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Monthly Archives: February 2012

A Classic British Cinema Primer

British cinema has arguably never gotten the critical respect it deserves – in part because the influential French critics of the 1950s (who would later become filmmakers themselves and form the backbone of the Nouvelle Vague) always had an irrational prejudice against it. As a critic, Francois Truffaut famously and snobbishly declared that there was an incompatibility between the very words “British” and “cinema,” and, decades later, Jean-Luc Godard used his magnum opus Histoire(s) du Cinema to unfairly attack the postwar British cinema for “doing what it has always done — nothing.” But as the list of titles below should make clear, the British cinema of the postwar years was a true golden age, a period in which a bunch of hard-working filmmakers were able to do good, unpretentious work. These films, a baker’s dozen, span the prewar years of the early sound era (mostly so that I could include Alfred Hitchcock) through the late 1950s, when British movies were made according to a studio system directly analogous to that of Hollywood. The 1960s saw the industry undergo a sea change with the relaxing of censorship laws and the introduction of Angry Young Men and Kitchen Sink Realism, but that will be the subject of another post . . . 

Again I’m limiting myself to one film per director in the interest of diversity. It should almost go without saying that anyone interested in classic British cinema should make it a point to see all of the major films of Hitchcock and Powell/Pressburger.

Night Mail (Watt/Wright, 1936)

Inspired by similar Soviet movies, this superb 25 minute documentary illustrates how mail is sorted, collected and delivered on a single “mail only” midnight train from London to Edinburgh. No mere educational film, this priceless time capsule captures the spirit of a vanished age even if its portrayal of dedicated, efficient government employees taking immense pride in their work is romanticized. The scene that demonstrates the innovative method of how mail bags are collected (without needing to slow down or stop the train) is shot and edited like a Hitchcock suspense sequence. Among the prodigiously talented people who worked on it were poet W.H. Auden, who wrote the excellent, rhyming verse narration, and composer Benjamin Britten, whose score, like Auden’s verse, works to emulate the sounds of a chugging locomotive. There are other British documentaries more famous than this, especially from the war years, but none strike me as being as quintessentially British as this.

The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock, 1939)

It seems that 1935’s The 39 Steps has become the consensus pick for the masterpiece of Hitchcock’s British period but, while I do love that film unreservedly, I love this outrageously entertaining spy caper even more. While aboard a transcontinental train, Iris, a beautiful young Englishwoman, befriends Miss Froy, an elderly woman who mysteriously disappears. In a signature nightmarish paranoid/conspiracy theory plot, Hitchcock has all of the other passengers deny that Froy was ever on the train, which causes Iris to question her sanity. It’s up to Gilbert (Michael Redgrave in his screen debut), an unflappably witty ethnomusicologist, to help Iris get to the bottom of the mystery. This is one of Hitchcock’s most purely entertaining films, which is saying a lot, in part because of the colorful supporting players; I’m particularly fond of the hilarious slapstick brawl between Gilbert, Iris and a nefarious Italian magician. As someone who wore out his public domain VHS copy as a teenager, I am exceedingly grateful to the Criterion Collection for their impeccable 2011 blu-ray.

Henry V (Olivier, 1944)

It’s only right to include at least one of Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare adaptation on a list of classic British films. While some might opt for 1948’s Oscar-winning Hamlet or 1955’s Richard III, I’ll take Sir Larry’s directorial debut, which is also a dramatization of my favorite Shakespeare play. Olivier’s innovative version of Henry V is gorgeously photographed in three-strip Technicolor and ingeniously begins as a documentary-style film of an authentic Globe Theatre production, complete with visible and audible audience reactions, before “opening up” into an intensely cinematic adaptation with epic battle scenes involving real locations and hundreds of extras on horseback. That this was also an attempt to boost British wartime morale, most obvious in Henry’s “Once more unto the breach” and “St. Crispin’s Day” monologues, makes the film even more poignant in hindsight.

