31 August 2008

The Forgotten Man and Some Memorable Films

I was browsing some of my bookmarked blogs when I checked in with Sunset Gun for the first time in too long. Author Kim Morgan had a recent post about three of her recent obsessions. I've taken the liberty of quoting number three verbatim. In fact, here it is now:

"3. Goldiggers of 1933 (1933) I can never get enough of this sexy, subversive picture. Though 1930’s Warner Brothers is renown for social dramas like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang or the brilliant Wild Boys of the Road (you must track this down -- an under-seen masterpiece) and classic gangster films like Little Caesar with Edward G. Robinson and Public Enemy with James Cagney, they also provided some of cinema’s greatest musicals. My favorite being Gold Diggers of 1933, directed by Fugitive helmer, Mervyn LeRoy and more importantly, choreographed by that mad genius, surrealistic artist Busby Berkeley. With a take on what Americans love most -- money -- the film showcases a bizarre-o number of the famed song "We're in the Money" wherein a comely Ginger Rogers sings it in both English AND Pig Latin. (My God, how I love Ginger -- The Major and the Minor alone). Amazing for its ability to be light fluff, fantastically inventive in terms of set design and costuming and seriously relevant, Goldiggers proves that musicals aren’t mere escapism. And by the time Joan Blondell ends the film with the haunting "Remember My Forgotten Man," in which soldiers from World War I are shown in bread lines, you'll again remember that even the oldest of musicals had something to say. Absolutely sublime."

As I wrote in my comment to this post I can't remember the last time I agreed so totally with something (hell, I disagree with myself half the time). All the movies she mentions are absolute classics (yes, I think the Major and the Minor (1945) is a classic). If you've never heard of our seen Wild Boys of the Road (1933) I'm sorry to say that like many of director William Wellman's early films, it is not yet on DVD. TCM shows it, but too infrequently. It's an unflinching look at some Depression Era teens who take to the rails in an effort to find work and thus support their families and it is superbly told.

Also in 1933 Wellman directed two other outstanding films, Midnight Mary and Heroes for Sale. Heroes is another tough look at the depression featuring one of the most haunting endings in cinema. I first saw it on the big screen at the Pacific Film Archives when they were showing a series of Pre Code films. People who are at all aware of the too brief era (1929-1934) when when Production Code wasn't enforced, assume that movies then were just a bit racier. Yes sex was a topic but so too were social issues. In addition to the aforementioned films, Mayor of Hell (1933) (pictured above), and two other LeRoy films, Five Star Final (1931) and I Am A Fugitive from A Chain Gang (1932) are great examples of Hollywood's willingness to tackle social themes until the production code Nazis assumed power. Incidentally, Warner Brothers was well ahead of other studios in releasing such films.

One could argue that Wellman's Public Enemy (1931) belongs in this category too. It certainly was the forerunner, along with LeRoy's Little Caeser (1931), of gangster films to come. (I'll have a post just about Public Enemy coming soon).

Notice how many of these films were directed by Wellman or LeRoy? Yet today it seems that only true cinephiles have even heard of them. Again it would help if more of their films were on DVD -- let's get on this people.

Like Public Enemy was more than a gangster film, Gold Diggers of 1933 was not just a pretty musical. As Morgan indicates in her post, the Forgotten Man song is a powerful conclusion to a Depression Era story. Indeed this, the original and far and away the best of the Gold Diggers films, combined dance, song, romance, laughs and commentary. 

Gradually more and more pre code films are appearing on DVD but I reiterate the word gradual. Meanwhile we've always got TCM.

29 August 2008

All Some People Ever Do Is Complain

I have strong feelings on a number of topics.  I am glad to share some of those with you now.

* While opposed to the death penalty I believe an exception should be made for people who talk in movie theaters.  Summary executions are a fit punishment.  The same consequences should await those whose cell phones go off during movies.

*No one should be allowed to strum a guitar in a public place unless they are accomplished at the instrument.

*Bicycles are to be ridden on streets not sidewalks.  They are called sideWALKS for a reason.

* Can we all agree to please stop using "no worries."  It sounds awkward, even slightly pretentious and too off hand.  (I'm reminded off George Constanza's complaint: "So self-absorbed and egotistical, it's like those hip musicians with their complicated shoes!")  Let's please just go with the standards like, "not a problem" or "don't worry about it."

*Another phrase that needs to go away is: "what can I say?"  You can SAY whatever the hell you want to SAY.  So just SAY it already.

*I'm also quite tired of "what I'm trying to say is..." Instead of telling us what you're TRYING to say, just SAY IT!  This is often accompanied by the equally odious, "don't get me wrong."  I'll damn well get you wrong if I want to.  Who are YOU to tell ME not to get YOU wrong?

* Equally tired is "get over it."  This is product of our 24 hour news cycle and ever changing culture.  You were raped, your family killed and your house pillaged?  Get over it!  That was yesterday for chrissakes.  Those Hurricane Katrina victims were still moaning about being homeless months later.

* Here's another one:  "Somebody needs to get a life."  Oh and what exactly is "a life"?  Who defines "a life"?  I heard a passerby complain about picketers once saying, "they need to get a life."  If all those people were at home watching Wheel of Fortune no one would complain that they need to get "a life."  But exercise their right of protest and they're suddenly lifeless.  Another one along those lines is "somebody has too much time on their hands."  Like that's a bad thing.  Don't we all strive to have more time?  Do we really have to fill up every second?  Can't we enjoy some leisure? Of course, the phrase is usually used about people who are exactly trying to do something.  The speaker just doesn't think it is a worthy endeavor -- unlike say watching Wheel of Fortune.

*We no longer need to hear any personal information about you while on line at the grocery store.  In other words, keep your cell phone conversations discreet.

* My fellow males:  put a shirt on!  The beach and pool are obvious exceptions but as a general rule do what women do in public and cover your breast.  I don't care how hot it is outside, woman have to cover up, so do you.

* The word anyway does not have an "s" at the end of it.  Got it?

*Please do not say the "quote unquote government" say the "quote 'government' unquote."  if you don't see the difference than never mind you can't be helped.

* Please note that we have all heard the question "working hard or hardly working?"  It was barely amusing the first time so drop it already.  Similarly if you respond to a question about what's going on in your life with "same ole, same ole," you sound like an absolute dolt.

*If you're going to use the phrase "you know what I mean?" do so sparingly and actually wait for a response. Better yet drop it completely.  Also don't use "you know" as verbal punctuation.  You know what I mean?

*You can't tell me that you don't know your handshake feels like putting a warm dry fish in someones hand.  So unless you have no muscles in your hand, firm up that grip -- men especially.

*If someone is telling you about something wonderful or horrible that has recently happened to them it is not a cue for you to try to recall a similar incident in your life.  It is a cue for your to LISTEN.

*Please do not act like someone is weird just because they don't like the same music as you do.  Unless a person enjoys Nazi marching songs it's quite likely that their musical tastes are doing the world any harm.

*Don't use profanity in public or anywhere that there are people you don't know.  I'm f*cking serious here.

Believe or not I have a lot more but I want to get everyone together on these first.  Thanks for your cooperation.

27 August 2008

Gray Skies Are Gonna Clear Up

Got the blues? Feeling low down? Depressed? Lonely?

Don't pick up that drink. Stay away from those drugs. Put down that tub of ice cream. Do what I do. Watch a movie!

One route is to watch a great film. Enjoying art at its best is a sure cure for the miseries. But what if your mood is particularly low? Taxi Driver (1976) or Citizen Kane (1941) aren't exactly pick-me-ups. Perhaps instead of Schindler's List (1993) you should try something a little lighter. Okay, here are some recommendations of films guaranteed to wipe away that dark mood and without a concomitant sacrifice of quality.

Duck Soup (1933). Ignore the film's supposed anti-war message and just enjoy the Marx Brothers at their funniest. Chuckles, guffaws and knee-slappers from start to finish.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986). Ignore the dark side of Alan Ruck's character and enjoy watching Ferris stick it to the man. Hijinks and two rousing songs during a Chicago parade highlight this laughfest. Get ready to grin.

Footloose (1984). Ignore the social themes about repressing youth. Instead just dig the dancing. In fact you may just want to fast forward to the closing scene where the kids dance to the title song. Go Kevin Bacon!

