Category Archives: 1963

Icarus XB 1 (1963, Jindrich Polák)

It’s very difficult, even when an effects shot fails, to not be impressed with director Polák’s practical ambitions with Icarus XB 1. The film needs effects shot-it’s about a starship on twenty-eight month voyage from Earth to Alpha Centauri. The first starship to take that trip. So there’s general establishing shot stuff in space but there’s also an exploratory thing going on. Both for the audience and the characters. There’s an enthusiasm in the effects and sets, which the film chucks in the clunky third act when Icarus stops being a rumination on the human condition in starship and instead becomes a thriller.

The film opens with Otto Lackovic starring into the camera and talking about how Earth is dead. Future movie, last survivor, Earth is dead, got it. Then it turns out he’s looking into a security camera and people are watching him and so not last survivor. Then there are the awesome opening titles, which come up during a tour of the ship. Polák shoots Panavision and he composes well for that wide frame but it does mean sometimes it’s more obvious than not the effects aren’t great. Set design effects. And Jan Kalis’s photography is intentionally unforgiving. It’s like Icarus has amazing production design-from Karel Lukas and Jan Zázvorka-but not ability to fully implement it.

But then instead of being about Lackovic, the film is about the ship’s crew in general. First manned mission to Alpha Centuari, sometime in 2300s. Earth has become a lot more peaceful we’ll learn as the crew talks to one another about it. And besides a birthday party with dancing and some of the romance between Ruzena Urbanova and Jozef Adamovic, everything dramatic in Icarus is muted. Marcela Martínková is going to have the first space baby-which husband Jaroslav Mares doesn’t know about and then just turns into him occasionally checking on her. It’s not like they had anything big to do before that subplot. Guys flirt with Irena Kacírková for a while, until the party scene. Not really a subplot. But it does establish Kacírková for later scenes, which is nice, since the film-despite having almost an equal split between men and women-is all about the men. It gets around the men doing things instead of the women by the future just being so chill everyone gets along.

There’s the occasional scene with captain Zdenek Stepánek (who’s fine but narratively immaterial), quirky old guy scientist Frantisek Smolík, alpha male Radovan Lukavský, and crew sociologist and single woman in a leadership role Dana Medrická. Medrická gets the last word on everything, but only because everyone’s always in agreement. It’s kind of sneaky, especially when you notice how Kacírková’s character development stops in the script but Kacírková keeps going with it.

On the trip, there’s some external drama-they discover an alien spacecraft-then get into this trouble with a “Dark Star.” Its radiation is causing chronic fatigue. The film employs an iffy, eratic narration device (presumably Stepánek) and so it’s clear the danger isn’t total. Plus we still haven’t caught up with the first scene, which-it becomes clear pretty quick-is a framing device.

A pointless one too. Effective in the moment, but once the film’s in thriller gear for the last act… kind of a weird diversion. Icarus spends its first hour (running eighty-some minutes) sticking with the cast no matter what. Polák adjusting the narrative distance to do the thriller stuff crowds the cast out of the picture, even when one of the cast actually gets to play lead for a while, in a film otherwise without one.

The acting’s solid. Polák has good impulses and instincts; he definitely facilitates his cast and they’re able to get the future people on a starship but still relatable thing down. Smolík is never as cute as he’s supposed to be. He drags his old robot on the starship with them-even though modern robots are much better and never seen-and the robot is this big clunky thing with a fish bowl head (with electronics in it) and very little personality.

The joke seems to be about the lack of personality but it’s not like Smolík-despite exposition to the contrary-sells an affection for the robot. Similarly the avoidance of the Martínková and Mares pregnancy subplot, particularly of Martínková, who doesn’t even get to have her own scenes, she’s support in Mares’s. Again, the weird presence and avoidance of the women.

Lukavský’s good. Medrická’s good. Kacírková’s good. The interchangeable male bridge crew members are all fine.