Brief Encounter (Lean, 1945)

David Lean will probably always be best remembered for lavish, 70mm-photographed Oscar-friendly pictures like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, but I think his relatively early Brief Encounter remains the high point of his career. It’s a minimalist story of adulterous love as “brief” and compressed as the later films are expansive and epic, and arguably all the more effective for it. The performances of Trevor Howard and doe-eyed Celia Johnson as the star-crossed lovers and the script by Noel Coward are all world class. In a memorable line of dialogue, Celia’s Laura says “I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.” If “violence” can be considered purely emotional then this is one of the most violent movies ever made.

Dead of Night (Cavalcanti/Crichton/Dearden/Hamer, 1945)

“Omnibus” movies, feature-length anthologies of short films created by multiple writers/directors, invariably feel inconsistent and uneven. The Ealing Studios horror anthology Dead of Night is one of the best exceptions to the rule. A linking narrative shows an architect arriving at a party at a country home where he is overcome with a sense of deja vu. Once there, he is regaled with stories told by various guests that serve as the basis for the film’s four tales: Christmas Party and The Ventriloquist’s Dummy by Alberto Cavalcanti, Golfing Story by Charles Crichton, Hearse Driver by Basil Dearden and The Haunted Mirror by Robert Hamer. The stories balance each other out beautifully, from the darkly humorous to the genuinely scary, and are wonderfully tied together in the end. Michael Redgrave’s performance as the ventriloquist is a creepy high point. Fans of horror and/or British cinema can’t afford to miss this.

Brighton Rock (Boulting, 1947)

John Boulting’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel centers on Pinkie, a young, low level gangster who commits a hit at the beginning of the film and then romances Rose, the working class waitress who is the only witness to the crime. He agrees to marry her in order to keep her quiet, while she thinks she can change him for the better. Future director Richard Attenborough is electrifying as Pinkie, especially as the character’s behavior becomes increasingly pathological while trying to keep the police at bay. There are also great noir-ish visuals, authentically seedy locations and one of the most cruelly ironic endings in cinema. This is quite simply the best of the British gangster movies.

The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger, 1948)

As “The Archers,” Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger collectively wrote and directed the most extraordinary movies of the golden age of British cinema and The Red Shoes is their masterpiece. Taking its inspiration from a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, this beautiful, visually baroque Technicolor extravaganza tells the story of a ballerina (Moira Shearer) who is torn between the desires of her heart and the quest for perfection in her craft. The highlight is the title ballet sequence, a fifteen minute scene employing dozens of dancers and over a hundred painted backdrops, shot and cut together as a thrilling spectacle of pure cinema. One of the great films about obsession. One of the great films about the artistic process. One of the great films period.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (Hamer, 1949)

When Louis Mazzini discovers he is a distant, bastard heir of the “Duke of D’Ascoyne” he decides to murder the eight relatives who stand between him and the title. Alec Guinness is delightful playing eight(!) different roles in the extended D’Ascoyne family, including one female part, but it is Dennis Price as Mazzini who steals the show. His droll voice over narration, containing some of the wittiest English language dialogue ever written, provides the dark heart of this blackest of Ealing comedies.

The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)

In Carol Reed’s classic British noir Joseph Cotton stars Holly Martins, a dime store novelist who travels to Vienna to visit childhood pal Harry Lime only to find that his friend has recently died in a mysterious accident. Martins’ belief that Lime was murdered inspires a personal investigation that leads him deep into the morally dubious heart of the postwar European black market as well as into a love affair with Lime’s beautiful girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli). Among the film’s unforgettable ingredients are the catchy zither score by Anton Karas, the legendary extended cameo by Orson Welles and the cinematography of Robert Krasker, whose use of dutch angles and chiaroscuro lighting make the rubble-strewn Viennese streets look positively lunar.

