Thursday, April 15, 2010

"The Moonlighter" (1953)

"The third pairing of Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray finds the duo in the midst of a messy, 3-D oater written by Niven Busch, whose novel The Furies had been adapted into the 1950 film also starring Stanwyck, a far superior film than this dusty reunion proves to be. Problems arise as soon as the credits finish rolling, with MacMurray reprising his hardboiled sneer for a voice-over narration that reminds of Double Indemnity but with none of the pulpy bite. He is in jail for “moonlighting,” that is, roping and stealing cattle by moonlight. While the crime wins the respect of many for the necessary lassoing skills, it angers even more. As he calmly chain-smokes on his bed, a lynch mob gathers outside his cell intent on putting a noose around his neck..."

Read my full review of The Moonlighter here at Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Janet Gaynor at MoMA and Film Forum

"For a decade she was one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actors, but in the seventy years since she retired from the limelight, Janet Gaynor’s legacy has been overshadowed by the work of her collaborators, her contemporaries, and especially her two best directors: F.W. Murnau and Frank Borzage, both of them visual stylists of the highest caliber. The very characteristics that endeared her to audiences—her delicate charm, and an innocence seemingly out of place with the Jazz Age that created her—may also provide clues as to why she has gone overlooked and underappreciated in the annals of film history. Her wholesome image doesn’t fit the loose girdles and looser morals of Pre-Code Hollywood that modern audiences are eating up these days. However, two current screenings—a three-day matinee run of Borzage’s Street Angel (1928) at the Museum of Modern Art (3/31-4/2) as part of their Auteurist History of Film series, and a weeklong residency of Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) in a new 35mm print at Film Forum (4/2-4/8)—remind us of Gaynor’s reticent grace, in twoand how integral her performance was to both of these masterpieces of the silent screen..."

Read my full essay on Janet Gaynor here at The L Magazine.

Monday, February 08, 2010

No Blade of Grass (1970)

Directed by Hollywood actor-turned-filmmaker Cornel Wilde, and scripted by Wilde and Sean Forestal from John Christopher’s novel, No Blade of Grass is a distopic narrative of an ecological crisis that leads to the fall of civilization. A mysterious virus is destroying grass all around the world, causing a global panic over food shortage. Crops are in short supply. Cattle are drowned in rivers when there is nothing left for them to eat. Man-made pollution has contaminated rivers and poisoned fish. Bombs are being dropped on cities in order to deplete the population to sustainable levels. In London, citizens get word of the impending extermination and overthrow the government. In the midst of chaos, one-eyed veteran John Custance and scientist Roger Burnham flee with their families to the country in search of John’s brother’s farm, a haven that promises food, shelter, and hope.

Read my full review of No Blade of Grass here at Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Taken (2008)

While the xenophobic anxiety of Americans abroad isn’t a new subject (even Alfred Hitchcock approached the topic in his 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much), it’s difficult to watch certain scenes in Taken without thinking of contemporary parallels. It is moments like these in which the politics of action heroism reveal their hidden complexity. With the line between “good guy” and “bad guy” blurred, we allow the action hero to cross certain moral boundaries that would otherwise be prohibited.

Read my full review of Taken here at Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

James Whale at Film Forum

A special case needs to be made for James Whale. Though not exactly forgotten—a pair of genre-defining horror masterpieces (Frankenstein and The Invisible Man) and two satires (The Old Dark House and Bride of Frankenstein) have kept him in circulation—he is certainly misremembered. Instead of the easily definable horror-auteur that history would prefer, Whale was an artist of many mediums (theater, cinema, painting, drawing), genres and sensibilities, but the unavailability of the majority of his body of work, either in theatrical revivals or on home video, has prevented audiences from fully understanding him. Encompassing the full range of Whale's style, from gothic to modern and screwball to macabre, Film Forum's 16-film retrospective will do much to restore the director's lopsided legacy.

