Sunday, October 9, 2016

"Singin' in the Rain" AN AMERICAN CLASSIC

Singin' in the Rain (1952) is one of the most-loved and celebrated film musicals of all time from MGM, before a mass exodus to filmed adaptations of Broadway plays emerged as a standard pattern. It was made directly for film, and was not a Broadway adaptation.
The joyous film, co-directed by Stanley Donen and acrobatic dancer-star-choreographer Gene Kelly, is a charming, up-beat, graceful and thoroughly enjoyable experience with great songs, lots of flashbacks, wonderful dances (including the spectacular Broadway Melody Ballet with leggy guest star Cyd Charisse), casting and story. This was another extraordinary example of the organic, 'integrated musical' in which the story's characters naturally express their emotions in the midst of their lives. Song and dance replace the dialogue, usually during moments of high spirits or passionate romance. And over half of the film - a 'let's put on a play' type of film, is composed of musical numbers.

This superb film, called "MGM's TECHNICOLOR Musical Treasure," was produced during MGM studios' creative pinnacle. From the late 1930s to the early 1960s, producer Arthur Freed produced more than forty musicals for MGM. The creative forces at the studio in the Freed Unit - composed of Freed, Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Donen, and actor/choreographer Gene Kelly - also collaborated together to produce such gems as Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Pirate (1948), On the Town (1949), Best Picture Oscar-winner a year earlier with director Vincente Minnelli - An American in Paris (1951), Royal Wedding (1951), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), and Gigi (1958).

Because the colorful, witty film is set in 1927, it humorously satirizes and parodies the panic surrounding the troubling transitional period from silents to talkies in the dream factory of Hollywood of the late 1920s as the sound revolution swept through. The film's screenplay, suggested by the song Singin' in the Rain that was written by Freed and Brown, was scripted by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (who also wrote On the Town (1949)). The time frame of Comden's and Green's script, the Roaring 20s Era of flappers, was mostly determined by the fact that lyricist Freed (and songwriter Nacio Herb Brown) had written their extensive library of songs in their early careers during the 1920s and 1930s, when Hollywood was transitioning to talkies. The musical comedy's story, then, would be best suited around that theme. Except for two songs, all of the musical arrangements in the film to be showcased were composed by Freed and Brown for different Hollywood films before Freed became a producer.

[The title song was originally created by lyricist Arthur Freed and composer Nacio Herb Brown for MGM's Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929). The general storyline of the film was derived from Once in a Lifetime (1932), a hilarious adaptation of the Moss Hart-George S. Kaufman play also set during the time of panic surrounding Hollywood's transition to talkies.]

The plot of the film is actually an autobiography of Hollywood itself at the dawn of the talkies. The story is about a dashing, smug but romantic silent film star and swashbuckling matinee idol (Don Lockwood) and his glamorous blonde screen partner/diva (Lina Lamont) who are expected, by studio heads, to pretend to be romantically involved with each other. They are also pressured by the studio boss R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell) to change their silent romantic drama (The Duelling Cavalier) and make their first sound picture, renamed as the musical The Dancing Cavalier. There's one serious problem, however - the temperamental, narcissistic star has a shrill, screechy New York accent. The star's ex-song-and-dance partner (Cosmo) proposes to turn the doomed film into a musical, and suggests that Don's aspiring actress and ingenue dancer-girlfriend (Kathy Selden) dub in her singing voice behind the scenes for lip-synching Lina. The results of their scheming to expose the jealous Lina and put Kathy in a revealing limelight provide the film's expected happy resolution.

Surprisingly, this great film that was shot for a cost of $2.5 million (about $.5 million over-budget), was basically ignored by film critics when released and treated with indifference (with box-office of $7.7 worldwide). It received only two Academy Award nominations - Best Supporting Actress (Jean Hagen), and Best Musical Score (Lennie Hayton) and didn't win any awards. The film's musical score Oscar nomination lost to Alfred Newman's score for With a Song in My Heart.

Now, after many accolades, television screenings, and its resurgence after the release of That's Entertainment (1974), it is often chosen as one of the all-time top ten American films, and generally considered Hollywood's greatest and finest screen musical. Great care was made to authenticate the costumes, the sound studio set, and other historical details in the film. The film's title song was paid twisted homage (of sorts) in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971) during the brutal rape scene. At the same time that Singin' in the Rain was being filmed, another MGM film exposing and satirizing Hollywood's foibles was also in production - director Vincente Minnelli's melodramatic The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), starring Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner, and Oscar-stealing Gloria Grahame who defeated this film's Jean Hagen for the Best Supporting Actress honor.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Aesthetics of Black and White and Color

Black and White and Technicolor in Hollywood's Golden Era

In the 1930s and 1940s cost was not the only factor determining which film stock a film project would employ. Hollywood Technicolor tended to be used to make everything pretty, so that the most serious dramas often tended to be black and white: Citizen Kane (1941), The Little Foxes (1941), the entire genre of film noir, and so on.

Black and White
It's extremely important to remember that black and white can be just as subtle as color because you can do so many things to it. First, black and white is never just that: It is also all the gradations of gray in between. And silver. And beiges. And so on. When you walk into a paint store and ask for black the clerk (after laughing at your naïveté) will hand you 50 color chips: jet black, deep-space black, Frederick's of Hollywood black, midnight blue, and so on. White has, if anything, even more variations, and gray is practically infinite.

Black and white is the color of glamour cinematography. The most glamorous icons of the screen, those actors who only require last names—Garbo, Bogart, Bacall, Gable, Dietrich—are most famously photographed in black and white.

And, as its name suggests, at least one whole film genre is defined in large part by the fact that it was shot in black and white: film noir.

Nitrate Stock
Silver nitrate stock, on which much silent film was shot, produced a shimmering, other-worldly quality, seeming to set the screen on fire. Unfortunately, because it was rather unstable, it could also set the projector, the booth, and the theater on fire, so that its projection is now illegal in all but a handful of theaters in the country specially equipped to contain a blaze.

Black and White Today
Directors still sometimes opt for black and white to make a political and/or aesthetic point. Street Scene (1989)—a film by an African American director—restages Charlie Chaplin's The Kid (1921) in the contemporary inner city, suggesting both that inner-city denizens have at least the humanity we grant to the little tramp, and that nostalgizing poverty is cruelly absurd.

Some films are shot in black and white as a kind of homage to earlier cinema genres. Steve Martin's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982) pays tribute to film noir, while Movie Movie (1978) and Young Frankenstein (1974) fondly recall the 1930s backstage musical and the 1940s horror film.

The Golden Era: Color Classic
Especially for the Technicolor technicians, the principal job was to figure out how to make color film acceptable to an audience and an industry that was at first hesitant about the technology. Some actors, for example, did not think they photographed as glamorously in Technicolor as in black and white. Still, after the box office successes of films like 1939's Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz (we wonder whether Shirley Temple is still kicking herself for not taking on the role of Dorothy), studio execs came to realize that adding color to a film would measurably increase its box-office appeal. So this expensive technology was used for high-profile prestige pictures, like the Errol Flynn vehicle, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), which cost $2 million, an amazing price tag for the Great Depression years.