Some Like It Hot (1959).
Ignore the grisly gangland murders and join Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marylin Monore for this Billy Wilder-directed laugh riot. Warning: your sides may split.

Palm Beach Story (1942). Ignore the confusing ending and beginning. You won't be confused about how funny this film is.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). Ignore the film's social themes and revel in the great Busby Berkeley dance numbers. You get to ogle Joan Blondell and laugh along with Guy Kibbee and Aline MacMahon, too.

Top Hat (1935). Ignore the weak story line. You get to enjoy Fred and Ginger, Hollywood's greatest dance team. Indeed just about any of their films together will have your toes tapping.

The Killing Fields (1984). Ignore...wait, this might not be such a good idea. Skip it.

Bringing Up Baby (1938)
. (Pictured above.) Nothing to ignore here. The classic screwball comedy features the irrepressible Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, an improbable story line, and a leopard named Baby. The word zany comes to mind.

Animal House (1978). Ignore the scenes of sexploitation and enjoy the original–and still best–frat boy comedy. John Belushi's performance alone is priceless (but the DVD can be bought or rented).

Ninotchka (1939). Ignore the somber look at Soviet Russia and enjoy this classic Lubitsch romantic comedy. The suave Melvyn Douglass and the stunning Gretta Garbo are a toothsome twosome. Garbo talks and laughs and so will you!

Scoop (2006) Ignore the ghosts and enjoy the most recent of Woody Allen's many great comedies. No pretense at social commentary here, just a successful stab at tickling your funny bone.

Bananas (1971). Ignore the depictions of a repressive regime and revolution and enjoy another earlier Allen comedy. This is a comedy with some serious spoofing. Side effects may include uproarious laughter.

Ball of Fire (1941). Ignore the mean old mobsters and enjoy Barbara Stanwyck in one of her most sumptuous roles. Even steady ole Gary Cooper will induce a laugh or six.

Stripes (1981). Ignore the military themes. Enjoy Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, John Candy and Warren Oates in one of the smartest slap stick comedies ever made.

(Should symptoms persist after viewing one or more of these films, see your doctor.)

26 August 2008

Overrate This, Buddy

An easy way to start a debate is to make an "overrated" list. It's especially easy when the topic is films. Today's list on the wonderful Web site, The List Universe is "Ten Most Overrated Films."

There is, of course, nothing wrong with compiling such a list but it is disingenuous not to include the criteria. Otherwise, the list is merely a case of the author saying,"Here are some popular movies that I don't like, or don't like as much as most people do." Big deal.

How about some specifics? Like most overrated films to win the Best Picture Oscar? Or most overrated on AFI's top 100 list? Or most overrated box office smashes (that'd be an easy one). Picking ten films from the entire history of movies is much too broad, especially if you're not claiming they have something else in common besides their unmerited rating.

For a site like The List Universe such a list will engage people. Indeed, many of the comments below the list point that out.

Having voiced my objections, I must say that I agree with most of the selections. This may mean that the author and I have similar views on movies. Or it may mean that many of the films on this list have generated what seems an excessive amount of notoriety over the years. That's one reason I wholeheartedly agreed with his selection of Brian DePalma's Scarface (1983). I've always thought it was mediocre film that has developed a cultural status far beyond its artistic merits– especially compared to other far superior gangster films such The Godfather (1972) or Goodfellas (1990).

Titanic (1997) also made the list as well it should. It made far more money and garnered far more awards than it deserved.

Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Chicago (2002) were two more Best Picture winners that made the list. Anytime a mediocre –or merely pretty good –film wins the Oscar it becomes a candidate for an overrated list. But there are far worse injustices than Chicago. Crash (2003) and Million Dollar Baby (2004) are two recent examples.

The one objection I have to The List Universe list is Apocalypse Now (1979) (pictured above) regarded by many people besides myself as one of the greatest films of all time. The author went so far as to call it "a terrible movie." This "terrible" film was 30th on the AFI's top films list, 35th on IMDb, made the BFI's list of greatest films of all time, made Premier Magazine's Centenary List, and is among Roger Ebert's greatest films, etc. etc.

I suppose the point is that if you want to stir it up, compile an overrated list. As you can see, it worked on me.

The Brief But Brilliant Run of Preston Sturges

It was an amazing run. Between 1940 and 1944 Preston Struges wrote and directed seven films, six of which went on to become classics:
  • The Great McGinty (1940)
  • Christmas in July (1940)
  • Lady Eve (1941)
  • Sullivan's Travels (1941)
  • Palm Beach Story (1942)
  • Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944)
  • Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)

These were his first directorial efforts and none of the six (that's right– just six) films that followed would compare.

By all accounts, Sturges was somewhat of an eccentric which isn't all together surprising given his bohemian upbringing; aberrant behavior is not unusual in the artistically gifted. Sturges was, by turns, a perfectionist who insisted upon total control of his projects and he was a risk taker. The risks could range from extra marital affairs to opening a restaurant to starting a production company with Howard Hughes. One constant in his life was writing. He was among the first successful screenwriters in Hollywood to transition to directing. Among his writing credits are two great comedies: Twentieth Century (1934) and Easy Living (1937). Sturges also did a lot of uncredited work as a script doctor, both before and after his directing career.

Sturges' films of the early 1940's are among the best comedies of all time. They're settings range across the country (notably, several are placed in what one could call Anytown U.S.A.). Given Sturges' cosmopolitan background, his ability to capture small town Americana in such films as Morgan's Creek is remarkable.

He explored the home front during World War II in Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero. He lampooned Hollywood in Sullivan's Travels. Took a look at the wealthy and at grifters in The Lady Eve. Tackled political corruption in The Great McGinty. And with Palm Beach Story, Sturges told a very funny, and very unconventional, love story.

Sturges didn't just play for laughs. Sullivan's Travels is a very funny movie that spoofs the movie business. This bit of dialogue early in the movie sets the tone.

John L. Sullivan: I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
John L. Sullivan: A little, but I don't want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
John L. Sullivan: [reluctantly] With a little sex in it.
Hadrian: How 'bout a nice musical?

Hail the Conquering Hero was a bold movie to make during the war. Though patriotic in tone, it also was a wry look at hero worship. McGinity, of course, was a hilarious but nonetheless powerful statement about the vagaries of a democracy in which anyone can rise to the top.

All of his films had a bit of romance. There was an odd marriage between Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea in Palm Beach Story in which each got entangled with another in the persons of Mary Astor and Rudy Vallee. Identical twins were involved. Confusing? Yes. Funny? Absolutely.

The romance between McCrea and Veronica Lake is an easy one to root for in Sullivans Travels. And the love between Eddie Bracken and Betty Hutton in Morgan's is touching. But the best of the Sturges' romances was far and way that between Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck in the Lady Eve. Stanwyck's seduction of Fonda early in the film is one of the sexiest in film history. All done fully clothed with no overt sexuality.

Surges could do that sort of thing. He nimbly danced around the censors in all his films. It's still hard to fathom how he got away with Morgan's Creek and its unorthodox pregnancy in the bad old days of the production code. Thank God he did.

Perhaps most of all, Sturges the director benefited greatly from Sturges the writer. He had great stories with smart, interesting and hilarious dialogue to work with. Mixed in was just the right amount of physical comedy. Sturges never went overboard with the slapstick, a trap many comedies have fallen into throughout film history.

Some of the best performers of the time were in his films. In addition to the aforementioned Fonda, Stanwyck, Colbert, McCrea, Hutton, Bracken and Astor, he put together as his regulars one of the greatest assemblages of character actors that Hollywood has ever seen. William Demarest is most recognizable and perhaps most important but Porter Hall, Franklin Pangborn, Jimmy Corwin, Robert Warwick, Jimmy Conlin, Torin Meyer and Victor Potel are among others of note. Their regular appearances is part of what gave a Sturges film its distinct look.

My goodness, all those great names and I didn't even mention Brian Donleavy who starred in McGinty and did a cameo in Morgan's Creek.

One can ponder the what ifs about Sturges' career and lament his all too short run of brilliance. But I prefer to sit back and enjoy those great films he did make. They have a style all their own. They're highlighted by fast-paced laughs with romances that never fall into schmaltz. The acting is just fine, of course, but these are films most memorable for great scripts and a unique directing style. This was comedy that never appealed to the lowest common denominator. Yet it wasn't dry high brow stuff that actually isn't funny at all. It was biting satire. Which I suppose is the best kind.

