Dishonored (1931)- Josef von Sternberg

 ★★★

 

Not all of director Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich’s seven collaborations are great films. They had their ups and downs like anyone, but the one thing you can always count on from their films is a high quality in their individual crafts.Dishonored (1931) “Dishonored” (1931) isn’t one of their best films, but neither Marlene nor von Sternberg are really to blame. Their work here (as we have come to expect) is impeccable. It’s the story, or rather the lack of depth to the story, that is the real problem.

“Dishonored” revolves around an Austrian woman (Marlene Dietrich) completely loyal to her country after the death of her husband during WWI. The Austrian Secret Service Chief (Gustav von Seyffertitz) poses as a regular man, earning himself an invitation back to her home, in an attempt to see if  she has any inkling to become a traitor. Not only does she thwart his attempt, she has him arrested. Convinced that her loyalty to her country, combined with her beauty and hypnotic sexual energy, is exactly what he requires, the Chief exposes his true identity and convinces her to become an Austrian spy, know only as X27.

Her first assignment involves an Austrian Colonel (Warner Oland) who is a suspected traitor.Dishonored (1931) X27 proves her seductive powers are more than enough to get the job done, and she is moved on to a bigger assignment involving a Russian Colonel (Victor McLaglen). Things begin well for her, but after spending some time with the Colonel, X27 has a hard time carrying out her orders.

It’s not that the story is really that bad, it’s just not very original, even for 1931. The script has nothing very interesting to add to the slow, tedious plot, and there are several points that it isn’t difficult to begin to lose interest. That, however, is when Josef von Sternberg works his magic. It’s his ability to pull together all the seemingly superfluous pieces of this production, and still make a film worth watching. He knows better than most how to frame a character, especially Marlene. The lighting in a von Sternberg movie has a life all of its own. Every glint of an eye can be exciting, every dissolve (yes, even the drawn out ones) adds a life to the film. What could quickly become a movie that will put you to sleep, is instead transformed into something intriguing and exciting.Dishonored (1931) The cinematography by Lee Garms is also a much inspired piece of work, and it’s is his ability to work with von Sternberg toward a shared vision that helps complete the visual splendor.

Of course it would be a great injustice to not give a fair amount of credit to Marlene Dietrich, as well. After all, the entire film revolves around her, and without an actress that can be convincing, even von Sternberg couldn’t save this film from disaster. (Perhaps one of the reasons his career went downhill is because they stopped making films together.) Marlene completely embodies everything about her character, X27. She is extremely sexy, sassy, confident, manipulative, cunning, and strong. These men are no match for her and her various charms, not to mention her legs. She owns everyone, and plays with them like putty in her hands, as illustrated in the last scene with the young Lieutenant (Barry Norton). It’s not hard to believe that there is nothing that X27, or Marlene herself couldn’t accomplish if she really wanted too.

Dishonored (1931)This was only the third of Dietrich and von Sternberg’s seven films together, and as they continued their ongoing partnership, they continued to capitalize on the same stunning aspects of their films- mostly Marlene Dietrich being placed on a pedestal, while the world revolved around her. The stories themselves always seem to be the weakest point of each and every one of their movies, but they all still have much to offer, and even a few, such as “The Blue Angel” (1930), “Shanghai Express” (1931), and “The Scarlet Empress” (1934), have something substantial to share, leaving a lasting memory with their audience.

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The Criterion Collection Announces Their Titles for February 2014!

As we reach the halfway point to our current month, The Criterion Collection has announced the latest group of films to enter the illustrious collection. We have seven titles being released in February, two of which are already in the collection and are just receiving an upgrade. The other five, however, are truly diverse films that because of their uniqueness are extremely welcomed additions to the ever-growing collection of wonderful films. Here is the line-up for this coming February.

Being released on February 4th, 2014:

  • “Jules and Jim” (1962): Jules and Jim This powerhouse film, from acclaimed director Francois Truffaut, is already part of The Criterion Collection, but is finally getting a much appreciated blu-ray upgrade. This movie tells the life-long story of two friends (masterfully played by Oskar Werner and Henri Serre) and the woman who is the object of their admiration, affection, and rivalry (Jeanne Moreau). One of the most important and beloved films of the French New Wave, “Jules and Jim” has long been hailed as not only one of the quintessential films of that era, but of all time.

