30 June 2008

Please Don't Hold the Mayo


I had to do it, I just had to I tell ya.  I'd somehow missed (avoided?) watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty until today.  This 1947 film stars Danny Kaye in the title role and it's no surprise I'd never watched the whole blessed thing before because I've seen very little of Kaye.

Danny Kaye was a very funny man and his performance in Walter Mitty is proof. Comedy is all about timing and he had that in spades. Kaye had the physicality of a Red Skelton who could sing and dance.  He combined verbal along with physical gymnastics. I guess you could say that Kaye had a motor mouth, but one with clear elocution that made for some funny bits. Kaye was perfect for film because he had such an likable, agreeable face.  If I had Jewish aunt she'd say: "What's not to like?"

The film itself is a pleasant enough diversion.  Some of the humor is a bit broad, especially by today's standards. The premise of a man stuck in a hum drum existence who daydreams fantastic adventures was tailor-made for film.  The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was based on a James Thurber story.  The author was apoplectic when he saw the film. The cinematic telling added real adventure to the story, thus, in Thurber's mind, diluting the fantasy.

The film is very pretty all gussied up in technicolor with elaborate sets for the fantasy sequences and real shots of 1940's New York melded into the story. In addition to Kaye, there's a delightful cast featuring Boris Karloff, Thurston Hall (once again playing a boss), Ann Rutherford, Fay Bainter, Reginald Denny, Fritz Feld (you may not recognize the name but Feld was a regular presence in movies and TV from the 1930s through the 1980s –  usually as a waiter or Maitre D' constantly making a popping sound with his mouth and hand, supposedly being very European, definitely being very officious) and last, but certainly not least, the delicious Virginia Mayo (pictured above with Dany Kaye).  Mayo plays Mitty's love interest. He's engaged to the drab Ann Rutherford but with Mayo our star gets adventure, heroics and real romance.

Mayo is a terribly underrated star perhaps best remembered as James Cagney's gun moll in White Heat. She was also part of a stellar cast in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and was heart breaking and gorgeous opposite Joel McCrea in Colorado Territory (1949).  She played the wonderfully-named Colorado Carson.
Mayo was tough, smart and sexy all rolled into one.  She'd have been a star in any era –  including this one. Mayo saved the oft-times silly Secret Life of Walter Mitty for me.

Norman McLeod, who twice directed Marx Brothers films and was at the helm for the original Topper, directed Mitty and it's hard to find fault with his him.  Action, sight gags and transitions were all artfully done. 
  
According to IMDb a remake is in the works, which in itself is not a bad idea but Mike Myers is supposedly writing it and set to star which is a horrendous idea indeed.  In my opinion, Myers has lost his way since the second Austin Powers movie and he's liable to become a very bad toilet-humor version of Jerry Lewis.

Meanwhile, the original Mitty is available on DVD and is occasionally aired by TCM.  It's decent enough fun and the kids may like it if they've a taste for "older" films.  I've got the experience out of the way and it was painless _ as anything is with Virgina Mayo.

One please for...

I just watched a Seinfeld episode about the troubles our four friends have meeting at a movie on a Saturday night. In addition to providing the requisite chuckles it got me thinking about going to the movies.  I can't remember the last time I went to a film with anyone besides my wife or children.  More often than not I go alone.  A lot of people think it odd to go to a movie solo and I've even heard it suggested that its the sign of a loser to go it alone. However, going to a movie is not like sex, having a partner does not necessarily improve the experience.  A movie is not like dinner where you can not only talk before and after dining but during as well (between bites).

I would hazard to guess that serious movie goers are more likely than others to go alone.  We're not looking for a social experience and indeed that can inhibit viewing the film.  For God's sake, you could end up going with a movie talker. Plus, who knows where they're going to want to sit and they may want to leave before the credit finish (blasphemy!).

Not for me. My wife knows how to watch a movie. We have preferred seat locations and once the films starts we are alone together.

Another thing the episode got me thinking about was Saturday night at the movies.  That's the worst time to go unless you've picked a less attended or a movie that's not hot hot hot. Lots of young people, dates, and casual movie goers on Saturday nights.  Yak, yak yak.

My exception is the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley, which is about the last place in the world people you'll ever hear people talk. And they do NOT allow food in the theater so you don't have to worry about pop corn chompers. (That's something I  just don't get:  spending exorbitant amounts of money on food that's bad for you. I've even seen people miss parts of a film buying the junk.  You get the same deal at the ballpark.

Anyway, unlike my good friends on Seinfeld, I never have to worry about trying to meet people at a movie theater on a Saturday night.  I'm glad they did though, it was worth some more yuks.

29 June 2008

A Big Fat Omission


If you've never checked out a website called List Universe, be sure to set aside some time before you first visit it;  it's a fabulous time waster. They've got lists of everything from coincidences, mental disorders, controversial non-fiction books, disgusting parasites and on and on and on. Suffice it to say, there's something for every taste and it's constantly updated. (The most recent list is quotes from George Carlin. However, I mention them today with a heavy heart.)  

They've a recent list entitled:  Top Ten Funny Fat Guys in Entertainment.  Where, you ask, does Jackie Gleason rank on this list?  Try no where.  Chris Farley, who was around for the blink of an eye, is on the list. Some guys  named Ralphie May and Gabriel Iglesias are there. I've never heard of them, which means they must be new kids on the proverbial block. Rodney Dangerfield tops the list, which is fine, but how do you not have The Great One?  He meets all the criteria: he was very funny, very fat and very entertaining. For God's Sakes, he was bloody Ralph Kramden. Kramden (one of my alter egos along with Barney Fife, George Costanza and Homer Simpson) is one of the most recognizable characters in TV history.  Gleason himself was not only a wonderful comic but an outstanding dramatic actor (see The Hustler if you've any doubts).  Both Farley and John Candy (who's rightfully on the list) emulated Gleason.

If Gleason were 6th or 7th on the list behind these Ralphie and Julio guys I'd have squawked but it wouldn't have warranted a blog entry. When you disrespect one of the great entertainers of the 20th century, well you've done gotten my dander up. And it's not like the list maker(s) had a short memory because Oliver Hardy and Curly Howard were there.

So this is a lousy introduction to List Universe, but for those of you who've not visited, take it from me, this is a GREAT Web site. 

But what a bogus Funny Fat  Entertainer list.

It's Really Good Too

From today's New York Times Arts & Leisure section:

"Hugely entertaining!"
"I Love it. Sexy, built to thrill."
"Touches your heart."
"Sweetly exuberant."
"Terrific! Beautifully acted and written."
"The perfect thriller."
"Awe-Inspiring."
"Hilarious and heartfelt."
"Weaves a spell."
"Funny as hell."
"Mega-tons of fun."
"Really something to see."
"Absolutely riveting."
"Some kind of miracle...intelligent and sincere."
"A wondrous work."
"A summer smash.
"Genuinely enjoyable."
"Absolute rubbish.  The worst in years."

(Okay, so I threw in the last one to see if you were paying attention.)

28 June 2008

Like Tears in the Rain, Blade Runner Revisited


I don't generally care for  movies like Blade Runner which probably contributes to why I love it so much. Sci Fi films to me are usually silly, tedious and ultimately empty.  Blade Runner is none of those things.  It has at its heart a compelling story with intriguing characters.  Harrison Ford in the lead role is as good if not better here than he's been before or since. His Deckard is tough as nails yet thoughtful and vulnerable. It's not just that he falls in love with a replicant, the man gets scared practically to death and he gets his butt whipped three different times. Deckard proves the adage that its better to be lucky than good. This is not your run of the mill action hero. This is a regular guy up against irregular forces. In a world of make believe, he's believable.

It would be easy enough for the surrounding characters to be mere one dimensional props for the surrounding action, but they have heart and soul, even if they are androids. Speaking of best-ever performances, Rutger Hauer is utterly fantastic as the lethal killing machine who aches only to live longer to defy the genetic mortality that will soon claim him. We are thus forced to empathize with this killer at the most basic human level.

Blade Runner is filled with wonderful set pieces; individual frames that are rich, stand-alone tableaus.  A few such moments in a movie are a gift but Blade Runner has veritably two hours of them. The set designs evoke a future that is dark and wet and crowded. Director Ridley Scott has created a kind of futuristic color film noir. Scott has always liked to use rain or dripping water as an atmospheric touch (see Alien, Black Rain, 1492 and Gladiator) but never better than here. It is a creepy future all the more so because of its seeming plausibility.

