type, actually seeing Lugosi in the part after years of imitations and parodies is, if not quite a revelation, a reminder that the performance became famous for being able to hook the audience, even if it was at times more theatrical than a modern audience is used to. Lugosi's Dracula is seductive, not for being overtly sexed-up, but for his absolute certainty that he can take what he wants, so that when Edward Van Sloan's Van Helsing gets something even resembling the upper hand on him, the reaction is so shocked as to be almost feral.

Van Sloan makes a valiant effort to compare with Lugosi, but it's almost a fool's errand. The only other actor who even comes close is Helen Chandler as Mina, who gets interesting once she starts to turn (even if it does mean a lot of "I'm so scared!" hand-wringing. Browning also makes a movie nearly as atmospheric as Melford, and the "almost" isn't a bad thing - he certainly seldom allows that atmosphere to mire him.

Like a lot of Universal Monster movies, Dracula comes across as more influential than perfect from eighty years later, but that influence shouldn't be taken lightly - so much of the modern horror genre (and the vampire genre in particular) takes its cues from this movie, and while it can seem old-hat today, it became that way by being hard to improve upon all at once.

Traffic in Souls

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal Centennial, digital)

You can't have a proper one-hundredth anniversary series without screening the studio's first feature, and Universal certainly seemed to set its pulp roots down early with Traffic in Souls, a 1913 potboiler that certainly looks remarkably quaint by today's standards but at least does the job it sets out to do.

It's not perfect by any means. The second half of the story runs on pure coincidence, as the heroine gets a job that puts her in a position to find out where her sister is AND her girlfriend is a cop AND her father is an inventor who has created just the thing they need. It's made up for, though, since those things don't actually solve the case but put the characters in position to do so, and the movie executes the crime/thriller parts afterward pretty darn well. It's a silent, but a fun crime movie.

And there's something about the way that it's definitely a product of it's time that is quaint but not cutesy: Despite the movie being about forced prostitution, the closest it comes to even approaching titillating or overtly sexual is in its opening minutes (which is pretty darn tame and innocent), and for the rest of the movie the whole subject is so taboo that the heroine loses her job because of what is presumed about her sister and the crime is never referred to by anything less oblique than "white slavery". The finale is "Crime Does Not Pay!" stuff that is pretty vicious retribution.

The audience for this sort of movie a hundred years ago, apparently, was not particularly forgiving.

My Man Godfrey

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal Centennial, 35mm)

The two stars of My Man Godfrey aren't quite polar opposites, but close enough to make one worry that the movie will be less "opposites attract" than trying to fit the proverbial square peg into a round hole. Carole Lombard, after all, was the prototypical dizzy thirties dame while this movie sees William Powell at his most classy and sophisticated, even when drunk or homeless. Fortunately, the movie is constructed brilliant, allowing them each to do their own thing, allowing for a clash when those respective things bump against each other but never giving the audience any reason to not love them for what they are.

The script by Morrie Ryskind & novelist Eric Hatch is darn clever in other ways, too: At least from seventy-five years down the road, it seems to strike an ideal balance between acknowledging the reality of the Great Depression while also offering the fantasy of escaping it. The rich may often be silly, but there are enough good people among them to keep the movie from being patronizing or a matter of class warfare. The impropriety of the central love story is acknowledged without a lot of hand-wringing and ultimately handled in a charmingly casual way.

Plus, you know, that cast. William Powell and Carole Lombard are really a perfect pair for a screwball comedy, a mismatched pair who manage the rare trick of bantering wonderfully despite having completely different voices. She boosts the slapstick and silliness (and remains lovable despite her character's silliness and selfishness), while he adroitly maneuvers around it. A whole raft of enjoyable supporting characters pop up just as long as needed, most entertainingly Eugene Pallette, who seems like an Edward G. Robinson prototype as the relatively sensible head of the screwy family that takes Godfrey in.

I love this movie. It reminds me of spiderweb, looking thin and flimsy but actually remarkably strong; despite the wispiness of the plot and how much empty space there seems to be, the end seems to be exactly what everyone, from the characters to the audience, deserves.

Show Boat (1936)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal Centennial, 35mm)

I've said before, I'm not really a musical guy - it's a genre that oftentimes has very little middle ground between brilliance and its opposite. This version of Show Boat manages to fall into that gap, although I like it more than I don't.

In a lot of ways, it's a weird movie (and, presumably, play) structurally: Though it's mostly the story of Irene Dunne's Magnolia "Nola" Hawks, it starts out with a pretty clear focus on Helen Morgan as Julie LaVerne, spending a lot of time with the woman who must be removed for Nola's story to start, and it's got what seems like an extended epilogue on the other end that follows Nola's daughter Kim's career on the stage. It's got some scale, and is probably better than a simple fast-forward, but it leaves the scale sort of in-between.

Plus, there's the seventy-five-years-later way of looking at its attitudes toward race. It's probably progressive for its day, with a pretty clear disdain for the anti-miscegenation laws that are used as a plot device and Nola having what seems like an honest love of "Negro music". It's just a shame that fondness is expressed via a blackface performance, the sort that makes one wonder just what the heck people were thinking a hundred years ago. The stereotyped speech of Paul Robeson and Hattie MacDaniel (plus, he's lazy and she's a big loud busybody) doesn't much help.

And yet, I still missed Robeson when his part in the movie was done; not only does he have a natural charisma and charm, but he's got the best couple of songs. He's also the character whose singing voice sounds the most like his speaking voice, and the disconnect for the rest of the cast is something that I found rather distracting. In my mind, the songs in a musical shouldn't be isolated performances, but a continuation of the characters expressing their emotions, so it should still sound like them.

