27 February 2009

Truth is Ever so Much Grander Than Fiction

No, I did not make the following up.

In the early years of the 20th century there was in Britain a Commissioner for Lunacy (that is strange enough for me right there) whose name was Sir Thomas Clifford Allbutt. See what you can find out when you read books? I do believe that Mr. Allbutt, given his title, surpasses my previous favorite name, another Brit, footballer Dean Windass.

25 February 2009

Visit Exotic Locales in Exciting Times -- See a Movie!


With the economy looking like something the cat dragged in many people can't afford a vacation. But that doesn't mean you can't can't take a trip via the magic of movies. Not only can you see an unfamiliar locale you can also time travel. The family and I enjoyed seeing Paris two months ago but how much more exciting would have been if we'd traveled back in time and seen it during the Reign of Terror or amid the German Occupation or while the while under siege by the Prussian army? Okay bad examples. The point is that through film you can often get a sense of a faraway place in times past. Sometimes that look is not completely accurate but it can still give the viewer a feeling for the time period and tickle the imagination.

As your cinematic travel agent I've got a few suggestions for places and time periods you might like to see. The beauty of these travel packages is that they'll set you back no more than the cost of a movie rental and in each case you'll be enjoying a fine film in the process.

See Berlin in 1931 via Cabaret (1972). (See photo above.) What a bargain vacation this is! You get high end entertainment from the likes of Liza Minelli and Joel Grey. Lots of sex, the crescendo of Berlin's wild and wholly nightclub scene of the Wiemar era and the ominous rise of the Nazis. Okay, so no trip is perfect. But as ominous as those Nazis lurking in the background are, they're not quite in power yet so just enjoy some of the grandest musical numbers ever to grace the screen.

See Vienna in the late 1940s via The Third Man (1949). Want to buy some penicillin? Meet Harry Lime. Shady character. Other black market goods are available too. There's also an American author of Westerns, one Holly Martins. A lovely, if moody, actress named Anna Schmidt is likewise around. You'll also see war ravaged Vienna in all its magnificent rubble. Take in a nightclub, the theater and a presentation by Martens. Tours of the Viennese sewer system also provided.

See West Texas circa 1987 via No Country For Old Men (2007). BYOW (bring your own water). Stark, dry country with vistas that stretch forever. Some of the towns and cities are not terribly exotic, but oh the people you'll meet. Why there comes Anton now, he of the cheap haircut. Maybe you can toss coins with him. You'll see some simple but quite functional hotel rooms, get an introduction to the proper use of firearms and visit the Mexican border. Horseback riding and pick up truck trips included. Just be careful not to pick up any satchels filled with enormous sums of money. That just tends to set Anton off.

See New York in the 1860's via Gangs of New York (2002). Mind your pocketbooks folks. In fact, maybe you just better bring a bodyguard or a pistol. Dangerous though this city may be it's full of colorful rogues and their affiliates. Best to not involve yourself and enjoy the show. There's Monk McGinn, here comes Boss Tweed and look see Bill The Butcher (Irish beware) and say hello to Hell-Cat Maggie -- from a safe distance. Yes you're about to experience New York's notorious five points district. You'll see the streets, the homes (such as they are) and the business establishments. A tour of the finer districts is also provided. For your further entertainment pugilism sans rules will be offered.

See San Francisco in 1958 via Vertigo (1958). The city by the bay was never lovelier nor more full of color. The hills, the neighborhoods, the Bay, the Golden Gate and its bridge. Missions are part of the tour as is a fine eatery, Ernie's, no longer extant. You'll also get to hop along some rooftops, but if you're afraid of heights I'd skip it. An interesting segment of San Francisco history will be introduced by a bookstore owner. A few drives out of the city will provide pleasant diversion. Your guides will be an ex cop and a knockout blonde. They're a cute couple, just stay out of bell towers with them.

See Paris in the early 1930's via Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932). Paris was no less beautiful 70 years ago and a look at it in black and white doesn't diminish its grandeur a whit. With this tour you'll see the city both through a tramp and an an upper middle class family and even see what unfolds when their worlds meet. Take a dip in the Seine. See the shops, the slums, the fringes of the city. Meet one kooky mendicant.

See Bruges today via In Bruges (2008). My friend Colin doesn't much care for the place but you might find this Belgium city, the Venice of the North, a beautiful locale indeed. You'll marvel at the medieval architecture, the canals, the belfry with carillon. Many sights to see including the exciting escapades of two Irishmen on a most peculiar holiday. Maybe you'll be lucky and they'll be filming a movie while you're there.

See Warsaw during WWII via The Pianist (2002). Not a sight for the faint of heart but a fascinating trip for the history buff. See the terrible human toll of the Holocaust on one European city and the physical devastation caused by war. Rubble everywhere. You'll swear you're really there and you'll be glad you're not when you witness the treatment of the Jews at the hands of Nazi occupiers. There is a gifted pianist at the center of the story (hence the title) and you'll enjoy meeting him and his struggle to survive against all odds. An inspiring journey to be sure.

See Rome in 1960 via La Dolce Vita (1960). You'll be in no hurry to leave. Glamour, romance, excitement, beauty, did I say glamour? You'll also witness the birth of the paparazzi, at least by name (again no trip is perfect). But what delightful folks you'll meet. Marcello, Sylvia, Maddalena to name but a few of the beautiful people. With Federico Fellini as your guide you can't go wrong. You'll enjoy much of Rome and some of its outskirts. Seven days and nights of living life to the hilt in the eternal city!

See Rio in the 1960s through the 1980s via City of God (2002). Watch out for the little rascals! You'll be slumming some on this trip but what a fascinating sociological study it will make! In its own way picturesque, this trip may give you insight into the human condition. Perhaps you'll be inspired to act for those less fortunate. A great trip for the social activist.

Oh the places you can go! More cinematic travel suggestions to come in the future.

24 February 2009

Jake and Jabez, Two Stories of Tortured Souls



So yesterday I watched Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980) in the afternoon and then took in William Dieterle's The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) in the evening. Couldn't have selected two movies that were any more different, could I?

You'd think....

By the middle of The Devil & Daniel I was beginning to notice some strong similarities, notwithstanding the brilliance of both films.

In one we have Robert DeNiro as Jake LaMotta, a gifted boxer of the 1940's and 50's. He had fame, riches, a devoted brother, a loving wife and children. But it all vanished. Jake was his own worst enemy. An uncontrollable temper and a tendency to a jealousy as prodigious as his pugilistic talent, were flames burning at his soul as if straight from hell.

Straight to hell, that's where Jabez Stone was headed after a literal bargain with the devil, in this case assuming the name of Scratch. His own farm, good friends a loving wife and children were not enough for Jabez. The hard work too often ended in frustration and debtors bayed at his door. The seven years of riches promised by Scratch were too good to pass up, never mind the eternal cost down the road.

The money proved an evil master and the kindly and generous Jabez soon became consumed by pernicious greed turning old friends into hardened enemies.

LaMotta ended up very much alone. The glory was a memory. The wife and children gone. The brother alienated. He was clearly a victim of his own internal demons.

Stone's wife remained loyal but his friends were now enemies and all his wealth could not bring true happiness.

Similarities with the two films do not end there. They are both utterly gorgeous. Raging Bull, with all its violence, is one of the most visually stunning movies ever made. Actually if you don't already know that I suggest you stop reading this blog right now and go rent yourself a copy. You'll be treating yourself to one of the most critically acclaimed films ever. Go on, I'm not kidding....So those of you who are left doubtless have seen Raging Bull and know what I'm talking about. But there's probably many, many more of you who have never seen The Devil and Daniel.

Folks, they had special effects 60 plus years ago. And for the most part it came in the form of masterful camera work and an occasional slight of hand. CGI? Not necessary. Especially when you've got the luster of black and white.