By the way, right up there with Some Like it Hot's (1958) "well, nobody's perfect" for great comedy closing lines is The Lady Eve's, "positively the same dame."

Classic. Just like Sturges.

24 August 2008

Everyone is Entitled to an Opinion, Foreign Language Version

The Internet Movie Database provides a message board space for all movies and TV shows. This allows people to initiate a discussion on a movie or ask questions or post a comment and get responses.
As one would imagine, there are a wide range of opinions on films. Last month I copied and pasted some scathing comments about some of America's most beloved films. Now I provide some choice words from IMDb users about some highly respected language films Remember, we are ALL entitled to our opinion.

Aguirre, Wrath of God
This is by far the worst film I have ever seen. Its slow, undeveloped plot and general storyline carry on a horrible progression of insignificant and confusing scenes. Its acting is none the better; but worst of all is the script. The actors ramble on with pointless monologues and unrealistic dialogues. All in all, this movie SUCKS!!!

Grand Illuison
except for the last 30 minutes, i dont know why people keep this film in such high regard. "one of the best of all time", "brilliant", blah blah blah.. someone explain to me whats so special about this movie..

Seven Samurai
I don't care about or appreciate film history, I studied it at university for 3 years and never found it remotely interesting. That's not to say I don't like old films, most of my favourite films are from the 40's and 50's, but this film is so dreadfully boring. Admittedly I only watched 1:30 of it but I couldn't handle it anymore it was so boring I kept falling asleep. I know why people interested in the history of film are interested in this, but is there any regular film viewers who like this? Its so boring

400 Blows
Recently i felt in the the mood for watching french movies (prefrably films from the french new wave) so i decided to watch the 400 blows.
What a pile of crap, why do people hold this film in such high regard. While i admit i do admire Truffaut for making very personal films but i felt that the film left me cold.
But before you say i have no taste i tried to watch Jean-Luc Godards extremely nhilistic and misanthropic film Weekend and i thought it was one of the best films i seen in ages.

I bought this movie due to the wide recognition it seems to have. However, I was sorely disappointed, yes it seems to have some experimental editing - though according to some it could be due to Godard being forced to make cuts, so even that isn't an artistic point, just a pee'd off director trying to get one on the studio.
For me the acting was wooden to the point of making Keanu Reaves seem like the next De Niro. The script seemed hardly that great. I've also also seen far better cinematography well before that time.
I think this is strictly for flim studies students. Are there any Godard films really worth watching? Are films by Renoir and Fellini also equally dull, historical context apart? (BTW I returned Breathless and got Central Station, an utterly brilliant movie)

All About My Mother
I consider myself to be a moviefreak, I see all kinds of movies: Spirited Away, Oldboy, Amelie From Montemarte, Mysterious Skin, Godfather, The Downfall and also a lot of "slow movies" (just like this: Le Vita e bella, Citizen Kane, Gosford Park and The Hours.. I watch everything and I know when I see a good movie.
Before watching "Todo Sobre Mi madre" I had pretty high expectations, they were not fulfilled.
This was a crappy movie, end of story. Sure the acting was good and the music/score were faboulus. But it was just so BORING! And all the plot holes.....
If you haven´t seen this movie, don´t waste your time

Lives of Others
I'm not going to come on here and say it was the worst movie I ever saw or anything, because that's simply not true. It's decent, actually.
But nothing more to me. I'm continually surprised to see how many people trumpet this as one of the best movies ever made, or honestly even as one of the best movies of '06. To me, it's a movie that succeeds technically, but never really gets ambitious. It felt familiar when I watched it... not as in I could nail down its ripping off something else, but just that I had this nagging feeling that I've seen this movie done before, better.
I also thought the death of the wife was a missed opportunity, but that's a minor nag.
We watched this as part of my German class, and the people I talked to afterwards spoke very highly of it. A couple of people I've talked to since have shared similar sentiments to mine.
I wound up giving it *** out of ****, with the tag that I don't really LIKE it all that much, I just have a respect for its technical prowess.
Maybe it's just one of those things?

Y Tu Mama Tambien
what the hell was the point of this movie? Is it about two closet gay guys with an older woman learning about, what life? Sex? Wtf is the point? The cinematography sucked, the milf is really pretty ugly, and the use of the narrator provided such stupid and useless information like "the pigs got slaughtered" or whatever the hell it said. the cast was alright, just, what the hell? Oh, and people are talking about how realistic the sex scenes are. It's really not that difficult to put a girl on the bottom, the guy on top, and do pelvic thrusts into the air. In fact, if they wanted to make it really realistic all they would have to do is sleep with each other for real, but that would make it porn, not this "high art" subtitled Bulls hit. This is further proof that roger ebert needs to be killed. four stars my a ss. i gave it 5/10, and thats only because of a few decent shots and the two actors that had some good moments. other then that, stupid waste of time about f ags and some lady with cancer who wanted to get laid. i've seen two cuaron movies so far, this and harry potter, and of course i hated harry potter, but he did a decent job considering the stupid material. This was just stupid, imo. and i gave my reasons. if someone can explain to me the genius of this garbage i will be very happy. thanks.

City of God
I recently rented this movie because of all the hype it get's on IMDB, and I must say that I was very dissapointed. I won't say that it's a bad movie because it wasn't, but I expected so much more from a movie with such a high rating.
People can't say that I didn't like it because of the subtitles, because I personally enjoy subtitles in movies. I think part of it had to do that I didn't find myself attached to the characters at all. Knockout Ned was pretty good, but everything in this movie I found very predictable and nothing special. (I do realize that this is based on a true story, but I am unaware as to how much of it is actually fact.)

Farewell My Concubine
I wish I had a concubine while I was watching this boring flick. Then maybe I would have fell asleep happy!!! This movie had so much hype behind it. Everytime I looked into asian cinema this flick came up as a must see. I have to say I was not impressed. It had all the qualities of an epic but it had no soul. It never ended. I could have cut this movie into an hour and a half or at least an hour and 45 minutes easily. NOT ALL LONG MOVIES DESERVE EXCELLENT RATINGS PEOPLE! I loved the cinematography, acting, props and even the story could have worked (if the director and writers didn't drop the ball) but the screenplay dragged on foreverrrrrrrrrrr. I found myself hoping that they would move to Hiroshima or Nagasaki sometime during WW II just so I could see this piece of "candied crap apples" end with a bang! However I am sorry to say that they didn't move and now I must regret (for the rest of my life) the 3 hours I wasted watching Farewell,My Concubine. Farewell?----- more like get the hell out! DON"T WASTE YOUR TIME UNLESS YOUR TIRED!

The Seventh Seal
What about a remake? I really see Vincent Cassel playing Antonius Block (Max von Sydow)and Russell Crowe as Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand)
What do you think !!

23 August 2008

Burt Lancaster and The Art of Graceful Acting

Today I watched a film I'd not seen since I was a kid, The Professionals (1966) directed by Richard Brooks. As a 12 year old I loved it. As a lot more than 12 year old I thought it was okay. Ralph Bellamy is a Texas millionaire who hires four experts for a dangerous mission (great movie set up). They are to re-capture his young and lovely wife (Claudia Cardinale) who has been kidnapped by group of Mexican rebels. Their leader is the notorious Jesus Raza played by Jack Palance (what, they couldn't fight a Mexican actor?). Our heroes are Lee Marvin, Woody Storde, Robert Ryan, and Burt Lancaster. The story is set in the early 20th century Texas/Mexico.

The mission is fraught with peril but a pay off of $10,00 a man entices the foursome to attempt penetrating the enemy fortress and Raza's army.

The Professionals lacked the humor of Butch Cassiday and the Sundance Kid (1969), the boldness of The Wild Bunch (1969) or the vision of the Searchers (1958). The mid Sixties weren't a great time for American film particularly westerns and action films. The many action scenes in The Professionals were garden variety Saturday matinee stuff. A TV series of the time, Wild Wild West, did them better.

From 40 years in the future The Professionals seems a waste of an excellent cast. While the film is diverting enough, the wonderful talents of Robert Ryan were wasted. Also this was not the Lee Marvin of a vaguely similar film, The Dirty Dozen (leader of a dangerous mission into the heart of enemy territory). But there's one aspect of the movie that I really enjoyed: Burt Lancaster.

