31 July 2009

A Tale of Two Movies

Do you remember last week's post about how movies are like dating in that sometimes there's just no connection? If you forgot or missed it just click on this sentence.

I had a date today with Fashions of 1934 (1934). I'd heard good things. We seemed to be match for a variety of reasons: 1) It was a pre code film, 2) William Powell and Bette Davis starred, 3) The co stars included Hugh Herbert, Frank McHugh and Reginald Owen, 4) It boasted musical numbers choreographed by Busby Berkeley, 5) William Dieterle directed.

Sounds great.


How bad was it? Ten minutes into the film I was working on the crossword puzzle from the morning paper. Half hour into it I was scanning the local weekly paper. An hour gone I realized I'd seen the damn thing before. That's pretty bad when you don't remember having seen a film before and fail to recognize it for a full damn 60 minutes.

In other words, this was a second date and I hadn't remembered the first. Yikes!

So what went wrong ?

No chemistry, for one. I mean between Davis and Powell, something that at least Davis readily admitted after the fact. Powell and Myrna Loy clicked together like rice and beans. Powell and Davis were two attractive stars occupying space together on screen. It happens, there's nothing that can be done about it once the cameras roll.

Dieterle and this story were a bad fit. Give him something for his German expressionist sensibilities to run with and he's dynamite. And about this story...it jumped all over the damn place. How they could have tossed so much into an under 80 minute film is a feat -- but not one to be admired.

The Berkeley numbers were tagged on towards the end and they were good enough. But really, the very definition of a Berkeley musical is the spectacular, not the satisfactory. Plus with this story line about shysters in the fashion industry, it wasn't a comfortable fit.

And oh by the way, where were the chuckles, guffaws and hardy har hars? Fashions was totally yuckless.

So I'm not blaming myself so much for this lousy date. It's no surprise that this turkey was not included in the Busby Berkeley DVD set released a few years back or that Fashions of 1934 has not had any DVD release at all. I should have had a clue when TCM host Robert Osborne's introduction for the film highlighted the fact that it was worth watching just to imagine Davis' displeasure at having to wear Orry-Kelly gowns throughout. Call me picky but I look for more than that when selecting a film to watch. I suppose that might have been the real message of Osborne's tepid intro -- viewer beware.

I was surprised to see that Fashions has a viewer rating of 7.2 on IMDb. Then again only 473 people have voted for it, an insignificant sample size. The 77 people who gave it a ten must have been experimenting with some pretty potent drug when they watched it.

As for me, at least Fashions was a loss of only 80 minutes of my life. Moreover the experience will be more than negated later this evening by my third date with Midnight (1939) directed by Mitchell Leisen. Leisen directed only two movies that I have both seen and enjoyed and they're both doozies, this one and Easy Living (1937).

Midnight succeeds in many of the same ways that Fashions of 1934 fails. Some chap named Wilder, Billy wrote the screenplay in conjuction with his frequent partner Charles Brackett. That should tell you that it's witty, unexpected and clever. And it is.

Claudette Colbert stars. She's simply one of the best screwball comedy actresses ever. Like the aforementioned Ms. Loy, the fact that she's both sophisticated and easy on the eyes makes her perfect for the genre. Dumb people doing comedy is stupid (look for that one in Bartlett's). Smart and sexy doing comedy is funny. When they're following a Wilder/Brackett script, they're a scream.

Colbert does have chemistry with her co-stars, Don Ameche and John Barrymore. Midnight also gives you a nice dose of Mary Astor. She's another one of those good looking dames with class that does comedy so well (see her in Palm Beach Story (1942)). Just to top things off you've got Monty Wolley who makes every film he's in better. And that Barrymore fellow, he provides more laughs with his eyes and facial expressions in half a minute than was elicited in Fashion's 80 minutes. Barrymore was great at comedy, and for that matter, tragedy, melodrama and...say what other genres ya got?

If you haven't seen Midnight (get with it and I mean pronto!) giving you plot points could prove distracting. If you've seen it, well then what the hell do you need me to recap it for? Let's just say Colbert is a penniless gold digger in Paris who finds herself posing as a baroness. Ameche is a salt of the earth but bon vivant cab driver. Are they destined to be together? We'll see and laugh while we find out. Midnight also features the fabulously wealthy, philanderers and schemers. Confusion reigns, though often of the premeditated variety. The usual screwball stuff done, as they say in the restaurant biz, to perfection.

So I'm getting ready for this date now and I absolutely know I'll get lucky. Wait, no, that's not luck it's kismet. Yowzah!

29 July 2009

These are Real Knockouts! My Favorite Boxing Films

"In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down or cut him
til he cried out in his anger and his shame
I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains."
- From "The Boxer" by Simon & Garfunkel

As both a film and sports enthusiast I flatter myself that I'm in a pretty fair position to judge the quality of sports related film. That being the case I render the following succinct verdict: most sports movies suck. Not particularly articulate but it gets my point across. Most sports movies of recent years are formulaic, to wit, a scrappy group of underdogs overcome all odds and wins the big game against their heavily favored and hated rivals. The motley crew breaks into a joyous celebration joined by friends and loved ones, blah, blah, blah.

These films are predictable, unimaginative and overly sentimental.

There are a few exceptions such as the best of the many baseball films, Bull Durham (1988), Eight Men Out (1988) and Bang the Drum Slowly (1973). All three are highly recommended and I just might have to write a separate post about them some other time.

One sport that has been done justice in films is boxing. The brutal mano a mano nature of the sweet science does not lend itself to saccharine schmaltz (despite the best efforts of Sylvester Stallone). Boxing is an individual effort and thus provides a vehicle for character study. Many of the better boxing flicks have very little action inside the ring. They often explore issues of integrity, courage and loyalty. A lot of boxing stories feature the underworld which, of course adds another dramatic element. Women are a signficant presence in virtually all boxing films, albeit usually as conflicted lovers of the central boxing figure. The brutality of the sport means that issues of health, safety and even life and death can further add to the drama.

While many sports films suffer from looking totally unrealistic in depicting action scenes, boxing is relatively easier to re-create, largely because only two athletes are involved and in confined area at that.

Many of the films below are not exactly light hearted romps through a field of posies. There are no boxing musicals that I know of. Some are downright depressing but still elevating in their examination of humans in extraordinary circumstances. So here are my 11 favorite boxing films. Other than the placement of the first, they are in no particular order.

Raging Bull (1980). I know, I know, calling Raging Bull a boxing film is like saying that Cabaret is just a musical. But the story is about Jake LaMotta a famous middleweight boxer of yesteryear. The scenes within the square circle are not only among the most incredible boxing sequences ever filmed, but among the best scenes of any sort you'll ever see. Raging Bull proves that you don't need to care a whit about the sport to enjoy a boxing film. After all, director Martin Scorsese not only wasn't a fight fan but knew little about the sport. In some respects it is the quintessential boxing film for its juxtaposition of the story of a man and his boxing alter ego.

The Set Up (1949). From director Robert Wise starring Robert Ryan. One of the most underrated films of all time. A stylized noir told in real time. The Set Up is the story of a washed up boxer who's not told he's supposed to take a fall until well into the fight. Looking for one last crack at the title, he has other ideas. The story is splendidly told and combines great scenes in the ring, locker room and arena as well as the streets just outside. This is not just a look at the seamy side of boxing it appears. The Set Up is much more than that which makes it in keeping with the best of the genre.

Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962). Talk about dark! But talk about good too. This is a film that explores the toll that pugilism takes on a human body. More than that it explores the horrible price of exploiting a human's body for few bucks. Anthony Quinn is terrific as Louis "Mountain" Rivera, who after 111 bouts has to subject his body to the freak show that is professional wrestling. Jackie Gleason, Mickey Rooney and Julie Harris are part of the stellar cast. From a teleplay by Rod Serling.

City for Conquest (1940). One of several boxing films that James Cagney made. In this film he takes to the ring to a support a brother who wants to be a concert pianist and conductor. The fight game takes a toll on his body too but his gorgeous girlfriend played by Ann Sheridan stays by his side. A touching story directed by Anatole Litvak. The pugnacious but nimble footed Cagney made for a terrific film boxer.

Ali (2001). Michael Mann's biopic of Muhammad Ali covering the years 1963-1974 stars Will Smith in the title role with a splendid supporting cast. For huge Ali fans such as yours truly there was great fear that Mann and Smith would not do our hero's story justice. But Smith was uncanny and Mann captured both the boxing and political drama. In retrospect it seems impossible that so current a story could possibly be a great film, but it was good enough.

Rocky (1976). Back before Rockys II III IV V VI VII VIII IX X XXXX etc. et al there was this the original Rocky and it was good. Certainly not worthy of its Best Picture Oscar but a fine film nonetheless. Sadly Stallone did not know how to leave well enough alone and went to make innumerable remakes each worse than the preceding one. But the genuine article was a powerful character study and unique concept at the time that's been run into the ground since. Rocky is a down and out fighter who's given a shot at the title and decides to, as the kids say, go for it. Some of the boxing scenes are a bit unrealistic but the overall effect adds to a fine story.

The Harder They Fall (1956). Probably most remembered as Humphrey Bogart's last film. The story is based on a real life Argentine boxer Primo Carnera who got to the top of heavyweight division through smoke and mirrors and oh by the way a little corruption. Bogie is the reporter who has to decide whether he should set the glass jawed fighter straight before he get his block knocked off. Rod Steiger is a revelation as the crooked fight promoter. The fight scenes are brutal and so is the storyline.

Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956). Another film from Robert Wise, this one a bio pic of boxer Rocky Graziano as portrayed by Paul Newman. Most directors would have turned the story of a criminal who manages to navigate the straight and narrow through boxing into pure corn pone mush. Not wise. Pun intended, Wise pulled no punches and does not sentimentalize his subject matter. It's the film that established Newman as a star.

City Lights (1931). Why the heck is this Charlie Chaplin silent here? I'll tell you why, it has the funniest boxing scene of all time. Indeed its some of the funniest stuff you'll ever see on screen. Chaplin's genius is on full display in the amazing choreography of the boxing sequences. Funny stuff in the pre and post fight locker room as well.

Gentleman Jim (1942). This is one of those films I like way more than I should. That said it has a lot going for it. Raoul Walsh directed and Errol Flynn star with his constant sidekick, Alan Hale on board as his dad. Flynn plays Jim Corbett a late 19th century boxer from San Fransisco who takes advantage of the new rules modernizing boxing to win the heavyweight title. He must conquer long time champ John L. Sullivan who is played by Ward Bond in a magnificent performance. A fun film that, especially with Flynn in the lead, is like a swashbuckling version of the boxing film.

Fat City (1972). John Huston directed and Stacy Keach stars in one of my candidates for the "Hall of Fame of Underrated Films". Keach plays Tully, a boxer on the downside of a so-so boxing career. He is juxtaposed with Ernie ( an impossibly young Jeff Bridges) a young fighter on the rise. Fat City is a raw film not saw much in its depiction of boxing but of the lower middle class life. There are no gussied up characters with remarkable wit and charm. They are very real people doing the best they can. Boxing can be seen as a metaphor here. If you've not seen Fat City, do yourself a favor and check it out. Thank me later.

27 July 2009

Stay Up in Heaven, Ed. Trust Me On This One.

Imagine if Edward R. Murrow returned alive and well to planet Earth today. Once he turned on a TV and watched what passes for news he'd perforce be sick and wishing himself dead again.

I became convinced of this after recently re-watching George Clooney's fine film about Murrow and his stand against Joseph McCarthy Good Night, and Good Luck (2005).

Murrow was the CBS newsman who gained notoriety and much respect for his World War II radio broadcasts from London during the Blitz. His claim to everlasting fame came in the 1950s with his bold TV news shows. Murrow epitomized the straight forward reporting, unafraid of controversy, that is the hallmark of great journalism. Murrow understood the need for objectivity but also understood that there were not two sides to every story.

One can only imagine Murrow's reaction to buffoons like Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and the national laughingstock that is Glenn Beck. These men are to journalism what axe murderers are to surgery. Every broadcast comes with an agenda. Actually, that would be fine if that agenda was to speak the truth and expose injustice. But theirs is strictly political. They are attacks dogs for an ideology, and most of what they bloviate about is in pursuit of the axes they wish to grind. They swing wild punches using dubious claims and invented "facts." Moreover they do not engage in discussions or the exchange of ideas but give airtime to guests who support their views or belittle, berate and shout down those who disagree. The disease they spread has reached over to the left. Keith Olbermann was a voice of sanity on cable TV whose commentaries a few years ago had been likened to Murrow's. But he has become an ideologue in love with his own voice and obsessed with fighting his counterparts on the right. Lost in this is any perspective on the day's events. Chris Matthews is no better.

Murrow would be appalled.

Yes, there are broadcast journalists who live up to the best ideals of the profession. They find and relate stories that are important to viewers and do so in sober and measured ways. But for the most part they are on PBS stations and get nowhere near the viewers that the blowhards do. Certainly none can be found on the major networks where news magazine shows are devoted to lurid murder cases usually involving well-do-do families or to high-end celebrity gossip.

Network news is hardly any better. Wasting time on athletes and entertainers and on giving both sides to all arguments. Yes, you're supposed to give both sides to reasonable disputes. But when polemics make up silly charges against an opponent it should be permissible to give some of these short shrift. When fringe groups or the deluded insist that religious dogma be given equal educational footing with scientific fact, they can be ignored along with the Flat Earth Society.

Good Night, and Good Luck does an excellent job of showing today's audiences what TV news used to be like. It was like it's supposed to be. Murrow was the face of many broadcasts but, you should excuse the cliche, it was a team effort. What the film makes clear is that Murrow was often the driving force and was certainly the visible manifestation of CBS efforts but he was one part of a dedicated crew of journalists.

David Strathairn got the role of a lifetime as Murrow and he made the most of it, capturing Murrow's inflections, mannerisms and posture. Clooney played director Fred Friendly, himself a hero. Robert Downey, Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels and Frank Langella as CBS president William Paley also featured. McCarthy is played by himself which is to say that he and many of the other "characters" of that historical period are revealed through archival footage. Not just a nice touch but a means of making the story seem all the more like a historical document.

It has been mistakenly asserted that Murrow attacked the red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy. In reality Murrow shone a light on him. This was what good investigators do. They report what is being done. To attack suggests doing battle by whatever means possible, including name-calling, wild accusations and innuendo. Murrow and company simply sought the truth of what McCarthy and his investigations into communism was doing to individuals and the country. McCarthy responded to a Murrow broadcast not by refuting the facts presented, but by attacking the messenger. This is a common tactic in political discourse made into an art form by the likes of Karl Rove. You will note how often conservatives of recent vintage, unable to respond to the message, try to kill the messenger.

