30 November 2009

Let's Imagine You Had a Really Weird Dream About Hitchcock's North by Northwest....


This was posted today on Jim Emerson's Blog. In his words: "I can't explain it but I kinda like it." It sure helps if you've seen North by Northwest (1959) a few times. I don't know if it would help if you've experimented with psychedelics (and by the way, I'd strongly recommend against it). Mostly it helps if you've got a mind that you're welling to let step outside for a walk every now and again.

Dig it.

29 November 2009

A Medicine For Melancholia



Today I had a case of the end-of-the-Thanksgiving-Break-three-weeks-until-Christmas-break-blahs. Fortunately I had recently recorded Flying Down to Rio (1933) which was, as you are no doubt aware, the first cinematic pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (I was going to toss a whole bunch of glowing adjectives in front of their names but those names in and of themselves suggest all manner of encomiums).

Flying Down to Rio has some rapturous film moments surrounded by a fairly silly story. This was to be par for the course for Fred and Ginger's films. I say that not to slight them in the least, I own a box set of their films that I wouldn't part with for its weight in gold (please don't take me literally if you have gold to offer, I was being hyperbolic in order to make a point).

So I watched Flying and voila, mullygrubs gone. Above I have posted a scene from another Fred and Ginger film, Swing Time (1936). If you're currently feeling down in the dumps (actually wouldn't being "up in the dumps" be as bad as down in them? I mean whether up or down, the dumps are not a happy place to be...but I digress) and do not have access to one of their films (what's wrong with you? No Astaire Rogers in your house. For shame!) try this on for size. There's plenty more at some place called You Tube that you may have heard tell of.

Suffice it to say that I believe it infinitely more difficult to be depressed in this day and age when there is ready access to some of the lightest, most carefree moments ever recorded. I hasten to add that when such moments are supplied by the likes of Fred and Ginger, they are wonderful displays of extremely talented people cutting the rug. So you get awesome talent mixed in with delightful character actors like Eric Blore who shows up in the above clip. You just can't beat em with a stick, not that you'd ever want to.

In Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Woody's character botches his own suicide. Disconsolate, he walks the streets of New York for hours, finally entering a movie theater that is showing The Marx Brothers in Duck Soup (1933). Revelation! To see such merriment and fun may not give purpose to life but it does show that humans can be be pretty darn good at entertaining themselves and one another. If one is in fact only to go around once, why not take advantage of all the joy that can be found.

Serious business must be tended to and we've all got responsibilities and duties aplenty. But when burdens and cares start to feel oppressive and the seemingly endless slog seems purposeless, it is indeed nice to know that we can spend some time hanging out with folks like Groucho Marx, Fred Astaire or any of the other zillions of entertainers whose works are forever preserved on websites, Cd's, DVDs and the like.

It took George Bailey a visit from an angel to see that he had a "wonderful life." Sometimes a visit to you tube is all any of us need.

28 November 2009

Il Mio Viaggio in Italia -or- My Journey Through Italian Cinema (Part Five: Mafioso)

Can you have a movie featuring a Mafia Don without something untoward taking place? One can hope that what seems like an engaging, charming sometimes comic little film will leave us with a smile and nothing difficult to endure and ponder. But then it wouldn't be much of a movie.

Mafioso (1962) is much of a movie. It's a lot of movie.

Antonio is a Milanese factory supervisor who takes his wife and young daughters to his Sicilian hometown for a long awaited vacation. They stay with mom, pop, the ugly duckling sister and a seemingly endless parade of extended family and old friends. Among the friends is the local Mafia Don.

It's all perfectly charming as Antonio renews old acquaintances and his wife tries to win over in laws who initially think her a snob. But you sense that Antonio's chumminess with the Don may end up having ramifications, especially when he helps our hero purchase some land for his dad. Hey, it was just a favor. Maybe it can be repaid someday.

In films with Mafia Dons, favors are going to need returning. Guaranteed.

So what's the Don going to ask of Antonio? Lesse, could it have anything to do with Antonio's renowned marksmanship? Whattayou think? Of course the Don allows Antonio the option of saying "no." But that offer is bracketed with reminders of what a lovely family Antonio has. Hmmm.....

It's impossible to go further with our story without spoiling it. Suffice to say that Mafioso mixes morality in with the smiles. Really an amazing film from director Alberto Lattuada. I felt like I'd gotten many hours worth of story in one hundred and forty three minutes of running time.

Movies fail or succeed on how much they engage and whether they resonate with us. Mafioso adds to these successes by the different ways in which it engages and resonates. Lattuada is a director who happily allows characters and their circumstances dictate his story telling. His camera follows them, deftly shifting from close up to long shots as needed to best convey their interaction with events. When Antonio is faced with his "big decision," we suddenly see his face, especially his eyes, in full frame and then those of the Don. Perfect.

Mafioso is an easy enough story for a director to get wrong and for that matter, Alberto Sordi in the lead does a marvelous job of being true to character regardless of what unfolds before him. A lesser thespian would have gummed it up. The movie desperately needed Sordi to stay within Antonio and that he did. He strikes no false notes.

I hope you see Mafioso. It's available on DVD and has been shown a few times on TCM. Do yourself a favor and check it out. Really, it's not like doing a favor for the local Don.

27 November 2009

You a Bad Man, Lieutenant...Hey, Don't Kill The Messenger...Not Your Hope/Crosby Road Picture. My Three Trips to the Cinema This Week




A drug addled corrupt cop, soldiers who have to notify next of kin of a loved one's death, and a post apocalyptic world traveled by a father and son. Tis the season for prestige films and that does not necessarily mean songs, yucks and romance.

I've ventured to three films these past five days looking for a movie that will bowl me over. I was so bowled over once and impressed twice. Not bad and to some degree a measure of how selective I am about what I'll plunk down cold hard cash to see outside the comfort of my own home. Happily I only once had to deal with a large crowd -- what did I expect the day after Thanksgiving? -- and sadly that mob included a few chatterboxes and one person who kept rifling though a plastic bag. Otherwise my fellow patrons were on good behavior. Bless you.

