100 Years of Movies

100 Years of Movies
One cinephile's chronological journey through a century of film...

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Invisible Man (1933)

Directed by James Whale
Starring Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart and William Harrigan
Produced by Universal Pictures

The Invisible Man is one of those classics of the early Universal monsters craze. It may not be the first one mentioned, but once you get through Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man and the Mummy? There's a protagonist you can see right through.

For me, The Invisible Man is really a tale of two movies: the one we are promised and the one we are ultimately delivered.

The premise is intriguing and horrifying. Dr. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) has performed experiments on himself that have both turned him invisible and driven him mad. Throughout the film, he proclaims the malicious intents to which he will put his new found powers. He will sneak into the halls of rulers or murder thousands of people. The strength of the film is the idea that this sort of power in the hands of someone this unhinged could lead to all manner of catastrophe.


Monday, July 7, 2014

Duck Soup (1933)

Directed by Leo McCarey
Starring The Marx Brothers, Margaret DuMont and Raquel Torres
Produced by Paramount Pictures

So what happens when the Marx Brothers stick to a coherent storyline with characters that are relatively consistent firing off jokes that don't overstay their welcome?

You get a pretty good comedy.

Duck Soup sets up Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly, recently installed as the leader of Freedonia. The country wanted to borrow money from Mrs. Teesdale to avoid a tax increase and she will only agree so long as Firefly is in charge.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Quantifying Cinemania: Summer 2013 vs. 2014

So this article starts with a random thought....

A year and half ago, movie reviewers were focused on two summers: 2013 with Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel and Star Trek The Wrath of Totally Not-Khan Into Darkness, and 2015 which brings Star Wars Episode VII and Avengers: Age of Ultron and Jurassic World.  Our current summer was the forgotten middle child.

Or so we thought.

A funny thing has happened in the ensuing 18 months.  Summer 2013 kinda sucked.  And this summer has been kind of great.

At least that's my own impression of things.Nothing I looked forward to last year delivered. Everything I anticipated this year has been solid if not spectacular.  And the "eye test" of other movie reviews seemed to suggest the same.  But is my gut accurate?

Time to bring in some numbers.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Christopher Strong (1933)

Directed by Dorothy Arzner
Starring Katharine Hepburn, Colin Cive and Billie Burke
Produced by RKO Radio Pictures

Let me get this out of the way: Christopher Strong takes the oddest approach to gender politics one could imagine.

On the one hand, we have Lady Cynthia (Katherine Hepburn), who may be the world’s most interesting woman.  She does what she wants.  She dresses how she wants.  She flies all over the world and, if she can’t set an altitude record right this moment, she will settle for a distance record.

However, she falls for Christopher Strong (Colin Clive), a member of Parliament who is interesting because…he gives good speeches? I don’t know. They don’t really tell us much about him other than he is a buzz kill in every way.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Baby Face (1933)

Directed by Alfred E. Green
Starring Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent and Donald Cook
Produced by Warner Bros.

For many of us, our job (or lack of one) comes to define us.  We are bankers or lawyers or writers or contractors.  Other things certainly define us as well, but one of the first questions inevitably asked and answered in any new encounter is “So what do you do?”

If you ask Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck), the lead character of Baby Face, that question, she may say she works at a speakeasy or at a bank.  But that’s not her real job.  The professional occupation she has chosen is dream girl and concubine. 

Throughout Baby Face, Lily uses her feminine wiles to seduce men only to discard them when the next social and class climbing opportunity presents itself.  After watching her father (who basically pimped his daughter to his customers) die in a speakeasy fire without a shred of regret, Lily’s climb through the offices of a bank becomes literal.  With each sexual conquest, the camera pans up yet another floor in the bank building to show us Lily’s ascent right up to the bank president’s office.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Fault in My Stars: Why I Moved to Letter Grades

Long time readers will notice I have moved from a five star grading system for movies to a letter grading system.  There is a reason.  And frankly I probably have given this more thought than it deserves.

The fundamental question is what grade makes something a “good” movie in my opinion.  Five stars? Awesome.  Four stars? Really good.

The trouble comes when you move lower than that.  How good is three stars?  If 2-1/2 is average, than it’s above average, right? 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Study in Scarlet (1933)

Directed by Edwin L. Marin
Starring Reginald Owen, Anna May Wong and June Clyde
Produced by KBS Productions Inc.

People love their police procedurals.  The traditional whodunit is amongst the sturdiest movie foundations you can build a movie on.  It’s got good guys. It’s got bad guys. It has tension as you are never 100 percent sure who the good guys or bad guys are.

Tales involving Sherlock Holmes (when they are good) traditionally ratchet these movies up a notch.  Holmes is a superhero, except instead of flying (Superman) or looking impressive in wifebeaters (Wolverine), Sherlock notices the clues that no one else does.  And he has Watson as his overmatched partner who serves as the audience stand-in so Holmes can explain the crime and the culprit in ways that make you want to go back and see what you missed.

A Study in Scarlet is a procedural.  And it features a guy named Sherlock Holmes.  And it’s pretty terrible.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

Directed by Alexander Korda
Starring Charles Laughton, Robert Donat and Franklin Dyall
Produced by London Film Productions

History and culture have a way of condensing figures over time to an easy shorthand.  I say “Benedict Arnold, “ you think “traitor.” “George Washington” brings on thoughts of cherry trees and river crossings.  And if I say “Michael Bay” three times in a darkened bathroom, a helicopter somewhere explodes.

The thing about this condensation of historical fact and myth into bullet points is we end up minimizing the humanity of these figures.  We forget that they had to eat and sleep, love and hate, and deal with all manner of human emotion even as they dealt with world-shaping events.