A few years ago the good people at Criterion dusted off the original print of the movie and worked their magic to restore it to its original form. Shading and lighting are everything (anyone who would consider colorizing this movie should be beaten with a rusty rake). Now if you're among the many who've not seen this film recently, go out and rent it. Pronto. You'll marvel at this vastly underrated film, its wonderful cast, timeless story and breathtaking cinema photography. See for yourself. Anyone left here?

Yes, I got off on a tangent. But as you can see it wasn't so much of a stretch to compare these two seemingly very different films. Both concern an eternal theme that movies can illuminate so well -- the most important war a person can fight, the one within the soul. Jake raged against his opponents and those around him, but let the better angels of his nature get pummelled by inner demons. He did not die in prison or prematurely (the real life LaMotta yet lives) and figuratively fought on. Jabez sold out, as so many have before and since. He was lucky to have the eloquent and devoted orator and statesmen, Daniel Webster represent him "in court" and in victory learned the error of his ways. The ongoing struggles to cleanse or save our souls effect not just ourselves but those around us. It is struggle fought and won or lost in many ways. These two films illuminate that fact.

And by way of a lengthy P.S., don't miss some great supporting performances in these two films. Joe Pesci as Jake's brother in Raging Bull and Walter Huston as Scratch. The Devil and Daniel is also an interesting attack on Republican style greed and individualism and a ringing endorsement of socialist style share the burden, share the wealth. Farmers form a Grange to help support one another. When Stone finds wealth he spurns the Grange and exploits its members with what is essentially predatory lending. In his redemption he sees the errors of having been so greedy.

Hey! I just noticed something else! The central character in both films have a first name that begins with a J! How bout that?

22 February 2009

After Strong Start Oscars Revert to Form, Rewards Mediocrity


This year's annual Most Bloated Show on Earth (aka the Academy Awards) got off to a promising start. Penelope Cruz was awarded the best supporting actress award for her wonderful performance in Woody Allen's Vicky Christina Barcelona. Cruz had won the same award from this blogger.

Then the best original screenplay went to Dustin Lance Black for Milk (photo above). Not only was the statuette well deserved but he gave the acceptance speech of the night:

"Oh my God. This was, um, this was not an easy film to make. First off, I have to thank Cleve Jones and Anne Kronenberg and all the real-life people who shared their stories with me. And, um, Gus Van Sant, Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, James Franco and our entire cast, my producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, everyone at Groundswell and Focus for taking on the challenge of telling this life-saving story.

When I was 13 years old, my beautiful mother and my father moved me from a conservative Mormon home in San Antonio, Texas to California, and I heard the story of Harvey Milk. And it gave me hope. It gave me the hope to live my life. It gave me the hope one day I could live my life openly as who I am and then maybe even I could even fall in love and one day get married.

I wanna thank my mom, who has always loved me for who I am even when there was pressure not to. But most of all, if Harvey had not been taken from us 30 years ago, I think he'd want me to say to all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told that they are less than by their churches, by the government or by their families, that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value and that no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you and that very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights federally, across this great nation of ours.

Thank you. Thank you. And thank you, God, for giving us Harvey Milk".


Later the best supporting actor award went posthumously to Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight. It was a tearfest folks, even here at Riku Writes headquarters.

There followed a parade of awards for Slumdog Millionaire. It was a nice enough film but quite mediocre compared to the best movies of 2008. Its victory for adapted screenplay was particularly egregious given what an ultimately unchallenging story it was. This was your basic graphic novel stuff. Danny Boyle's direction was inventive but too gimmicky for my tastes yet he won the best director award.

Kate Winslet won best actress for the wrong movie. She would have been a worthy winner for Revolutionary Road although even that was only the second best performance of the year. Kristin Scott Thomas for I Loved Your For So Long gave the performance of the decade and the academy didn't even deem her worthy of a nomination. (I reckon it to be an Oscar mandate that Meryl Streep gets an annual nomination.)

Perhaps the most deserving winner of the evening was Sean Penn for Milk. He positively embodied the character of the late Harvey Milk. In his acceptance speech Penn called out all the bigots who supported California's Proposition 8 which bans gay marriage in California. The odious Ken Starr is trying to overturn those gay weddings that took place before the 8's passage.

The show itself was sadly lacking. Hugh Jackman seemed an odd choice as a host. He was charming but when you compare him to previous hosts such as Steve Martin and Jon Stewart, the Aussie wasn't anywhere near up to snuff. The tribute to those who died in the last year was ruined by the ridiculous decision to not just go full frame. We could barely see Cyd Charisse as the third grader who directed the segment at the point gave us a long shot of the screen. Saving Paul Newman until the end and including some of his dialogue was the only redeeming touch.

One of the things the Oscars traditionally does well is the clips from years past. There was virtually none of it this year save for the clever splicing of past winners with this year's best picture nominees.

So this year's Oscars were true to form. Variously infuriating, boring, touching and interesting. Like an accident, I hate myself for watching, but how could I have looked away?

21 February 2009

"One dog goes one way, the other dog goes the other way, and this guy's sayin', 'Whadda ya want from me?'" Goodfellas, A Case of Great Story Telling.


The 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant said that we never truly know what the outside world is like because all knowledge of it is based on perception and that all perception is based on the structure and limitations of our senses. Another philosopher, William James, went to far as to say that the only truths that were at all relevant were those with beneficial effects. I suppose him to mean that it is true that drinking water is healthy while drinking battery acid is harmful. If Kant and James are at all correct, how can their be any universal truths or agreements about films?

We all watch a movie with our set of biases, beliefs and experiences. What resonates for one person may be utterly meaningless, perhaps even silly for another. While some may have weeped while watching Love Story (1970) others might burst out laughing. Some consider The Seven Samurai (1954) high art and others are bored to tears by it. Moreover we see films at different points in our life. A movie that thrilled us as a teenager may seem tedious as an adult. A movie may seem more or less meaningful to a person depending on the given day they see it. External stimuli, recent events in our life can alter how we perceive a movie.

Some people, foolishly, I believe, try to convince others that they are wrong about liking or disliking a movie. It's akin to saying, "no, you had a great time at the party" or "no, you did not enjoy that meal you just ate."

Even the reasons several people have for liking or disliking a film may and often do vary. For example there are any number of different reasons for liking Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas(1990). Amazingly, there are some people who don't like the film. To any of those people reading this post I say, try back another time, this one's not for you.

Goodfellas is the amazing and largely true story of Henry Hill's raise and fall as a New York gangster from the late 1950's through 1980. Hill entered the witness protection program after a narcotics arrest. His story was the basis of Nicholas Pillegi's book WIseguys upon which Goodfellas is based. Goodfellas chronicles his life from teenaged errand boy for local mobsters to an affiliate with the Lucchese crime family. It includes depictions of such other real crime figures as Jimmy Burke, Tommy DeSimone and Paul Vario, portrayed by Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Paul Sorvino, respectively.

I am not alone in regarding the film was one of the greatest ever made. However, in the spirit of this particular post I will allow that there area all variety of opinion on the movie and whether and why it deserves a place among the greats in film history.

The case has been made that Goodfellas glamorizes organized crime. Some people have objected to the violence, drug use, sex, and profanity in the movie. Still others claim that it is a cautionary tale about the devastating costs of the criminal life such as early death, prison and drug addiction.

I'm not particularly interested in either view. I simply see Goodfellas as vibrant, exciting film making. Pacing is everything in Goodfellas. With the aid of multiple Oscar winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Goodfellas flows like a river. But this is no placid stream. It's a wild ride folks. A hint of what is to come is in Goodfella's amazing opening sequence. It's a prologue in which a supposedly dead mobster in the trunk of car being driven to his burial starts raising a ruckus. Hill, played by Ray Liotta, and two cohorts park by the roadside and make sure their already bloody victim is good and dead with a few well placed knife thrusts and pistol shots. As Hill goes to close the trunk, freeze frame on his face and we hear his voiceover in which he says: "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster." Then, prophetically, we hear Tony Bennett sing, "Rags to Riches." The opening credits then zip vertically across the screen. Beautiful.

