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Archive for the ‘Ed Howard’s Movie Reviews’ Category

thingfromanotherworld1

by Ed Howard

The Thing From Another World is one of the great classics of sci-fi horror, a taut minimalist study of a group of military men and scientists under pressure, hemmed in by an extraterrestrial monstrosity that crash-landed at a remote research station near the north pole. The film was produced by Howard Hawks, and though ostensibly the first directorial feature of editor Christian Nyby, it’s well-known that Hawks was on the set giving, at the very least, comprehensive advice, and most likely taking over the directing chair for himself. Certainly, though the science fiction premise is unlike anything else in Hawks’ filmography, the film bears the director’s aesthetic signature and deals with some of his typical concerns. Indeed, the alien monster appears only sporadically, in brief flashes, mostly obscured by darkness. The film’s emphasis is not on its horror elements but on the dynamics within the tight-knit professional groups doing hard, dangerous work in the midst of this snowbound wasteland.

Among these men is Air Force Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), who fulfills the role of the romantic hero even though, like Hawks’ Air Force before it, this is a film where individual characters matter far less than the group as a whole. The research station is populated mostly with minor, little-known actors (Dewey Martin, James R. Young, Robert Nichols, etc.), including several recurring Hawks bit players, which only enhances the impression that the individual personalities of these men are not meant to stand out. They exist only as a part of the group and, symbolically, as members of the human race. Hendry and his crew of military men are summoned to a research station near the north pole after a mysterious aircraft crashes with a tremendous impact some fifty miles away from the station. The crash immediately begins triggering strange phenomena: communications are disrupted and measuring instruments go haywire, while Geiger counters pick up traces of radiation from the vicinity of the crash. Hendry’s men are summoned by the brilliant scientist Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) to help investigate the crash site and determine what happened. Of course, the crashed aircraft is no ordinary plane but a flying saucer, and though the military accidentally destroy it while trying to free it from the ice that hardened around it, they do recover the frozen body of one of the craft’s inhabitants, a massive alien trapped in a block of ice. (more…)

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thekid1

by Ed Howard

Charlie Chaplin’s first feature film, The Kid, opens with what might well be a statement of purpose for the master silent comic as he embarked on his feature career. The film’s first title card — indeed, one of the very few titles, and maybe the wordiest, in a sparsely titled movie — introduces The Kid as, “a picture with a smile — and perhaps, a tear.” That combination of humor and pathos, already apparent in many of Chaplin’s previous shorts, would become the driving force for his subsequent features, and is already fully in flower in this sweet, sentimental film about Chaplin’s tramp discovering an abandoned child (Jack Coogan) and raising him as his own.

The child is abandoned by a woman (Edna Purviance) “whose sin was motherhood,” a title card informs, and through a series of mishaps it’s the poor tramp who finds the baby. Notably, Chaplin eases into the sentiment, as his tramp is at first anything but caring for the little tyke: he tries to dump the baby on several unsuspecting passers-by before getting stuck with it, sitting on the curb with the kid in his lap, and in a hilarious/unsettling bit of pantomime, he briefly considers dropping the baby down a sewer drain. It’s easy to forget that Chaplin’s tramp, so often considered the embodiment of comic sentimentality, started out as a rough-and-ready scrapper in his early Keystone shorts, and there are still traces of those more unsentimental beginnings here, in that moment with the sewer drain and the later scene where he fights with a burly fellow bum.

In any event, the tramp thinks better of discarding the kid, and Chaplin cuts to five years later, when the pair have become a de facto family. Coogan, who plays the kid as a five-year-old, is a great screen partner for Chaplin, a miniature version of the tramp, shrugging and shuffling in his oversized and raggy clothes, joining in with Chaplin’s petty crimes. The pair create a ramshackle domesticity in the tramp’s small flat, where the bedsheets are full of holes and they cheat the gas meter by reusing the same quarter over and over again. They go out together to “work” by having the kid break windows with rocks, whereupon Chaplin ambles up, not-so-coincidentally carrying a rack of glass panes ready to repair the damage for a fee. This sequence leads to some charming interplay with a beat cop who casually foils the pair’s plans by simply strolling up and looking on suspiciously. Best of all is the scene where Chaplin, without realizing it, pulls his scam at the cop’s own house, and is still there, flirting with the policeman’s wife, when the cop returns and peers out the window above their heads, scowling down at them. (more…)

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pialat 1

by Ed Howard

Maurice Pialat’s debut feature was L’enfance nue, a quiet, unassuming film about childhood confusion and isolation, following the lead of his predecessors in the French film tradition, Zero For Conduct and The 400 Blows. Like those Jean Vigo and François Truffaut films, Pialat’s first film concerns itself with a troubled youth, a delinquent drifting aimlessly through an unstable childhood where everything seems transitory and he has nothing to hold onto. François (Michel Terrazon) has been abandoned by his birth parents, who have thrust him into the foster care system without fully relinquishing their parental rights. The result is that everything is always “temporary” for François, he can never settle down into a permanent home with a permanent family or living situation. He’s perpetually wary, always aware that things could change at any moment, that he could easily be shuffled around to another home, another family, or else to an institution of some kind. In the film’s first half hour, he’s living with a family who are taking care of him, but who are reaching the end of their patience with his bad behavior. They profess to love him and treat him as well as their adopted daughter Josette (Pierette Deplangue), but this is a hollow assurance coming soon after the revelation of the disparities in the two children’s bedrooms. Josette has a lovely, beautifully decorated room of her own — “everything she dreams, she can see when she’s awake,” her mother poetically coos — while François’ bed is shoved awkwardly into a corner of a landing in the hallway, the only spare space for him in the cramped little home.