Lancaster played a cynical, hard drinking, humorous womanizer. But one of the key aspects of Lancaster's appeal in many of his films was that he was a graceful man in a hunky body. In The Professionals he was veritably dancing across rocks and crags as he shot it out with banditos or set off explosions.

Prior to his screen career Lancaster was an acrobat and gymnast. It shows. Whether literally sliding into his sermons in Elmer Gantry (1960) or nimbly climbing trestles in The Train (1964), Lancaster was always a study in grace. His looks and distinctive voice would have been enough for a fine acting career. Mix in his stylish way of moving and you've got a big star.

Lancaster was not the only great actor to be endowed with such physical style. James Cagney came to acting as a hoofer. Yes, of course he was sight to see prancing around in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), but he even gave an elegance to gangsters such as Tom Powers in Public Enemy (1931).

Cary Grant was athletic and did his own backflip in Holiday (1938). William Holden, at least in his younger days, looked like a football running back taking it easy between games. I also loved the way Henry Fonda walked. I'd characterize as it as masculine delicacy. Very precise and mannered. Just study him in Twelve Angry Men (1957). Charlie Chaplin had a style too but that's a whole other category.

The mannered, graceful way an actor runs or walks or hops can add to their performance, making them and thus the picture more interesting. Lancaster accomplished this in The Professionals.

I doubt as a 12 year old I'd much noticed Lancaster's physicality. To be honest, I probably just thought it was cool the way he blew things up. Ahh sweet youth....

19 August 2008

Lighten Up, Mikey

Watching the Godfather Part II (1974) is like settling in with a big thick historical novel that you've read before.

Oh the places you'll go...Sicily. Ellis Island. New York circa 1917 and the same city in the late 1950s. Havana Cuba on the eve of the revolution. Miami. Lake Tahoe. Senate hearings.

All these locales are peopled by a rich array of characters. Everything from a corrupt U.S. Senator, to a Jewish mob boss to Mafia underlings.

But at the center of the story is ice. The frigid persona of one Michael Corleone, as portrayed by Al Pacino. This is not the wild and wholly Pacino of Scarface (1983). This is not a preening rageaholic like Robert DeNiro's Al Capone in The Untouchables (1987). Nor does he have the swagger and underlying vulnerability of James Cagney's mob portrayals. While there are powerful bursts of anger and even a slap to his wife, Michael Corleone is generally dispassionate, utterly humorless and in complete control. Other movie mob bosses wound up in jail or died in a hail of bullets. Others drank to access, womanized or made fatal errors. The self contained world of Michael Corelone was invulnerable.

As a person he sacrificed his humanity. By having seen the first Godfather (1972) you can see the startling transformation in the character. From a bemused, love happy war hero who was clearly the outsider within the family business, to the ice man of later years. It was a transformation wrought by family tragedy and his own faithful decision to participate in that awful by product of the family business -- violence.

Michael vanquished his foes, sacrificing a brother in the process, but by the end of the story was left literally alone with his thoughts.

Godfather Part II is generally acknowledged as one of the greatest films of all time. No argument here. I think the scenes of young Vito Corleone as played by DeNiro are some of the best ever filmed. It's difficult to imagine that what's on screen isn't a documentary. The re-creation of early 20th century New York, Gordon Willis' cinematography combined with perfect casting (including the late great Bruno Kirby) is damn near perfect. Okay just plain perfect. DeNiro's Oscar was well earned.

Director Francis Ford Coppola and company also deserve a shout out (if you'll excuse the modern parlance) for the scenes in Havana. Having just read a book about the Mafia in Cuba and the parallel rise of Castro (more on the book in a future post) I can humbly attest to the accuracy of those scenes.

A good epic novel can be read in fairly short order if its a page-turner. Similarly Godfather Part II clocks in at 200 minutes but doesn't drag for a second. I just spent three hours watching a movie? Didn't seem like two! This is a testament to a director who was at the top of his game -- sadly his ride atop filmdom seems to have encompassed only four films over the course of eight years (but what films!).

What is perhaps most remarkable is that the story is so compelling despite having such a cold blooded creature at the center. Maybe it is the very heaviness of Michael Corleone that audiences find fascinating. One scene that always sticks out to me is when Michael enters a small motel room in Nevada after escaping Cuba. It's the precise way he loosens his tie, dabs his weary eyes with a wet towel, sips a glass of water. These actions speak volumes about a man conscious of his own every move, never making a wasted or false one. Is this what allows him to so closely monitor his enemies? Remember he believes in keeping his friends close and his enemies closer.

Of course, there is a lot going on around Michael and in many ways he is the puppet master. He is certainly the master of reacting to those few situations that he has not anticipated.

A final point that should be made is that Al Pacino's performance as Michael is one of the greatest on film. How many actors could reveal so much with just their eyes? Note his reaction (before the outburst) to Kay's revelation of an abortion. It's far simpler to embody a character by using broad gestures with over-the top-emotions. But to say so much by inflection and expression is another matter.

Plus he doesn't get to smile.

17 August 2008

Letting Go

This morning the missus and I took oldest daughter to the airport. As I write this she's flying over the Atlantic on her way to study abroad for one year. Having completed two years at the University of Oregon, she's set to study in Tampere, Finland (pictured above) for one year. It's a return to her roots in a way. I'm second generation Finnish on one side and first generation on the other side.

I hated like hell to say goodbye. She's 20 and has spent two years in college so she's ready and I should be ready for this too. But I'm not.

Couples often talk about having a baby. That's a misnomer. A child is born but it's only a baby for a short time. Then its a toddler, a small child, a pre-teen, a teen. An adult. God willing your child will be an adult to you for most of the time you two share the Earth. So let's be clear, people have humans that start out as babies.

I had the great luck to have Aimo Johannes Hourula as my father (1916-2008). No one has benefited from a father who was more loving, caring and proud. Through good times and bad I always took great comfort in knowing how much he cared for me. What he practiced was the very definition of unconditional love.

It has long been my goal to be the same sort of father to my two daughters. Given how wonderfully they've turned out I imagine I've been at least somewhat successful, but that's really for them to say and is likely just a testament to their mom.

What a thing to be a parent. To love, care and fret. Scold, counsel and forgive. Then the hardest part -- letting go. Some parents shove their children out the door. Others hold tightly to their child (even if there's a large distance between them) figuratively choking the child. My dad let go of me quite freely. He had faith. So I try to do the same. I suppose its natural to feel some sense of ownership when you've invested so much in another. But the very purpose of that investment in time, love, and care should be for that person to succeed on their own.

It's hard to put into words how proud I am of oldest daughter. She's wonderfully accomplished at the most basic and most important thing -- living. She enjoys life. Learns from it. Cares for others. Since she was a little child I've been touched by her empathy for others. She does quite well academically. But more importantly she's smart about navigating the vagaries of human existence. Of finding the good, of finding the fun. Of leaving any situation better than she found it. (These are traits she shares with a sister and four cousins, all of whom are grandchildren of Aimo Hourula).

She's going to do great in Finland and have a wonderful time. She'll come back changed, but knowing her, those changes will be the kind that see her become wiser and stronger.

So poor me, shedding a tear for myself because I don't get to hang out with oldest daughter for these many months. That's okay, I suppose. As long as there are accompanying tears of joy for her wonderful adventure.

Go get em, kid.

A Thing of Beauty....

"In the late '70s and '80s, Allen made comedies and dramas, but he's beyond those distinctions now. "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" exists in its own Allen universe, an idiosyncratic mixture of Fitzgeraldian romanticism, Rohmer-esque self-involved loquaciousness and Marx Brothers absurdity. Allen's vision is so clear in his mind that genre demands are swept away. Vicky and Cristina go where they want to go, and nothing seems forced or guided about their journey. It's as if Allen were merely watching them and taking dictation." - Mick LaSalle from his review of Woody Allen's latest film, Vicky Christina Barcelona.

No one writes better dialogue than Woody Allen. It's smart and funny. No it's intelligent and witty. It's challenging...but accessible. And damn it, it fits his characters perfectly. A movie stops dead in its tracks when a line is spoken that doesn't fit the speaker or sounds like a cliche.