Black and Blue: Using All the Crayons in the Box
Some directors have been thinking outside the Crayola box, mixing panchromatic and color stock in the same film. Early on the decision was in part economic: Technicolor was incredibly expensive. But even early on the decision to mix it up could be motivated by plot and theme as much as by economics. The most famous example is of course The Wizard of Oz (1939). Monotonous Kansas is also monochromatic. But when, after her tornado-driven house landed in Kansas, Dorothy opened the front door and found herself in a Technicolor Oz, the 1939 audience shared her sense of wonder at their introduction to a prismatically colorful new world.

Self-Reflexivity and Other Kinds of Color
Though we shall visit the notion of self-reflexivity in some detail, it is worth noting that sometimes black-and-white clips appear in color films in order to suggest that these films have a connection to the history of film. Old horror films play on television in the background while the new horror takes place in Halloween's foreground (1978). Gilda (1946) plays on the monitor of a video store while a disturbing love relationship takes place in the foreground of The Fisher King (1991). Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters desperately dance during the Great Depression against the very ironic backdrop of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing on film, in Pennies from Heaven (1981).

Sometimes black and white is used in a color film as a way of establishing a biographical past for a principal character. This technique is used in Mishima (1985) and Zelig (1983). Sometimes it establishes a point of view, as for a gay man looking down desiringly on a group of schoolboys in If … (1969). Other older experiments with black and white and color include Portrait of Jennie (1948) and Eisenstein's great experiment with ideologically mixing it up in Ivan the Terrible (Ivan Grozny, Russia, 1944).

Read more: 
Andrei Tarkovsky speaks about color vs. black-and-white cinema
Indie Auteurs Delve into Black & White

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Art of Comedy: Humor in Film

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Comedy Films are "make 'em laugh" films designed to elicit laughter from the audience. Comedies are light-hearted dramas, crafted to amuse, entertain, and provoke enjoyment. The comedy genre humorously exaggerates the situation, the language, action, and characters. Comedies observe the deficiencies, foibles, and frustrations of life, providing merriment and a momentary escape from day-to-day life. They usually have happy endings, although the humor may have a serious or pessimistic side. 

Types of Comedies:
Comedies usually come in two general formats: comedian-led (with well-timed gags, jokes, or sketches) and situation-comedies that are told within a narrative. Both comedy elements may appear together and/or overlap. Comedy hybrids commonly exist with other major genres, such as musical-comedy, horror-comedy, and comedy-thriller. Comedies have also been classified in various subgenres, such as romantic comedy, crime/caper comedy, sports comedy, teen or coming-of-age comedy, social-class comedy, military comedy, fish-out-of-water comedy, and gross-out comedy. There are also many different kinds, types, or forms of comedy, including:

  • Slapstick
Slapstick was predominant in the earliest silent films, since they didn't need sound to be effective, and they were popular with non-English speaking audiences in metropolitan areas. The term slapstick was taken from the wooden sticks that clowns slapped together to promote audience applause. 

This is primitive and universal comedy with broad, aggressive, physical, and visual action, including harmless or painless cruelty and violence, horseplay, and often vulgar sight gags (e.g., a custard pie in the face, collapsing houses, a fall in the ocean, a loss of trousers or skirts, runaway crashing cars, people chases, etc). Slapstick often required exquisite timing and well-honed performance skills. It was typical of the films of Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, W. C. Fields, The Three Stooges, the stunts of Harold Lloyd in Safety Last (1923), and Mack Sennett's silent era shorts (for example, the Keystone Kops). Slapstick evolved and was reborn in the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s (see further below).

More recent feature film examples include the comedic mad chase for treasure film by many top comedy stars in Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and French actor/director Jacques Tati's mostly dialogue-free Mr. Hulot's Holiday (1953, Fr.), and Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura, Pet Detective (1993) and The Mask (1994).

The Blake Edwards series of Pink Panther films with Peter Sellers as bumbling Inspector Clouseau (especially in the second film of the series, A Shot in the Dark (1964) with Herbert Lom as Clouseau's slow-burning boss and Burt Kwouk as his valet and martial arts judo-specialist) are also great examples. Cartoons are the quintessential form of slapstick, i.e., the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, and others. 

  • Deadpan
This form of comedy was best exemplified by the expression-less face of stoic comic hero Buster Keaton. 
  • Verbal comedy
This was classically typified by the cruel verbal wit of W. C. Fields, the sexual innuendo of Mae West, or the verbal absurdity of dialogues in the Marx Brothers films, or later by the self-effacing, thoughtful humor of Woody Allen's literate comedies. 
  • Screwball
Screwball comedies, a sub-genre of romantic comedy films, was predominant from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s. The word 'screwball' denotes lunacy, craziness, eccentricity, ridiculousness, and erratic behavior. 

These films combine farce, slapstick, and the witty dialogue of more sophisticated films. In general, they are light-hearted, frothy, often sophisticated, romantic stories, commonly focusing on a battle of the sexes in which both co-protagonists try to outwit or outmaneuver each other. They usually include visual gags (with some slapstick), wacky characters, identity reversals (or cross-dressing), a fast-paced improbable plot, and rapid-fire, wise-cracking dialogue and one-liners reflecting sexual tensions and conflicts in the blossoming of a relationship (or the patching up of a marriage) for an attractive couple with on-going, antagonistic differences (such as in The Awful Truth (1937)). Some of the stars often present in screwball comedies included Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur, Irene Dunne, Myrna Loy, Ginger Rogers, Cary Grant, William Powell, and Carole Lombard.
The couple is often a fairly eccentric, but well-to-do female interested in romance and a generally passive, emasculated, or weak male who resists romance, such as in Bringing Up Baby (1938), or a sexually-frustrated, humiliated male who is thwarted in romance, as in Howard Hawks' farce I Was a Male War Bride (1949). The zany but glamorous characters often have contradictory desires for individual identity and for union in a romance under the most unorthodox, insane or implausible circumstances (such as in Preston Sturges' classic screwball comedy and battle of the sexes  The Lady Eve (1941)). However, after a twisting and turning plot, romantic love usually triumphs in the end. (See more discussion later in this section.)
  • Black or Dark Comedy
These are dark, sarcastic, humorous, or sardonic stories that help us examine otherwise ignored darker serious, pessimistic subjects such as war, death, or illness. Two of the greatest black comedies ever made include the following: Stanley Kubrick's Cold War classic satire from a script by co-writer Terry Southern,  Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) that spoofed the insanity of political and military institutions with Peter Sellers in a triple role (as a Nazi scientist, a British major, and the US President), and Robert Altman's M*A*S*H (1970), an irreverent, anti-war black comedy set during the Korean War. Another more recent classic black comedy was the Coen Brothers' violent and quirky story Fargo (1996) about a pregnant Midwestern police chief (Oscar-winning Frances McDormand) who solves a 'perfect crime' that went seriously wrong.