I sat through many of the same trailers and all the same adverts. I also maintained my streak that now goes back many years, of not spending a dime on movie theater garbage -- I mean food. If they ever offer their fare at reasonable prices and upgrade their selections to include something healthy, I may reconsider this policy.

Here's what I saw.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Which would make a more interesting main character for a film? 1) A law abiding accountant who regularly performs charitable tasks; or 2) a corrupt cop who's addicted to heroin and has a hooker as a girlfriend? If you said the former you're...Well, I'm not sure what, but you've certainly not seen a lot of films. Nicholas Cage stars as a chap as described in the second film scenario. Werner Herzog directed and both did a splendid job. Cage plays a very bad man indeed and you'll find yourself wondering how low he can go. Will he hit bottom? It's bound to be a deep one and cause a mighty crash. Or will he survive the film? Perhaps settle down with his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes)? There is a crime at the center of Bad Lieutenant but the film is much more of a character study. Seriously, who needs a plot when you've got a degenerate junkie cop as the lead? For all that, this is a more accessible film than the original Bad Lieutenant which starred Harvey Kietal and was about as hopeful and merry as a urinary tract infection.

The Messenger. My daughters used to watch this silly kid's sitcom from Canada called Flash Forward. One of the co stars was a geeky teen named Ben Foster. He's no geeky teen anymore. In fact, he's an actor who gave one of the best performances you'll see this year, if not the best. He plays a Iraq war hero back in the states to finish the last few months of his stint in the army. He's assigned to arguably the worst possible home front detail, delivering the bad news to families that their son, daughter, or spouse has died. He is under the tutelage of a sergeant played by Woody Harrleson who gives a similarly brilliant performance. Doesn't exactly sound like the makings of an entertaining film. Didn't to me but I trusted the legions of critics who sang the film's praises. Those critics were spot on. I should, at this point, trot out the world "powerful," to describe The Messenger. Sounds right. But frankly I wouldn't know what the hell I meant any more than if I tried this one: "moving." So let's scrap the cornball adjectives. The utterly gut wrenching scenes of family's being notified are endurable because they seem so real and such an integral part of what war is and does. But more than that they are a thread that runs through this story that is about much more. The relationship of two men and how they deal with their own experiences as soldier's and as guys trying to make sense of life. Samantha Morton plays a widow and her relationship with Foster is both touching and surprising. There are no cliches in this extraordinary film.

The Road. Listen everyone, I'm going to save some of you a lot of time and bother. If you've read and loved a book that is subsequently made into a motion picture don't not go to see that film if you cannot stand the idea of one iota of said book being altered. And if you do go see the movie, spare us your complaints about the it deviating from the book. Films are under no obligation to reproduce books exactly. In fact, they couldn't do it if they tried. I was one of the many, many people who read and loved Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road, upon which this movie was based. (Please note the use of the word BASED.) Today I saw the movie and enjoyed far more than those who whine about how it "doesn't live up to the book." Two different forms of art. A painting based on song is not going to be the same either. The story is about a father and son trying to head south and to the sea, navigating a post apocalyptic landscape in which animals are dead, powerful earthquakes occur daily, nothing grows and cannibalism is rampant. Sounds like fun. The point the boy constantly needs re-assurance on is: are we good guys? Dad insists they are. They would never, under any circumstances, resort to eating their fellow man. It is a basic question too few of us ask ourselves, least of all those in positions of power. Are we doing "good" or "bad" for the others and our world and is there any ambiguity about it. There is in the case of the father, as film goers will see. Ain't nobody perfect. The film will, inevitably draw usually unfavorable comparisons to the Pulitzer prize winning novel. That's a shame because it's an important work in its own right and deserves a wide audience.

24 November 2009

Il Mio Viaggio in Italia -or- My Journey Through Italian Cinema (Part Four: 8 1/2)


There's this guy, see and he....He's a director struggling with...And he's got a rich fantasy life...his wife....his lover...a producer who, like a lot of....Catholics, including priests....Symbolism!

Sometimes I write about a film that's so meaningful (to me) that I figure I gotta outdo myself. All stops pulled out, a post that beats the band. Those pulled out stops are beaten by the band with a post.

Words fail.


Guido Anselmi is an artista. Specifically a film director. A ladies man, you should excuse the archaic expression. Played by Marcello Mastroianni, he is Italian cool to the nth degree. Bemused, happily tortured by the many women, supplicants, and hangers on. He's been called both a sadist and a masochist. I know this is a reflection on me, but he seems pretty together. Everyone around him is a little...a little what? A little much at times. They sure won't let the man be. Questions, comments, demands.

There's magic.

There's the Catholic church.

There's beautiful women.

There are dreams and fantasies and the all mix together for a most delicious stew. You could make this movie too provided you were Fellini. Otherwise -- forget it!

Some people don't get it. There's too much or the story doesn't hold or it's self indulgent. Oh well. I offer no insults, explanations or apologies.

It's this: a movie you can go for a walk in. You got your Claudia Cardinale, your Anouk Aimee (fer starters with the women, this is) you got life with all its best parts. The living and dreaming and the excepting that the trials and tribulations are blessings. They mean we're here that we're present. 8 1/2 celebrates life. Look, no one's dying, no one's in any real pain. There's some angst to be sure. There's a lot of existential this and that. Mostly there's rhythm, you can see it in the way people walk. There's the beat, the dance that is life. No wonder they made a musical out of this that will be a film released next month. This is a musical with visuals. (I know what I mean.)

We start in a dream sequence that's one of the most (adjective here) opening scenes you'll ever behold. Stuck in car in traffic and asphyxiated -- not so nice. But the floating, the being pulled down to the beach -- so nice.

