Tag Archives: A Night at the Opera

[Stop Button Lists] Just Going On: Top Picks, 1 of 4

Stop Button Tenth Anniversary Top Picks, February to April 2015

One of the things I really wanted to do with the Stop Button’s tenth anniversary schedule was get back to good movies. When I started blogging about film, I often wouldn’t even write about bad movies, much less admit to watching them. Much less hunt them down. I remember my “review” of Crash, a film I loathed, was something like “Nope.”

Over the years, I have gotten far away from trying to find good films. Widening the net has lead to some surprises, but I missed seeing great films. So “Top Picks.” Items one through 104 on my Movielen’s “Top Picks For You” list. I made it through fifty-two of the films in six months. I’ll be talking about the films in four different posts. The final post will undoubtedly explain why I stopped. The site’s not called “The Stop Button” for nothing.

Of the first thirteen films I watched, I had seen six of them before. I went into five of the films with preconceived notions–I did not on the sixth because I had forgotten seeing the film. But watching Inherit the Wind, Bullets Over Broadway, A Night at the Opera, The Battle of Algiers and All Quiet on the Western Front, I had certain expectations.

I thought Inherit the Wind would be better. I thought A Night at the Opera would be great. I was hesitant about Battle of Algiers, having seen it maybe fifteen years ago; Algiers blew me away though. I was wrong about it last time. All Quiet on the Western Front is amazing. Maybe even more as I’ve seen so many classic films since I last saw it. I knew, from scene one, Bullets Over Broadway was going to be just as bad as I remembered it. It did not disappoint.

Miguel Ferrer, Yasiin Bey (as Mos Def), and John Livingston star in WHERE'S MARLOWE?, directed by Daniel Pyne for Paramount Classics.
Miguel Ferrer, Yasiin Bey (as Mos Def), and John Livingston star in WHERE’S MARLOWE?, directed by Daniel Pyne for Paramount Classics.

The film I didn’t remember seeing, Where’s Marlowe?, I know I wanted to see in the theater but didn’t. I must have rented it from DJ’s Video in Ashland in college because I had definitely seen it before. Not a very good movie. Probably never thought I’d be dumb enough to see it again.

Of seven films I had not seen, I had only had interest in seeing The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It was one of those films I always thought I was supposed to see and never got around to watching for whatever reason. And I had heard of Ride the High Country–Peckinpah doing a mainstream movie–Angels with Dirty Faces–I had no idea what the film was about, I just knew there was such a film–and Diary of a Country Priest. Thanks to over twenty years of Criterion announcements, I was familiar with the film and Bresson. I had just never met anyone who told me to watch any Bresson.

The two documentaries–Capturing the Friedmans and The Galapagos Affair–I had never heard of. Galapagos never really caught on–it’s recent enough I would have heard about it at work–but Friedmans is from when I’d see movies at art house theaters. I’m surprised I don’t remember seeing a trailer for it.

The last of the seven–Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, I knew about, of course; I just had no interest. For whatever reason, even though I give Watchman one star, Movielens assumed my high regard for Man of Steel meant I would like Zach Snyder’s first film. Movielens was very, very wrong. 2004 was about the time I stopped seeing most studio releases. I do remember my friend telling me Jake Weber was good in Dawn of the Dead. We were Jake Weber fans from “American Gothic.” Anyway.

A scene from DAWN OF THE DEAD, directed by Zach Snyder for Universal Pictures.
A scene from DAWN OF THE DEAD, directed by Zach Snyder for Universal Pictures.

I jumped all over the place on the Movielens list of 104 films; I meant to keep a copy and maybe I’ve got it somewhere, but I don’t know where. Certainly nowhere full text indexed. So I’m not sure if Movielens estimated five stars for these films or four and a half stars. “The Stop Button” uses–basically–the Maltin guide’s rating scheme so I usually just add a star to the site’s rating when I enter the rating into Movielens.

So five stars Movielens equals four stars Stop Button, four and a half to three and a half and so on. All of the 104 films on the list, in other words, I should give at least three and a half stars.

Looking at the list of thirteen films, Movielens was wrong sixty-one percent of the time. Not as to whether I liked the movie (I’d say I liked seven of the thirteen films) but whether I thought the film was excellent. Seeing as how the Top Picks list was supposed to give me the very best films to watch (for me and, consequently, the site), I was somewhat disappointed.

Inherit the Wind, I remember, was lower on the list so it might very well have been estimated at four and a half stars, which is a “correct” estimation. But Capturing the Friedmans and Where’s Marlowe? I was expecting a lot from those films. Galapagos Affair I thought was going to be a mix of Terrence Malick and Somerset Maugham, only a true story. It’s not. It’s badly done.