Good Night, and Good Luck is particularly good at showing the pressures that Murrow and company worked under. These came not only from McCarthy but from network advertisers and the suits in the front office (ain't that always the way? Seems whatever line of work you're in, certainly true in education, good work can be undone or at least threatened by the bigwigs who worship at the altar of the dollar sign). That's one of the reasons that teamwork was so essential to the CBS team. Clooney does a wonderful job of revealing this. Relationships are critical to the film, none more so than the one between Murrow and Friendly. This is very much a buddy picture.

Bookending the film are Murrow's speech at a 1958 banquet (four years after the story depicted took place) in which he warns his audience of the wasted opportunity that television can become if used primarily for mindless entertainment. Talk about prophetic! Murrow would not have been surprised to see what a great wasteland that television has become (are you ever shocked, as I am, to have literally a hundred more channels than you did as a child and not be able to find anything on worth a tinker's damn?). He doubtless could have envisioned all the insultingly stupid shows that pass themselves off (successfully, I'm sad to say) as entertainment. Low brow would be a step up for most of the crap we're exposed to. But I think even he would be very much disappointed at the current state of what calls itself news.

One might think that with 24-hour news channels there would be vehicles to bring important, well-told stories to a populace hungry for the truth. Sadly, these stations find themselves filling hour after hour with the type of shouting emotional thugs earlier mentioned. Other air time is taken up with endless repetitions of celebrity news and speculations about stories that are just developing. And for pity's sake, how many helicopter shots of cars pulling into or out of driveways do we really need to air? Many think the problem is that the news divisions have been co-opted by the entertainment sections of stations. I would, however, posit that the bigger issue is that news divisions are run by complete morons. In the case of Fox News the whole damn network is out of whack. There is no pretense of providing objectivity. It's not just a matter of one broadcaster, or one show, its a whole network that is closely associated in the public's minds with one party and one philosophy. MSNBC risks doing the same thing in the other direction. We are lucky indeed to have Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central to lampoon TV news and shine some light on the truth in the bargain.

Where have you gone Edward R. Murrow, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you...

Actually skip it, Ed, you'd hate it down here today.

26 July 2009

That's the Same Dude as From That Other Movie? No Way!

Some actors are instantly recognizable every time you see them on screen. There's no disguising Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart or Robert DeNiro and that's okay. Many of their roles are playing similar characters and that's okay too. These are stars and we enjoy how each manifestation of their essential personification is developed in their films. And it is a mistake to claim that they were not good actors. Bogart, for instance, went beyond the usual tough guy he played in such films as The African Queen and Caine Mutiny.

Some film stars take on very different roles, that require lots of make up, weight changes, accents or elaborate costumes. But that's really just the window dressing. The real difference comes from within. Great actors assume different personas for different roles. They become their character and the results are transformative and exciting. Sometimes they are barely recognizable.

Below I've got an even eleven (really, you got a problem with the number 11?) actors who convincingly became two different people for two different films. The two performances must be within 20 years of one another so that the person aging isn't too much of a factor. No performances as children included and no performances in super intense make up (sorry Roddy McDowall in Planet of the Apes (1968)).

I'll be the first two admit two things: 1) It's possible to come up with dozens and dozens more actors and 2) In many cases the actors I cite are indeed physically recognizable from one role to the next. But in all cases they are different people beating no resemblance other than the man playing them.

(I guess I'm going to have to come up with a similar list for women now. A film blogger's work is never done.)

Ben Kingsley as Mohandas Gandhi in Gandhi (1982) and as Don Logan in Sexy Beast (2000). This list is not in order except for Kingsley who must come first. I defy anyone to come up with two more different characters portrayed by the same actor. One is the great pacifist leader of India the other a manic English gangster who's way tougher than nails. Sir Ben is one of our greatest living actors and all you have to do is watch these two movies back-to-back for irrefutable proof.

Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Milk (2008) and as David Kleinfeld in Carlito's Way (1993). As Milk, Penn was a middle aged gay man who was the first openly homosexual activist to be elected to public office in the United States. It was a performance that garnered him Oscar number two. Prior to that Penn had appeared as all variety of characters bearing no resemblance to Harvey Milk, none more different than a drug addicted, paranoid, young Jewish lawyer in Carlito's Way. With two Oscars to his credit Penn will no doubt go down in history as one of our greatest actors.

Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (2007) and as Juan Antonio Gonzalo in Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008). Any role is a departure from Anton Chigurh. There's never been anything quite like him and the debate as to what he represented will go on. Much of the fascination with the character is based on Bardem's Oscar winning performance. A year later Bardem appeared in VCB as a Spanish painter and prolific cocksman. His lovers included Penelope Cruz, Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall (sounds like one of my weekends). Bardem featured in my favorite films of both of the last two years and his contributions were inestimable to both -- and as two very different men.

Walter Huston as Howard in Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and as Sam Dodsworth in Dodsworth (1936). He was the quintessential old prospector in Sierra Madre. Wise in the ways of the hills and its occupants, both animal and mineral. Perhaps a little touched (check out his dance moves) but plenty savvy. As the title character in Dodsworth he was in another world. A retired automobile magnate who set off to tour Europe with his wife. Huston is wise here too but with altogether different sensibilities and life experience. Couldn't look a lot different either.

Paul Muni as Tony Camonte in Scarface (1932) and as Emile Zola in The Life of Emile Zola (1937). As Camonte, Muni was one of the forerunners of all film gangsters to follow, especially Italian-Americans. You might even say he was a bit over the top. But as the real life Zola he was the understated muckraking French writer of fin de siecle France. Muni had an abbreviated career -- partially by choice -- but made the most of the roles he did tackle.

Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter in It's A Wonderful Life (1946) and as Otto Kringelein in Grand Hotel (1932). They look alike but can't possibly be the same guy. One of them must be another member of the acting Barrymore family. Nope. Same guy. Potter is the meanest man in town and likely would be in most any town you dropped him in. Kringelein, meanwhile is as nice an old bloke as you'd want to meet. He's a bookkeeper who's as far from the wealthy Potter as you can get.

Dustin Hoffman as Ben Braddock in The Graduate (1967) and as Ratso in Midnight Cowboy (1969). So one year he makes his film debut as a recent and highly honored college graduate living and loving in Southern Calfiornia. Two years alter he's playing...hmmm, why not just say the polar opposite. Ratso is everything Ben is not. New Yorker, sickly, repulsive and a hustler. After these two roles Hoffman wasn't just a star but a recognized great actor. Still is.

Laurence Olivier as Marcus Licinius Crassus in Spartacus (1960) and Szell in Marathon Man (1976). Both were bad guys. But one was a slave holding Roman Dictator and the other was a former Nazi concentration camp doctor. Olivier looked and sounded quite different in both roles (remember, this is the guy who starred as a wealthy Brit in Rebecca (1940) ). Olivier's ability to assume varying roles bordered on magic.

Walter Brennan as Old Man Clanton in My Darling Clementine (1946) and Professor Novotny in Hangmen Also Die (1943). Brennan was one of the top five character actors of the the first half of the 20th century. Yes, he usually played comical second bananas in cowboy films. But he shone in those roles and everything else he took on. See him in Ford's My Darling Clementine as the oneriest Papa you'll ever meet. See him in Lang's Hangmen Also Die as a loving father and doctor in Nazi occupied Europe. You might check him out too as the drunkard in To Have and Have Not (1944).