As is the closing shot of a bored Hill now a participant in the witness protection program living in suburbia. Hill complains, “I'm an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” Then Scorsese offers an homage to the closing scene of The Great Train Robbery (1903) with Pesci’s character firing shots at the camera. As the closing credits come on we hear My Way, sung not by Sinatra, but Sid Viscous.

Great movies attain their stature both because of their seamlessly and memorable scenes. Goodfellas is lousy with unforgettable cinematic moments such as Pesci’s “what’s so funny about me scene?” that doubtless helped him secure the best supporting Actor Oscar.

For Goodfellas, Scorcese pulled out every trick in the book. Freeze frames, fast cuts, long tracking shots, narration from two characters (besides Hill we hear his wife, played by Lorraine Bracco). It all works. There’s not a wasted second in the film.

One reason Mafia films in particular and crime films in general have been so successful is because they are often populated with colorful characters. With a cast the likes of Pesci, DeNiro, Sorvino and Frank Vincent, Scorcese brought a perfect team to play those characters. He also brought his unerring sense of what music to use. No director, current or past, save Woody Allen, is better at integrating music into film. You notice the songs and you also notice how well they work, how they add tension, or irony or mood.

Goodfellas succeeds at the highest aspiration of film: it entertains and illuminates. It shines a very bright light on myriad issues of contemporary and philosophical natures. The lure of living outside society, flouting its rules, unhesitatingly resorting to violence when necessary. All these seem temptations. Says Hill: “For us to live any other way was nuts. To us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day and worried about their bills were dead. I mean they were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something we just took it. If anyone complained twice they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again.”

But of course we see where it all ends and the grim reality of the criminal's lot is never more evident than in a memorable sequence of a coked up Hill on the day of his arrest. We can practically feel his heart-pumping, anxiety, his hangover, his very obvious paranoia as a helicopter hovers above wherever he goes. It is at once uncomfortable and exhilarating to watch. The whole damn movie is like that. When a gangster is beaten to death it's ugly and unpleasant (as it should be) but a thrill to watch.

Crime doesn’t pay. But this movie pays off. Goodfellas is great story telling --at least in my reality.

19 February 2009

Riku Writes Poll Numbers are Through the Roof!!!


Imagine my surprise and delight this morning when I received notification of a recent poll conducted by the prestigious Hugo Z Hackenbush Polling Institute. This internationally renowned institute regularly conducts polls in which respondents are given the names of ten famous people, some living some dead, and asked to identify which individual they view most favorably. For a recent poll I was among the ten named and I'm proud to say that I received the highest score ever. The poll is quite scientific in nature, asking people of all ages, genders, sexual preference, religions, ethnic groups etc. from around the world. Anyway, here are the latest poll results. I can only say that I am quite flattered.

Questions: Of the following ten people, whom do you view most favorably?
Results:
Me 97%
Milli Vanilli 1.0%
King George III 1.0%
Pol Pot 0.3 %
Charles Manson 0.2%
Camilla Parker Bowles 0.2%
Adolph Hitler 0.1%
Rupert Murdoch 0.1%
OJ Simpson 0.1%
Dick Cheney 0.0%

(Note: I am also pleased to announce that henceforth Google translator will translate this blog into both Pig Latin and Esperanto.)

17 February 2009

Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast an Example of the Enduring Power of Great Art


Good literature seeks not to destroy but to create. It is as a paintbrush on a blank canvas not as a weapon to cause harm. Good literature elucidates and informs. Bringing understanding and clarity and shedding light on the human condition. A good writer creates in the pursuit of truth. Thus the writer should be pure of intent, seeking to cast a light on dark places or share a new perspective on familiar ones.

The best films aspire to the same ideal. A great filmmaker is not just telling a story but using the camera as a writer uses words to allow us to experience that story. The intellectual inspiration that comes from viewing great cinema derives from the experience of seeing the familiar in a new light and thus challenging how we understand it.

Great writers and filmmakers help broaden our vision and understanding of the world. They accomplish this not as much by what they tell us but how they tell us. The choice of words, like camera perspectives, are as critical as the message conveyed, indeed, they are part of that message.

Good literature is honest. Which is to say it conveys the sincere belief of the artist. The truth. This is distinguished from that which is designed to sell books or movie tickets. It is, of course, possible to make money in the pursuit of art. Example from film are abundant. Fellini, Truffaut, Kurosawa, Hitchcock and Hawks did not exactly die paupers.

I was reminded of all this high falutin talk the other day when I finally watched Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (1946). The film is based on a familiar fairy tale of a beautiful maiden who is imprisoned by a grotesque man/creature in an enchanted castle. To recent generations this story is best known as an animated Disney film, replete with songs. This version subsequently made its way to Broadway and the Ice Capades. Available on DVD, the 1991 version of The Beauty and the Beast will entertain and delight the kiddies (it did mine).

Cocteau was a bit more faithful to the original story penned by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in the 18th century. But more than the original author, Cocteau was faithful to his own muse in creating a wondrous experience that should serve as final proof to anyone who doubts that black and white can be every bit as beautiful a film medium as color (in fact, I'd argue glorious black and white is prettier).

Cocteau was a true renaissance artist. Film direction was just one of his avocations along with playwriting, poetry, designing, prose and...get this, managing boxers. Cocteau was brave enough to be open about his homosexuality and one of the costars of Beauty and the Beast, Jean Marais, was his long time lover.

Elevating a fairy tale to cinematic art is not in and of itself a difficult task. Fairy tales are often well constructed stories with strong moral underpinnings that by their very nature seek to comment on an aspect of the human condition. Fairy tales tend to focus on questions of good versus evil and often deal with the issue of choice. Perfect fodder for the screen.

In this film Cocteau uses all manner of cinematic slight of hand to create a magical castle and its occupants. This is special effects gadgetry in the service of story telling. Too often in modern cinema special effects are the tail that wags the dog. Not so in Cocteau’s film. Candle holders that are human hands, statues that are alive with eyes that follow the characters are just part of the show. As Roger Ebert wrote, “The Beast's dwelling is one of the strangest ever put on film--Xanadu crossed with Dali.” This is using special effect to tell the story, not be it.

Before watching the film I’d feared that the Beast’s make up would look amateurish; this shows two things: one that I can be still be dead wrong, and two, that I am not immune to some of the conceits of the modern film aficionado. The beast looks like quite convincing and beneath the make up, Marais powerfully conveys the soul of a tortured creature.

Josette Day as the beauty, Belle (a word that means beauty in French) is the picture of sweet innocence but stays this side of cloying. She benefits from Cocteau’s camera work, never more so than upon first entering the castle. We see her in slow motion than seeming to float just above the ground.

The evil sisters, a fairy tale staple, are here, used more as props than people. (Their story can be for another time). The nature of beauty and trust and love are the central characters, and they are fully drawn by Cocteau’s brush.

Cocteau was re-telling a classic fairy tale. True to the central tenets of the story but passionately making it his own. This is a great film that I’d foolishly avoided for decades because I assumed it to be dated and trite. Far from it. This is what art is suppose to be. while the story is not original, the interpretation of it is. Jean Cocteau’s The Beauty and The Beast is jaw droppingly beautiful art that enables the intellect and inspires the viewer.

More examples of such films to come.

14 February 2009

Of U-Boats, Avian Killers, Singing Convicts, A Randy Czarina, Steve Martin and My Valentine


I sent the staff of Riku Writes off on a well earned Caribbean cruise this week while I attended to other non blog matters. Hence the five day absence of this blog that many of you no doubt found excruciating. These past few days I've been binging on movies -- so what else is new, right? Let's get you caught up on what I've watched with a few impressions.