Then to the spa. One film in the can the next about to start. But THE MAN NEEDS HIS REST. Won't get it. Will get the women. The wife, the lover, the exes. Will get the producer, typical suit worried about what, the bottom line. Will get the "collaborator" the writer. Pain in the arse, ask me. Will get those papists. Weird scene. Slip in and out of memories, fantasy. (Here's to the harem scene!).

Will get a closing scene that's one of the most (insert another adjective here) on film.

Here's what Guido says during the movie: I thought my ideas were so clear. I wanted to make an honest film. No lies whatsoever. I thought I had something so simple to say. Something useful to everybody. A film that could help bury forever all those dead things we carry within ourselves. Instead, I'm the one without the courage to bury anything at all. When did I go wrong? I really have nothing to say, but I want to say it all the same.

Hmm. This the director in the movie or the director of the movie talking? (I think so too).

I owe this movie a book. It inspires the creative in me, the artista the intellectual with a dancing soul. It dares to be great. It dares to go places and invites viewers to come along. That's what's so damn great about 8 1/2. It's a ride you get on and off as you please. It's not a one and done film. Not if you like it and if you like it you love it. There is, to flip a phrase, a madness to Fellini's method. You can watch so much here. You can play along at home. What's this mean and what's that all about. Or just enjoy the look which is really the FEEL. Oh sure and the characters too. Watch how sane, how utterly maddeningly and completely sane Guido can seem. Look at whatta crazy sunavbitch he can seem. The world's coolest everyman. (You do know this is an allegory -- no it's not!) Not many movies go in so many directions at once -- on purpose!

Mmmmmmmmm......

23 November 2009

What a Stinker -- Don't Ya Just Love Him?


Years ago there was this old coot who showed up AA meetings, who every time he shared mentioned having drank with William Holden. I never knew what to make of him. Was he exaggerating based on a one time encounter? Was he really old pals with Holden? Or was he totally delusional?

I decided to let my imagination run with the notion that he'd been a close confidant of the great actor, who was a known lush. Cynicism can be so boring. It being more fun to believe in Santa Claus.

Someone who clearly didn't believe in Ole Saint Nick and who positively wallowed in cynicism was J.J. Sefton, Holden's character in the Billy Wilder film, Stalag 17 (1953).

This film without Holden would be like the Chicago Bulls of the 1990's without Michael Jordan.

Stalag 17 has some serious problems -- really, the Germans didn't think to look for Lt. Dunbar in the water tower? That's both dumb and negligent. The humor lapses into farce and Neville Brand is jut too over the top as a vigilante. But its a movie that many of us have visited repeatedly over the years because of Holden. (In one of their rare moments of clarity the Academy of Motion Pictures gave him the Best Actor Oscar for this performance.)

Sefton's a guy who a fellow POW says would bet on his own grandmother getting hit by a bus. That's figurative, literally he bets a couple of his fellow GIs wont make good on their escape. He wins and rakes it in. What a stinker.

But let's forget the particulars for a bit. Let's take a look at this guy. He's from Boston, sergeant in the army...No that's details of the man's life, as relevant as a social security number and about as interesting. What's so compelling about Sefton?

Okay so the guy's a schemer. Knows all the angles, how to make a buck. You just know that back in the states he'll never be a big time entrepreneur, hell, he don't even like them guys, but he'll always have plenty of dough and a gimmick to make some more.

Some folks hate our man Sefton. They see that he's a head of the game. While they're getting by as best they can, playing by the rules, on the up-and-up, Sefton's making book and making a buck. They come to him to use a telescope to watch the Russian women at the delousing station. They come to him for some nasty ass home made hooch. They come to him to lay a bet on horses races run by mice. People come to him. He don't go go them. Some people don't like it when there's someone who's always a step ahead. Call in envy, a form peculiar to men. And when Sefton gets a beatin' (for something not his fault) there's no whining from him about innocence, just a determination to settle the score.

Holden played other cynics (see Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Sunset Blvd. (1950)). They were rough and smart and put themselves first. If they were going to sacrifice they'd wanna know what was in it for them. When Sefton volunteers to be the hero its because he likes the odds. He'll be helping a rich guy escape and figures a nice fat reward will be his due.

Still with Holden's Sefton it's not what he does but how he does it. Rugged handsome in a way that appeals to men as well as women. He's no pretty boy. That voice. Deep and interesting. Spitting out words rapid fire but so's we can understand him. Not a hint of affectation.

You don't see Sefton moving fast. But damned if you can't tell he's thinking fast. Calculating. Odds and angles and probabilities, one step ahead of all those dogfaces who do their thinking after they act.

Here's where I'm going to go with this: the man, Sefton played by Holden, has charisma. Yeah I said it. What I mean here is not the first definition about leadership, but the second one that in Miriam Webster that says: "a special magnetic charm or appeal." And how.

Watch Stalag 17 (if you have On Demand you can "demand" it through the end of next month). You'll enjoy Otto Preminger as the camp commandant, maybe. You'll enjoy Sig Ruman as Sargent Schulz, maybe. You'll enjoy some of the prisoners played by the likes of Harvey Lemback and Robert Strauss, maybe. You'll enjoy the story based on a play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, maybe. You'll enjoy Wilder's direction, maybe. You'll love Holden as the heart and soul of this move, definitely.

Hey, maybe some day I'll claim I drank with Holden.

21 November 2009

Good Prevails Over Evil Once Again -- Go Bears!


I had the great pleasure today of attending the 117th renewal of the Big Game between Cal and St*nf*rd. In an upset and a thrilling contest the underdog Golden Bears triumphed, 34-28. Most importantly this was a victory for the forces of good in our universe.

Shout outs to my former student and Cal senior linebacker Eddie Young and great Cal fans such as Kevin Lindsey, Tim Moellering, Carol Olsen, Gary Fowler and the Bear Claw guy, to name but a few. Thanks as always to late mother Gertrude who took me to my first Big Game many years ago.

The St*f*rd Axe, a perpetual trophy that goes to the winner of the Big Game, remains in Berkeley. Go Bears!

