31 January 2009

The Night of the Hunter, Like Children it Will Abide, it Will Endure

WARNING! SPOILERS ABOUND (And no plot summary provided)

Yesterday I got an email from a cyber friend from across the country who alerted me to TCM's showing of The Night of the Hunter (1955) that evening. I wrote back saying a few things about the movie and he replied that he'd never seen it.

Readers of this blog know full well that I am no snob (you do know that, don't you?) so my reaction was not, "how can you never have seen The Night of the Hunter." No I thought, "how lucky to be discovering this great film for the first time."

The sentiment was introduced to me by film critic and historian David Thomson when at the Pacific Film Archives he introduced Some Like it Hot (1959). Thomson expressed envy of those who were seeing it for the first time.

Well said. To re-frame an old cliche, you never forget your fist time. Repeat viewings of a beloved film are great (why else would I own 100 plus DVDs?). With each viewing you discover something else you love about a film or at least get to enjoy what you already love about it. But the first time is special indeed. Everything is new including how the damn thing turns out. With any movie the denouement is critical and especially so with thrillers or dramas. As many times as I've seen and enjoyed The Sting (1973) nothing can match my first time seeing the way Newman and Redford...Oops, my spoiler alert was for The Night of the Hunter only.

Film critics and audiences of 1955 owe us big time for a monumental screw up. They didn't like, let alone love, The Night of the Hunter upon its release. First time director Charles Laughton consequently had a snit fit and never directed another movie. Thus the world has been deprived of what might have come next from Laughton the director. It was not until after Laughton's death that The Night of the Hunter was appreciated. Sheesh people of 50 years ago, what's your problem?

So the world has to settle for just one Laughton directorial effort. But what a film! Robert Mitchum was never better. His "Reverend" Harry Powell is one of the spookiest characters of film. A hymn-singing, bible-quoting slippery eel of a thief and totally unrepentant killer. With the word "love" tattooed on one set of knuckles and "hate" on the other he is superficially a beguiling figure. But at least one person sees through him and thank God she does. This wise and heroic figure is the pint sized star of silents, Lillian Gish. She raises wayward children on her humble farm while witnessing an infinitely more sincere variety of Christan love. She's also handy with a shotgun, by God.

Shelly Winters appears as a woman whose husband (Peter Graves) is hung for committing murder in the act of bank robbery. She later marries Mitchum who is far more interested in finding the stolen loot than he is in consummating the marriage. One of my favorite characters actors, James Gleason appears as the drunken old uncle.

Two child actors, Billy Chapin and Sally Ann Bruce (neither of whom went on to have any sort of career to speak of) are probably on screen longer than anyone else and perform ably. It is their stubborn and heroic refusal to yield to either the reverend's charms or threats that are key to one of Hollywood's more unlikely and unforgettable escapes.

Another key player in our drama is Ms. Icey Spoon played by Evelyn Varden. Here ladies and gentleman is a person as villainous as the film's killer. She is a woman in her mid 60's who, to put it bluntly can't shut up. But the worst of it is what she says. Icey will rail against anyone she finds it convenient to blast away at (even her poor husband is not immune, never mind that he may well be within earshot). Everyone. they say, is entitled to an opinion. But hers are unkind and hurtful. Though cloaked in her own law abiding "God fearing" respectability they are inciteful (never insightful) and shallow. The reverend 's new wife is a saint until tangential evidence suggests otherwise. The reverend is a saint until he's the devil himself and then she's leading the lynch mob -- literally. In her own way, Icey is as frightening as the reverend. Her type permeate society, aiding and abetting evil until its exposed, at which point they are first to point fingers and demand justice. These sorts have no real values nor shame.

The Night of the Hunter is thus a good old fashion horror story but one with ample portions of genuine sweetness. It is also a parable with bible-like stories aplenty crammed into its 93 minute running time. But it is also a directorial tour de force. The stylized world Laughton created is full of indelible tableus. The shot of Winters tied to the seat of a car at the bottom of the river, her hair acting like the river's weeds is unforgettable.

There are elements of Gothic horror from scenes in the house where the reverend terrorizes the heroic kiddies. Their ensuing journey down the river seems mythic and if there's any fault to the film its that these scenes could have been extended.

I hope my friend enjoyed his first viewing of The Night of the Hunter. I certainly enjoyed what was probably my fourth of fifth. Yes the "first time" is special. But repeat, shall we say, encounters, can be most satisfying too.

29 January 2009

Jumping Anaconda! The Perfect Cinematic Warmup for your Super Bowl

Yes, perhaps Cardinals versus Steeler will be interesting but it can't compare with the storied Huxley-Darwin contest of 1932. That great college match up was brilliantly retold in the wonderful film, Horesefeathers (1932). The film's stars included four siblings, Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo Marx.

Has there ever been a more dramatic football sequence than at the climax of this movie? Perhaps. But there's never been a funnier one. Horsefeathers is one of the Marx Brothers funniest films. Second only to Duck Soup (1933) in this writer's most humble opinion.

Groucho is Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff who we meet at the outset of the film as he is being introduced as Huxley's new president. Zeppo is a long-time Huxley student and Wagstaff's son. (Such a loving relationship. "I married your mother because I wanted children. Imagine my disappointment when you arrived," father tells son.) Chico is an ice man employed at a speakeasy and Harpo the local dog catcher.

So you have the Marx Brothers running amok in a university, a speakeasy and a football game. Can't go wrong.

Thelma Todd as the "college widow" is the love interest. Thelma was a real dish who led a life worthy of a bio pic. Before making it big in pictures she was a beauty queen and a school teacher. Later she became a successful entrepreneur. Thelma resisted when the mob tried muscling in on her restaurant business. Thus her death at age 30 to carbon monoxide poisoning, ruled a suicide, was highly suspicious.

There is a brief appearance in Horsefeathers by the lovely and too little known Theresa Harris as a maid. Lovers of films from Hollywood's Golden Age will instantly recognize Ms. Harris who appeared in dozens of films in the 30's and 40's, usually as a maid. You can see her in such celebrated films as Morocco (1930), Arrowsmith (1931), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Baby Face (1933), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), Jezebel (1938), The Big Clock (1948) and Mary Stevens M.D (1933). She was a good actress, with excellent comic timing and a fine signing voice. Why the short shrift? She was an African American. One is tempted to say that she was born in the wrong era. But it wasn't her birth date that was too early, it was integration in Hollywood that was too late.

So Todd and Harris are nice bonuses to this laugh riot. From Wagstaff's introductory remarks to faculty and students in the form of a song: "I don't know what they have to say / It makes no difference anyway / Whatever it is, I'm against it. / No matter what it is or who commenced it, I'm against it! / Your proposition may be good / But let's have one thing understood: / Whatever it is, I'm against it. / And even when you've changed it or condensed it, I'm against it!"

Through Wagstaff's taking over a science class and, with the aid of his real life bros, introducing true anarchy.

To pitching woo with Ms. Todd (and see if you can figure out the deal is with the umbrella).

To the climactic football game ("Is there a doctor in the house? "I'm a doctor." Hi ya, doc!") Horsefeathers packs more laughs into a 68 minute running time than most current sit coms manage in a whole season.

And I'd be remiss if I failed to mention the film's lasting impact on my own football viewing. Whenever I want my team to run the ball I recall Chico's own signal calling at the line of scrimmage: "Hi Diddle diddle the cat and the fiddle, this time I think we go up the middle."

Classic comedy.

28 January 2009

Anonymous Doesn't Like Me!

I had a recent post about distractions in movie theaters linked on IMDb's Hit List. As always when I have a post linked there, the post got a lot of comments. In this case many commenters were taking issue with me. That's fine, of course.

However I continue to be surprised and disappointed by how vitriolic some people are. They can't read something they disagree with and move on or just leave their contrary opinion. They get nasty. I was called an "elitist" and told to "get off" my "high horse" and accused of having the "attention span of a four-year-old."

