All posts by Andrew Wickliffe

Niagara Falls (1930, William C. McGann)

Niagara Falls doesn’t have a credited screenwriter, which is a shame as it’d be nice to know who wrote the occasionally rather witty dialogue but also who came up with such a dark short. Not even dark comedy. Just dark.

The short starts with recent newlywed Helen Jerome Eddy preparing for her honeymoon to–you guessed it–Niagara Falls. And then her mom calls and says they’re in financial trouble and isn’t Eddy selfish for going to Niagara Falls when her father needs help. So when husband Bryant Washburn gets home, Eddy gives him the bad news.

They’ll get to Niagara Falls someday though.

The film jumps forward a few years and, once again, Eddy and Washburn are getting ready to go to Niagara Falls. They’ve already got a son, so presumably they were able to consummate the marriage even without their honeymoon (in the first segment it seems like they’re waiting), and they’re bringing him along.

Then there’s another problem. Then there’s another time jump and another problem. All of the action takes place in their living room, with some old age makeup–pretty good old age makeup too–involved. The script’s efficient with the necessary exposition for the time jumps and so on (another reason it’s too bad the writer is uncredited) and the performances are decent. Washburn is fairly unlikable as a newlywed, but gets better as he stops making jokes about being stuck being married. Eddy’s actually best when she’s in the old age makeup.

McGann’s direction is pedestrian, even for a ten minute short–it’s never clear why he changes shots, it’s like there’s an egg timer going off somewhere, though the (also uncredited) editor does all right keeping a flow.

Once Niagara Falls takes its dark turn, it just keeps getting darker. Nothing extreme–not a lot of action–just a quietly despondent view of the human condition. Unfortunately, the dark turn happens in the last segment, when it’s too late to really affect the short’s quality over all. It just makes it peculiar.

Niagara Falls isn’t ever bad. It also isn’t ever good. It’s just weird.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by William C. McGann; director of photography, John Stumar; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Helen Jerome Eddy (Edna) and Bryant Washburn (Bob).


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Raging Bull (1980, Martin Scorsese)

Most of Raging Bull is about boxer Jake La Motta’s quest for the middleweight championship belt and takes place in the forties. The film opens with La Motta (Robert De Niro) in the sixties–out-of-shape, nose disfigured from the boxing; it’s a brief introduction then a fast cut to De Niro in shape and boxing in the early forties. The opening titles establish the film’s black and white photography, but those titles are over an ethereal shot of De Niro in the ring. That shot doesn’t hint at the vibrant contrast director Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman use in the regular action. The image is sharp, the blood and sweat glistening on the fighters, who box in the ring surrounded by darkness. Nothing is important–visually-except the fight. Thelma Schoonmaker’s glorious editing gets its start with that transition from the sixties to the forties, then there’s the fight itself. There’s the fight editing style, then there’s going to be the dramatic style. The latter is far more measured. There are still precise and sharp cuts, but the drama is more about listening. The fights are about doing. Or about what’s happening, because even though De Niro’s in almost every scene of the movie, it’s not until the third act the audience gets any insight into what he’s doing.

Because for most of the film there’s Joe Pesci, as De Niro’s younger brother and manager. Pesci hangs out with connected guy but not full mobster Frank Vincent, who wants De Niro to box for the mob. De Niro doesn’t want to box for the mob, so he’s having trouble getting his shot. Even though he wins his fights, even though he can take an infinite level of beating–his style is letting the other guy expend all his energy (usually through a good pummelling on De Niro’s face) then getting in a bunch of points and maybe a knockdown at the very end–De Niro’s not getting title shots, which ostensibly pisses him off.

He takes out that anger on wife Lori Anne Flax, who waits on him hand and foot, which he repays by bringing neighborhood teenage beauty Cathy Moriarty home for a roll in the hay while Flax is out shopping. Moriarty’s fifteen and has Pesci and Vincent and a bunch of other guys after her. But she goes for De Niro. Presumably they wait until she’s eighteen to get married (though who knows because New York state still lets fourteen year-olds get married with approval). The breakup from Flax is offscreen and only implied–there’s a montage sequence of most of the forties, De Niro winning fight after fight, home movie footage (in color) of his domestic bliss with Moriarty and Pesci, then with Theresa Saldana coming in as Pesci’s wife. By the time the action slows down again, both couples have kids and have moved into the ’burbs. Or at least into houses.

It’s been six years of trying to get a shot at the title and De Niro finally agrees to let mobster Nicholas Colasanto’s help him. At the same time, he’s become convinced Moriarty is cheating on him, possibly with Vincent (who De Niro’s always despised because he’s a tool).