20 November 2009

She Didn't So Much Believe in Miracles as She Made Them Happen


During my teaching career I tried to impress upon my students the following: one of the greatest signs of a person's self esteem and intelligence is their willingness to ask for help.

I also preached about the absolute necessity of self reliance, that ultimately any success a person enjoyed in life was because of their own initiative.

These are not mutually exclusive maxims. The kind assistance of others aids our efforts but they must be our efforts.

Proof of this is what makes director Lee Daniels' new movie Precious such an inspiring story. A lot of films promise to "lift our spirits" and make us "believe in the impossible" but most are just hokum. They sentimentalize hard edged truths or ask us to accept the barely plausible. Their gloss includes over wrought soundtracks, dulled edges and stick figures for characters.

Not Precious.

There's no powdered sugar sprinkled anywhere here.

Clareece "Precious" Jones is an obese teenage girl pregnant for the second time by her father. The girl can barely read, struggles mightily in school, lives with an abusive mother who tells her she's stupid and that school is a waste of time. Her first child has Down's Syndrome. All she has to cling to is her rich fantasy life. It's the kind of reality that far too many Americans deal with and far too few are aware of.

Over 20 years in public schools in an urban area has exposed me to lots of girls like Precious. As a regular classroom teacher you have maybe 130 students. You are supposed to be able to prepare them for the next level of education or the world beyond school. In some cases you aren't aware of their stories and in those cases that you are, there's little you can do. If you now a child's father is in prison and the mothers a crack addict and the child usually doesn't get enough to eat, you still have to make him be quiet when he's disrupting the rest of the class. Later you sit and talk with him but he's distracted, and anyway you're a history teacher not social worker or a psychologist. It helps that you care, he knows you do -- maybe -- but you feel helpless. Imagine how he feels.

You wonder "what will ever become of" these kids. Sometimes you get the tragic news, other times you have no idea what fate awaits them, sometimes though, they end up like Precious.

I hesitated to see the film because I worried that it would be too gloomy. I even had a been-there-seen-that feeling. But this the story of one of the lucky ones. Someone born with enough pluck and latent intelligence to take advantage of a helping hand or two and begin the long slow process of pulling herself.

Clueless commentators proselytize about poor people needing to use their proverbial boot straps and not rely on "government hand outs." As if everyone came with a pair of bootstraps and directions on their use. You'd think from these buffoons that a lot of poor people in hopeless situations were well satisfied with their lots. In truth we have young people all across America trapped in desperate circumstances. Without a nurturing parent or access to healthy meals, surrounded by negative influences and rampant violence, some young people start their lives in very deep holes.

Precious looks dumb. She looks hopeless. All that weight adds to the sense that any light within her could never possibly get out. But a few people do the right thing and she has the sense to take advantage. She takes a step for herself in the right direction then plugs away.

Here's something that, based on my experiences, I've believed: a lot of children in dire situations need special attention, which means very small classes. Our students at the greatest risk are often the ones stuck in classrooms of over 30 students. But reducing class sizes costs a lot of money. Meanwhile the military gets all the money it needs but schools dare not even ask.

Precious gets into a small schooled designed for, let us say, troubled teens. She comes under the tutelage and care of a teacher who can and does make a difference. Many teachers can if given realistic odds and resources. Precious begins to stand up to a mother that is trying to make a personal maid of her, one stripped of any dignity.

Precious the movie works because it stays close to real truths, yet offers a glimmer of hope. It is utterly unflinching in its depiction of the kind of lives too many young Americans, too many of whom are people of color, are stuck in.

Gabby Sidibe is a revelation in the title role. It's difficult for me to adequately credit a performance that was so real to what I have personally seen so often. She's an amazing young actress. The comic and talk show host Mo'Nique is the mother and she managed to convey rage, bitterness and hopelessness without turning her performance into parody. Paula Patton was the teacher and besides being a striking woman, gave a striking performance. A huge surprise was that the mousy but tough social worker was played by Mariah Carey. I honestly would have thought they'd just hired a real social worker for the role for authenticity's sake, so convincing was her performance. The pop diva can act? Who knew? So many wonderful surprises in this film. Obviously Daniels' direction was spot on. He gave the story the treatment it deserved. So many directors would have created false heroics or trivialized small characters or employed a saccharine soundtrack. Daniels made all the right choices.

I'm glad Precious is getting a wide audience. I just hope it's wide enough. Many people who should see it, won't. I also hope that some young people who see it will learn its lessons and that they will start to ask for help, when needed, but ultimately take responsibility for their own lot. I hope too that it message gets through to the thicker skulled in this country who thinks poverty is a thing of the past or a choice. That's a lot of hoping, but hey, if works for Precious....


16 November 2009

Il Mio Viaggio in Italia -or- My Journey Through Italian Cinema (Part Three: Umberto D.)


A MAN AND HIS DOG

I can't answer this question, though later on I'll try: How can a movie feel so real and be about so sad a situation and yet be so moving, so fulfilling to watch?

I discovered a new film to add to my list of favorites and it's one that's been around longer than I have. It is Umberto D. (1952) from director Vittoria De Sica. It was depressing except it wasn't. No story so beautifully told could be depressing. No depiction of such a loving relationship, no portrait so vividly drawn could be depressing. You want depressing watch one of those Hollywood assembly line films where no one is real, everything is obvious and no truths are revealed. None of those three cinematic sins applies to Umberto D.

This is the story of a pensioner, probably in his seventies, whose meager income isn't enough to live on. He faces eviction from the room he rents for money owed and soon due. While his landlady is heartless, she is neither stereotypically evil or cruel. Just a force of nature consumed by her own needs and desires and ambitions and oblivious to those around her, save those from whom she can profit.

Umberto has no immediate family that we are aware of, just his beloved dog, Flike. He's as cute a little mutt as you'll ever see and talented one at that. Umberto and Flike love one another in the uncomplicated way of pets and humans. De Sica does not milk this for cheap sentimentality but merely presents it. Bravo.