Technically, besides the film looking a little dodgy (budgetarily speaking), Icarus is more than solid. Kalis’s photography, Josef Dobrichovský’s editing. Polák’s just a tad impatient of a director. Again, budget thing.

The script-from Polák and Pavel Juráček-is more literate than thorough, more precise than thoughtful. Icarus’s got a good idea, with some strong technical aspects and performances, but the overall execution is just too shaky.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jindrich Polák; screenplay by Polák and Pavel Jurácek; director of photography, Jan Kalis; edited by Josef Dobrichovský; music by Zdenek Liska; produced by Rudolf Wolf for Filmové studio Barrandov.

Starring Zdenek Stepánek (Captain Vladimir Abajev), Frantisek Smolík (Anthony Hopkins), Dana Medrická (Nina Kirova), Radovan Lukavský (Commander MacDonald), Irena Kacírková (Brigitta), Otto Lackovic (Michal), Jozef Adamovic (Zdenek Lorenc), Ruzena Urbanova (Eva), Jaroslav Mares (Milek Wertbowsky), Marcela Martínková (Steffa Wertbowsky), Miroslav Machácek (Marcel Bernard), Jirí Vrstála (Erik Svenson), Rudolf Deyl (Ervin Herold), Martin Tapák (Petr Kubes), and Svatava Hubenáková (MacDonald’s wife).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE ROBOTS IN FILM BLOGATHON HOSTED BY QUIGGY OF THE MIDNITE DRIVE-IN AND HAMLETTE OF HAMLETTE'S SOLILOQUY.


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The Critic (1963, Ernest Pintoff)

At just about three minutes of “action,” The Critic is the perfect length. It opens with some abstract animation–black shapes dancing around variously colored backgrounds, as active (versus tranquil) classical music plays. The designs get more complex, but for the first thirty seconds (so fifteen percent of the action), Critic plays it straight. It’s some abstract animation short. Not too complicated, but lively.

And then Mel Brooks asks, “What the hell is this?”

And The Critic starts on its path to sublimity.

For a while, it’s just Brooks talking about the action on screen. Dot moving over here, dot moving over there. Some shapes getting jiggy.

Brooks’s character is a cranky, impatient old Russian guy and we’re hearing his thoughts. It’s perfectly fine. Brooks is funny, it’s not going to go on very long, it’s all good.

Only we’re not hearing his thoughts. Or, more, we are hearing his thoughts. But so are all the other people watching the short film with him.

He’s in a theater, talking out loud. That detail gives The Critic the extra oomph it needs and pushes it up and over. It’s awesome.

Brooks ad-libbed the whole thing too. Apparently, the filmmakers didn’t even show him the short before he recorded.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Ernest Pintoff; written by Mel Brooks; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Mel Brooks.


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A Child Is Waiting (1963, John Cassavetes)

A Child Is Waiting had all kinds of production clashes between producer Stanley Kramer and director Cassavetes. And, apparently, between stars Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland and director Cassavetes. Kramer even fired Cassavetes during editing; none of those problems come through in the finished product. In fact, the lead actors not liking Cassavetes’s style doesn’t just not come through, it seems counter intiutive. Both Lancaster and Garland are exceptional, often because Cassavetes holds on so long with the shots. He never cuts away from the hard thoughts and realizations the actors need to convey.

The actors always convey them perfectly too.

Lancaster is the director of a state institution for developmentally disabled children. Garland is his newest employee. Lancaster is dedicated and determined, ever consistent in his pedagogical and treatment techniques. Garland just needs a job–and some kind of purpose.

The film doesn’t open with Garland arriving though. It opens with dad Steven Hill abandoning son Bruce Ritchey in the institution driveway. Ritchey latches on to Garland (and Garland to Ritchey) with Lancaster disapproving for multiple reasons. Of course, he’s often too busy to address it. And he’s also a bit of a jerk. He’s caring and even empathetic–watching Lancaster convey that empathy, especially in a terse scene, is glorious–but he’s always on task.

