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Tag Archives: Greta Garbo

Flickr Saturday: Batiste Madalena Cinema Posters

On our Flickr Friday Saturday, we have some images that I scanned from a fascinating article in the December 1983 issue of American Heritage magazine. These beautiful film posters from the ’20s were painted by Batiste Madalena (1902-1988) for George Eastman’s movie palace in Rochester, New York. Madalena was employed as the house artist at this theater until it changed ownership in 1928. Shortly thereafter while riding his bike through town, he happened to come across all his handiwork stacked in a heap of trash behind the theater! He managed to save 225 of these beauties, which have since been displayed in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and elsewhere.

Some of the posters reproduced in the American Heritage article are included below; check out the full set in my Batiste Madalena flickr set.

Flick Clique: February 5-11

He Walked By Night (1949). This past week, I stumbled across a display with those Mill Creek 50 movie-packs of DVDs at Wal-Mart for $10 each. I ended up buying the Mystery Classics pack, since it was on my Amazon wish list anyhow. I know that most of the movies on these sets are b-movies of iffy quality, but that’s part of what makes them fun (and for 20 cents each – whatta deal!). The proto-Dragnet L.A. crime drama He Walked By Night was one of the better-received films on this particular set, so I decided to check that one out first. Based on a true story, this one follows a criminal and petty thief played by Richard Basehart as he hides from the authorities after shooting an off-duty officer in cold blood. The film is shot mostly from the police department’s perspective as they use the latest technology to track down the man. They interrogate several witnesses as Basehart goes on a one-man crime spree, climaxing in an exciting film noir shootout in the subterranean drainage system below the L.A. streets. This was campy and dated at times, but enjoyable all the same. I’m glad I sprung for this set — one down, 49 to go!
The Informant! (2009). An uneasy mix of comedy, drama and bad facial hair from director Steven Soderbergh, The Informant! is a fancifully told version of a real scandal that rocked Archer Daniels Midland, a producer of animal feed additive lysine, in the 1990s. The film follows Matt Damon’s pompous Mark Whitacre as he alerts the FBI to illegal price-fixing activities (which he set up) at his employer, digging himself in a deeper hole as his lies grow to bigger and bigger proportions. The film was interesting, even though many of the elements aren’t totally successful. Damon’s performance is the best part. He gets at his character’s dimwitted myopia without going into an easy, overly jokey path. I also enjoyed the production design recreating a clunky, business-y version of Illinois in 1991-95 (how much fun would that be?). The overall feel is a weird jumbling of ’70s cop show music (via an overbearing score by Marvin Hamlisch), ’60s Austin Powers fonts and straightforward, serious dramatic scenes. The story was strong enough to overcome its shortcomings, however, and it was appealingly cast enough for me to enjoy it overall.
Mr. North (1988). A pleasant trifle set in 1920s Newport, Rhode Island, Mr. North is based on a Thorton Wilder story about a man whose ability to generate electric sparks from his fingers leads those around him to believe he has healing powers. I remember hearing a few good things about this when it came out, that it was a sleeper hit, etc. I found it kind of dull and pointless, however. Anthony Edwards has a curious lack of charisma in the title role (no wonder he never became a movie star), and the supporting players go all over the place, from somewhat decent (Mary Stuart Masterson as a sensitive deb), to noncommittal (Robert Mitchum and Lauren Bacall) to scenery-chewing (Twisted Sister video guy as Masterson’s father). The film itself is not very involving and ingratiating in its efforts to be heartwarming and cute. I blame director Danny Huston.
The Mysterious Lady (1928). Like Flesh and the Devil, another luxe Greta Garbo silent from the set that I bought in December 2010. This one has Garbo as a slinky Russian spy sent to World War I-era Vienna to get sensitive information from an Army captain, played by dashing Conrad Nagel. Nagel is immediately smitten by the alluring Garbo, even when he learns her true identity just before getting arrested and imprisoned. This one was done at the peak of the Silent era, and it shows. The spy story itself is rather typical, but MGM’s gloss is in full force and Garbo delivers more emotion in a sideways glance than many actresses do in their entire bodies.
Rikidozan: A Hero Extraordinaire (2004). Impressively mounted Korean bio-pic chronicles the career and life of Rikidozan, a Korean-born wrestler who became a star in the nascent Japanese pro wrestling scene in the ’50s. A samurai school reject, Rikidozan eventually prevailed over a culture desperately in need of a powerful, virile hero in the post-WWII era (despite never revealing his true birthplace, since the Japanese had a prejudice against Koreans). A very intriguing film that delves into Rikidozan’s inner demons and slow, gradual decline. It definitely doesn’t indulge in the usual sports movie clichés, that’s for sure. I will have a more detailed review at DVDTalk soon.