Umberto has human acquaintances as well, many of whom are clearly fond of him. None more so than the landlady's maid, the lovely Maria. She's as sweet as candy, but is far from an innocent as evidenced by her pregnancy and the ambiguity surrounding paternity. Umberto and Maria are allies, each accepting the other as is. They are united, in large part because of their mutual disdain for the landlady. While Umberto faces immediate eviction, Maria knows its just a matter of time before she also gets the heave ho. That time being when her pregnancy becomes obvious.

Italians did not respond positively to Umberto D. In part they felt the whole neo realism bit had been done to death, but more to the point they didn't think the film reflected well on their country. Here was the story of a man who worked in civil service for 30 years and couldn't make ends meet. In fact, the movie opens with Umberto joining a rally of other pensioners appealing for enough money to enjoy their retirement in some comfort. Also there are characters, never mind the landlady, who are not model citizens. Like the man feigning illness to prolong his stay in the hospital or the couple who provided shelter for dogs, but were clearly in it to make a buck without compassion for the bowsers. Finally there are several characters much too busy going about their lives to have compassion for others who are less fortunate.

But none of these other characters draw our attention. We care only for Umberto and his dog and to a lesser degree, Maria. By extension we care about others who have or do or will face seemingly insurmountable odds in their efforts to simply make do. We follow Umberto's efforts. Including the gut wrenching choices he faces such as whether to part company with Flike or to shuffle off this mortal coil of his own accord.

I asked a question at the beginning of this post. How is such a story, bleak story, so wonderfully watchable? Possible answers:

It is honest. There is no manufactured ending or moments, no playing with our emotions.

It is kind to its characters, it let's them breathe, have space to move and most of all to think. We see Umberto thinking all the time. And you know what? We think right along with him.

It trusts us. We are allowed to inhabit the world too. We roam around with Umberto and Flike. We discover scenes and situations and people ourselves. Nothing is telegraphed to us. We are not made to feel any given way at any given time but may decide for ourselves.

It is is beautiful to watch. A stark story but lovingly photographed. Lush black and white.

Maybe those explanations account for what a great pleasure it is to watch this film. I should add that many of the actors including the lead, Carlo Battisti, had no prior acting experience. It was supposed to add to the realism and at this it was quite successful.

I see from IMDB there is a rumored remake in the works. It's hard to think of a worse idea for a filmmaker. Certain classics cannot be replicated never mind improved upon. A nice enough film may be made based on the original but it does a disservice to that original at is pretense and will be measured by lovers thusly. Do what the first film did and create an original. For that is what makes Umberto D. so wonderful: it is unlike anything else. Maybe that's why it's so moving and fulfilling to watch.

Bravo!









13 November 2009

A Woman in Berlin, Telling Another Truth of the Second World War

The American ethos about World War II is badly flawed. Most Yanks see the war as a victory of G.I. Joe over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. U.S. soldiers essentially being the cavalry that rode in and rescued England, France and China.

Not quite.
As much as it may pain us to admit it, the Soviet Union did far and away more fighting, dieing and winning than Americans ever conceived of. About half a million Americans died in the war, and that's a generous rounding off. Meanwhile 20 million Russians died. Linked to this is the myth that the Americans could have and should have "finished the job" by marching on to Moscow and putting the Commies and the Red Army in its place. In a pig's eye. The U.S. Army would have been crushed.
There are also myths surrounding resistance in occupied European countries. Fact is, there wasn't a lot of it, least of all in France. Vanquished citizenry pretty much took their licking. The Warsaw Uprising an obvious exception but an exception nonetheless.
The success of the D-Day invasion, so mythologized in this country, was certainly an important moment in the war but pales in comparison to Soviet victories at Stalingrad and Kursk.
Then there's bit of business with fire bombing German cities, notably Dresden. It ultimately did little to bring the war to an end but did a lot to incinerate Germans, women, children and the elderly largely among them.
The whole business of liberation has been misrepresented as well. Many allied troops acted more as occupiers than liberators though they did often take liberty with the locals and their goods.
None of this is meant to diminish the importance of the allied victory or the bravery and ingenuity of American and British troops. But it is always better to live in the real world than a mythic one.
One of those myths is of triumphant Red Army marching through Eastern Germany and valiantly taking Berlin, eventually linking with U.S. and British troops. Okay that's all technically true it just ignores the manner of their victory tour. The Russians raped and pillaged their way to and in Berlin. They were a marauding army of looters and indiscriminate killers committing mass rapes at virtually every turn.
The German film, Eine Frau in Berlin (In English: A Woman in Berlin), recently released on DVD in the States as a bit of corrective to this.
It is based on the anonymously written memoir of a woman who was in Berlin when the city fell in the Spring of 1945. Her book was published in the late 1950's and was blasted by Germans and Russians alike for its unflinching look at defiled German womanhood and depraved Soviet troops. The truth, as Al Gore put it, can be most inconvenient. The author (whose name has never been made public) pulled the book from the shelves with the proviso it not be re-released until after her death.
The heroine claims to be a journalist fluent or conversant in a number of languages (fortunately for her one of these is Russian) who has lived and worked abroad. She was also an unabashed Nazi. I found it refreshing that she felt no need to cover up her love for the Fuhrer and his cause, hopefully she came to see the horrible error of her ways in later years. She has a lover, Gerd, serving in the German army.
A Woman in Berlin is an unsparing look at the horrors visited upon all citizens of Berlin with the arrival of the Red Army. Women, of course suffered most of all. In the film we see one woman ask another simply "how many?" They both now the question refers to the number of rapes suffered.
Our anonymous woman decides that it is futile to fight the inevitable. Being young enough and attractive enough she can make a bargain with herself, her conscience, her soul. She cannot decide not to be used sexually but she can have a voice in dictating some terms. She decides to seek an officer. The experience will somehow be "cleaner" and she can make the relationship exclusive and have a protector in the bargain. It is an unimaginable choice for a woman to have to make. We often cannot control what happens to us in life, but we can control how we react to it. She's in control.
Meanwhile the film shows the rubble that was the physical Berlin and the further devastation to its people. The Red Army had been fighting for four years in some of the most horrific battles and conditions ever experienced. Many of them bore the stains of what the Germans had wrought in their own campaign through Mother Russia. One soldier in the film angrily recalls watching the children of his village violently murdered by Nazis.
There is no gussying up such a story. No gloss or sheen can make the Soviet taking of Berlin anything less than a look at the ugliest in human nature. But neither can such a story be bereft of any hope or humanity lest it be to repellent to occupy the narrative form. Endless bloodshed and sexual violation does not a story make.
A Woman in Berlin finds its beating heart mostly through the title character and the inner strength that radiates from within her. It is not merely self preservation either. Her glory comes from helping those around her. Acts of kindness both small and significant mark her as a special person.
Her relationship with a Soviet Major is fascinating. What have they found in one another? Solace? Love? Who is being protected? Through all manner of soul crushing depredation, people have found not just comfort, but spiritual nourishment in the arms of another. This is one example. It's not always easy to know what to make of the relationship between anonymous and her officer, but it is easy to imagine their lives without it.
The film is also peopled with memorable characters both German and Soviet who variably make us twinge or smile. There is a stone faced Mongolian soldier, a defiant and achingly young German soldier, a wizened German grandmother and a heart broken husband who cannot endure his wife's shame.
Nina Hoss stars as the woman and gives a remarkable performance. The director, Max Faberbock deserves kudos as well.
A Woman in Berlin is not a film you'd take someone to on your first date and I'd not recommend it for any wee ones in the house. But it is an important film for the manner in which it shines a light on one of the ugly realities of WWII that most people didn't even realize was right there under the rug where it had been swept so many years ago. And at last a look at how women suffered in the war and not just the dreaded news that a husband or son or father had died. World War II put everyone on the front lines in many places throughout the world. These were people without weapons, armed only with their wits. They fought too, never mind the odds they faced.
(As a bibliography for some of my assertions at the beginning of the post, I refer the reader to the following books: The War of the World by Niall Ferguson, No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe 1939-1945 by Norman Davies and The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe by William I. Hitchcock.)

