For Reel

A Night to Remember (1958)
July 30, 2016, 5:32 pm
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Director: Roy Ward Baker
5 Stars
A Night to RememberTo dramatize a real-life disaster poses enormous ethical risks—doing justice to the lives lost comes at odds with the sensationalizing of the details, which could transform a genuine tragedy into a Hollywood-ready disaster film. James Cameron’s approach to Titanic drifted far into sentimentality and romance, serving as both a nostalgic look at early 20th century fashions and social mores and hamfisting what was intended to be an enduring love story. The special effects spectacle remains that film’s greatest achievement, even if one remains at a distance from the tragedy as they gawk at passengers plummeting to their death in the madness. A Night to Remember, however, takes a simple shot of a serving tray rolling down a dining hall and gives it an unforgettable sense of immediacy—it is an image which represents the film’s greatest ironies, evoking the carefree calm of upper class grandeur falling apart at the seems (many have wished to remark on the Titanic disaster as a metaphor for a world approaching World War I, which the film certainly provides fruitful argument for). And, if the film lacks a strong central protagonist, director Roy Ward Baker sketches dozens of samples of people onboard the ship, finding heroism with simple gestures and reaction shots. While many of the entitled passengers aboard the ship are wrought as being in denial and even annoyed at the situation, A Night to Remember‘s greatest heroes are those who act similarly oblivious despite their understanding of exactly what awaits.

Queen of Outer Space (1958)
June 12, 2016, 9:57 pm
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Director: Edward Bernds
2.5 Stars
Queen of Outer SpaceFour men find themselves abandoned millions of miles away from home on a planet inhabited by women hellbent on destroying Earth. Their response, of course, is to call them dolls while gawking at their chests. Queen of Outer Space is the brainchild of the shockingly esteemed writing team of Ben Hect and Charles Beaumont, who imagine a society ruled by women who haven’t had the pleasure of a man’s love. Some of the men’s dialogue—”Why don’t you girls knock off all this gestapo stuff and try to be a little friendly?”—straddles the line between familiar 1950s chauvinism and genuine satire of gender politics, with the men occasionally coming off as buffoons in their nonchalance towards the feminine threat. That is not to say that Beaumont intended to write a postmodern feminist fable,  but the dynamic between the sexes is more interesting than a purposely idiotic genre film might lead one to expect. The picture has the advantage of recycling costumes and sets from better sci-fi films and, in CinemaScope, it actually looks relatively first rate despite the micro-budget. One’s enjoyment of the picture will correlate directly with how much they smile at the title, but even cynics should be amused by exchanges like: “Perhaps this is a civilization that exists without sex.” “You call that a civilization?!”

Wind Across the Everglades (1958)
March 20, 2016, 5:15 pm
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Director: Nicolas Ray & Budd Schulberg
4 Stars
Wind Across the EvergladesBoth Jonathan Rosenbaum and Chris Fujiwara have referred to Wind Across the Everglades as a “litmus test for auteurists”, the assumption being that only those who are able of contextualizing the film within Nicholas Ray’s oeuvre will find it satisfactory. That seems awfully harsh for what is a fascinating curiosity–a sort of gonzo eco-thriller, featuring a memorable performance by Burl Ives as Cottonmouth, a poacher who rules the swamp. Ray’s flamboyant use of color is memorable, with the swamps themselves illustrated with lush greenery contrasted with the impossibly blue skies. Much of the film is shot at sunset, giving a golden hue to the characters and suggesting the dreamy, almost purgatorial beauty of the swamp. The extent of Ray’s involvement with the picture is debatable–in his penultimate film, this is the first in which he was by all accounts entirely debilitated, both emotionally and from substance abuse, and was eventually fired from the production and not invited to have any say in the editing of the picture. Some of the narrative elements and montages feel choppy, but the awkward cutting in the shots of the animals serves to amplify the sense of the primal, lawless food chain. What makes Ives, in particular, so memorable is that he not only is the top of said food chain, but has a respect for the swamp–he knows this place will be the death of him. Ray wasn’t one to short-change his villains, and Cottonmouth is given a certain grace, typified in the narrative by the conservationist’s (Christopher Plummer) growing sense of respect for him (and vice versa).