Scorsese and screenwriters Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin present the situations and characters (slash people–there’s one moment when the actual La Motta’s pictures get used in the film, which ought to draw undue attention to the film being a dramatization but instead just makes it work even better) objectively, but they leave out a lot. De Niro’s frustrated with first wife Flax at the beginning because–as he complains to Pesci–he can’t beat her any more than he already does and she still doesn’t treat him as he wants. Same goes for Moriarty; there’s implied physical abuse (it’s an open secret) but Bull is holding off on showing it. Moriarty’s not likable, but she’s sympathetic. She’s been socialized into a terrible situation, she’s been psychologically abused, then physically. Then again, the film doesn’t give her enough to do away from De Niro to even be reduced to a victim role. Raging Bull is full of objects for De Niro to break (or try to break).

It’s also not like Pesci is sympathetic or likable. The film goes out of its way to characterize almost everyone–except De Niro–as racist. Everyone, including De Niro, is violently homophobic. The younger men–not Colasanto or Mario Gallo (as one of De Niro’s ring men)–are all strutting to prove something and covering for their various deficiencies. Something De Niro sees and resents them for.

When he finally does get the championship, instead of fulfilling a dream, it just gives De Niro more time to be abusive and jealous. Bull isn’t interested in the boxing. It’s interested in the fights for their visual and symbolic possibilities, but there aren’t any training montages. It’s guaranteed De Niro’s not going down. He can’t. Even after he’s beaten into hamburger, he can’t go down. It’s a mix of stubbornness, stupidity, and cruelty. A lot of the film–as far as the boxing goes–is about his rivalry with Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes). They keep having matches. Barnes doesn’t even get a line. He’s great, because he gets to watch and see De Niro, and the audience gets to see his reaction, but Bull’s not about the boxing.

Even though the boxing sequences are brilliantly executed.

Phenomenal acting from the three leads. When De Niro finally does drive everyone away–for their own safety, basically–and breaks down, he does so alone and in old age makeup (though La Motta would’ve barely been forty) and with a bunch of extra weight on. He doesn’t make the loathsome sympathetic–Bull isn’t a redemption story at all–but he does humanize it, which is probably worse.

Pesci’s great. He’s got these listening scenes, where he’s waiting to react to De Niro and it’s all about the thoughts going through his head. That patient dramatic editing from Schoonmaker makes it happen. Moriarty’s great. After they’re married with children, Bull becomes a hostage situation. De Niro is constantly threatening Moriarty, Pesci, and the audience with unknowable violence. Because even if he doesn’t see the potential, everyone else does. It’s captivating and horrifying.

Especially since Scorsese doesn’t do anything to emphasize it. He maintains that same objective narrative distance. It’s just the reality of the situation. His direction is spectacular, loud but quiet–there’s lots of symbolism but it never breaks the film’s reality (helps they’re Catholics for the imagery, for example)–and so deliberate, so patient.

Bull’s astoundingly great.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Martin Scorsese; screenplay by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, based on the book by Jake LaMotta, Joseph Carter, and Peter Savage; director of photography, Michael Chapman; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker; produced by Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Robert De Niro (Jake La Motta), Cathy Moriarty (Vickie La Motta), Joe Pesci (Joey), Frank Vincent (Salvy), Theresa Saldana (Lenore), Mario Gallo (Mario), Lori Anne Flax (Irma), and Nicholas Colasanto (Tommy Como).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE YEAR AFTER YEAR BLOGATHON HOSTED BY STEVE OF MOVIE MOVIE BLOG BLOG.


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The Buddy Holly Story (1978, Steve Rash)

There are three different things going on throughout The Buddy Holly Story. Well, more than three but there are the three big different things. There’s Robert Gittler’s screenplay, which has one narrative gesture for most of the film. There’s Gary Busey’s lead performance, which is resolute in both its sincerity and its anti-inscrutability. And there’s Rash’s direction, which enables both the script and the performance, but also leverages them to manage the scale.

Rash has a very determined narrative distance with The Buddy Holly Story. It’s Buddy Holly’s story. It’s Busey’s story. If he’s not in a scene, he’s about to be. Even when it’s not his scene, it ends up being his scene, because it’s all about him. Well, his performance. But Busey doesn’t do exposition. The performance doesn’t suggest a propensity for it, the script doesn’t pursue it. The other members in the band are there for exposition. Lovable standing bassist Charles Martin Smith and big but not dumb drummer Don Stroud. Even Amy Johnston, as Busey’s hometown girlfriend, expounds so Busey doesn’t. So the script’s got its own distance to its protagonist.