12 November 2009

Il Mio Viaggio in Italia -or- My Journey Through Italian Cinema (Part Two: I Vitelloni)


A group of guys.

Three or more fellows who hang out regularly. Known each other for years. Share their secrets, their fears, their hopes. One chap, why he's the intellectual in the group, another is the ladies man, one may be a brooder, one constantly flirts with trouble. In other words, they all have their modus operandi.

Movies have enjoyed stories about groups of guys. Whether kids as in Stand By Me (1986), mobsters as in Mean Streets (1973), or regular blokes like in Diner (1982).

In the nascent stage of his directorial career, Federico Fellini made a semi autobiographical film about a group of guys, I vitelloni (1953). While a fine film in its own right, to me its more a precursor of what was to come from Fellini. It lacks the verve and the daring of Amarcord (1973), for example, another movie based in a small Italian coastal city. Fellini was just warming up in the early Fifties, but doing so with movies that would make most directors envious.

Like most films about a circle of friends, I vitelloni focuses on one member of the assemblage. In this case it is Fausto, the one who gets married early on in the picture and not incidentally, the one who is a complete and utter cad. Here Fellini departs from the standard buddies picture by spending so much of the film on the shenanigans of one character giving very little screen time to most of the crew. This is by no means a complaint, merely an observation and after all, Fellini is quite unlike your garden variety director.

The friends long to leave their insular community, hoping to spread their wings in the big city, Milan or Rome. One can guess how this works out. Only the playwright, Leopoldo (the group's intellectual we are told in the beginning of the film) has a real chance. It is axiomatic that small town guys have out sized dreams and rarely the wherewithal or moxie to make them happen.

But Fellini does not seek to belittle the big dreamers, indeed he makes no judgement on the philandering Fausto who goes so far as to make a pass at his bosses' wife. Fellini is showing not telling. He lets the audience make their own judgments and guess at the fates of the gang.

There are some trademark Fellini scenes and moments in I vitteloni. An eccentric dance; colorfully idiosyncratic, whimsical and downright loony townspeople; drunken costumed revelry; and fountains, you must have scenes around fountains.

I vitelloni works best as character studies. This is especially true of the aforementioned Fausto and Leopoldo and Moraldo (the youngest of the group) who supposedly represents Fellini. Not surprisingly he is the most sane and sober of the lot. While others talk the talk, he prepares to walk it.

While the movie focuses on a group of guys, Fellini's films, and this is no exception, are very kind to, indeed celebrate women. Fellini's women are either beautiful, wise, tough as nails or a combination thereof. A lesser director, a lesser man, would have used women as props in such a film as this. Sex objects, nags or loving but vacuous mothers. Not Fellini. His love of women shines throughout this and his other films.

This is most certainly a forerunner of even more Felliniesque films to come. There is that wonderful and very real combination of the bizarre and the common in both people and events. Evidently some rate the film on a par with or even higher than the great director's better known works. Though I beg to differ with such lofty sentiments about I vitelloni, it is a film I'll gladly visit again (last night was my first viewing). Fellini's movies all get better with repeat viewings. I could easily watch it without sound just to better enjoy the stunning look of it. I'd also like to get better acquainted with the gang. Hey, I wanna hang out with em too.

10 November 2009

You Can Say That Again. Twenty of My Favorite Lines From Films, This Time We Hear from the Ladies


Yesterday on this blog I offered 20 favorite film lines. Because I had so many to choose from in creating the list I decided to create one list of 20 lines spoken by men, which appeared yesterday, and 20 from women which is below. For my thoughts on the importance of individuals lines in movies see the previous post.


Without any further ado, let’s hear from the ladies.


With all my heart, I still love the man I killed. - Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie in The Letter (1940).


What you been eatin', cement? - Jean Harlow as Vantine in Red Dust (1932). (Pictured above.)


