Thursday, September 12, 2013

Turner Classic Movie Reviews

If you’re a fan of great old movies, then one movie channel that is a must-watch is TCM, Turner Classic Movies. All day long they play some of the greatest films of all time and give people an avenue to watch some old movies that would otherwise be inaccessible. 

As such, I frequently watch TCM for movies which I’ve heard great things about, but have never had a chance to watch for one reason or another. Recently, I noticed that I’ve been watching many new movies to me on TCM. So I figured why not write up reviews on all the movies I’ve been watching through Turner Classic Movies these last few days.

There are sure to be many more reviews coming due to watching TCM so much. In fact, I’ve already written several reviews on movies watched through TCM, such as “The Birdman Of Alcatraz” and “Things To Come.” But, without further adieu, here are the many films of Turner Classic Movies.

“The Lodger: A Story Of The London Fog” (1927)

Ah, silent cinema. I’ve felt there is a certain charm to silent movies, which is lacking from all sound pictures: The ability to tell a story through visuals and the emotions on the actors faces. No words or dialogue, just the images. In a way, silent movies are cinema in its purest form.

Many of the greatest stars and icons of the movies began there careers in the silent era of filmmaking, one of the most notables ones being Alfred Hitchcock, often known as the “Master Of Suspense” and for giving some of the greatest thrillers in cinematic history, such as “Rear Window,” “Psycho,” “North By Northwest” and “Vertigo.”

Hitchcock’s first outing in the thriller genre was when he still worked out of Britain, with “The Lodger: A Story Of The London Fog” in 1927, right before the end of the silent era. While this film has many of the classic Hitchcock tropes that we’ve come to know and love, this particular film sure does falter at times.

The movie begins when an unknown man, known as “The Avenger,” kills blonde women in the London streets in a Jack The Ripper style. Now all of London is paranoid about who the killer might be and where he’ll strike next. Two such people are a couple who own a boarding house and have just rented out one of their rooms to a strange man who wishes to hide his face and starts to grow an attachment to their blonde daughter.

Instead of suspecting that he might be a vampire, they decide to let their friend, who is a police detective and in love with their daughter, handle the man and find out if he is the Avenger.

While the idea of a serial killer who only hunts blondes is intriguing, especially in the hands of Hitchcock who is well known for his obsession with the golden curled women, that’s the only interesting thing going on with the film. Everything else is rather predictable and lackluster.

We spend most of the movie following this strange man as we’re given clues to believe that he might be the killer, while we know that he isn’t the one. This might have been an ingenious idea back in 1927, now it’s a trope of thrillers and mysteries that only serves as a misdirection. When the majority of the film is a misdirection, you give the impression that you’re just wasting the audience’s time.

This really comes to a head at the end of the film when the truth is revealed and we find out more about the killer. Let’s just say that I felt unsatisfied with what we’re given and how little it has to do with the resolution of the main characters. The film builds up this man like Jack the Ripper and we don’t even know his real name or why he did it. So many questions and expectations left unanswered that it’s difficult not to be pissed off at the movie for leaving us so much in the dark.

If you want to see how Alfred Hitchcock started and watch a silent Hitchcock film, then certainly give “The Lodger” a shot. If you’re not interested in silent movies or hate being left out of all the important information, I’d say skip this one.

Final Grade: C-

“Safety Last!” (1923)

This is my first introduction to Harold Lloyd, who is often said to be one of the greatest physical comedians of all time. Personally, when I think physical comedy, I think anything like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Three Stooges and Tom & Jerry. I might already have my feelings of physical comedy greatest set in my mind so much that Harold Lloyd would have no affect me.

“Safety Last!” is another silent film that still captivates audiences today, 90 years after the films release. It tells the story of a love-struck boy from a small town (Harold Lloyd) as he moves to the big city to make something of himself so that his girlfriend (Mildred Davis) can be proud of him and live a happy and carefree life.

The problem is the kid can’t find a decent job in the this huge city and can only get small amounts of money, all of which go straight to his girl as jewelry and presents. Luckily, he gets a chance to make it big when his boss at a department store says that he’ll give anyone a thousand dollars to bring in more customers. Harold decides the best way to do this is to climb to the top of the twelve story store without any support whatsoever.

My problem with the movie was where it started and how much time it spent before getting to the interesting part. Honestly, the film only starts to get good when Harold prepares to climb the building, which is about halfway through the movie.

Before that point, it shows Harold stumbling around town trying to make a living while also getting his girlfriend to believe he is the manager of the department store he works at, when all he does is measure and cut pieces of fabric. All the time, he is lying to the woman he loves about it, and never once has to pay for his actions. He gets away with so many terrible actions that I stop being sympathetic towards him and grow to hate him.

At least in a film like “City Lights,” where Charlie Chaplin has to pretend to be a millionaire to impress a blind girl he’s falling in love with, Chaplin doesn’t take the issue lightly. He seems to hate doing it, and in the end still does the right thing when it comes to paying for an operation that would fix her eyes. Here, there seems to be no remorse or hatred towards lying and making things up to the love of your life. 

Now, that being said, once the film does get to Harold climbing the building, the film gets very impressive. Even by today’s standards, this is still an amazing feat. Harold Lloyd literally had to climb this twelve story building with no support or assistance and has so many long takes where he’s hanging on to the building by his finger tips or even the hands of a clock. The comedy for this scenario works because of the real life danger that Harold put himself in for this very long scene. 

What’s even funnier is that originally, he wasn’t supposed to climb. A buddy of his, who demonstrated earlier that he could climb a building no problem, was going to do it and he’d split the thousand dollars with him. But the two had a run-in with a cop earlier and his buddy spends the rest of the film running from the police, meaning Harold has to climb. 