A Nous a Liberte (1931). If you guess from the title that this film is French you are correct and a master of the obvious. This was my first encounter with Rene Clair's film and it won't be my last. Based on a single viewing I can affirm that it is one of my favorite films of all time. This was released the same year as another Clair classic, Le Million. Has a director ever put out two such masterpieces in the same year? I think not. The film starts with prisoners singing about the joys of liberty. This is not, strictly speaking a musical, although occasionally the cast bursts into jaunty, buoyant songs. As with Le Million, the musical numbers never interrupt the flow of the story but enhance the story telling. One of the cons escapes and before you know it is a very wealthy man indeed. There are scenes of factory workers that call to mind Chaplin's Modern Times (1936); but A Nous a Liberte came first, a point not lost the film's producers who wanted to sue Chaplin. Clair would have none of it. A Nous a Liberte not only brought to mind Modern Times for me but another Chaplin great, City Lights (1931). I believe it was the wonderful meshing of styles, the strong characters, the humor and the pathos.

The Birds (1963). Talk about something completely different. I hadn't watched this straight through for as long as I can remember and I can remember pretty long. Giant crocodiles, flesh eating extra terrestrials, and rampaging dinosaurs can be pretty frightening to film audiences. But for real fear try something that actually exists. Like common ordinary birds. Ones with an attitude. The commonplace gone mad is truly terrifying. One does not encounter crocs, ETs or prehistoric beasts most days. But birds? Boy howdy. Everyday. Just after the first time I watched The Birds I was walking to school. I must have been about ten,eleven years old. A bird swooped down from a tree and flew very near by my head. I ran the rest of the way to the school at a speed I likely never matched, my heart pounding. I never, never, never walked under that tree again. Alfred Hitchcock directed and who else could have made the story quite so damn scary? The gorgeous Tippi Hedren starred along with Rod Taylor.

The Jerk (1979). Notice a pattern in these films? Neither do I. Carl Reiner directed, Steve Martin starred. This is one of the gall darn stupidest movies ever to be funny enough for repeat viewings. It includes one of my favorite all time movie lines: "I was born a poor black child." When the words are uttered by whiter than white Steve Martin and we then segue to his all black Mississippi family...Comic gold. The Jerk works (excuse the rhyme) in large part because Martin's character, Navin Johnson, is supposed to be really, really stupid. The movie makes no other pretenses other than to be a farce played for giggles. The absolute dead serious sincerity of much of the rest of the cast allows Martin's antics to work all the more. Bernadette Peters (same birthday as me, though several years before) is a darling as the love interest.

Das Boot (1981). Now are you detecting a pattern? Course not. Here we go again with the following phrase: "One of the great films of all time." It really is. There are three versions of Wolfgang Peterson's film. The minced, chopped and diced version initially shown in US theaters. Avoid at all costs. The full super epic length version initially shown on German telly. Worth at least one look. And the medium length -- if nearly three hours can be called medium -- director's cut that's the happy compromise and the most widely shown these days. I've meant to dedicate a full post to this film so will keep this short. Like any great film it gets better with each viewing and I find something else to admire about it with each viewing. If you've never seen it you're in for a treat. If you have seen it, watch it again, you're in for a real treat too.

The Scarlet Empress (1934). I think we can lay to rest once and for all any notion that there's a pattern in the most recent films I've seen. Consider that the next movie I watch will likely be The Gay Divorcee (1934) starring Fred and Ginger and you'll believe me when I say that I don't generally go in for theme weekends. Anyway, this was the first of the movies I got out of the house for. The missus and I saw it at the PFA as our Valentine's Day date (I know, pretty romantic, eh?). Another movie I'd never seen. This was one of the last collaborations between director Joseph von Sternberg and actress Marlene Dietrich. They made seven movies together and I defy anyone to find a better director/actress combo. As in their other pairings, in The Scarlett Empress, von Sternberg has the camera veritably make love to Dietrich. She's in most shots and the camera is forever holding on her face in light and shadow that highlight and indeed help create one of the greatest visages in film history. However this film is as much about elaborate sets and costumes as about Ms. Dietrich. The Scarlett Empress traces the rise of Catherine the Great from a German princess to the ruler of Russia. The movie slipped in just before the full enforcement of the production code eviscerated movies. Thus we get more than a hint of the sexuality that was central to the real life Catherine's story (the film is surprisingly accurate despite its excesses). The Scarlet Empress is at times silly, overly broad and as both the wife and Roger Ebert said, suggestive of a Marx Brothers film. All told it is rather peculiar film cluttered as it is with so much edifice but still a delight to watch. I'll sort it out after a second viewing. (Bizarre footnote: As we were getting up to leave a woman behind us commented to her spouse that there was quite the turnout. "yeah," he grumbled, "but not a very ethnically diverse one." Hmm, I guess the Pacific Film Archives needs to do a little outreach to people of color. I kept a straight face while I typed that line.

Meanwhile it is Valentine's Day. One of the downsides of being an internationally famous blogger is that women far and wide desire me. That in itself isn't so bad. But what is troubling it that some actually suppose to come between my beloved wife and I. Worse yet many of these young ladies are quite famous. One example is Anne Hathaway (pictured above) who can't seem to leave me alone. While I had to turn down Ms. Hathaway's request to be her Valentine I may feel compelled to accompany her to next week's Oscars, though that would not sit well with Penelope Cruz. Obviously my druthers are to stay home with the better half. Well, I shouldn't bore you with my problems. I'm happy and lucky to have a loving and understanding wife who I think I'll favor now with a kiss.....

08 February 2009

"I got a Balinese dancing girl tattooed across my chest."


A friend once confessed to me that she had seen a film I really liked and found she didn't care for it. She feared that I would consequently think less of her. Poppycock. One of my top ten movies of all time is The Third Man (1949) but the missus doesn't like it. (I know, weird, huh?). But I respect the wife's views on movies more than anyone I know. Can the failure to share enthusiasm for a particular film cost you someone's respect? Shouldn't.

If you're going to talk directors, then someone not liking, say Woody Allen or William Wellman, well that right there would be a deal breaker. Or if someone didn't like French films or movies from the 1970's. But I don't know that there's a particular movie that a person would absolutely have to like to earn my respect. I guess I could even get along with a person who didn't like The Godfather or Grand Illusion (wouldn't be easy).

But I'll bet you wont be surprised to learn there's an exception to the rule.

The Big Sleep (1946).

A look at my top 100 English language films of all time reveals that The Big Sleep is ranked #19. So why this film and not one of the preceding 18 or one of my favorite foreign language films?

Okay so have I just painted myself into a corner or can I explain myself? We'll see....

The Big Sleep is one confusing movie. I've seen it maybe a dozen times and still had trouble following the convoluted plot when I watched it earlier today.

You'd think after all those viewings I'd have the story down cold and you'd be incorrect. Yeah sure I've got the basics. Rich guy with two wild daughters hires private detective Phillip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) to sort out the blackmailing of his youngest and wildest child. Marlowe tails the blackmailer, finds him murdered, looks like the daughter has been set up...On and on it goes with many more murders including one that even Raymond Chandler, the author of the book upon which the film is based, couldn't account for. Eventually Marlowe and oldest daughter, played by Lauren Bacall fall in love. It could hardly be a spoiler to say that all ends well.

So how the hell can I, and for that matter millions upon millions of film lovers, revere a movie that has a nearly incomprehensible plot?

It's a basic law of film appreciation that with movies "what" is not nearly as important as "how." If what a movie was about was all that counted we'd not bother watching any of them a second time and DVD sales would plummet. (I should here note that some some lovers of The Big Sleep get their jollies out of sorting the plot and have totally deconstructed it.)

The Big Sleep is a classic "how it's told" film. And it's told in such a brilliant way that if a person can't appreciate it than I'd have to question their taste in films (unless they were eight years old, then I'd give em time).