Of course 99% of the time such comments are left by cowards who hide behind the cloak of anonymity. I suppose if a person is small enough to resort to name-calling you've got to expect that they're too small to stand behind their words.

The Internet is positively teeming with blogs and message boards where people talk tough from their computers. I'd venture that a lot of them are quite nice when met in person. But when its just them and the keyboard and cyberspace they feel free to let the venom flow. It's too easy to resist, I suppose. For all a person knows the barbs directed their way could come from a 17 year old in Davenport, Iowa, or a 38 year old professor of literature in London or a 52 year old sex offender in your very own neighborhood. Your just who you say you are and if you don't say then you're anyone from anywhere. Let it fly!

I've also noticed a general increase in the nastiness of public dialogue. I used to disagree but respect the voices on the political right. Then along came the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter who make attacks personal. This was brought to the Oval office with the ascension of Karl Rove and the politics of division. Suddenly people who disagreed with the government's actions were accused of being anti-American. I hope that as the Republicans re-tool themselves in the wake of the ass kicking they took last November they decide to drop their more bellicose elements. Hopefully the Limbaughs can become as marginalized as hate groups have been and we can have civil dialogue based on the issues. I though John McCain took a step in that direction with his concession speech.

Meanwhile maybe we can have more civil dialogue on the Internet too, though in this case I know now I'm guilty of wishful thinking.

I welcome anyone to leave dissenting opinions from those expressed on this blog. But if you're going to blast away, be proud and do it from behind your name. And save the name calling for the playground.

27 January 2009

The Greatness of French Cinema, 15 Examples From 15 Different Directors

In my previous post I positively gushed about French cinema and promised the list that follows. I had a made a particular point about how French film is more about making the audience think and feel than making the producers a quick buck. Story, character development and exploration and avant garde cinema photography, style and editing are at the heart of French film making.

I can't add much to the title of this post except to say that I have intentionally left out a few of the better known French films, including some my favorites of all time. For examples I have omitted Renoirs's Grand Illusion (my favorite of all French films) and Melville's Army of Shadows (second favorite) as well as such films as Truffaut's 400 Blows, Carne's Children of Paradise and Godard's Breathless. In some cases its because I've already written about that film on this blog (such as Army of Shadows) or because I like the lesser known film better (such as Carne's Port of Shadows).

I restricted myself to one film per director partially to show the breadth of French cinema but also to help myself narrow it down. This could have been a very long list indeed. Anyway I offer these films, all available on DVD and hope that you discover or re-discover one. I've linked them all to IMDb, as per my custom. The order is chronological.

Le Million (1931) Rene Clair. What a fun movie! Comedy, romance, musical numbers, even a touch of intrigue. A struggling artist on the brink of eviction wins the lottery but can't find the ticket. Sacrebleu! The fun never stops. The songs and romance flow right along with the narrative. Absolutely delightful!

Boudo Saved From Drowning (1932) Jean Renoir. It took Hollywood until the late 1960's to make a film like this. Michael Simon is Boudo, a tramp who jumps into the Seine. He is rescued and taken in by a mild mannered book store owner. Boudo makes quite an impact on the family -- a leopard can't change its spots. It is great commentary on society and the human condition. Funny too.

Port of Shadows (1938) Marcel Carne. Jean Gabin was one of the greatest stars of all time. If you never seen him before or only in Grand Illusion check out this film. Gabin plays a military deserter who finds love and a rather odd company of protectors and rivals. The performances are matched by strong atmospheric cinematography. A noir ahead of its time.

Forbidden Games (1952) Rene Clement. Utterly heart breaking, sweet, sentimental and about a central truth of war. Two children are thrown together at the outset of the Nazi invasion of France. One an instant war orphan, the other part of a large farm family. In the wrong hands its the type of story that can go horribly wrong and be maudlin or too depressing. It's simply and honestly told here and not easily forgotten.

Madame De... (1953) Max Ophuls. Opulent. Gorgeous. A beautiful movie to watch. Best to see on the big screen but what are the odds of it coming soon to a theater near you? It's a costume tradition but that's selling the story short. There's real depth to the story and its characters.

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) Agnes Varda. At last a female director and an outstanding one at that. It's Varda's tale of a woman who awaits word of medical tests that could bear the worst possible news by killing time in Paris. There's not an ounce of sentiment to the character of Cleo, a popular and vain singer. What she does with those two hours! Great character study.

Le Doulos (1962) Jean-Pierre Melville. Just out on DVD this is in my mind the best of Melville's many outstanding hard boiled crime films, which is saying a lot considering what preceded and followed it (Bob Le Flambeur, Le Samourai, etc.). There is double dealing aplenty as a recently released crook seeks the proverbial last big score. Jean Paul Belmondo is among the strong cast.

Band of Outsiders (1964) Jean-Luc Godard. How to see the Louvre in 15 minutes. One of a seemingly endless stream of films from New Wave directors that was supposed to be the trend setter and barrier breaker of them all. Never mind that, just enjoy the hi jinks of two young wannabe crooks and a the girl they enlist in their capers. There's a number of scenes not to be missed highlighted by the cafe dance (pictured above). Paris in a brooding, bleak, black and white was never lovelier.

Two of Us (1967) Claude Berri. A young Jewish boy is sent to live with an elderly family on a farm during World War II for his own protection. Fair enough, but what if the the man of the house is an anti semite? Fortunately this Petain-loving patriot doesn't know the young lad's true religion -- at first. The two form one of the more unlikely and extraordinary friendships in film. Michael Simon stars 35 years after playing Boudo. His gruff exterior hides the the real heart behind this heart warming story.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) Luis Bunel. If you like surrealism, symbolism and riffs on decadence this is your film. By turns frustrating and hilarious it is ultimately a series of interesting statements of society, at least circa 1967 when everything was changing.

La Cage Aux Folles (1978) Edouard Molinaro. There was an adequate remake starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane but as is so often the case the original is superior. Two gay men who live together and own a nightclub where transvestites are featured must hide their true natures when one of their sons marries. A hilarious set up is fully realized.

The Last Metro (1980) Francois Truffaut. In occupied France a Jewish theater owner is being hid from the Nazis by his actress wife played by Catherine Deneuve. Inevitably further complications ensue as the show must go on -- that is, plays in the theater. Our man in hiding is trying to run the show from his hideout meanwhile his wife is falling for her co-star. A new DVD release is scheduled for March 24.

Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) Louis Malle. A boarding school in the early 1940's seems happily secluded from the war that is ravaging Europe. Even to a the newly arrived Jewish student. Inevitably, the war intrudes. Meanwhile the Jewish boy befriends a fellow student. Malle based the story on his own war-time experiences. One of the great films of our time.

Read My Lips (2001) Jaques Audiard. One of the better thrillers ever made, period. The good citizen, a 35 year old hearing impaired woman, hires the bad citizen a 20 something ex con, at her company. A plot is hatched, trouble ensues, danger, romance and surprises. Vastly underrated.

I Loved You For So Long (2008) Philippe Claudel. The highlight is an extraordinary performance by Kristin Scott Thomas. We meet Thomas' character as she is being picked up at the airport by her younger sister. We slowly learn where the older sister has been for so long, then why, then the real reason. But mostly we learn about her and the people around her. Fascinating.

26 January 2009

Thinking and Feeling, Could it Be French Cinema?

Movies make me think.

Sometimes they make me think things like: I can't believe I spent $8 on this piece of crap. Or, that's two hours of my life I could have spent doing something useful.

Movies make me feel.

Sometimes they make me feel ill at the the waste of $8. Or they make me feel I'm wasting too much watching utter rot.

However there are more occasions that I think about themes and ideas introduced intentionally or incidentally in the film. Other times I feel. Things like joy, humor, optimism or less identifiable emotions.

I suppose the point of all this is that movies at there worse are like so much else in our disposable empty calorie culture. At their best they inspire our intellects and touch our souls.

