Month: January 2013

Hell’s Half Acre (John H. Auer, 1954)

The heroic and relatively up-and-coming DVD/Blu-ray label Olive Films has added two movies by John H. Auer to their March slate: the 1941 John Wayne vehicle A Man Betrayed, and the 1954 mystery-noir Hell’s Half Acre. Largely an unknown quantity, Auer’s championship has been taken up by Dave Kehr, who wrote about the versatile “micro-” auteur in a 2011 issue of Film Comment.

I’ve only seen Hell’s Half Acre, which inspired me to write this post in May 2011. Here it is again:


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Hail the Conquering Hero (Preston Sturges, 1944)

Preston Sturges enjoys no small amount of esteem within the cinephile sect, as well as the broader spectrum of movie buffs – anyone who’s drawn to (rather than afraid of) black and white films – but it still feels like he’s a little underrated. I think it’s because we don’t quite know what to do with him. His formative years, followed by a burning-the-candle-at-both-ends stopover in Hollywood, followed by a disappointment-derived exile, are altogether rich enough to fill several biographical volumes. Perhaps relating to the daunting complexity of the rough diamond Sturges – unquestionably the most urbane of industry misfits – it’s tempting to pin his contribution to a handful of manageable attributes. He had a way with dialogue: overlapping, barbed, sophisticated yet streetwise. He had his stock company. He was able, gracefully, to juggle sentimentality and worldly cynicism, to the point that they seem a natural fit for one another. He simply must be the screenwriter responsible for the greatest number of great movie lines that are snuck in – muttered, accidentally discharged like a stray bullet.

Two Sturges scripts competed for an Academy Award at the 1945 ceremony – Lamar Trotti’s screenplay for the Darryl F. Zanuck pet epic Wilson defeated them both. One was The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, and the other was Hail the Conquering Hero. Both films have longish, melodious titles, and star character actor Eddie Bracken. Hail the Conquering Hero is front-loaded with the kind of Sturges business that made him (and keeps him) famous. The opening scene is one of his great nightclub settings – a locale he would revisit several times, enhanced by his skill as an observer of routine and work behind spectacle and entertainment. Within a few moments, an ingenious, tightly-wound plot is in motion.

What’s easy to forget about this, and other Sturges films, is how committed he is to delineating the full complexity borne by a premise that initially seems “high concept.” I’ll bet you can’t remember, off-hand, how many travels the title character Sullivan’s Travels actually took. How exactly does the knotty deception in The Lady Eve get resolved? How did McGinty get to be governor, and how did he louse it up? You have ten seconds.

The writer-director’s films fill out like a house built roof first, foundation last. His trademarks – the deft direction of ornate chaos (which often downshifts to intimate one-on-one conversations with impossible gracefulness), the mile-a-minute dialogue, the symphony of voices, roaring at one moment, muttering the next – provide cover for Sturges while he busies himself with a single-minded commitment to erecting a sturdy frame, directly from the blueprint of a given film’s logline: in this case, through a series of misunderstandings, medically-unfit hometown boy is mistaken for a war hero. The result, essentially, is a 78-minute screwball comedy, leavened by almost totally concealed introspection, as well as an unwavering respect for the time one needs to work out a thorny problem in an adversarial environment, that acquires great structural integrity as it fills out to 101 minutes. The only other director who could so brilliantly (and seemingly effortlessly) underwrite frivolity with determination and purpose? Ernst Lubitsch.

Fundraising Update #1

Hi there,

So… I expected to raise about $15 yesterday, $10 from my mom and another $5, also from my mom. Was completely flabbergasted when, by the time I turned in, contributions had put me just shy of a quarter of my $1000 goal. So, now 24 hours into this, I feel like it’s really going to happen. In other words, (1) HOLY SHIT, and (2) thank you, thank you, and thank you.

Since Kickstarters and other fundraising platforms started to make their way into the mainstream of social networking – what was that, five years ago? three? – I’ve seen a ton of campaigns come and go. I’ve contributed to a few, even though I’m really, really badly in the red (and will probably be that way for the rest of my days). I’ve seen plenty I can’t relate to, plenty that seemed well-intentioned.

And I’ve seen dozens upon dozens that my heart aches for, because I want to contribute, I fall in love with their idea, it speaks to me, etc. But I can’t and I don’t.

This quick aside is for the “that me” among you who are reading this and you’ve read my pitch and you’ve said, “Yeah, that’s the stuff.” You know, the conceptual, prehensile “me” who wants to donate with all his/her heart, but cannot. So let me talk to “that me” for a hot second:

Bless you, bless your wanting to contribute. I feel it. It’s coming on like high voltage, and I want me/you to know that if you never contribute a penny to the campaign, I still love you and you can be a part of this thing when (not if) it gets off the ground. So that’s that. Don’t feel heartache, join up with MaybeSee when it goes live and the invites get out there.

Okay, that’s that.

To those of you who can pitch in a few bucks, do it. If you want to throw in $5, make it $5. $10 is better because, uh, that’s twice as much as $5. I’ll also take $20, $30, and some of the other numbers as well. You know what? No cap. No ceiling. Nothing gets turned away. Just tap this little doohickey rightcha:

…and, with your help, this thing will become a reality. Because the truth is, while I love everyone who wants to contribute – and this is just between you and me – I love $$ contributors just a teensy bit more. 

NOTE: Hey, if I can’t fund this thing, money back. I might not need to hit the $1000 ideal, but if I simply do not get enough contributions to pay the people to do the complex coding and design required to make MaybeSee a reality, then there’s absolutely no reason at all to keep your money, and if I comprehend PayPal’s rules correctly, you get back every penny.

That’s what I’ve got for the moment.