Angels With Dirty Faces and Ride the High Country also stand out big time. Angels because, although it’s technically a classic, it’s almost more a classic for its place in time–Cagney teaming with young Bogart for Michael Curtiz–than its content. Ride the High Country is just an odd mix of sentiment from Peckinpah who doesn’t have the philosophy down yet to pull it off.

Chazz Palminteri and John Cusack star in BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, directed by Woody Allen for Miramax Films.
Chazz Palminteri and John Cusack star in BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, directed by Woody Allen for Miramax Films.

I went into them all expecting something brilliant. I even opened my mind when I went back and watched Bullets Over Broadway again, even though–deep down–I knew what I thought of that film. I even went into Dawn of the Dead with an open mind. Even after I saw James Gunn’s name on the opening titles–having just recently watched Guardians of the Galaxy–and knew what I was actually in for. Dawn of the Dead is one of those “forgotten affections.” It’s an unspoken regret. There was a lot of enthusiasm for it on release, even from people who knew and appreciated the original. But then it faded away, like many films of the early aughts.

Diary of a Country Priest was a weird one because I had no idea what to expect. Like I said, I’ve never talked to anyone about Bresson. I just knew of him. Country Priest is a long, tedious viewing. It’s worthwhile, but it’s long and tedious. Paired with The Decalogue, which I was watching–in parts–around the same time, I couldn’t help but think about how much films have changed in terms of religion. Catholic filmmakers have no problems questioning their faith, examining it, examining its dimensions, drawbacks, place in daily life contrasted against urban landscapes. Scorsese sort of turned Catholic exploration into the preeminent American genre in the seventies and made some great films. But today we have “faith-based” films, which require absolute belief for the film to work, whereas Scorsese’s not interested in the viewer’s baggage, just the film. Country Priest is more along those lines, but Bresson doesn’t have enough of a character in his protagonist. Narrative symbolism and character studies are a difficult proposition. Bresson tries to get out of it by not acknowledging he’s doing a character study. He tries to make the religiosity of the protagonist more important than the protagonist. It doesn’t work. Would I get something more from the film if I had a (1940s) French Catholic background? Probably. But I’m never going to have the experience of seeing it with that background so I better commit to how I do see it.

Jean Martin and Saadi Yacef star in THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo for Magna.
Jean Martin and Saadi Yacef star in THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo for Magna.

The four best films I saw in this batch are The Battle of Algiers, A Night at the Opera, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and All Quiet on the Western Front.

The best one is Western Front. The least best one is probably Opera but maybe Algiers. So the order goes Western Front, Sierra Madre or Algiers, Algiers or Opera. I want to see them all again sooner than later, with the exception of Western Front because one can only have his or her soul wretched from one’s body so often. Will I see them soon? No. But I will probably see more Huston and Bogart collaborations–I’m actually watching Key Largo for a blogathon in a couple months. So I might not watch Sierra Madre again right away, but it’s lead me to another film. Opera certainly reminded me how much I need to watch Marx Brothers movies. Algiers didn’t lead me to Gillo Pontecorvo’s filmography. It was one of the first films I watched and I was so excited for that one particular film, I didn’t think outside it.

Western Front has not led me to thinking I need to see more Lewis Milestone. I’m always thinking I need to see more Lewis Milestone. I’ve loved him since just after high school, when I first watched The Red Pony.

Alternatively, the remaining nine films do not encourage any specific viewing. Inherit the Wind comes the closest, but it’s similar to the Lewis Milestone situation. I know I want to see more Fredric March films or Gene Kelly or Spencer Tracy–or maybe even the Inherit the Wind TV remake, but I’d have wanted to see all those things, with the exception of Kelly, who I forget I like as much as I do in Wind, without having seen the film again.

Claude Laydu and Nicole Ladmiral star in DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST (Journal d'un curé de campagne), directed by Robert Bresson for L'Alliance Générale de Distribution Cinématographique.
Claude Laydu and Nicole Ladmiral star in DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST, directed by Robert Bresson for L’Alliance Générale de Distribution Cinématographique.

Country Priest hasn’t got me readying any Bresson. I’m sure they’d be okay, probably good, I just need an inciting element to get me interested. The same goes for Angels With Dirty Faces; I’m no more or less interested in Cagney or Curtiz. And Ride the High Country probably affected me the least of the better films. Even though it stars Joel McCrea and I’m a Joel McCrea fan, it hasn’t got me interested to see any other late McCrea or early McCrea Westerns. It just doesn’t get a person interested.

The other films, the documentaries, Where’s Marlowe?, Broadway, the mall zombies… they mostly cause avoidance. Except Woody Allen. I’ll just go on arguing Bullets Over Broadway is one of his only bad films. I’ll avoid 300 a little bit longer. I’m shocked the film still has such a strong reputation. Such a good joke on “Party Down” about it.