All these rather heavy musings were occasioned by two parts of my day. In the first part I was being bored silly at an utterly useless workshop for substitute teachers (my day job while I take classes at night is as a sub). I distracted myself by concocting a post for this blog that was to be about French cinema with 15 examples of outstanding films from France. The second part was in the afternoon when I watched Francois Truffaut's, Jules and Jim (1962). (Pictured above.) It was on TCM last night and I DVRed it. Sadly (and this is a whole other story) my recording ran short and I missed the last five minutes. My fault entirely. Will now have to rent it.

In any event both the mental construction of the list and the viewing of Jules and Jim brought home to me how the complete raving success that is French cinema. This success being manifest by the manner in which so many of their films are designed, not to make a buck, but to make one think and feel.

Jules and Jim had me thinking about the nature of relationships (and not incidentally my great fortune in finding a life partner I actually want to spend my entire life with). Relationships are subject to the very fluctuations that cause our life to ebb and flow. How do we maintain a love for a friend, or even a relative, let alone a lover for years and years? Especially as our interests change as do our viewpoints, outlooks, goals and dreams. Is it not more natural to flit from one partner and friend to the next? Then again sometimes we meet someone with whom we grow together. Or have friendships that are built on such solid foundations (the love of the same sports team, for a silly but real example) that they are destined to last.

There was a conversation in the film about war and the war that people often wage within themselves. Are men natural born fighters? If not in actual battle, then in sports? If not there do they channel this aggression in other ways? Eternal struggles? Is it so much harder for males to tame their inner fighter? Is that at the heart of so much conflict? Are we really just battling ourselves? Is it us we are really having a hard time coming to terms with? Our mortality? Our sexuality? Our weaknesses? Or our very souls and questions of our existence? How do find peace with others when our battles are within?

This is just part of what Jules and Jim did to me or for me. I also marveled at the way Truffaut told the story of the two friends and the woman who does not come between them but exists between them. The story has, at times, a bit of farce to it but is grounded in real human conditions and circumstances. Everything from camera angles, use of stop action, shrinking part of the screen, make the story a joy to behold.

Truffaut, like so many other French directors was a master at using the medium of the film to create powerful, exhilarating narratives. Just a few other names: jean Renoir, Jean Pierre Melville, Louis Malle, Max Ophuls, Jean-Luc Godard, Marcel Carne, Rene Clair and so on.

I have to confess I didn't really need to include all those names, it just turned me on to type them. Doing so called to mind some of the lasting images they've committed to celluloid.

Think how excited I'll feel when in my next post I name 15 great French films. Think of the dilemma I've created for myself in selecting so small a number.

Thinking feeling, theme of the day.

25 January 2009

From the Complaint Department

I hate extraneous and unnecessary noise. In some cases this is a function of my hyper vigilance, as when I'm bothered by someone sniffling, or chewing gum (vulgar habit) or talking outside my house. At other times I am either reacting to people being inconsiderate or to a culture which can't shut up.

Let us take a look at instances of the former as they relate to the movie-going experience.

When I saw Revolutionary Road I wondered if perhaps director Sam Mendes had decided to have numerous unseen characters chomping away on popcorn. This would have been a deviation from Richard Yates' book in which, to the best of my recollection, there was no one eating pop corn.

I eventually realized that the sound of people eating was not in the movie at all but the product of my fellow patrons. I was thereafter mightily distracted. Such a cacophony of munching!

While watching Frost/Nixon someones mobile phone commenced ringing during a climactic scene. The offender did not answer the phone. Nor did this lout turn the bloody thing off. It just rang and rang.

During my viewing of Slumdog Millionaire, several people seated in my vicinity found it necessary to visit the "facilities" during the course of the movie. Really, you haven't learned to hold it yet, or "go" before the movie?

Here are some questions I have: are people so addle-brained that they don't realize that movie theater food is a) bad for you and b) expensive? Don't they consider having a bite to eat immediately preceding or following the film? Maybe if people didn't spend hundreds of dollars on an extra large diet coke just before the movie started they wouldn't need to relieve themselves during the movie.

And seriously now, is it that hard to turn of your f*cking phone before a movie starts?

Ya know what though? I haven't even gotten to the people who are the worst offenders of all, those folks for whom summary executions are in order: I refer of course to the god awful heathens who talk during a movie. You don't want to get me started on those morons....

Next time you go to a movie, have a look around. Do you see what is occupying some of the other seats? Those are other people. You've no right to violate their experience. Ambient noise takes people out of the moment. It is a reminder that we are not actually experiencing the story on the screen. It is an interruption of the reverie that is at the very core of enjoying a film.

Thank God there are places like the Pacific Film Archives which does not allow eating in its theater. Patrons there tend to be serious film aficionados and watch a movie with eyes and ears open and mouth closed. On the rare occasion when someone talks at the PFA they are loudly shushed back to the Stone Age.


That other form of noise to which I alluded is at different type of public venue altogether. I refer to sports events. I have never believed in paranoid theories of worldwide conspiracies by powerful and unseen international forces bent on control of the world. But if someone put forth one regarding this annoyance I'd likely buy it.

Time was that between innings of baseball game or during a time out a basketball game you could turn to your neighbor and talk. No more. The second the action stops the music blares. It's usually inoffensive popular rock music. Also, wherever there is a big screen fans are subjected to contrived games or candid camera-type shows or highlights or short player bios. They tend to be as hard to ignore as a head cold and can be just as annoying.

Enough already.

Is some super secret force trying to keep us sedated? Is it so bad if we have time to talk or heaven forbid, think? Leave us alone already. It's too much and it is everywhere. It's one thing for the pep band to blast away, that's a long standing tradition at high school and college sports, but we really don't need piped in music to boot. Some of us don't spend every waking hour in front of the TV or computer or iphone or video game. Many of us have been known to read newspapers and books and to sit at home or a coffee shop and chat. Sometimes we even sit by ourselves and THINK. Something much harder to do wherever there are constant external stimuli.

Noise, noise, everywhere all the time. Oh for a little peace and quiet.

Three Dot Blogging: Currently at the PFA there is a Joseph Von Sternberg retrospective that I am much enjoying. So far have seen two of his silents...I was at a movie a few years back and late in the film a gentleman across the aisle got up and left, he returned about three or four minutes later with a huge barrel of popcorn, just as the closing credits began to roll...One thing's for sure, on my death bed I will NOT regret having eaten too many pancakes, indeed I'm likely to regret not having had enough. Pancakes are delicious and not all that bad for you...Watched a beloved film today that ends with a picketer outside a restaurant owned, operated and named for Buljanoff, Iranoff and Koplalski. A nickel if you can name the film...For eight years I read the news with dread wondering what kind of nonsense this country was up to now (defiling the Constitution, pushing abstinence only programs) since last Tuesday I look at the news with hopeful anticipation of a wrong righted (Gitmo closing or government transparency).

23 January 2009

"Everybody thought I was Jackie Cooper until Greta Garbo took me on her lap one day." - Or - Why Bombshell is Such a Terrific Film

You take a decent picture with a decent cast and decent director then toss in Jean Harlow and by God you've got yourself a winner. Now, let's say to this very same film you add Lee Tracy to co-star, and now you're talking about something special. Get a little greedy and top off this all off with Frank Morgan in a key supporting role, and ladies and gentleman you've created a classic.

Was such a thing ever done, you ask with bated breath?

What, you've never heard of Bombshell (1933) directed by Victor Fleming?

It's a riot.

Few movies are funnier or more fun. It may well be Harlow's best, which is saying a lot considering the astounding number of terrific films she appeared in during her brief lifetime.

(Here's the fly in the soup: Bombshell, like another Harlow classic, Red Dust (1932) is not yet available on DVD. Someone needs to get on this pronto.)

Bombshell is a take off on Hollywood in general and the vagaries of super stardom in particular. Harlow plays Lola Barnes, a character who, according to TCM's sage Robert Osborne, was not-so-loosely based on Clara Bow (she's even, like Bow, called the 'It Girl') and greatly resembles Harlow herself.

Lovely Lola is a HUGE starlet in Hollywood's constellation who shares a mansion with a perpetually drunken dad (Morgan) a deadbeat brother (Ted Healy) and various hangers-on, staff, assistants and sheepdogs.