Abby Mann’s script does most of the ground situation exposition during Garland’s weeklong orientation. Child doesn’t do a lot with passage of time, which is sometimes to its benefit, sometimes not. The exposition isn’t just about Ritchey or Lancaster or the film’s institution, it’s about the actual reality of such institutions. A Child Is Waiting is never visually graphic, so Cassavetes has to do a lot with implication. Lancaster later gets to confirm some of those implications in dialogue, but it takes a while before even the dialogue gets graphic. It’s a gradual process, which is both good and bad.

A Child Is Waiting coddles. It coddles the viewer, it coddles Garland. Part of the film is dismantling that coddling, disassembling it, examining it, learning from its mistakes. But it isn’t Garland or Lancaster who benefit from the increasing granularity. It’s Arthur Hill.

Because Arthur Hill is a bad dad. There’s a flashback sequence, neatly tied to Garland learning about Ritchey’s case, showing what lead up to Hill abandoning Ritchey in the first scene. Not everything; a lot gets revealed in dialogue later, but enough. Gena Rowlands plays Ritchey’s mother. The flashback starts in toddler years. Rowlands has the film’s hardest part, but partially because it’s so contrived. She does well in it; it’s just, if the role were better, the film would be much improved.

But the film’s already pretty good. With some great moments. Cassavetes’s direction is excellent. He establishes two extremes, tight one shots of actors in the process of laying themselves bare, intentionally and not, and then sometimes extremely cinematic establishing and closing shots. Cassavetes loves a good crane.

Usually he keeps these two extremes separate. If it’s a big conversation scene, where Lancaster and Garland are trying to figure out if they’re going to respect one another, there’s not a swooping crane shot. But there’s still a perceptable tightening of the narrative distance. Cassavetes moves in to examine truth beyond the artifice. It’s exquisite.

And if the film went entirely in that examination direction, it’d be one thing. If it went entirely in a narrative direction, it’d be another. It’s sort of in the middle. Presumably the Cassavetes filmmaking sensibilities clashing with the Kramer editing ones. But kind of not because there’s still a script.

Hill’s the most important character arc in the film. Rowland should be, but Mann cops out entirely on her. Garland and Lancaster get more time than they should but it’s never wasted. Their performances are always developing, even when the film finally reveals Paul Stewart’s importance. Stewart is the answer man, which is great, because Paul Stewart is great. But it’d have been nice for his importance not to have been a reveal.

Outstanding acting from everyone. Garland’s excellent but Lancaster wins because his part is better. Hill’s good; Cassavetes treats him and Rowland different as far as narrative distance. They’re dulled; Garland and Lancaster are sharp. Rowlands has some strong moments. Ritchey’s really good too. The kids have the hardest parts in the film, obviously.

Lawrence Tierney has a small part as Rowlands’s new husband, which is a trip.

Great music from Ernest Gold, great photography from Joseph LaShelle. Okay production design from Rudolph Sternad–the institution is either in a residential neighborhood or occupies an entire cul-de-sac. It’s frequently confusing but never actually important.

A Child Is Waiting never comprises its cynicism for its hopefulness. Or vice versa. It oscelliates between the two as the characters navigate the same waters. Such good acting, such good directing.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Cassavetes; written by Abby Mann; director of photography, Joseph LaShelle; edited by Gene Fowler Jr. and Robert C. Jones; music by Ernest Gold; production designer, Rudolph Sternad; produced by Stanley Kramer; released by United Artists.

Starring Judy Garland (Jean Hansen), Burt Lancaster (Dr. Matthew Clark), Bruce Ritchey (Reuben Widdicombe), Steven Hill (Ted Widdicombe), Paul Stewart (Goodman), Gloria McGehee (Mattie), Lawrence Tierney (Douglas Benham), and Gena Rowlands (Sophie Widdicombe).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE JUDY GARLAND BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Love with the Proper Stranger (1963, Robert Mulligan)

Love with the Proper Stranger has a lot to resolve in its third act. There’s a somewhat sizable supporting cast, the act two cliffhanger for leads Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen’s romance is precarious–there’s a lot. So it’s striking when Proper Stranger just doesn’t do a third act. Director Mulligan loves the New York location shooting and he just embraces it for the ending, doing a big crane shot but otherwise being very vérité.