Daniel Day Lewis as Christy Brown in My Left Foot (1989) and as Bill The Butcher in Gangs of New York (2002). Another possessor of two Oscars, the first as a man with Cerebral Palsy who paints using his left foot, the only limb he can control. He's in control of one helluva lot more in Gangs, where he is the ultimate sadistic gang leader. Day-Lewis doesn't take on many roles but the ones he does....

Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane (1941) and as Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil (1958). To begin with the two fellas couldn't look a whole lot different. One is a wealthy publisher and collector of most everything. The other is a corrupt border town cop who's as mean and ugly as a rattler. One of the world's most revered directors, Welles could act too. These films are but two examples.

25 July 2009

Give It To Me Straight Movie, What Are You About?

I went to the bank yesterday and the employees couldn't have been more polite. Or more facile. Like the local version of the grocery chain I frequent, corporate has evidently established the policy of obsequious deference to all customers.

I'm perfectly happy to be asked, how I'm doing and my opinion on the weather is available at all times. I will further accept your wishes for a nice day, wonderful weekend or staggeringly stupendous evening. But a dash of sincerity should tincture every salutation. Our local bus drivers are under no compulsion to be genial so if ever one manages a kind word I know it's from them and not command central. That many drivers are grumpy is swell by me. They're just regular folks doing their jobs and not putting on the Ritz in the process.

You should no longer have any doubts that I abhor phoniness.

I hate it in people and I hate in movies. Herein is a problem with modern movies that I've alluded to frequently. Too many movies are formulaic. The plots were developed out of Screenwriting 101 and possess all the artistic integrity of painting by the numbers. Indeed these type of films are not artistic endeavors but ways to put Diet Coke buying butts into cineplex seats. They're ultimately not really about anything, they are thus as insincere in intent as those servile bank tellers.

You can spot these movies coming down Broadway. They boast A List Hollywood stars, mass market product tie-ins and hip new soundtracks. Some are even too vacuous for mainstream film critics (except of course Rolling Stone's Peter Travers who LOVED IT!!!). Most manage to sell themselves to a few or even a consensus of critics. Make no mistake many are quite watchable, few stay with you. They are often re-makes, sequels or from James Cameron.

But enough of them. What makes a movie genuine? How does one spot a film that may actually have artistic merit? First of all you may want to navigate away from your local multiplexes or any theater that has a video game in the lobby. If you've got an independent theater in your neck of the woods you're in good shape. Revival houses, film archives and any place that shows independent, foreign or films from the 1970s and before are likely destinations.

Sadly your best bet may be DVD rentals and Turner Classic Movies. That's fine, but you miss the big screen experience.

The difference between these films and your corporate pre fab films is the difference between being taken on a guided tour to someplace you've already been and wandering the streets of a foreign city for the first time.

Example: I could have walked the plot points of the last Iron Man (2008) movie in my sleep. Robert Downey Jr. was delightful, the film was fun and I forgot it before I'd left the theater. Meanwhile, I Loved You for So Long (2008) was a journey to unknown places on a circuitous but fascinating route. This movie stayed with me.

There is a basic honesty in the film making of directors like the great William Wellman. Wild Boys of the Road (1933), Public Enemy (1931), and Heroes for Sale (1933) (photo above) . All capture the time in which they were made. They are about real people in dire, difficult or demanding circumstances. They are unflinching and effective. There is a rawness in the performances whether from James Cagney as a gangster or Frankie Daro as a Depression Era kid riding the rails.

Many films of the 1930, particularly of the pre production code era, emphasis characters and relationships over the flash and dash of today's Hollywood. In Baby Face (1933) Barbara Stanwyck sleeps her way to the top. She does not find true love as Julia Roberts or Jennifer Lopez would in a similar movie today. The film is too honest for cheap sentiment and love scenes played to that new hit single from today's most popular new recording artist.

In Three On a Match (1932) Ann Dvorak does not find redemptive love after "going bad", she sacrifices herself in a stunning act of bald face truth. Movies were not always made by focus groups. Nor to be fair are all films of today. See The Visitor (2007) from last year which had the very unsexy but very real Richard Jenkins in the lead. The movie didn't do boffo box office in large part because Americans have become addicted to junk food and junk movies. The Visitor told the totally unexpected story of a middle aged man's unexpected journey of self discovery through a couple of illegal immigrants. He also meets an attractive woman who would be perfect for him. They do not have sex to the strains of the latest hit by American Idol runner up Joe Hot Star.

Movies that do the expected and obvious are lying to us. They are pretending life is something that it isn't. We do not live in a world with soundtracks, perfectly timed rescues, bitter enemies that we vanquish, perfect loves that we realize despite all obstacles. I do not minimize the need for movies to sometimes provide a distraction from the day's cares. But a movie can provide loud laughs and still explore relationships in an honest way like Superbad (2007). A movie can provide thrills and chills and still be original, like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). A movie can explore true love and not revert to schmaltz ala Brokeback Mountain (2005).

I'd like bank and store employees to continue to be polite. But if they're going to go beyond that and express some sort of interest in my welfare, I'm not really interested. Because they're not really interested. I'd like movies to extend the same courtesy. Be real. Give it to me straight, don't sugar coat. I can handle it. Honest.

23 July 2009

Movies are Like Dating In That they Don't Always Work Out

The question: "why didn't you like that movie?" is sometimes analogous to: "why don't you want to go out with her again?" After all a movie is like a first date. The film is trying to impress you. If you have a good first date you'll see her again and if your really like a movie you'll see it again.

Back in my younger days (when dinosaurs roamed the Earth) I had a fair amount of dates. Sometimes with perfectly lovely, intelligent, charming women. But there was no connection and thus no second date. Similarly I see many movies that are lovely to look at and are perfectly wonderful in many respects. But we just don't click.

I finally saw Beau Geste (1939) on TCM the other day directed by one of my favorites William Wellman. It had Gary Cooper and Ray Milland and Robert Preston and lots of thrills, adventures, heroism and I didn't much like it. TCM host Robert Osborne had given it the big sell. But there was just no chemistry between the film and I. Look, I'm under no obligation to tell you why, we just didn't hit it off. I'm not in the habit of parsing a movie I don't like it. Move on and see another. Sort of like dating, only with a movie you don't have to worry about hurt feelings.

When I posted part eight of my favorite directors series on Billy Wilder, some readers were surprised that Sabrina (1954) did not make the top ten. It's a perfectly wonderful movie with the pulchritudinous Audrey Hepburn along with two of my favorite actors, William Holden and Humphrey Bogart. That's one helluva cast and the movie is a delight that I've enjoyed several times. But I'm not in love with it. Sue me.

You want to tell me how great Sabrina is? Go ahead, I won't argue with you. But I won't agree with you either.

At the risk of being obvious, we are all different so art strikes us in different ways. People look at the same damn painting, hear the same music or watch the same movie and because they bring their very own perspective and life experience and taste to it, have completely different reactions.

Does this render all criticism moot? Absolutely not. In the case of film a review, reading a review, whether positive or negative, that you agree with can help you understand and articulate your view of the movie. Whereas before all you could say about a film was "Wow! That was great!" or "Oh my God, that totally sucked!" now you can better understand your feelings, get to why you loved/hated it.