Everybody wants a taste of the action and one and all are constantly around to annoy, pester and bug the heck out of poor Lola.

Meanwhile, she's being courted by a Marquis who has run afoul of her director who is played by Pat O'Brien in one of his more interesting performances.

But the man behind the screen who seems to operate all the levers of her life is studio publicist, 'Space' Hanlon (Tracy). Lee Tracy is only the second most famous actor with that surname but I'll subject myself to extreme ridicule by claiming that he was every bit the talent of that Spencer fellow. I've probably not seen enough of Tracy to legitimately make this claim but make it I will: this is his best role. I mean, he kills in this movie, positively kills.

Tracy may at first seem to be all wise cracking staccato delivery but he brings a lot more to any film, particularly to Bombshell. He is all big fingers and sinewy movements and sly glances and affected language. He gives a whirling dervish of a performance contained within an often deadpan expression. Then there's that voice. It should be as annoying as hell but dad gum if that screechy thing doesn't grow on you, especially in scenes when it is coupled with Harlow and her amazing pipes.

Why didn't Tracy become a bigger star? Film historian and critic Mick LaSalle offered a likely explanation in the San Francisco Chronicle recently: He'd be a household name today, except that he was a rowdy drunk, and in 1934 he was released from his MGM contract after a crazy incident in Mexico: He woke up in the morning, thought the balcony of his room was a urinal, and relieved himself on the heads of some cadets who were passing by on parade. This created a scandal.

One should be appalled by such behavior. Not me.

Anyway, we were taking about Bombshell....Lola Burns is growing increasingly frustrated with the moochers, suitors, back stabbers and bigwigs who so complicate her life. She's beginning to edge towards wanting out of the whole business. Our publicist friend is both a major cause of this season of her discontent and the driving force that may keep her in the fold.

Would you believe that this is a love story?

It is. It's also wonderful satire and some of its humor must have been even funnier to contemporary audiences which can only mean the actual sight in 1933 of patrons quite literally rolling in the aisles of movie theaters. C. Aubrey Smith (this picture was so stacked with talent that it could afford to save him and Franchot Tone until the last reel) has a great line about real-life fellow actor Lewis Stone, just before Tracy delivers the line in this post's title.

I wish I could make the rather obvious suggestion that you rent this immediately. But as I already sadly noted this is currently not possible. TCM showed it a fortnight ago and it's scheduled to run again on April 14. I'm no expert on calendars or anything but I believe that's in the neighborhood of three months away. Rats!

Meanwhile, maybe we should try to find a power that be (is?) and demand that Bombshell be released on DVD. I'll buy the first damn copy.

22 January 2009

Sins of Omission, the Oscar Nominations

It's time once again to express absolute befuddlement over the annual Oscar nominations. Or is it? Isn't it giving the Academy Awards way too much credence to bitch and moan about its picks?

Yes, actually it is. Better to save the outrage until the actual night of the Oscars, because as egregious as the nominations are, what actually wins and what doesn't is even more mind-blowing (who'll ever forget Crash over Brokeback Mountain in 2004 or Ordinary People over Raging Bull in 1980?)

Indeed, I've already raked the Oscars over the coals in a post last summer in which I  listed some of the great films that won nothing and some of the dogs that captured a statuette or two.

This year the flawed though enjoyable The Curious Case of Benjamin Button snagged 13 nominations. It isn't half the movie that David Fincher's preceding film, Zodiac, was which got a grand total of zero nods last year.

The Visitor was either to small budget, too independent or too good to get a best picture nomination although Richard Jenkins received a well-deserved nomination for best actor. Vicky Christina Barcelona, my favorite of the year,  was not a best pic nominee. One can at least take solace in the fact that Milk was nominated for the big prize.

However, the greatest sin was the failure to nominate not just the best performance by an actress in starring role this year but the one that I believe stands as the best of the decade: Kristen Scott Thomas in I Loved You So Long. (Pictured above.) Actually maybe Ms. Thomas was so good that she should be in a separate category: Best Inhabitation of a Character. Ms. Thomas was, after all, not so much acting a part as she was becoming it.

I'd not have blinked if Ms. Thomas had not won the award. Best actor and actress awards are so often gotten terribly wrong -- John Wayne (True Grit) over Dustin Hoffman (Midnight Cowboy) in 1969 being just one of many examples. But to not get so much as a nomination suggests a collective stupidity seldom seen outside of the Republican party.

Of course I'm again guilty of putting too much importance on the silliness that is the Oscars. It's a show that is impossible to take seriously while at the same time it is impossible to ignore. I find it excruciating to watch and impossible to miss. The various clips such as of those who've passed in the preceding year or the career highlights of an honoree are a joy. Some of the acceptance speeches are quite touching and nice. But the show is over long with many acceptance speeches that drone on from winners in categories that are of little interest. (And the award for Best Key Grip goes to...) The songs, often in the form of production numbers, are out of place and distracting. In the past the show has at least had some witty and delightful hosts such as Jon Stewart, Chris Rock, Steve Martin and Johnny Carson. So this year they go with Hugh Jackman. Seriously?

I should boycott it for the Thomas snub alone. But we'll DVR it and fast forward through the tedium and I'll try to remain calm when they got something really wrong (Crash for best picture, that was a hoot).

Meanwhile I Loved You So Long has probably left theaters in your area. Its DVD release has yet to be announced. Take my word for it and rent a copy as soon as its out. Performance of the decade I tell ya. Screw the Oscars.

19 January 2009

Essay Question: When Does Michael Corleone Change?

In high school and middle school English classes students read a novel and then, at the behest of their teacher, beat it to death.

Before I completed my credential program I was a tutor in a middle school English class at the school where I was student teaching. The students had just read Howard Fast's novel of the American Revolution, April Morning. They were assigned an essay in which they had to address the question of when Adam (a central character) became a man. I ended up teaching at the same school for 20 years and for 20 years students in English classes read April Morning and wrote essays theorizing about when Adam achieved manhood.

I have a version of that question that comes to mind whenever I watch one of my favorite film of all time, The Godfather (1972): "When does Michael transform from being Joe College to Joe Mafia?" As you may recall, at the beginning of the film Michael Corleone is a recently returned war hero who wants nothing to do with "the family business." By the time the movie ends Michael is in charge of that very family business (it's not really focused on olive oil). He does not hesitate to order killings, even of his own brother-in-law.

So when did he change? Was there a bolt of lightening moment?

Here are some possible moments, offered in chronological order.

The Hospital Bed. Michael arrives at the hospital to visit his father who has been shot and is in serious condition. He father is still very much at risk of another attack but has been left unprotected. Michael enlists the help of a baker who has showed up to pay his respects and moves his father's bed. He and the baker then stand outside the hospital pretending to have guns. They in fact scare off a car seemingly filled with potential assassins. Michael has clearly turned a corner. He is protecting his father. But he is also at one level a participant in the family business and he neither can nor will turn back.

The Punch. Having successfully moved his father and spooked some menacing figures, Michael is confronted by a police captain, McCluskey. The two argue over whether police protection should be provided. Michael brashly suggests that the cop check with the crime boss for whom he works. The incensed officer punches Michael in the face, breaking his jaw. This is a profound moment for Michael. He's been viciously struck by policeman, essentially while protecting his father. This is quite close to a literal lightening bolt as he is shocked into a life changing decision.

The Decision. As the family decides what their next move is going to be in wake of the attempt on the Godfather's life, Michael offers a suggestion. He'll meet with the invulnerable crime boss, Solozzo, and his constant protection, the aforementioned McCluskey, and shoot them both. Though initially laughed off by his older brother, the plan is made. Michael has offered himself as the one to kill the family's chief rival and a New York City cop to boot. There is absolutely no turning back for Michael at this point. He has committed himself to the family forever at the sacrifice of a normal, law abiding life.