The Big Sleep has some of the greatest film dialogue of all time. To wit:

General Sternwood: How do you like your brandy, sir?
Philip Marlowe: In a glass.

Vivian: I don't like your manners.
Marlowe: And I'm not crazy about yours. I didn't ask to see you. I don't mind if you don't like my manners, I don't like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings. I don't mind your ritzing me drinking your lunch out of a bottle. But don't waste your time trying to cross-examine me.

Vivian: What will your first step be?
Philip Marlowe: The usual one.
Vivian: I didn't know there was a usual one.
Philip Marlowe: Well sure there is, it comes complete with diagrams on page 47 of how to be a detective in 10 easy lessons correspondent school textbook and uh, your father offered me a drink.
Vivian: You must've read another one on how to be a comedian.


Told ya. And that was just a sample. The key to witty dialogue is that it flow with the movie. If dialogue seems overly affected, inconsistent with the character or if it sounds rehearsed, then it'll distract audiences. In a film like this or as a recent example, Juno (2007), we enjoy the wit of the characters and don't notice that its beyond what most normal people are capable of.

The Big Sleep also has Bogie and Bacall in their second of four film pairings (they married shortly after completing The Big Sleep.) They were wonderful together, and no, I'll not venture an opinion as to which of their screen pairings was the best.

You could get into a long, entertaining argument about which was Bogie's performance. Certainly he did more "acting" in Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The African Queen (1951). But he was never truer to the Bogie persona than here (I know you think Maltese Falcon (1941), we'll settle this another time). (Casablanca (1943) is in a whole other category.)

Here Bogie is especially tough, smart, honest, irresistible to the fairer sex and quick with a quip. And speaking of the fairer sex, there's a lot of them in this film stumbling all over themselves to give Marlowe a tumble. Martha Vickers as the youngest daughter damn near steals the film and Dorothy Malone as a bookstore clerk does infinitely more with one scene than most actors do with a whole movie.

There is a certain predictability in film that can be comforting. With a lot of private eye or cop movies you know he's "going to get his man" the fun is watching how he does it. No one was more fun to watch than Bogie. Yeah, I said no one.

So with The Big Sleep you've go great dialogue and great characters. But I'll tell you what, I could watch it with the sound off and be entertained. Stylized realism is well and good but director Howard Hawks takes us smack dab into upper and middle class L.A. of the the 1940's so well that you can feel transported back into time. This is not noir type grittiness either. There are book stores that look like book stores. Apartments and houses that look like people lived in them. A cafe scene where you can smell the coffee and taste the eggs.

I love the atmosphere of the movie. Rain is regular feature in films and in The Big Sleep it's so good you find yourself reaching for an umbrella.

Why might someone not like The Big Sleep? Maybe they don't like old movies. Maybe they don't care for anything in black and white. Maybe they can get past the confusing plot. Maybe they don't like Bogart. (I've met people of these descriptions.) Those are not acceptable reasons for a true film aficionado. I can accept not loving The Big Sleep. But not even liking it? Unforgivable.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to find out why on earth the missus doesn't like The Third Man.

07 February 2009

Oscar Doesn't Always Get it Wrong, 15 Best Picture Winners That Were Worthy of the Award


Regular readers of this space (both of us) know my disdain for the Academy Awards and their knack for laughable selections and glaring omissions. However over the course of their 80 year history they've managed to get a few winners right -- even in the category of Best Picture. While best picture winners have included such God awful decisions as Crash, Around the World in 80 Days, Gone With the Wind and My Fair Lady, there have been some very worthy winners. In a few instances they have actually been the best film of that year.
Here are 13 examples of Oscar winners for Best Picture that just so happened to be great films.

1928 Wings and Sunrise. Wow, what a promising start. In their first year when the Academy had two winners (one for Production an d one for Artistic Quality of Production), two terrific films won the big prize. Who could have surmised from this the disasters to come? Two ways to look at the two inaugural picks: one, Sunrise (pictured above) was the far superior film; two, Wings is a damn sight better film than most of the winners to follow. Sunrise is German expressionist director F. W. Murnau's beautifully photographed story of a married man led astray by a woman of ill repute. While there have been countless technological improvements in film making since Sunrise premiered (like the addition of sound) it remains one of the most visually stunning films ever. Wings was directed by the great William Wellman. It is both the story of a love triangle and air fighters in World War I. It too is visually stunning. (As good as Wings and sunrise are they were, in my estimation only the second and third best films of the year, behind King Vidor's The Crowd.)

1930 All Quiet on the Western Front. In just its third year the Oscars got it right on the money again with this classic war film from director Lewis Milestone. It was based on Erich Maria Remarque's brilliant novel of the same name. Its a powerful story of men in war (in this case Germans in World War I). We meet them as idealistic students inspired by their elders to serve Kaiser and country in battle with visions of the glory to come. We see them come to terms with the harsh realities of modern warfare and emerge cynical and embittered. Stunningly realistic for its, or for that matter, any time.

1934 It Happened One Night. Director Frank Capra was popular with audiences, critics and the Academy. Quite the trifecta. His best weren't always rewarded like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941). But there was nothing wrong with the selection of this wonderful comedy which paired Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Colbert is the heiress on the run and Gable is the reporter who in her finds the story of a lifetime. He ends up finding the love of a lifetime to boot. One of the few comedies to win the Best Picture Oscar.

1943 Casablanca. I would venture to guess that the pick of this pic was partially based on patriotic war time fervor. In addition to being a great movie, Casablanca was a vehicle to rally the home front in the early days of the war. In any case, it was an instant classic and remains one of the most popular films of all time. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman lead one of the greatest cast of all time. Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Conrad Veidt and Dooley Wilson. Michael Curtiz directed and has never gotten the credit he deserves.

1946 The Best Years of Our Lives. The Oscars loved director William Wyler, awarding him a closet full of statuettes. The most deserved was surely for this memorable tale of World War II veterans returning to their Midwestern town after the war. The story of their transition to civilian life, saddled as they were by psychological scars and in one case devastating physical scars, was quite relevant when the film came out. Indeed, it must have been somewhat discomforting to contemporary audiences. The messages are timeless and the film holds up over 60 years later. It doesn't hurt that there is an all star cast led by Frederic March, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy and Harold Russell. The latter was a maimed soldier in real life playing one in this film.

1954 On The Waterfront. Hollywood was starting to develop a social conscience in the years after WWII. While this did not always translate into good film making (witness the mediocre if well-intended, Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)) in the hands of director Elia Kazan it could mean something like On the Waterfront or A Face in the Crowd (1957). Needless to say Marlin Brando’s stunning performance (along with the likes of Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb and Vera Miles) are at the heart of this film’s excellence. On the Waterfront is an utterly unflinching look art a few honest mens’ battle against powerful and corrupt union bosses.

1957 Bridge on the River Kwai. Actor James Donald as Major Clipton says it all at the film’s end: “madness...madness.” I’ll say. You’ve got a totally anal buy-the-book British Colonel in a Japanese POW camp in the Burmese jungles helping (!) an equally intractable Japanese Colonel build a bridge. In the bloody middle of World War II! And you’ve got an American misanthrope who escapes from said camp and miraculously makes it back to safety and then must to return to the jungle and help British commandos blow the aforementioned bridge to smithereens. Under the fantastic direction of David Lean this story, based loosely on real events, makes for a corker of a story. Speaking of fantastic...the fantastic cast led by William Holden as the American and Alec Guinness as the British Colonel, make this one of the better films ever.

1962 Lawrence of Arabia. A David Lean picture again. The Academy clearly likes an ambitious epic and this came to be a Lean speciality. Lawrence is one of the most revered films of all time. While it takes certain liberties with the story of T.E. Lawrence, it captures much about the man and his time in the Middle East. Absolutely made for the big screen, but in letterbox adequate on a TV set.