Equinox Flower (1958)
February 9, 2016, 8:05 pm
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Director: Yasujirō Ozu
4 Stars
Equinox FlowerAs all of Yasujirō Ozu’s sound films are, Equinox Flower is an elegiac family drama, remarking on the shifting of generations with an uncommon serenity. Even if the film is comprised of a conflict that sets a father (Shin Saburi) and his daughter (Ineko Arima) at an impasse, characters in Ozu films don’t resort to theatrics to get their point across, instead preferring to have frank discussions about their contrasting point-of-views. If Ozu’s body of work often feels like an inalienable whole, Equinox Flower is distinguished not just by being the filmmaker’s first dalliance with color, but in discussing masculinity in a way that often goes unrecognized in discussions about Ozu. Waturu Hirayama (Saburi) is characterized rather bluntly as a hypocrite–although he has embraced modernity enough to give open-minded advice to his friends, he is tortured by the idea of having his own daughter choose a suitor without him. By framing the discussions from the familiar tatami angle and with characters facing the camera (as if speaking directly to the audience), Ozu withholds judgment by lending equal weight to the plight of each of his key figures. His films don’t argue for a certain social cause as much as they suggest that these types of family conflicts do happen. The inevitable resulting harmony in Equinox Flower’s conclusion doesn’t off-set the messy notions that behaviors are often wildly consistent, and the passing of one generation to the next will be cause for sorrow if one doesn’t have the ability to compromise.

The Music Room (1958)
December 13, 2015, 11:47 pm
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Director: Satyajit Ray
4.5 Stars
The Music RoomThat The Music Room was released between Aparajito and Apur Sansur suggested the breadth of Satyajit Ray’s ambition, revealing the great Indian director’s interest in the allegorical and fantastical in addition to the sense of realism that he brought to The Apu Trilogy. The opening shot of a chandelier seeming to float, rocking like a pendulum in an oppressive black void, reflected a huge stylistic departure, and one that would see Ray exploring more cerebral and obscure methods of storytelling and mise en scène. Whereas the train in Pather Panchali was a mythic image, signifying Apu’s great potential and future, The Music Room’s chandelier is at something more psychologically evocative, serving as both as a symbol of a dying generation and of the isolation of Huzur Biswambhar (Chhabi Biswas) himself. Ray struggled to find financing for Pather Panchali due to the project’s failure to meet the expectations of a traditional Indian entertainment, and so The Music Room’s lengthy performance sequences play as a subversive take on the state of Indian film itself, with the songs seamlessly integrated into the narrative but representing Biswambhar in stasis. These performances play as funeral ballads, signifying a time gone by, but also the vacuum of such obsessions. Biswambhar is clearly a true connoisseur, and yet his very admiration for musical talent is at odds with his own sense of a spiritual fulfillment. Entertainment, in The Music Room, is a temporary escape from the emptiness of everyday life. Therefore, as much as the performances take on a transcendental quality, the non-musical sequences are rendered all the more vacuous, as if escape is all Biswambhar has left.

The Hidden Fortress (1958)
November 28, 2015, 3:46 pm
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Director: Akira Kurosawa
4 Stars
The Hidden FortressAkira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress was the director’s most commercially successful film at the time of its release and also one that critics were late to admire. It is as broadly humorous as any of the director’s films, and in his first dalliance with widescreen TohoScope cinematography, some argued that Kurosawa had Hollywoodized his form after a series of more niche, complex films such as the Maxim Gorky adaptation The Lower Depths. And yet the incongruity of Kurosawa’s most earthbound film giving way to one of his grandest epics is familiar of The Hidden Fortress itself, which is a film brilliantly defined by its contradictions. The first image involves a pair of greedy peasants (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) who bicker as they traverse a vast, seemingly barren landscape until a dead man falls into frame and his pursuers follow suit. Similarly, the widescreen cinematography is as interested in showing the distances between characters (such as the scenes in which Toshirô Mifune stalks the peasants) as it is in showing crowds (as in the staircase sequence). The most famous contradiction, of course, is that the film is told from the point-of-view of lowly, predatory peasants, despite involving the larger-than-life heroics of a princess (Misa Uehara) and her escort (Mifune). Kurosawa’s games in constantly challenging his audience’s expectations makes The Hidden Fortress not his most cynical and democratized film, but rather his most playful.