Which brings us to the titular king as played by Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII.

Friday, June 13, 2014

1933: Did You Miss Me?

Well, we have reached 1933. And if it seemed like that took a while it's because...it did!

1933 saw the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his famous "nothing to fear but fear itself" speech. Prohibition is repealed. Across the globe, Adolf Hitler becomes dictator of Germany.  And Alcatraz becomes the property of the U.S. Department of Justice, paving the way for an inescapable prison that only Clint Eastwood or Sean Connery could break out of.

In film, the tragic career arc of Fatty Arbuckle comes to a close with his death.  New Jersey becomes the home of the first drive-in theater.  Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers make their film debut.  We also get the creation of Twentieth Century Pictures and the first screen appearance of Popeye.

As to what movies we are watching, the biggie (literally) is one of my all time favorites: King Kong. I've seen it countless times, but any excuse to rewatch is good enough for me.  Beyond that, more Marx Brothers (groan), Footlight Parade, and Disney's Three Little Pigs are musts.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Rocky II vs. Logic

I am introducing my son to the Rocky series of films (as one does).  The first remains just awesome in every way, but that second film has some insane film logic as though in writing the film, the screenwriter completely forgot what the characters did the scene before...

  • Apollo challenges Rocky to a rematch, but Rocky has an eye injury so he retires.
  • Apollo calls Rocky names so Rocky says I will fight again, but Adrian doesn't approve. Apparently Rocky never heard of "sticks and stones...
  • Because of Adrian, Rocky doesn't really train. Because what better way to demonstrate your manhood to Apollo and make your wife happy then by going into the ring and suffering a debilitating injury in the first round.
  • Then Adrian goes into a coma, comes out of the coma and tells Rocky he should fight.  Comas apparently help people come to irrational decisions.
  • Rocky trains really hard and works on his speed.  We know this because he can catch a chicken.  Mickey tells us how fast he is.
  • Rematch arrives and is 14 rounds of Rocky getting pummeled because he is not fast.  Exactly the opposite of the thing Mickey told us he was.
To sum up: Rocky won't fight, he will fight, Adrian doesn't want him to fight, he totally should fight, Rocky needs to train to become fast, he is not fast at all. And I won't even get into the brilliant "fight right-handed for 14 rounds while getting beaten to within an inch of your life, then switch to southpaw when you can barely stand and immediately win the match" strategy.

So this film is basically a whole lot of filler that means nothing just so we can get to the fight.  Nostalgia had me remembering Rocky II as okay.  But this is a BAD film.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Noah and the Difference Between Deepening Faith and Reinforcing It

[Spoilers for Noah and The Last Temptation of Christ ahead.]

I'm a Catholic.  I went to 16 years of Catholic school.  I go to Mass every Sunday.  My kids go to a Catholic grade school.

But I have a confession to make...

I liked Noah. A lot. 

Why is this is this a confession? Because according to some, Noah is blasphemous and sinister and anti-Christian.

I am always mystified by these reactions from religious organizations and others.  If they really feel so strongly, they are stirring controversy (and publicity) for a film they are decrying. Of course, they are also holding themselves up as defenders of the faith and if that heroism gets more views, subscriptions or donations, so be it.

But I digress.  What I really want to talk about is the state of Christian filmmaking.  And frankly, it's not great.

Part of it goes back to the messaging above.  The Blind Side and Fireproof? Good. The Last Temptation of Christ? I'll just hold your reservation for this seat in hell right now.

The problem from my perspective is two fold:
  • Media supports a view that films that reinforce faith are good and films that challenge and potentially deepen it are at best dangerous and problematic.
  • Audiences are trained by these accounts to view movies based on what happens in them and not based on what they are about.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Set Visit: The Patchwork Girl of Oz

Posted April 1 1914 6:01:02pm

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the set of The Patchwork Girl of Oz, J. Farrell MacDonald's adaptation of L. Frank Baum's novel released just last year.

Let me admit upfront that I am quite the Oz-phile so of course I jumped at the chance to see what MacDonald was up to in bringing Baum's world to life.

Upon arrival, I got to see some production designs that would blow your mind.  MacDonald and his crew are clearly going all out to bring Oz to life.  Sadly, I was not able to take any pictures here and was sworn to secrecy so you will just have to wait for the film's release to behold its awesomeness.

From there, I got to tour a couple of the sets.  Specifically, I got to see both Unc Nunkie's hut and Dr. Pipt's lab.  It was like walking into a storybook.  The painted facade of Nunkie's fireplace as well as the imaginative contraption that allows Pipt to concoct his wonderful creations are more spectacular than I could have possibly imagined. For fans of Baum's stories, you can rest assured that you are in good hands.

At the end of the day, I got to watch them film a scene.  It was a small moment with Unc Nunkie and Ojo attempting to cross a bridge while the stubborn mule named Mewel (a typical Baum flourish of a name) prevents their crossing.  The scene itself is humorous, but what really astounds is the imaginative costuming that allows Fred Woodward to play Mewel.  The actor in every way becomes a mule.  It is seamless.  I cannot wait to watch how the effect translates to the big screen.

Sadly, I only had a moment with MacDonald himself as I was leaving.  I asked him how they would carry off the effect of creating the Patchwork Girl.  He smiled and said he couldn't reveal much but that it would "blow my mind."

Earlier, we reported on some of the effects work for this film and you can find that here.  Suffice to say, Baum fans will be more than satisfied if what I saw is any indication.  And for moviegoers new to Oz? Prepare to have your mind blown.