The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton, 1951)

Another Ealing Studios comedy gem starring Alec Guinness, this time as a mild-mannered bank clerk who masterminds a scheme to steal gold bullion from his employers, melt it down and smuggle it out of the country as souvenir toy models of the Eiffel Tower. Charles Crichton, best known for directing A Fish Called Wanda thirty seven years later, keeps the tone light and clever and the pacing swift during the lean 81 minute running time. The film does however achieve a certain gravitas due to the genuinely poignant friendship that develops between Guinness’ bank clerk and the small-time artist played by Stanley Holloway who agrees to help him.

The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick, 1955)

If you only see one Ealing comedy, this should be it. Alec Guinness (again!) gives arguably his finest comic performance as the leader of a gang of inept robbers who pose as classical musicians and rent a room from an elderly widow in order to plot their latest heist. Unfortunately for the crooks, but fortunately for film lovers, nothing goes according to plan in Alexander Mackendrick’s masterful blend of verbal wit and hilarious sight gags. Bolstered by a terrific cast (including early performances by Herbert Lom and Peter Sellers) and beautiful Technicolor cinematography, this is a near-perfect comedy.

Dracula (AKA Horror of Dracula) (Terence Fisher, 1958)

Another prerequisite for any list of essential British movies is the inclusion of something from the cycle of classic Hammer horror films from the mid to late 1950s. Many of these titles were reworkings of the Universal Studios monster movies of the 1930s but updated to include gorier effects and color cinematography. My personal favorite is Terence Fisher’s Dracula, which features the unbeatable team of Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as the title bloodsucker. Like Murnau with Nosferatu, Fisher knew that less was more when it came to horror; Lee’s screen time is extremely brief, which gives his Count Dracula that much more impact.

Room at the Top (Jack Clayton, 1959)

This is one of those films in which one can arguably feel the end of one era and the beginning of another. Laurence Harvey is Joe, an angry young man from a working class background who opportunistically conspires to marry the daughter of his wealthy factory owner boss. His plan is complicated when he falls in love with Alice (Simone Signoret), an older Frenchwoman who is unhappily married. Joe’s attempts to carry on both affairs simultaneously inevitably ends in tragedy. The dialogue and performances here are more naturalistic than what came before in British movies, including a much more frank attitude toward sexuality. Harvey is terrific as the social climber but it is the magnificent, Oscar-winning performance by Signoret as the sad-eyed older woman that broke my bloody heart.

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Oscars Post-Mortem: My Sweet Revenge

For the past year, I’ve been living with a terrible secret: I ignominiously lost the Oscar contest I entered at Judi Marcin’s fabulous 2011 Oscar party. I say “ignominiously” because I walked through her front door 366 days ago and loudly proclaimed that I would know I was in the wrong profession if, as a film studies instructor, I did not end up winning the contest. At the end of the evening I had correctly predicted 17 out of 24 categories, which, quite painfully, was one less than the ever-affable Mike Wernette.

Well, I’m happy to report that last night I got my sweet revenge. Out of the dozen attendees at Judi’s 2012 party, I was the only one to correctly predict 17 out of 24 categories. This time that was two more than Mike W., who came in second place. The above photo is of him handing me the top prize, a chocolate Oscar. So now I no longer need to think about quitting my day job. Also, I figure that, like Miss America, I now have bragging rights for the next year. For this, I’d like to thank Mike, Judi, everyone at the party, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences . . .

As for the 2012 awards show itself, here is my review: a bunch of millionaires jerking off in a circle. (To read my review of any of the shows from previous years, please substitute for “2012” any number between 1929 and 2011.)


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Topsy Turvy (Leigh)
2. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)
3. Psycho (Hitchcock)
4. The Traitors (Gleyzer)
5. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy)
6. Bringing Up Baby (Hawks)
7. Citizen Kane (Welles)
8. An American Werewolf in London (Landis)
9. Touch of Evil (Welles)
10. The Lady Eve (Sturges)


Oscarology: 2012 Edition

It’s chocolate! Now I want one more than ever!