1972 Godfather. There have been a number of reasons to just shut down the Oscars and admit that the whole thing is a farce. Surely if they hadn't awarded Francis Ford Coppola's story about a family business (in this case organized crime) the Oscar, the whole show would have been run out of town. Then again How Green is My Valley beat out Citizen Kane so who knows.

1973 The Sting. The Seventies were a great decade for American film, one that has not since been equaled. But in terms of the 1973 Oscars, The Sting only really had competition from The Exorcist. Either would have been fine though I think the Academy got it right. The Sting is as much fun as you’ll ever have at a movie, whether you’re seeing it for the first time or watching it with someone who’s seeing it for the first. Even without the surprise ending, the story of a couple of grifters (Robert Redford and Paul Newman) getting the “gang” together to swindle a crime boss in the midst of the Great Depression is an utter delight. George Roy Hill directed.

1974 Godfather Part II. Amazing! Three years in a row the Oscars got it right. Of course with two parts of the Godfather saga included it wasn't all that hard. Failing to give the Oscar to Godfather II would have been a travesty akin to...oh, I don’t know awarding Crash over Brokeback Mountain.

1977 Annie Hall. Not only was this the right choice but it was a surprising one. Woody Allen films are not the type of fare that the Oscars like to reward with the big prize. Allen has screenwriter nominations aplenty and has supporting players have been proffered many a trophy, but the big enchilada? Wow! In this instance the academy recognized a revolutionary film style. They also recognized one of the funniest films of all time. Good going.

1986 Platoon. I'll say this about war, it provides great material for movies. Oliver Stone's semi autobiographical film about his stint as a soldier in Vietnam is high up on the long roll call of great war films. One Vietnam veteran said it was so realistic that the only thing missing was the smell. A great primer for anyone who’s curious about the Vietnam war.

1993 Schindler's List. There is no denying that the Academy loves a good Holocaust story and when a great one came along it was a sure bet to win. Director Steven Speilberg has been behind the camera for a wide variety of excellent films, none better than this true story of one’s man effort to save as many Jews from the gas chambers as possible. The most recent black and white film to win the Oscar.

2007 No Country for Old Men. I'd given up hope that their would be justice in the Best Picture category (Crash over Brokeback mountain -- come on!) until last year's show. On the one hand I’m surprised that the Academy rewarded a film so rich in themes and so dominated by violence. On the other hand it was so superior a film that it would have been insane not to. The Coen Brothers as producers, directors and writers took Cormac McCarthy’s amazing novel and did the right thing. They didn’t mess with it They also managed to get Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin as leads and surrounded them with an excellent supporting cast. A strong contender for best movie of the decade.

Other outstanding films that won the Oscar: The Lost Weekend (1945), All About Eve (1950), From Here to Eternity (1953), Midnight Cowboy (1969), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Dances With Wolves (1990), American Beauty (1999).

06 February 2009

Long Overdue Staff Appreciation Time at Riku Writes


I was remiss last week on the occasion of this blog's 200th post. I should have taken the time for a long overdue recognition of the staff here at Riku Writes (pictured above at our annual Labor day picnic).

Contrary to what many of you may believe, my prodigious talents, as unrivaled as they may be, are not enough to sustain the award-winning brilliance of this blog.

The many awards, accolades and prizes Riku Writes has garnered are a testament to my astounding staff as much as they are to my personal genius.

Here then are my belated thanks to the not-so "little people" behind this blog.

Thanks to Bev and Larry in Accounting.

Huzzah to Klaus, Toshiro, Mortimer and Hortense in Research and Development.

Much appreciation to Clive, Connie and Lefty in Marketing.

Hip, hip hurrah to Sigmund, Gert and Cinque in Sales.

Hail to Seymour and Zi Ying in Public Relations.

Three cheers for the Maintenance Crew: Wally, Horatio and Bobo.

Muchas Gracias to our Receptionists, Shirley and Zasu.

Hurrah to our Archivist, Boopsie.

Praise be to the Graphics and Design staff, Anna Marie, Sven, Akbar, Buffy and Cecil.

Loud applause for our Legal Team, Jussi and Tallulah.

A pat on the back to our Chef, Mugabe.

Much gratitude to our Payroll crew, Glenn and Glenda.

Here! Here! to the Custodial Staff, Archie, Thurgood and Mimi.

Felicitations to our Masseuse, Babette.

Much indebtedness to my Secretary and Girl Friday, Clementine.

Gratitude aplenty to our Fact Checkers, Ebenezer, Ginger and Golda.

Very special thanks to our Interns, Ronnie, Tommy, Lonnie, Sally, Betty and Latosha.

And finally, all glory to our Spiritual Advisor, Dagwood.

Bonus checks are in the mail, everyone!

04 February 2009

12 Films to Watch in Honor of Black History Month


There is not unanimity about the continued appropriateness of Black History Month. And I am discounting objections raised by racists. Many people I've been acquainted with over the years, including African Americans, feel it is a form of tokenism, arguing that it reduces the appreciation of African American culture and history to one month. A way to ease the guilt felt by the white majority.

I've mixed feelings about the month myself. I taught U.S. History for 20 years. In my lessons the Black experience was so central so often (as I believed appropriate) that making any sort of special mention of African American history seemed superfluous. That being said I gladly participated in African American history month assemblies and special learning days. I gave workshops on the Negro Leagues and the evolving role of African Americans in movies.

For many years I have hoped that we were moving away from a time when anyone felt the need for African American History month. One would hope that the election of the country's first African American president would be a giant step in that direction. However one look at the composition of the United States senate or the board rooms of major corporations across the land would dispel that. Also the appalling statistics regarding poverty, drug use, incarceration rates and high school drop-outs in the Black community are a national embarrassment.

Many out of touch whites assumed that with the passage of Civil Rights Act and the increasing representation of Blacks in sports and entertainment that all was well. More will be similarly deluded now that Barrack Obama is president.

I don't pretend to be wise enough to know when integration will be economic. Nor can I hazard a guess as to when the number of African American men in college will far exceed their numbers in prison. Nor do I know how such a change will come about. Greater minds than mine (of which there are legions) can ponder these questions and hopefully affect change. Meanwhile we must all continue doing our part in working with young African Americans in trying to guide them to the best possible choices in life.

With that rather heavy preamble aside, I humbly offer a dozen films that relate to the Black Experience in the United States. This is not by any means an exhaustive list. You will notice a paucity of films from the early days of Hollywood. Sadly there was a criminal under utilization of African American talent in those days.

I welcome any comments regarding other worthy films. These are offered in no particular order.

Glory (1989). One of a small handful of films that makes we want to salute the flag. The mostly true story of the most famous all African American regiments to see action in the Civil War. It was their bravery in battle that helped inspire President Lincoln to insist upon the formation of more African American regiments. Matthew Broderick stars as Robert Gould Shaw the son of prominent Massachusetts abolitionists and the commander of the regiment. Excerpts from his Shaw’s actual letters home are read throughout the film. Denzel Washington won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Morgan Freeman and Cary Ewes also co star. We watch the formation of the 54th, their battles against racism just so that they can get into battle and some very realistic battle scenes. A great movie that I showed my students every year.

Amistad (1997). Is it possible that Steven Speilberg has ever directed a movie that was vastly underrated? Yes, and this is it. I’ve never understood why this fine film did not receive either more critical acclaim or box office success. Anthony Hopkins garnered a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his amazing portrayal of John Quincy Adams. The ubiquitous Morgan Freeman co stars. Matthew McConaughey, Djimon Hounsou are also part of a sterling cast. This is the true story of a Spanish slave ship that ran aground in the United States in 1839 after a successful slave rebellion. The movie follows the court trials climaxing with the case being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. At issue was the fate of the Africans. Would they be sold into servitude as originally inended or returned to Africa?


