Archives for November 2014

NOIRvember: The Whistler

For my next installment in the NOIRvember series, I would like to discuss the (mainly) William Castle directed film noir series of the 1940’s entitled The Whistler. Based on the popular radio serial that ran from 1942-1955, the film noir/crime/mystery series totaled 8 films; 7 starred veteran actor Richard Dix (who played a different character in each role):

  • The Whistler – 1944
  • The Mark of the Whistler – 1944
  • The Power of the Whistler – 1945
  • Voice of the Whistler – 1945
  • Mysterious Intruder – 1946
  • The Secret of the Whistler – 1946
  • The Thirteenth Hour – 1947
  • The Return of the Whistler – 1948

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The “Whistler” we refer to is an omniscient narrator (Otto Forrest, with a voice that sound awfully similar to Vincent Price) who sets the stage for the crime story which usually involves some plot twist or wrinkle in the criminal scheme, thus leading to things not going as initially planned.

I have only seen a few of the films in the series, but I must admit I have enjoyed what I saw; granted, the enjoyment is by no means the result of watching some form of high cinematic art. With running times of approximately 60 minutes, there really isn’t enough time to do much but spin a tale where you find yourself chuckling at criminals engaging in some dubious acts that due to either oversight or just plain hubris don’t go exactly the way they intended.

 

Sources: Wikipedia, Turner Classic Movies (TCM)

NOIRvember: Born to Be Bad (1950)

Oh, darling Christabel. Such a lovely, innocent name – but as the title of this Nicholas Ray film suggests, you were Born to Be Bad.

Born-to-be-Bad

Sure, this one borders more on the melodramatic (very familiar territory for lead actress Joan Fontaine), but that is what makes it so fun to watch. It is definitely a lighter fare in the film noir canon, seeing there is no real peril present and death by misadventure or unnatural causes is non-existent. Here we just have a scheming femme fatale willing to go to any lengths to get what she wants – be it money, men, you name it.

In addition to Fontaine, the cast includes stalwart actors Robert Ryan, Zachary Scott, Joan Leslie and Mel Ferrer. Definitely one to stay in for, just check out the poster …

Born_to_Be_Bad_(1950)_cinema_poster

Beyond the Lights (2014, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood)

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s third feature film, Beyond the Lights, is a contemporary love story set in the frenzied world of popular music.

Rising star Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) feels overwhelmed by the trappings of her meteoric rise to fame. She has what everyone imagines they want, but really it isn’t enough – something is missing. The Little Blackbird wants to fly; and for the moment at least, her wings are clipped, thanks in large part to a pushy stage mother, Macy (Minnie Driver – more on her a little later). At the pit of her despair, she meets Kaz (Nate Parker) a police officer who becomes her literal and figurative savior. The two form an instant and intense relationship that causes worlds to collide and challenges each to figure out what it is they really want in life (and in love).

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As for the performances, what can I say? – they were all pretty solid. When you contrast this performance with one I saw earlier this year (Belle) featuring Ms. Mbatha-Raw, she has proven her ability to play varied and challenging roles; hopefully there will be more to come in the future. I also did particularly like Driver’s portrayal of Macy. It is a credit to both writer and performer that they were able to effectively convey the pathos and personal demons in a character that could have easily turned into the pantomime villain of the film. I will not go so far was to say I 100% cosign on Macy’s actions, I do feel like there is enough in the performance to allow me to understand what it means for her to accomplish something in life, even if it is through the exploitation of her daughter’s talents.

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While the relationship dynamics are all well-played, the personal arc of Noni felt a bit formulaic to me – that is, the tale of “the artist who wants to be true to themselves in every way possible.” Yes, I do not fail to recognize the symbolic importance of Noni “peeling away the layers” to get to her true self, sometimes you as a viewer may feel like you are being hit over the head with the imagery. In fact, Beyond the Lights has a few soapy tropes (including some rather telegraphed set pieces and a rather saccharine ending), that depending on your viewing preferences, may rub you the wrong way.

So, you might be wondering, if this is in fact set in the world of the music industry – what of it? Well I felt like the music and movement were intentionally cranked up to 11 to drive home the point of the dichotomy of the fantasy of the lifestyle versus the reality. In that regard, it is a mission accomplished.

One other thought – though Noni is clearly the one who the narrative is centered on, and while it is rather clear that he has made a choice by the film’s closing act, I would like to think in the realm of my own imagination at least, he was able to forge along with his own dreams too – whatever they might be.