Set pieces are all well and good but a movie is more than stills and Blade Runner delivers with indelible scenes from start to finish. Whether a chase through impossibly crowded streets or the administration of a replicant test, the pacing is excellent. All of the deaths in Blade Runner (save one brutal murder done literally by hand) are operatic. Yet this does not have the effect of making the violence pretty; rather, it is often heart breaking and like so much else in the movie, evocative.

In my latest viewing of Blade Runner I kept comparing  it with another movie I admire, Steven Spielberg's Minority Report.  Both are set in the future and involve police actions  that are unlike those required today. Perhaps not incidentally, both are based on stories by the late Science Fiction Writer Philip K. Dick. Minority Report is much sleeker, cleaner looking and frankly a lot more accurate in depicting the future world (Deckard uses a pay phone in Blade Runner; there are no mobiles). But it is that less glossy look of Blade Runner, the rough edges, that help make it a masterpiece.  

Both films expect the audience to ask important questions. Minority Report is very much a contemplation on government power and corruption – vital topics indeed.  But Blade Runner asks essential questions about the nature of life itself. It is an extraordinary film to discuss. It's hard to name many movies with so many strong talking points.

One of the reasons Blade Runner warrants repeat viewings is because it can be watched and admired in so many different ways. You could, for example just view it as a Sci Fi thriller. You can also try to decode some of its many complexities (there's several plot points I still haven't figured out.)  You will surely see something new each time you watch it.

27 June 2008

Shhhhh!

I know what I'll do next time I got to a movie theater, I'll bring a big bag of food! It being impossible to eat either just before or just after a movie so I'll dine right there in the theater. First I'll open a can of soda. Pop fizz, the wonderful sounds of a can opening and cool refreshment on its way! Then I'll unwrap a sandwich, open a bag of chips and finish by tearing the wrapper of a candy bar. Oh, I may struggle with it a bit but I'll eventually get that darn wrapper off. Hmm, it’ll be dark during the movie so I may have to root around in the bag a bit but I'll be done before the movie's even half over!

Here's another thing I can do: chew gum! No, not discreetly. I’ll chomp away. The person sitting in front of me will understand.

Gee, l sure hope I don't forget to turn my cell phone off! If I don’t though, it's no big deal as cell phones ringing in public places is a common enough occurrence.

Maybe I should bring a friend and we can chat during the movie, comment on the characters, wonder what's taking place, and ask each other questions. Of course we'll keep our voices down to practically a whisper.
Yes there's nothing like a trip to the movies, especially if you're a complete-enough moron that you're able to disregard your fellow patrons.

Enjoy the show!

26 June 2008

Don't Shoot the Blogger

TYPICAL AMERICAN FILM: Words exchanged between two characters. Tempers flare. Bullets fly. Operatic deaths. Much running, dodging about. Hero victorious, antagonist dead.

TYPICAL FRENCH FILM: A character goes about mundane daily tasks, slowly, carefully, typically. Another character enters the scene. They talk. Conversation meanders. Finally their talk reaches a climax, a gun is pulled one person is shot, falls over dead. The other character leaves.

In the American film the viewer has watched an action scene in which they've had a rooting interest and the denouement has satisfied the American desire for justice.

In the French film the viewer has felt less like a participant and more like an observer. Viewers are asked to contemplate the shooting without necessarily passing judgment.

Okay, so American action films can be a lot of fun and they do at times offer strong story lines and interesting characters. These films are often visually stunning and provide a couple hours worth of diversion.
French, and for that matter Italian and many other foreign films, give audiences a little less and ask a little more. Of course, what you get out of any experience is often equivalent to what you put into it. So viewers are more likely to "get something out of" watching a foreign film. There is more ambiguity in “foreign” stories as there is in life. They are a little closer to reality and a little further away from comics.

Of course I generalize. There are many great American films in large part because when you make thousands there are bound to be dozens of good ones and a handful of greats.

Viva le difference.

25 June 2008

Love Letter to Joan Blondell


Dear Ms. Blondell,

I realize that this comes to you at somewhat awkward time what with you being dead these past 29 years and all, but I just HAD to write. You see, despite your terminal condition, I have a mad crush on you. My feelings for you only intensified earlier this evening when I watched a double bill at the Pacific Film Archives here in Berkeley featuring none other than you. 

First I saw with you with Melvyn Douglas in There's Always a Woman. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed the picture. I was just so terribly jealous because Douglas got to play your husband (tell me there was nothing between you). As you may recall Mary Astor was in the movie, too, and I've gotta tell ya, as much as I love Ms. Astor, she couldn't hold a candle to you. There are your eyes, like the biggest most beautiful round saucers in the universe. Oh and your body is so shapely and, let me just say, huggable. Now I know I risk embarrassing us both by adding this part but there was one scene in which you walked away and...well, your can just giggled so delightfully. 

Oh but please don't misunderstand Ms. Blondell, this is not just a physical attraction. It's always crystal clear that you're an intelligent woman, always one step ahead of everyone else. Maybe you're not always book smart, but definitely street smart and savvy.

I’ve seen lots of your pictures and loved you in every one of them. You stole the whole show in Gold Diggers of 1933. Sure Jimmy Cagney was great in Blonde Crazy, but that was YOUR movie. I don’t think of Night Nurse as a Barbara Stanwyck picture, I think of it as a Joan Blondell production. You don’t always have the biggest role, but you sure always have the biggest impact on the picture. I also admire how unpretentious you are (not like that stuck up Joan Crawford). Oh Ms. Blondell, you're obviously really fun-loving; it comes across whenever you’re on the screen. And Ms. Blondell I’m a fun-loving person, too.

Anyway, the second movie tonight was Three Girls About Town. You were hilarious again, smart again, and beautiful again. I just wish you'd have let your younger sister have that stupid old John Howard character so that WE could have run off together. I know this whole business about you being dead prohibits us ever getting together (and I don't think my wife, who's pretty terrific herself, would put up with it anyway) but if there's another life for us to live and we can be in the same place at the same time and be about the same age...well let’s just say I'd do anything to make you happy.

I love you Ms. Blondell -- may I call you Joan?

Sincerely,

Richard Hourula

US Refuses to Sign Cluster Bomb Ban

111 nations have signed a treaty to ban the use of cluster bombs. Among those 11 countries is NOT the United States.
From ITVS: "Cluster bombs are small explosive bomblets carried in a large canister that opens in mid-air, scattering them over a wide area. The bomblets may be delivered by aircraft, rocket, or by artillery projectiles. The CBU (cluster bomb unit) 26, which was widely used in Laos, is an anti-personnel fragmentation bomb that consists of a large bombshell holding 670 tennis ball-sized bomblets, each of which contain 300 metal fragments. If all the bomblets detonate, some 200,000 steel fragments will be propelled over an area the size of several football fields, creating a deadly killing zone. Because the fragments travel at high velocity, when they strike people they set up pressure waves within the body that do horrific damage to soft tissue and organs: even a single fragment hitting somewhere else in the body can rupture the spleen, or cause the intestines to explode. This is not an unfortunate, unintended side-effect; these bombs were designed to do this."
Perhaps worse the devastating impact on the battlefield often comes at a terrible cost to civilians afterward, including farmers who strike unexploded "bomblets" in their fields or children who mistake the objects for playthings. Yes, children innocently pick the up and....
China, Russia and Israel have also refused to sign the ban. But never mind them for a second, this country, as I grew up understanding it, should be a leader in the fight to ban cluster bombs, not a primary user of them. One hopes that with a new administration in Washington next year the United States can repair its tattered reputation among the world community. A reputation that our current president has done sever damage to.
You can join me in sending a message to the presidential candidates asking them to support the ban. Go to the Common Dreams website for the online petition. http://www.commondreams.org/

24 June 2008

And Now for the Ladies....

Yesterday I provided lists of favorite actors and supporting actors as an homage to the AFI and their 10 x 10. Here are my faves in the female categories. Again, these are strictly the opinion of the author and any arguments with them are a damn silly waste of time.

  1. Barbara Stanwyck
  2. Myrna Loy
  3. Bette Davis
  4. Ginger Rogers
  5. Jean Harlow
  6. Diane Keaton
  7. Marlene Dietrich
  8. Lana Turner
  9. Carole Lombard
  10. Loretta Young

And in the supporting actress category
  1. Joan Blondell
  2. Aline MacMahon
  3. Cate Blanchett
  4. Gail Patrick
  5. Margaret Dumont
  6. Ann Dvorak
  7. Diane Wiest
  8. Mary Astor
  9. Catherine Keener
  10. Claire Trevor

Words to the Wise

I came across this blog post via IMDb.  