Out of a field of nine candidates, this year’s Best Picture Oscar race has essentially boiled down to a contest between The Artist and The Descendants. Most pundits feel that The Artist has the upper hand, not because it is the better film (although I personally think that it is) but because, as in real world politics, the people who are backing it are simply better at running a campaign. In this post, I will handicap the Best Picture race and offer other random thoughts on the five out of the nine nominees that I’ve seen.

The Shoo-In:

To borrow a phrase from Andrew Sarris, I found The Artist to be lightly likable. I don’t think it’s worth all of the praise it’s getting but, perhaps because I went in with low expectations, I found myself pleasantly surprised by its lightweight charm. (Just because it’s the frontrunner, doesn’t mean it can’t be good!) Unfortunately, French writer/director Michel Hazanavicius gets the silent era in Hollywood wrong in terms of both story and production design. The film takes place mostly in the summer and fall of 1929 so that he can incorporate the stock market crash into the plot when it would actually make more sense for most of the events to be taking place in 1927 or 1928. The notion that a major U.S. studio of the period would have a Euro-centric name like “Kinograph” is absurd. And why is it that a movie ostensibly conceived of as a tribute to the silent era has only films from the 1940s and 1950s as its key reference points? The story is basically a mash-up of A Star is Born and Singin’ in the Rain while also borrowing style elements from Citizen Kane and Vertigo. The appropriation of Bernard Herrmann’s love theme from the latter recently caused controversy when Kim Novak wrote an op ed claiming that it made her feel “raped.” While Ms. Novak’s choice of words may have been unfortunate, I’m actually siding with her on this one; the problem, for me, isn’t that Hazanavicius used the score from another movie. The problem is that he expected it to do the heavy lifting that his images couldn’t accomplish. But it doesn’t really matter that The Artist fails as a tragedy because it does succeed as a comedy. Charisma can go a long way and lead performers Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo and, especially, Uggie the dog have charisma to burn. I’m not sure if Uggie gives the greatest dog performance ever, as some critics have claimed, but his expressiveness does remind us that animals are sorely underused in movies in general. All in all, The Artist is worth seeing. The Artist Rating: 6.4

The Main Competition:

“Worth seeing” is a phrase I can also apply to Alexander Payne’s overrated The Descendants – but just barely. The cast is uniformly good but I really, really disliked the entire narrative thread about the dilemma of George Clooney’s character regarding whether to sell his family’s ancestral land. Clooney’s climactic speechifying about how his family has “Hawaiian blood” and “a connection to this land” when those issues haven’t once been touched upon throughout the entire movie up to that point is bizarre. And as good as Beau Bridges is as a laid-back beach bum in his first scene at a bar, the moment at the end where he’s holding a pen in front of Clooney and coming on like Mephistopheles is just awful. Payne also has an unfortunate tendency to underline the Big Meaning of a scene – like the final ice cream-sharing moment that illustrates how Clooney and his daughters have grown closer together because of the events that transpired, or the scene where Clooney has a late night talk with the older daughter’s boyfriend and realizes that, hey, even idiot slackers know what it means to experience loss too. I miss the edgier, mean-spirited humor of Payne’s earlier work but he’ll probably be taking home the Adapted Screenplay Oscar for this. Clooney winning Best Actor is also likely. The Descendants Rating: 5.8

The Dark Horse:

Hugo is considered a dark horse for Best Picture, which is interesting in that, like The Artst, it concerns the silent cinema. But unlike Hazanavicius’ superficial emulation of silent film aesthetics (black and white film stock, square aspect ratio and, um, you know, no sound), Martin Scorsese’s picture better captures the feel of silent movies and, perhaps paradoxically, does a better job of telling its story through images. Like F.W. Murnau, Scorsese knows how to put emotion into camera movement and his swooping, swooning, lyrical crane shots, combined with Dante Ferretti’s superb production design and an intelligent, judicious use of 3-D (i.e., shit isn’t popping out at you every three seconds) make this one of the most purely pleasurable viewing experiences of the past year. Not everything in Hugo works for me. I wasn’t crazy about the tacked on romance between Sasha Baron Cohen’s station inspector and Emily Mortimer’s flower girl. But all of the scenes involving movie watching, movie making and movie preservation are emotionally moving and, let’s face it, a cinephile’s dream. Finally, as a film studies instructor, I’d like to personally thank Scorsese (who I suspect has a real shot at upsetting Hazanavicius for Best Director) for single-handedly making my job easier; when I show A Train Arriving at La Ciotat and A Trip to the Moon in class now, a lot of students already know what the hell I’m talking about. Hugo Rating: 8.2