Black Angel

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal Centennial, 35mm)

Black Angel is a fun little mystery that occupies a space between what we now call film noir and a more traditional mystery story, with Dan Duryea and June Vincent playing a couple thrown together by circumstance: Her husband has been convicted of killer his ex-wife, so the sweet young housewife teams up with the alcoholic songwriter to investigate a different suspect. It's the kind of story that could be played both a lot lighter or darker than it is and still make for an interesting movie, and it might be fun to see what different filmmakers would do with Cornell Woolrich's novel.

This middle ground is pretty good, although it might have been interesting if the focus wasn't quite so much on Duryea's Martin Blair compared to Vincent's Catherine Bennett. There's fun angles to play with her; such as how far she would go with the character she is playing on this quest fueled by devotion to her husband, or whether the life she is leading could prove seductive. On the other hand, one does kind of have to admire the restraint and devotion screenwriter Roy Chanslor and director Roy William Neill show by not going there much: This is a whodunit, and those storylines don't resolve murder mysteries.

Kind of a shame; Duryea and Vincent have great chemistry together, and it would be fun to see if she can play certain morally ambiguous notes as well as he did. It doesn't hurt that they have Peter Lorre as a prime suspect, and he plays an oily gangster-type so well, with enough more personality than is typical to be make his scenes more fun than expected.

Phantom Lady

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal Centennial, 35mm)

Phantom Lady is, in a way, a demonstration of just how hard a good mystery can be to construct: The opening sequence seems tremendously unlikely on its face, but that's what it takes for a murder to become a puzzle worth reading about, and the steps needed so that an amateur is the one to investigate and solve it... Well, it's unlikely.

But it's fun. It's fun in large part because director Robert Siodmak, working from a screenplay by Bernard Schoenfeld and a novel by Cornell Woolrich -- hey, wait a second; it's not wonder the plots of these two movies seems so similar, if the same author is cranking out the same sorts of stories under pseudonyms!

Anyway, Siodmak does a nice job of having Ella Raines not play plucky would-be sleuth Carol Richman as dopily love-struck throughout, but allows her to realize alongside the audience that you don't do this far for a good boss. It's a bit more nuance than is given to Franchot Tone as said boss's best friend who soon winds up working with her on her investigation - he gets a memorable entrance but he and Siodmak give him a bit too much of a twitch later on.

Still, I like the way the screenplay works; rather than playing it as a fair-play amateur detective story, it lets the twist happen as early as possible and has fun playing it out, and manages to do so without making its heroine look the fool.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 November 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Universal Centennial, 35mm)

The advertising for this movie's slot in the Universal series played it up as a guilty pleasure, which is fair, I suppose, but also does it a disservice. As much as director Ron Underwood and his co-writers S.S. Wilson & Brent Maddock go for the gag quite a bit and build their characters broadly, it's hard to find a single place where they made a bad decision when making this movie.

Sure, on the fifth viewing or so it becomes somewhat clear just how little screen time the "graboids" actually have, but that actually works in their favor as a reflection of just how well they have captured and in many ways improved upon the 1950s creature feature: The filmmakers are working with limited resources but deploying them well. What seems like the best innovation is how they twist the standard character types: The scientist is also the cute girl, and refreshingly not super-capable in every discipline; the heroic hired hands are kind of doofuses; the everyman characters get picked off fairly early, leaving the film to be populated by the eccentrics who would normally die just after being proven right. It's something Maddock & Wilson address more explicitly in later direct-to-video sequels and spinoffs, but part of what makes Tremors funny also makes it work: It's about the oddballs who have to do their own thing rather than the great masses of mainstream folks who can attack a problem with numbers.

Plus, Michael Gross seems to be having such a blast on his vacation from Family Ties. The bit where he looks back at his fortified compound and lists everything he's salted away to survive World War III only to follow it up with "...underground. God damn monsters." cracks me up every time.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 November 2012 in Regal Fenway #13 (first-run, RPX digital)

Do we need another full review of how terrific Skyfall is, re-introducing classic elements to the Bond franchise while maintaining the more "realistic" and hard-edged style that the Casino Royale reboot gave it, slavering absolutely earned praise on Roger Deakins's fantastic cinematography? No, probably not. The Brits got it a week or two before us and they've been flooding the internet with that sort of thing just as they absolutely should.

But, man, it's all true, and then some. Deakins, especially, has shot an absolutely gorgeous picture, albeit one that looks very digital, but it's more a style than a shortcoming here. Daniel Craig continues to give what is the definitive performance as Bond, letting the audience see how the secret agent lifestyle wears on a man, presenting the occasionally snappish Bond of Ian Fleming's novels more than the smooth, unflappable character of the movies. It's downright terrific to see Dame Judi Dench given something to sink her teeth into as M, and I hope future movies give us more of Naomie Harris as Eve, the getaway driver who just does not give one single damn about anyone else on the road.

The action is concentrated into sequences on either end, and both of those are pretty fantastic. The opening gambit is delightful in how it just piles one cliffhanging stunt after another on, making every bit of the chase bigger than the last and giving Craig (and his stunt doubles) the chance to make things look simultaneously hard and easy. It's also fun how the finale flips the typical Bond movie script, with 007 playing defense during the big final assault on the secret hideout.

By the end of the movie, it finally feels like all the "origin story" elements of the reboot are over, and that's good, because as much as I appreciate the renewed focus on the Bond of Fleming's novels, and as much as modern genre writing emphasizes making characters personally involved, it wouldn't be a terrible thing if James Bond was just the guy who MI-6 detailed at the first sign of a superterrorist building a space laser for a couple movies, rather than someone personally connected to every facet of the story. It can make the villain's motivation too small or the hero too little a man just doing his job or caught up in something bigger than he is.

Dracula Double Feature
Holy Motors
Traffic in Souls
My Man Godfrey
Show Boat
Black Angel & Phantom Lady

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