Blogger Matte Havoc (like his blog a lot, by the by) wrote a nice piece about not offending your readers in writing about films. Don't take my word for it, click on the link, already. Then read my response:

Wise words. Too often writers on the internet want so throw out their thoughts and opinions without regard to how their words will be interpreted. Putting oneself in the minds of readers is a way to avoid this. It's okay to anger, outrage and even offend but it should be in the cause of making a strong point. Anyway, it's far better to inform and inspire. That's hard to to do if you're essentially calling your readers stupid.

That's all.

Back to Bruges


Yesterday I was going to write about my second viewing of In Bruges but got sidetracked by a thread on IMDb's message board for the film (see previous entry). I am not similarly distracted now....

In Bruges works on so many levels its difficult to know where to start. First of all, there's the lovely city itself. Good directors know how to use location not as a backdrop but as an integral part of the story. (See John Ford's use of Monument Valley in his Westerns, see the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men, see Woody Allen's Manhattan to name but a few examples.) Director Martin McDonagh said that Bruges was this film's fourth main character along with Ralph Fiennes, Brendand Gleeson and Colin Farrell. (Speaking of Farrell, this film along with Cassandra's Dream, should lay to rest in any question about whether the man can act – he most certainly can.)

The idea for In Bruges was born when McDonagh visited the city and found that after about seven hours, an internal debate began. On the one hand, he was bored already, on the other hand, he was enjoying the city's beauty and myriad cultural offerings. Thus why not have two characters somehow stuck in that very city engage in the same debate? When the two are British hit men played by Gleeson and Farrell you've got the makings of a hit -- pun intended.

In Bruges is very funny. It has been labeled as delightfully un-PC. Indeed, it is –and not in a way that is offensive– but in a way that is revealing about the way people think and talk and struggle with conventional mores.

Our two hit men have been sent to Bruges by their boss (Fiennes) after their latest hit to await his phone call and further instructions. The two consider the whole thing "overly elaborate" –  they ain't seen nothin' yet.

Enter a lovely local woman who deals drugs and occasionally robs tourist. Yes, there is a lot going on in this movie and it turns out that adding a dwarf – especially one who likes hookers and drugs (including horse tranquilizers) –into the mix is a master stroke. In Bruges never slips into farce (I hesitate to say this but here goes: most American directors would not only have let it slip into farce but pushed there with both hands). There is a believability – and sometimes an inevitability – to what goes on. It's like the difference between weird and whacky. Thankfully, weird happens here. (Whacky should be left to bad TV sit coms.)

The mismatched duo thrown together is a Hollywood cliche, but Gleeson and Farrell pull it off with much credit to McDonagh's script. The counterpart is provided by Fiennes who is a positive revelation as a criminal boss. Fiennes plays one bad motherf*cker (shut my mouth) but he is no stick figure there is nuance to him and all the film’s charcters. This is a man with a family, a code of conduct and a sense of decency to go along with his desire to have people offed.  

At the core of In Bruges are the issues of accepting responsibility and dealing with the consequences of one's actions. Along with the laughs there are moments of genuine heartbreak. Characters are appropriately introspective and contemplative; the movie asks the audience to be the same.

There is romance, there is action and violence (never gratuitous), and perfectly satisfying resolutions. As George Gershwin once wondered, "Who could ask for anything more?"

High Times

After watching In Bruges on DVD with wife and oldest daughter (I'd seen it in the theater, they hadn't) I went to IMDb (aka the Internet Movie Database, world's greatest film Web site) and checked out the message board for the movie. There was one thread that began with the question: "Is the movie a good high?"  

Here was one response: "You might have a different experience, but I saw this while stoned and I found it boring and unfunny. I wouldn't recommend wasting weed on this." 

Here's another: "Weed makes a good movie great and a shyte movie even more so that being said, in bruges in an excellent movie and i couldnt see how THC would do anything but enhance the experience" 

And here's one more: "how could marijuana make a movie anything but better....its like asking if im going to have sex with my girlfriend, will it be better if shes hot"

I do believe I live in an entirely different universe from these people, or at least our brains were made in different universes. I readily admit that as a younger man I went to movies while under the influence. Here's what I remember about those movies: very little.

I don't feel that I'm at all sanctimonious about drinking or drugs having adopted the view that if a person is not harming anyone else in the process they're entitled to get as loaded as they'd like. But how can being stoned or drunk improve a movie? I can't even imagine how one argues this point. To me it would be like arguing that food tastes better when you're asleep.

A good movie watching experience requires that our minds be focused. That's one reason that the sound of others talking is so upsetting during a movie;  it breaks our concentration.

Maybe I'm taking this IMDb discussion too seriously. After all, as great a site as IMDb is, the polls and message boards tend to be dominated by not terribly bright 19 year old boys. Evidently ones who like to visit their dealers before stopping off at the cinema.

23 June 2008

A Half of Score of Favored Thespians

If the AFI can put out silly Top Ten Lists, I can too. However, mine aren't so silly because they're just my favorites and how can a person be wrong about their own favorites? I'll not give you all of them at once, that would only be called for if I was given three hours of television prime time. I start with my favorite actors as selected by a panel consisting of yours truly. The votes were tabulated by the accounting firm of Me, Myself & I.

1. James Cagney
2. Cary Grant
3. Humphrey Bogart
4. Jimmy Stewart
5. Steve McQueen
6. Groucho Marx
7. Burt Lancaster
8. William Holden
9. Al Pacino
10. Clark Gable

That was fun, how about trying supporting actors?
1. Thomas Mitchell
2. Guy Kibbee
3. Ward Bond
4. Victor McLaglen
5. Joe Pesci
6. Walter Brennan
7. William Demarest
8. Walter Connally
9. Eugene Pallette
10. John Cazale

Don't worry, Ladies, I'll get around to you next time.

RIP George Carlin

Just read that George Carlin died. He was, in my mind, one of the greatest comedians of all time. Carlin's genius was twofold:  making mundane day-to-day language funny (I'm not getting on the plane, I'm getting inside of it) and his brilliant and pointed skewering of, as we called it in the Sixties, the Establishment. He pushed boundaries until they fell over.

True talent is measured on your influence of others. 

Carlin was a true talent.

22 June 2008

No Country For Nice Men


On the plus side: Jimmy Stewart stars, Anthony Mann directs, it's shot in Cinemascope. On the minus side: plot holes big enough to drive a truck through. Final score, a seven out of ten. A few lousy plot holes are not enough to trip up The Man From Laramie (1955), the sixth and final Mann-Stewart collaboration. Though not on a par with their fine work in The Naked Spur, this is a fine film, benefitting from wondrous wide angle looks at the rugged countryside of New Mexico.

A good cast was along for the ride featuring the ubiquitous Donald Crisp, Arthur Kennedy, Wallace Ford and Aline MacMahon. (Ms. MacMahon is most familiar to me for films made 20 year previous, notably Gold Diggers of 1933 and Heroes For Sale.)  Here she's about as far out of the hard knock city life as you can get, being a ranch owner in 19th century New Mexico.

As in many of his Westerns, Stewart is not the affable bloke we're more familiar with from such films as Harvey, You Can't Take it With You or The Shop Around the Corner. No, this Stewart is a tough hombre with a dark past. Though he'll not hesitate to use a gun, Stewart, as always, remains on the right side of the law.

The Man form Laramie is unflinching in its look at the men of the Old West and the means by which they survived and prospered. Treachery, murder and vengeance trump civility, legalities and negotiation. Love is hard won, not given freely, but can be returned quickly and easily. The land is just as precious and just as fickle. 

Stewart portrays a man looking for a mix of justice and vengeance who'll not be bought nor forced to back down. Stewart played such characters as convincingly as anyone in Hollywood. Mann's direction is as always good and his use of the landscape as a central theme to a the story evokes John Ford. Besides black hat wearing bad guys, there are those darn "Injuns," too. This time:  Apaches, a favorite whipping boy of Hollywood.

There are incidents in the movie that don't make sense, characters whose motivations and actions are left unexplained, and one character who's ultimately left unaccounted for. But the central themes and the manner the story is told more than make up for these defects.

The Man From Laramie is what you’d expect from Mann and Stewart, a darn good Western.

Ship Ship Hooray


Yesterday I helped commemorate the 65th "birthday" of the S.S. Jeremiah O'Brien, a merchant marine liberty ship preserved as a floating museum in San Francisco.

For a much steeper price than I'm used to paying , I joined approximately 150 other souls on the O'Brien for a trip around the Bay. The excursion lasted four hours. A Dixieland band was aboard, food and drinks were served, an emcee acted as a sometimes guide, and the ship's store and museum were open.

