Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Phoenix Comicon Schedule

Hey folks, Nate here. Just a quick post to let you know that I'll be on a couple of panels at Phoenix Comicon this weekend.

Not Another Remake! (Room 152, 8-9PM) -- Join Arizona's top Horror Film aficionados for a spirited discussion of the pros and cons of the Horror Film movement of remakes. Hot on the release of the "Nightmare on Elm Street" remake, the discourse is sure to be lively! Why so many remakes? Panelists: Danny Marianino, Nate Yapp, Jeff Dolniak, David Hayes
Japanese Monster Invasion (Room 153, 9-10PM) -- AZ's top Japanese Monster "Kaiju" experts examine the cross cultural phenomenon entrancing fans for years. From Godzilla and beyond and from the rise of the Kaiju in its earliest incantations to modern day interpretations. Panelists: Damon Foster, Nate Yapp.
The convention is taking place at the Phoenix Convention Center and memberships are still available at the Phoenix Comicon website. Hope to see some of you there!

Monday, May 24, 2010

52 Perfect Movies: The Wrong Man (1956)

"In the past, I have given you many kinds of suspense pictures. But this time, I would like you to see a different one."

Alfred Hitchcock is known primarily for his thrillers and suspense films, but this is a very different kind of Hitchcock film--which stands out as one of his very best, both for its distinction from much of the rest of the director's body of work, and also by virtue of being a damn fine motion picture.

Sure, The Wrong Man builds an almost unbearable amount of suspense, but in a very different way from many of Hitchcock's other works. This time around, the director tells the real-life story of Manny Ballestrero, a Stork Club musician and mild-mannered family man mistakenly sent to prison for a crime he didn't commit. The majority of the powerful tension created here derives from the fact that we know Ballestrero is innocent, and are powerless to do anything but watch as he gets trapped tighter and tighter in a net of bad luck and circumstantial evidence.

But it's because of the magnificent performance of Henry Fonda that this whole ploy on Hitchcock's part works. The movie's ultimate good guy (well, until Once Upon a Time in the West), Fonda has boatloads of pathos in the role of the put-upon and unflappably virtuous Ballestrero, and we can't help but feel for the guy as things go from bad, to worse, to far, far worse. It's also a credit to both Hitchcock's direction, and the screenplay by Maxwell Anderson & Angus MacPhail, that somehow Ballestrero continues to act inadvertently as if he were guilty, even though he is not.

This character nuance rings true, and lends an air of realism to the proceedings. It also generates tremendous frustration, as the viewer takes in the worsening plight of the protagonist, mistaken for a stick-up man from a prior bank robbery, all the while agonizingly hoping someone will give him a break. Anderson, writer of such classic films as All Quiet on the Western Front, Death Takes a Holiday and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, as well as the original stage play of The Bad Seed, adapted the story from true events, and teamed with MacPhail--who had worked with Hitch a decade earlier on Spellbound--to create a maddeningly tense script worthy of the master of the nail-biters.

Joining Fonda is Vera Miles in the role of Manny's wife Rose. Also known to Hitchcock fans for playing sister to Janet Leigh in Psycho, Miles is utterly gripping in the role of a very flawed woman. Rather than play it all Hollywood, the film shows the true-life fallout of Ballestrero's plight and the effect it has on his spouse. Rose is a damaged character, and her arc, as brilliantly dramatized by Miles, is another testament to the unblinking realism of the picture. No easy way out here.

What I also enjoy about the film is its portrayal of ethnic Americans in a completely non-stereotypical fashion. Manny and Rose are Italian-Americans, and yet this is subtly downplayed throughout the picture, rather than played as some kind of broad character trait, whether for negative or positive effect. It's simply part of who they are, and only plays minimally into the story. When it does pop up, as with so much in the film, it rings completely true.

The movie is crisply shot by Robert Burks, Hitchcock's go-to man for much of the 1950s and '60s. Burks had shot Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief and The Man Who Knew Too Much prior to this, so he clearly had no trouble interpreting what his director wanted. And clearly his director was pleased, as he would go on to use him for Vertigo, North by Northwest, The Birds and Marnie.

Bernard Herrmann, another Hitchcock stalwart, turns in a stellar score, less string-heavy and more jazzy to reflect Ballestrero's profession. It's a blaring, jarring, yet also beautiful piece of music, perfectly accompanying Manny's trials and tribulations, and even foreshadowing what Herrmann would bring to the table 20 years later for his final film, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.

Take Henry Fonda, one of the most beloved and well-liked actors of all time, team him with the man many consider the finest director of all time, and what you get is a film that is both touching and raw, suspenseful without being sensational. It deals with decent, everyday people, in very trying situations, all the more powerful because it really happened.