At the time, of course, I didn’t think about how these films–collectively and seperately–might affect my viewing habits or interests. I had the Top Picks list, which I thought would keep me going. It didn’t, but it felt–especially at this early point–like it would.

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[Stop Button Lists] Film School in a Car, Lesson 01

Audio Commentaries discussed…

  • The Thing • 1998 • John Carpenter and Kurt Russell • Universal Home Video
  • Sabotage • 2008 • Leonard Leff • MGM Home Entertainment
  • A Night at the Opera • 1987 • Leonard Maltin • The Criterion Collection
  • The Passenger • 2006 • Jack Nicholson • Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
  • The Bride of Frankenstein • 1999 • Scott MacQueen • Universal Home Video

I can’t remember the last time I watched an audio commentary. Wait, no, I do remember. I watched the commentary track on Swamp Thing. I can’t remember if I watched both of them, but I definitely watched the Wes Craven one and realized I don’t like Craven’s commentaries (since he had so little to say about the film) and I really don’t like Sean Clark as a moderator. Doesn’t seem like a single person commentary track should have a commentary track.

And I had listened to Jim Wynorski’s Return of Swamp Thing commentary. But I’m not sure if I listened to anything in between. I used to listen to commentary tracks all the time, then I stopped. I can’t remember if it had to do with the quality of commentary tracks nose-diving as every DVD added one or if I just focused more on watching more movies. Initially, it was probably the former, then gave way to the latter.

When I started recording commentary tracks for “Stop Button Favorites,” one might think I would have gone back and listened to commentary tracks I loved to try to capture it. Nope. I did not start listening to commentary tracks again until last week, after recording four commentary tracks, after reading someone on Twitter talking about how they were great for commutes. And, between a ninety minute commute (round trip) every day and multiple runs a week, I’m running out of podcasts.

A little context on my audio commentary fixation–I collected them. I bought old laserdiscs, turned the commentary tracks into VCDs, sold the laserdiscs off on eBay. For years. In addition to the commentary tracks I have on blu-rays and DVDs and HD-DVDs, I have a box of VCDs with nothing but commentaries. So there are a lot of listening choices.

A scene from THE THING, directed by John Carpenter for Universal Pictures.
A scene from THE THING, directed by John Carpenter for Universal Pictures.

But I had just gotten The Thing on HD-DVD (for a second time; at least this time it was only fifty cents) and it has the wonderful John Carpenter and Kurt Russell commentary track from the Universal Signature Collection LaserDisc. In the late nineties, before DVD, we LaserDisc aficionados used to get to dub our discs onto VHS for friends. Twice (flipping the disc at least once, usually more) because people wanted the commentary tracks. John Carpenter commentary tracks are amazing. I fell off after LaserDisc, never getting around to Starman. I’ll have get to that one.

By 2007 or so, I’d stopped listening to commentaries (save those Swamp Thing ones); response to them frustrated me. It didn’t seem like people were listening to better understand a film (or film in general), they were listening to them to “understand” why they should like a film. There was a discussion on a forum about how Miami Vice’s commentary made people like the film. I hated that idea. Why bother critically thinking about a film if you aren’t going to critically think about its commentary track.

So I knew I wanted to only wanted to listen to films I’d already seen, already had a solid thought about. Obviously, watching a film alongside a commentary is rather helpful, but I don’t have time for that dedication. Not for everything.

And it hasn’t been much of a problem. While I remember a lot of The Thing, I saw Sabotage months ago and could still follow Leonard Leff’s fine. I’ve never been particularly well-read on Hitchcock’s filmography (even when I was seeing a lot of Hitchcock), so hearing about the “thriller sextet” was cool. The discussion of the editing was similarly awesome.

Harpo Marx, Allan Jones, Chico Marx, and Groucho Marx star in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, directed by Sam Wood for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Harpo Marx, Allan Jones, Chico Marx, and Groucho Marx star in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, directed by Sam Wood for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Leonard Maltin’s commentary for A Night at the Opera, on the 1987 Criterion Collection LaserDisc, was either the first or second commentary track I ever heard. My dad got a LaserDisc player either in ’88 or ’89 and we had to go to the dreaded Blockbuster to rent LaserDiscs. Night at the Opera was one of the first two rentals. I’ve never forgotten Maltin’s anecdote about Harpo going back to get harp lessons as an adult and discovering he’d learned it all wrong as a kid so he just stuck with what already worked. I just didn’t remember it was Maltin doing the commentary. That Night at the Opera commentary track, first heard when I was ten or eleven, contributed a great deal to my holistic interest in cinema. It was particularly interesting to hear now, having just watched Opera and A Day at the Races, as Maltin discusses the former’s superiority.

