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The Roundup: December 1

Cinema

Is the Word Overrated Ruining Film Criticism? by Clarisse Loughrey

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The Guardian’s new series “My Most Overrated Film” where guest columnists write about a film they think is overrated has gotten a lot of response from the critical community, and most of it’s not positive. Here’s a good essay on the issues surrounding a series like this; she also explores some reasons why people feel the need to declare highly-regarded films as overrated. Sam Adams at Criticwire goes even further, declaring that “overrated is a garbage word, and I can’t disagree. As is probably clear from my stance on evaluative criticism and positivity, I have little use for the concept of something being overrated, much less building a whole post series around it. Stuff like this is basically clickbait in this format; don’t give the Guardian your clicks.

And yet the problem with this overuse of ‘overrated’ is that such arguments tend to exist in a vacuum. It’s great to shake up the establishment, but if we challenge Hitchcock and Kubrick, are we then automatically burdened with offering up the alternative? The real issue is perhaps less to do with the attacks themselves, but with the perceived arrogance and cynicism of its author. Do critics always have the best intentions when they go after the “classics”? It’s hard to say, but we can safely assume there will always be those who deliberately set out to incite scorn and unhealthy debate, just as there will always be the attention-seekers, the click-bait sensationalists.

Nathan Rabin vs. the IMDb Top 250: The Best Years of Our Lives by Nathan Rabin at The Dissolve

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Nathan Rabin has started going through the IMDb Top 250 in random order, which I think is a pretty fun series to do in general. He puts post-WWII classic The Best Years of Our Lives on top of the several he’s seen so far for the series, and it is a fantastic film, for all the reasons he talks about and more (Myrna Loy!).

Wyler’s film tells the story of an entire generation of lost men who came home from the greatest triumph of their lives only to discover that they had to fight a new war, for recognition, direction, self-respect, and for the wives, lovers, and jobs they assumed would always be there for them no matter what. It manages the singular quality of being at once intimate and epic. The Best Years Of Our Lives represents the studio age at its best. It’s adult, mature filmmaking that didn’t just feel important and socially significant, it was and remains important and socially significant, preserving the weary, uneasy mood of the moment that created it.

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On Midnight‘s Screenplay

“There’s an old story, borne out by production records, about [producer] Arthur Hornblow Jr. deciding to exert his power by handing [Billy] Wilder and [Charles] Brackett’s fully polished draft [of the screenplay for 1939′s Midnight] to a staff writer named Ken Englund. (Like many producers, then and now, Hornblow just wanted to put some more thumbprints on it.) Englund asked Hornblow what he was supposed to do with the script, since it looked good enough to him. “Rewrite it,” said Hornblow. Englund did as he was told and returned to Hornblow’s office with a new draft whereupon the producer told him precisely what the trouble was: it didn’t sound like Brackett and Wilder anymore. “You’ve lost the flavor of the original!” Hornblow declared. Englund then pointed out that Brackett and Wilder themselves were currently in their office doing nothing, so Hornblow turned the script back to them for further work. Charlie and Billy spent a few days playing cribbage and then handed in their original manuscript, retyped and doctored with a few minor changes. Hornblow loved it, and the film went into production.”

- Ed Sikov, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder

On German-speaking Billy Wilder Learning English

“For the refugees, a harsh accent was the least of their troubles. The precise cases, endless portmanteaus, and complex syntactical structure of the German language made their transition to English a strain. It required a thorough rearrangement of thought. In German, the verb usually comes at the end of the sentence; in English, it appears everywhere but. In German, conversation as well as written discourse, like a well-ordered stream through a series of civilized farms, flows. In English, such constructions are stilted. We like to get to the point and get there fast. For a displaced screenwriter – an adaptable one, anyway – American English lend itself to the kind of direct, immediate, constantly unfolding expressivity that German tended to thwart. Linguistically at least, American emotions are more straightforward. The violinist Yehudi Menuhin puts it this way: ‘When you start a sentence in German, you have to know at the beginning what the end will be. In English, you live the sentence through to the end. Emotion and thought go together. In German, they’re divorced. Everything is abstract.’

For a flexible storyteller like Billie Wilder – or Joseph Conrad or Vladimir Nabokov, for that matter – the new mix of languages was wondrous, pregnant with sounds and bursting with meaning. Wilder’s ear picked up our slang as well as our pragmatic syntax, and his inventive, hard-edged mind found twentieth-century poetry in them. Puns, jokes, verbal color, even the modern-sounding American tones and resonances one could make in the mouth – all were deeply engaging to the young writer-ranconteur. It was exciting for him to get laughs in a new language.”

