Browsed by
Month: May 2014

Fabulous World of Jules Verne, The (1958)

Fabulous World of Jules Verne, The (1958)

“The heart is always full of desire to fly sky-high.”

Fabulous World Jules Verne Poster

Synopsis:
A world-renowned scientist (Arnost Navratil) and his assistant (Lubor Tokos) are kidnapped by a band of marauding pirates in a submarine and taken to an underwater kingdom run by Count Artigas (Miroslav Holub), who hopes Navratil will unwittingly help him perfect an atomic weapon of mass destruction.

Genres:

I’d like to begin this review by saying hello to my fellow CMBA bloggers who may be stopping by for the first time. I’m publishing this post as part of the Classic Movie Bloggers Association “Fabulous Films of the Fifties” blogathon (my first ever!) and am honored to participate. If you’re curious to read a bit more about this site in general, please click here.

If you’d like to leave a comment — and I’d love to hear from you! — please send me an email at filmfanatic.org@gmail.com and I’ll sign you up as a user.

Now — on to the review!

Review:
Numerous novels and stories by science fiction author Jules Verne have been adapted for the big screen over the years — indeed, an entire book (Thomas Renzi’s Jules Verne on Film, 1998) has been written on the topic — but it’s safe to say that none begins to approach the visual innovation of this animated feature by Czechoslovakian director Karel Zeman. Based on a relatively obscure Verne novel entitled Facing the Flag (1896), it tells the simple tale of a brilliant but naive scientist (Navratil) who’s been kidnapped for nefarious purposes, and his assistant’s (Tokos’) attempts to alert the world above-sea that destructive havoc is about to be wrought. Romantic interest appears briefly in the form of a beautiful young woman (Jana Zatloukalova) who’s escaped from a ship destroyed by the pirates’ submarine, but she and all other characters are ultimately rather thinly delineated.

Thankfully, it’s not the screenplay one is concerned with when watching this film — it’s the stunning visuals, through and through. Intended to pay homage to the original lithographic illustrations in the 54 novels that comprise Verne’s collective Voyages Extraordinaires, Zeman’s steampunk sets and animation style suit the subject matter and time period perfectly. Each frame — as intended by Zeman — looks as though it belongs in one of Verne’s books, with the added bonus of live actors bringing the images to life. For an overview of the dizzying combination of animation techniques being employed, I humbly refer to a recent (2010) article by Alex Barrett in Experimental Conversations, cited in Wikipedia’s entry on the movie:

“… [The] film combines all manner of tricks and effects — double exposures, painted animation, cut-out animation, stop-motion animation, puppets, miniatures, models, stylised matte-paintings, and who knows what else — with its live-action footage to create a seamless blend of startling, crisp, black-and-white material. The process was dubbed ‘Mystimation’ [for the later US release], a name which seems perfectly apt for something which really does need to be seen to be believed.”

Other than this title, Zeman’s best-known film is The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1961), a wonderfully fantastical adventure tale possessing a more complex storyline, heightened surreality, and a differently distinctive animation style; it’s a personal favorite, and one I would likely return to more easily than …Jules Verne. With that said, this earlier outing — which remains Zeman’s most popular title — is far too clever, impressive, and visually innovative to ignore. It’s won numerous awards, was voted in 2010 as the most successful Czech film to date, and is indisputably worth a look by all film fanatics.

Note: As pointed out earlier, Zeman’s animation style is ultimately best understood by actually seeing it in action. Click here to watch a ~3 minute video (entitled “Why Zeman Made the Film”) which includes both short clips and an illuminating interview with Zeman’s daughter. Or, check out the overwrought American trailer here.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments (click on thumbnails for bigger images):

  • Marvelously creative animation (often combined with live action)
    FWJV Animation1
    FWJV Animation2
    FWJV Animation3
    FWJV Animation4
  • Innovative Victorian-era sets
    FWJV Sets1
    FWJV Sets2
    FWJV Sets3
  • Zdenek Liska’s harpsichord-infused score

Must See?
Yes, as a most unusual animated classic and foreign gem.

Categories

Links:

Imitation of Life (1959)

Imitation of Life (1959)

“How do you explain to your child she was born to be hurt?”