Hal Ashby's eccentric cult film Harold and Maude (1972) was an oddball love story and dark comedy about a suicidal 19 year-old (Bud Cort) and a quirky, widowed octogenarian (Ruth Gordon), with a great soundtrack score populated with songs by Cat Stevens. (See examples of other feature films below for more.) John Huston's satirical black comedy Prizzi's Honor (1985) starred Jack Nicholson as dimwitted Mafia hit man Charley Partanna for the East Coast Prizzi family, who fell in love with West Coaster Irene Walker (Kathleen Turner) - another mob's hitwoman. The film included an Oscar-winning performance from Anjelica Huston as the vengeful granddaughter of Nicholson's Don. Tim Burton's dark and imaginative haunted house comedy Beetlejuice (1988) featured Michael Keaton as the title character in a dream house occupied by newlywed spirits Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin. The shocking but watchable first film of Peter Berg, Very Bad Things (1998) told the dark and humorous story of a 'bachelor' weekend in Las Vegas gone bad for five guys when their hired stripper/prostitute was accidentally killed.

  • Parody or Spoof - also Satire, Lampoon and Farce
These specific types of comedy (also called put-ons, send-ups, charades, lampoons, take-offs, jests, mockumentaries, etc.) are usually a humorous or anarchic take-off that ridicules, impersonates, punctures, scoffs at, and/or imitates (mimics) the style, conventions, formulas, characters (by caricature), or motifs of a serious work, film, performer, or genre, including:
  • the Marx Brothers' satiric anti-war masterpiece  Duck Soup (1933) with anarchic humor
  • the western spoof Cat Ballou (1965)
  • Woody Allen's Japanese monster film parody What's Up, Tiger Lily? (1966)
  • the 'genre' films of Mel Brooks (the quasi-western Blazing Saddles (1974), the quasi-horror film Young Frankenstein (1974), the inventive Hitchcock spoof/rip-off High Anxiety (1977), the Star Wars (1977) spoof Spaceballs (1987), and his swashbuckler send-up Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993))
  • Herbert Ross' Play It Again, Sam (1972) poked fun at Woody Allen as an insecure nebbish-hero who worshipped an imaginary, trench-coated, archetypal tough-guy detective (a la Humphrey Bogart)
  • Silver Streak (1976) - a comic thriller parody of Alfred Hitchcock's 'train' pictures, with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor (their best film together) onboard the Silver Streak from LA to Chicago
  • Neil Simon's scripts for The Cheap Detective (1978) and Murder By Death (1978) spoofed Agatha Christie detective films
  • Jim Abrahams' and the Zuckers' revolutionary comedy Airplane! (1980) - a sophomoric parody of the earlier disaster series of Airport (1970) films and the original Zero Hour (1957); their The Naked Gun (1988) series parodied TV cop shows, and Top Secret! (1984) ridiculed Cold War agents and espionage spy films (and Elvis Presley films); Abrahams' military comedy Hot Shots! (1991) was a genre parody/spoof of Top Gun (1986), while Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993) parodied Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
  • in The Freshman (1990), Marlon Brando (as Carmine Sabatini) poked fun - with brilliant parody - at his own characterization of Don Corleone in The Godfather (1972)
  • Carl Reiner's Fatal Instinct (1993) spoofed suspense thrillers and murder mysteries such as Basic Instinct (1992)
  • Gene Quintano's Loaded Weapon I (1993) made fun of Lethal Weapon (1987) as well as The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Basic Instinct (1992), and Wayne's World (1992)
  • the Austin Powers films (1997, 1999, 2002) - parodies of the James Bond 007 films
  • the Scream films (1996, 1997, 2000) - spoofs of slasher horror films
  • Barry Sonnenfeld's Men in Black (1997) - a sci-fi comedy farce based on a comic book series that poked fun at alien invasion films, with Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith as government agents (with camaraderie similar to Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon series) battling about 1500 Earth-dwelling, other-worldly extra-terrestrials in the New York area; a sequel appeared in 2002
  • Galaxy Quest (1999), about the cast (including Tim Allen, Alan Rickman, and Sigourney Weaver) of a 70s sci-fi TV series in reruns, this was a parody of sci-fi TV, Star Trek itself, and cultish "Trekkie" activities
  • director Nora Ephron's romantic comedy You've Got Mail (1998) updated and paid homage to Ernst Lubitsch's classic The Shop Around the Corner (1940), with leads Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in their third teaming (after their previous hit with Ephron - Sleepless in Seattle (1993)), replacing James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as feuding-by-email Manhattan bookstore owners
  • Last Action Hero (1993) - a spoof of action films
This category may also include these widely diverse forms of satire - usually displayed as political or social commentary, for example:
  • Billy Wilder's sex farce The Seven Year Itch (1955) - a parody of a conventional Hollywood romance
  • Terry Gilliam's tasteless but hilarious Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983) and The Life of Brian (1979) - an irreverent parody of religious films
  • the witty Monty Pythonesque A Fish Called Wanda (1988), co-scripted by veteran John Cleese (with the character name of Archie Leach - named after Cary Grant's real name) and directed by veteran Charles Crichton (whose film career was responsible for such classics as The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)); it was both an acclaimed black comedy and caper farce about a search for a stolen cache of diamonds; the title referred to both a fish and the name of Jamie Lee Curtis' character
  • writer/director Albert Brooks' satirical Real Life (1979) - a pseudo-documentary on 'real' small-town suburban family life
  • Woody Allen's pseudo-documentary Zelig (1983) with its use of vintage historical clips to portray a human cipher or chameleon in various time periods
  • Rob Reiner's largely-improvised show-biz mockumentary This is Spinal Tap (1984) about a non-existent British heavy metal rock band on tour of third-rate venues
  • the serious-comedic political satire of Tim Robbins' pseudo-documentary (or fictional mockumentary) Bob Roberts (1992) about running for Senatorial office; Tanner '88 (1988) was a similar made-for-TV mini-series about a fictional Presidential candidate (Michael Murphy)
  • Steven Soderbergh's Schizopolis (1996) - an irreverent, bizarre, and absurdist media satire
  • Christopher Guest's Waiting for Guffman (1996) - an intelligent satirical parody (and mockumentary) about small-town 'drama queen' hopefuls
In many comedies, there is much overlap with the category of 'farce', since the term has now been broadened and extended (from the early part of the 20th century) beyond its origins and roots in silent film (and early talkies) comedy (W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, The Marx Brothers, and Buster Keaton to name a few), and the works of The Three Stooges. Now, farces - and farcical elements in films, may include fairly outrageous plots, unlikely and absurd circumstances, frantic-paced action, mistaken identities, a major transgression or hidden secret (i.e., often an extra-marital infidelity) sometimes based upon a misunderstanding, and lots of verbal humor, absurdities and physical slapstick, often with a concluding chase scene of some kind. Recently, farces have widened their scope by deliberately and satirically mocking established genres and standard filmic conventions themselves:
  • Classic screwball comedies and other classic comedies: such as Trouble in Paradise (1932), Twentieth Century (1934), My Man Godfrey (1936), His Girl Friday (1940), To Be or Not to Be (1942), The More the Merrier (1943), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Born Yesterday (1950), The Seven Year Itch (1955), Some Like It Hot (1959), etc.
  • UK comedies: the British Ealing Studios comedies (The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)), the grotesque commentaries found in the Monty Python films, Tom Jones (1963)
  • Kubrick's classic, black comedy: Dr. Strangelove: Or... (1964)
  • Other comedies in series: the Hope/Crosby 'Road' movies, the Peter Sellers/Inspector Clouseau Pink Panther films, the Mel Brooks comedies (beginning with The Producers (1968) and including such films as Spaceballs (1987), Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)), the Abrahams/Zucker/Zucker films such as Airplane! (1980) and Hot Shots! (1991), some Woody Allen films (i.e., Love and Death (1975)), Carl Reiner/Steve Martin films: (i.e., The Jerk (1979), The Man with Two Brains (1983), and All of Me (1984)), the Mr. Bean movies (i.e., Bean (1997))
  • Other recent examples: What's New, Pussycat (1965), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), Murder by Death (1976), Tootsie (1982), Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), Peter Bogdanovich's Noises Off... (1992), There's Something About Mary (1998), Waking Ned (1998), South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut (1999), Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005), The Simpsons Movie (2007), etc.
Earliest Comedy:
Cinematic comedy can be considered the oldest film genre (and one of the most prolific and popular). Comedy was ideal for the early silent films, as it was dependent on visual action and physical humor rather than sound. Slapstick, one of the earliest forms of comedy, poked fun at farcical situations of physical mishap and indignity, usually in pratfalls, practical jokes, accidents, acrobatic death-defying stunts, water soakings, or wild chase scenes with trains and cars. [Burlesque is another form of early comedy, characterized by unrefined and broad humor, designed to produce ridicule.] Pioneers in the early days of silent cinema and film-making, the Lumiere Brothers, included a short comedy film in their very first public screening in 1895 titled Watering the Gardener or "The Sprinkler Sprinkled" (L'Arroseur Arrose). Its predictable subject matter included a man with a garden watering hose who was tricked into being soaked by a prankster child.
Keystone Studios:
It took until 1912 for American comedy to emerge. The first comics were trained by performing in the circus, in burlesque, vaudeville (music halls), or pantomime. Film entrepreneur Mack Sennett, soon nicknamed "The King of Comedy" and "The Master of Slapstick Comedy," formed the Keystone Company (and Studios) in 1912 - it soon was the leading producer of slapstick and comic characters.
The major hallmark of Sennett's career work was inventive, visual, improvised comedy displayed in short silent films that moved frantically. His early short comedies featured wild slapstick chase finales, visual gags and stunts, and speedy, zany action. The action appeared all the more frantic and frenzied by his use of a filming technique whereby he shot the pictures at a slow camera speed, and then accelerated the frames in the projector during playback. He often cast vaudevillian, burlesque, and circus performers in his films. Those with exaggerated or grotesque looks (obese, cross-eyed, lanky, leering, pop-eyed, etc.) were chosen to add to the unreality of the situations. His most popular pictures involved his bumbling comedy policemen, the Keystone Cops. There would be flying pies, bricks, careening vehicles with people hanging off, crashes, and other dangerous-looking stunts. Cinema's first custard-pie-in-the-face was in Sennett's silent film comedy A Noise From the Deep (1913), in which comedian Mabel Normand, a farmgirl threw a pie into the kisser of obese farmhand Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.  