Flick Clique: May 8-14

poster_fleshandthedevilFlesh and the Devil (1926). My exploration of the Greta Garbo DVD set continues with one of her best-regarded silents. This was originally conceived as a star vehicle for John Gilbert (see poster), but the tangible chemistry between Gilbert and Garbo upped her cachet considerably, sparking a romantic screen pairing for the ages in the process. Gilbert and Lars Hanson play military school cadets, best friends since childhood, whose blood-brother bond is tested when the alluring (and married) Garbo enters their lives. This is one of the most well-mounted silents I’ve ever seen — Clarence Brown’s direction is pitch-perfect and lovely to behold (especially scenes with falling snow). The panache on display certainly makes up for the hokey script. The film actually has a lot of surprisingly adult elements: Gilbert and Hanson’s bonding has a bit of a homo-vibe to it, and some of Garbo’s suggestive looks and movements (seductively drinking from a communion cup, for instance) have the power to shock, even today. I can also see why Garbo was such an in-demand actress at this time — she’s totally magnetic, something that can’t quite be said of Gilbert (handsome and charismatic in some shots, strangely ugly in others) or Hanson (horse-faced and somewhat bland). If you’ve never seen a silent before, make this your introduction.
For All Mankind (1989). Absorbing, critically acclaimed documentary on the early missions to the moon. This film uses copious amounts of footage NASA shot in the ’60s and ’70s, along with current voice-overs from the astronauts involved, to recount early moon landings and space walks in a dreamlike, fragmentary manner. The unique presentation takes some getting used to, but the film really captures the awe and wonder of those early missions — and I think most of it is due to that dynamite footage. Brian Eno’s understated score also helps enhance the mood. The astronauts and technicians at NASA seem humbled at being involved in the space program at such an important time. Watching this today makes the film somewhat melancholy, however, now that NASA is prepping the last Space Shuttle mission.
The Illusionist (2010). Beautiful hand-drawn animation from the same director of the weird and wonderful Triplets of Belleville (2003). What I didn’t know was that The Illusionist was made from a previously unfilmed script by the great Jacques Tati — the title character is modeled on Tati’s Monseur Hulot character, and a live action clip from Tati’s hilarious Mon Oncle is even seen at one point. In this 1959-set film, a washed-up French magician journeys to Scotland to perform at a dingy pub. He attracts the curiosity of a young girl who helps clean the pub, and when it’s time for the magician to return to Paris she secretly tags along. The two learn to adapt to each other in the man’s apartment complex filled with eccentric entertainers. We both found this enchanting and totally charming, with a level of craftsmanship on par with Hayao Miyazaki’s stuff. The character of the girl seemed needy and disappointing to me, but maybe that was the filmmaker’s intention? The magician needed to grow (same with the girl, actually), and perhaps they were each others’ perfect catalyst. On a more superficial note, the film has some ravishing visuals of the Paris streets and the character designs (not quite as bizarre as Belleville) are charmingly lifelike. The bunny was our favorite.
poster_repulsionRepulsion (1965). Roman Polanski’s first English language feature concerns a damaged young beautician (Catherine Deneuve, willowy and cool) whose fragile psyche comes undone when her sister/London flatmate goes off on holiday. Left alone, the woman has nightmares of being raped and begins to hallucinate that her apartment’s walls are crumbling (a simple yet effective trick). The thought of men leaves her queasy, agitated and even violent. Weird, creepy flick employs a lot of stuff that has since become terror film clichés — but Polanski’s direction is assured and Deneuve is a marvel. I had a slightly more positive reception to Polanski’s previous film Knife in the Water, but this was a good psychological thriller with several elements that are shocking in their bluntness (the sounds of a woman making love on the soundtrack, for instance). The whole film has a startling “off” quality, befitting of a collaboration between a Polish director and a French actress in England.
State of Play (2009). Underwhelming thriller about a U.S. senator (Ben Affleck, out of his league) who is under investigation by a pair of journalists (Russel Crowe and Rachel McAdams) when his mistress dies under mysterious circumstances. I wasn’t sure why I added this to my Netflix queue, honestly, until a scene came up with McAdams and Crowe tramping through the Westin Bonaventure substituting for a Washington DC locale (I added a bunch of Bonaventure-set flicks to my queue, on a whim). The film is convoluted and miscast and really not worth a thinking person’s time. Helen Mirren is also in it, but she’s wasted. Oddly enough, the newspaper printing sequence shown during the end credits beats everything else it preceded in sheer entertainment value.

