For Reel

The Pink Panther (1963)
August 12, 2016, 2:10 pm
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Director: Blake Edwards
2.5 Stars
The Pink PantherFor its lasting place in pop culture history, it is surprising that The Pink Panther was birthed from an essential mistake. Originally wrought as a vehicle for star David Niven, it was the film that made Peter Sellers a star—in fact, he’s so good that he is arguably the only thing that makes the supposed comedy watchable. Niven’s cat burglar brings the expected class but very little sense of levity, worsened by the stiff relationship with Claudia Cardinale. Much of the film feels similarly labored and grasping—if the surrealism and heavy doses of nostalgia in the climax bring some life (everything about the gag with the zebra costume is a masterpiece of low-brow comedy), it doesn’t account for the preceding tedium. Sellers is the only actor who really gets to be funny, and his smallness as a performer suggests lessons taken from the great reactionary comics like Buster Keaton. If Sellers’ pratfalls are funny, the fact that he ignores the absurdity of each of them makes them hysterical. He is the least grandstanding of comics—when he shrugs his shoulders to the final notes of a song, it seems like a lived-in gesture from Inspector Clouseau himself rather than a comedian using the opportunity for a small physical gag. Director Blake Edwards similarly shows an understated confidence in his directing, with the Fran Jeffries musical number being staged with a masterful precision in  composition rather than flashy camera tricks or an overuse of editing. Despite the talents involved, however, the material is just a slog.

Critic’s Choice (1963)
June 30, 2016, 12:55 pm
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Director: Don Weis
2 Stars
Critic's ChoiceDuring its run at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in the early 1960s, Critic’s Choice (written by Ira Levin) was directed by Otto Preminger, who seems the perfect choice to bring to life the sexual frustrations that are the driving force of the narrative. Unfortunately, the filmed version isn’t quite so lucky—while the jokes veer more risqué than one might expect of a Bob Hope and Lucille Ball vehicle, director Don Weiss seems to be more interested in the repeated joke of Hope’s back giving out. Hope plays a theater critic who must write a review for his wife’s first play, ultimately pitting his marriage against his job. The running joke is that Hope is always begging for sex, and that he is unable to enjoy simple pleasures probably has much to do with his dissatisfaction in the bedroom (certainly meant to play as a jab against critics at large). Naturally, he doesn’t find himself excited by his wife’s stage play, nor by the young stud director (Rip Torn) who has taken an interest in her. Hope often played put-upon men, whose sly comments often involved jokes about the circumstances that are being thrust upon him. In Critic’s Choice, everything charming about the persona is gone because he is the one instigating—he’s a reactionary performer by nature, and his shortcomings in a more active role are especially prominent when playing against a hugely understated (and almost decidedly non-comic) Ball. Furthermore, although good friends in real life, the pair don’t share any sexual tension on screen, which becomes especially problematic when Torn, enjoyable but equally flaccid in his scenes with Ball, is wrought to be a threat to the marriage. The film is miscast in almost every way, and falls flat in its unwillingness to commit to being the sex farce the material is clearly begging it to be.

Twice-Told Tales (1963)
May 30, 2016, 12:45 pm
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Director: Sidney Salkow
2 Stars
Twice-Told TalesIn the early 1960s, director Roger Corman had great success in adapting the works of Edgar Allen Poe, often collaborating with growing horror icon Vincent Price. Naturally, other studios attempted to get their finger in the pot, and so comes this United Artists adaptation of the works of another 19th century author. Twice-Told Tales loosely adapts three stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, including a streamlined version of his novel The House of the Seven Gables. Anthology films are, by their very nature, uneven, and in this case it is to the film’s great detriment that each story takes roughly 45 minutes of screen time. Only the first tale—”Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”, concerning a pair of old friends who discover the fountain of youth to disastrous consequences—fully works on its own, with great performances by Price and Sebastian Cabot. Their relationship, which at moments plays as homoerotic, is tinged with lifelong resentments that bubble to the surface just as the world around them descends into the macabre and grotesque. The second of the stories, “Rappaccini’s Daughter”, is the low-point, with Brett Halsey playing a dismal romantic lead—what could have been a deliciously campy erotic thriller is made sexless due to the lack of chemistry in the leads.