Because what the film becomes–and stays for quite a while–is these three guys journey into and through stardom. But not the pluses of stardom and not even the minuses (they’re implied and off-screen). They’re moving through the practicalities of it all. They’re at an information disadvantage, going from Lubbock to New York City by way of Nashville. Their actions can influence the trajectory but those actions tend to be reactions. Bluntly, the film positions the band as underdogs, even though they’re objectively not.

American music in the fifties had an enumeration of creatively significant artists working independently, simultaneously, and in both active and passive conjunction. Lots of big things happened in music, including Buddy Holly and some of the other musical acts portrayed in the film. Rash and Gittler consciously keep the characters’ anticipation and trepidation separate from the audience’s. The film is very sad. But it’s not sentimental. It’s sad. It’s guardedly, but enthusiastically nostalgic.

But it’s also very softly lighted–by Stevan Larner–on these often empty sets. Joel Schiller’s production design is great but outside musical set pieces, a lot of the film is just the three guys in sparse interiors. Usually without natural light sources. If there were fluorescent lights all over the place in the fifties, The Buddy Holly Story would be mostly in fluorescent lighted rooms with Busey discovering how far his creative ambitions can go and how to get them there and Stroud and Smith trying to keep up.

There are also bigger scenes, but they’re near vignettes. Like when Busey and the boys go play the Apollo and the white manager (Dick O’Neill) is terrified of putting up the three white boys from Texas for his black customers. The micro-subplot where Busey and the boys tour with Sam Cooke (Paul Mooney). They’re these clumps of larger scale scenes with the band scenes–which do eventually involve other supporting cast members, but as background–handling the narrative progress.

Then in the mid-to-late second act the film spotlights Busey as he branches off from the musical journey plot line to romance Maria Richwine. And the spotlight stays on Busey even away from those scenes. The film doesn’t really change its narrative distance, just its focus… by fading out around Busey. But never isolating him.

It’s a neat trick. Rash and Gittler do a lot with a lot. They’re even able to get away with the obviously historical location footage from establishing shots later on. It’s almost a gradual trust issue. The film doesn’t exactly lull its audience, but it invites a comfortable relationship.

Because the film is a true story and it’s a tragedy and even if you’re going into it completely unaware as a viewer, the filmmakers are aware and they take on certain responsibilities. And everyone making Buddy Holly Story–Rash, Gittler, Busey, Stroud, Smith, and whoever else–are embracing those responsibilities. The film’s astoundingly self-confident from the first scene. It’s never showy but it never meanders either. It doesn’t wander. Rash is guiding that flow, with a variety of styles, and each one has to hit just the right tone.

Not always easy when there are budgetary restrictions. Some of those interiors are sparser than they ought to be.

When the Story gets to the end, the film does just the right thing. It’s not an entirely unexpected thing, it’s not a surprise, but it’s neither the most or least obvious. But then Rash and Gittler haven’t been worried about the audience’s expectations, they’ve been tracking Busey’s. So it’s sort of the inevitable right thing. And you want it to go on forever.

The acting’s all good or better. Busey’s phenomenal. Then there’s the lip-synching. There isn’t any. So that enthusiastic nostalgia without any betraying of the verisimilitude and whatnot. Because Rash and Gittler are taking it seriously.

So it’s like it should be a surprise The Buddy Holly Story is such a success, but it also couldn’t be anything but.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steve Rash; screenplay by Robert Gittler, based on a story by Alan Swyer and a book by John Goldrosen; director of photography, Stevan Larner; edited by David E. Blewitt; music by Joe Renzetti; production designer, Joel Schiller; produced by Fred Bauer; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Gary Busey (Buddy), Maria Richwine (Maria), Charles Martin Smith (Ray Bob), Don Stroud (Jesse), Conrad Janis (Ross Turner), William Jordan (Riley), Amy Johnston (Cindy Lou), Dick O’Neill (Sol Gittler), Neva Patterson (Mrs. Ella Holly), Arch Johnson (Mr. Lawrence Holly), Gloria Irizarry (Mrs. Santiago), and Paul Mooney (Sam Cooke).


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Having Wonderful Crime (1945, A. Edward Sutherland)

Having Wonderful Crime is a perplexing comedy-mystery. The mystery itself is perplexing because it’s so exceptionally convoluted; three screenwriters and four or five red herrings and the picture only runs seventy minutes. The comedy is perplexing because Crime hinges its comedic potential on lead Pat O’Brien. O’Brien is a skirt-chasing Chicago lawyer who lets rich pal George Murphy talk him into solving crimes. Murphy seems to want to do it because he can’t say no to his girlfriend, Carole Landis. Landis wants to do it because… she’s the idle rich?