My interest in the ship is based mostly on the fact that my father sailed on Liberty ships (though not the O'Brien) during the World War II. In fact he was at the helm of a such a ship, the Albert Gallatin, when it was struck by Japanese torpedoes in the Arabian Sea in Janurary 1944. (My dad's warnings to the first mate that he'd seen a periscope had gone unheeded.)

My father died this past March so I went in large part to honor his memory.

My father had regaled me with stories about his "sailing days" for as long as I can remember. He shipped out from his native Finland in early 1940 and was at sea for much of the next five years. In addition to the sub attack, he was on two different ships that were strafed by German planes (he was no stranger to mortal danger having fought in the Finno-Russian Winter War). As a Merchant Marine my father visited such ports as Cairo, Melbourne, Buenos Aires, Vancouver, London and New York. His love of the sea continued for the rest of the his life. Thirteen months ago after  salmon fishing on the ocean, he fell, hurting his head bad quite badly. It was that injury that led to his premature death (he was a young 92).

The ship was bigger than my imagination had allowed but at the same time passageways, stairways and living quarters were all much, much smaller. Room was obviously needed on the decks, battle stations.
I enjoyed being at sea (okay more like at bay) and am pondering why I've not made friends with someone with a large boat. I love the sights, sounds and smells of the ocean or bay, barring a sudden sinking, its' quite relaxing. There's a sense of freedom at being on a ship or boat that I can't rightly explain, but its palpable. I'm sure that's part of the lure that so attracted my Dad.

We went under the Golden Gate Bridge where my father's ashes were scattered. This, as they say, gave me pause and offered another opportunity to say goodbye. In many ways I'll never say goodbye to Dad nor have to. I often feel his presence and was sure he joined me on the cruise as he might well have in bodily form if still alive.

Hats off to the good people who preserve our history such as those who take care of the Jeremiah O'Brien. I believe that who we are is who we were, so such preservations keep a bit of all of us alive.

21 June 2008

In the Corner Stands a Boxer


"I'm no gentleman."

"That's all right, I'm no lady."

The lines are spoken by Errol Flynn and Alexis Smith toward the end of Gentleman Jim, a totally and completely and unabashed fun film from smack in the middle of Hollywood's "Golden Age" and made by its best studio and by one if its best directors. And by God I mean it. It's rich full film making.

The film boasts a rich supporting cast featuring Alan Hale, Jack Carson, William Frawley, Arthur Shields and most notably Ward Bond. Bond's performance here is one of his best. As the bigger-than-life John L. Sullivan, he steals every scene he's in, particularly as the heart-broken but dignified loser. Shields plays a man of the cloth as he did on at least thirteen other occasions and is in Quiet Man he's a reverand who follows the sweet science. Talk about being typecast....

Also in the supporting cast is the ubiquitous Pat Flaherty.  Who? If you've seen more than a handful of films made between 1934 and 1955 you've come across Flaherty, who appeared on the big screen 198 times. You may forget his name but you'll recognize that square-jawed mug and deep voice.

Gentleman Jim, released in 1942, bears the Warners Brothers stamp. This was in the midst of a 25 year period in which the Brothers were outshining all other studios. And they weren't putting out technicolor musicals or cast of thousands epics. Warner was the studio of the Cagney gangster film, the Flynn swashbuckler, various Bogart incarnations, gritty dramas and movies like Gentleman Jim –  well-made fun.

Flynn plays the title character, Jim Corbett, a San Francisco lad who rose to be the heavyweight championship of the world in 1892. The movie traces his raise from bank teller, to club fighter to top of the boxing world. It's set against the backdrop of the Barbary Coast, the age of the Robber Baron and Corbett's own brawling, boozing Irish-American family.

There are a great many liberties taken with the real story of Corbett, but the movie's strength (in addition to entertainment value) is how it evokes the San Francisco of that bygone era where class distinctions were quite real and the town itself was wet and wild. The lovely Alexis Smith is the obligatory love interest. True, her acting range is limited but she's not exactly being asked to play Camille. Sassy and beautiful do nicely here.
At an hour and three quarters, this is a tad long for a Warners Brothers film but it never lags, flying from opening scene to closing with laughs, action and romance all the way. Moreover, the boxing scenes are among the better ones in cinema. There have been some right stinkers on screen (see Rocky) and some right beauties (see Raging Bull). These are good.

Flynn was perfect for the role as it so resembled some of the pirates he played in swashbucklers. He's athletic, charming and total wide eyed sincerity.

Gentleman Jim was directed by Raoul Walsh. There is a similarity between Gentleman Jim and a great film by Walsh from a few years before, Roaring Twenties. Both are centered on a big star surrounded by a whirlwind of characters with fast-moving events in a historical context keeping the production speeding towards an inevitable conclusion.

Gentleman Jim neither aspired to nor reached greatness but is a great example of all that was right about so many movies of its time -- it was a helluva lot of fun.

19 June 2008

No Top Ten Sequels?

I know, I shouldn't have bothered but I watched the latest AFI special. Capitalizing on the success of their top 100 special 10 years ago they've been scrambling for ideas to come up with for yearly specials ever since. One year it was movie quotes, another it was top stars, another it was greatest thrills. This year's was ten top tens. The ten best films in ten different categories.
Here's how stupid it was, they couldn't find a category for their own #1 film, Citizen Kane. There was no category for Jaws, Psycho, Singing in the Rain, Cabaret, Top Hat (they've never heard of musicals), Raiders of the Lost Ark, Grapes of Wrath, Bringing Up Baby, Duck Soup, or any movie made before 1930. That's not the worst, their top ten courtroom dramas included Kramer vs. Kramer (there was a short courtroom scene or two, I think, I mean honestly who remembers that movie?) but NOT Inherit the Wind. Top ten courtroom dramas and no Inherit the Wind. Unbelievable.
While there was no musicals or pure comedies category (they had romantic comedies) they had top ten sports movies. Seriously. And get this, Jerry Maguire and Caddyshack were on it but not The Natural. They also had animated films. So we get Finding Nemo but no category for Casablanca.
So really this is not just me disagreeing with the omission of Big Sleep from the mystery category or My Darling Clementine from the Westerns, these people at AFI just opened themselves up for ridicule.
I'm afraid to ask but: what will the AFI think up for next year?

A Cocktail With Your Murder, Sir?


An attempted murder.  A man killed by scissors.  An innocent woman faces the gallows. Doesn't exactly sound like light fare does it? But in the hands of Alfred Hitchcock such a film can be quite a pleasant way to pass a couple of hours. I refer to Dial M for Murder (1954). 

Ray Milland is charming, debonair and oh, by the way, a calculating killer. Grace Kelly is his wife, blessed with equal parts wealth and beauty. Bob Cummings is her American lover and, in typical Hitchcockian fashion, we are in greater sympathy with Milland, the guilty than with Cummings, the innocent.

It's fascinating how Hitchcock could make audiences switch their allegiances and indeed root for the bad guy. Remember Tony Perkins trying to dispose of that car in Psycho? How did we feel when it wouldn't sink? Why, we were on HIS side, of all things.

Dial M for Murder is remarkable for a number of reasons, one of which is how 95% takes place in one rather small apartment but  never feels claustrophobic. Watch the way Hitchcock uses cameras and camera perspectives to create space. But at the same time he creates a kind of intimacy with the story and characters that would be lost if there were more outdoor scenes. And what characters they are. I no longer imbibe but if I did I'd love to have a scotch with Milland and even Cummings, as annoying a bloke as the latter could be. Even the "it man" is perfectly delightful chap. As for Kelly, well...I mean who wouldn't? And no one could be better at playing an English detective than John Williams who positively reeked wisdom and class. This was a much better role for him than as the chauffeur and father of Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina. Milland versus Williams in a battle of urbanity and ingenuity. A veritable clash of cultured titans!

It is London in the early 1950's and those of means enjoy a good drink and a bit of sophisticated banter along with perhaps a murder. Even at the point of being found out the guilty partyserves cocktails. (Interestingly, with all the drinking going on, no one seems to ever get so much as tipsy.)

For me Dial M is maybe Hitchcock' 12th, 13th best film which means it's far better than the vast majority of films from the vast majority of directors. Like a lot of his movies, it's not really a mystery but is rife with suspense. A watch stops, a key doesn't fit, someone forgets to...you know, edge of the seat stuff.

And done with such class.

18 June 2008

Coming soon....

Here are some movies I hope to see in theaters someday:

A scrappy rag tag bunch of athletes (maybe kids) are thrown together on one team. While some have latent athletic ability, they are virtually all plagued by personal demons or domestic instability. Enter a once highly revered star in the sport to coach them. He too is wrestling with a personal crisis, likely involving his significant other. The coach pulls it together and somehow inspires the team to do the same. After some embarrassing losses the team suddenly becomes unbeatable and heads into a championship game against a prohibitive favorite, an arrogant group not above bending the rules to achieve victory. Our heroes pull out a miraculous win that will have movie audiences cheering. Estranged family members, lovers and wise old grandparents are part of the joyous on screen celebration. Fun for all ages.