With Allen all the conversation is to a purpose. Even when there's a lot of dialogue the story keeps moving. Credit Allen the screenwriter and Allen the director. Watching people talk can be quite tedious. Never a problem in Allen's movies. Largely because his creations always have something interesting to say.

For VCB (if you'll excuse the initials) Allen used a narrator. This kept us from enduring the summarizing conversations that characters are forced to give that can be so bloody awkward. In VCB the narration allowed his wonderful cast to embody their roles -- which they all did with zeal. Reportedly Allen gives his actors little direction. It shows. They are allowed to breathe and to do that breathing as their character. Watch Penelope Cruz let her rip as a quirky, if suicidal artist. I just saw and enjoyed Cruz in a more restrained performance for Elegy. My God she was a lot of fun as Maria Elena. And Javier Bardem plays the polar opposite of No Country's Fold Men's (2007) Anton Chigurh. Bardem a versatile actor? Try transcendent.

Despite the consequent pay cut of doing an Allen picture (they're low budget productions), seemingly all actors want to "do a Woody" (so to speak). So he gets his pick. Thus for VCB we get Cruz, Bardem, Scarlett Johansson, Patricia Clarkson and Rebecca Hall. I didn't recognize Hall's name in the film's build up either but thanks to VCB it's about to become quite familiar to movie audiences. If not a star, at least a promising actress is born to the wider world.

In the past Allen has used the landscape of New York and more recently London to great effect in his movies. VCB is of course set in and around Barcelona. Suffice to say I'm ready to pack up and go there and no doubt other viewers of VCB will feel the same. Allen's incorporation of geography into his story is inspired.

A good Woody Allen film -- and VCB is certainly one of them -- make me aspire to be a better person. Not morally good necessarily (that's so pedestrian) but more artistic and alive. Truer to myself. Film at its best challenges us intellectually and stirs passions that have been dormant. In the romance of the screen world we see something to aspire to. An ideal. That the characters may be morally corrupt is aside the point. They are full of passion and are trying to make sense of their lives. The conflictions that plague Allen's characters are laid bare. They thus allow us to consider are own inner turmoil. And truly if we become more alive and artistic with a greater sense of identity, we are becoming morally better (and there's nothing pedestrian about that).

Hall and Johannson play friends who are polar opposites in fundamental ways. An unexpected love triangle develops. No, that's too simple a description. Is it a quadrangle? You've got to see it to understand it. But it does contain a rather toxic combination of lust and reason. With Bardem at the center. See IMDb or a review of the film for a synopsis. Suffice to say that VCB is rich in beauty. Barcelona, the countryside, Cruz, Johansson, Hall and dare I say it? Bardem are all pleasing to the eye. But it is the movie's passion for life (obviously a reflection of its creator) that make it such a joy to behold.
There is quite literally wine, women and song. And so much more. What a feast!

15 August 2008

No Elegy for the New Socks

Took BART into San Francisco this morning. Among my traveling companions was a quintent of suburban late teen girls. I surmised that they were headed into the city for some shopping. About the only thing more common on a BART trains (save commuters) than late teen girls going shopping is the mother and young teen daughter headed into the city to shop.

The striking thing about the gaggles of teen girls is how interchangeable they are. No, they don't all look alike. Some have blond hair, some have dirty blond hair and some have strawberry blond hair. Some wear shorts and others wear short skirts. Some have deep tans and others deeper tans. Some talk like the girls on those MTV reality shows, Laguna Beach and The Hills and some...well, they all talk like that, actually.

They're all pretty but virtually none are beautiful or interesting looking. They're ultra conformists. I suppose if I were a 17 year old boy I'd view them differently. Check that, I know I would.

I got off at Powell Street Station and entered the vertical maze of shops that is the San Francisco Center. It is, of course, quite a drawing card for our aforementioned teen travelers.

I was headed for the Dockers shop to buy some white socks. Yes I went to buy socks. You see I picked up some socks there a few months ago when on a clothes shopping trip with the missus. They are the most comfortable socks I've ever owned. Well those three pair are not enough. I sought more.

As I made my way around the center in search of the Dockers shop (where is Lewis or for that matter Clark, when you need em?). A young woman asked me where I was from. I'm pretty savvy and can tell the start of a sales pitch when I hear one but I wasn't sure what her game was and bit. Then she asked my name and beckoned me toward a stand of what looked like cosmetics. Before I could high tail it out of there she had my hands in salt. "When was the last time they felt this soft?" she asked in what sounded like an East European accent. I granted that it was probably not since I was a baby. She applied a lotion, then a gel (just to the hands and arms, in case you're wondering). Then she laid on the sales pitch. I was intrigued until I finally got a price quote. At $60 a pop I made my excuses and much to her obvious chagrin went on my way. I was certain these were wonderful products that offer softer and cleaner skin but I had socks to buy and money to save. The scent of these magic potions is with me yet, but so is the all the money they'd have cost.

Found Dockers. Good news. The socks were there and on sale no less.

As I made my descent to the ground floor I got to one level where the down escalator was neatly hidden away. I stood looking for it in vain when another young woman with an East European accent asked me where I was from.

Been there, done that. I responded with a question of my own, "where's the escalator going down?" She wordlessly pointed me in the right direction.

Had lunch. Then back on BART for a short trip to the Embarcadero. Went to the movie theater there that bears that name to see Elegy starring Ben Kinglsey and Penelope Cruz.

Best new movie I've seen in many moons. Kingsley is a magnificent actor. Imagine watching Gandhi (1982), Schindler's List (1993), Sexy Beast (2000) and this film on consecutive days. You'd have a hard time believing it was the same bloke in all four.

In Elegy, Kingsley plays a New York-based professor, author and weekly cultural radio show host, David Kepesh. He's an aging Lothario with one failed marriage to his credit that spawned a disaffected son played by Peter Sarsgaard, an actor who I much admire. Patricia Clarkson, still another thespian of whom I am quite fond, is a part time lover. Dennis Hopper, who I'm less enamored with, gives a nicely understated performance as a poet and the professor's best friend. I guess now I like him too.

Cruz is one of the professor's students. Initially sees her as just another roll in the hay. What instead ensues is one of those May-December romances that make can make for an interesting film. Or not.

It clearly works in Elegy because there's not a cliche in the whole film. It is unexpected, nuanced and often moving. Cruz is physically stunning with a performance to match. In two days I'll be seeing her again in Woody Allen's latest, Vicky Christian Barcelona. Life is good.

Yes I loved Elegy but it was still the socks that made the trip.

14 August 2008

Rivers Run Through Them

Yesterday I enjoyed an interesting double feature: Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) and Werner Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972).

Both movies starred a river. Oh sure, Martin Sheen was in one and Klaus Kinski in another and there were jungles in both. But these were river movies as much as they were about war, conquest or madness.

Rivers have always been central to civilization. The Nile, Amazon, Thames, Mississippi, Yangtze to name a few are rivers which have been central to the very founding of civilizations, not to mention their progress. Rivers also hold a romantic place in our culture and recreation. Just ask readers of Tom Sawyer or lovers of river rafting. Rivers are central to commerce. They are often strategic points in war. Rivers are sources of both dangerous floods and tranquil outings.

In Apocalypse Now, set during US involvement in VietNam, Sheen's character, is sent on a mission to kill a deranged Army Colonel. (Did I say kill? I meant: "Terminate his command with extreme prejudice.") The only way to get to the colonel is by way of a long journey up river.

In Aguirre, Kinski seizes command of a splinter group from Conquistador Gonzalo Pizzaro's Peruvian expedition and heads down a river in search of the mythic El Dorado.

Both journeys are fraught with peril, mostly in the form of native peoples well camouflaged in the jungle. In both films, people are dropping like flies. Many bodies are consigned to the river.

These are stories of man against nature only if Americans and Europeans represent man and natives are regarded as merely another dangerous animal in need of domestication. More accurately they are stories of strangers in strange lands where rivers provide the greatest safety. You enter danger via the river, find solace in the river are threatened by being on the river and can escape only by the river.

The protagonists may be regarded as trespassers. One is on a morally dubious mission during a morally dubious war and the other is motivated by greed during a time of immoral and racist conquest.

One mission is a total failure. The success of the other seems to satisfy no one.

The one unconquerable element in both stories is the river. There is no ambiguity about the water. It is a relentless force. By times placid and temperamental. The river may countenance a lot but remains true to its purpose.