Funding Request: the MaybeSee project

Hi there,

My cinephile-friendly web project, TheFilmsaurus, is going to be upgraded to better serve cinephiles around the world, and I am writing to ask for your assistance.
The site, which will be called MaybeSee [dot com], will allow users to create and manage two kinds of to-see lists:
1) Films they saw & liked, and want to push their friends to see, and…
2) Films that are being recommended to them by their friends.
This is distinct from Letterboxd in that it’s not a viewing log, or a clearing house for user-generated reviews. It’s a highly functional to-see database that will cure what some cinephiles have called “option paralysis.” 
The way you cure option paralysis is, you give yourself one choice at a time. Not a queue – I’ve lost count of the number of times just glancing at my Instant queue has ruined whatever urge I’d had to watch anything at all. 
When you visit TheFilmsaurus, the present incarnation of my help-cinephiles-everywhere project, you get one recommendation (at a time):
When you create a MaybeSee account, you log the titles you want to see (and I mean really want to see, not just Instant queue overload), the “random pick” will be extracted from your self-curated lists. 
Want to run a mini-retrospective for one of your favorite directors, or a filmmaker you want to get better acquainted with? How about something like my “Go Silent” project, where I’ve committed to watching only silent pictures for the month of February? 
How about a combination of your top priority, must-see titles from your “pile o’ screeners,” expiring stuff on Netflix Instant, and some other stuff on Hulu? 
How about a dozen westerns starting with the letter H?
Once you create a list – or two lists, or a dozen lists – you can share titles or lists of titles with your friends (i.e. anyone you’ve permitted to “push” recommendations to you). 
With sharing a funny thing happens, one I hope to cultivate as I build a community on MaybeSee: you become aware of a growing consensus around you and the people you socialize with. You could use MaybeSee to aggregate all the “essential” titles that are making their way down the pike; consensus among your cinephile friends and colleagues may differ radically from what earns acclaim from mainstream critics.
On the other end of the spectrum, you could also use MaybeSee to catch stray recommendations from friends who attend festivals and retrospectives – a great Romanian drama here or Hong Kong romantic comedy there, that wouldn’t otherwise have appeared on your radar…
Finally – since the avenue moves in both directions – is your recommendations to others. You’ve seen something at a festival, at the multiplex, on DVD, on YouTube, on Instant, at a friend’s house, on a cross-country flight over someone’s shoulder, and you liked itYou liked it well enough to tell your friend, “Hey, check this film out.” 
Open MaybeSee, enter the title, and send it around.
In order to achieve this upgrade, which will allow users to create secure accounts, I am seeking to raise $1000.00 USD. The money will go towards a talented team of developers who have committed to make MaybeSee [dot com] functional for trial members by the end of January. 
There is no Kickstarter for this. I do not represent any intention to offer equity in my company or this application. There are no T-shirts or mugs. Contributors of any dollar amount will be invited to open an account when the site is ready to go – target date February 1. You will also have my undying thanks, and, if MaybeSee reaches the point where a celebration party is even remotely appropriate and feasible, you drink for free
Those who know me may also know I’ve been slow-cooking this project for almost four years. It had to be just right, at just the right scale, and it had to be different. And personal. And not reliant on bullshit algorithms.
At the end of the day, I really just want to connect cinephiles with the cinema. I know the sheer volume of movies can be daunting – that’s another problem I’d like to solve. I also know you’re more likely to listen to certain friends who tell you to see something than, for example, the ceaseless barrage of advertising and hype that seems to attack us from every corner. (If you see a little rectangle on Netflix that says Computer Chess, you might think, “Huh,” and keep scrolling. But if certain of your friends have told you to see Computer Chess, you say, “All right, I will.”)
If you like making lists, especially lists that aid in productivity, and you don’t like the idea of a great-sounding film falling through the cracks because so-and-so mentioned it on Twitter last August and it’s now March – won’t you help MaybeSee become a reality?
Very respectfully, and with the warmest thanks for reading this entire solicitation,
Jaime N. Christley
p.s. Here’s the button to donate.

The Resurrected (Dan O’Bannon, 1992)

I wrote about the late, whatzit auteur Dan O’Bannon in 2011 for a Brooklyn Academy of Music series in his honor (and in association with a book, Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror, by New York Times writer Jason Zinoman). Preparation for the piece was pure pleasure, since my obligations included watching O’Bannon’s full directorial filmography, which consists of two films: his seminal 1985 comedy-horror masterpiece, The Return of the Living Dead, and his 1992 follow-up, the botched H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, The Resurrected.

As the story goes, O’Bannon and the post-production/editing of The Resurrected were put asunder by meddling front office types, and, since the maestro left us in 2009, there’s no director’s cut in the offing, except perhaps in an alternate dimension. The resulting picture, a noirish take on Lovecraft’s 1927 story, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, has plenty of visual panache, and a dry-martini-Poltergeist atmosphere, but it is, at long last, bereft of that certain something.

On the other tentacle, it’s well worth your while for said visuals and atmosphere, some terrific chewing of scenery by Chris Sarandon, and at least one truly outstanding sequence, worthy of both Lewton and the yuckies of a real O’Bannonese nightmare. Let’s just say it takes place in the dark.

The Resurrected was just added to Netflix Instant. It streams in HD. Check it out.


Netflix New Year


At the close of 2012, and the dawn of 2013, Netflix did another of their great purges/adds. Some titles that were wiped include revolving-door titles like George Stevens’ Giant and Merchant/Ivory’s Howards End – staples of the streaming service that are occasionally withdrawn but inevitably restored.

The first arrivals of 2013 included a bevy of UK television programs from the 1980s through the present. It isn’t in TheFilmsaurus‘s mandate to go into the weeds on this sort of content, but, needless to say, many of these dramas and comedies are richly entertaining and well-made.

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