A mismatched duo fights crime eventually facing a seemingly unbeatable foe in a high stakes showdown. The two detectives initially bristle at working together as they come from different worlds, but these wise cracking cops find they have much in common. A beautiful woman is involved with one of them and at times it appear she just might not be on their side. Our heroes fun afoul of a gruff but lovable boss because of their maverick methods. Saddled with a suspension from their duties because of “stepping out of line”, the duo conducts a wildcat and technically illegal operation. But who cares when they save the day and bring the evil doers to justice. (Look for a sequel!)

Speaking of sequels...How about a sequel to a previous blockbuster? Who can say no? The same characters that we loved in a previous movie are back facing an even more formidable foe. A goofy or young or goofy young newcomer is in thrown into the mix.

Yes, sequels are great box office but how about....a remake! A previously popular old TV show or movie is brought back to life this time with modern sensibilities (profanity and sex) and high teach special effects. (Look for a cameo by an octogenarian member of the original cast.)

This has never been done before...An animated comedy full of cuddly characters given voice by a dizzying array of well known personalities. While its really for the kids, some of the humor will be directed to adults (the kids won't mind). Hey how about some toys, dolls, action figures, accessories to go with it?

An R rated gross out comedy ostensibly directed toward the college age set but with great appeal to high school and middle school kids. Raunchy but handsome guys look for good times, mostly in the form of booze and really hot babes. They stick it to the man while having consequence free sex. They also get totally baked with no ill effects. (But do look for a hilarious vomiting scene.) Careful, one of the lads just might learn a lesson.

Upon Further Review

Why do the films we love improve to us with subsequent viewings? Good question and I'm glad I asked it.
The first time we watch a movie it's to follow the story being told. Our view is rather flat, akin to listening to a song and just hearing the lyrics, not being quite aware of the phrasing or the instrumentals. It is with second and third viewings of a film that we start to appreciate how the story is told.
Notice the uncrinkling wrapper on the counter top in No Country for Old Men, why did the Coens focus on it and isn't it interesting? The iconic opening and closing shots in The Searchers are more poignant with each viewing. The faces in the streets of Vienna in The Third Man become more interesting. The interplay between Jean Harlow and Clark Gable while Harlow bathes in Red Dust. The rain in the Big Sleep. The dark wet mood of Blade Runner. Note the relationship in To Have and Have Not between Bogart and...Walter Brennan (you thought I was going to say Lauren Bacall but the Bogie/Brennan dynamic is worth following too). Stanwyck's seduction of Fonda in The Lady Eve (Sigh!).
Great films have great moments, great relationships, great cinema photography, great vision. In any good Cagney movie you start to notice his hands, like the way he rubs them together in Roaring Twenties or the way he touches Blondell in Blonde Crazy. So precise, so delicate, yet so masculine and confident. Like Burt Lancaster and how nimble he is on his feet. Lancaster was about as graceful walking as Astaire was dancing. In the really good films Cagney and Lancaster's physicality become all the more significant and pleasurable.
You also pick up sounds with increased viewings like the way Woody Allen uses music, I don't know that any director does it better. Or the ping of the sonar in Das Boot or the sound punches make in Raging Bull.
Movies have too much going on for you to be able to pick up everything one time through. A movie that has a good story to tell and tells it well is worth repeat viewings. You see camera angles and actor's mannerisms, you hear ambient noises, you understand director choices. In other words you start to appreciate why the story was so compelling the first time.
Yes it's nice when films aren't formulaic, but all the originality in the world won't save a film unless its told in an original interesting way.

17 June 2008

Visiting Shinbone


Meet some of my old friends: Dutton Peabody, Cassisus Starbuckle, Link Appleyard, Doc Willoughby, Pompey, Ransom Stoddard and Tom Doniphon. I like to hang out with them for a couple of hours every so often. They all live in a movie called The Man who Shot Liberty Valance. Mr. Valance is there too but doesn't make for such good company.
This 1962 John Ford film is peopled with colorful characters, all given free reign by the director to emote, evoke and elucidate. It's a damn entertaining story with themes aplenty ranging from the civilizing of the old west to the preeminence of legend in Americana. In the person of the title character there was one of cinema's most starkly drawn villains. You'll find no nuance to Lee Marvin's performance, he is pure black-hat-wearing bad guy and audiences just can't wait for the varmint to be shot deader than a mackerel.
There is far more subtlety and ambiguity to, of all people, John Wayne's performance as Doniphon. He's a wise cracking good guy who believes that justice should be administered from the barrel of a gun and never mind your fancy law books, pilgrim. He's also a man in love whose heart is easily broken. Clearly Doniphon wants to believe in the better angels of our nature but knows to believe in his rifle. Jimmy Stewart as Stoddard is the story's sane and sober centerpiece he bookends the movie as a highly respected politician most recently of the US Senate but at its core is an idealistic young lawyer trying to introduce -- more like force -- civilization into the west.
Edmund O'Brien who played a lot of lot drab middle aged white men in his time, is a revelation as the editor of Shinbone Star (what a great name for a newspaper!) and a grandiloquent drunk (O'Brien was similarly wonderful seven years later in The Wild Bunch). Drunk too is the town doctor, Doc Willoughby regally realized by Ken Murray. Andy Devine is the cowardly marshall, Link Appleyard (what a great name for a law man!). The cast also includes Denver Pyle, Strother Martin, Lee Van Clef, John Qualen, the lovely Vera Miles and Woody Storde as Pompey. Strode was a fine actor as evidenced in this film and as the heroic but doomed gladiator in Spartacus. Yes it is an amazing cast and it proves there are are no small parts only small actors.
What's it about? If you have to ask you need to rent this fine film soonest and enjoy!
I had the pleasure of spending two hours with this amazing group of people out in Shinbone today. As always I enjoyed it very much. I appreciate the story they have to tell, the morals to be learned from them, the history of the old west they relate but mostly just being around them is a delight (except for that bastard Valance -- hate him). I thank John Ford for bringing them together. I already look forward to my next visit.

My Favorite Films (English Language)

1. The Godfather (1972) Coppola
2. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) Capra
3. Casablanca (1942) Curtiz
4. Sunset Boulevard (1950) Wilder
5. Goodfellas (1990) Scorsese
6. Manhattan (1979) Allen
7. Cabaret (1972) Fosse
8. Raging Bull (1980) Scorsese
9. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) Capra
10. Vertigo (1958) Hitchcock
11. A Clockwork Orange (1971) Kurbrick
12. Duck Soup (1933) McCarey
13. Talk of the Town (1942) Stevens
14. Apocalypse Now (1979) Coppola
15. Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) Huston
16. The Godfather Part 2 (1974) Coppola
17. Schindler’s List (1993) Speilberg
18. Roaring Twenties(1939) Walsh
19. The Big Sleep (1946) Hawks
20. Sullivan’s Travels (1941) Sturges
21. The Wild Bunch (1969) Peckinpah
22. The Searchers (1956) Ford
23. Holiday (1938) Cukor
24. Stagecoach (1939) Ford
25. The Third Man (1949) Reed
26. The Maltese Falcon (1941) Huston
27. I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) LeRoy
28. Platoon (1986) Stone
29. Bullitt (1968) Yates
30. Network (1976) Lumet
31. The Great Escape (1963) J. Sturges
32. Foreign Correspondent (1940) Hitchock
33. JFK (1991) Stone
34. His Girl Friday (1940) Hawks
35. Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Lean
36. Meet John Doe (1941) Capra
37. The Sting (1973) Hill
38. Citizen Kane (1941) Welles
39. Saving Private Ryan (1998) Speilberg
40. Twentieth Century (1934) Hawks
41. Annie Hall (1977) Allen
42. The Crowd (1928) Vidor
43. Spartacus (1960) Kubrick
44. Blade Runner (1982) R. Scott
45. Zelig (1938) Allen
46. Minority Report (2002) Speilberg
47. Shanghai Express (1932) von Sternberg
48. Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944) P. Sturges
49. Red Dust (1932) Fleming
50. Wings (1927) Wellman
51. Notorious (1946) Hitchcock
52. The Graduate (1967) Nicholas
53. Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) LeRoy
54. Animal House (1978) Landis
55. To Have and Have Not (1944) Hawks
56. The Man Who Would Be King (1975) Huston
57. Bonnie & Clyde (1967) Penn
58. Local Hero (1983) Forsyth
59. The Letter (1940) Wyler
60. The Philadelphia Story (1940) Cukor
61. The Aviator (2004) Scorsese
62. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) Whale
63. The Lady Eve (1941) P. Sturges
64. Public Enemy (1931) Wellman
65. Five Star Final (1931) LeRoy
66. Dog Day Afternoon (1975) Lumet
67. Jaws (1975) Speilberg
68. The Last Picture Show (1971) Bogdanovich
69. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) Hill
70. Blonde Venus (1932) von Sternberg
71. Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) Lean
72. Glory (1989) Zwick
73. Broadway Danny Rose (1984) Allen
74. The Americanization of Emily (1964) Hiller
75. Groundhog Day (1993) Ramis
76. White Heat (1949) Walsh
77. Sweet Smell of Success (1957) Mackendrick
78. Mr. And Mrs. Smith (1941) Hitchcock
79. Inherit the Wind (1960) Kramer
80. Wild Boys of the Road (1933) Wellman
81. The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) Keighley
82. Dances With Wolves (1990) Costner
83. Marathon Man (1976) Schlesinger
84. A Bronx Tale (1993) DeNiro
85. Do the Right Thing (1989) Lee
86. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) Milestone
87. ET... (1982) Speilberg
88. The Conversation (1974) Coppola
89. The Big Parade (1925) Vidor
90. Bull Durham (1988) Shelton
91. Pulp Fiction (1994) Tarantino
92. The Grapes of Wrath (1940) Ford
93. Heroes for Sale (1933) Wellman
94. No Country for Old Men (2007) Coen
95. Libeled Lady (1936) Conway
96. Shadow of a Doubt (1943) Hitchcock
97. The Big Trail (1930) Walsh
98. Heat (1995) Mann
99. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) Wyler
100. Psycho (1960) Hitchcock