In both films the river provides a symbol. In both the river is a vehicle to tell a kind of story. In both the river is beautiful cast member. Both films find much of their narrative strength from visual beauty and mood and thus from the river.

I've loved these films for over 25 years. I'm just now beginning to appreciate the river that runs through them -- in more ways than one.

It Can't Compare!

Lasse Viren
Gimme a break. I'm hearing now how U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian ever because he's won the most gold medals in Olympic history.

How can you possibly say he's better than Finnish runner Lasse Viren? Viren won the 5,000 meter and 10,00 meter foot races in consecutive Olympics (1972 and 1976). There was no 7,500 meter run nor any backstroke run nor any 10,000 meter relay he could enter. Besides, running those two events within one Olympics is as much as a human can be expected to successfully accomplish in a two week period.

Congratulations to Phelps who can no doubt claim to be the greatest Olympic swimmer of all time. But comparing him with runners, gymnasts, decathletes, archers or any other Olympic athlete is silly.

You gonna tell me that Michael Jordan is a greater player than Wayne Gretzky because he scored more points? Different sport, different scoring system. Can't compare them.

Its reminiscent of when ESPN ranked the 100 greatest athletes of all time. As I recall they had Jordan, Muhammad Ali and Babe Ruth as the top three. How do you compare them? You've got a basketball player, boxer and baseball player. Yes, they are all athletes but in very different sports. It's hard enough to compare Ruth and Willie Mays. They were from different generations.

It's akin to comparing Picasso, Sinatra and Shakespeare. Who was the greatest artist? Silly, isn't it?

And by the way when you start talking about great athletes keep Tiger Woods out of the discussion. He plays golf for chrissakes. That's no more a sport than pitching pennies.

13 August 2008

I Have A Different Opinion, So You're Wrong

There's controversy surrounding the movie "Tropic Thunder" released in theaters today. The Special Olympics and the American Association of People With Disabilities are just two of the many organizations protesting the film's portrayal of the mentally disabled in general and the use of the word "retarded" in particular. A spokesman for Dream Works, Tropic Thunder's distributor, has said no changes or cuts will be made to the film as a consequence of complaints. I say both sides have it right.

If something in a movie, TV show, song, book or advertisement offends you, you've every right to say so and say why. Ask supporters and friends to boycott, join your protest and send nasty letters. That's what democracy is all about. Meanwhile artists should listen to those complaints with an open mind but not feel compelled to make the asked for alterations or accommodations.

In a best case scenario a dialogue follows, both sides are heard. Maybe the general populace becomes more sensitized to an issue or condition.

The one aspect of this affair I find unsettling is the protester's chanting of "ban the movie, ban the word." Really, folks, fascism is not the solution. Banning movies is as undemocratic an action as one can imagine. Banning a word is downright ridiculous.

I hope the offended groups continue to protest Tropic Thunder and I hope not an iota is changed. All that should be changed is the general public's perceptions and understandings. I say: ban censorship.

On a not unrelated topic I was sipping a coffee in Peet's a little bit ago and trying to read. But there was a discussion at the next table that kept interrupting me. It was about a conference at which transgender folks gathered. What I gathered from the chat was that there was considerable disagreement among the transgenders about protocol, language, and other relative minutia. This is typical of splinter groups on the left. They're are plagued by in-fighting, most of it over trivialities. Meanwhile the right stays together and on message. Their unity on simple basic issues has made them all too successful. Of course this is largely because conservatives have very simple issues that are framed simply for simple minds. The left becomes factionalized largely because they are dealing with such nuanced and complicated issues and respecting each others' diverse opinions and feelings.

One last barely related topic is opinions. When I discuss or write here about my opinions regarding films I'll often come across people with different opinions. I should hope so. But what baffles me is how some people posit their opinions as if empirically verifiable fact. If I say that James Cagney was born in Toronto in 1921 and starred in The Thin Man I am wrong on three counts and those errors should be pointed out. However if I opine that Cagney was the most engaging actor of his generation, that he could have a stellar career as a song and dance man and that his performance as Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949) was his best, you can argue with me all you want. But to say I'm WRONG is a waste of our time.

Some people's arguments about film is akin to telling another they have the wrong favorite color or that strawberries do not in fact taste better than grapes.

Someone recently posted a comment on this blog disagreeing with my assertion that Fred Astaire was a good singer. My hearing must be off.

12 August 2008

You Do Know That's Not Milk...

I first saw A Clockwork Orange (1971) in theaters right after its release. I soon saw it a second time. Then a third. I then read Anthony Burgess' novel upon which the movie was based. Then read it again. I bought the movie soundtrack. I bought an A Clockwork Orange poster. As they say on TV...But that's not all! I went to a fancy men's clothing shop in downtown San Francisco and bought a derby just like the one the film's main character Alex wore.

At the risk of being obvious...I was obsessed.

So two questions come up. Why the obsession and how do I feel about the film today lo these many years later as a married man with two daughters? I'll take the second question first. Though no longer obsessed, I regard A Clockwork Orange as one of the greatest films of all time. And in truth in answering the first question I'll be addressing why I still love the film.

Our protagonist is a young man guilty of murder, rape, breaking and entering, assault and vandalism. Alex is a sociopath with little regard for other humans and absolutely no regard for society and its laws. A real life version of such a creature would be feared and despised. We would want to lock him up and throw away the key. But A Clockwork Orange was fiction and Alex's crimes are thus harmless. Instead of reviling Alex we are able to enjoy his daring, his energy, his wit and most of all his freedom from society's conventions.

Moreover Alex soon becomes a sympathetic figure who's preyed upon by a Job-like string of misfortunes. A sample:
*Betrayed by his crew.
*Spit on.
*Straight-jacketed with eyes forced open and made to watch horrendous film footage.
*Forced to abase himself before an odious character including licking the bottom of a shoe.
*Rejected by his parents.
*Set on by a group of geezers, codgers and coots.
*Beaten by ex mates.
*Driven to attempt suicide by psychological torture.

It's hard to remember any fictional character who has been visited by such adversity. When the victim is a young, handsome charming bloke its all the easier to overlook past transgressions and root the lad on. To top it off you have Malcolm McDowell in the lead role. As with his earlier role as Mick Travis in Lindsay Anderson's If...(1968) and to a lesser extent in O Lucky Man (1973) McDowell was made for the part and truly made the part. He was never good looking in a conventional sense nor for these roles would we want him to be. His sallow face was a little bit oddly shaped with a nose a bit big. But that smirk that passed for the smile, the shaggy hair, the interesting voice and his unique combination of confidence and vulnerability made him the quintessential anti-hero of his time. (I think of him as a British Steve McQueen though I've no idea if anyone else would see him that way.)

As is this case with so much great fiction whether novels or movies, what makes a story compelling is not so much what is being told but how. The Kubrick style was never better used nor more essential to a film than with A Clockwork Orange. The action could be frenetic, kinetic or in slow motion. Dazzling lights and antiseptic settings. Ballet like fight scenes or stark blood and spittle. Most importantly, Kubrick knew when to go hyper fast and when a snail's pace would do. His visual sense was inspired, think The Shining (1980) and 2001: A Space Odyessy (1968). The magisterial sweep of some shots combined with the smallest detail created a visceral reaction.

And the music. Beethoven, so crucial to the story used perfectly within the story. Kubrick could score a movie with the best of them -- aside from Scorsese maybe he was the best of em.

Another Kubrick speciality was over the top characters who were veritable caricatures of themselves. None better in  Clockwork than the prison guard Michael Bates. How far was that tongue in that cheek?

Of course A Clockwork Orange had a strong social message and as a young man that sort of thing was quite meaningful to me. As an older gent, maybe not so much (I know, you'd think it the other way around). We must all have free choice or nothing we do matters. Good isn't good if its programmed. Governments must respect our essential humanness, no tampering with that. Meanwhile our culture is so dollar driven that it's rife with junk. Youth rebels through violence with no values to ground them to a sense of community. Yes, a lot to chew on.

You want a laugh? The movie was blamed for a lot of copycats crimes. There's the simpleton answer to crimes. Twas the movie that made them do it! Censorship now! After all how many people are good law abiding folks until inspired by a movie to beat the crap out of someone? (Probably around zero.) How many thugs use the last violent movie they saw or song they listened to as an excuse for their actions (plenty).