There’s a brief setup–including a voiceover introducing O’Brien (whose character appeared in more than just Crime from source author Craig Rice–but O’Brien never repeated the role)–which doesn’t just reveal (after there’s been a shootout) Murphy and Landis are now married (without telling best pal O’Brien) but also a bunch of the players in the next mystery. While on the run from the cops (because O’Brien will be in trouble if they’re found at the crime scene), O’Brien, Murphy, and Landis duck into a magic show. There, Crime introduces Lenore Aubert and Richard Martin as starcrossed lovers working for big jerk magician George Zucco.

After the magic show, which ends with Zucco really disappearing, Murphy and Landis break the married news to O’Brien and head off to their honeymoon. Of course, they end up taking O’Brien along, which is good because when they run into Aubert on the road to the resort–almost literally–they’re able to double register and get adjoining honeymoon suites. Of course, while his new fake bride is up in the room unconscious, O’Brien’s down at the bar trying to make time with Gloria Holden, who gets a thankless part as a professional swimmer.

The initial mystery–before there’s a murder–involves a giant chest, which may have a body in it. Once there’s a murder, the chest is still important, but then O’Brien and pals find out Zucco had played the resort the night before and there were strange goings ons at the resort too. Some involving rich spinsters Blanche Ring and Josephine Whittell, as well as resort manager Charles D. Brown and giant scary porter guy William ‘Wee Willie’ Davis. So many suspects, so much opportunity, so little motive but so many exteriors on the resorts grounds shot day-for-night.

Most of Crime is just O’Brien, Murphy, and Landis walking around outside trying to stumble onto a scene to kill a few minutes.

The film’s humor is utterly perplexing. While Murphy and Landis both occasionally exhibit comedic timing, it’s never when they’re together. There are some nods at slapstick, but usually at its aftermath, like no one thinks they could pull off the gag on screen. O’Brien’s got zero comic timing, so most of Crime’s scenes throwing him into comedic situations–often involving the skirt-chasing–fizzle. They don’t exactly flop, because it’s not like anyone’s trying too hard. Director Sutherland sure isn’t and the screenwriters don’t put any energy into building the gags. Crime gently amuses and never tries for anything else.

And it’s fine, since the film doesn’t have the time or cast to go for more. Landis is the only one of the three leads who’s consistently engaging; even when she gets pointless material, which is most of the time (Crime seems to know she’s easily the most charismatic cast member, yet the script gives her a constantly changing character because… I don’t know, idle rich?). Murphy always seems like he’s waiting for broader comedy. O’Brien always seems like he’s waiting for some actual direction. O’Brien’s scenes might actually play better with a laugh track, just because it’d provide some context for what Sutherland and the screenwriters are going for. Without it he just seems like a big jerk and a lech.

Aubert’s a weak ingenue. Martin’s light as her Romeo. Zucco’s underutilized. Ditto poor Holden. Ring and Whittell are great as the rich old spinsters. It’s a shame they aren’t in it more (Whittell isn’t even credited).

The film’s technically competent. Frank Redman’s day-for-night photography doesn’t transcend and it’s quizzical why they’d set so much of the movie outside when they clearly can’t shoot for it, but it’s not bad. Gene Milford’s editing keeps the pace.

Crime is more diverting than engaging or entertaining. Its creative choices make zero sense–who at RKO really thought people would rather sit through a Pat O’Brien vehicle than a Carole Landis one?

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by A. Edward Sutherland; screenplay by Howard J. Green, Parke Levy, and Stewart Sterling, based on a story by Craig Rice; director of photography, Frank Redman; edited by Gene Milford; music by Leigh Harline; produced by Robert Fellows; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Pat O’Brien (Michael J. Malone), George Murphy (Jake Justus), Carole Landis (Helene Justus), Lenore Aubert (Gilda Mayfair), Richard Martin (Lance Richards), Charles D. Brown (Mr. Winslow), Gloria Holden (Phyllis Gray), Blanche Ring (Elizabeth Lenhart), William ‘Wee Willie’ Davis (Zacharias, the Porter), and George Zucco (The Great Movel).



THIS POST IS PART OF A CENTURY OF CAROLE LANDIS BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CHRISTINE OF OVERTURE BOOKS AND FILM.


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