But, given there are only so many audio commentary tracks out there of films I’ve seen, won’t I run out if I only listen to the ones for films I love. I recently watched The Passenger, after many years of it sitting in my collection unwatched (from back when there was only a R2 release). Since then, there’s been a special edition, complete with star Jack Nicholson doing a commentary track (about thirty years after the film’s release). And that Nicholson commentary track is rather interesting. And full of humility, which one doesn’t really think about Nicholson. He’s a natural storyteller and there’s something about hearing him get lost in the film viewing (which often happens to me during my own commentary track recordings). It didn’t change my opinion of The Passenger, but it does make me even more irate at that Wes Craven Swamp Thing commentary.

Maria Schneider and Jack Nicholson star in THE PASSENGER, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Maria Schneider and Jack Nicholson star in THE PASSENGER, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Still, I had some interest in The Passenger; it’s Antonioni, after all. And Nicholson doing an audio commentary. Bride of Frankenstein, however, I went into trying almost hostilely. I liked the film as a kid, but never as an adult. Scott MacQueen’s audio commentary–which declares Bride the perfect horror film–is shockingly awful. MacQueen makes director James Whale sound like a disagreeable drama queen (quite literally), more concerned with manipulating the censors than making a good movie. Maybe it’s just MacQueen’s voice, but his remarks sound stilted and way too prepared. There’s no enthusiasm, no distraction. During the long silences, it doesn’t sound like MacQueen’s watching the movie, just waiting it out before continuing reading his notes.

Obviously, I’m not the target audience for a Bride of Frankenstein commentary track (I’d forgotten what a low rating I gave the film and had to reread my post) but still… if it is the “perfect horror film” (which is ludicrous; this commentary track was recorded after 1974–i.e. Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a film I can’t even watch, was extant), shouldn’t MacQueen be excited about it? Maltin and Leff, the other film historians, couldn’t keep their enthusiasm contained. When it comes to Bride, I sometimes wonder if its perceived greatness hasn’t become its greatness. So what else to talk about except details to reinforce and validate that perception.

The best part of the Bride commentary is when MacQueen gets contradictory. Towards the end, his conclusions in tangents often don’t work with his thesis; he’s too wrapped up in filmmaking trivia.

And it’s xenophobic. And MacQueen makes awful puns.

Ernest Thesiger and Colin Clive star in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, directed by James Whale for Universal Pictures.
Ernest Thesiger and Colin Clive star in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, directed by James Whale for Universal Pictures.

But did I learn anything from it? Sure. A purely positive “scholarly” commentary is hideously useless. Then again, Bride is a Universal Home Video release, not a Criterion. MacQueen got his check for being positive, which is an interesting concept. Of course, Leff was far better on Sabotage, but Universal seems fairly desperate to sell their catalog. To be fair, their restorations are often gorgeous. But their approach to commentaries is questionable.

Much as I would like to continue, I do think there needs to be an upper limit to these Lists posts and we’re getting close to it.

Next time I do a “Film School in a Car” post, I know for sure they’ll be some John McTiernan. Not sure what else yet. If you have any commentary suggestions, please do let me know.

A Night at the Opera (1935, Sam Wood)

As good as the Marx Brothers are in A Night at the Opera–and George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind’s strong script is important too–director Wood really brings the whole thing together. The film has its obligatory musical subplot and romantic leads. Wood knows how to balance those elements with the comedy; during long music sequences, he brings in the Brothers for a quick gag. And Opera smartly establishes those romantic leads (played by Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones) in relation to their sympathies for Harpo and Chico.

Opera also benefits from having one wonderful heinous villain (Walter Woolf King as an obnoxious opera star) and two great doofus ones (Sig Ruman and Robert Emmett O’Connor). King has the biggest part in the film and the briefest comedic sequences. Ruman and O’Connor both have long, elaborate sequences.

But where Wood’s direction is most impressive is how he and Merritt B. Gerstad shoot the Marx Brothers. While there’s a great moment with Groucho admiring a long Harpo gag, my favorite is how Wood handles Chico and Harpo’s music scene. After a quick, finely staged song from Jones, Chico plays the piano, then Harpo plays the harp. Chico’s sequence is jovial and engaging. Harpo’s is jovial and emotive. It’s gorgeous and Wood gives it as much weight as any comedy sequence. It simultaneously breaks Opera’s reality and deepens the entire film.

The film’s perfectly timed, has some great exasperation from Margaret Dumont, and some wonderful sketches. It’s a marvelous Night.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Wood; screenplay by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, based on a story by James Kevin McGuinness; director of photography, Merritt B. Gerstad; edited by William LeVanway; music by Herbert Stothart; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Groucho Marx (Otis B. Driftwood), Chico Marx (Fiorello), Harpo Marx (Tomasso), Kitty Carlisle (Rosa), Allan Jones (Ricardo), Walter Woolf King (Lassparri), Sig Ruman (Gottlieb), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Claypool), Edward Keane (Captain) and Robert Emmett O’Connor (Henderson).


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