Eccentric comic artists (and character actors) included Arbuckle, Edgar Kennedy, Mabel Normand, zany and cross-eyed Ben Turpin, Mack Swain, Billy Bevan, Charley Chase and Chester Conklin. [Even Carole Lombard began her career at Keystone.] Charlie Chaplin got his start at Keystone (his first film was the short Making a Living (1914)) and made numerous short films from 1914-1919 (for Keystone, Essanay, Mutual, and First National), until his first full-length feature that he directed, wrote, and acted in, The Kid (1921) - see below.
The Silent Era Clowns
Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle:
Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was one of the earliest silent film comedians (as well as director and screenwriter). He started out with the Selig Polyscope Company in 1909 (his first film was Ben's Kid (1909)), and then went onto Universal Pictures in 1913 where he appeared in several of Mack Sennett's Keystone Comedies films, noted for fast-paced chase sequences and 'pie-in-the-face' segments. Arbuckle was the first of the silent comedians to direct his own films, starting with Barnyard Flirtations (1914). His teaming with Mabel Normand at Keystone, in a series of "Fatty and Mabel" films, were lucrative for the studio.
In 1917, Arbuckle formed his own production company ("Comique Film Corporation") with producer Joseph Schenck which afforded more creative control, hiring Buster Keaton to star in his first film The Butcher Boy (1917). He used his 'fatness' as part of his sight gags, and his slightly-vulgar but sweet and playful character became extremely popular with younger audiences. By 1919, he had secured at $3 million/3-year contract with Paramount Pictures - the first multi-year, multi-million dollar deal for a Hollywood studio. It is little mentioned that Arbuckle mentored and aided Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin as they entered the film business, before his own downfall in the early 1920s. He was accused of the rape and murder of young starlet Virginia Rappe in San Francisco in a widely-publicized case -- and thoroughly chastised by Hearst's 'trial-by newspaper' (with soaring sales) and public condemnation. His career was over, although he was eventually fully acquitted of the act after three trials.
Charlie Chaplin:
Charlie Chaplin, a silent actor and pantomimist, was recruited to Keystone from an English variety act, and became Sennett's most important discovery. Chaplin made 35 short Keystone films for Mack Sennett in 1914. In Chaplin's second picture, the 11-minute Kid Auto Races in Venice (1914), he invented his immortal, trademark Little Tramp character as he attends a 'baby-cart' race in Venice, California. His first masterpiece, The Tramp (1915), produced by the Essanay Company in Chicago, showed the early development of the character, known for his baggy pants, bowler hat, walking cane, funny stride, and oversized shoes. Chaplin had appeared in Sennett's feature-length Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914) and produced two dozen two-reelers for Mutual, including such classics as The Rink (1916), The Floorwalker (1916), The Pawnshop (1916), The Cure (1917), The Immigrant (1917) and Easy Street (1917).
Chaplin made two masterpieces in the 1920s: his first full-length starring feature that he directed was The Kid (1921) pairing him with young Jackie Coogan. It was followed by another full-length comedy titled The Gold Rush (1925), Chaplin's best silent film with segments of poetic miming and classic slapstick. Even though the silent era was ending and the sound era had arrived, Chaplin turned out more "silent" features: the exquisite City Lights (1931), and his satire on the machine-age,  Modern Times (1936). Chaplin resisted the coming of the talkies until his first talking picture The Great Dictator (1940) and other talkies including Limelight (1952) - a film with silent comedian Buster Keaton as co-star. 
Buster Keaton:
One of the great silent clowns of the early comedic period was Buster Keaton, known for acrobatic visual gags, physical action, and for his deadpan, unsmiling, expression-less "stoneface." (His first name was a nickname given to him by Harry Houdini after he fell down some steps.) Keaton was first a vaudeville performer, performing and partnering quite often with former Keystone star and mentor Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. He entered the profession of film-making in 1917 at the age of twenty-one as a supporting player, in his film debut The Butcher Boy (1917). Then, he started his own production company and became an actor in his own production unit in many excellent short films (usually two-reelers) from 1920-1923, including One Week (1920), Neighbors (1920), The High Sign (1921), The Boat (1921), The Haunted House (1921), The Playhouse (1921), The Paleface (1921), Hard Luck (1921), and The Frozen North (1922), but none as a repeating character. 
A few years later, he also starred in a number of feature-length silents, his first being The Three Ages (1923). Among his best features were Our Hospitality (1923), The Navigator (1924), Sherlock, Jr. (1924), Go West (1925), Seven Chances (1925), and Battling Butler (1926). His most-acclaimed feature-length production was the fast-paced Civil War adventure tale of a railroad engine called  The General (1927), which he soon followed with College (1927) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). The latter film is known for one of the most suicidal stunts ever filmed - a falling wall with only a top-floor open window to save him from being flattened. [One of his last film appearances was as one of the 'waxworks' friends who plays bridge with silent film star Gloria Swanson in  Sunset Boulevard (1950).]
Harold Lloyd:
Harold Lloyd, a popular silent clown, has been dubbed the 'third' genius or master of silent comedy - after Chaplin and Keaton. [An actor/producer, he actually outgrossed his better-known counterparts, by retaining ownership of his films and their profits.] Like them, Lloyd also spent some time in the early years with Mack Sennett, became known for realistic, daredevil stunts, and for his bespectacled, neat, innocent, noble-hearted, 'average Joe' characters. From 1915-1921, he produced a number of short films for Keystone and for major comedy producer Hal Roach, playing the character of Willie Work (debuting in his first starring film Just Nuts (1915) as a Chaplin-like character) and Lonesome Luke (first appearing in Lonesome Luke, Social Gangster (1915)). 
Lloyd graduated to full-length features playing the part of a normal Everyman (or "Glasses Character") or "Boy" - which debuted in the short Look Out Below (1919). His last short was Never Weaken (1921). He became most identified with this 'boy'-next-door character (normally named Harold) with his most famous trademark - horn-rimmed glasses. His most-remembered film, the feature-length Safety Last (1923), featured his perilous, memorable climb up a tall skyscraper's face that climaxed with his hanging off a giant clock. Lloyd's career lasted 34 years with over 200 comedies (mostly short subject featurettes, but including 11 silent features and 7 sound features). One of Lloyd's other greatest films was also his most successful, The Freshman (1925), in which he portrayed a college underclassman (Harold 'Speedy' Lamb) determined to redeem himself - on the football field. Other well-known films included Grandma's Boy (1922), Why Worry? (1923), Girl Shy (1924), The Kid Brother (1927), Speedy (1928) (his final silent film) and Movie Crazy (1932). His last film was released in 1947 - director Preston Sturges' The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947), retitled Mad Wednesday by co-producer Howard Hughes, re-edited and released by RKO in 1950.
Harry Langdon:
Another early comic performer was baby-faced, innocent, timid Harry Langdon, who also worked at Keystone. He experienced only a brief period of fame during the end of the silent era, although he could be placed in the same league as his three other comic contemporaries: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. His best feature film in a short four-year film career, The Strong Man (1926), was director Frank Capra's feature-film debut. The film predated Chaplin's  City Lights (1931) by several years with its plot of a meek man in love with a blind woman. Langdon also starred in two other hits: Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926) and Capra's Long Pants (1927) in which Langdon played his typical simple-minded, man/child role. 
Larry Semon:
Another popular, second-level slapstick comedian in the silent era who made hundreds of two-reel shorts from 1916-1924 for Vitagraph and for the B-picture company, the Chadwick Pictures Corporation, was the charming, white-faced, smiling, and clownish Larry Semon. He began film work at Vitagraph in 1915 as comedy short gag writer and then as director in 1916. His first feature-length film was also his best known and most influential work - a remake and adaptation of Baum's The Wizard of Oz (1925), with Semon serving as both director and star - as the Scarecrow opposite Oliver Hardy (of the comic team) who played the Tin Woodsman. The film's release was highly publicized, but the public didn't like it - and it was essentially a failed effort. Afterwards, he took a supporting role in Josef Von Sternberg's classic film Underworld (1927), and his last film, after filing for bankruptcy, was A Simple Sap (1928), released posthumously after his prematurely-short life.
The 30s Clowns
With the coming of sound, slapstick went into a bit of a decline and the flexible freedom of the earliest comedians was curtailed. Comedy was transformed, however, and began to be refined as an art form, with new themes, elements, and written characterizations, and comedic humor was now being derived from clever dialogue. Visual comedy remained strong throughout the 1930s, but now witty dialogue and verbal comedy were added. Some of the great comedians or teams, including Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, and Abbott and Costello, or individuals such as radio star Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Joe E. Brown, W. C. Fields, and Mae West emerged. Hal Roach's company was responsible for other ground-breaking comedy shorts during the 1930s, including the popular "Our Gang" series that lasted until 1944. 
Laurel and Hardy:
One of the greatest and most-beloved of the comedy teams was the one of British-born Stan Laurel and the fat-faced Oliver Hardy, first purposely teamed together toward the close of the silent era by producer Hal Roach in the slapstick film Slipping Wives (1926). They had first met, by accident, during the filming of Lucky Dog in 1917. Director Leo McCarey at Hal Roach Studios recognized their potential as a team and capitalized on their contrasting, disparate physical differences (Stan: the "thin" man and Oliver: the "fat" one - each with derby hats) and classic gestures (bewildered head-scratching, tie-twiddling, eye-blinking and baby-like weeping). 
Although Laurel and Hardy worked together as a successful comedy team for 20 years (and were precursors of the 50s team Abbott and Costello), they were not equal partners - Stan considered himself the creative force and "brains" of the team. Their dozens of short films and twenty-seven feature-length films were produced over three decades (the 20s to the 40s), including such film classics as Sons of the Desert (1933) - arguably their best film, Way Out West (1937), The Flying Deuces (1939), and A Chump At Oxford (1940). One of their funniest bits involved getting a piano up a set of stairs in The Music Box (1932). Laurel and Hardy's last Hollywood film was The Bullfighters (1945), capping a teamed career of almost twenty years. They were among the few actors who successfully made the transition from silents to talkies.
Plots of their hilarious films used situational mishaps or incidents to trigger chaos and personal jeopardy, usually with the dignified, superior-acting, pompous Ollie trying to succeed and boast, only to be frustrated, exasperated and sabotaged by the simple-mindedness, childishness and brainlessness of Stan. Audiences were amused by their endearing qualities of naivete, clumsiness, innocence, and stupidity as they sunk deeper and deeper into trouble, chaos, and self-destruction. 
The Marx Brothers:
Once talkies emerged, the most famous and popular comedy team was the zany foursome of the Marx Brothers. They were the only real-life sibling comedy group in Hollywood history:
  • the witty, wise-cracking, ad-libbing, absurdly-punning, caustic, fast-talking Groucho (famous for his crouched walk, mustache, cigar, round glasses and leering eyes)
  • piano-playing, broken Italian-accented Chico, famous for distorted logic
  • the mischievous mute-pantomimist/harpist Harpo (with an old taxi horn and numerous harp solos), known for chasing girls
  • the straight-man Zeppo (who left the other brothers in 1933 after his performance in  Duck Soup (1933), his fifth film)
Their comedy was a mixture of slapstick, sophisticated verbal comedy (often absurd and risque), zany anarchistic disrespect for the establishment, nonsensical action, and inspired buffoonery. 
After almost two decades in vaudeville together, the brothers finally received widespread attention in their screen debut, The Cocoanuts (1929), filmed at Paramount's East Coast studios. Next were major box-office and critical successes - the film version of their Broadway play, Animal Crackers (1930), Horse Feathers (1932) and their last film for Paramount - the political, anti-war satire/spoof  Duck Soup (1933)
The Marx Brothers further developed their unique brand of absurdist, hilarious, slapstick comedy with a change to MGM Studios in the mid-30s. MGM's productions of  A Night at the Opera (1935) with its memorable scenes of the stateroom and a legal contract, and A Day at the Races (1937) were made at the height of their popularity. A frequent romantic foil for Groucho who appeared in a number of their films was Margaret Dumont, a memorable character actress. The film career of the Marx Brothers extended from 1929 to 1949. Marx Brothers Groucho, Chico and Harpo made their final film appearance as a team in Love Happy (1949), with a young 23 year-old Marilyn Monroe. Later on, Groucho became a star as an early TV game-show host. 