It’s obvious that François feels destabilized by his situation, by the impermanence of his life, by how apparent it is that no one intends to keep him forever. Indeed, once this family grows tired of dealing with his rambunctious behavior, his tendency to steal and be difficult, they simply decide to send him away. This is a child’s nightmare, the fear of being discarded like this, but for François it is a prosaic reality, a fact of his transitory, migratory existence. He has a surprisingly tender goodbye with this temporary family — kissing his sort-of sister on the cheek, giving his sort-of mother a present — and then he seems to forget about them entirely when he’s sent to live with another family. This elderly couple (Marie-Louise Thierry and René Thierry) treats the boy with more kindness and patience than he is used to, and he seems to feel real affection for them, and for the old woman’s even older mother (Marie Marc), who François calls Granny. This family still can’t stabilize François, not really, and he continues his troubled ways, hanging out with rough kids who smoke, steal, fight, and in one scene, watch in awe as an older boy carves his initials into his own arm. But François is moved at least a little by their care: in a pivotal scene, he pulls out Granny’s wallet while the old woman is sleeping, leafing through the life savings contained within, but surprisingly does not steal the money, instead simply placing it back. It’s perhaps the most genuine act of goodness that François can do. (more…)

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whiteribbon1

by Ed Howard

Note: This review by Ed Howard marks the official launching of the ‘Top 83’ Childhood Films Countdown which will will run Monday through Friday until completion well into October.

Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, his first German-language film since his original Funny Games from 1997, is a searing, enigmatic allegory, a depiction of horror and cruelty overtaking a small German town on the eve of World War I. The film is powerful and quietly moving, slowly building a sense of pervasive dread as the town’s routine business is disrupted by explosions of horrifying violence and brutality, by incidents that expose the everyday nastiness lurking beneath the rural calm that the town presents on its surface. What makes the film so effective as an allegory is that, as in Caché, Haneke withholds all easy answers and all resolutions; the film is a mystery with no solution, leaving its ultimate meaning to the viewer. It is also perhaps Haneke’s most emotionally rich film, built around a large cast of complex, ambiguous characters, people beaten down and made cruel by the harsh surroundings and morally fallow ground of the countryside.

The film is an angry indictment of the hypocrisy and violence that resides within these seemingly decent folks, many of whom are obvious symbolic stand-ins for various social institutions, all of them equally corrupt: the aristocracy, the proletariat, the church. The Pastor (Burghart Klauβner) might preach decency and goodness in mass every week, but with his own children he is a brutal disciplinarian who reacts to the slightest infraction with hands-on correction. When his oldest children Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus) and Martin (Leonard Proxauf) are late for dinner one night, he responds by sending all the children to bed without dinner and delivering ritualistic whippings the next morning. He also marks the kids with the white ribbons of the title, which are symbols of purity and innocence to continually remind them of the qualities they should aspire to. This man of God is obsessed with his abstract values, but in putting them into practice he’s cruel and intractable, refusing to understand whatever’s going on behind his children’s blank, mysterious faces. The town doctor (Rainer Bock) is even worse, a nasty man with all kinds of secrets lurking within his home. He’s sexually abusing his young daughter, who he creepily insists looks just like his dead wife, even as he’s also having sex with his matronly midwife (Susanne Lothar), who he treats with contempt and outright cruelty, scorning her love. (more…)

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umbrellasofcherbourg1

by Ed Howard

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is one of the most moving and heartbreaking love stories in the cinema, an absolutely stunning musical masterpiece that sets its bright, colorful visual palette and sweet, soaring music against an increasingly bittersweet emotional range. Divided into three parts — departure, absence, and return — Jacques Demy’s sublime musical is the story of a love affair haunted by the separation of war. Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) is a young girl madly in love with the mechanic Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), but their sweet, innocent affair is torn apart when Guy is called up into the army, sent to Algeria for two years. As in so many French films of this era, Algeria looms large, a tear in the fabric of life, an absence that’s felt at home in the missing young men, the years of longing and waiting.