The Bada Bing. Michael calmly and coolly carries out the double execution. He shoots the two men in the head and takes it on the lam in Sicily under extended family protection. Once he fires those shots he's in. His ability to pull the trigger and end two other people's lives mean he has, if not gone over to the dark side, gone to a darker place in his soul. Any dreams of a life outside the family's business are forever dashed at this moment.

The News. While hiding out in Sicily Michael receives the news that his older brother has been killed. Given the fragile health of his father and the weaknesses of his remaining brother Fredo, Michael surely knows that he must take over the family business upon returning to America. He may still have entertained hopes of putting the murders he committed behind him and living a peaceful life with his new Sicilian bride, but the assassination of his brother changes that. Now he knows he'll be needed and he must answer the call. His life course has been set.

The Explosion. Michael witnesses the death of his bride in a car explosion fully realizing the bomb was meant for him. In Sicily he found love and happiness in the form of a beautiful innocent young woman. With her fiery death Michael is forever and irrevocably hardened. From this point on we see a different Michael. One who rarely even smiles. He is cold, calculating and all business. The light in his soul so evident through the first part of the film has been extinguished. His heart is dark. The horrible death of his wife has made him forever cold and not incidentally, a natural crime boss.

Of course, the question of when and how Michael changes is central to the entire movie. If one were going to teach a class on the film (if so, sign me up) that essay question would have to be on the final. For me it all starts with the punch. He has been struck violently in the face by a man who is supposed to be an officer of the law. This moment comes as he is trying to guarantee the safety of his father who is in hospital upon as a consequence of being shot repeatedly.

That the punch results in a broken jaw is not necessarily significant. It is the fact of the punch that's important. Watch him afterwards. It is in his next scene, jaw swollen, that he offers to shoot Solozzo and McCloskey. Note his intensity. There's no blink. There is no hesitation. There is no betrayal of emotion, not even in the face of his older brother's teasing. There is only resolution. He is now ready to cross the line to commit the ultimate sin and break the central law of our society. The punch changes Michael. Before he was a "civilian," safe from the violence that regularly visits Mafia families. Now he has essentially enlisted in the cause. It's the punch that did it.

One can certainly argue (and I would agree) that this was a path that Michael was likely headed once his father was shot. But certain events had to line up for Michael to ultimately become Godfather, notably the death of Sonny. Once his father was shot, the punch in the jaw was the trigger for all the other dominoes to fall.

If anyone disagrees and think another of the above-mentioned events was the real trigger (no pun intended) you'll get no argument from me. Provided, students, that you can support your answer.

17 January 2009

World War I Films, Quality over Quantity -- How About Some More?

When it comes to the production of war films, the World War II is a huge winner over any other war before or since. There are myriad reasons for this, including the scope of the war, the presence of so many larger-than-life figures and the timing of the war with respect to the development of popular film. There's also a closer to a universal agreement on who the villains were and what was at stake.

Production of World War I films virtually stopped dead with the outbreak of the next world war and never recovered. In the midst and immediate aftermath of the second world war no one was really interested in its predecessor. Meanwhile producers, directors and writers are still mining World War II for films some 63 years later.

I'm certainly not going to endeavor to verify this but I'll venture the wild guess that for every film about World War I film there are several dozen about World War II. However, what the Great War lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality. In honor of the war having ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, I offer 11 of the very best films that focus on World War I. They are in order of how much I admire them.

1. The Grand Illusion (1937). Any list that starts with this masterpiece is a good one, no matter what follows. Jean Renoir's film is in my top two motion pictures of all time. Legendary French actor Jean Gabin stars and Eric von Stroheim appears. It's actually less about war and more about the death of certain type of classicism. French prisoners of various types including an aristocrat are held in a castle-like prison for officers. The commandant is a German aristocrat. There is fascinating dialogue and a daring escape.

2. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Perhaps the best "pure war" film ever made. Director Lewis Milestone's film is about soldiers in battle. It's about how those soldiers were bamboozled into believing in war and how the wanton death and destruction turned them from innocents to cynics. It hasn't aged a bit and has only gained in significance in the nearly 80 years since its release. Based on Erich Maria Remarque's novel of the same name.

3. The Big Parade (1925). Absolutely, positively the best movie still not available on DVD. King Vidor directed this story of the scion of a wealthy family who goes off to war and changes forever as a result. Again there is issues of class as our hero becomes acquainted with fellow soldiers who are working stiffs. He also falls in love with a Frenchwoman. Magnificently photographed with gripping battle sequences.

4. Wings (1927). What's this? Another silent great awaiting its DVD release? Let's get with it, people. William Wellman, himself a former WWI flying ace, directed this story of two flyers in the Great War and a love triangle that entangles them. Wings set the cinematic standard for air battle scenes. This film features a moving and believable love story and touches upon themes of friendship, loyalty and betrayal.

5. Hell's Angels (1930). This Howard Hughes classic may sound like a re-make of Wings given that it too features two main characters who are flyers and love the same woman. But it is otherwise a very different film. The woman in questions is played by Jean Harlow. Lesser knowns Ben Hall and James Lyon are the brothers. Anyone who has seen Martin Scorsese's The Aviator (2004) has an idea of the pains Hughes went to in getting just the right aerial shots. The effort shows. The zeppelin scenes are some of the most unforgettable on film. The final scenes in the POW prison are also memorable.

6. Paths of Glory (1957). Star Kirk Douglas was never better than here in the role of a French Colonel vexed by incompetent and arrogant superiors in this film directed by Stanley Kubrick. A realistic view of trench warfare, a military trial and subsequent execution that will infuriate you highlight the film. Paths also features some of Kubrick's trademark cinematography, especially as it follows the colonel through the trenches. Excellent supporting cast led by Ralph Meeker and Adolph Menjou.

7. The Lost Patrol (1934). John Ford directed this story of a group of a British patrol that is, as the title implies, lost. In this case in the dessert. They are hunted and sniped one by one by an unknown seen enemy. They face thirst, madness and heat, in addition to rifle bullets. Victor McLaglen, Boris Karloff and Reginald Denny head an outstanding cast. Here's a post I wrote about The Lost Patrol last May.

8. Sergeant York (1941). Howard Hawks directed and Gary Cooper stars in this relatively true story of backwoods hunter from Tennessee who becomes a war hero. Coming out as it did in 1941 one would not be surprised to learn that this was a true "rally'round the flags, boys" type of film. This was the kind of role that Cooper was perfect for and he came through with appropriate flying colors. Not a terribly realistic film but entertaining.

9. A Very Long Engagement (2004). Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film is actually a greater love story than war film. Audrey Tautou plays Mathilde a young woman who cannot accept the story of her fiance's disappearance in battle and makes like the world's greatest decetive in order to find him. In the process we see various scenario's surrounding her love's last sighting and consequently see some dramatic and realistic battle sequences.

10. The Lost Battalion (2001). Russell Mulcahy directed this made-for-TV movie (don't hold that against it) about the valiant American battalion that was trapped between enemy lines. Based on actual events and faithful to the facts. Bravery, sacrifice and stretching the limits of human endurance make this story a natural for cinema. It really deserved a big screen run.

11. Joyeux Noel (2005). It's Christmas Eve 1914 and soldiers who have been engaged in bloody battle against each other meet in no man's land for a yuletide celebration. Songs are sung, gifts exchanged, soccer played. That this is a true story (who could make it up?) proves beyond any and all doubt the insanity of war. Of course, in the film as in reality the top brass punished those responsible and the killings resumed post haste.

(Yes, I realize I left Gallipoli (1981) off the list but I haven't seen it in too long a time. Also I've started to watch A Farewell to Arms (1932) twice, once on TV and once on DVD and both times the prints were of too poor a quality to continue. There is, however, apparently a better print out that I'll try to find.)

I couldn't help but notice that seven of the first eight films on this list were made before the U.S. entered World War II. Of the last three, two were French and the other made for TV. I'm at a loss to explain why no one in Hollywood has brought a decent World War I film to the big screen in recent years. There was some damn thing a couple of years about American flying aces that was apparently big on special effects and short on story.