Imitation of Life Poster

Synopsis:
An African-American mother (Juanita Moore) with a light-skinned daughter named Sarah Jane (Karen Dicker) begins living with and working for an aspiring actress (Lana Turner) and her daughter Susie (Terry Burnham). As Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) grows older, she becomes increasingly ashamed of her dark-skinned mother and hopes to “pass” as white; meanwhile, teenage Susie (Sandra Dee) — whose self-absorbed mom has become a famous actress — finds herself attracted to Turner’s on-and-off-again lover (John Gavin).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that while “many Douglas Sirk fans consider [this] last film [in his oeuvre] to be a masterpiece”, he considers it simply “impeccably made Hollywood trash — a watchable, laughable, lamentable soap opera/’women’s picture’/’problem picture’ that has women who’ll sacrifice all for their children but aren’t particularly good mothers (a soap tradition).” He writes that “the plot [only] superficially resembles John Stahl’s 1934 film, also adapted from Fannie Hurst’s novel” about widows who are both best friends and employee/employer. Peary’s scathing assessment of the racial politics in Sirk’s film are spot-on — he writes that “the script is… infuriating because when Turner, Gavin, and Dee are nice to Moore and Kohner or act without prejudice, white audiences are expected, in a self-congratulatory gesture, to weep about the white characters’ nobility”. He points out that “the most honest scene” — a lurid, distressing bit of melodramatic violence — “has white Troy Donahue brutally beating date Kohner, who he has learned is black”.

Peary’s extensive analysis of Kohner’s self-hatred as a young black woman is both no-holds-barred and astute. He writes that “Kohner is made out to be thoroughly insensitive when in fact her choice to pass for white has to do with her rejecting the demeaning black world that is presented to her… When Turner chastises Kohner for insinuating she’s been treated differently at home, Kohner acquiesces that Turner and Dee never showed prejudice — but the script should have had her attack Turner for treating Moore as her servant.” He points out that while “Moore is made into Kohner’s whipping post… that might [have been] different if she had suggested to her daughter not to go to a black teachers’ college but to break down some racial barriers, be defiant, and improve the lot of her race rather than to be satisfied with the hand dealt with her”. Frustratingly, although “Moore may be the nicest woman in the world (which is why Kohner can’t help loving her)… she makes no attempt to teach Kohner pride in being black”.

Oscar-nominated Moore gives a fine performance, but her self-sacrificing character is almost too much to bear — especially as the film nears its infamously maudlin ending. The same could be said about Oscar-nominated Kohner (though for different reasons): while her counterpoint in the original film (Fredi Washington) comes across as an appropriately tragic representation of racial self-loathing, Kohner’s characterization as Peola (as indicated in Peary’s assessment above) simply makes one want to slap her for her insolence; something clearly got lost in translation. Speaking of intentions, the film’s most startling and revealing line — Turner stating to an increasingly ill Moore, “It never occurred to me that you had any friends” (!!) — could easily have helped the movie segue into an absorbing drama about a deluded white woman recognizing her tendencies towards racial superiority, and working to rectify this paradigm. Alas, Sirk had other intentions for his melodrama: ultimately, it’s the “Ross Hunter gloss and glitter, fantasy lighting, and perfectly designed sets” — along with an impeccably coiffed Lana Turner, hunky John Gavin, and perky Sandra Dee — that are meant to draw one in, not a tale of authentic personal redemption.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ross Hunter’s typically slick set designs
    Imitation of Life Sets

Must See?
Yes, once, simply for its notoriety. But please note that the original is far superior, and be sure to see that one, too.

Categories

Links:

Imitation of Life (1934)

Imitation of Life (1934)

“I wanna be white — like I look!”

Imitation of Life Postser

Synopsis:
An industrious widow (Claudette Colbert) with a young daughter (Juanita Quigley and Marilyn Knowlden) befriends and hires an out-of-work African American widow (Louise Beavers) with a daughter of her own, light-skinned Peola (Sebie Hendricks). When Colbert turns Beavers’ special waffle recipe into a thriving business, they experience a life of wealth and comfort, though Beavers remains Colbert’s servant and only receives a small portion of the profits. As Peola (Fredi Washington) grows older, she becomes increasingly ashamed of her racial status, and tries to pass as white; meanwhile, Colbert’s teenage daughter (Rochelle Hudson) falls for Colbert’s new boyfriend (Warren Williams), causing additional tensions in the family.