The Long Shots:

I already wrote a long, joint review of the following two movies when they first opened in Chicago last spring:

The Tree of Life – This doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning Best Picture but Emanuel Lubezki is a lock for Best Cinematography.

Midnight in Paris – Yet another Best Picture contender set in the 1920s? Good to know nostalgia can extend back almost a hundred years! This is actually my favorite film nominated for the top award but it has no chance of winning. Woody Allen fans will have to content themselves with the Best Original Screenplay Award instead.

That reminds me: last year my brother, with his characteristic wit, told me the highlight of the Oscars for him was when Jean-Luc Godard didn’t show up to accept his Lifetime Achievement Award. Will the highlight of this year’s show be Woody again not showing up to collect his fourth Oscar?


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Antonio das Mortes (Rocha)
2. Design for Living (Lubitsch)
3. Village of the Damned (Carpenter)
4. Love Stalker (Glasson/MacLean)
5. The Band Wagon (Minnelli)
6. House of Pleasures (Bonello)
7. L’atalante (Vigo)
8. The Rules of the Game (Renoir)
9. The Princess Bride (Reiner)
10. The Tracker (de Heer)


Film Festival Director Interview: Clayton Monical

After receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Digital Media Production from the Illinois Institute of Art, Clayton Monical co-founded the Peace On Earth Film Festival, whose unique mission statement is to raise awareness of peace, non-violence, social justice and an eco-balanced world. He has served as a director and member of its review committee ever since, while simultaneously working virtually every production job imaginable in Chicago’s indie film scene. (Full disclosure: he also produced my last two short films.) The 5th Annual Peace On Earth Film Festival will take place in the historic Chicago Cultural Center’s Claudia Cassidy Theater, from Thursday, February 23 through Sunday, February 26. You can learn more about the festival and view the 2012 line-up here: http://peaceonearthfilmfestival.org

I recently spoke with Clayton about POEFF and independent film production in Chicago.

MGS: You wear many hats in the Chicago film scene. What initially attracted you to the movies as a medium?

CM: That is actually a funny story. I was never a kid to watch movies and study them, I was actually fascinated with animation as a kid. I originally went to college wholeheartedly with the passion to become an animator. I was in my second year of college when I took an Intro to Digital Media Production course. Our main project for this course was to create a short film. I was lucky enough to work with a couple really talented animators who also liked film; this is what got my interest. We did a 14 minute short film (our project was supposed to be 3 minutes) and after that I switched my degree and never looked back, and loved it ever since.

MGS: How does one go about founding a film festival? Were you intimidated at all by the fact that Chicago already plays host to many annual film festivals?

CM: Well, in all honesty it was not my brainchild, it was Nick Angotti’s (the Exec-Director of the festival) I was brought on in the early stages by one of the original co-founding member Brad LaMar whose films I had produced in the past. Nick was seeking to start a festival but did not have a set path in the production industry in the city; he was an actor but had little experience with film festivals. Brad and I have had several projects that had been and were in the festival circuit, so we felt that we could be key assets in co-founding and co-running the festival. As for the intimidation factor, well I guess it never came up. When we sat down and talked about POEFF it was something that was needed in Chicago. We started the festival in 2007, with the first festival debuting in 2008, when the violence in the city was at its highest, murder and crime was really bad that year. So since our message was different than most festivals in the city we felt there was a need and we were ready to take the hurdles that came with the project. I feel a big aspect for me was to give filmmakers, who pour their heart and souls into a project that is not mainstream or “Hollywood,” a venue to show their work. Our festival focuses on peace, non-violence, along with social justice and eco-balanced issues.