Imitation of Life (1934). This must have been downright revolutionary in 1934. Claudette Colbert stars as a young widowed mother struggling to get by in a man’s world. Along comes the usual: an African American housekeeper, Delilah in her case with a young daughter in tow. Nothing out of the ordinary yet. Not until the white lady and the maid join forces in a business venture and become fast friends in the process. Louise Beavers played Delilah and brought the necessary grace and dignity to a role that must have been a wonder to Black audiences of the time. Don't miss it and don’t make the mistake of watching the sappy 1959 remake.

Boyz n the Hood (1991). (Pictured above.) A ground breaking film from director John Singleton that spawned many imitators, none matching the power of this film. It is the story of a group of childhood friends growing up in the LA ghetto, facing various choices and meeting different consequent fates. Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne and Ice Cube highlight an excellent cast. The movie captures the tenuous state of life in the hood. The brotherhood and that contradictory violence that permeate life and the sense of despair and abandonment that many feel.

Bamboozled (2000). Director Spike Lee ruffled a lot of feathers with this film about a Black TV executive who tires to get fired and thus void his contract. He concocts the preposterous idea of a blackface minstrel TV show starring black actors. The idea is bought hook line and sinker. While Bamboozled is as much a statement on TV and media as anything else, it is a searing look at the price of one’s dignity and indeed one’s soul. I was among a handful who appreciated Bamboozled for its message which, while it is focused here on African Americans, has implications for us all. An amazing montage of black stereotypes form American culture towards the end of the film is stunning.

Do the Right Thing (1989). Spike Lee again. This is one of the most important films ever. It is not so much about the Black experience in America as it is about the nature of racism, prejudice and stereotypes in the minds of women and men. It is also about “choices” and the importance of doing what? The right thing. It did not earn an a Best Picture nomination in the year that the Oscar went to Driving Miss Daisy. Seriously.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967). Sidney Poitier is coming to dinner, that’s who. And he’s engaged to your pretty white daughter. Tame stuff today but a shocker 40 years ago. More than anything this is a time capsule of where America was (at least wealthy liberal America) in the late ’60’s. Along with a smooth, intelligent and handsome Poitier, the legendary duo of Hepburn and Tracy star as the parents. Stanley Kramer directed. The long forgotten Joey Drayton is the fiance/daughter (they coulda shoulda done better.) An interesting flick.

The Defiant Ones (1958). Stanley Kramer also directed this film. He was clearly a man unafraid of tackling tough issues. This film must have been a hard sell in 1958. But thankfully for audiences past and present it got made. Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis are two escaped convicts who are chained together, Curtis is a virulent racist. The ultimate odd couple story. Given their enforced inseparability the two must work as a team to affect their escape. Eventually the chains are severed but a friendship has grown in their place to link the two. A wonderful film.

Ali (2001). One of the better sports bio pics of recent vintage. Will Smith stars as the title character a man who is in the estimation of many, yours truly included, The Greatest. Michael Mann directed the story of Muhammad Ali from his days as Cassius Clay the contender, through his first reign as champ, his battle against the draft through the Rumble in the Jungle. Smith was fantastic in the lead as was Jamie Foxx as Bundini Brown. Ali was certainly one of the most important figures of the late 20th century. I’ll never forget the day I met him and shook his hand. Ever.

Roots (1977). Needless to say this was a TV mini series and not a movie but I couldn’t exclude it. Alex Haley wrote the book upon which it was based tracing his ancestral roots from a West African village through slavery and emancipation. (It has been fairly convincing alleged that he cribbed the story, which would reflect poorly on Haley but not reduce the power of the story.) A who’s who from Hollywood -- albeit mostly from the TV side -- appeared in the sprawling ten hour production. Among the cast are the since disgraced OJ Simpson, Ed Asner, Louis Gossett Jr., Ben Vereen, LaVar Burton, Leslie Uggums, Lorne Greene and John Amos. Surprisingly powerful, realistic and believable for a TV production. Available in a new DVD print.

Stormy Weather (1943). Of the few feature length films with an all, as they said in those days, “Negro” cast and the best of the lot. In part because it was less guilty of playing to African American stereotypes of the time. It is a romping, stomping musical with an amazing cast. Lena Horne. Cab Calloway. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Fats Waller. Cab Calloway. Coleman Hawkins. Wow. Great music. Great fun.


Malcolm X (1992). A third entry from Spike Lee is the story of one of this country's most influential, controversial and misunderstood men, the former Malcolm Little. Denzel Washington gives his greatest performance (but he won his Oscar for Training Day, go figure). The movie follows Malcolm from his days as a gangster through imprisonment, conversation to the Nation of Islam, his rise as a preacher and his eventual shedding and exposing of Elijah Muhammad to embrace a truer form of Islam. It concludes with this assassination and the testimonies of those who knew him with archival footage and Ossie Davis reading the eulogy he read at Malcolm's funeral. An inspirational story to people of all colors.

02 February 2009

Anything List Universe Can Do I Can Do Better (Or About as Good, Anyway) 10 Great Movie and TV Cops


One of the world's most greatest fantasticist websites is List Universe. A new list everyday! Today's list was Top Ten Best TV and Movie Cops.

They actually did a great job. If you haven't clicked on the above link yet...oh hell, just do it already then resume reading here. (Pause while my readers check the List Universe list.) See, I told you they did good. The pick of Fargo's Marge Gunderson as number one was inspired. Many of the others on the list were deserving as well.

At this point you're probably wondering if I think I could do better. Wonder no more. Here is my top ten. The criteria being that they had to be cops -- no FBI, private eyes, etc. As usual they are offered in no particular order.

Al Pacino as Frank Serpico in Serpico (1973). The cop as rebel. Serpico was the honest cop in a den of police as thieves. Based on the actual Frank Serpico and inspired by actual events, Serpico was bold enough to portray cops as grafting, swindling bad guys. They represented a crooked establishment and Serpico was the Hippie Cop who exposed their corruption. The film's timing couldn't have been any better with U.S. involvement in Vietnam winding down and the realization that our government didn't play fair winding up. Pacino, not surprisingly, was brilliant not restraining his himself one iota.

Michael Kitchen as Christopher Foyle in Foyle's War (2002-2007). (Pictured above.) Tell me you haven't heard of this British TV drama and I'll be extremely jealous. Because if you're smart you'll start renting the DVDs. The missus and I finished the lot of them a fortnight ago and we're going through withdrawals. The show is set in England during World War II. Not only is the laconic but lovable Foyle a master cop who always gets his man, history lessons about the British home front abound. Kitchen is a wonderful actor who does more with a slow upturn of the mouth than most actors do by ranting and raving. Think of him as the anti-Pacino. Foyle's war is simply the best cop show ever to be on TV and the character of Foyle is largely why. Two outstanding supporting players, intriguing story lines, no false heroics or silly chase scenes, plots that twist and turn but always end up making sense. Like the preceding sentence I could go on and on.

Glenn Ford as Dave Bannion in The Big Heat (1953). What happens to this police sergeant you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. Though tragedy befalls our hero he is relentless (most good film cops are) in the pursuit of justice no matter where his investigation takes him. The Big Heat is one of the best of the noirs. It is a brutal and uncompromising film replete with family tragedy and torture. Bannion is wise to a suspicious looking suicide and is not afraid of the politically connected cages he must rattle in pursuit of the truth.

Mark Ruffalo as Inspector David Toschi in Zodiac (2007). Another portrayal based on a real person and a real case. This time we have the pursuit of a one of the most infamous serial killers of modern times, the boastful and slippery Zodiac killer. Ruffalo plays Toschi as the driven cop who combines personal flamboyance with a by-the-book pursuit of his man. His opening investigation of a just slain cab driver is a study in precise detective work and the consumption of animal crackers. Ruffalo would seem an unconventional choice for the part of cop but he brought a unique sensibility to the role.