Proper Stranger is a melodrama about Wood getting pregnant, McQueen being the daddy, them not being married, and McQueen not really remembering Wood anyway. It doesn’t want to be a melodrama. Mulligan and writer Arnold Schulman do everything they can to avoid traditional melodrama; long, fantastic portions of the film are just McQueen and Wood looking at each other, trying to figure out what to say. Milton R. Krasner’s photography holds the actors’ faces, Mulligan giving them time to deliberate on how to approach the other. It’s a shame this method is entirely gone by the lead-up to the end. McQueen will be furtive, then not, with Wood’s reaction expresses slow to catch up. They’re wonderful to watch together.

Shame the script doesn’t keep up with them.

Schulman gets easily distracted. He’s got a lot of depth in his scenes, which focus on Wood and McQueen, but make sure to provide a lot of activity around them. So when the film quiets that activity to spotlight Wood and McQueen, it’s affecting. Mulligan trains the viewer how to watch the stars, how to wait for them to act out.

Oops, I got distracted by something wonderful in Proper Stranger, which writer Schulman never does. Instead, he gets distracted by the Italian ethnic comedy subplot he’s got going with Wood’s family. When Wood moves out, mother Penny Santon goes into bedridden conniptions. It seems like a significant subplot, given how much time is spent with Wood’s family during the film, but maybe not. Because resolving it would be difficult and Proper Stranger eventually just wants to ride it out on Wood and McQueen’s charm and the lovely, rending Elmer Bernstein score.

Schulman and Mulligan try very hard to give Wood her agency and McQueen some unpredictability, but they don’t know after the character and actor have had that moment. Both actors have big character arcs, which the film first embraces, then ignores. Once Wood moves out, she’s no longer a protagonist, she becomes subject. Her embrace of agency reduces her part. It’s real unfortunate. Especially since it’s not like McQueen gets the extra space. It’s just wasted. Schulman and Mulligan bungle the finish without any clear motive, except it’s time for the movie to stop.

Nice support from Edie Adams, Tom Bosley (in a way too thin part in Schulman’s ethnic comedy plot line), and especially Herschel Bernardi as Wood’s most protective older brother. It’s not a great part, but Bernardi does a lot with it. Because Mulligan gives him time to react and process the plot as it unfolds. Love with the Proper Stranger goes from being patient and deliberate to dispassionately rushed.

McQueen’s good, Wood’s good. Both have some great moments, both have some not great ones. Wood’s are usually because of the script, while McQueen’s are his ambitions for the performance just not clearing. There’s a very occasional Italian accent thing he does and it never works. But their great moments more than make up for the rest.

Krasner’s photography, Bernstein’s score. Excellent. Aaron Stell’s editing, not excellent. Some bad cuts, but it might be because Mulligan’s trying different things in scenes. He’s trying to avoid the melodrama, like one more New York location shot will elevate the film. Except he just goes with Schulman’s depressing comic sequences for Wood’s family. It doesn’t make any sense.

Kind of like how it doesn’t make sense the movie doesn’t have a third act. What Proper Stranger does get done is good, but should be better. Wood and McQueen deserve better. Their performances deserve a film wholly worthy of them.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Mulligan; written by Arnold Schulman; director of photography, Milton R. Krasner; edited by Aaron Stell; music by Elmer Bernstein; produced by Alan J. Pakula; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Natalie Wood (Angie Rossini), Steve McQueen (Rocky Papasano), Herschel Bernardi (Dominick Rossini), Tom Bosley (Anthony Columbo), Edie Adams (Barbie), and Penny Santon (Mama Rossini).


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