W. C. Fields:
W. C. Fields is known for his recognizable raspy voice, pool cue, oversized bulbous nose and nasal drawl, stove-pipe hat, flask of 100-proof whiskey and love of drink, caustic verbal wit and wisecracks, and irritable disdain for small children, animals, upper-class snobs and bullying wives. The vaudeville star was an inspired comedian, a master of visual gags, double-takes, casual asides and pantomime. His film debut was in the silent one-reel comedy short Pool Sharks (1915), in which he showed off his pool-playing ability, and his first sound feature film was Warners' (and First National's) pre-code musical comedy Her Majesty, Love (1931). Fields usually wrote his own scripts and produced such classics for Paramount as It's A Gift (1934) and possibly his best film, The Bank Dick (1940), in which he credited himself as screenwriter Mahatma Kane Jeeves. Another wacky contribution was Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) (written with the pseudonym of Otis Criblecoblis) - his last starring role in a feature-length film. Fields was a natural while portraying a hen-pecked husband, a phony, an eccentric, a windbag, a non-conformist schemer, or a pompous charlatan. 
Mae West:
Another contemporary, wise-cracking, drawling performer was the bold, blowsy and flirtatious Mae West who enjoyed titillating and shocking audiences with double entendre dialogue, sexual innuendo and a desire for sex, especially before the advent of the Hays Production Code. [One of her typical lines was: "Listen, when women go wrong, men go right after them."] Mae West starred in her own films, notably as a buxom burlesque queen and singer in an 1890s saloon in She Done Him Wrong (1933), and as a circus floozy in I'm No Angel (1933). She also appeared with Fields in their only film together: My Little Chickadee (1940).