There are innumerable compelling stories about WWI that could be brought to the big screen. I'm currently reading Ernest Junger's World War I memoir Storm of Steel. This is on the heels of having read Hemmingway's WWI novel A Farewell to Arms, and English poet and essasyist Robert Graves' memoir of the same war, Goodbye to All That. There are countless stories from these books alone ripe for plucking. As there are from innumberable works of non-fiction such as Jospeh Persico's superlative popluar history Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day Eleventh Hour, Martin Gilbert's many books including his latest on The Battle of the Somme and Winston Groom's A Storm in Flanders. And then there's the story of one of the African 396th infantry and their heroics during the war.

Don't make me write a screenplay myself. Final warning, Hollywood.

Who Needs the Oscars? My Annual Top Ten

1. Vicky Christina Barcelona (Allen)
2. Milk (Van Sant)
3. The Visitor (McCarthy)
4. I’ve Loved You For So Long (Claudel)
5. In Bruges (McDonagh)
6. A Secret (Miller)
7. Frost/Nixon (Howard)
8. Rachel Getting Married (Demme)
9. The Last Mistress (Breillat)
10. Synechode, New York (Kaufman)
Honorable Mention: The Edge of Heaven, W., A Christmas Tale, Tropic Thunder, Slumdog Millionaire, Revolutionary Road.

Best Actress, Kristin Scott Thomas (I Loved You So Long). Runners Up: Kate Winslet (Revolutionary Road), Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married) Sally Hawkins (Happy Go Lucky).

Best Actor, Sean Penn (Milk). Runners Up: Richard Jenkins (The Visitor), Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon), Leonardo DiCaprio (Revolutionary Road).

Best Supporting Actress, Penelope Cruz (Vicky Christina Barcelona). Runners Up: Ludivine Sangier (A Secret), Kate Winslet (The Reader), Hiam Abbass (The Visitor).

Best Supporting Actor, Robert Downey Jr. (Tropic Thunder). Runners Up: Emile Hirsch (Milk), Eddie Marsan (Happy Go Lucky), Anil Kapoor (Slumdog Millionaire).

16 January 2009

It Was Okay

I saw The Reader yesterday and it was good.

Not very good, certainly not excellent, actually pretty close to being okay. No shame in that.

Except there is in a way. It could have been as good as it aspired to be.

The Reader, directed by Stephen Daldry and starring Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes and David Kross, is about morals, the law, reconciliation, responsibility, the Holocaust, sex, illiteracy and great literature. Huge themes. (You want a full summary see IMDb.)

Here was the problem. Like many a merely good movie it started out great and by the end petered out. It collapsed under its own weight. It bloody well tried too hard to be important. This was a film not satisfied with telling its story, it had to poke the audience in the ribs and say, "quite a powerful message, eh? Eh? See how deep a story this is?"

One of the hardest things to do in art, be it film or literature is let a story be within itself. Like an athlete, a film has to know its limitations, otherwise it makes a mess of things. In the case of film, trust in your essential story and your actors. Don't elaborate on the obvious. Resist the temptation to let the camera linger too long where it shouldn't or overplay emotions or any of the countless other ways you can make your film seem pretentious.

I remember when Seabiscuit (2003) came out a reviewer wrote, "its a movie that is self consciously in love with itself." That line helped inform the way I view movies and understand how some went wrong. Restraint is hard. Thomas McCarthy managed in The Visitor, Daldry didn't in The Reader.

Part of the problem for Daldry as it was for Fincher in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, was the romance. There's a tendency in love stories to try to convince audiences that they are witnessing the greatest love affair in the history of humankind. "See, look how much these two people love each other, can you imagine a more perfect love? I think not."

This has a lot to do with the fact that when two people are in love they imagine that no one could be more in love. Another problem is that a love affair can be quite personal indeed and not something that others are comfortable watching -- even on screen. That's why you're more likely to see young pretty people like Winslet and Kross naked than two pimply fat people. It's also why we get beautifully photographed scenes of love making and montages of the couple prancing around the countryside, dancing, eating by candlelight, laughing, blah, blah, blah.

A lot of well intentioned movies just go on too long -- again, that lack of restraint, that tendency to be too self involved. This is why writers like Chekov and Hemmingway are so good. No fluff. Woody Allen and Jean-Pierre Melville are two directors that keep it short and to the point.

I'm glad the story of The Reader was taken on. Winslet was amazing and may well garner her first Oscar for this performance. Maybe another director or another screenwriter could have done a better job. Sometimes being okay is okay but when you could have been great...that's a shame.

14 January 2009

How to Make the Transition Back to the US After Your European Vacation (Hint: The Answer Involves Movies)

A fortnight ago I returned from two weeks in London and Paris. A few things: It was the greatest all time trip ever; I did not want to come back (at least not yet); and I was exhausted. How to soften the blow? How to ease back into that accursed thing called "normal life". How to tip toe past culture shock?

Easy. If you have Turner Classic Movies as part of your cable package. (And if you don't you are either not a devotee of classic films, can't afford the extra dough or are brain dead.)

Yes upon returning home there was TCM host Robert Osborne to greet me. What a grand fellow. Like your wealthy old "bachelor" uncle who always has a nice gift and a classy story to tell. Indeed Osborne does have gifts in the form of the films he introduces and stories in the form of his pre and post movie chats.

Timing is everything. I settled onto the sofa just as TCM was about to show It Happened One Night (1934). Perfect because its a film one never tires of -- least I don't. Capra directed and I reflected on some of the stars who appeared in is pictures. How's this for a Hollywood who's who: Jimmy Stewart, Jean Harlow, Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, Barbara Stanwyck, Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Claude Rains, Loretta Young, Glenn Ford, Bette Davis, Ronald Colman, Katharine Hepburn, Thomas Mitchell, Jane Wyman, Spencer Tracy, Myrna Loy, Bing Crosby...need I go on?

It's been said that Gable was more a star than an actor. Perhaps but he exercised ye olde acting chops opposite Colbert in this film. They made a grand movie couple in this road trip, romantic comedy. Walter Connolly played Colbert's father and I've got to get around to a post someday about his various roles as a beleaguered screen dad.

Next up was another classic from the 1930's the original King Kong (1933). Here's an impossible task: try explaining to a teenager why this version is far superior to Peter Jackson's overblown remake of a few years past. The special effects were relatively primitive in the original but there are two things to note: they were quite sophisticated for their time, a good movie doesn't require digital computer enhanced anything. A good movie requires a good story with strong characters. The original Kong has it.

The next day I started with another Capra film that I had DVR'd while we were away, the oddly named Platinum Blonde (1931). (What was it with the word "blonde" in a film title back then? James Cagney and Joan Blondell were in a wonderful film called Blonde Crazy (1931) and that title didn't quite fit either.)

Anyhoo, Robert Williams features -- who??? Herein is the sadness associated with this film. Walker was an actor whose star was on the rise when he made this movie and a legitimate star upon its release. It was his last. He died months later from peritonitis after his appendix burst. He had some delightful scenes here with co stars Harlow and Young. He plays ace reporter Stu Smith who falls for a society dame played by Harlow. They fall in love and shock one and all by marrying. This is most disappointing to Williams' reporter buddy, Gallagher played by Young. You see, she's got a crush on Smith.

The absolutely gorgeous 18 year old Loretta Young actually upstages the nasty Harlow character. She is the picture of beautiful sweetness and possess, what I'd call an innocent wisdom. A film not to be missed by fans of...well films.

The last of my marathon was a film I'd never even heard of let alone seen a half dozen times, It All Came True (1940). I couldn't resist a film that co-starred Humphrey Bogart and Ann Sheridan. The premise intrigued me too. A wanted crook (Bogie) hides out in boarding house which he converts into a nightclub. Of course Sheridan plays one of the residents among a passel of colorful eccentrics which includes Felix Bressart as a has been magician. Sheridan falls for a real milquetoast, the straight laced piano player played by Jeffery Lynn. Lynn also got the girl from Bogie in Roaring Twenties (1939) (this time the prize was Priscilla Lane). Lynn was one of the players of the Thirties and Forties like Alan Jones who provided deathly dull music and a romantic lead to contrast with colorful sorts like Bogie and the Marx Brothers.