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Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood has again proven she does know how to tap an emotional truth with her characters that resonates with an audience (at least with me anyway). It is one of the reasons since seeing her debut feature, Love and Basketball (1999), I continue to support Prince-Bythewood’s work as a filmmaker.

So let me know – have you seen Beyond the Lights yet? Does this film interest you? Leave me a comment below and share!

 

Photo Credits: Relativity Media

NOIRvember Feature: Leave Her To Heaven (1945)

I guess it is something that for my first feature (Leave Her to Heaven) during NOIRvember I choose a vibrant Technicolor film, which in my estimation at least is loosely noir, and borders more on the melodramatic. I  fact I often wonder if this film were shot in black and white, would I be so reluctant to fully class it as a noir.

Annex - Tierney, Gene (Leave Her to Heaven)_03

Sure, over the years cinephiles and scholars alike have played fast and loose with what actually classifies a film as a noir. I think after reading endless materials on the subject, I will fall back on this excerpt from AMC’s Filmsite analysis of Film Noir (written by Tim Dirks):

Classic film noir developed during and after World War II, taking advantage of the post-war ambience of anxiety, pessimism, and suspicion. It was a style of black and white American films that first evolved in the 1940s, became prominent in the post-war era, and lasted in a classic “Golden Age” period until about 1960 […]

Important Note: Strictly speaking, film noir is not a genre, but rather the mood, style, point-of-view, or tone of a film. It is also helpful to realize that ‘film noir’ usually refers to a distinct historical period of film history – the decade of film-making after World War II, similar to the German Expressionism or the French New Wave periods. However, it was labeled as such only after the classic period – early noir film-makers didn’t even use the film designation (as they would the labels “western” or “musical”), and were not conscious that their films would be labeled noirs.

Very often, a film noir story was developed around a cynical, hard-hearted, disillusioned male character who encountered a beautiful but promiscuous, amoral, double-dealing and seductive femme fatale … She would use her feminine wiles and come-hither sexuality to manipulate him into becoming the fall guy – often following a murder. After a betrayal or double-cross, she was frequently destroyed as well, often at the cost of the hero’s life. As women during the war period were given new-found independence and better job-earning power in the homeland during the war, they would suffer — on the screen — in these films of the 40s. Source: filmsite.org

Well I guess in this regard (and noting the sections I have bolded) Leave Her to Heaven may not pass the sniff test for the following reasons:

  1. Like I said at the open, the film is in live and living Technicolor.
  2. Our principal male protagonist is NOT a hard-hearted, disillusioned figure. In fact, Cornel Wilde embodies the romantic, heroic optimism that cowers in the light of Gene Tierney‘s wicked ways.
  3. Sure the female fataleis destroyed but (spoiler alert) she does so by her own hands and for a rather outlandish reason.
    • And although not mentioned above, at times, in a “film noir,” there is a female foil to the femme fatale, the “good girl,” who is ever so deserving of our male lead’s love and affection. CHECK! Another Jeanne (Crain) fits that role to a tee.
  4. The hammy over the top theatrics of courtroom scenes need to be seen to be believed.

Also note, there is peril and menace lurking around every corner because of Tierney’s cold calculations and manipulations..

So what do you think  yup or nope – is Leave Her to Heaven a “real” film noir? Hit the comments section below with your thoughts.

Key Film Facts:

Directed By: John M. Stahl
Written By: Jo Swerling (based on novel by Ben Ames Williams)

Principal Cast

  • Gene Tierney (Ellen Berent Harlan)
  • Cornel Wilde (Richard Harland)Vincent Price (Russell Quinton)
  • Jeanne Crain (Ruth Berent)
  • Mary Phillips (Mrs. Berent)
  • Gene Lockhart (Dr. Saunders)
  • Darryl Hickman (Danny Harland)

Interstellar (2014, dir. Christopher Nolan)

The “Dust Bowl” has gone global. Mankind is on the brink of extinction. Underground NASA scientists have devised a Plan A and a Plan B ….