Friday, September 2, 2016

Welcome to CinemaVIEW for Fall Semester

Welcome to the Fall Semester and CinemaVIEW.

Over the course of the next three months, this blog will feature highlights and backgrounds on the films we will be discussing in class.

Trailers, links and other material relevant to this course will be included.

Please check back weekly for updates and be sure to access your syllabus to insure you are up-to-date.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

JAWS review: 'brilliant and terrifying'


Steven Spielberg's Jaws, which was released on June 20, 1975, changed the cinema experience forever

Steven Spielberg's Jaws, a brilliant film of so much more than just short shark shocks, changed the cinema experience forever. It was the original Hollywood blockbuster, the first film to gross more than $100 million.

Nobody at the time predicted such remarkable success for Jaws. When Richard Zanuck, the Oscar-winning film producer who had been behind great films such as The Sound of Music and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, started on the project the book, by first-time novelist Peter Benchley, hadn't even been published and Spielberg's only feature film to date, The Sugarland Express, had yet to be released.

The plot is relatively straightforward: a giant man-eating great white shark starts killing holidaymakers on the waters of Amity Island, a fictional New England resort. The local police chief, with the help of a marine biologist and a professional shark hunter, goes out to sea to track it down and kill it.

The cast is magnificent but therein lies a story. Benchley had wanted Paul Newman to play police chief Martin Brody, Robert Redford to fill the role of hippy ichthyologist Matt Hooper and Steve McQueen to be grizzled shark hunter Quint. Zanuck wanted Charlton Heston, Sterling Hayden and Jon Voight respectively. In the end, the roles went to Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw.

As a trio, their chemistry is superb. Zanuck said he was conscious that having no star named added to the risks for the film but his three leads could not have been better.The main problem was the demanding practicalities of making the film. Jaws was shot on the small Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard (and on the waters surrounding it) and Spielberg, who was 27 at the time, remembers long days, with about four hours of shooting film and about "eight hours anchoring boats and trying to fight the ocean and get the shark to work".

The sharks, in this era long before CGI, were a mechanical nightmare. "We were lucky to get one or two shots a day," said Zanuck. "The shark was a mechanical monster that very rarely worked. Actually, we had four of them, and they were all hydraulically operated - very crude by today's standards."They had all these rubber-hose attachments, and there were 16 different parts that had to work - the eye, the jaws, the tail, the fins and so on. We had a barge bouncing up and down in the sea, with people at all these levers, each of them controlling a particular part. It was like an orchestra with these 16 guys on the barge, and they had to play it perfectly each time."

But the mechanics just kept breaking down. For example, the shark would come out of the water with its eye closed, and we'd have to abandon the shot. It was so agonising. You'd have actors hanging around for days, waiting for just one shot."

The problems ended up working in the film's favour. The opening segment is one of the most famous death scenes in movie history. Susan Backlinie was the skinny-dipping bather who takes a fateful moonlit swim, splashing about merrily. The silence is terrifying, the sea an endless dark pool.