It All Came True was okay, nothing I'd go out of my way to watch again but a pleasant enough diversion. It along with the other movies also helped serve the purpose of easing back into society. I was now ready to venture out into the world and -- see a movie!

(Many thanks the greatest TV station ever, Turner Classic Movies and its host Robert Osborne. You go, Bob!)

13 January 2009

I'll Drink To That (Hic) Ten Great (Hic) Movie Drunks (Hic)

I'm guessing that one of the easier things for an actor to portray is a drunk. You can really cut loose and no one squawks if you chew up the scenery. But perhaps giving a truly outstanding performance as a boozehound is another matter entirely. Some actors play a drunk for easy laughs. Others simply slur their words and stagger a bit. Still others hang their heads and mumble. They're convincing drunks but are they still in character? Are they "acting" or inhabiting the role? Is it a burlesque or a Barrymore?

I've selected ten great performances by male actors as drunks. The simple criteria being that the role had to be central to the story and their drunkenness not an occasional condition but a constant one. For these ten I could easily add a hundred more but I'll flatter myself that this is a good start. I bring a certain perspective not only as a cinephile but as someone who has had much experience as a drunk myself. I offer these ten in no particular order.

Thomas Mitchell as Doc Boone in Stagecoach (1939). The rascally drunk. Oh you! Always sneaking a drink. Taking advantage of that poor man. And after getting yourself kicked out of town. And you a doctor! Of all things! But when the going got tough this was one drunk who could put his booze aside and deliver a baby or shoot an Injun. Mitchell played drunks before and after and was always excellent. But this, an Oscar winning performance, stands as his most important role. His Doc Boone is lovable, but you'd just love to see him stay sober.

Ray Milland as Don Birnam in The Lost Weekend (1946). The AA poster boy drunk. If there's such a thing as a common garden variety drunk (there's not) than this is it. The rooms of AA are filled with Don Birnams who would go to any lengths to drink despite the dead certainty that they were dead wrong in doing so because once started they couldn't stop and despite the entreaties of loved ones to put a cork in it. Lie to drink? No problem. Steal to drink? Can do. Milland's Oscar-winning performance is the gold standard of movie drunks.

Paul Newman as Frank Galvin in The Verdict (1982). The down on his luck drunk. Newman's performance was one of the best to not receive a a Best Actor Oscar (which is saying something given how many slighted performances there are). Galvin was a lawyer who had seen much better times. He felt ill-used by the world and a drink with the boys was his lone escape. Drinking mirrored more than caused his decline. If he could rise again maybe the tap would stop too. To me this is Newman's greatest acting performance, you can practically smell the whiskey.

Lew Ayers as Ned Seaton in Holiday (1938). The bemused philosophical drunk. By turns happy and sad. Now hopeful, next doomed. Ayers' Seaton is one of filmdom's great drunks. Smart enough to know the score and where he stands, not ready to go off the sauce -- yet. You feel there's hope and you sure hope there is because, gee, he's a swell guy. Like many an alcoholic he feels trapped, unaware that it is the liquor that imprisons him.

Dudley Moore as Arthur Bach in Arthur (1981). The happy drunk. Moore positively vamped his way through this latter day screwball comedy. He played the character largely for laughs (it was a comedy after all) but is nonetheless convincing as a man who ultimately seeks redemption through sobriety. Arthur was the the drunk who didn't have a problem because...well, he was damn happy. Never mind the consequences to those around him.

Robert Downey Jr.as Paul Avery in Zodiac (2007). The talent headed for a big fall drunk. Here was a character based on a real person. By all accounts the real Avery squandered a thriving career as a journalist to feed his addiction. No divine intervention for him and his downfall was thus inevitable. Downey has played drunks before and has been a practitioner in real life. Now in recovery he can call on his own memories for magnificent portrayals such as this one. The disease of alcoholism does not discriminate based on intellectual capacities.

Nicholas Cage as Ben Sanderson in Leaving Las Vegas (1995). The death wish drunk. This was the oh-my-God-he's-totally-out-of-control drunk. You now exactly where he's headed but what a show he puts on getting there. How can one person consume so much? This was a flamboyant performance that could have lapsed into farce but Cage tapped the brakes just enough to make it scary believable.

Walter Brennan as Eddie in To Have and Have Not (1944). The pitiful drunk. Bogart's character felt so sorry for him that he saw no alternative than to feed poor Eddie's habit. Eddie was addled by alcohol and surely any effort to quit would require hospitalization. As it was he still managed to function, but only with the aid of a drink or twelve. A great tragic-comic performance by Brennan.

Frank Sinatra as Private Maggio in From Here to Eternity (1953). The self destructive drunk. Getting smashed with the boys and chasing tail is a venerable tradition among the dumber sex. People like Maggio push the boundaries and go to extremes. They thus often end up in jail and or making a premature visit to the bone yard. Bars are full of doomed souls like Maggio who quit jobs or relationships for a spree. Sinatra proved in this role he was not just a great crooner.

William Powell as Nick Charles in The Thin Man (1934). The high-functioning, sophisticated drunk. Powell and co-star Myrna Loy were drinking and tipsy throughout this film. Nick Charles was the consummate 5th avenue tippler. Always a drink in hand but never anything less than debonair and charming. Indeed I'd reckon that most viewers wouldn't even consider Nick Charles to be a sot, he's just that good at "holding his booze." But next time you watch the film, note just how much and with how much delight he and the missus get out of each tipple.

12 January 2009

Oh My God You So Totally Have To See This Movie

Any sane person with a headache would stay the bloody hell away from a computer screen and rest for a bit.

I have a headache.

So aside from my lack of sanity, why am I here, now, with a computer screen before my eyes?

The blame principally goes to actor Richard Jenkins and writer/director Thomas McCarthy. You see, I just finished watching The Visitor on On Demand (yes I "missed it" in theaters).

What a terrific film. Jenkins plays Walter, an old has been economics professor bereft of all emotion. We may assume that this condition stems from his status as a widower.

Walter reluctantly journeys from his Connecticut home to stay in his seldom-used New York apartment. He must present a paper he didn't even write at a conference in the Big Apple. What's this? There's a naked Senegalese woman in the bathtub and her Syrian boyfriend lurking about?

Welcome to the first day of the rest of Walter's life.

Jenkins's performance ranks right up there with Sean Penn's in Milk as one of the very best of the year. Here's the word you want for it: nuanced. Great actors can express so much with so little physical exertion that its astounding. Jenkins face is a like a straight white line. When he raises the corner of his mouth we learn volumes about his character. When he at last lets loose it's all the more powerful.

There's a lot to learn about Walter and the transformation he undergoes in the new world he enters through his two friends and one of their mothers. It would be criminal to give away the slightest bit of this story -- it must be experienced first hand -- except to say he goes from failed piano player to talented bongo drummer.

No seriously.

But more importantly he goes from dead outside to alive in and out.

This is a film about music, rhythm, love, immigration, bureaucracy, intimacy without sex and with the redemptive powers of the human soul. Amid all the Spidermen, Hulks, Hellboys and other garbage, thank goodness films like The Visitor are still around to nourish the soul. Needless to say McCarthy deserves the lion's share of the credit. This is his first film since his directorial debut with The Station Agent (2003) some five years ago. For God's sakes McCarthy, don't make us wait another five years.

And you out there. If you haven't seen The Visitor do yourself a favor and rent it or watch it on On Demand. It was worth me dashing over to the computer despite a pounding brain.

Between thinking about The Visitor and listening to a Sidney Bechet CD I got in Paris, I feel like telling the headache to go screw.