Being released on February 11th, 2014: 

  • “Blue is the Warmest Color” (2013): Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)This year’s winner of the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, this amazing French film has captivated audiences with its intensity and honesty. The film has also earned a NC-17 rating due to the graphic sexuality of the film, sparking controversy and acclaim on a consistent basis as it continues to be released to more theaters and cities. The plot involves a young girl, with aspirations of becoming a teacher, who’s life is sent spinning when she becomes attracted to a college age, free spirited girl. This release is a “bare bones” release, meaning that there are no significant special features, but that also means it is selling at a lower price than usual. Also of note, director Abdellatif Kechiche already has his previous film, “The Secret of the Grain,” (2007) in The Criterion Collection.
  • “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009): Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)Wes Anderson surprised audiences with this stop-motion animation film, based on Roald Dahl’s classic children’s story. It is a hysterical jolt of a ride that includes some of the funniest dialogue ever written for an animated film. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” stars the voice talents of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, and Willem Dafoe (along with several others). The release is, of course, one that many Criterion fans have expected, as almost all of Wes Anderson’s films are already included in the vast collection. I suppose it’s only a matter of time until “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012) is also inducted.

Being released on February 18th, 2014:

  • “Foreign Correspondent” (1940): Foreign Correspondent (1940)Alright, we all know that Alfred Hitchcock is brilliant, but these days it’s his less popular, out of the limelight films that excite and captivate audiences everywhere. “Foreign Correspondent” is one of those titles. Not because it’s not brilliant, mind you, because even upon its initial release it was hailed as a masterpiece, made a decent amount of money (although high production costs kept the film in the negative), and it even found itself garnering six Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture. The truth is that I don’t know why more people don’t still talk about this film in glowing terms. Perhaps it’s because it hasn’t been an easy one to track down, but thanks to Criterion, that will no longer be a problem. The story involves an American correspondent (Joel McCrea) who finds himself (most characteristically for a Hitchcock film) becoming sucked into a nefarious plot involving an entire network of spys trying to keep him out of the way. The film also stars Laraine Day, George Sanders, and Herbert Marshall, who earned himself an Academy Award nomination for his performance.

Being released on February 25th, 2014:

  • “Tess” (1980): Tess (1980)Based upon “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” written by Thomas Hardy, this highly acclaimed epic movie from filmmaker extraordinaire Roman Polanski is a hard film to classify. Part romance, part mystery, and even part thriller, this movie has a little bit of everything. Nastassja Kinski gives a powerhouse performance as the title character, but it’s the film’s aesthetics that really shine. Polanski’s direction is flawless, the cinematography is breathtaking, and the costumes are painstakingly perfect. In all, “Tess” found itself nominated for six Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture, and even after more than thirty years has remained a film that people love to discuss in length.
  • “King of the Hill” (1993): King of the Hill (1993)Based on the memoir of A.E. Hotchner, this film from legendary filmmaker Steven Soderbergh is about a depression-era boy who is stranded when his father must go out-of-town on business. He is forced to look out for himself, while staying in a hotel in St. Louis. Although this title is certainly one of the lesser known films joining The Criterion Collection this February, it has proven to be a film that delights and inspires its viewers time and time again.
  • “Breathless” (1960): Breathless (1960)Jean-Luc Goddard’s first film is also probably his most acclaimed. This crime drama is doubtlessly one of the most innovative films in history, with its use of jump cuts and inspiring visual style. It is also a film that is already in The Criterion Collection. In fact, it’s already been released in the collection, on both DVD and on blu-ray. This time around it is coming to us in the form of a blu-ray/DVD combo pack, with some new, updated special features that neither of the other versions have to offer.

12 Years a Slave (2013)- Steve McQueen

 ★★★★★

 

Movies are made for several different reasons: entertainment, financial gain, a learning process for the filmmakers or actors, and then occasionally a movie is made simply because the story needs to be told, and needs to be seen. 12 Years a Slave (2013)That is the case with Steve McQueen’s latest opus (and a film that has found itself on top of a short list of films vying for this year’s Best Picture Oscar), “12 Years a Slave” (2013).