It’s a scenario that works effectively on its own. While the first half of the film has many moments that makes the main character un-relatable and unsympathetic, the second half more than makes up for it with wonderful stunts and great sense of humor. 

Final Grade: B-

“High Sierra” (1941)

Confession time: Humphrey Bogart is far from my favorite actor. He is not bad at what he does, but I can’t help but scratch my head at some of his performances. Mostly, the roles that involve him doing something romantic, especially “Casablanca.”

I don’t see Bogart as a romance man. Maybe it’s because of how old he looks compared to his costars or that he has a pretty ugly mug. As such, I find that Bogart is in his element when he has to be rough and tough, out in the wilderness, trying to survive. The best example of this is “The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre,” where Bogart plays a man desperate to make a living, but is overcome by greed when he begins his hunt for gold and just might resort to killing his partners just to get their gold as well.

One of Bogarts’ earliest yet most well known roles was “High Sierra,” which was written by the same man who wrote and directed “The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre,” John Huston. 

Bogart plays a gangster, Roy Earle, who has recently been released from an eight year stay in prison. Earle swears to an aging and dying friend of his, Big Mac (Donald MacBride), to do one last big heist, where he and a group of nervous newcomers will rob a California resort. All the while, Earle mingles with the newbies and tries to make a life for himself outside of his gangster lifestyle, including using all of his money to pay for an operation to help a young girl, Velma (Joan Leslie), with her clubbed foot. 

Just as the heist is being pulled off, things go south and Earle has to kill a security guard, while three of the new guys are killed in a car accident on the way back to the hideout. Now beings the manhunt for Earle has he retreats into the Sierra Mountains to hide and make one final stand against the police.

At it’s core, “High Sierra” is a tragedy for the character of Roy Earle. He spends eight years in prison for his gangster crimes, is free to do what he pleases, only to be sucked back into the gangster lifestyle. While Earle tries to help out innocent people and attempts to lead a normal life, it’s his greed and love of crime that keeps him going. Yet, ultimately, he can’t even have that without hurting the people around him. 

Bogart handles the role with his typical stone face approach, as a guy whose been around the block more than once and knows the ins-and-outs of this lifestyle. While he does develop a relationship with one of the female gangsters, Marie (Ida Lupino), I don’t actually buy that the two were in love. That their relationship was purely physical and nothing more. 

Maybe it’s because of Bogart’s lack of raw emotion that makes most of his romantic roles so unconvincing to me. In this case, that style of acting works for a hardened gangster. The film makes it a point that Earle is the last of his kind. That everyone else like him is either dead or in jail. So to show that he isn’t willing to let anything hit him, or that Earle has seen so much crime that nothing affects him anymore, Bogart’s portrayal of Earle works here. 

Overall, “High Sierra” works as a good gangster piece about the last of his kind, attempting to break out and make a life for himself, only for it all to come right back in his face in a tragic way. Bogart works in this role and I can’t imagine anyone else playing Roy Earle. 

Final Grade: B+

“The Passion Of Joan Of Arc” (1928)

You know what’s worse than a courtroom drama? A silent courtroom drama. 

Personally, I’ve never been a fan at all of courtroom dramas. I see them as just a bunch of people talking back and forth in circles, discussing legal matters that I don’t understand. 

Even the best courtroom dramas, like “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “The Verdict” don’t do much for me because it’s like listening to two different auto mechanics talking about different ways to repair your car on something that you didn’t know was broken: You don’t understand what they’re talking about, and in the long run you don’t really care.

But suddenly, if you remove all the dialogue in a courtroom drama, suddenly the film becomes a test of patience. Watching as a bunch of talking heads with no names go talk endlessly about something even you’re not sure about. You watch as the defendant just sits there with a blank expression on their face, soaking in what’s going on as if they’re staring at a fly on the far wall.

That’s what “The Passion Of Joan Of Arc” felt like. Scene after scene of judges asking our lead character, Joan (Maria Falconetti), the same questions over and over. If she had really seen god. What god was wearing. Whether god was a man or a woman. How she was sure if it was god or if wasn’t the devil in disguise. And all the while, Joan takes what feels like minutes to answer each of their questions, all while having the same blank expression with huge eyes that look like they’ll pop out of her head any minute. 

There is no substance to this film whatsoever. I’m someone who knows very little about the Joan of Arc, other than she believed she was a decedent of God. After watching this film, I learned nothing new about her or her crusade. The film literally begins with her in the courtroom and judges deciding what must be done with her. We’re never given a reason as to why she’s in this position, how she feels about, where she came from, how France got to where it was and how she got this connection with God.

Now granted, the film was supposed to be an exact reflection of the case involving Joan, which is something that director Carl Th. Dreyer tried his best to emulate. Still, my problem is this doesn’t necessarily make for an interesting story alone. Context, in this case, can make a world of differences, as well as not constantly cutting Joan’s face every time something happens.

I know I said earlier that silent films have a certain charm to them for their ability to tell a story without every saying a word. Well, this is a case that would have benefitted from having some actual words said, rather than keeping it silent. The downside to silent movies is they can’t always effectively capture the full affect of human emotion. “The Passion Of Joan Of Arc” would have greatly improved if we could hear Joan speak and hear the impact of her sacrifice on both the judges and France.

In the end, “The Passion Of Joan Of Arc” didn’t do anything for me. There were points where I drifted off for what felt like minutes and it didn’t seem like I missed a thing, just more vacant staring by Joan. In small doses, that kind of look can be powerful, but overdo it and it just becomes annoying.

Final Grade: D-

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