The Wrong Man is a film that is often overshadowed by Hitchcock's more sweeping, larger than life movies, or his more stylish, lurid and sexy potboilers. But it's one that should be sought out by film lovers, especially lovers of crime drama and post-World War II era cinema in general. And certainly by fans of Alfred Hitchcock, who thought enough of the picture to open it with a personal introduction.

NEXT UP: 12 Angry Men (1957)

Thursday, May 6, 2010

52 Perfect Movies: Scrooge (1951)

"Can you forgive a pig-headed old fool with no eyes to see with, no ears to hear with, all these years?"

Does it seems a little odd to be writing about this film in the middle of spring? Possibly, but Leonard Maltin once declared that Brian Desmond Hurst's 1951 adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol was far too good to only watch at Christmastime--and he was absolutely correct. Far beyond your typical seasonal heartwarmer, Scrooge is nothing short of a timeless masterpiece.

It's also a film that is nearer and dearer to my heart than almost any other. For as long as I can remember, I have been watching it each and every year in December, and it's very possible I've seen it more times than any other motion picture. I can recite nearly every piece of Noel Langley's adapted screenplay by heart, drawing as it does quite faithfully from Dickens' original text. Its characters, from Kathleen Harrison's shrill yet endearing Mrs. Dilber to Ernest Thesiger's grimly hilarious undertaker, are like old friends I've known my whole life.

The very sound of Richard Addinsell's unmistakable score can instantly put me in a mood, and conjure up tangible, unshakable memories. No other adaptation of the classic Christmas tale even comes remotely close to the greatness of this one--in fact, quite honestly, although some are quite good, it almost feels like a pointless endeavor to watch any other when Hurst nailed it so perfectly in every way.

Why does it work so well? More than any other reason, the explanation lies in its lead actor: Alistair Sim in the role of Ebeneezer Scrooge--a revered British actor interpreting one of literature's most well-known characters, and somehow managing to make him a real, textured, living, breathing human. Unlike other versions, Scrooge here does not come off as an irredeemable soulless wretch whose transformation seems forced and trite; nor does he either seem like a really nice guy only pretending to be mean.

Rather, Sim's Scrooge contains both aspects equally, balancing them out in such a way that we buy him completely as the unfeeling skinflint, and rejoice with him in his later redemption, which is pulled off so expertly that it can still give me chills a third of a century after the first time I witnessed it. His performance imbues the film with heart, yet without schmaltz; more importantly than anything else, he is authentic.

Dickens' message of hope and joy is brought to life in a manner which somehow avoids both sentimentality and cynicism at the same time. Scrooge's heartbreaking relationship with his ill-fated sister Fan; the unflappable Bob Cratchit, played by Mervyn Johns, putting on a brave face for Tiny Tim; and perhaps more than anything else, the old humbug's reconciliation with his nephew Fred, as he embraces the daughter-in-law who reminds him of Fan, as the strains of "Barbara Allen" fill our ears. Even in the liberties it takes with Dickens' plot, there is not a single misstep. This is film magic at its best.

There's an even-handed subtlety at work here; unlike other adaptations, it never feels cartoonish, and also never becomes too dark. There's a tendency with this story to sometimes either play it too broad, or otherwise to give in to the urge to make it a full-on ghost story. Maybe Dickens meant it to be a bit grimmer than Hurst's version, but no matter; like the finest of screen adaptations, it takes the essence of the source and does something remarkable that's all its own. Something about this story has touched people for over a century and half, and this movie seems to totally understand what it is.

The film holds both wonder for a small child, with its moral lesson and flamboyant ghosts (Michael Hordern's sympathetic Jacob Marley stands out), yet it also offers much to adults--in fact, I can personally vouch that the experience of watching it changes it deepens with age. This film holds profound power over me, so much so that I find emotions welling up inside even simply writing about it.

It's usually Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life that is typically held up as the quintessential Christmas movie. And as amazing as that movie is, for me, Scrooge will always be the one, a movie that transcends the holidays to become a deep experience, not just a great Christmas movie, but a great film. In my family, it has always been a tradition to watch it, to cherish each and every scene, to grin and hold back tears in turn as every scene, every line plays out.

Charles Dickens blessed his fellow man with a tale that touches something universal in us, and this adaptation is its most perfect cinematic distillation. I encourage anyone who has never seen it to get a hold of it, and allow the awe-inspiring Alistair Sim to floor you with his spot-on screen presence and profound understanding of the character. Hold off until Christmas to see it if you like, but really, why wait?

NEXT UP: The Wrong Man (1956)