Based on the 1853 novel, “Twelve Years a Slave,” written by the story’s main character, Solomon Northup, this harrowing tale centers on Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man living in New York in 1841. While in Washington on business, he is taken captive and sold into slavery, leaving behind his wife and two young children. Northup is transported to New Orleans, and sold to plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Under the care of Ford and his ruthless overseer, Tibeats (Paul Dano), Northup begins to learn how to survive in his new and unfamiliar surroundings.

12 Years a Slave (2013)After some time, Northup finds himself being sold once again, this time to a cotton plantation owned by a much more brutal and slave hating man, Edwin Epps (another remarkably despicable role for Michael Fassbender), and his wife (Sarah Paulson). This is where most of the film takes place, with Northup butting heads with Epps and his unruly behavior, while forming a friendship with another slave, Patsey, played by relative newcomer Lupita Nyong’o.

There are so many aspects of this film that its hard to know where to begin. In only his third feature film after “Hunger” (2008) and “Shame” (2011), director Steve McQueen has propelled himself to the head of the class of directors working today. 12 Years a Slave (2013)What I find most interesting about his work on “12 Years a Slave” is the simplistic style that he uses to tell his story. McQueen doesn’t feel the need to overcomplicate things with too much dialogue or an unnecessary voice-over. He doesn’t use ten words if five will do, or stretch scenes beyond what is needed. He makes a painfully realistic account of events that most of the world has overlooked, without wasting any frames of film. Yes, at times there are moments that we don’t want to watch, but perhaps these are the moments we most need to see.  Following in the same mold as his first two films, McQueen chooses to show us and involve us in one man’s life story. No matter how dark, disturbing, or upsetting, he is going to include every detail he deems necessary to convey the story as accurately as possible.

To assist him in making this film as amazing as possible, McQueen enlisted his editor, Joe Walker, and his cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt, both of whom he collaborated with on each of his first two endeavors. 12 Years a Slave (2013)Their chemistry and rapport together have made them a close-knit team that promises to continue making amazing and important films for many years to come. This time they have successfully made a film that is technically flawless and overwhelmingly intoxicating to watch. In addition, Hans Zimmer has written a score that seems subtle, with the use of just four notes, but as the film transpires, this simple melody’s power grows to new heights. It is a culmination of all these men’s work that turns “12 Years a Slave” into something special.

Beyond the filmmaking itself, “12 Years a Slave” benefits from one of the most outstanding casts you will find, with each actor bringing the best they have to offer. Chiwetel Ejiofor is the heart and soul of the film, rarely leaving the view of the camera. It is his story to tell, and his expressions, words, tears, and raw emotion deliver a performance that leaves nothing to be desired. Of course his performance has the benefit of having every scene filled with unparalleled supporting characters to enhance everything even further.12 Years a Slave (2013) Everyone is spectacular, from Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Alfre Woodard, all the way through to Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, and Brad Pitt. No part is too small or unimportant, and these actors display their integrity to get things right during every scene.

In addition to praise for Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, and Michael Fassbender are also due some special recognition. Both give supporting performances that are sure to be remembered for years to come. Nyong’o easily brings the emotions of a seasoned acting veteran, even though it is only her first feature film. Her depth is unbelievable and the sadness in her eyes alone proves what a glorious addition she is to the acting community. Michael Fassbender burst onto the scene after his appearance in “300” (2007), and since that time has captivated audiences with his smoldering looks and intense performances. He is not afraid to make us hate his characters, and this time around, he is virtually guaranteed to gain himelf the acclaim he has deserved for years. 12 Years a Slave (2013)Perhaps the reason he gives such a standout performance in “12 Years a Slave” is because it’s a supporting role that shows off his electric acting ability in smaller doses. It is certain to be a performance that won’t be forgotten by anyone that sees him.

Few films this year will be more impacting and hard-hitting on audiences than this one, and although it might be difficult to watch at times, it’s an immensely important film to be seen. This story of survival, determination, and hope, no matter the obstacles, is one that will leave everyone spellbound.