Genres:

Review:
Although Douglas Sirk’s overblown 1959 remake (starring Lana Turner) is much better known, this original, more faithful adaptation of Fannie Hurst’s classic women’s weepie remains the superior version, telling a distressing parable of how racial prejudice — both externally and internally manifested — can destroy lives. Beavers (giving a fine, sensitive performance) represents passive acceptance of racial expectations: it’s clear she wouldn’t even consider asking for more than a 20% share in the business product she created, or shifting away from her “duties” as Colbert’s caretaker despite her new (relative) wealth. Meanwhile, Washington — a mulatto actress and activist who deserves to be better known, and clearly should have had a bigger career in Hollywood — is fantastic in an undeniably challenging role, generating such authentic pathos that we can’t help empathizing with her even while hating the pain she’s causing her mother.

It’s interesting (but not surprising) to note that both liberals and conservatives were distressed by this (relatively) progressive movie, which is bold in its presentation of themes and concerns that simply weren’t tackled in mainstream Hollywood at the time. Knowing that white women were subsequently cast in comparable “Peola”-like roles — i.e., Ava Gardner in Show Boat, Jeanne Crain in Pinky, and Susan Kohner in the film’s remake — makes one especially appreciative of this earlier film’s attempt towards authenticity in that regard. According to Wikipedia, “In 2005, Imitation of Life was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry” and “was named by Time in 2007 as one of ‘The 25 Most Important Films on Race'” — both designations that make complete sense.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fredi Washington as Peola
    Imitation of Life Washington
  • Louise Beavers as Delilah
    Imitation of Life Beavers
  • A refreshing depiction of inter-racial friendship and social dynamics
    Imitation of Life Friendship
    Imitation of Life Staircase

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance and fine supporting performances. Listed as a Personal Recommendation and a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links:

In a Lonely Place (1950)

In a Lonely Place (1950)

“I didn’t say I was a gentleman; I said I was tired.”

In a Lonely Place Poster

Synopsis:
A screenwriter (Humphrey Bogart) with a pugilistic bent becomes the primary suspect when a hat-check girl (Martha Stewart) dies after spending a platonic evening at his house. The loyalty and love of a new neighbor (Gloria Grahame) gives Bogart renewed energy and hope — but as Grahame sees increasing evidence of his violent nature, she, too, begins to question his innocence.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes, “Nicholas Ray made several films about decent men who couldn’t control violent tempers”, including this “onetime ‘sleeper'” (based on a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes) that “has come to be regarded as one of Bogart’s classics”. The “terrific, unusual script” (by Andrew Solt and Edmund H. North) “includes sharp dialogue” and “some peculiar secondary characters” — including Stewart, who is perfectly cast as an ill-fated young lover of melodramatic fiction. But it’s the primary players here who really hold our attention: Bogart’s “Dixon Steele” (what a name!) — an “ex-GI who’s been trying to make a comeback since the war ended”, and whose “frustrations have manifested” in both “cynical remarks about the movie industry” and repeated “violent tantrums” — is presented as an admirably complex protagonist. Meanwhile, sexy Grahame (who in real life “was about to get her divorce from Ray”) transcends her initial characterization as a presumed-femme fatale to emerge as a loving and supportive romantic partner.

As detectives continue to probe the mysterious case, we’re kept on the edge of our seats: we don’t want to believe that Bogie (our hero!) could possibly have committed the murder, but we slowly see — through the perspective of Grahame, who has “become the main character” — that he’s certainly “capable of such an act”, and we begin to genuinely fear for her safety. The surprisingly downbeat ending packs a punch: it’s realistic, respectful, and decidedly unusual for Hollywood fare at the time. With its smart script, solid direction by Ray, atmospheric cinematography by Burnett Guffey, and fine performances across the board, this fatalistic noir remains a must-see classic for all film fanatics.

Note: In Hughes’ original novel, Steele is “a serial sex murderer” who relates the story from his own perspective; clearly, some adjustments were needed before Hollywood would consent to telling this tale!

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Humphrey Bogart as Dixon Steele
    In a Lonely Place Bogart
  • Gloria Grahame as Laurel Gray
    In a Lonely Place Grahame
  • Nice use of authentic L.A. locales
    In a Lonely Place Sets
  • Burnett Guffey’s cinematography
  • A gripping script with plenty of memorable lines:

    “I was born when you kissed me,
    I died when you left me,
    I lived a few weeks while you loved me.”

