Friday, January 6, 2012

Movies of 2011, day five: it's good to be surprised!

Today I'm ending my five day look back at the movies I watched in 2011 to consider a few movies from off the beaten path. As I recounted in the second installment, I was working through a list of films which interested me, but in the course of checking libraries, Youtube, Netflix and their ilk, from time-to-time I dug up something I hadn't heard of, but found fascinating; in other cases, I dug up a movie with a certain reputation and found it stronger than I'd been lead to believe. Here's the best surprises of 2011:

In 2011 I went through the few remaining Alfred Hitchcock movies I hadn't seen, including Torn Curtain. Every Hitchcock book I've read came down hard on this movie, describing how wrong Paul Newman and Julie Andrews were for a Hitchcock movie and so forth. Finally watching it for myself, I have to say: it's not bad. I wouldn't call it great Hitchcock, but it isn't the trainwreck the critics led me to believe it to be. Newman is scientist who defects to the Soviets, but only so he can uncover one of their secrets. The espionage elements fit pretty well with other Hitchcock films in the genre and the scene where Newman has to kill an enemy agent - yet finds it takes a lot of work to kill a man is a nice reversal of the usually simplistic Hollywood death scenes; the dying agent fights back to the very end and Newman needs a woman to rescue him! Near the end, the scenes of Newman and Andrews trying to get out from behind the Iron Curtain with the aid of resistance agents are pretty good too, reminding me of the circus people who sheltered Hitchcock's heroes in Saboteur. I tell you, never dismiss a Hitchcock film out of hand!

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde should be utter trash. It's a Hammer film where Jekyll transforms into an evil woman, primarily so the filmmakers could flash some skin on the screen. It's also not content to be simply be a gender-swapped Jekyll-Hyde story - no, it becomes a Jack the Ripper and Burke & Hare picture, too! Hey, why not throw in Spring-Heeled Jack while we're at it? Jekyll isn't particularly likable either as he performs a few evil acts; usually it's Hyde who embodies the character's evil side. Splitting the role between two actors seems like a bad idea too, since presumably one of the reasons actors like the part is so they can play two versions of the same person. And yet... Ralph Bates and Martine Beswick do share an uncanny resemblance (not much of a compliment to Beswick, I suppose). For all the problems that being a 1970s Hammer picture entail, this a pretty good horror movie, even if the similarities to Robert Louis Stevenson's story end with (during?) the title.

After returning from Angola, I went through Netflix to find films about Africa and happened across the Devil Came on Horseback, a documentary which relates Brian Steidle's tale of witnessing genocide in Darfur and attempting to rally the world to the cause of ending the conflict, yet finding while people were vocally opposed to the genocide, they weren't particularly in favour of action. It's a pretty sad tale and all too familiar - Romeo Dallaire expressed many of the same frustrations about the Rwandan genocide in Shake Hands With the Devil.

I assumed Danny Kaye's Wonder Man was one of his lesser films, having only heard of it via various jokes Jack Benny made about it on his radio program during an episode where Kaye visited. My family watched quite a few Kaye movies as I was growing up, so I (wrongly) believed I had a pretty good grasp of his career. Wrong! It turns out Wonder Man was a smash hit in its day, won an Academy Award and still holds up even now, with Kaye playing twin brothers, one a meek bookworm, the other a show-stealing entertainer. I would have enjoyed this movie even more if I had seen it as a kid.

I sought out Ken Burns' Empire of the Air because it was a documentary about radio, so I assumed it would feed my hobby pretty well. However, it isn't about aspect of radio I'm interested in - the networks, the cultural impact, the rise and fall of comedy and drama - it's the story of the men who made the radio device viable, particularly Lee DeForest and Edwin Armstrong. It's a fascinating recount of two intelligent men with strong personalities and the surprising amount of politics which came to figure in the development of radio.

I don't see much love for the 1935 version of Crime and Punishment, evidently because it took some liberties with the source material. However, I found this to be an astounding movie; I haven't read the novel myself, but it seems to me even watered-down Dostoevsky is fantastic. Peter Lorre has the lead role in this picture (I'd heard him in a radio adaptation of the story too) and he's magnificent; this has to be Lorre's best English film of the 30s. This film dearly needs reevaluation by scholars - scholars other than Dostoevsky fanatics.

Next week: moving on to literature!

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