Suddenly, the whelping starts, the helpless struggle against a sea monster we are left to image, the creature that is dragging her under. It's an utterly terrifying moment."In the script," said Zanuck, "we had the shark in that scene, but the mechanics weren't working. Steven made it so much more horrifying by having shots from underneath of the girl's legs dangling there, then the girl being ripped apart."

All without the audience getting even a glimpse of her attacker. "If we'd had a computerised shark, we would have overdone it, and a lot of that suspense and build-up, which was not really intended, would have been lost."Through the years, Steven has been praised for holding back on the shark and waiting, but it was never planned that way. We just didn't have it working."

"Jaws was my Vietnam. It was basically naive people against nature, and nature beat us every day," Spielberg later said.The terror, panic and small town politics are all brilliantly done but this is also a film about bravery and friendship and the scenes in which the trio bond as they sit out at sea waiting to fight death itself are moving and witty.

There is also a memorably great line. “We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” says Chief Brody when he finally realised the size of the beast they are facing.The beautifully simple and iconic movie poster, the evocative and haunting Grammy-winning score of John Williams (All together now: Duh-duh, duh-duh, duh-duh…) and the scary moments (the head and the boat) all help make Jaws one of the great films of the 20th century.

Jaws won three Oscars - Best Film Editing, Best Original Dramatic Score, and Best Sound - and spawned three (poor) sequels. It is as thrilling today as when it first hit cinema screens on June 20 1975. 

Saturday, April 2, 2016


The historical novel by Alexandre Dumas was adapted for the screen with this lavish French epic, winner of 5 Césars and a pair of awards at the Cannes Film Festival. Isabelle Adjani stars as Marguerite de Valois, better known as Margot, daughter of scheming Catholic power player Catherine de Medici (Virna Lisi). Margot is an heiress to the throne during the late 16th century reign of the neurotic, hypochondriac King Charles IX (Jean-Hugues Anglade), a time when Protestants and Catholics are vying for political control of France. Catherine decides to make an overture of good will by offering up Margot in marriage to prominent Protestant Huguenot Henri of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil), although she also schemes to bring about the notorious St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of 1572, when tens of thousands of Protestants are slaughtered. The marriage goes forward but Margot doesn't love Henri and takes a lover, the soldier La Mole (Vincent Perez), also a Protestant from a well-to-do family. Murders by poisoning follow, as court intrigues multiply and Catherine's villainous plotting to place her son Anjou (Pascal Greggory) on the throne threatens the lives of La Mole, Margot and Henri. 

The American release version was cut to 145 minutes. ~ Karl Williams, Rovi


Thursday, March 24, 2016

IN COLD BLOOD - Film Review

The public hazard in the kind of random violence that is occurring in our communities these days as part of the alarming upsurge of wild, neurotic crime is envisioned in terrifying images in the film Richard Brooks has made from Truman Capote's celebrated reporting of a Kansas murder case, In Cold Blood. This excellent quasidocumentary, which sends shivers down the spine while moving the viewer to ponder, opened at Cinema I yesterday.

Substantially, the film is a reenactment in electrifying cinematic terms of the essential events in the case record of that gruesome and mystifying crime in which four members of the modest Clutter family were slaughtered in their home near Holcomb, Kansas, by two ex-convicts, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, one night in 1959.
It is a faithful and absorbing demonstration of how the police, with very few clues and no initial inkling of a motive, patiently investigated the crime while the killers were boldly making an escape into Mexico; how the case was eventually broken, the killers fortuitously caught, then tried, convicted, and executed in a Kansas prison in 1965.

Since most of this is now common knowledge, thanks to the circulation of Mr. Capote's book, and since the culpability of the murderers is specified early in the film, the excitement generated in the viewer is not over who committed the murders, but why. Why did two who had originally intended robbery, and who had not committed murder before, suddenly come to the point of slaughtering four innocent persons in cold blood? And what does this single explosion of violence indicate as to society's pitiable vulnerability to the kooks that are loose in the land?

This pervasive concern with the natures and the backgrounds of the two young men who commit the murders and are therefore the symbols of the forces of evil in this dramatic scan accounts for the considerable alteration that Mr. Brooks has made in the substance and structure of Mr. Capote's book.

With a proper disregard for the extraneous, he has dropped out much of the detail of life in the community of Holcomb that Mr. Capote so patiently inscribed, and he has swiftly introduced his two marauders and brought them to the driveway of the Clutter home on that fateful night.

Then, with a rip in the sequence that is characteristic of the nervous style of the film—it is done with frequent flashbacks and fragmentations of continuity—he cuts to the interior of the Clutter home on the morning after the crime and the discovery of the bodies by the housemaid (but unseen by the camera), to her shrieking horror.

Thus the evident hideousness and mystery of what occurred is craftily withheld until the flow of the film has encompassed the investigations by the police, the getaway of the fugitives and their visit to Mexico (during all of which we are treated to grim reflections of their blighted early years), and their capture in Las Vegas, by an extraordinary fluke.

Not until they're brought back to Holcomb do we get in a confession by Smith, a graphic reconstruction of what happened in the house that awful night, and here Mr. Brooks exercises his most admirable skill and good taste. For without once actually showing the raw performance and effects of violence, the shooting and the knifing, he builds up a horrifying sense of the slow terror and maniacal momentum of that murderous escapade.

He makes us see the arrogance of the marauders, the astonishment and disbelief of the awakened Clutters, the fury of the robbers when they find there is no expected hoard of money, and the piteous terror of the victims when they know their lives are to be taken. But, best of all, he makes us understand, on the basis of what he has shown us about these hoodlums earlier in the film, why their wild, smashing outburst of vengeance is inevitable.

From here on, the course of the picture—the barely sketched-in trial, the languishing of the men in prison while their case goes through endless appeals, and finally their execution—is but the ironic playing out of society's ritualistic compensation for damage already done. The final scene of the hanging, which is realistically done, is like some medieval rite of retribution. It leaves one helplessly, hopelessly chilled.

I have not emphasized the vivid realism and literal quality of this film, which are the product of Mr. Brooks's sharp direction and the black-and-white photography of Conrad Hall; nor have I nailed down the subtle revelations and variations in the performances of Robert Blake and Scott Wilson in the principal roles. Their abilities to demonstrate the tensions, the torments, and shabby conceits of the miserable criminals, give disturbing dimension to their roles.

As dogged investigators, John Forsythe, John Gallaudet, Jim Lantz, and others manifest the terminal functioning of the law; Paul Stewart is dry as a reporter and John McLiam plays Mr. Clutter pitiably.

There is sure to be comparison of this picture with the controversial Bonnie and Clyde, which is also about two killers who are brought to their doom. That one, subjective and romantic, does not hold a candle, I feel, as a social illumination, to this one, which is objective and real.

Produced and directed by Richard Brooks; written by Mr. Brooks, based on the book by Truman Capote; director of photography, Conrad Hall; edited by Peter Zinner; music by Quincy Jones; art designer, Robert Boyle; released by Columbia Pictures. Black and white. Running time: 134 minutes.