I can see why my younger self was obsessed with A Clockwork Orange. It was powerful stuff. I still find the the movie exhilarating, exhausting and fun and Alex one of filmdom's most arresting characters. I showed it to my 20 year old daughter last week.

She didn't like it.

Kids today!

10 August 2008

"Nobody Calls a Firefly an Upstart!"

"You're a brave man. Now go and break through enemy lines. And remember when you're risking life and limb through shock and shell we'll be thinking what a sucker you are." It sounds like it might have been said by President GW Bush to any of our soldiers in Iraq. But it is actually a line from The Marx Brothers greatest film, Duck Soup (1933). Which is also, by the way, the greatest of all film comedies.

Many also consider Duck Soup the classic folly-of-war comedy. But according to Groucho Marx, "we were jut four Jews trying to get a laugh." And get a laugh they did. Lots of them. For example: Ambassador Trentino:" I am willing to do anything to prevent this war." Rufus T. Firefly: "It's too late. I've already paid a month's rent on the battlefield."

And: Rufus T. Firefly: "I'll see my lawyer about this as soon as he graduates from law school."

And another line that could have been spoken by the current U.S. president: Rufus T. Firefly: [singing]" If any form of pleasure is exhibited, report to me and it will be prohibited! I'll put my foot down, so shall it be... this is the land of the free! The last man nearly ruined this place he didn't know what to do with it. If you think this country's bad off now, just wait till I get through with it!"

One more: Rufus T. Firefly: Maybe you can suggest something. As a matter of fact, you do suggest something. To me you suggest a baboon. Ambassador Trentino: What?
Rufus T. Firefly: I, uh, I'm sorry I said that; it isn't fair to the rest of the baboons.

And I haven't even gotten to any of Groucho's byplay with Margaret Dumont which includes some of the film's best lines.

So maybe Duck Soup wasn't meant to be a spoof on the politics of war, but as a happy accident it serves that purpose rather nicely. How easily our leaders will plunge a country into war headless of the loss of young lives and the cost to their countries well being. Duck Soup in some respects recalls the origins of World War I. The actual story of how the Great War began sounds like the stuff of comedy. Of course the loss of millions of human beings and other incalculable attendant costs is nothing to yuk yuk about. But playing the politicos' actions for laughs is fair game. Duck Soup does this masterfully.

The story of Duck Soup concerns the fictional country of Fredonia which...really?...seriously? I'm going to give a plot synopsis for Duck Soup? Yeah I don't think so. First of all you've probably seen it and if you're the slightest bit like me (God help you) you've seen many times. If you've never seen it I envy you because you'll enjoy the hilarious mirror scene so much more than us veteran viewers.

Duck Soup is the brothers at their best for three primary reasons. 1) it's got the best lines (see above). 2) It's their most visualizing appealing film. Not just with sight gags but elaborate costumes and sets. 3) It's not bogged down by any sappy love story or non-comic musical numbers. It's wall-to-wall laughs.

Starting with A Night At The Opera (1935) the rest of the Brothers' films would occasionally grind to a halt for romance or a musical interlude.

Hats posthumously off to Duck Soup's director Leo McCarey and the writing team led by Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar.
But of course when it's a Marx Brothers movie the raves go to Groucho, Harpo, Chico and to a much much lesser extent, Zeppo, who made his last appearance in Duck Soup. And he went out in a classic.

07 August 2008

The Welcome Demise of the Epic Soap Opera

There was a style of film prevalent in Hollywood from the 1940's through the 1960's that I'm frankly glad has fallen out of fashion. I refer to what I call the Epic Soap Opera. It includes such titles as King's Row (1942) East of Eden (1955) and the forerunner and grandaddy of the genre, Gone With the Wind (1939).

The story was usually based on similarly sprawling novel, usually a best seller. There was a large cast and Hollywood lined up as many A list stars as it could along with a big name director. The movies were at least a couple of hours long and featured dramatic musical scores befitting the story's grand scale. The movies had rural settings and some use was always made of horizon shots, tree-lined streets and valleys or dells.

The stories concerned a family or more often several families and were often multi generational. They usually began when the featured players were children and of course they foreshadowed future tragedies or romances.

Great fortunes were amassed, bequeathed, lost, re-gained. Money was an important symbol and audiences were to understand the possession of it was not itself a virtue but could provide an opportunity to do good.

There were horrible tragedies. Accidents, suicides, murder. Terrible scandal abounded though often they could only be vaguely hinted at due to their sexual content (you want the details, read the book).

There was at least one epic love in the picture. This was a love between two people that was pristine. None of us mere mortals in the audience could boast a love to match these two people who were destined to be together. The audience could only hope with all its might that the lovers could overcome all obstacles (so many of them and so formidable!) and realize their dream together.

There was a central character (maybe two or three) who was good and honest and pure to the core. There were a couple of others that were as rotten as sin. Many more with a bit of shading were scattered about as well. Count on a kindly old doctor, or, lawyer or banker whose been close to the family for a zillion years. There was a little bit of Charles Dickens to the stories along the lines of David Copperfield or Oliver Twist, but lacking the adventure, humor and eccentric personages.

I watched one of these Epic Soap Operas today, King's Row. Such melodrama you've never seen. Charles Coburn was just an awful sh*t. Bob Cummings was Christ like. Ronald Regan was in it too, clearly saving any acting ability for later in life when he went into politics. The lovely Ann Sheridan (pictured above -- ain't she gorgeous?) was earnest. Oh so very earnest. Her character had all the dimension of an ironing board. Claude Rains played a troubled doctor and clearly his character was far too interesting to be much featured. He lasted for less than half the film. His complexities were only either hinted at or related after the fact.

After watching the movie I subsequently read that it greatly watered down the novel upon which it was based. There is perhaps the crux of the problem with the Epic Soap Opera. They were made in the era of production code enforcement.

Subtlety and nuance are wonderful in their place but when you have to guess a character is gay based on his lifting an eyebrow in one scene, you've lost the plot. After all, a shocking revelation is not shocking if only vaguely hinted at.

Orson Welles actually made a quite good Epic Soap Opera, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). It would have been even better but the studio took a set of pruning shears to it. "Nothing bold for this type of film, thank you," was their clear message.

A recent epic soap opera was Atonement (2007). One can't imagine what Hollywood censors would have done with the story (also based on popular book) 50 years ago. How on earth would they have changed the crucial reference to a slang term for a woman's vagina? They'd have done it though. Imagine!

I've made quite clear my love for films of Hollywood's Golden Age. The Epic Soap Opera is a notable exception.

06 August 2008

May I Have This Dance?

Fred sees Ginger.
Fred falls instantly in love with Ginger.
Fred vows to marry Ginger.
Ginger is not interested.
Fred is persistent.
Fred and Ginger dance. Sometimes as part of a show or at a dance hall. Sometimes in rather odd locales like parks.
Sometimes Fred dances alone.
Fred finally wins Ginger over.
The end.

The wonderful collection of movies starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers did not vary much. Follow the Fleet (1936) was the only one of their films in which they were not only already acquainted at the start, but already in love too. The love in their movies was without genitalia. Passion never went beyond the kind of kisses you get from grandma. This was simply eight-year-old Ken and Barbie love.

The story lines were simple. Dialogue was cute, with maybe a touch of wit but nothing too urbane. Other characters were at the extreme a tad quirky ala Edward Everett Horton or Eric Blore. Rivals were easy going blokes who were never a real threat. Think Randolph Scott, Jerome Cowan or Erik Rhodes.

The cinematography was functional and Busby Berkeley style was strictly o-u-t. Except for the belated The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) the films were in glorious black and white.

So what's the appeal? Simple. Those two people could dance.

It's been said that Ginger did everything Fred did but in heels. Not quite. Fred regularly soloed and although Hermes Pan worked with him extensively as a sort of choreographer/trainer, the dances were Fred Astaire productions. Fred was a legendary perfectionist. Ginger was every bit Fred's equal as a dancer but he deserves the lion's share of the encomiums for the inspiration and extra perspiration.

Both had great careers apart from one another. Fred found other dance partners (though none better) and Ginger focused on acting at which she was exceptional.