Another 100 (not in order):
The Shop Around the Corner (1940) Lubitsch
Baby Face (1933) Green
The Verdict (1982) Lumet
Mean Streets (1973) Scorsese
Philadelphia (1993) Demme
Dodsworth (1936) Wyler
Footlight Parade (1933) Bacon
The Exorcist (1973) Friedkin
Gold Rush (1925) Chaplin
Trouble in Paradise (1932) Lubistch
The Front (1976) Ritt
Diner (1982) Levinson
Gods & Monsters (1998) Condon
My Man Godfrey (1936) La Cava
Brother Orchid (1940) Bacon
Pleasantville (1998) Ross
Stripes (1981) Reitman
Alien (1979) R. Scott
Sunrise (1927) Murnau
The Parallax View (1974) Pakula
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) Spielberg
The Mayor of Hell (1933) Mayo
Gilda (1946) C. Vidor
Taxi! (1932) Del Ruth
The Natural (1984) Levinson
Gangs of New York (2002) Scorsese
The Set-Up (1949) Wise
Monkey Business (1931) McLeod
Rain (1932) Milestone
Little Big Man (1970) Penn
King Kong (1933) Cooper
Strangers on a Train (1951) Hitchcock
Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) Curtiz
Elephant Man (1980) Lynch
Red River (1948) Hawks
Greed (1924) von Stroheim
Fury (1936) Lang
The Manchurian Candidate (1962) Frankenheimer
The Major and the Minor (1942) Wilder
Rushmore (1998) Anderson
Modern Times (1936) Chaplin
The Killers (1946) Siodmak
Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) Allen
Animal Crackers (1930) Heerman
The Great Dictator (1940) Chaplin
Arthur (1981) Gordon
Trading Places (1983) Landis
Hell’s Angels (1930) Hughes
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) Ford
Brief Encounter (1945) Lean
The Male Animal (1942) Nugent
Some Like it Hot (1959) Wilder
The Dirty Dozen (1967) Aldrich
The More the Merrier (1943) Stevens
The Candidate (1972) Ritchie
Chinatown (1974) Polanski
Sea Wolf (1941) Sea Wolf
Scarface (1932) Hawks
Mildred Pierce (1945) Curtiz
Zodiac (2007) Fincher
Three Days of the Condor (1975) Pollack
American Beauty (1999) Mendes
Touch of Evil (1958) Welles
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) Capra
Harold and Maude (1981) Ashby
The African Queen (1951) Huston
Places in the Heart (1984) Benton
My Darling Clementine (1946) Ford
Horsefeathers (1932) McLeod
Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) P. Sturges
Bringing Up Baby (1938) Hawks
Taxi Driver (1976) Scorsese
Platinum Blonde (1931) Capra
Petrified Forrest (1936) Mayo
City Lights (1931) Chaplin
Wonder Boys (2000) Hanson
Ninochtka (1939) Lubitsch
Rebecca (1940) Hitchcock
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) C. Reiner
Lost Weekend (1945) Wilder
Dark Passage (1947) Daves
The Big Clock (1948) Farrow
Paths of Glory (1957) Kubrick
The Trouble With Harry (1955) Hitchcock
Midnight Cowboy (1969) Schlesinger
The Getaway (1972) Peckinpah
Ride the High Country (1962) Peckinpah
The Old Dark House (1932) Whale
Christmas in Connecticut (1945) Godfrey
The Great Man Votes (1939) Kanin
To Be Or Not To Be (1942) Lubitsch
Counsellor at Law (1933) Wyler
Ball of Fire (1941) Hawks
Westward the Women (1951) Wellman
It Happened One Night (1934) Capra
On the Waterfront (1954) Kazan
Morocco (1930) von Sternberg
Ed Wood (1994) Burton
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) Kazan
I Confess (1953) Hitchcock

16 June 2008

The Five W's


Director William Wellman's Westward the Women is wonderful.
According to TCM host Robert Osborne this film has been called the best example in a Hollywood production of "overt sisterhood." It concerns 140 women being taken west to California by wagon train in the early 1850s to serve as wives for the all male residents of a recently settled valley. Such goings on did go on in the old west and Westward the Women does a remarkable job of imaging such a journey.
The leader of the wagon train is played by Robert Taylor, perhaps Hollywood's prototypical handsome leading men of filmdom's golden age. Here he exercises his acting chops a bit more than usual and comes through with flying colors. He is as a hard-bitten, tough and unflinching as much of the land that must be traversed. It is a relatively anonymous group playing the women but they are nonetheless an exemplary ensemble cast.
Though director Wellman was nearing the end of his great career with this 1951 film, Westward the Women belongs on any list of his best films. There is here, as with many great westerns, a wonderful melding of character study set against the backdrop of a harsh conditions and hostile natives. Of course in this case we have the novelty of women, lots of them. This truly must be the feminists' dream. Strong, independent women, as tough as any man, banding together successfully. Sisterhood is powerful and it's a shame American films haven't explored that theme enough.
As a bonus attraction there is a Japanese character, played by Henry Nakamura, where one was not necessarily called for. While Nakamura is in the sidekick role, he is not presented as an unflattering stereotype.
Westward the Women is not only one of Wellman's best but ranks among the best westerns ever made.

15 June 2008

One Man's Love for His Life-Sized Doll


In my last entry I wrote about my frustration with the formulaic nature of the super hero genre. Well soon after finishing that post I watched Lars and the Real Girl, the story of a painfully shy man's love for his life-sized doll. There was no formula to follow with this story. Actually it could have gone for a lot of very easy and cheap laughs and while there are a number of guffaws in the film, it is a complete original.
Let's start with Ryan Gosling who was so bloody brilliant in Half Nelson. As Lars he gives another standing ovation worthy performance. Gosling is restrained and nuanced where most actors would have been broad and silly. He makes Lars a character we root for, not because of what he does but who he is and the struggle for humanity he so valiantly wages.
Lars is a sympathetic nice guy character but never cloying. His mother died while giving birth to him and his subsequently heartbroken father emotionally abandoned him. His brother and pregnant sister-in-law live in the family home, Lars resides in the garage. His emotional isolation is total until he sends away for a life sized doll which he names Bianca. Lars treats Bianca like a living being, the entire community, including the co-worker who has a crush on him, plays along with the delusion out of love and concern for Lars. Most movies rely on an antagonist, Lars and the Real Girls manages without a single bad guy. Amazing.
The movie never takes a wrong turn is touching without being maudlin, and earns its laughs, there are no cheapies. The ending is also satisfying.
Kudos to Nancy Oliver for the screenplay and Craig Gillespie for his direction. The supporting cast is perfect, notably Patricia Clarkson who seems constitutionally incapable of giving a bad performance.
Lars and the Real Girl is an inspiration; it shows what film can aspire to when it doesn't follow the simple formulas. My only quibble is with the marketing of the movie. I passed on it at the theaters having totally misread the nature of Lars and the Real Girl. I'd thought it followed some formula.