MGS: What exactly does your job entail? Walk me through a typical day in the life of a film festival director/review committee member.

CM: I run into people thinking that we just run the festival that weekend. There are actually mountains of work that go into the festival. Thankfully as the years go by we have been able bring people on with the same passion as the original members that alleviate the workload a bit. A normal day for me differs, but mostly what you can find me doing is: watching films, discussing marketing tactics, meeting with our PR company, meeting with Nick Angotti (Exec-Director) and Melissa Pacelli (Co-Founder/Director) on the day to day issues that arise with anything from brand messaging in our poster designs and venue issues to what things should we raffle off during the festival. Nick, Melissa and I are all in agreement with things so almost everything goes through us. So really my day to day differs but one thing is for sure, it will be a busy one.

MGS: Every time I hear back from a film festival, they always say that they’ve received a “record number of submissions.” How much has POEFF grown over the past five years and how has it been affected by the digital revolution in terms of production, distribution and exhibition?

CM: The big thing that has grown with the festival, other than the film submission, which is at a “record number of submissions” (we received upwards of 150 films this year), is our Community Outreach Programs that Nick and Melissa work on. Although I am not a huge part of this aspect of the festival the work they are doing is too important not to bring up. We have a POEFF program to go into schools and do a seminar or class where we show films from the festival and open a discussion with students about peace and how to bring it back into their communities. It has been a great project and a huge part of the growing success of our festival. We do have a Thursday/Friday morning program during festival where schools come to the Chicago Cultural Center and participate in watching the films and we have an open discussion with the students about the films they just saw. Along with that being a huge growing part of the festival, I would have to say the people that have been coming to the festival is growing every year by large numbers. For instance our first year in 2008 we probably sat 250 people all weekend, now we probably sit 350 a day at the festival, which is a great sign that our festival is here to stay and people know it’s a good community project.

MGS: Do you see any correlations between your jobs as independent film producer and film festival director? How does your thorough knowledge of the in-and-outs of the production process benefit the festival?

CM: I do everyday; I don’t think I would be as successful as a POEFF Director without my years of producing films. Everyday I have to think on my toes especially during the festival, keeping things on track and making sure everything is flowing smoothly. Which, as you personally know, correlates nicely to making sure you keep on budget and schedule while doing producing/production management. A live event like the festival is not too far off from doing film. I also think I would not be such a successful producer without the festival.

MGS: I’ll be offering extra credits to any of my students who attend POEFF. Most of them will be young people who have never attended a film festival. How would you recommend they go about choosing a particular film or program from this year’s line-up?

CM: Well since I am kind of biased I would say attend all weekend but, generally we have some really good films Friday and Saturday night. I cannot say what films are the best to see, as each viewer takes something different from the festival. My best suggestion would be check out http://www.poeff.org and look over our films that are listed for this year, all have descriptions and will give you an estimated time it will be shown, find one that will be interesting to the viewer and check it out. We always have a give away for people that come and either “check-in” or “like” us on Facebook. So make sure you check the on screen ads at the festival for the details.

Clayton Monical on the set of The Catastrophe:


R.O.U.S. – A Rodent of Unusual Sexiness

Last night my wife Jill and I attended a special Valentine’s Day screening of The Princess Bride at the Music Box Theatre. In spite of the fact that the screening was sold out, only four audience members chose to participate in the pre-show entertainment costume contest. Incredibly, three out of the four contestants, including Jill, were dressed as Rodents of Unusual Size. Even though Jill has had luck in the past with these movie related contests, she didn’t win because the one non-R.O.U.S. contestant was a pre-pubescant girl dressed as Princess Buttercup. Let’s face it: you just can’t beat a kid. (The below photo, however, wins my personal award for Sexiest Rat Ever.)


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