Too Many Husbands (1940)- Wesley Ruggles

 ★★★★

 

The ultimate screwball comedy dilemma… “Too Many Husbands”. That is the problem that dear, sweet Vicky (Jean Arthur) must face in this witty, highly entertaining screwball comedy from 1940.Too Many Husbands (1940) Vicky was happily married to Bill (Fred MacMurray), who went away on a month-long boating trip, and after some kind of incident, was assumed drowned. Within six months, Vicky has remarried, this time to Henry (Melvyn Douglas), who not only is Bill’s former business partner, but also his best friend. Now, another six months later, Bill has been rescued from a deserted island and has returned, much to everyone’s surprise, as well as his own bewilderment. Vicky is now faced with the monumental moral decision: does she go back to her original husband, or just continue on as if he was still dead?

Just in case she needs any help, both men are dead set on competing for her affections, which incidentally, gives Vicky a little too much enjoyment. The more they fight over her, the more pleasure she seems to receive. She also has the guidance of her father (Harry Davenport), although she doesn’t seem very inclined to listen to him anyway.Too Many Husbands (1940) He’s just there for an extra bit of humor, and (much in the way Davenport did throughout his career) he doesn’t disappoint.

“Too Many Husbands” is based on the 1919 play “Home and Beauty,” by W. Somerset Maugham, which in turn is based (or at least inspired) by Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, “Enoch Arden”. It is also not the only film version based on Tennyson’s work that was released in 1940. Leo McCarey wrote and directed a somewhat similar version of this story, “My Favorite Wife” (1940), starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. Although many of the plot points are the same, each has its strengths, and focuses on separate details of the characters’ precarious situation, leaving plenty of room for screwball fun.

Where “Too Many Husbands” stands out is in the cast, with their amazing chemistry and highly enjoyable repartee. Too Many Husbands (1940)Arthur treats each of her husbands with a love and admiration that really exemplifies how deeply she cares for each of them. She loves them both, wants them both, and at several points seems to be contemplating how she might be able to finagle some way to remain with both of them. Jean Arthur thrives in screwball comedies, and “Too Many Husbands” is no exception. It gives her ample opportunities to make us love everything about her.

Despite MacMurray’s and Douglas’ characters despising the situation that has been thrust upon them, their still have a friendship and bond, that runs deeply underneath everything else. Their witty banter makes the uncomfortable nature of the story fade with a relative ease. Both are large, strong, towering men, but when faced with losing Arthur, they seem to revert back to young boys on a school-yard, vying for her attentions; and they do it well.

Too Many Husbands (1940)The strength of this film is also its greatest weakness, however. We love these three characters so much, we don’t want anyone to be left out. We want to see this situation work itself, even though it’s obvious that it can’t. The filmmakers were clearly undecided on how they wanted their own film to end, and therefore made it hard for everyone in the audience to be satisfied. Although there is no clear  “happy ending” waiting for everyone, that doesn’t make the ride any less enjoyable.

All is Lost (2013)- J.C. Chandor

 ★★★★★

 

“All is Lost” (2013) is a film about a man (Robert Redford) alone on the Indian Ocean. Why is he here? Why is he alone? Where is he going, or does he even have a destination? These are all unknowns to us. He wakes one morning to discover that a cargo container floating adrift has struck his boat, The Virginia Jean, puncturing a hole. All is Lost (2013)He doesn’t scream or lose control of the situation, because that is not the kind of man we are watching. He is a survivor. No matter what odds he seems to face, he rises to the challenge and does whatever is necessary, mostly without reservations or second thoughts. He is the only man on the boat, but he is not alone because we, the viewer, are with him. Alright so he doesn’t know we are there, but we are. We share the details of these eight fateful days with him. We share in his frustration, his pain, his hopelessness, and his fear. We are there with him, because he allows us to be.

The concept of a film with only one character is unique. There are no other characters here, it is a one man show. Undertaking an endeavor such as this takes courage because the margin for error is huge. Do people want to watch a film with only one character and almost no dialogue? Fortunately for “All is Lost”, it isn’t just a man we are watching, it is Robert Redford. He gives a tour-de-force performance, leaving nothing behind. His ability to captivate is inspiring. All is Lost (2013)He can’t have a moment that is lacking because everything rests on his shoulders. He can’t let us down for even a second because the flow and rhythm would begin to dissipate immediately. What is most remarkable, however, is how he carries this film with his physicality. He winces and we feel the cold of the water or the sting of the hydrogen peroxide. He grunts as he tries to hold his boat together, pulling ropes and tying them off, and we feel the wind pulling against him or the power of the water attempting to destroy everything he has left. It’s Redford who makes us believe that this is happening, and he does it so well, that with the exception of a couple of poorly executed visual effects, we forget that we’re watching a movie, and experience a brief moment in one man’s crumbling life.