Read my full essay on James Whale here at The L Magazine.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

M. Hulot's Holiday (1953)

Simply put, Jacques Tati's M. Hulot's Holiday (1953) is one of the most delightful cinematic experiences I have ever encountered, and it is now showing at Film Forum in a restored 35mm print. Like the film's infectious, amiable theme song—whose breezy melody fluidly passes from saxophone to guitar to vibes to piano without interrupting the phrasing—Tati, his camera and his on-screen alter-ego Hulot flit amongst the beachfront tourists like a fellow vacationer. With his perennial floppy hat and a pipe protruding from his lips, Hulot putters into town in his rustbucket and proceeds to join his compatriots in an attempt to enjoy some rest and relaxation under the sun.

Read my full review of M. Hulot's Holiday here at The L Magazine.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Migrating Forms' Half-Inch Half-Life: "Tracy the Outlaw" (1928)

This past summer, I was invited to participate in Migrating Forms' Half-Inch Half-Life, self-described as "a semi-intimate, public viewing room showcasing a 43-hour marathon of selections from the personal VHS archives of artists, critics, curators, scholars and other devotees to the medium, on a large, media-appropriate television set." My contribution was a rare VHS tape of Tracy the Outlaw. Below are my program notes which accompanied the exhibition.
Tracy the Outlaw is a silent Western from 1928. An independent production by Foto Art Productions, it doesn’t look like most movies we remember from that same year – it neither has the artistic touches of Victor Sjostrom’s The Wind, the stylizations of The Docks of New York, or any of the technical or narrative proficiency that was the Hollywood standard by that time. And that’s exactly why Tracy the Outlaw is important: Hollywood isn’t everything, and outside of it were independent producers and distributors, making raw, unkempt, flawed, and wonderful movies.

But lacking stars, polish, prestige, and any sort of critical status, Tracy the Outlaw isn’t likely to make any appearances at revival houses, or even in history books. It’s a miracle that it was even brought to VHS (and in a pretty decent print) by Videobrary, one of many companies during the 1980s-1990s who specialized in overlooked niches of early cinema, including B-Westerns. There was also Sinister Cinema, Hollywood’s Attic, Nostalgia Family, and Grapevine, to name just a few. (The last two are still around, releasing material on DVD.) There was something special about those small VHS distributors – some sort of magic that seems to be lost in the age of internet. When I was 12, I ordered a video from Facets in Chicago, and suddenly I began receiving black-and-white photocopied catalogs and typewritten lists of old movies on VHS. They were coming from small towns in Maine like Thomaston. I have no clue how I got on this mailing list circuit, but I was flooded with titles I had never heard about. Sadly, I never kept them, as I’d love to see all the great movies I passed up on because of lack of access/information.

But now many of those companies are gone. I no longer receive those wonderful lists. Once in a while, I come across a trove of old Grapevine releases, or some other company. That’s how I found Tracy the Outlaw – three dollars, stuck on a shelf between such other potential gems as Ghost Patrol (a sci-fi Western from 1936) and Border Romance (a musical Western about fugitives from 1929) (both films were released by Sinister Cinema, by the way). The audience for these films was probably small when they came out, and it’s only dwindled in the passing decades. No major home video distributor would ever take these on – the chance of making a profit would be slim. That’s why Grapevine, Videobrary, and all those other companies were – and continue to be – so vital.

The Samuel Fuller Collection

Samuel Fuller's movies are equal parts street corner and gutter, a combination of two-inch-headline journalistic hullabaloo and pulp poetics. Andrew Sarris called him "an authentic American primitive," while Dana Polan described him as "the opposite of graceful; his style seems to suggest that in a world where grace provides little redemption, its utilization would be a kind of lie." This one-of-a-kind, immediately recognizable persona is on full display in Sony's seven disc box set The Samuel Fuller Collection, which pulls together seven hard-to-find films that the cigar-chomping filmmaker was involved in, none of which were previously available on DVD...

Read my full review of The Samuel Fuller Collection here at The L Magazine.