Who’s Minding the Store? (1963)
January 13, 2016, 10:42 pm
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Director: Frank Tashlin
4.5 Stars
Who's Minding the Store?In a scene from Frank Tashlin’s Who’s Minding the Store?, an unsuspecting Jerry Lewis waits behind a department store counter as he hears a faint rumbling that grows steadily in volume. Tashlin cuts between the vacant hallways and Lewis’ confused mugging as he anticipates the worst. Finally, a parade of female consumers charges through the doors, taking both everything off the racks and stripping Lewis of his own clothes. This scene is an appropriate point-of-entry in discussing both Lewis and Tashlin, utilizing their combined fascination with how consumption habits have a dehumanizing effect. Look for more evidence in the brilliant finale (an echo of this earlier scene) in which Lewis wrestles with a vacuum cleaner run amuck, literally consuming anything within reach. Ironically, Who’s Minding the Store? was partly financed by lucrative product placement deals, anticipating today’s trends of both lampooning this type of advertising while simultaneously benefiting from it (Tashlin’s method is less narcissistic than the way product placement is used for laughs in contemporary films such as The Night Before). If the film is largely overlooked due to the fact that it was released the same year as Lewis’ oft-touted classic The Nutty Professor, it is nonetheless a masterpiece of this type of transgressive comedy, distinguished by both the imaginative gags (including the aforementioned vacuum setpiece) and the talented supporting cast. As Lewis’ object of interest, Jill St. John excels as a woman who both challenges gender roles and uses her sexuality to motivate Lewis at every opportunity.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)
December 24, 2015, 12:14 am
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Director: Stanley Kramer
2 Stars
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad WorldIt’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is remembered for its sheer extravagance, complimenting its bloated budget with an all-star cast and a three-plus-hour running time. As such, it exists now as a relic of an era of comedy gone by, involving a parade of television stars like Sid Cesar, Milton Berle, and Phil Silvers trying their best hand at an old-fashioned brand of slapstick comedy. But, as an introduction to any of these personalities or even mid-century comedy, the film is an utter failure. If the picture plays to the strong suits of Silvers as a mugging, snarky parasite, the rest of the cast is nearly interchangeable. Worse yet, not only are Stanley Kramer’s comic situations poorly conceived– sometimes the jokes are underlined excessively, other times we’re not sure if the punchline has occurred–the cross-cutting between subplots means that each sequence plays for an interminable length. If you don’t find a pair of comedians locked in a room particularly funny, prepare to watch the situation played out in short doses over an hour without a satisfying payoff. Some of the bizarro sequences are worth mentioning–Jonathan Winters’ takedown of a gas station, the introduction of Dick Shawn and the hilariously stone-faced Barrie Chase dancing in her underwear–however they serve as brief interludes that mercifully break up the monotony of ceaseless screams and double-takes.

The Haunting (1963)
March 29, 2015, 9:27 pm
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Director: Robert Wise
5 Stars
The HauntingMuch has been made of the terrific use of subtlety in The Haunting–few films so confidently fulfill the audience’s perverse desire to be terrified by doing so little. But that almost seems to undermine its heavily stylized tendencies, from the Wellesian prologue and deep focus camerawork to its articulation of Julie Harris’ rapidly deteriorating mental state. Although it shows very little, what it does show is an absolute feast. Davis Boulton’s cinematography (and certainly the direction of Robert Wise, who worked on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons) makes terrific use of the wide-angle lens, using the warped dimensions on the edges of the frame to further suggest Hill House’s sentient, ever-changing quality. One of the best shots foregrounds a nervous Harris as two characters converse in the background, all in perfect focus. It’s both an impressive trick of deep focus photography and one of the many shots that brings the viewer into Harris mental state. Harris’ performance (or rather, her character) is oft-criticized, but her psychosis is one of The Haunting’s most terrifying qualities. She’s a collection of turbulent neuroses, among the most outspokenly miserable of screen heroines. Perhaps Hill House is not so specifically enamored with her, rather she’s the only one too weak to resist its authority.