Been There Done That

Last week I saw Ironman, the latest cinematic realization of a comic book super hero. It came recommended and was not a hard sell for me as it stars an actor I'm quite fond of, Robert Downey Jr. Downey re-wrote a lot of his own dialogue giving his character wit and charm and helping making the story more appealing to us more snobbish film goers.
The movie was fun and the best of the genre I've seen since Tim Burton's first Batman starring Michael Keaton. But ultimately Ironman was just another formula movie. Here's that formula:
*Explore the creation of a new super hero, first by introducing the alter ego and then showing how he came to have his super power.
*Show just how awesome our hero's talents are.
*Introduce the love interest, the sidekicks and some stick figure villains.
*Run of the mill bad guys get their asses kicked.
*Hint at who the real villain is, we promise to act surprised.
*Make everything seem jake before setting up the climatic show down.
*The show down must at some point seem lost, only to have our hero affect a dramatic victory.
*Give us a chuckle at the end and the suggestion of a sequel.
(Meanwhile don't forget possible marketing tie-ins, hey, ya gotta make a buck when you can.)
It worked for Spiderman, Batman Begins and all the other super hero moves I've seen and the many I've missed and it worked for Ironman.
Besides Downey Gwenyth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges were very good. The special effects were dynamite (when AREN'T they these days?) and the pacing was good.
But ultimately this was just another variation on a theme. Can we try something different next time Hollywood?

14 June 2008

What a world


I just the other day watched The World of Henry Orient for the first time in over 40 years. It's weird to revisit a movie after such a long time. Two 14 year old private school girls in New York City become obsessed with and literally follow around a womanizing concert pianist, Henry Orient, played by Peter Sellers. This was a transitional role, an odd one at that, for Sellers coming as it did between Dr. Strangelove and Shot in the Dark.
This is not a Sellars movie, it belongs to the two teens. I think this explains why he didn't have his heart in the role. He played a Brooklyn native who affected a faux Continental European accent but his switches between the two accents were often so quick and subtle that they were devoid of the sort of comic timing that was a Sellars trademark.
Watching the movie today I remembered having a crush on one of the two girls as a kid, Val the brunette. I don't blame my younger self. She was not a great beauty but cute and obviously bright, eccentric and seemingly accessible to an ordinary Joe. I'm much prouder of that crush than the one I had on Haley Mills. Val's mother doesn't show up until half way through the film and who's this? Why its Angela Lansbury, two decades before Murder, She Wrote playing a character more akin to the diabolical Mrs. Iselin from the original Manchurian Candidate. The role of her cuckold husband went to Tom Bosley, best known for the avuncular father in Happy Days.
This was number three of only 13 movies directed by George Roy Hill, the two most famous of which starred Paul Newman and Robert Redford.
Filmed and set in 1964, The World of Henry Orient is an interesting time capsule. It was an America on the cusp of the massive sea change brought on by the Beatles and the ensuing cultural revolution. Women still wore gloves and youthful rebellion was innocent and fun and not about "changing the system." Parents were either loving, supportive and indulgent or like Lansbury's somewhat one dimensional character, just the rare rotten apple. Adults do not represent a broken political system.
It's interesting to note that according to their imdb bios, the brunette teen played by Tippy Walker, had a short acting career and went on to be what used to be called a Bohemian artist. The blonde Merrie Spaeth also had an abbreviated acting career but she subsequently gained fame by helping coordinate the notorius Willie Horton ads and then the whole Swift Boat Veterans for truth (is THAT what they wanted?) campaign. In other words she became a complete tool.
The movie also featured Paula Prentiss is one of Orient's love interests. To me Prentiss is one of the iconic women of '60's film and TV. She was sexy and funny in an odd way that is best replicated today by Cameron Diaz. Prentiss had that weird voice that always made her sound half drunk. She seemed vulnerable yet intelligent. Prentiss has been married to Richard Benjamin for 47 years, its hard to imagine a couple more deserving of each other.
Seeing The World of Henry Orient again wasn't just about watching a mildly entertaining movie, it was also about a recalling a time period, recalling my own youth and seeing what odd turns acting careers can take. This is one of the great benefits of film, they can recall a time in a way not necessarily intended and they can recall who we were and what we were like when we first saw it. Every time I see The Great Escape I am reminded of the young me who was so entranced by Steve McQueen and the movie as a whole. Seeing Henry Orient recalled an early crush and a glimpse at the curious minds of that other gender that I was just starting to become interested n.

11 June 2008

What a trip


I start with a confession: Until a few days ago I'd never heard of a movie called The Big Trail. Today I'm about ready to rank it among my all time favorites.
This hidden gem was only recently released on DVD. The Big Trail, directed by Raoul Walsh, was released in 1930 and promptly flopped at the box office.
The movie follows a mid 19th century wagon train heading west from Missouri. An impossibly young looking John Wayne is the head scout in his first starring role. The journey is peopled by a disparate group of settlers who add to the requisite color of great westerns. But the real star of this movie is the scenery. The Big Trail is vast in scope. Great horizons, majestic vistas, forbidding deserts, regal snow capped mountains and seemingly endless prairies. The Big Trail is simply gorgeous.
But how could such a film be made in 1930 so many years before even Vista Vision?
With the ill-fated grandeur process, that's how. ( Don't worry, I hadn't heard of it either.) The Big Trail was shot simultaneously in the standard 35mm of the time and a 70mm that is the equal of today's high definition process. Grandeur was ultimately the victim of the Great Depression as theaters couldn't afford to convert their projectors and projection rooms to suit the grandeur technology. What a shame.
As one of the talking heads on the DVD's making of featurette said, The Big Trail seems every bit as much a documentary as it does a rollicking tale of fiction. Indeed, the cast and crew lived the conditions they filmed in numerous locales covering seven different states. I've never seen a Western that seemed so authentic. Some movies make you feel as if you've been transported to a time and place, none more so than the Big Trail. Each shot tells numerous stories. The characters and their struggles, tragedies and triumphs, the animals, the wagons and mother nature.
I honestly didn't follow much of the story line with my first viewing, I just enjoyed the ride. Ands I'm quite certain I enjoyed it a darn sight better than people who actually embarked on such trips, whether to fulfill this country's Manifest Destiny, or to make a movie about it.
Now, I wonder what else is out there that I still haven't heard of.

10 June 2008

Not Another Nip 'o Scotch!

Film trivia question: Who directed both The Maltese Falcon and The Aviator? I know what you're thinking, John Huston directed The Maltese Falcon and Martin Scorsese directed the Aviator. But Roy Del Ruth directed both! He directed the original version of The Maltese Falcon (since re-titled Dangerous Female). Huston's 1941 film was actually the third shot at Dashiell Hammett's story (Satin Met A Lady directed by William Dieterle and starring Warren William and Bette Davis was number two).
Okay so Del Ruth directed a movie called The Maltese Falcon but he also directed one called The Aviator which bears no resemblance to Scorsese's film. I could have thrown a third into the mix for Del Ruth directed Taxi! starring James Cagney and Loretta Young an outstanding film in which Cagney almost says "you dirty rat, you killed my brother" as so many impersonators subsequently misquoted him intoning. There was another Taxi made a few years ago that starred Jimmy Fallon and Queen Latifah which apparently reeked to high heaven.
Del Ruth was a prolific director with 110 titles to his credit including several other Cagney films such as Lady Killer and Blonde Crazy and another outstanding feature starring Ms. Young, Employees Entrance.
While there were subsequent versions of both The Maltese Falcon and The Aviator I believe Del Ruth has directed the only versions to date of the following films: Flip Flops, Ham and Eggs at the Front, and Nip 'o Scotch.
By the way Del Ruth's Maltese Falcon, while not in a league with Huston's classic is a pretty good movie in its own right starring the underrated Ricardo Cortez as Spade with the delightful Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly.