Yeah, I'm a tramp, and who's to blame? My Father. A swell start you gave me. Ever since I was fourteen, what's it been? Nothing but men! Dirty rotten men! And you're lower than any of them. I'll hate you as long as I live! - Barbara Stanwyck as Lily Powers in Baby Face (1933).


We rob banks! - Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker in Bonnie & Clyde (1967).


Real diamonds! They must be worth their weight in gold! - Marylin Monroe as Sugar Kane Kowalczyk in Some Like it Hot (1959).


You've got no faith in Johnny, have you, Julia? His little dream may fall flat, you think. Well, so it may, what if it should? There'll be another. Oh, I've got all the faith in the world in Johnny. Whatever he does is all right with me. If he wants to dream for a while, he can dream for a while, and if he wants to come back and sell peanuts, oh, how I'll believe in those peanuts! - Katharine Hepburn as Linda Seaton in Holiday (1938).


What's really bugging me now is my daytime programming. NBC's got a lock on daytime - lousy game shows - and I'd like to bust them. I'm thinking of doing a homosexual soap opera, "The Dykes": The heart-rending saga about a woman hopelessly in love with her husband's mistress. - Faye Dunaway as Diane Christensen in Network (1976).


Listen. Back in New York, whenever I managed to crash a party full of luscious big-hearted millionaires, there was always sure to be some snub-faced kid in the orchestra playing traps. And so at four in the morning, when the wise girls were skipping off to Connecticut to marry those millionaires, I'd be with him in some nightspot learning tricks on the kettledrum. And he always had a nose like yours. - Claudette Colbert as Eve Peabody in Midnight (1939).


I know, it was a wonderful party, and your suit went over big, and she looked beautiful, and when you left she said, "Thank you, Mr. Smith," but it was the way she said it, you nearly fell through the floor. Horseradish! - Jean Arthur as Clarissa Saunders in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).


So look for me in the future where the primroses grow and pack your man's pride with the rest. From now on, you're the only man in the world that my door is closed to. - Norma Shearer as Jerry Martin in The Divorcee (1930).


Well, Pa, a woman can change better'n a man. A man lives sorta - well, in jerks. Baby's born or somebody dies, and that's a jerk. He gets a farm or loses it, and that's a jerk. With a woman, it's all in one flow, like a stream - little eddies and waterfalls - but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it thata way. - Jane Darwell as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940).


You will care for me, though. I grow on people. Like moss. - Mary Astor as Princess Centimillia in The Palm Beach Story (1942).


I just met a wonderful new man. He's fictional but you can't have everything. - Mia Farrow as Cecilia in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985).


Divine decadence darling! - Liza Minelli as Sally Bowles in Cabaret (1972).


You know Steve, you're not very hard to figure, only at times. Sometimes I know exactly what you're going to say. Most of the time. The other times... the other times, you're just a stinker. - Lauren Bacall as Slim in To Have and Have Not (1944).


You're sore because you've fallen for a little drunk you tamed in Miami and you don't like it. It makes you sick all over, doesn't it? People will laugh at you, the invincible Devlin, in love with someone who isn't worth even wasting the words on. - Ingrid Bergman as Alicia Huberman in Notorious (1946).


I love him because he's the kind of guy who gets drunk on a glass of buttermilk, and I love the way he blushes right up over his ears. I love him because he doesn't know how to kiss, the jerk! - Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O'Shea in Ball of Fire (1941).


All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up. - Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. (1950).


He looked exactly the same when he was alive, only he was vertical. - Shirley MacLaine as Jennifer Rogers in The Trouble With Harry (1955).


I detest cheap sentiment. - Bette Davis as Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950).

09 November 2009

You Can Say That Again. Twenty of My Favorite Lines From Films


Movies are memorable for a variety of reasons. Images. Scenes. Surprises. Special effects. Dialogue. Performances. And, of course, great lines. Like anything else with films its up to us to decide what is a "great" line. Simply put it's one that resonates. Hearing or even reading just that line can evoke the entire film or at least a scene or a character.


I offer now 20 of my favorites. All of these lines have stuck with me in one way or the other over the years (or in one case the months). Each one is from a favorite film. Some are comedies and some decidedly not. Some are famous. Others not. I noticed half way through that almost all were spoken by men. So I decided to that this list would be comprised solely of lines from male actors. I'll post a list of women's lines later.
The great thing about most of these lines is that they don't require context. In some cases you don't even need to have seen the film to appreciate the line. Some are hilarious, others poignant. Another thing they have in common is that they were spoken by memorable characters, or at the very least ones that were integral to the film.
They are in no particular order except my all time favorite is first and I've bookended them with lines from the same actor. Enjoy and feel free to leave one of your own faves in the comment section.
Nobody calls a Firefly an upstart! - Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly in Duck Soup (1933).
Positively the same dame. - William Demarest as in The Lady Eve (1941).Come
You think I'm licked. You all think I'm licked. Well, I'm not licked. And I'm going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause. Even if the room gets filled with lies like these, and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place. - James Stewart as Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).


The cities are full of women, middle-aged widows, husbands, dead, husbands who've spent their lives making fortunes, working and working. And then they die and leave their money to their wives, their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands, drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money, proud of their jewelry but of nothing else, horrible, faded, fat, greedy women... Are they human or are they fat, wheezing animals, hmm? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old? - Joseph Cotton as Charlie Oakley in Shadow of Doubt (1943).
Cut it out! Cut it out! Cut it out! The hell's the matter with you? Stupid! We're all very different people. We're not Watusi. We're not Spartans. We're Americans, with a capital 'A', huh? You know what that means? Do ya? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world. We are the wretched refuse. We're the underdog. We're mutts! Here's proof: his nose is cold! But there's no animal that's more faithful, that's more loyal, more lovable than the mutt. - Bill Murray as John Winger in Stripes (1981).
You mean, let me understand this cause, ya know maybe it's me, I'm a little f*cked up maybe, but I'm funny how, I mean funny like I'm a clown, I amuse you? I make you laugh, I'm here to f*ckin' amuse you? What do you mean funny, funny how? How am I funny? - Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas (1990).