- Ed Sikov, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder

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Stream It!: Witness for the Prosecution

[Showcasing the best and highlighting the newest additions to the various streaming services, including but not limited to Netflix Instant, HuluPlus, Amazon Prime, and Warner Archive Instant.]

Stream on Netflix: Witness for the Prosecution

si-witness_for_the_prosecutionI really want to start doing these more often, since a ton of great stuff is dropping onto on demand subscription services all the time. This is one that’s actually been on Netflix Instant for quite a while, but it’s a great movie, I’ve got Billy Wilder on the mind right now, and it has a great double feature combination that’s also on Netflix Instant. Win all around.

Witness for the Prosecution is a late film in three acting careers – Charles Laughton, as experienced but physically ailing barrister Sir Wilfred; Tyrone Power (this is his final credited film), as the murder suspect Leonard Vole whom Laughton defends; and Marlene Dietrich, as Power’s beautiful and devoted wife. It may be late in their careers, but they are all at the top of their game, and so is Wilder, delivering a consistently witty and surprising courtroom drama with a dose of mystery. Laughton’s delightful wife Elsa Lanchester also plays his nurse, who emphatically thinks he is not ready to take on a case after recently suffering a heart attack.

Laughton is always great to watch, from his early villain-type roles like Dr. Moreau in Island of Lost Souls and Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty to his imposing girth as King Henry VIII a few times to his witty charm in movies like this one. He’s got a reputation as a scenery-chewer, and that’s not entirely wrong, but he’s one of the absolute best scenery-chewers ever in the movies, and comes across more as a scene-stealer here. Dietrich has her share of meaty roles, but this may be one of her absolute best, as her duplicity (or is it?) comes to light. The script will keep you guessing, all the way up to the delicious ending.

Double Feature: Anatomy of a Murder

si-anatomy_of_a_murder_ver2In some ways, Anatomy of a Murder is a more traditional courtroom drama than Witness for the Prosecution, with more courtroom scenes (and American ones, which feel a bit more familiar to us on this side of the pond) and a battle of lawyers front and center as James Stewart defends and George C. Scott prosecutes a man (Ben Gazzara) claiming a temporary insanity defense for killing a man who allegedly raped his wife (Lee Remick). There’s a mystery at the heart of this one, too, as Stewart digs into the evidence to find out what really happened, but it’s not as whimsical or twisty as Witness for the Prosecution.

In 1959, a film touching on the subject of rape was fairly rare and pretty controversial. Director Otto Preminger was no stranger to controversy, having pushed the limits of the Production Code already, notably in 1953 when his film The Moon is Blue included the word “virgin.” Here Remick’s character is known to be something of a flirt or worse, and Gazzara’s is known to be violent and possessive, which brings his plea of temporary insanity into question. The film is also well-remembered for its brilliant Duke Ellington jazz score (also unusual at the time) and the focus on Stewart as a character rather than simply focusing on the plot. That said, his courtroom scenes opposite Scott are electric.

Besides both being courtroom films about a dubious murder case, the films have another connection in terms of the surprising outcomes of each case – which I obviously can’t talk about in any detail without spoiling stuff. I’ve probably said too much already. Both films are streaming on Netflix for the low low price of “included in your $8 a month subscription,” so just watch them. You’ll have a delightful time.

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The Roundup: November 14, 2014

Cinema

Quiet on the Set and…Panic! by Greg Ferrera at Movie Morlocks

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This is a nice companion piece to the American Movie Critics conversation Ryan and I recently had on Alexander Bakshy. Bakshy was bullish on the coming of sound, but he was in the minority. Greg points out how panicked most studios and filmmakers were, trying to figure out what to do with this newfangled technology.

Charlie Chaplin, a July, 1928, article, expresses his concerns that the cinema would quickly devolve into “photographed stage plays,” and one story starts off with the suggestion that cinematographers will be put out of work as the sound engineer takes over and the camera gets locked in place. If you ever needed proof that people have unreasonable fears about anything and everything new, just read stories from 1928 about sound in movies.

The 50th Freeze Frame: The Godfather by Ryan McNeil at The Matinee

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I always enjoy Ryan’s “classic” series, looking at a still from a classic film and discussion its meaning; this time, he gives his analysis in a brief but trenchant paragraph, saving space to reminisce over the previous 49 entries in the series.

Today marks the fiftieth image in the series, and in honour of the half-century mark, I decided to keep it simple: I’ve gone with my favorite shot from my favorite classic. There are dozens of other iconic shots from THE GODFATHER that I could have chosen, but for me, so much about America is said in this one frame.

All around it is the untamed natural environment it came from. Front and centre is one of the game-changing inventions that made it great. Inside of said invention, we have a glimpse of the violence that has defined it for more than 200 years. In the background, the promise of what it could be, what it wants to be, and what so many want to deny it being.

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