09 June 2008

That'll Be A Wrap

The ending can make or break a movie. I loved the ending of No Country for Old Men. It turned the notion of tying everything up at the end on its head. I'd call it a nice touch of realism. In real life, life goes on. Life is rarely episodic in the manner of TV shows. Some mysteries go unsolved, some criminals are not caught. Life does not always have a showdown. So why should movies? Of course, No Country the film was remarkably faithful to No Country the book which ended the same way.
I thought about movie endings the other day after renting Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream. I thought the movie was brilliant for the first 100 minutes, then Allen stuck a tidy little 50's film noir ending to it. This did not ruin the entire film for me but it dealt it a severe blow.
Endings should be seamless, not forced in or tacked on. It felt like Allen had a different ending in mind but changed it for a bad reason. What that reason would be is open to speculation. Allen is traditionally a master of ending his films from Manhattan (one of cinema's greatest endings) to Zelig to Small Time Crooks, he knows how to put a period to his work.
Surprise endings are good whether they make you cheer (The Sting) or scream (Carrie) or are of the Usual Suspects I-can't-believe-he-was-Keyser-Soze-but-it-all-makes-sense-now variety.
In the production code era there were less surprises with endings. The bad guy couldn't get away with it which forced some silly endings (The Killing) and unfair ones (Out of the Past) onto really good movies.
Some endings are visually poetic like The Searchers or visually dramatic like Goodfellas. But it is less important for a movie to end beautifully than for it to end sensibly.

07 June 2008

On the train with Marlene


One of the great frustrations for lovers of classic films over the years has been those movies that are NOT available on DVD. Gradually that list has diminished but there are still some greats that have yet to be released. This would include many of director William Wellman's works such as Wild Boys of the Road, Heroes for Sale and Wings. Besides Wings silent classics like Greed and The Big Parade await release. A few Jean Harlow gems such as Red Dust and Bombshell are unavailable. Last night I got to watch (thanks to Turner Classic Movies, the greatest TV channel on cable) Shanghai Express starring Marlene Dietrich, directed by Joseph von Sternberg. While other Dietrich greats such as Blonde Venus and Morocco are part of the Marlene Dietrich Glamour Collection, Shanghai Express is nowhere to be found on DVD.
Its a crying shame as this is a true classic.
von Sternberg directed six of Dietrich's films and the two were lovers. One wonders if von Sternberg's adoration of the German-born star influenced the manner in which the camera (he often performed his own cinema photography) lovingly focused on Dietrich, particularly her face in medium range shots. Of course Shanghai Express was made in the early 1930's a time when Hollywood in general knew how to create and promote female stars. Shanghai Express is the ultimate star vehicle. While the story as a whole is excellent and well told, to watch it is to, if not fall in love with Dietrich, at least become entranced by her.
In short the film is about one journey of the express train from Peking to Shanghai. As in John Ford's Stagecoach, a disparate cast of characters are thrown into a journey fraught with peril and filled with romance.
Not incidentally Anna May Wong co-stars. She is very nearly in Dietrich's league which is high praise indeed. In fact TCM showed the film to focus on Wong as part of their look this month at Asians in cinema. It was an excellent choice.
Now someone get this thing out on DVD. I'll buy the first copy.

05 June 2008

Baby it's Cold Outside

I find clear, sunny days boring. Oh every once in awhile I'll welcome the sun's warming rays and appreciate an azure sky, but give me fog any day. I particularly like a low fog, but will settle for overcast. Drizzle is good, rain is great. Wind is nice too but never on a warm day. Matter of fact I prefer cold weather.
Much of my enjoyment in life comes from indoor activities. You don't need sun to read a book, watch a movie or listen to music. A cup of tea and the crossword puzzle work better on a misty day. I like huddling inside a sweatshirt, not sweating outside in a tee shirt.
A repetition of sunny days is particularly unexciting. I feel more alive when there's variety in the weather (minus heat, oh I really hate hot days they make me so sluggish and even depressed).
I think I'd probably be happiest living on the coast of Scotland. They've got some ideal weather there. Indeed the British Isles are perfect. I was in London for a few days two years ago and never had to deal with the sun or warmth. For variety's sake a little rain was thrown into the mix.
I know this makes me different than most of my contemporaries. Most love a sunny Saturday when they can to put on their shorts, a big straw hat and putter in their garden, or go for a bike ride, or take a back packing trip. Give em a cold damp Saturday so I can be particularly cozy as I settle on the sofa and watch a John Ford film.

04 June 2008

One for the birds

Have birds always been this chatty or am I just starting to notice them? Generally speaking I like the sound of birds chirping so this is by no means a complaint. In fact, sometimes I really enjoy their chatter, particularly when there are no other sounds filling the air. But they do seem louder lately.
Maybe I'm a tad more sensitive to their yakking because of our cat's recently foiled murder. Lucy Lu is a serial killer when it comes to birds. I find myself begrudgingly proud of her hunting prowess when she brings her latest catch into the house. She's a virile predator, not just a cuddly kitty. But more than that there's a sense of sorrow at the sight of the recently deceased (there's nothing but appreciation if the victim is a rodent).
So a few weeks ago she brought in a young bird that was still quite alive, if wounded. I shooed them out the door initially leaving the bird to its sad fate (hiss me if you must). Then I noticed what must have been the bird's mother on the railing creating quite a racket. Another bird (the Dad?) veritably hovered in angry watch of the killing scene. I took pity and pulled Lucy Lu into the house and closed the door. Lucy was not amused. I watched from the window as the bird struggled to its feet and eventually walked down the steps, to the sidewalk and at last took flight. In addition to the two birds, a squirrel watched this touching scene.
I don't think the local birds like our cat much. I imagine they often issue warnings about her presence and many of their songs are in celebration of narrow escapes and perhaps even the youngster I rescued.
Sing on my feathered friends.

03 June 2008

No sweat

Why do I run on the treadmill at the gym rather than on the streets of our fair city?
* Less risk of getting hit by a car. Cars tend not be within the walls of the YMCA.
* No occasion to stop at an intersection bouncing up and down while waiting for a light to change.
* No risk of hostile dogs.
* Much less wear and tear on feet and knees.
* Don't have to worry about startling or grazing pedestrians.
* Am able to monitor number of calories burned, adjust speed and incline, accurately track time and distance with the greatest of ease.
* Can stretch on comfortable mats before and after run and after have a weight room at my disposal then a sauna.
I hope that addresses any lingering questions about why I run at the treadmill in the gym.
As for why run or workout in the first place, the answer to that is simple: because it feels so good when I stop.

02 June 2008

Till it's Over

I have to stay to the end. A lot of people leave a baseball game early especially when the score gets to be something like 12-2. Not me. I liken it to putting down a book with a few pages left or leaving a movie before the closing credits (for that matter, I stay through the credits). I have to wait until the story is fully told, whether in a book, movie or game. You never know what you might miss by leaving early. The greatest play of the game could come in the last half inning. You wanna take a chance of missing that? Not me. That's the thing about athletic competition, a story is unfolding before your eyes, a real life drama. You want to take a chance on missing the final act? Again, not me. I want to get the full story. I never assume how its going to end, I've seen too many surprises. After all, I was there for the finish of the 1982 Big Game. That'll keep you believing. I have had thrill and heartache in the closing seconds or late innings. I've also seen some nice moments that maybe didn't effect the final outcome, but I'm glad I stayed for.

01 June 2008

The Getaway


Just saw "The One That Got Away" a 1957 British film about the one German POW to escape from the Brits during World War II, Franz von Werra. It's a remarkable enough story and director Roy Ward Baker did an excellent job of making a taut, exciting thriller.
What struck me about the story is the manner in which it turns the viewer's usual rooting interests on it head. Or does it? We're used to rooting for the POW to get away, like Steve McQueen in "The Great Escape." But this prisoner is a Nazi, for crying out loud. I found myself with mixed emotions, he's a bad guy and within the bad guys he's a lying publicity hound. Instead of thinking him clever I often fumed at the bumbling of his captors. Then again in defense of the Brits he WAS the only one to escape (and not on the first try) and he was awfully clever and persistent, nay, obsessed.
Movies often focus on a character who is obsessed. After all, the story of someone giving up doesn't make for very good drama.
Anyway, "The One That Got Away" is worth a look both for how well it was made and because of how it challenges our usual automatic support of the protagonist. Knowing how it turns out a second viewing might allow the viewer to just watch the story unfold and appreciate a good film.
While the story that is there is a good one it stops just past half way through von Werra's war time experiences. From what the epilogue says it might take a mini series to tell his full tale. And we'd still be confused about cheering him on.

Health care for all

Should you have to be rich to get good health care? No of course not. You want a mansion, horses, yachts and vacations in Monte Carlo, then sure you need to be rich and I’m willing to concede that. But whether you’ve got ten million in the bank or ten cents the medical treatement you get should not vary. We are guaranteed “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." To me that guarantee implies that your medical needs will be taken care of regardless of your bank account. It's not just flat our wrong that medical care varies based on income it's bloody Un-American. There should not even need to be a discussion here. Based on this view some people might call me a socialist. Go ahead, I'd welcome the label. Especially if it suggests that I'm opposed to greed, corruption and profit before principles. We're a filthy rich country with a little people living in filth. It's crazy and its crazy that some people's medical needs go wanting because they're poor. Just crazy.