Reviews can also help steer you away from or towards a particular film. With the proliferation of reviews all over the internet, one can easily get a consensus of critical opinion, especially if there is close to near unanimity about a film. Of course you can go to the most highly praised film of the century and think it's trash. More likely, as in my case with Slumdog Millionaire (2008), you'll wonder what all the fuss was about. I thought it an okay film but it didn't do anything special for me. (I've gotten a lot of flack for not loving it "like everybody else." So  it goes. 

Sometimes people expect a justification for why you didn't like a film. In some ways it's like asking why you're not going to see that young lady again -- but she's beautiful, how come you didn't like her? Maybe the film looked and sounded great, but we just didn't hit it off. In fact it was like that Prom queen with the gorgeous smile and great body, I need something more.

There are, of course, even really "smart' movies that don't appeal to me. A few years ago noted film critic and historian David Thomson, a man I much admire, introduced Jean-Luc Goddard's Pierrot le fou (1965) at the Pacific Film Archives, singing its praises most emphatically. I absolutely hated it. Such pretentious garbage I'd never seen before. I had a moment of thinking that this was something I should like, must have gone over my head. It was only a moment. I recovered quickly and realized that this was like a terrible first date of two people with nothing in common. Actually Pierrot le fou was like going out with the most obnoxious self absorbed person I'd ever met.

If that first date is particularly offensive or rude it may be worth mentioning to other people. Same with a film. If it displays what a critic considers bad taste or is insulting that needs to be made clear. So sure if I just don't connect with a film it's not worth mentioning, but if it has racist stereotypes or is exploitive, I'd be obliged to call it out.

When people I love or respect don't like one of my favorite films, I can feel stunned, hurt, saddened even angry. What's wrong with them? I, of course, recover and practice acceptance of those things I cannot change.

Of course, films, are quite unlike relationships in that we can love many of them at the same time. I've got DVDs of many of my favorite films snugly sharing space on a bookcase. (To the best of my knowledge they are not jealous of one another.) I can have repeat dates with them over and over. I can "have" a different one each night. So many to choose from all waiting for me.

Just like the dating fantasies of my youth!

21 July 2009

Young Mr. Lincoln, How Ford (and Fonda) Met the Challenge

I watched Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) yesterday and I could only wonder what type of film it wold have been for a viewer who'd never heard of Abraham Lincoln.

Of course you're not likely to find such a person in the United States whose old enough and sane enough to appreciate a movie.

There are plenty of films based on actual events and/or people that some people watch ignorant of those actual events or real people. I sheepishly confess to not having known a thing about James Whale before seeing Gods and Monsters (1998). An argument over whether it is preferable to know a little, a lot or nothing about events and people in films can make for an interesting parlor game. The short answer is that it depends on the subject matter. It may be a topic worth exploring in the future.

But when the topic is Lincoln, there's no use kidding ourselves. Audiences know at the least the outlines of his story and have generally formed an opinion on him and usually its quite favorable.

So the challenge for the great director John Ford in making a film about someone of Lincoln's pre presidential years was impressive. Although based on what I know of Ford he wouldn't have viewed it as anything special. He certainly would not have allowed publicly that it was a daunting task.

The risk in telling a story about so iconic an American figure is not to pile on to the mythologizing. He is perhaps America's most revered historical figure. More so than either Washington or Jefferson, both of whom are forever tainted to many because of their ownership of slaves. Lincoln of course was The Great Emancipator. (I'd already read and heard enough about Lincoln by the time I was about six or seven that once in bed with the lights out I feared that his ghost, stovepipe hat and all, lurked in my closet.)

Ford talked Henry Fonda into taking the role. Fonda was reluctant, quite rightly arguing that it was akin to playing God himself. As it turned out he was right to take the role and probably could have played God too, if he'd a mind too. He was a much better Lincoln than Raymond Massey who played him in Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940). Massey was good but he was acting, Fonda became Lincoln. (Some Lincoln scholars have noted that, based on contemporary reports, Lincoln's voice was much closer to Fonda's than Massey's).

Okay so how do I justify writing, and with italics no less, that Fonda became Lincoln? First of all while I'm no spring chicken I am not old enough to have met Honest Abe. But when you've read as much as I have about Lincoln (you can't do much better than Doris Kearns Goodwins, Team of Rivals) I believe you've earned some license in intuiting what a person was like. But really to be raised in this country is to be immersed in Lincoln and have a sense of him so I suppose we're all allowed. In any event, Fonda got the manner, the posture and darn near anything else related to Lincoln you can think of.

So that's a good start. But it was still up to Ford to ensure that the movie did not do either of two things: 1) Conflict with the zeitgeist of Lincoln; or 2) Be mawkish and overly sentimentalized.

Young Mr. Lincoln follows Abe in his early days as a Springfield lawyer. Culminating in his successful defense of accused murderers. Events have been embellished, altered, even outright made up. But that's okay because this film is about a man. At the very least the spirit of the man. Ford knew that the best way to present a character, particularly one so famous, was to focus on events and supporting players. He had audiences looking at the man in contrast to what and who swirled around him.

Yes, there are camera shots and set pieces that emphasize Lincoln's stature, but he was clearly a man of presence so that was appropriate. Plus it is part of Ford's film-making style.

Ford and Fonda's Lincoln is a witty, humble, down home charmer. He is a contemplative man. But he also cheats at tug-of-war and is an indecisive pie contest judge and a terrible dancer. He's Lincoln not God.

Best of all he's not long-winded. Ford never liked giving his stars too many lines. This belief was a positive boon in telling a story about Lincoln. Many directors wouldn't have been unable to resist having the great orator prattle on. Ford let other characters talk and have screen time. This helped make Lincoln stand out when he acted and spoke.

So we watch a film about Lincoln, knowing what we do and nothing can change that. We're really not going to learn many new "facts" or "information" about the man, at least not in this film. Lincoln the myth will remain in tact, indeed it will be affirmed. Young Mr. Lincoln is a comforting movie in that respect. But perhaps more importantly we are entertained. The film sure looks like the Midwest America in the 1830s. Fonda sure looks and acts like we think Lincoln did. We get an engaging story told by a masterful director.

I can't think of anything else you'd want.

20 July 2009

I'm Not Quite Done With Directors Yet, This Time I Look at Directors as Characters

I've been a lot about my favorite directors recently and and I'm not ready to let go of the topic. I now proudly present directors as characters in films. These six movies give varying degrees of insight into the film-making process but all are excellent films. I give each a hearty recommendation.

Johnny Depp as Ed Wood in Ed Wood (1994). Ladies and gentleman the world's worst director of all time Mr. Ed Wood. Here is the incredibly true story of Ed Wood who made such classic bombs as Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). This bit of dialogue says it all:

Edward D. Wood, Jr.: And cut! Print. We're moving on. That was perfect. Ed Reynolds: Perfect? Mr. Wood, do you know anything about the art of film production? Edward D. Wood, Jr.: Well, I like to think so. Ed Reynolds: That cardboard headstone tipped over. This graveyard is obviously phony. Edward D. Wood, Jr.: Nobody will ever notice that. Filmmaking is not about the tiny details. It's about the big picture. Ed Reynolds: The big picture? Edward D. Wood, Jr.: Yes. Ed Reynolds: Then how 'bout when the policemen arrived in daylight, but now it's suddenly night? Edward D. Wood, Jr.: What do you know? Haven't you heard of suspension of disbelief?
And, oh by the way, Wood is a cross dresser and his life is full of romantic complications (not that the two are mutually exclusive.) Tim Burton directed and an excellent supporting cast includes Martin Landau who won an Oscar for his portrayal of an aging Bela Lugosi.
Francois Truffaut as Director Ferrand in Day For Night (1973). Truffaut directed himself playing a director. I actually think it's more confusing than it sounds but that's just me. Anyway the great French director pulled it off on this story of the complexities faced on a a film shoot, especially when off set relationships interfere.
Marcello Mastroianni as Guido Anselmi in 8 1/2 (1963). Guido is a famous director who is in need of inspiration for his next picture. He is harried wherever he goes by wife, mistress, friends and memories. This beautiful film is clearly semi autobiographical. Just as its protagonist finds what he's looking for through dreams 8 1/2 is itself clearly the stuff of dreams. As esteemed as 8 1/2 is, Mastroianni's performance is actually under appreciated.
Woody Allen as Sandy Bates in Stardust Memories (1980). Many critics savaged this film in large part because Allen used it to lampoon critics and audiences. This only proves that many critics are big cry babies. Stardust Memories is classic Allen. Sandy Bates is a not at all thinly veiled version of Allen himself. Beleaguered by fans, obligations, lovers, past and present, and the vagaries of being a famous artist in a celebrity obsessed culture. This is, depending on how you look at it, somewhat of spoof or homage to, 8 1/2.
Joel McCrea as John Sullivan in Sullivan's Travels (1941). Sully is a successful director, mostly of light comedies and musicals but he wants to do more. Sully yearns to tell the story of the down and out. He further decides the only way to do so is by living among the poor. See my recent post on this great film for more.
Steve Martin as Bobby Bowfinger in Bowfinger (1999). Bowfinger is a director given one last chance to come up with a hit. The star that he wants for the film won't do the picture but there's no stopping our determined director who films him anyway. Martin is terrific in the title role as is Eddie Murphy in two roles including that of the reluctant star. A high-larious film.

17 July 2009

The Art of Fellini's Amarcord

There is an implicit trust in audiences evident in Federico Fellini's Amarcord (1973). The director believes in his audience. The great Italian film maker did not give in to formulas or focus groups or trends. Fellini was an original storyteller.

Many present day American films are finely polished and meticulously made. Their stars are beautiful, the characters they portray are smart, witty and sexy. The stories feature well honed dialogue replete with wit and subtle inoffensive social commentary. The special effects are flawless and the cinematography lush. These films are precisely edited helping the stories sail by while clocking in at around one hour and forty minutes. The musical scores are loud but perfectly accompany the story, often including a memorable song from a popular recording artist. The locations are either romantic international locales or finely air brushed big bustling American cities that look exiting and vibrant.

These movies are thrilling and entertaining and instantly forgettable the moment the credits roll. They're remembered again when the DVD, replete with extras, is available on Amazon.
The directors are gentlemen like Ron Howard, Michael Bey, Tony Scott, or Paul Greengrass. Their films are slick and cool and as nutritious as cotton candy.

Amracord is the polar opposite of this type of assembly line product. It is a work of art as opposed to a product. It is the result of a director's passion to tell stories with imagination and verve.

The story takes place over the course of one full year in the late 1930s in the Italian sea side town of Rimini. While Amarcord focuses on one family in particular it is more about Rimini, which is to say it is about the residents. Several characters act as narrators, sometimes speaking directly into the camera. One even tells us when the film is over. Characters do not walk purposefully, they glide, they amble, they dance, they appear. One scene is the re-telling of a story and the character are highly mannered, they even start the scene frozen into position, not by the camera freezing, but by them holding a pose.

Fellini's camera work foretells what Martin Scorsese would later do in Goodfellas. Long wonderful tracking shots help evoke the kaleidoscope of a town's people and the events that shape their lives. These events can include anything from a peacock landing in the town square during a rare snow storm or a fascist rally or celebration of Spring's arrival.

The film's characters are, well, characters and quite eccentric ones at that. They're at once broad and as real as if this were a documentary. They are certainly not the archetypes or stereotypes of modern mainstream cinema. Some are bulldog ugly and gap toothed. Others are skinny as beanpoles some or as fat as houses and still others are impossibly old and leather faced. But not a one of them is repulsive or unpleasant. For they are all unique and true to themselves. The town's beauty is a perfectly handsome woman of about 40. She'd be too old, too short and not stunning enough for today's Hollywood. But I'd take her over Julia Roberts or Kate Hudson any day of the week.

The goings on about town are at once of the everyday variety and wildly improbable. (Trust me if you see the movie the sentence makes perfect sense.) A family takes their mentally ill relation out of the institution for a monthly outing and he climbs up a tree demanding a woman while throwing rocks at anyone who attempt to climb up to get him. This same family's teenage son gets himself into the tobacconist's shop after hours. The proprietor has humongous breasts and after arousing this ample woman by lifting her, he's veritably smothered by her breasts. The whole town sails out in all manner of watercraft for a midnight rendezvous with a passing luxury liner. It is several stories high, lit up like a Christmas tree and a sight to behold.

Amarcord is full of magic. The magic of everyday life. The magic that is there to those who look for it, who stop and sway to the music and wait for it to come. Fellini could find that magic without reverting to high speed chases, jewel heists or global conspiracies. Hell, he could find it all in one village. In Amarcord there is tragedy, there is romance, there is laughter and there is a wedding. There is everything. The film lasts a little over two hours. When it ends one wishes this were only the intermission. Another two hours would do nicely.

Amarcord does not fade quickly from memory. It is too visually compelling to be forgotten. The characters, the stories the wholeness of it resonates. It is not pretty and glossy and hip. No, it's so much more than that. It's art.

16 July 2009

It's Called Putting in Your Two Cents Because Two Cents is All its Worth

Everyone is entitled to an opinion on any subject. Sadly, too many people feel the need to share those opinions. Whether through call-in radio shows, internet message boards, letters to newspapers, or blogs, people today are not shy about telling you what they think.

The trouble with this is that many people treat all opinions as equal. Individuals who spend their days working in factories and come home to watch Fox news after listening to Rush Limbaugh on their car radios enter our public discourse on the most complex of legal, political or foreign policy issues. To deny them a voice would be a subversion of democracy. We are all equal.

We don't especially esteem education or the educated in our culture. The knowledgeable are brushed with the taint of elitism. Joe the Plumber is given a forum on television and has authored a book. In other words, people want to know what this man thinks. Why? Because he's famous. (Paris Hilton is famous too but no one asks her to comment on appropriate troop levels in Iraq.) More people have listened to his views about the economy than they have a Nobel Prize winning economist. Fact.

So it goes with art. You like the paintings of Monet better than the charcoal sketch of a buffalo my Aunt Minnie did? Yeah well that's just your opinion, buddy! You really think that Hemingway's writing is more insightful than Glenn Beck's? Yeah, well that's just your opinion, buddy. And you really think The Seventh Seal is a better film than the latest Transformers flick?* Now you're kidding.

There's also little room for discussion. You're either with us or against us. Black and white. People don't share insights or perspectives. They draw lines in the sand. They establish totally inflexible positions and hurl invective at "the other side." Watch political talk shows. Many are shoutfests. Bill O'Reilly doesn't engage guests in discussion, he tries to tear them down.

Wild generalities and mindless supposition are stated as fact. Barack Obama is going to cancel future elections. Young people will be sent to re-education camps. The U.S. is heading towards socialism (as a socialist myself all I can say to that is, I wish). And although the right is especially guilty of such paranoid ravings they hold no monopoly on insane ravings. The left also has seen conspiracies everywhere and Armageddon just round the bend.

Nationally known film critics are bombarded with hateful messages and attacks when they pan hit films. The films devotees react with vitriol. They don't just disagree with the review, they lambaste the messenger. Too frequently people are their views. Thus to take an opposing position is to be against not just the movie but them. You're either with us or against us. We are entrenched. Within our fortress is the computer that provides the internet that, when needed, provides anonymity. Much time is spent among like minded souls reaffirming our views and getting new ammo. On other occasions we go out on raids, leaving angry attacks on websites or dashing off nasty emails.

We treat everything as if its the week of the big game. Our opinions are neither nuanced nor open to discussion. They are part of our uniform, the colors we wear with fierce pride. People who hold views dissimilar to our own are not different, they are the enemy. Subtlety and negotiation have given way to unquestioning loyalty.

Some facts are treated as opinion while some opinions are treated as fact. Suddenly evolution is a theory (why not the theory of gravity?) while creationism is treated as a perfectly viable alternative to this "theory."

How prescient Stephen Colbert was in inventing the term "truthiness."

I would encourage everyone to have as many opinions as they like on all manner of topics. I would also advise discretion in sharing those views, particularly if one is not well versed in the subject matter. Perhaps more importantly one should be willing to hear opposing views and more important than that people should be willing to not hear certain opinions. Sometimes you've got to recognize where the opinion is coming from and be ready to dismiss it as poppycock. Certainly one should want to hear the views of the opposition party, but when they are being presented by a plumber or a three year old there's no reason to pay attention.

I often am asked for my opinions on films both past and current. Some folks have developed the impression that I have a bit more than a layman's knowledge of cinema and I'm not one to contradict such notions. A few times these questions have been traps because the questioner has seen the film they're asking about. When I state an opinion different from their own they pounce. If I share their general feeling about the movie they'll then look for different reasons we liked the same film. That's fine and can make for a lively discussion but too often the person just wants an argument. I hate manufactured arguments because they're not designed to reach understanding but as an exercise in and of itself. To me arguing for the sake of it is like doing a physical exercise that has no health benefits. Why sweat and strain for nothing?

I'm always glad when people want to share their opinions on a film or director or actor. I love the notion of it --sharing. Of course that presupposes that they want to hear my view. I saw a film once and was I was leaving the theater an acquaintance came up and asked what I thought of the movie. Before I could say a word he had launched into a lengthy review of the film, then bid me good day before I'd uttered a sound. Share and share alike. It's critical not to set out to change the other person's opinion. Better to try to expose a person to how you saw the film and why you liked or didn't like it and to hear the same from them. Maybe you'll get new insight and help someone else do the same. But it shouldn't be a struggle. Think of it as more of a I'll show you mine if you show me yours.

I've never quite figured out how to deal with someone whose views on film are, to be it charitably ludicrous. If, as has happened, someone takes issue with my love for No Country For Old Men and particularly its ending, that's fine. A person who prefers Peter Jackson's version of King Kong over the original is not someone I'm likely to have a whole lot in common with regarding cinema, but not someone who I would perforce dismiss. But what of someone who considers the Rambo films classic American cinema and derides The Godfather? Are we still dealing in the realm of opinion? Is all art a matter of taste? Are there no standards? If a person likes Tiny Tim more than Sinatra or finds Tom Clancy superior to John Steinbeck, is this opinion? In art, when do we move away from opinion and into, this person is a frigging idiot?

Can there be, should there be norms? For goodness sakes what if someone says cod liver oil tastes better than strawberries? I suppose we have some unwritten standards. Louis Armstrong, not to everyone's liking (he is to mine) is a great musician. To say otherwise is silly. Michael Jordan was a great basketball player, maybe the greatest and if you don't think so, maybe you've never seen the game. John Ford a great director and if you disagree how to account for the admiration he earned from so many fellow directors? Anti semitism, slavery, denying the women the vote are all terribly wrong. Homophobia will fall next.

There are some generally agreed upon truths. There is much room for opinion on innumerable topics but let's listen to one another carefully before hardening our position. Hey, that's just my opinion.

* Fun fact. On IMDb, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen which was released less than a month ago has received 50,787 user rating votes, including 10,373 perfect tens. The Seventh Seal, released many years before IMDb came into being has received 31,043 votes, of which 12,065 are tens. I am at least happy to report that The Seventh Seal's average rating is an 8.4 and the Transformers latest is a full two points lower at 6.4.

15 July 2009

O Muse Where Art Thou?

Haven't written much recently owing to a case of writer's block the size of Mount Rushmore.

Shame too, I had a lot to say about obsession in films focusing on Jake Gyllenhaal's character in Zodiac (2007). I was also going to pontificate about John Ford's Fort Apache (1948) paying particular attention to the Lt. Col. Thursday as portrayed by Henry Fonda. Had one post about the way people to respond -- that is, overreact -- to criticism of film's they like. Lot about that recently on the blog of preeminent critic  Roger Ebert.

Every time I'd start a new post I would positively sail along for a good sentence or two then grind to complete halt. It seems my muse went on vacation and didn't bother to let me know. There are numerous out of work muses who could have substituted, not to mention those muses who have only recently graduated from muse university.

I may yet address those topics above mentioned and others that my brain thought were capital ideas but I couldn't find words for. Such was not a problem in June when I posted on this here blog just about everyday. Admittedly this was with mixed results but sometimes a blogger feels just swell just tossing anything out into cyberspace hoping someone will derive meaning or a chuckle from it.

One of the problems I've had with writing is that I just finished re-reading F Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night. Trying to pen anything after reading that makes one feels a hack, at best. It's akin to listening to Sinatra then trying to sing "I've Got You Under My Skin." I'd preceded Fitzgerald with Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises, if you must know) so I've been building up to a serious case of writing inferiority. It won't help that I've just started American Pastoral by Philip Roth. Perhaps my writing would improve if I spent hours reading textbooks. Maybe not, but at least my ego would flower.

Thankfully I don't try to make films so I can watch all the best of them with no ill effect. However sometimes I'll be so enraptured by a film that it'll be a while before I can commit to the next. It's pretty much a guarantee if that if I watch something like Grand illusion (1937) in the afternoon, it'll mean no film that evening. (Say, has anyone developed the idea that I watch a lot of films from reading this post or previous ones? True story: I do. No apologies for that. Tonight I'm going to the Pacific Film Archives here in Berkeley to see Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) on the big screen. Jealous? Thought so.)

With any luck this little exercise in self analysis, while having bored you silly, will kick me back into gear. Then I can resume entertaining, delighting, inspiring and engaging if not any readers, at least myself. Who knows I may even re-tackle topics like Fort Apache, Zodiac or my quest to eliminate the stupid designated hitter rule from baseball.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a prospective muse to interview....

(By the way the picture above is of Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. discussing my blog and speculating as to why I haven't written so much recently.)

13 July 2009

Citizen Kane II - The Revenge of Rosebud And Other Reasons To Be Glad Sequels Were Less Common in the 30s and 40s

As even the most causal films fans are aware there is nothing more certain in this world than death, taxes and sequels to hit movies. On rare occasions a sequel will be nearly as good as the original. Even more rarely a sequel will be the equal to the first. And once in a very blue moon the sequel will even surpass its predecessor. Generally speaking however, sequels stink, stank and stunk, especially when the story in the original needed no follow up.

Of course some sequels are natural (see Godfather Part 2) and others appropriate as in the Raiders of the Lost Ark series. Still they rarely capture what was special about the parent film. Usually they are lazy ways for producers to cash in on a hit film by luring audiences into a cheap imitation.

It wasn't always this way. Yes, there were some sequels in days of yore such as The Thin Man series, but this was the exception. What if, however, today's cinema bigwigs had been running the show 75 years ago? Can you imagine the tripe audiences would have been exposed to? Never mind, I've done your imagining for you. Here are ten possible sequels that could have been made during Hollywood's Golden Age. Thank God they weren't.

Casablanca II - - Rick and Louie on the Run. The two members of the that "beautiful friendship" operate cafes throughout Nazi occupied territories and they're always on the lookout for sexy resistance members (married or single, makes no difference to the boys) to help escape. Will the Germans finally catch on or can our two heroes continue to outwit them?

Arsenic and Old Lace II -- The Ladies on the Loose! The Brewster spinsters are out of the funny farm and are hosting arsenic laded teas for elderly gents again. You'll roar with laughter at the madcap antics of their nephew Mortimer to foil their shennigans. Meanwhile Mortimer's whacky homicidal brother escapes prison and adds to the merriment.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington II -- Smith's Revenge. Not satisfied with vindication and a seat in the U.S. Senate, Jefferson Smith wants revenge against those who plotted against him and lied about him. Armed to the teeth with the latest in sophisticated weaponry, Smith goes on a bloody revenge to settle scores.

Duck Soup II - - Freedonia's Blitzkrieg. Emboldened by their victory over Slyvannia, self proclaimed dictator Rufus T. Firefly finds other nations whose ambassadors have called him an upstart. Pinky, Chicolini and Mrs. Teasdale lead Freedonia's brutally efficient armed forces to a series of devastating victories. Can Freedonia be stopped?

Grapes of Wrath II -- The Joads Strike it Rich. When we last left our favorite Okies their prospects were dim, but their luck quickly changes with a fortuitous discovery of gold by Pa Joad. Tom's back in the fold and there's no more battles with the law. But when love comes a calling the Joads find that all that glitters isn't gold.

Angels With Dirty Faces II -- The Angels Clean Up. With their hero dead and apparently having gone to the electric chair a coward, the boys turn over a new leaf and dedicate their time to performing good deeds. But what happens when school and homework interfere with their charitable work?

It's A Wonderful Life II - - Old Man Potter Strikes Back. George Bailey appeared to be the richest man in town by virtue of all the friends he had. But mean old Mr. Potter is fighting back. He's turned over a new leaf and is now the nicest man in Bedford Falls. Can the new Mr. Potter woo more friends than George?

Bringing Up Baby II -- Baby Has Babies. Everyone's favorite leopard, Baby, has had babies of her own. You'll roar with laughter at Baby's owners, Susan and David as they try to cope with the kittens, especially when some old dinosaur bones go missing!

The Big Sleep II -- Everyone Wakes Up. Life seems grand for Philip Marlowe and his new bride Vivian. They're retired on her riches when suddenly all the murder victims from the original feature appear as ghosts and haunt them! The accent is on horror on this time.

Ninocthtka II - Love on the Run. Ninotchka and the count are together again and for good but their troubles aren't over. Soviet assassins have exacted terrible revenge on Iranoff, Bujanoff and Kopalski and the two lovers are next on their list.

09 July 2009

You Know You Really Like A Director If... (Part Eight)

Yes it's true, proof positive that you really like a director is the fact that you can create a list of ten films of his that you really like. I have proved this in the past with lists of top ten films from: Woody Allen, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, William Wellman, Martin Scorsese, Howard Hawks and Frank Capra. This week's honoree is Billy Wilder.

When various actors for the same director keep getting nominated for Oscars or are otherwise recognized for their work it ain't no coincidence. The likes of Wiliam Holden, Jack Lemmon, Ray Milland, Gloria Swanson, Shirley MacClaine and even character actors like Robert Strauss were honored for work in Wilder films. Surely much credit must go to Wilder the writer who provided or tinkered with the screenplays for most of Wilder the director's films. Indeed Wilder started as a screenwriter with such classics as Ninothcka and Ball of Fire to his credit.

The relationship with Ninothcka's director is significant. The man was Ernest Lubitcsh who was Wilder's idol. Both came to the U.S. via Germany. Wilder was one of Adolph Hitler's unintentional gifts to Hollywood. When Der Fuhrer came to power a veritable who's who of German cinema hightailed out of the the Fatherland. Wilder may have been the greatest among them.

Though many of his films were comedies and many others were cynical (and some both) Wilder directed a wide variety of film. He made films dealing with Alcoholism, World War II, romance, newspapers, Sherlock Holmes, murder plots, courtroom drama and however you'd classify Sunset Boulevard.

Wilder was a daring director. While avoiding elaborate camera work or sets, he focused on subject matter that pushed the boundaries of what Hollywood would allow and he maintained his focus on character and plot. The results were some of the best films of his era and any other era for that matter. I believe the list bellow will illustrate this point.

1. Sunset Boulevard (1950). My fourth favorite all time American film, which is my way of saying I think it's a masterpiece. Not like any film made before or even since.

2. The Lost Weekend (1945). Take it from one who knows, Ray Milland's portrayal of the alcoholic Don Birnahm is spot on. Wilder and Milland created a compelling look at the depths to which a drunkard can and will sink.

3. Some Like it Hot (1959). One of the greatest comedies of all time. Marylin Monroe jiggles and giggles, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in drag are fast talking and funny. Surely you've seen it.

4. Double Indemnity (1944). Barbara Stanwyck, silly wig and all, is sexy and evil. Fred MacMurray is a slick talking sap but Edward G. Robinson steals the picture. Film noir at its absolute best, indeed a highly influential film in the genre.

5. The Major and the Minor (1942). The premise is ridiculous. Ginger Rogers could no more have passed for a 12 year old girl than I could, but that does little to diminish the laughs which are plentiful in Wilder's directorial debut. He wanted to start with a sure fire hit and he did.

6. Stalag 17 (1953). William Holden won the Best Actor Oscar for his brilliant portrayal of a cynical wheeler dealer who's suspected of being a Nazi plant. The setting is a German POW camp during World War II and the drama is deep but cut nicely by moments of humor.

7. Witness For the Prosecution (1957). An interesting twist on the usual stuff of courtroom dramas what with Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich heading the cast. Has the requisite plot twist at the end but mostly enjoyable for the performances.

8. The Apartment (1960). That it was overly lavished at the Oscars reflects on the quality of what Hollywood was producing back then and in no way detracts from what a fine film this is. Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacClaine couldn't be more watchable, which makes the film worthy of repeat viewings.

9. Fortune Cookie (1966). Walter Matthua and Lemon together for the first time and what a winning note they started on. Matthau is positively brilliant as the prototypical shyster lawyer and Lemon does a whole lot more with an rather ordinary part than most anyone else would or could have.

10. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). I know you can't believe this made my top ten but I really love this irreverent look at the legend of the great detective. He's a druggie and his sexuality is subject to debate. Wilder wisely cast unknowns as Holmes and Watson (they remain so today) and created an oddly effective film, never mind the somewhat silly case they're on.