… that is where I will start with Christopher Nolan’s latest feature Interstellar.

insterstellar

 

I was having a hard time deciding where to start with this review and finally settled on just listing my overall impressions; they are in no real order assigned, just thoughts/observations off the top of my head (see the bold):

The least Nolan of Nolan films – sure it had its twisty, not to be so predictable moments, but there were a few unsatisfying trappings (ending is all I will say, for example) that left me feeling a bit meh at times. This also leads me to another point …

… while it is cool to allow your audience to interpret stuff for themselves … – sometimes it is nice to give the viewers a wink and a nod in a particular direction.  Yes I know that this is not stock and trade with Christopher Nolan’s oeuvre (keep ’em guessing), but in what I have observed and subsequently read about others’ reaction to the film, my conclusion is such – Houston we may have a problem. In my opinion, part of the mixed response may have something to do with the fact that there is no general consensus/conclusion for folks to hold fast to and discuss post screening. I for one found myself post-screening not really having much to say. Maybe that is me processing the details, maybe it was indifference. A couple of days out of the experience, and I am still not sure.

Nuttin’ like the love of family – the core relationship between father and daughter drives the narrative; the nature of which comes full circle with some level of satisfaction.

Buckle your seats, ladies and gents, you are in for a long one – a nearly three-hour running time means that like it or not, you are in it for the long haul.

Let me consult my science book –while I do like the chatter of relativity, wormholes, event horizons and such, sometimes the talk was hard to keep up with. My read? Maybe just a bit too clever (inaccessible) for its own good at times.

A little bit o’ this, a little bit o’ that –most films borrow from others, that is a well established fact that I think we can all agree with. Here in Interstellar you will find a lot of cinematic “shout-outs” to feast on. A couple of standouts for me – the healthy helping of Contact with a bit of 2001/2010 heaped on for good measure.

Some of these cats is unlike the other – hate dragging the observations to this level, but a lot of what makes a film is the cast and your ability to connect with the principals character. On more than one occasion, I felt a bit indifferent/impatient with whatever emotional turmoil a character was going through …

… that said (a slight contradiction), I generally liked the performances – but really, how could you go wrong with so many top-shelf talent at your disposal?

The view is lovely from where I am seated – No, I did not see it in 70mm/IMAX or whatever, but rather in the comfy confines of a reclining movie theater seat, which was well enough. The scale of the film is astonishing, remarkable and beautiful. I really did feel like I was in outer space traveling across space (and time, perhaps?). Especially in the moments where our explorers were traveling to parts unknown, the emotional and visual tension lined up very well.

 

So what does this all mean? Am I recommending Interstellar or nah? Well, if I am to be quite honest, I am not 100% sure where I stand. I mean I am glad that I saw it in the cinema, but I am sure not everyone would derive the same degree of pleasure from seeing it as I did. This is definitely one that I put in the category of a toss-up.

NYFF 52 in the Rearview: While We’re Young (2014)

while we're young

(Sorry this one has been sitting in the draft folder for a minute …)

For the final recap of my 2014 New York Film Festival experience, I would like to discuss Noah Baumbach’s latest feature, While We’re Young. The ensemble cast is led by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as a middle aged couple, finding themselves at a crossroads.

On this journey to find something new or rewarding in their lives, they take up with a hipster couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), who are not all that they appeared to be, although we know for sure they are hipsters because they 1) live in a loft in Brooklyn, 2) ride bikes, 3) make their own ice cream.  I could go on, but I think you get the point.

That is a very brief description, I realize; hope you got the gist of the spirit of the piece and kinda sorta can determine the direction and shape the narrative will take. There are, of course, additional details which deal with the interpersonal relationships, not just of the principal characters, but also with:

  • the growing estrangement from one’s close friends who are now dealing with their newly-established parenthood (somewhat relateable)
  • the continuing struggle (even in middle age – yes folks it never stops) to find one’s footing in the world (very relateable).

In the case of the latter, it is Ben Stiller’s character, a filmmaker dealing with living in the shadows of his father in law (played by Charles Grodin). There is an ironically meant subplot dealing with the subject of Stiller’s documentary, a professor played by Peter Yarrow or “Peter, Paul and Mary” fame.

Having quite enjoyed Baumbach’s previous outing, Frances Ha, I had a degree of goodwill when this was presented as a “surprise screening” at the festival. And while While We’re Young is clearly a well-made film with some solid performances and a good soundtrack, I found myself sitting through the screening quite disengaged from the action. That is to say this film might not be for everyone.

I am curious though – have any of you seen it? And if so, what were your thoughts? Hit the comments section below and SHARE SHARE SHARE!