Sunday, July 29, 2012

Capsule Review: The African Queen (1951)

Humphrey Bogart won his only Oscar for this rousing adventure film based on the 1935 novel by C.S. Forester, but his performance is just one of the elements that make the film so unforgettable. Katharine Hepburn's co-lead performance is equally good, and the pair share a rare chemistry that carries almost the entire running time. Bogart's gin-soaked riverboat captain finds himself clashing with Hepburn's buttoned-down missionary as the two float dangerously towards a German gunboat during the beginning of World War I. The photography (by the legendary Jack Cardiff) of the African surroundings is lush and beautiful, while John Huston dominates the landscape - and stages a number of dangerous scenes - with his usual unhinged aplomb. It's frightfully entertaining, even if the rear-projection and model work can be a little rough around the edges. Endlessly entertaining, and thankfully available in a beautiful 2009 restored version.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Capsule Review: The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

While Roger Corman's cycle of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations are rightfully lauded, it was the final two films - Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia - where Corman was finally able to match his ambitions with appropriately lush and impressive production values. Filming in England, Corman used sets left over from Becket and surrounded himself with top British talent - including young Cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, whose grasp of visuals match perfectly with the colorful, sometimes surreal production design. Vincent Price gives one of his best (and most restrained) performances as the brutal, Satanic Prince Prospero, who throws a massive party for local nobility at his castle while the countryside is ravaged by a plague. The portrayal of Satanism is rather shockingly nuanced, and there are wonderful supporting performances from Patrick Magee as the twisted Alfredo and Horror Hospital's Skip Martin as the diminutive Hop-Frog (a piece adapted from a different Poe short story). It's wonderfully entertaining, with a satisfying climax that appears to have been influenced by The Seventh Seal.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Capsule Review: A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

Charles Crichton, an Ealing veteran who helmed The Lavender Hill Mob back in 1951, was nearing 80 when he directed A Fish Called Wanda, but his mastery of tone and pacing is a big part of what makes the film - from a script by star John Cleese - work so beautifully. The international cast includes Cleese as a married, upper-class lawyer who gets increasingly involved with Jamie Lee Curtis' Wanda, after she's part of a diamond heist. The robbery was masterminded by Georges (Tom Georgeson) who only trusts the stuttering, animal loving Ken (Michael Palin), while Wanda and her lover (posing as her brother) Otto (Kevin Kline) continually try to find ways to get the loot for themselves. Perhaps surprisingly, the humor strays far away from the often surreal humour of Python, preferring instead to put the quirky cast in a variety of compromising, farcical situations. It's often hilarious, and played perfectly by the able cast - particularly Kline, who does some of his best work. Much of the cast reunited for 1997's Fierce Creatures, but faltered without Crichton steering the ship.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Capsule Review: Within Our Gates (1920)

The oldest surviving film by an African-American director, Within Our Gates paints a devastating picture of race relations in the United States just a few short years after D.W. Griffth's incendiary The Birth of a Nation. The plot is rather disjointed - perhaps the result of the original inter-titles being lost - but involves a young African-American woman's attempts to raise money for a poor southern school by traveling north. The show-stopper occurs in the film's final twenty minutes, where the woman's past - which involved the lynching of her family after her father is falsely accused of murder - is finally revealed. It's a necessarily angry film, but one that recognizes the capacity for change. Some late melodrama dulls its edge, but director Oscar Micheaux proves himself a capable director in only his second film, and shows Griffith didn't have a patent on making passionate and political films.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Capsule Review: The Terminator (1984)

It's hard to explain just how massive Terminator 2: Judgment Day was when it was released back in 1991. I was 10 years old at the time, and despite being significantly too young to view it - and never having seen the original - seeing it seemed like the most important thing in the world. It was many years later until I finally saw The Terminator, and I could be forgiven for being shocked at just how brutal it was. Compared to the huge action set pieces and "a boy and his cyborg" humor of the sequel, the original film is played dead seriously. In fact, while containing plenty of futuristic action and special effects; at heart it's a high-octane slasher film, even down to the first-person perspective from the unstoppable antagonist. It launched Arnold Schwarzenegger's improbable career, and turned James Cameron into an immediate A-list director; and has fueled multiple sequels, a television series, comics and plenty of assorted merchandise. That this all came from what is ostensibly a low-budget horror film - though one that is incredibly slick and well-made - is something I've always found to be endearing.