With: Robert Blake (Perry Smith), Scott Wilson (Dick Hickock), John Forsythe (Alvin Dewey), Paul Stewart (Reporter), Gerald S. O'Loughlin (Harold Nye), Jeff Corey (Hickock's Father), and John Gallaudet (Roy Church).

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Sicario: Film Review

'Prisoners' director Denis Villeneuve returns with a blisteringly suspenseful, ever surprising cartel thriller.

Two years after making his U.S. debut with the crackerjack kidnapping drama “Prisoners,” French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve ups his own ante with “Sicario,” a blisteringly intense drug-trade thriller that combines expert action and suspense with another uneasy inquiry into the emotional consequences of violence. A densely woven web of compelling character studies and larger systemic concerns, Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s bleaker, more jaundiced riposte to Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 “Traffic” may prove too grim and grisly for some audiences and too morally ambiguous for others. But with its muscular style and top-flight cast, this fall Lionsgate release should score solid (if less than “Prisoners”-sized) business from discerning adult moviegoers, along with dark-horse awards-season buzz.

In a terrific performance that recalls the steely ferocity of Jodie Foster in “The Silence of the Lambs” and Jessica Chastain in “Zero Dark Thirty,” Emily Blunt stars here as Kate Macer, an FBI field agent who has been forced to don a Teflon exterior in order to rise through the Bureau’s male-dominated ranks, and to cope with the depravity she frequently witnesses in the line of duty. “Sicario” begins with one such grisly find: dozens of rotting human corpses hidden behind the drywall in a suburban Arizona home belonging to an arm of a powerful Mexican drug cartel. But the carnage doesn’t end there, and when the next round of violence erupts with startling force, it sets the apocalyptic tone for everything that follows. Indeed, the opening of “Sicario” unfolds at such an anxiety-inducing pitch that it seems impossible for Villeneuve to sustain it, let along build on it, but somehow he manages to do just that. He’s a master of the kind of creeping tension that coils around the audience like a snake suffocating its prey.

Together with “Prisoners” and Villeneuve’s previous, Oscar-nominated “Incendies,” “Sicario” forms a loose trilogy about the politics of revenge and the value of a human life. But whereas those earlier films were panoramic in scope and choral in structure, “Sicario” unfolds almost entirely through the eyes of Kate, as she wades into the murky waters of an inter-agency task force assembled to give the U.S. a tactical leg up in the war on drugs. Helping to draw her in is Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a sandal-clad, stoner-cadenced mystery man who claims to be a Defense Department contractor, though Kate and her partner (Daniel Kaluuya) suspect from the start that he could be CIA. Like more than one character in “Sicario,” Graver can claim almost as many identities as he can ulterior motives.

Graver tells Kate that his operation needs her unique expertise, and while she isn’t fully convinced, she’s still young and naive enough to believe that there’s a right side in this war and that the U.S. is on it. Riding shotgun with Graver is another shadow man known only as Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) — the “sicario” (a slang term for hitman) of the title — who is said to be a former Mexican prosecutor, and who has the solemn intensity of a man determined to get his way or die trying. “Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything we do,” he tells Kate matter-of-factly on their first meeting — words that double as advice to the movie’s audience.

The knotty plot that follows demands close attention but never becomes too difficult (or self-consciously opaque) to follow. It involves multiple trips back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border as the agents attempt to use one high-ranking cartel boss (Bernardo Saracino) to flush out an even bigger one (Julio Cesar Cedillo), though exactly why is a crucial detail “Sicario” holds close to the vest until late in the third act. In the meantime, Villeneuve stages one extraordinary suspense setpiece after another, starting with an epic traffic jam at the border that ensnares the Americans just as they are heading back home with a piece of very precious cargo in tow. Using no special tricks — just the sharp, color-saturated compositions of cinematographer Roger Deakins; the airtight cutting of editor Joe Walker; and the subtly menacing score of composer Johan Johannsson — Villeneuve creates a sequence as nail-biting as any “Fast and the Furious” car chase, except that here all the cars are standing perfectly still.

As in the films of Clint Eastwood (whose “Mystic River” exuded an obvious influence on “Prisoners”) and Michael Mann, the violence in Villeneuve’s work is savage and startling, but never overstated or sensationalized, and every bullet fired ripples with consequences for both the victim and the trigger man (or, as the case may be, woman). Navigating the crossfire, Blunt is mesmerizing to watch, her intense blue eyes ablaze with intelligence as she tries to sort out the facts of the case from its attendant fictions, and whether Graver and Alejandro’s endgame justifies its ethically dubious means.

Every bit as impressive is Del Toro, who has worked both sides of the street where cartel dramas are concerned (“Traffic,” “Savages”), but whose Alejandro is cut from considerably more complicated cloth. He is a swift, unforgiving man, with a wolfish jowl and the preternatural calm of the predator lying in wait. Yet he also shudders in his sleep, reveals flashes of battered humanity when one least expects it, and even, fleetingly, a Hannibal Lecter-ish lust for the flinty young woman thrust into his path. And as the film hurtles towards its climactic abyss, it is Del Toro who holds us rapt with a nearly silent performance that is the very embodiment of character through action.

Working with a mix of technical collaborators old and new, Villeneuve has once again delivered an impeccably well-crafted film, not least in Deakins’ arresting widescreen lensing, which alternates between vast aerial canvases that capture the epic sprawl of the border land, and closeups so carefully framed and lit as to show particles of dust dancing on a shaft on sunlight.

Film Review: 'Sicario'

Reviewed at Dolby 88, New York, May 7, 2015. (In Cannes Film Festival — competing.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 121 MIN.


A Lionsgate release presented with Black Label Media of a Thunder Road production. Produced by Basil Iwanyk, Edward L. McDonnell, Molly Smith, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill. Executive producers, John H. Starke, Erica Lee, Ellen H. Schwartz.


Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Screenplay, Taylor Sheridan. Camera (color, Arri Alexa HD, widescreen), Roger Deakins; editor, Joe Walker; music, Johan Johannsson; executive music producers, Tara Moross, Darren Blumenthal; production designer, Patrice Vermetter; supervising art director, Paul Kelly; art director, Bjarne Sletteland; set decorator, Jan Pascale; set designer, Ricardo Guillermo; costume designer, Renee April; sound (Dolby Digital), William Sarokin; sound designer, Tom Ozanich; supervising sound editor, Alan Robert Murray; re-recording mixers, John Reitz, Tom Ozanich; visual effects supervisor, Louis Morin; visual effects, Oblique FX, Fly Studio, Cinesite; special effects supervisor, Stan Blackwell; stunt coordinator, Keith Woulard; associate producer, Emma McGill; assistant director, Donald L. Sparks; casting, Francine Maisler.


Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya, Jeffrey Donovan, Raoul Trujillo, Julio Cesar Cedillo, Bernardo Saracino. (English, Spanish dialogue)