Writer/ director J.C. Chandor deserves praise, as well, for his innovative idea for a film, and for his near flawless ability to transfer his idea onto the screen. He and Redford combine to make a lethal filmmaking pair, both worthy of the accolades they are certain to receive. In fact, the entire film is deserving of acclaim and praise, as it is can serve as a blueprint of how films should be made. Frank G. DeMarco’s cinematography is subtle but exquisite, and the editing (Pete Beaudreau) is meticulously pieced together, avoiding high and lows, keeping the film running at a fluid pace. Also deserving of mention is the film’s melancholy and intoxicating score written by Alex Ebert. It evokes emotions that you wouldn’t expect, and leaves you searching for hope throughout a film that often seems to have little hope to spare.

All is Lost (2013)

Every year countless films are released, filled with action and effects, attempting to keep an audience from getting bored. “All is Lost” avoids the glitz and frills, and delivers a true human drama, in every sense of the words. In a career that has had countless brilliant performances, it is hard to say that this is Robert Redford’s best, but it certainly is the one time that he has doubtlessly proven his power and skill as an actor. He and this film bring new meaning to the words “human drama”, and the result is one that is not to be missed.

 

The Mad Miss Manton (1938)- Leigh Jason

 ★★★★

 

The lovely Miss Melsa Manton (Barbara Stanwyck) isn’t really mad, although she does tend to make some crazy and ill-advised decisions. For example,  just as the film opens and she arrives home from a costume party, she decides to take her dogs for a walk… alone… at night… in New York… in a costume. Sure that might not seem too crazy, but then when she witnesses a man sprinting from a dark house into his car and speeding away, she decides that it’s her responsibility to investigate. The Mad Miss Manton (1938)After tying the dogs up outside, Miss Manton proceeds inside where she stumbles across a dead body and makes the first smart decision of her evening by calling the police. Of course Lieutenant Brent (Sam Levene) has trouble believing Manton because of her history as a snobbish, trouble-making socialite, and the fact that she is wearing a highly provocative (and childlike) costume. It doesn’t help her case that the dead body has disappeared, leaving no trace to be found; even by a team of screwball comedy detectives that were born to be characters in a film like this one.

Melsa, however, is undeterred by the police and their lack of faith. She, along with her misguided and completely ridiculous group of friends, have every intention of proving that a murder was committed, even at the risk of their own peril. Just to make their mission one  of greater importance, a news editor, Peter Ames (Henry Fonda), printed an article about Miss Manton and her seemingly ridiculous antics. The Mad Miss Manton (1938)That’s when Melsa storms into Ames’s office, threatening to sue for libel. Of course, just as fast as she storms in she also manages to steal Ames’s attention. He’s instantly enamored by  her charms and beauty, and is perfectly willing to risk his own safety for her.

“The Mad Miss Manton” is exactly the kind of middle-of -the-road screwball comedy that was being produced in the late 1930’s. It has a delightful yet unrealistic plot, it’s full of characters that make jokes despite being in seriously danger constantly, and the police seem to be the most clueless people on the planet, while our average everyday people (like Melsa) are perfectly suited to be crime fighters. It is also just an average film technically speaking. Director Leigh Jason is not a name everybody knows, not because he didn’t have talent, but because his movies tend to be good, not great.

The funny thing here is that “The Mad Miss Manton”, despite the points I have mentioned, is an above average movie.The Mad Miss Manton (1938) The reason it is able to rise above its flaws is because of Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. This was the first of three pairings for the two legendary actors, with the others being “You Belong to Me” (1941) and “The Lady Eve” (1941). Their on-screen (and off-screen) chemistry is electrifying, and every scene that they share leaves a smile on your face. The humor is better and the story is more plausible because of the way they handle themselves as a comedic duo. With other actors in this film it would become quickly forgettable, but Stanwyck and Fonda have created something extremely enjoyable, even if it’s not perfect. It’s their comedic timing and undeniable screen presence that elevates “The Mad Miss Manton” to the level of a “must see”.