Flick Clique: March 6-12

Chris & Don: A Love Story (2007). Fascinating, touching documentary on the loving, 34-years long relationship between author Christoper Isherwood (Cabaret, A Single Man) and portrait artist Don Bachardy. The film is reflected through Bachardy’s perspective as he recalls meeting Isherwood and the life they forged together in ’50s-’80s L.A. The film has a lot of heart and humor, and the fact that these two could make a go of it despite their age difference and the struggle of having an openly gay relationship (even in the liberal Hollywood scene where they lived) is really inspirational. It was very illuminating to this older writer/younger artist combo. The Chris/Don relationship survives lots of bumps along the way, illuminated with home movie footage and animation (which doesn’t get too cloying). Bachardy is really quite amusing, even in his ’70s, as he recalls his star-struck young self mingling with leading figures of the literary and film worlds. As he develops into a talented artist himself, we’re left cheering. Definitely a heart warming, life affirming film.
Never Let Me Go (2010). In an alternate version of 1970s Britain, children at a private school are instructed that they are very special for reasons that are so vague it drives them batty trying to uncover why. As three of the classmates form complex bonds and mature into Carey Mulligan, Kiera Knightley and Andrew Garfield, they come to accept the shocking reality of their existence. More of a moody drama with subtle sci-fi undertones, Mark Romanek’s feature is certainly nice to look at. It must have been quite an effort to make three lively young actors look and behave so drab and listless. Charlotte Rampling ups the energy level a bit as the formidable school headmistress. On the whole, the movie just lied there, patiently biding its time for a revelation that never arrives. I can appreciate its quiet artistry, but even on that level it never really resonated with me. Christopher loved it; your mileage may vary.
Ninotchka (1939). Another (re)visit with Greta Garbo courtesy of the huge DVD set I recently bought. Garbo is pretty fabulous here as a Russian emissary sent to Paris to investigate a cache of stolen jewels in the possession of an exiled dutchess (Ina Claire). In the process of attempting to return the jewels to her homeland, she falls for Claire’s friend, Count Leon (Melvyn Douglas). A lot of the film’s appeal lies in Billy Wilder, Walter Reisch and Charles Brackett’s sparkling dialogue, of course. Garbo is pretty funny, but I also liked the routinely under-appreciated Douglas as well. Would it be too nit-picky of me to say that the film becomes overstated and even downright draggy in the second half? Even so, the film makes one wish that Garbo did more light comedy in the Claudette Colbert/Jean Arthur vein.
poster_plunderroadPlunder Road (1957). Another film noir gem that I got to check out on Netflix’s streaming. Plunder Road opens with a long, dialogue free sequence of men hijacking a train in a fierce rainstorm. Eventually we find that it was valuable bricks of gold that was stolen, with ringleader Gene Raymond arranging to move the gold out of California on three trucks taking different routes to Mexico. Even if the picture quality wasn’t so hot (blurry and pan-‘n-scanned), this was a gritty, interesting little flick. The characters have that totally noir quality of accepting their fate when things turn bad — and it wouldn’t be a true noir without that, right? I liked Raymond (whom I’d mostly known from lighter ’30s romances and comedies); even better are Elisha Cook, Jr. and Wayne Morris as another pair of drivers on the team. Oddly, their characters make a quick exit, and the ending comes hastily as well. It still makes me curious to check out the two-dozen odd, lesser-known noir films on my “Watch Instantly” queue. If anybody has recommendations, share ’em here. I’d appreciate it!

Flick Clique: January 30 – February 5

Camille (1936). Another lavishly produced goodie from the Greta Garbo DVD box set I recently got. I last saw this one circa 1994, and although I remember enjoying it the film didn’t grab me the same way Garbo vehicles Queen Christina, Anna Karenina and even her Grand Hotel scenes did. It goes without saying that Camille is one of the iconic Garbo performances and George Cukor’s assured direction played a big part in her success. Her Marguerite Gautier is a perfectly realized party gal turned tragic heroine, even if the actress doesn’t quite have the right hedonistic quality for earlier scenes in which she burns the candle at both ends with wonderful, fluttery Laura Hope Crewes. Robert Taylor holds his own as love interest Armand Duval; his earnestness here is much more appealing than the cad he played in Magnificent Obsession. I also enjoyed the obscure Leonore Ulric as Garbo’s conniving rival. A beautifully produced film that nevertheless I can stand revisiting once every fifteen years or so.
poster_firemensballThe Firemen’s Ball (1967). Rambling, sporadically funny film notable as the last project Milos Forman did before leaving Czechoslovakia for the greener pastures of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Hair. In this ensemble comedy, a small town’s fire department holds a banquet dance and charity auction in honor of the workers’ retired former boss. Over the the eventful night’s course, auction items get stolen, people dance and drink, young women get awkwardly chosen for a beauty pageant, and a farmer’s homestead burns to the ground. This was recommended on a Yahoo group devoted to the cult comedy Smile, but aside from the episodic format and pageant theme there isn’t too much to compare between the two. Although it has a few funny bits, mostly its appeal eluded me (bizarrely, it also won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar). The Foreman interviews included on Criterion’s DVD edition of this film sheds some light on the film’s background and the subversive, anti-Communist message the director snuck by Czech authorities. Big plus: it’s short.
Twelve (2010). Joel Schumacher’s tale of drug abuse amongst the rich, young and pretty met a mixed fate last year, mostly because the story had already been done under the title Less Than Zero. This one revolves around the character of White Mike (Chance Crawford), still recovering from the death of his mother and the ensuing bankruptcy of his father’s business, as he introduces a potent drug called Twelve to the shallow crowd he used to hang out with but now loathes. While not horrible, this film wasn’t particularly good, either. Most of its faults lie with Schumacher’s stylizations, including Kiefer Sutherland’s obtrusive narration, which has the unintended effect of making these rather heinous people seem glamorous. No matter how sympathetic they attempt to portray him, White Mike is a total a-hole pretty boy, pissing away his life. It doesn’t help that Crawford seems too lightweight and L.A.-ish to be completely believable in this role. There are some good supporting roles, starting with Rory Culkin and handsome Billy Magnussen as combative brothers. But, really, aren’t movies and TV shows about pretty young things getting to be so old hat?

Weekly Mishmash: December 31-January 1

Greetings and Happy New Year… I have a strong resolution to shake things up with in 2011 — mostly it’s out of a desire to feel like I’m part of the blogging community again. Content that used to go into the Weekly Mishmash might be separated into individual posts as I finish them. I’ve been watching a lot more films since ditching the household satellite system, and as a result the ‘ol mashes are getting longer and harder to manage (and, no, I’m not so organized that they get written ahead of time!). Perhaps writing about films/music/TV on a singular basis will also prompt people to react, link, talk, etc. Although I love using this forum as an outlet for sharing all the crazy crap going on in my life, at times it feels like babbling to myself. Anyhow, on to the Mishmash!

ad_annakareninaAnna Karenina (1935). Revisited this DVD as part of the Greta Garbo Signature Collection, a set which I picked up at Ross (!) for thirty dollars (!!) as a holiday gift to myself. Anna Karenina is one of the archetypal grand Garbo vehicles, an opulent MGM/David O. Selznick production that seems to whiz by on one glamorous close-up after another. One could fault it for Frederic March’s wishy washy Count Vrosky or Freddie Bartholomew’s cutesy-pie turn as Garbo’s son, but overall I loved it and approached it with the same thrill that 1935 audiences must’ve felt. The very lushness of the production remains one of Anna‘s best assets (dig the crane shot of that fabulously appointed buffet table), but at its center lies Garbo’s vulnerable and subtly colored performance. The lady had a knockout face and could wear a 19th century styled gown like no one else, but I’ve forgotten what a great, touching actor she could be. On this set, I’m most looking forward to Camille and Ninotchka (which I haven’t seen in 15-20 years), then moving on to the silents Flesh and the Devil, The Torrent and The Mysterious Lady (all of which I’ve never had the privilege of watching).
Le Corbeau (1943). Intriguing French film about a community terrorized by the anonymous, threatening missives of “Le Corbeau” (The Raven). The secrets spilled by these inflammatory letters cause a suicide and undue tension within the village, until the police manage to corral a group of suspects. This was a very interesting film if only to see how the French film industry functioned in the midst of Nazi occupation (see also Children of Paradise). The filmmaking is very slick and accomplished, on par with what the A-listed Hollywood studios were making at the time. The cast was generally unknown to my eyes, which makes the plot all the more absorbing — and the ending was certainly a surprise. Recommended.
Cruel Gun Story (1964). Every New Years Eve, we stay up late and select a film that neither of us have seen before — this year’s selection was Cruel Gun Story from Criterion’s “Nikkatsu Noir” collection of ’60s Japanese action films. What an interesting movie! This is another vehicle for chubby-cheeked actor Joe Shishido, and it’s probably the most Americanized film in the set in terms of pacing and plot. The story concern’s Shishido’s small time criminal, who is persuaded by a mob boss to be the ringleader of an elaborate heist of a race track’s cash delivery van. Shishido assembles an eclectic crew for the crime, which unfolds in ways the participants never expected. This film would seem almost too typical had it been made in the U.S., but the Japanese setting and offbeat actors make it very watchable in ways that I can’t quite pinpoint. I felt like it was a distinct improvement over the other Shishido vehicle in the set, A Colt Is My Passport. For people curious about Japanese cinema or the charismatic Shishido, this is a good starting point.
Fantastic Voyage (1966). I can remember watching Fantastic Voyage in high school science class, where it served as end-of-the-semester entertainment. It seemed campy and somewhat slow back then, but I was curious to check it out again to see if it holds up. Well, it’s still campy and somewhat slow, but at least now I can appreciate the groovy special effects and the earnest thinking that went behind the storyline. This was the film about a group of scientists shrunken down and injected into the body of a man, you recall. What I notice now is how the cast of characters come straight from the Sci-Fi Archetype textbook, including the Dimple-Chinned Alpha Male (Stephen Boyd), Hot Scientist (Raquel Welch), and Shady Guy with a Secret (Donald Pleasence). The film is poky and plays out in predictable ways, but it does have a cartoony, schoolbook come-to-life appeal reminiscent of the Disneyland attraction Adventure Thru Inner Space (which opened the year after this flick). Say what you will about the wooden acting or iffy pacing, the widescreen technicolor format is perfect for the sometimes trippy landscapes the cast floats through. Despite those awesome sets and special effects, however, the part that impressed me most were the opening credits. Stylish and dripping with ’60s-ness, the sequence is controlled by zealous Fox and therefore not viewable on YouTube.
poster_hardwayThe Hard Way (1943). A film whose DVD release I eagerly selected from the Warner Archive offerings, this pulpy sister-love story is one of the best melodramas from a studio at its zenith. Ida Lupino delivers a dynamite performance as Helen Chernen, a poor but driven woman who only wants the best for her perky performer sis (played by Joan Leslie). The road to fame includes plowing over a gullible vaudevillian (Jack Carson), his attractive partner (Dennis Morgan) and a boozy Broadway actress (Gladys George) — all so that darling Leslie can improbably cartwheel her way to fame! Okay, so it’s not the greatest film ever made, but there’s something incredibly watchable about this film and I think it starts with Lupino’s super-committed performance. I also loved the underrated Carson, who unusually plays against type as a vulnerable fool and comes out a winner. Leslie is appealing enough (her singing “Am I Blue” might be the cutest thing ever), but she seems somewhat bland to be taken seriously as the supposedly worldly and talented actress she’s supposed to be. Perhaps the casting was intended to be somewhat ironic, to make Lupino’s machinations look all the more outrageous. Whatever the case, this is top notch Warners melodrama, directed with a skilled briskness by Vincent Sherman. Although blandly packaged, the DVD edition is pretty nice. I’m happy to have this little gem in my collection!
The Last Seduction (1994). After a beautiful, conniving woman (Linda Fiorentino) persuades her doctor husband (Bill Pullman) to sell medicinal cocaine to drug dealers, she takes off with the cash for upstate New York and uses her feminine wiles on a small town dupe (Peter Berg) to off the stressed hubby. Director’s John Dall’s modern noir got a lot of positive notices at the time for Fiorentino’s fearless performance, in a role clearly patterned after Barbara Stanwyck’s in Double Indemnity. She’s pretty good, even if the character is a somewhat pat archetype. Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson came across as a real woman, despite the soulless manipulation of those about her — something missing from Fiorentino’s portrayal. The film also contains good work from Pullman and Berg, and it does have an absorbing storyline with a watchable “what crazy thing will she do next?” quality. The film quite never escapes feeling like a “spicy” made-for-cable TV movie, however.