Otto Wenicke as Inspector Karl Lohmann in M (1931). Weincke actually to got to play Lohmann twice, the other time being in another Fritz Lang film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). In M he pursues perhaps the most despicable criminal type of all -- the child murderer. Physically Lohmann seems the stereotypical bloated donut-eating lazy cop. He's not. Sure he'll sit back, but usually in an effort to concentrate. This cop's a thinker and you can tell when his excellent mind has conjured something by the snapping of his fingers.

Michael Douglas as Steve Keller in the Streets of San Francisco (1972). Okay an assist needs to go to Keller's partner, Mike Stone played by Karl Malden. They were actually notable as a tag team. But I'm singling out Douglas for bringing the matinee idol look to the police beat. He was also one of the first fictional cops to have come out of college. Young, dashing and educated though he was, he respected his elders, even in the act of doing his own thing. The show itself was just a cut above the usual TV police fare and the Malden/Douglas combo was the principal reason why. I believe the word panache is in order.

Steve McQueen as Frank Bullitt in Bullit (1968). What's this another San Francisco cop? (Me thinks this is a rich vein to tap in another post). Okay when I was young lad (yeah, yeah and dinosaur's roamed the Earth, very funny) Steve McQueen was the coolest person EVER. Maybe he still is. Other than perhaps The Great Escape (1963) I don't think he was ever cooler than in Bullitt. But here's the thing, it was a damn good movie and he made a perfectly believable policeman. Maybe, just maybe, the car chase was over the top (didn't you just love it, anyway?) but his relationship with Jacqueline Bisset rang true as did his unemotional/emotional reaction to his work. McQueen had a natural cool, that never seemed affected and he could work into a character like Frank Bullitt. (Note, in preparing for the role McQueen studied the same Dave Toschi who Ruffalo later played.)

Sidney Poiter as Virgil Tibbs in In The Heat of the Night (1967). Finally! An African American cop. There have been many since played by the likes of Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Wesley Snipes. Poiter was the trail blazer. He wasn't just the first major Black cop in a film, he was a damn good one. Heading into the ugly segregated south of the Sixties, Tibbs did not back down from anything, including Rod Steiger's racist cop, Bill Gillespie. He was smooth, handsome and, most of all,damn smart. A great performance.

Al Pacino (again) as Vincent Hanna in Heat (1995). This proves beyond a doubt that Pacino could play cops as well as the gangsters they pursued. Hmmm, are the two that different? In Heat the similarities between the good guys and the bad guys are more striking than the differences. Pacino is the cop who puts duty above all else, let marriage be damned. He also brings an emotion to his police officer rarely seen. Robert DeNiro as the criminal he pursues is the stoic one and Pacino’s Lieutenant Hanna is the character prone to broad emotions worn right on the sleeve.

Don Knotts as Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968). If the question is: who has been television's greatest character, Bernard P. Fife has to enter the discussion. Was he particularly smart? No. Was he exceptionally brave? No. Was he physically strong? No. Was he a good cop? There have been worse (I assume). So nobody's perfect...right? Fife was funny and some of that humor comes from the fact that he was so sincere. There was a total devotion to duty and an unflagging belief in self. When Sheriff Taylor covered for Barney's bumbling but deflected the credit back to him, he took it with pride. It wasn't hubris, it was a belief that it must be so. He must have caught those crooks single handedly. Maybe you see him as delusional, I see him as a man of great faith.

01 February 2009

The Difficulty of Telling a Good Story


Really good fiction and really good cinema attain excellence by not being obvious. A simple way of looking at it is that you generally don't know what's going to happen in the end. A movie like Slumdog Millionaire failed for me because there was nothing to interpret, nothing to think about. It was a visually exciting movie but it asked nothing of the audience. I want to be challenged. From that standpoint No Country For Old Men (2007) was brilliant. Sorting out the whys and wherefores of the character, Anton Chigurh was a meaty task in and of itself.

There's an important point: both fiction and film rely on characters and if they are one-dimensional then your story will be too. It's far too easy to make inflexible characters whose actions are quite predictable. Worse still you can create characters who commit acts that are inconsistent with their personalities. Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980) always acts in accordance with who he is. But who is he? Why is he so true to his nature to the point that he alienates his wife and brother? Does he have no limits?

Michael Corleone, especially in the first Godfather (1972) film is one of the greatest characters of film because he is so complex. I recently posted a question about how and when he transforms from being a law abiding citizen to Mafia boss. It is a stunning and yet totally believable metamorphosis.

One of the things that makes Blonde Venus (1932) not mere entertainment but truly great cinema is Marlene Dietrich's character Helen Faraday. Like many great female performances of the 1930's, this is not just about a night club singer, or housewife, or sexpot, or mother. It's about all of these wrapped in a beautiful yet complicated persona.

The film itself is an utter joy to watch and similarly intriguing to discuss or contemplate.

Perhaps the greatest problem with films of the past 30 years is the over reliance not just on special effects but on a stock characters and a formula story -- something akin to the film serials of the late 1940s. Star Wars (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) are wrongfully cited as to blame for this trend. But they appeared as something new or at least as an homage to those serials and other types of adventure films of yore. In their time both films were refreshing and interesting. They cannot be blamed for the ceaseless copying (saving those made by their own creators).

What stimulates our intellect is the unexpected or the expected presented in a new light. With a film like Milk many of us knew the arc of the main character's life. The task then was to tell us the story, not just to get easy cheers and and sobs but to get them the hard way. Audiences had to understand the main character in a new and more profound way. It is the prism through which we are asked to examine a story that causes it resonate.

A movie like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is linear and obvious. Meanwhile something like In Bruges zigs and zags. Ron Howard did his typically straight forward job of directing with Frost/Nixon but gave the two title characters so much depth that the story was ultimately compelling. He didn't create a hero in Frost or a villain in Nixon. He merely showed that, like the rest of us, they are complex individuals, though in their cases on an international stage.

Restraint is also important. Stephen Daldry couldn't reign in The Reader, letting the movie get away from him. Michael Cimino is a director who had that problem in spades. On the other hand directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Woody Allen have a wonderful economy to their pictures. Many great European directors like Jean Renoir, are similarly gifted. There are too many books that are big and fat and too many three hour films. Writers and directors are prone to excess. Just compare the original King Kong (1933), a masterpiece, to Peter Jackson's overblown monstrosity (no pun intended) of the same name from 2005. In the first it was plenty good enough to see the big ape whip a dinosaur. In Jackson's version one was never enough. He had to have Kong to take on a veritable army.

Dialogue is also central to meaningful film and fiction. One would think that getting the way people talk to each other would be easy. It's not. I don't know why but I do know that in bad stories conversation seems stilted and well, made up. The applicable phrase is that it doesn't ring true. Bad TV shows (which come to think of it is most of them) are positively filled with dialogue that sounds like it was written by someone else. Characters are too witty, too insightful, talk too fast and speak in absolute truths with no nuance. Many speak as if giving sound bytes or quoting from a speech they'd written. I risk infuriating my beloved missus but I positively cannot abide the phony baloney dialogue in one of her favorite shows, West Wing. My children watched a highly popular show called Gilmore Girls in which everyone spoke as if they'd just graduated from Princeton and were getting paid by the word.

For good dialogue watch and listen to a some of Woody Allen's recent films, particularly Vicky Christina Barcelona and Match Point (2005). Tom McCarthy's The Visitor had utterly believable dialogue from professors and immigrants. Billy Wilder films are another source of good dialogue as are most anything directed by Howard Hawks. But for the best in dialogue watch films from the 1970's like Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), Taxi Driver (1976) or The Last Detail (1973) (pictured above).

In fiction F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and JD Salinger are all giants in large part because of dialogue. The midgets are plentiful.

Of course creating complex yet entertaining stories with complex and believable characters and realistic dialogue is not easy. That's what makes it so satisfying. Most things that are easy to do are not terribly fulfilling. As discerning readers and film goers, it is our task to sift through all the rubbish and find the gems and then share our discoveries.