I'm not sentimental about war. I see nothing noble in widows. - James Garner as Charley Madison in The Americanization of Emily (1964).


There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that's all some people have? It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan. - Joel McCrea as John L. Sullivan in Sullivan's Travels (1941).
Hey, don't knock masturbation! It's sex with someone I love. - Woody Allen as Alvy Singer in Annie Hall (1977) (pictured above).
She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up. - Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946).
Relax, all right? Don't try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they're fascist. Throw some ground balls - it's more democratic. - Kevin Costner as Crash Davis in Bull Durham (1988).
What's the most you ever lost on a coin toss? - Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men (2007).
When I find myself in a position like this, I ask myself what would General Motors do? And then I do the opposite! - Cary Grant as Johnny Case in Holiday (1938).
They probably sit around on the floor with wine and cheese, and mispronounce allegorical and didacticism. - Woody Allen as Isaac Davis in Manhattan (1979).
You probably heard we ain't in the prisoner-takin' business; we in the killin' Nazi business. And cousin, Business is a-boomin'. - Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine in Inglourious Basterds (2009).
Let's go. - William Holden as Pike Bishop in The Wild Bunch (1969).
What are you gonna do? Nice college boy, didn't want to get mixed up in the family business. Now you want to gun down a police captain. Why? Because he slapped you in the face a little? What do you think this like the Army where you can shoot 'em from a mile away? No you gotta get up like this and, badda-bing, you blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit. - James Caan as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather (1972).
Besides, your hands ain't so clean. You killed and liked it. You didn't get them medals for holding hands with them Germans. - James Cagney as Tom Powers in The Public Enemy (1931).
The poor dope - he always wanted a pool. Well, in the end, he got himself a pool. - William Holden as Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd (1950).
I have here an accident policy that will absolutely protect you no matter what happens. If you lose a leg, we'll help you look for it. - Groucho Marx as Otis B. Driftwood in A Night at the Opera. (1935).

07 November 2009

Il Mio Viaggio in Italia -or- My Journey Through Italian Cinema (Part One: Il Posto)

Sometimes why we do something is not nearly so important as what we get out of it. For example a high school student may do volunteer work solely to improve the look of a college application. But if that student in turn learns and grows from the experience and is of service to others, it's, as the kids would say, all good.
Over the next six weeks I'll be watching a lot of Italian films, many for the first time, and in conjunction with that writing a series, beginning right here, on some of the best of Italian cinema. Surely I'll enjoy both the films and writing about them and hopefully readers will thus be introduced to a film they've not previously enjoyed or gain new insight into an old favorite.
So never mind that the genesis of this series is to better be able to carry on a conversation with someone at Christmas. (I pause now while you say, "huh?"). As regular readers of this blog (both of us) may recall, my beloved oldest niece had a baby last month. The daughter was born in Italy and the father, Germano, is in fact a filmmaker (an Italian one at that). He and my niece will be in these parts with the baby next month and I reckon it a safe bet that I'll get to hobnob with the three visitors. I intend to be fully prepared for any conversation on film I may have with Germano. Oh sure I know my Fellini from my De Sica and my Antonioni from my Rossellini but I've got some blind spots and some brushing up to do. I've blathered on with him before on film, but briefly, so I'm boning up in case the poor bloke gets stuck in a lengthy conversation with me. Hence my tour through Italian cinema. Chide me for my motives all you want but the results should be molto buono. (With my luck he'll want to discuss American film!).
I start my series with a film I'd never seen until today Il Posto (1961)....
In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens wrote: A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!
In that spirit director Ermanno Olmi's Il Posto takes a glimpse at a young man, Domenico Cantoni, starting a "job for life" with a Milan-based corporation. We also meet a few people with whom Cantoni's life intersects, including the man whose death opens a desk up for the young aspirant.
There is a wonderful simplicity and ordinariness to the story and espeically the main character. He is, like many protaganists in European films, quiet, reserved and persistent. Domenico is persistent in his pursuit of a heart breakingly beautiful young woman, Antoinetta (played by a first time actress who subsequently married Olmi and has never been on screen again). He does not so much court her as make himself a presence wherever she is or may be. Domenico is much too shy to call or visit her but when he can manage to stumble onto Antoinetta's path he'll glady spring for coffee and hold up his end of any ensuing conversations. To see her, Domenico will stand in the rain or endure a tepid New Year's Eve party.
Il Posto asks nothing and everything of viewers. We may choose to accept what there is of the 93 minute film without embellishment. It is just what we see, nothing more. An earnest fellow starting a career for life with the attendant security and the total absence of glamour. The movie ends with the confirmation that our star is now a spoke in the wheel, desk bound for his remaining days.
But such a film as this also allows our imagination a free reign. Many, many questions are left unanswered, not the least of which is the fate of the two potential lovers. We may also ponder, should we choose, the deeper meanings of Olmi's story. He had previously made several documentaries, some about building projects that focused on the builder rather than the building. Surely this was the theme of Il Posto.
Films are about choices. Where does the director focus his camera? What aspects of the story does he tell? Who does he draw our attention to? One can have a lengthy and interesting discussion on Olmi's choices, particularly some of his surprising edits in Il Posto.
Olmi claimed in an interview that this film was not from the neo realism school that had swept through Italy after World War II. He said that neo realism put actors in real places in realistic situations. Il Posto did not utilize professional actors. He wanted people who were familiar with the situations and settings shown in the film so that they would not have to act, so that all actions would be natural to them. It paid off. One might be tempted to speak of a documentary feeling to Il Posto. One would be wrong. We know we're watching a drama (one chock full of light moments) but all the performers seem so natural in their roles, so unaffected, that it is with great ease that we lose ourselves in this simple story.
A professor of mine once said that there is beauty in simplicity. Il Posto is an example.