The film is an interesting type of musical in which every single line is sung, but it rarely feels like there’s a proper song: instead, all of the dialogue is more-or-less naturalistic speech that’s simply sung instead of spoken. Even the most banal lines, like Guy’s interactions with customers and his boss at the gas station where he works, are liltingly timed to Michel Legrand’s alternately jazzy and romantic music. This style can be somewhat distracting and artificial at first but it quickly comes to seem as natural as if the characters were simply speaking. By setting everything to song, it never seems as if the music is interrupting the diegesis, cutting off the naturalistic flow of life with a musical number. Rather, life itself, with all its joys and tragedies, its banal incidents, its great loves and great sadnesses, has been transformed into one big musical number, a 90-minute musical number that encompasses both the innocent sweetness of young love and the much more complex, melancholy, mysterious loves and losses that build up over the course of the years. (more…)

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allthatheavenallows

by Ed Howard

By now, the plot of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows should be very familiar, considering it has been adapted for both Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul and Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven. It’s the story of the lonely widow Cary (Jane Wyman), who falls in love with her younger gardener Ron (Rock Hudson), and plans to marry him despite the differences in age and social class which put external pressures on the relationship. As a satire of upper-middle-class pettiness and hypocrisy, it occasionally lays it on too thick, a hallmark of Sirk’s work that nevertheless contributes to his satire’s biting wit. As the gossip and snarky jokes and open disapproval of Cary’s friends, neighbors, and even children begin to weigh on her, the relationship seems less and less stable or possible. Sirk’s portrayal of these ungenerous souls is unremittingly caustic, with a devastatingly sharp satirical eye that never fails to capture the bitchiness and jealousy hidden beneath the ever-present phony smiles and friendly banter.

If Sirk’s satirical touch can sometimes be heavy and unsubtle, his visual sense is unfailingly exactly the opposite. Here, his style is most effective in contrasting the harshness of his high society satire with the lush warmth of his visuals, especially in the scenes set at Ron’s country retreat. Ron’s lifestyle evokes the pastoral philosophy of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, which is quoted from in one scene. Ron’s true-to-himself philosophy and rugged life, continually in touch with nature, is a stark contrast to the hermetically sealed spaces of Cary’s old-money mansion, her dead husband’s ancestral home and a constant reminder of her widowhood. Her daughter Kay (Gloria Talbott), a social worker who provides some of the film’s funniest comic relief in her straight-faced presentations of Freudian psychobabble, tells her mother about the old, outdated Egyptian custom of entombing the wife with her dead husband so she might enter the afterlife with him. That custom is long gone, the daughter assures her, but Cary isn’t so sure, and with good reason. What is her house but a brightly lit tomb, with her dead husband’s possessions all around her? And the townspeople are only too glad to make sure she stays in this tomb, alone and unhappy, unless of course she decides to marry a socially acceptable man like the much older Harvey (Conrad Nagel), who lacks passion or emotion but offers her at least, in his dry way, “companionship.” (more…)

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by Ed Howard

Far From Heaven is Todd Haynes’ loving, flawlessly constructed tribute to the cinema of one of his favorite directors, Douglas Sirk, and especially to Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. That film, about a society widow who invites gossip and disgrace by developing a friendship and eventually a romance with her younger gardener, provides the germ of the idea for Haynes’ own take on Sirkian melodrama. Sirk also provides Haynes with a window through which he can look back on the 1950s, not as it truly was, but as it might have been, refracted through the ornate stained glass of Sirk’s melodramas. Everything bathed in lurid pastel lights and colors, everything a facade as patently artificial as a Happy Daysset. This artificiality is part of the point. This vision of the 50s, a TV fantasia with relentlessly cheerful wives, clean-scrubbed kids, and hard-working husbands, is an artifice so obvious that it’s just begging to be peeled back. What Haynes finds when he digs through a few layers is barely concealed racism, sexual ignorance, and families held together by tradition and appearance rather than any real feeling or communication.

This turns out to be especially true for Cathy (Julianne Moore), the happy wife of successful advertising executive Frank Whitaker (Dennis Quaid). The couple are models for their friends and indeed their entire suburban Connecticut town, throwing well-loved parties, raising their two children, and generally projecting an aura of contentment and success to all who see them. This happy facade falls apart when Cathy discovers her husband in the arms of a man, a sign that he is diseased in some way: he’s “one of those.” But this is only the beginning of Cathy’s troubles, as she soon finds that her developing friendship with her black gardener — a friendship that, like the one in Sirk’s film, is tinged with unarticulated desire — causes even more problems, stirring up hateful gossip around the town. Haynes is here borrowing from both Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose Fear Eats the Soul already paid homage to All That Heaven Allows by widening the age gap between the protagonists and making their primary difference racial rather than class-based. And just as Fassbinder roots this relationship in the political and social climate of its period, 1970s Germany with its concerns about Arab immigration and integration, Haynes makes Far From Heaven squarely about the civil rights movement. There are numerous references to the NAACP and to the crisis in Little Rock regarding the resistance to school integration. It is in this context, far removed from the nation’s most overt expressions of racism but nevertheless far from integrated as well, that Haynes’ melodrama plays out. (more…)

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