It was just as well that the stories, the characters and the dialogue were simple. We didn't need a lot of distraction from the main show which was their dances. By the end of a Fred & Ginger picture you're sated but not stuffed. There's a dance, some story to whet your appetite, then another dance. The dances are never too long, never too esoteric. None of that Gene Kelly nonsense with weird music, faux backgrounds and athleticism over grace. Fred and Ginger were all about being in control, elegant and fun. Boy were they fun. Of course it didn't hurt that Ginger was very pretty (sexy wouldn't have done) and Fred was as affable a chap as you'd ever want to meet.

(You can see a wonderful interview Dick Cavett did with Astaire in the early 70's on DVD. Fred seems quite shy, is humble but answers all questions and sings a few songs. He had a wonderful voice and CDs of his are a great buy.)

None of their movies cracks my top 100 or my second 100 of all time favorites, but except for Roberta (1935) which was a real stinker, they're all wonderful and I'm delighted to own a box set of their films. Interestingly the best movie they're in together is Flying Down to Rio (1933) their first. It wasn't a Fred & Ginger picture but their performances gave someone the bright idea of teaming them. They were in nine more films together.

Fred and Ginger films worked because of a very simple formula. Simply add extraordinary talent, sit back for 90 minutes and enjoy.

01 August 2008

The Britainization of Charlie

"I don't want to know what's good, or bad, or true. I let God worry about the truth. I just want to know the momentary fact about things. Life isn't good, or bad, or true. It's merely factual, it's sensual, it's alive. My idea of living sensual facts are you, a home, a country, a world, a universe. In that order. I want to know what I am, not what I should be."

That's just a sampling of the brilliant dialogue from The Americanization of Emily (1964) a film that features one of the greatest screenplays of all time. It was written by Paddy Chayefsky who also wrote the screenplay for Network (1975).

In the 1950's and early 1960's Hollywood churned out some powerful message films. They were self consciously aware of themselves and the earnest lessons they wanted to teach audiences. Two of the best of these were Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men (1957)and Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones (1958). The targets were easy ones (which in no way diminishes their impact or importance) such as prejudice.

With Mike Nicholas' The Graduate (1967) a new era in American film was ushered in exemplified by such films a Network, and Harold and Maude (1971). These were much more irreverent films whose messages were often subject to interpretation. Moreover during the Seventies darker forces often emerged victorious such as in The Parallax View (1974). In this and other movies likes Three Days of the Condor (1975) the bad guys were quite clearly either members of "the establishment" or extra legal groups beyond reach.

The Americanization of Emily, directed by Arthur Hiller, coming as it did in 1964, was ahead of its time. It was an in-your-face anti-war film, albeit an eloquent one. What it lacked in subtlety and nuance it more than made up for in intelligence and wit.

It's London in the days before the D-Day invasion. James Garner is Navy Lt. Commander Charlie Madison, a dog robber i.e. someone who will obtain whatever his C.O. wants, be it fine food, good cigars or the company of a young lady.
Madison is a self identified coward who sees nothing honorable in self sacrifice, particularly in war. "I'm not sentimental about war. I see nothing noble in widows," he says.

Enter a driver, Emily Barham, played to perfection by a very un-Mary Poppins Julie Andrews. She has lost a father, husband and brother to the war. Emily is as properly British in her attitude towards war and morality as Charlie is not. Charlie and Emily fall madly in love. What we have here is Adam's Rib against the backdrop of the allied invasion.

Their diametrically opposing views allow them to mix passionate love making with passionate verbal sparring. For example:
Emily: You brought me some chocolates.
Charlie: Two boxes of Hershey's.
Emily: Well, that's very American of you, Charlie. You just had to bring along some small token of opulence. Well, I don't want Charlie: Well don't get into a state over it. I thought you liked chocolates.
Emily: I do, but my country's at war and we're doing without chocolates for a while. And I don't want oranges or eggs or soap flakes, either. Don't show me how profitable it will be to fall in love with you, Charlie. Don't Americanize me.

Madison's cushy world of hustling for his boss, an admiral played by Melvyn Douglas, runs into complications. As D-Day approaches the admiral is suffering from a nervous breakdown and wants "the first dead man on Omaha Beach to be a sailor." Moreover, he wants the works of Navy engineers at the invasion on film. Charlie's friend Lt. Commander Bus Cummings, played by James Coburn, eventually decides to go along with the scheme, insisting that Charlie join him. Yes the self preservationist Charlie is expected to hit the beach with the first wave of troops.

In some respects the actions and characters of The Americanization of Emily are just props for Garner's Charlie Madison to deliver his very anti-establishment and anti-war pearls. Very Sixties stuff, really, in advance of what was to come in American cinema and all brilliantly put.

I leave you with one last Madison vignette:
"War isn't hell at all. It's man at his best; the highest morality he's capable of. It's not war that's insane, you see. It's the morality of it. It's not greed or ambition that makes war: it's goodness. Wars are always fought for the best of reasons: for liberation or manifest destiny. Always against tyranny and always in the interest of humanity. So far this war, we've managed to butcher some ten million humans in the interest of humanity. Next war it seems we'll have to destroy all of man in order to preserve his damn dignity. It's not war that's unnatural to us, it's virtue. As long as valor remains a virtue, we shall have soldiers. So, I preach cowardice. Through cowardice, we shall all be saved."

Riding the High Country With McCrea, Scott and Mariette Hartley (sigh!)

In June the AFI released its ten best films in ten various genres. The omissions were as numerous and obvious as fleas on white cat. One that particularly stuck in my craw was their top ten Westerns. Yesterday I enjoyed Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country (1962) and was reminded that this classic did not make the AFI's list.

If you've never seen it, don't hesitate to rent it or catch it next time it's on TCM. Thank me later. If you have seen it you likely agree it belongs in any discussion of great Westerns. It has all the best elements of a good Western. Scenery, action, moral dilemmas, awful villains and complicated heroes. Ride the High Country boasts two great aging actors playing two aging relics of the old west, Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott. Mariette Hartley made her film debut as "the girl." Hartley would gain her greatest fame for the Polaroid commercials she did opposite James Garner. But she certainly deserved acclaim for her performance here. Not incidentally, the then 22 year old Hartley was absolutely gorgeous.

The requisite bad guys were as bad as they come with John Anderson, Warren Oates and L.Q Jones leading the way. Oates and Jones would appear numerous times for Peckinpah. A newcomer named Ron Starr was Heck Longtree the young buck with a lot to learn from McCrea and Scott, who fell for Hartley's Elsa Knudsen. Surprisingly Starr had a very brief career. He was far and away the second most famous R. Starr of the early 1960's.

McCrea played Steve Judd an old lawman hired by a bank for the seemingly impossible task of delivering gold from a mining camp through country riddled with outlaws. He hires an old compadre, Gill Westrum (Scott) and his young protege Longtree to help him. Westrum and Longtree have other ideas for the gold. Along the way they come across Ms. Knudsen and her Holy Roller father. Elsie desperately wants to escape her father's farm and his repressive ways, especially since she has a beau at the mining camp. Off go the four with their different goals. Once they arrive at the camp, further complications ensue.

This was only Peckinpah's second feature film. The film's violence lacks the spurts of blood that would be a trademark but it is harsh and real nonetheless The villains are appropriately menacing and just as ugly mean as rattlers.

Ride the High Country works on a number of levels. Perhaps most of all as a morality tale. But it is also about the ending of an era. When McCrea rides into town at the beginning for the film people are lining the streets in great excitement, he doffs his camp in appreciation. However a cop shoos him away, the people are there to watch a race between a camel and two horses. There are also those new fangled horseless carriages about. It's a great beginning to a great film.

Also look for a fine performances by Edgar Buchannan (uncle Joe on Petticoat junction) as a drunken justice of the peace, Byron Foulger as the bank president and Jenie Jackson whose performance as a madam cannot be topped.

Oh and here's a baker's dozen of the best Westerns I've ever seen.

The Wild Bunch (1969) Peckinpah
The Searchers (1958) Ford
Stagecoach (1939) Ford
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) Hill
Dances With Wolves (1990) Costner
The Big Trail (1930) Walsh
Westward the Women (1951) Wellman
Ride the High Country (1962) Peckinpah
My Darling Clementine (1946) Ford
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) Ford
Little Big Man (1970) Penn
The Naked Spur (1953) Mann
The Westerner (1940) Wyler