    “You knew he was dynamite — he has to explode sometimes!”

Must See?
Yes, as a fine and unusual romantic noir. Nominated as one of the Best Films of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Fame (1980)

Fame (1980)

“A real artist must never be afraid of what other people will say about him.”

Fame Poster

Synopsis:
A group of aspiring performing artists — including a nervous actress (Maureen Teefy) with an overly enmeshed mother (Tresa Hughes); an illiterate dancer (Gene Anthony Ray) with ample raw talent; the synthesizer-playing son (Lee Curreri) of a cab driver (Eddie Barth); an arrogant, spoiled ballerina (Antonia Franceschi); a dubiously talented lifelong dancer (Laura Dean); a closeted young gay actor (Paul McCrane); a hopeful but naive singer/dancer (Irene Cara); and a Freddie Prinze-worshiping stand-up comedian (Barry Miller) — audition for placement at the prestigious New York High School of Performing Arts.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “extremely entertaining and original seriocomic musical” — about a group of diverse students struggling to survive and thrive at a competitive performing arts high school in New York — not only demonstrates the development of their “individual talents”, but, “more significantly”, shows how they “simultaneously strip off their defenses and discover their elusive self-identities”. He writes that “director Alan Parker obviously has respect for [these] young people and their great talents (which are evident on the screen) as well as sympathy for their brave, masochistic attempts to make a living through their art”. As Peary points out, “the film’s comedy is consistently bright” and “the drama works well as long as Parker strives for poignancy rather than pathos (which occurs too often in the later stages of the film).”

What stands out most vividly about the movie are the “imaginatively staged, free-for-all musical production numbers”, during which “everyone in the school jumps in spontaneously”, with “blacks, whites, and hispanics dancing together, ballet dancers rocking with students in wild street clothes, cellists jamming with drummers”; we truly “see spirited democracy at work, and no one worries about making fools of themselves”. While these numbers are far from realistic (who cares?), they nonetheless perfectly capture the vibrancy, enthusiasm, diligence, and creativity of this immensely talented group of teens — which makes it especially depressing to see how much they inevitably struggle to “make it” as artists in the “real world” (though Parker should be commended for authentically representing this aspect of their young existence, too).

As Peary writes, the “entire film, not just the music, has rhythm”, which is “most evident in the dialogue [Christopher Gore wrote the screenplay] and the editing” (by Gerry Hambling). Indeed, other than its catchy score (by Michael Gore), the film’s fast-paced, finely calibrated editing is one of its most distinctive features — particularly during the first section (entitled “Auditions”; the remaining sections are divided into the four high school years). I also love how Parker manages to capture not only the immense ethnic and social diversity of these New York youths, but how multi-talented they must become to have a fighting chance of success as working artists.

They must also prove themselves academically, at least in order to graduate — and it’s on this latter topic that the film ultimately flails a bit, as demonstrated in the interactions between Ray and his English teacher (Anne Meara), who doesn’t seem to have a clue that her defiant student may be struggling with issues far more complicated than mere motivation. I wish the screenplay spent more time on Ray (whose complex character is the most interesting by far) and less on the friendship/love “triangle” between Teefy, Miller and McCrane — though their outing to see a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show remains a fun cultural artifact. While Fame may ultimately try to cover a bit too much territory in one feature-length film (the 1982-1987 T.V. show spin-off made complete sense!), it’s easy enough to focus on the parts that work exceptionally well — and, thankfully, many do.

Note: Sadly, Ray (who played Leroy in both the film and T.V. series) apparently struggled enormously in his personal life, becoming HIV-positive and dying far too young (of a stroke) at 41.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A refreshing representation of diverse, talented New York teens
    Fame Diversity
  • A fun glimpse at The Rocky Horror Picture Show in live action
    Fame RHPS
  • Michael Seresin’s cinematography
    Fame Cinematography3
    Fame Cinematography2
  • Excellent use of authentic New York locales
    Fame New York Locales
  • Louis Falco’s choreography
    Fame Dance
  • Michael Gore’s vibrant score
    Fame Music
  • Seamless editing by Gerry Hambling

Must See?
Yes, as a (mostly) strong and unusual high school musical.

Categories

Links: