30 November 2012

Cinematic Capsules: November 2012

The Rare Breed (1966)

Curious, minor Western starring late period Jimmy Stewart as a rough-and-tumble cowboy who falls in with a cultured English widow (Maureen O'Hara) and her daughter as they bring the expensive bovine of the title from St. Louis to Texas. Once a particularly harsh winter hits, O'Hara must fend off the advances of the ranch owner, a distractingly bewigged Scot, played by Brian Keith. Meanwhile Stewart becomes nearly as obsessed with finding the recently blizzard-bound bull as John Wayne was of tracking his niece in The Searchers. Director Andrew V. McLagen does little to distinguish himself outside of a surprisingly harrowing stampede sequence. The script's humor falls entirely flat but the picture becomes occasionally charming as it wanders along, thanks in part to the performance of Vindicator, the star cow.

The Prestige (2006)

Yet another Christopher Nolan picture that is not nearly as clever at it thinks it is. Based upon the novel by Christopher Priest and adapted by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, The Prestige tracks the bitter lifelong rivalry between two magicians at the dawn of the electric age. The film itself tries to be a magic trick but handles the task as clumsily as an eight-year old with his first store-bought illusion. The narrative hinges on two big "reveals" at the end of the picture that unfortunately are telegraphed so far in advance that the entire last hour is spent checking off each inelegant and unsubtle allusion to the twist. The supporting performances run the gamut from inspired (David Bowie as Nikola Tesla) to embarrassingly miscast (Scarlett Johansson attempting a British accent). Meanwhile Michael Caine plays the exact same role he has in the last five Nolan films, while Hugh Jackman alternates between restrained and horribly hammy, and Christian Bale gets intense...again. Ho-hum.

Wagon Master (1950)

Thoroughly entertaining John Ford Western about a group of migrating Mormons who pick up some horse traders, a medicine show, and unwittingly, a family of bandits, on their way to the San Juan Valley. In that way, it resembles Ford's earlier Stagecoach, with a much larger ensemble of disparate personalities. The film starts with a rare cold open for a film from the classic era, an invigorating prologue showing the evil Clegg brothers robbing a bank and ruthlessly killing a clerk. Only after the brutality do we get the familiar titles, accompanied by one of the many great cowboy songs written by Stan Jones and performed by the Sons of the Pioneers for the picture. Once again, Ford finds glorious ways of including the unique topography of Monument Valley into most every shot. One of the director's regulars, the rough-and-tough Ward Bond, gives the film's greatest performance as the leader of the Mormons, a man whose temper betrays his pre-spiritual life, as he is constantly being reprimanded for swearing. Some of the humor falls flat and the film does not possess any of the depth or intensity of something like The Searchers, but it is a solid, enjoyable picture.

George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011)

Martin Scorsese's three-hour documentary on the dark horse of the Beatles is another smooth, expertly edited feature in the vein of his Dylan picture, No Direction Home. Living in the Material World views most of the events in George's life through the lens of his relentless quest for spiritual enlightenment. The picture is split into two parts, roughly between the Beatles years and post-breakup solo life. Scorsese wisely assumes viewers know the basics of the Beatles' story and therefore spends no time rehashing elements that have been dissected exhaustively elsewhere, most famously in the Beatles Anthology series and book. For example, a section on the band's life in Hamburg takes no time to explain what brought them there, or even where there is. The city is never mentioned by name. The talking heads are all of the usual suspects: Eric Clapton, Patty Boyd, Olivia Harrison, George Martin, Tom Petty, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Yoko Ono, and Paul McCartney. As usual, Ringo steals the show in his interview segments. His final anecdote, recalling his last moments with George before his passing, is the highlight and heart of the film.

The Invisible Man (1933)

James Whale's lean adaptation of H.G. Wells's classic science-fiction novel witnesses the American film introduction to one of the greatest screen actors of all time, Mr. Claude Rains. It is amazing what a distinct impression Rains manages to make solely through his voice, as we only see his face in the film's final frame. He plays a scientist who develops a serum that makes his entire body disappear. The side effects also cause him to become a megalomaniacal psychopath. The film shares many qualities with the other classic horror films Universal released in the thirties, including Whale's two Frankenstein pictures. The Invisible Man doesn't live up to either of those Boris Karloff creep shows, but it is an entertaining and astoundingly inventive picture. Whale devises several interesting scenes that incorporate the interaction of a floating shirt or wandering pair of pants, as well as fluid shots of doors opening by themselves, chairs being dragged, and books floating through the air. The film isn't scary in the least, it's more of a thriller, especially once Rains goes on an anarchic spree, killing trainloads of people, robbing banks, and holding people hostage. In many ways, The Invisible Man would work well in a double feature paired with Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. Both films star villains with maniacal laughs who thrive on absolute chaos.

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

James Cagney stars in this rah-rah rousing biopic of patriotic songsmith George M. Cohan, writer of such iconic American melodies as "Over There" and "Give My Regards to Broadway". The film, by director Michael Curtiz, is a show-stopping extravaganza charting the rise of Cohan and his family from the unheralded houses of vaudeville to the grand theatres of Broadway. The film rests firmly on the capable shoulders of Cagney who sheds his gangster persona here so efficiently and effectively; tap-dancing, singing and charming nearly everyone in his path. He also brings a nuanced emotional resonance to the role, especially in two great, later scenes with his father (played by Walter Huston). The best sequence in the film however isn't a character moment but instead a clever montage showing the passage of time on Broadway with billboards and marquees marking the bygone years as a medley of Cohan tunes plays through. There are a few conceits however that do not work, particularly the framing device of Cohan telling his life story to Franklin Roosevelt alone in the Oval Office. The film is wrapped so tightly in an American flag that the filmgoers who saw it less than a year into the country's entrance into World War II must have left the theatre and headed straight for the recruiting office.

Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid (1942)

A hilarious Merrie Melodie pitting Bugs against a dullard of a buzzard named Beaky, presumably based on Edgar Bergen's moronic puppet Mortimer Snerd. The buzzard is tasked by its domineering (Russian?) mother with going out and catching a rabbit for supper. The languid bird settles on Bugs, who gives him the run around like he has for Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam before him. As usual from the works of the Termite Terrace gang, there a number of breathless gags executed with a flair and wit that has never been surpassed. Bugs and the buzzard tussle for a moment before fluidly and hysterically turning it into an impassioned swing dance. There are some truly terrific character moments as well, with Bugs escaping from the flying buzzard's clutches and falling back down to earth, where his body is submerged beneath a pile of cow bones. Mel Blanc does a grand job of turning a wail Bugs emits after thinking he has died into a maniacal laugh when he realizes he will live to taunt another day.

Cloverfield (2008)

Director Matt Reeves, producer J.J. Abrams, and screenwriter Drew Goddard giddily team up for the thrilling, terrifying and wildly entertaining Cloverfield, a thoroughly successful update of the rampaging monster genre, transplanted to post-9/11 New York City. The film is framed as a handheld documentary of the unfolding disaster, which transpires on the night of a going-away party for a fashionable Manhattan twenty-something (who is coincidentally leaving for a job in Japan, birthplace of Godzilla). The conceit of the Blair Witch-style cinematography is intelligently done and never feels like a gimmick. It lends an immediacy to the proceedings and allows the filmmakers to more cleverly obscure the digital seams of their monster and the havoc it wreaks. Goddard's grasp of the horror genre and his ingenious ways of upping the ante are nearly equal to his similar accomplishments in his directoral debut, The Cabin in the Woods. Cloverfield is not afraid to put everyone in death's destructive path. It is a rollicking fright of a good time.


  1. No Holy Motors?

    I enjoyed Cloverfield as well.

    Wagon Master I think is one of Ford's best. It has an elegance that is missing from his more star-driven films. Just a perfect little gem.

    Claude Rains is so unlikeable in The Invisible Man, it's a blast.

    1. Holy Motors is a 2012 film, no? It will be appearing on my year-end list in some capacity. I've already written an overstuffed capsule for it.

      Do you suppose that the reason Wagon Master isn't mentioned in the same breath as films like Stagecoach or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is because it doesn't have a John Wayne or Henry Fonda in there? Because I can't think of anything else.

  2. Ah, 2012, makes sense.

    Yup, I think that's exactly the reason. It did inspire a TV series, Wagon Train, that starred Ward Bond.