10 January 2009

Excellent Novels That Were Made Into Excellent Films

The title sums this post up pretty well. I'll just say that the criteria is that a) I read the book b) I saw the film c) I thought both were exceptional. I'll also add that films were NOT eliminated because they weren't "faithful" to the book. A movie is not obligated to be a cinematic reproduction of a book. However sometimes a film will suffer because it does not capture the spirit of the novel. Such was the case for me when W.P. Kinsella's superb novel, Shoeless Joe was made into something called Field of Dreams. Most of my contemporaries loved the movie but I know of two people besides myself who did not. All three of us had read the book and agreed that the film altered the book's theme.

However I find certain types of comparisons fruitless as in "the book was soooo much better." Comparing a book and a movie is akin to comparing a song and painting. I also do not include novelizations of films, principally because I've never read one and never intend to.

In most cases I read the novel before seeing the film as with the most recent film on this list, Revolutionary Road. In some cases, as with The Godfather, I loved the film so much I just had to read the novel that inspired it.

Please note this list is confined to novels, thus books such as All the President's Men or Wiseguys (which inspired Goodfellas) are not included. The list is offered in no particular order.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) On the jacket of my cover of this book by Eric Maria Remarque are the words "The Greatest War Novel of All Time." No argument here. The subsequent film directed by Lewis Milestone is similarly among the finest films about war of all time. Both the novel and film are powerful stories of men and war and serve as great anti-war messages.

The Godfather (1972) The film, one of the greatest of all time, is so beloved and acclaimed that it greatly overshadows Mario Puzo's excellent novel. Any fan of the Godfather films should read it. Most of the story from Godfathers I and II are here with some of the back story and detail that even six hours worth of cinema cannot capture.

The Shining (1980) Reportedly author Stephen King was not pleased with director Stanley Kubrick's rendering of his novel. Gimme a break, Stephen. This is the best film based on any of his novels or short stories perhaps in large part because it is perhaps his best book. King's dissatisfaction led to the making of made-for-cable film that inevitably bombed. The original film starring Jack Nicholson is a horror classic.

Jaws (1975) Once again we have a movie that made many forgot an original highly popular novel. A then-young Steven Spielberg practically created the Summer blockbuster with the film. Peter Benchley's novel was a true page-turner but one with surprising depth to its characters and their individual stories.

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) What a chore to bring Harper Lee's masterpiece to film. Yet thanks in large part to Gregory Peck's brilliant portrayal of Atticus Finch, the film is worthy in its own right. The two make great companion pieces for many a high school English teacher.

No Country For Old Men (2007) The novel that was the basis for the best film of the past few years was written by Cormac McCarthy. The Coen brothers pleased McCarthy fans by their faithful adaptation of the book. Other McCarthy books have been made into films with much less success. Meanwhile a film based on his Pulitzer prize winning, The Road is due in theaters soon and Ridley Scott is reportedly working on a cinematic version of Blood Meridian. Both are great books and i hope the films measure up.

Revolutionary Road (2008) I read Richard Yates novel several years ago not imagining that it could be, led alone would be, made into a watchable film. But director Sam Mendes did the trick. No less a personage than Kurt Vonnegut called the novel "the Great Gatsby for my generation." I just saw the film today and it captured Yates' message beautifully.

Little Big Man (1970) Thomas Berger wrote a wonderfully entertaining epic and director Arthur Penn filmed a wonderfully entertaining epic. Penn had the good sense or good fortune to cast Dustin Hoffman in the lead role and surrounded him with a terrific supporting cast. If you enjoyed the film, read the book and its sequel.

The Graduate (1967) Dustin Hoffman stars again this time in Mike Nichols' smash hit based on the largely forgotten novel of the same name by Charles Webb. One of the screenwriters was Buck Henry, one of the wittiest man on the planet. Both movie and film gave voice to some of the cultural upheaval that marked the 1960's.

The Exorcist (1973) Here's a trick questions: which is scarier, the film the Exorcist or the novel? The answer of course is both are equally scary. Both are also equally great and important works of art. The novelist was William Peter Blatty and the director William Friedkin. Wonderfully talented gentlemen who never managed anything better -- how could they?

09 January 2009

The Curious Movie About Benjamin Button

Inevitably people will ask you what you thought of movie that you just saw. For the most part folks want something simple by way of response, along the lines of: great, good, okay, bad, thumbs up. I wouldn't know how to give that sort of stock answer for David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which is, as they say, in theaters now. Based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, the film tells the story of a man born old who ages backwards until his inevitable death in infancy many decades later.

Here's what I will say: I thought the first hour and half or so was brilliant. As Fincher showed in Zodiac (2007) he can really capture a time period and place. In Zodiac he re-created not only the look, but the feel of the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s and the 1970's. I should know, I was there. With Button he brought audiences back in time to the period in the U.S. between World Wars. Fincher's attention to detail must put a tremendous burden on his staff. The payoff is remarkable. Also whatever special effects and makeup were at work to make Brad Pitt look like a tiny octogenarian are the stuff of Oscars. Pitt's performance as a a little old man deserves kudos as well.

However as the movie progressed it became increasingly less interesting to me. Part of the problem was the central love story between Pitt and co-star Cate Blanchett. I am of the unshakable opinion that Ms. Blanchett is one of the finest actors in film today and here again her performance is excellent. Meanwhile Pitt, as Button became less intriguing, perhaps a natural by product of being closer to his own real age. But most of all the two actors simply had no chemistry. I believed that they were in love because they acted as though they were, but couldn't see it or feel it. I was being told not shown.

More moving, believable and intriguing was the short lived romance between Button and Tilda Swinton's character, Elizabeth Abbott. These scenes were among the last really strong ones in the film.

Part of the problem that I believe Fincher faced was dealing with Eric Roth's Forest Gump-like screenplay. This isn't altogether surprising considering that Roth wrote that screenplay as well. Like the story of Gump, Button the movie was a bit too sentimental and earnest. Romance, sentiment and life lessons are far too easy to get wrong in film. They are like adding sugar to a recipe. Usually a dash is fine and cupful, much easier to dispense, makes it way too sweet.

So what kind of answer have I provided for someone asking me what I thought of the Curious Case of Benjamin Button? I certainly haven't merely said it was "okay." or provided a mixed review. Overall I was quite satisfied with it. Also I know people who I'm sure would hate it just as I know people who would love it. So whatever do I say?

In film as in life, there are a lot of questions that just don't lend themselves to easy answers.

05 January 2009


When you meet someone special they seem, for a time, to be completely perfect. It’s only after the initial infatuation wears off that you realize that this person is flawed too, just like everyone else. Well I never reached the stage of finding flaws with Paris. I’d like to go back and spend enough time to see something about it not to like. Indeed, I’d like to stay until I hated the place or forever, which ever came first.

Here’s what I especially liked, in no particular order.
1) The people. Not outwardly friendly but well mannered and always polite. Rarely noisy or obnoxious, discreet with their cell phone conversations. No loud gum chewing or snapping. Well dressed and pretty.
2) Cleanliness is next to heaven, to rework a phrase. Parisians throw their litter away. The streets, the parks and Metro are tidy.
3) The food is excellent, plentiful, fresh. Yes its pricey but coming from the San Francisco Bay Area I’m well used to that. There are bakeries, cafes, produce markets, fish markets, cheese shops, butcher shops, open air markets everywhere. Whether eating out or buying food to eat at home I never had anything less than wonderful.
4) The metro. I’ve gone on and on about it. In the Bay Area long, frustrating waits for transportation are common place as are long walks from the nearest stop to your destination. No such problems in Paris.
5) Beauty. The city is gorgeous. For me much of this allure is its age, its sense of history its reverence for the past its respect for itself. As a life long student of history I like old stuff (which, I suppose, why I get on with myself so well these days). Paris, like much of Europe, is old and wise where the U.S. is young and brash. Unlike U.S. cities, Paris is hip and lively yet at ease with itself. American cities try so damn hard, there's a lot of contrivance and self absorption. Paris has more pride than ego. Having read its history I can tell you the city has seen a lot. Siege, revolution, enemy occupiers, religious killings, torture and plague. Yet the old gal is as gorgeous as ever.

Tres bien.