The Fly (1958)
June 23, 2015, 3:21 pm
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Director: Kurt Neumann
4 Stars
The FlyAt about the midway point of The Fly, Andre Delambre (David Hedison) attempts to teleport his cat from one side of his laboratory to the other. The cat successfully disintegrates into nothing but it never materializes in the receiver. In a touch as haunting as it is humorous, a disembodied “meow” echoes through the air, now a lost collection of feline atoms floating in the universe. It leads to the most telling line in the picture in which Delambre muses, “It’d be funny if life weren’t so sacred.” It’s this precarious balance that makes The Fly so memorable. The image of a man’s head on a fly body waiting to be consumed by an approaching spider is as viscerally horrifying as any in the cinema, and yet one can’t disregard the spider web that looks like a cheap imitation from a Halloween store or the misguided distortion of Hedison’s screams for help. Beyond the grotesqueness, however, the most lingering moments of the picture are those in which a family tries desperately to trap the fly that will restore the man back to himself. The common irritant in the ideal household is now its everything, the only key to the family’s survival. James Clavell’s screenplay brilliantly considers the ethics of shock cinema, the stakes involved in creating a monster.

The Blob (1958)
June 20, 2015, 1:54 pm
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Director: Irvin Yeaworth
3 Stars
The BlobThe Blob has been considered a classic of 1950s science fiction cinema, but it also must be considered one of the quintessential teen pictures of a decade in which the genre blossomed. As with the rock-n-roll hallmarks Don’t Knock the Rock and Rock Around the Clock, The Blob creates a rift between the world of the teenagers and the world of the adults, with much of the drama involving the importance of the young people finally being heard. The articulation of the generational gap is key to the film’s horror–the blob itself is not what is scary about the picture, rather the fear inherent in trying to communicate danger to others who refuse to listen. It’s the boy-who-cried-wolf formula given to the Rebel Without a Cause generation, where the youthful, rebellious spirit is inextricably linked with the narrative truth. Director Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr. is not particularly adept in creating suspense in the sequences involving the namesake, which ironically are the most problematic in the picture. The cinematography and art direction redeems much of it, however, giving a lasting image of the 1950s in the brightness of its primary colors (the red and blue cars, Steve McQueen’s yellow jacket). There’s an unmistakably seductive tone accomplished by the nighttime setting–the bright colors of objects and characters really pop, with the blackness of the night serving as their radical contrast.

Bell Book and Candle (1958)
December 10, 2014, 4:56 pm
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Director: Richard Quine
3 Stars
Bell Book and CandleJohn Van Druten’s successful Broadway play Bell Book and Candle was wrought as a sort of allegory about beatniks and gay culture in Greenwich Village during the early 1950s. Witches in this vision are not as we’ve known them from previous interpretations, but rather as a counter-culture, characterized by their own night clubs and clearly distinguishable from the “ordinary” folk. The biggest success in Richard Quine’s adaptation is his interest in presenting such a culture–his unified vision regarding fashion, music, and even language is very distinct for the genre. Kim Novak’s icy persona is played upon effectively within this aesthetic. Witches, in this interpretation, are unable to cry, and Novak dependably acts with her steely, seductive glares. Perhaps that’s why the picture never soars as a romantic comedy in that Jimmy Stewart plays the romantic notes in a way that is much more conventional in the traditional since. Without the edge that he’s given in Vertigo, his obsession can only be blamed on the spell that she casts–which, of course, makes things dramatically inert once it is insisted by the script that true love persists beyond the magic. The supporting cast outshines the big players, particularly the perfectly cast Elsa Lanchester and Hermione Gingold as a couple of particularly eccentric witches.

Separate Tables (1958)
December 10, 2014, 4:42 pm
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Director: Delbert Mann
3 Stars
Separate TablesOn Broadway, Separate Tables was a pair of one-act plays set in a hotel near Bournemouth. The location and supporting characters were the same, but each half concerned the troubles of one distinct couple. Although the original intention for the film adaptation was to preserve this narrative structure–in fact, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh were actually going to play both sets of leads–the final result largely abandoned that structure for a film that feels a bit schizophrenic. It’s quite a fascinating mess in that way, even if it doesn’t entirely work. With David Niven and Wendy Hiller the principle leads in one story and Burt Lancaster and Rita Hayworth in the other, it’s as if an American and British production have been edited together. Pacing problems are evident and director Delbert Mann seems overwhelmed. Niven won an Oscar for his performance, which is understandable because he plays against the expected debonair gentleman type that he made his name on. In the early moments, he’s a blowhard trying to win the affections of a spinster with his war stories. Later, it’s revealed he’s a pervert, and that’s the result of him being desperately lonely and incompetent in his dealings with women. The interlinking theme is said loneliness, but the crowded cast and glamorous movie stars delivering fairly obtuse performances undermines that thematic intention. Regardless, there are a few genuinely affecting scenes, and Rita Hayworth in particular is very good–she’s Gilda, only now a little bit older and not attracting quite the same level of attention.