31 December 2009

My Annual Top Ten List

My 2009 Top Ten Films

9. Sugar
Honorable Mention: Somers Town, Paris, Adventureland, An Education,

Best Actor: Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart). Runners Up: Ben Foster (The Messenger), Colin Firth (A Single Man), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (500 Days of Summer).
Best Actress: Gabourey Sidibe (Precious), Runners Up: Carey Mulligan (An Education), Juliette Binoche (Paris), Nina Hoss (Woman in Berlin).
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds). Runners Up: Christian McKay (Orson Welles and Me), Woody Harrelson (The Messenger), Alfred Molina (An Education).
Best Supporting Actress: Melanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds). Runners Up: Mo’Nique (Precious), Kristen Stewart (Adventureland), Mariah Carey (Precious).

27 December 2009

Single Men: A Look at Three Men of Film, Unmarried and Unattached (Damn it!)

I've recently seen three films that feature single (unmarried and unattached) adult males. All in very different circumstances coping with degrees of pain, angst and frustration. The films are A Single Man, The Bishop's Wife (1947) and 500 Days of Summer. I saw them in a theater, on TV and on DVD, respectively. Here's an examination of each of these men and their circumstances.

A Single Man. Colin Firth is George. He has been mourning the death of his "domestic partner" for eight months when we are introduced to him. The year is 1962. Because George's lover, Jim, was also a man and this is well before most gay men had so much as a toe out of the closet, he is very isolated in his grief. In fact, he was not welcome at Jim's funeral -- family only. George has a nearby friend, Charley (Julianne Moore) with whom he had a brief fling many years ago. She is very much alone, except for George's now exclusively chaste visits, and an ever present alcoholic beverage. Her company can in no way fill the void left by Jim's death in an auto accident. George and Jim were together for 15 blissful years. George is meticulously planning his own suicide. We wonder if the prospect of a relationship with a student (George is a college professor) will alter his plans. George is the very embodiment of the single man. The kind who used to be very much part of a couple. There is no solitude to compare with that suffered who has permanently lost a love. A relationship terminated so suddenly and cruelly causes wounds so deep that time will not heal them. We watch a man trying to just go through the motions, but life, as it does, keeps intervening. How hard is to to "just go about our business" to make our plans to execute them. How hard to wallow in our sorrow when the truth is that no man is an island. Firth wears the weight of his character's sorrow so deeply that he seems to be submerged, swallowed by an ocean of emotional pain. The pain is only greater because of the necessity of keeping that love private from an intolerant world.

The Bishop's Wife. How cool would life be as an angel? Talk about having a super powers! You can save baby's from oncoming traffic, provide an old writer with a magic elixir disguised a sherry and skate like an Olympian. No, you're not a crime fighter but just as important you're a problem solver and a do gooder. If you're handsome, witty and sophisticated like, oh say, Cary Grant...well, what could be better? Hmm, how about being human? You'd think that Dudley, the angel in The Bishop's Wife so charmingly portrayed by Cary Grant would be as happy a being as you'd ever met. And in fact to all outward appearances he is. Unflappable. Nattily dressed. As warm and inviting, as wise and kind as you please. But folks, he's miserable. Like many a non human he wishes nothing more to be one of us. Why on Earth (no pun intended) would anyone want to be human? The minuses include: No magical powers, growing old, illness and losing loved ones. But Dudley sees the biggest plus and he longs to experience it: love. In answer to a prayer he is helping a bishop (David Niven). Said bishop is quite happily married to a handsome woman, Julia (Loretta Young). Much of Dudley's work requires him squiring around Julia. Not surprisingly he falls head over heals. Tough luck, angel. Ain't gonna happen. Here's a loneliness that we can relate to, even those of us who aren't angels (I'm guessing a majority) forbidden fruit, or perhaps more accurately, inaccessible fruit. Dudley can see, touch and hear, but not have Julia. Worse, he can have no one else. This is one of Cary Grant's great performances. We're used to the slick and sly, but we also get the pain. The more you watch the film the more you see it in his eyes as his work is done and he must leave. Leave a love he can never have. and who knows eternity like an angel?

500 Days of Summer. It always bothered me when at the very outset of relationship a woman would tell me she "wasn't looking for anything serious." So let me get this straight. If you meet the perfect man it ain't gonna happen because you're not "looking for" it? And it some later point in your life you'll think, "say, I'm ready for 'serious' relationship so I'm gonna start looking." I often assumed that what they were saying was in code and really meant: "you're cute and we'll have fun, but don't expect this to go very far." And I wondered why they couldn't just say that from the beginning. In 500 Days, the character named Summer (Zooey Deschanel) delivers the line to Tom Hansen (James Gordon-Levitt). One problem here for him is that he is looking for something "serious." It is no spoiler to tell you that she dumps him. And it seemed so perfect! (To him.) Speaking for my fellow males, we can relate. I reckon we've all been dropped like a bad habit just when we thought "things" were going great. Who can figure women? Us guys are smelly, stupid and grouchy but we're generally like a good dog. We sniff around a lot but are loyal and love affection. James Gordon-Levitt captures the all encompassing melancholia that envelops the jilted male. The increased cynicism, the bouts of depression, the self destructive behavior, the inability to accept attempts to bring us cheer. His face does the happy clown to sad clown switch and its utterly convincing. There is the dull glaze to the eyes, the general stupor in all movements and the world weary voice. But he is young and soldiers on. We almost always do, eventually. I did numerous times until I met the woman of my dreams and the poor lady's been saddled with me for decades.

Firth, Grant and Gordon-Levitt play three very different men (hell, one's not even a man) and capture in their own ways the worst that we can experience in life -- being alone. None go into rages, none rely on theatrical emotions. All are mostly contained and let their faces, especially their eyes, speak for all that pain and isolation. They seem to me particularly challenging roles accomplished by men at the top of their games.

22 December 2009

Xmas Shopping, Silly Things, Stanwyck and Miscellaneous Too

I rather like Christmas shopping and the crowds don't bother me in the slightest. The only other time I don't mind crowds is at a sporting event...

I also don't worry about Christmas being too commercial. That concern was first expressed in the late 19th century and the buying ain't stopping anytime soon...

I further don't think there is a "War on Christmas" nor do I object to Christmas trees in office buildings. There's nothing inherently religious about a tree, they go back to pagan festivals well before late December was co-opted by the Christian church to celebrate the birth of Jesus....

While shopping today I was asked a few times if I "needed help finding anything." This question has never been posed to me at a time when I actually "needed help finding anything." If I do "need help finding anything" you can rest assured that there'll be no store employees for miles around....

I'm baffled by this question that is now asked when making a purchase: "did you find everything all right?" Thus far I've always replied that I did in fact "find everything all right." But does anyone accept the question as a cue to complain about the extreme hardships that were attendant in their search "for everything"? Does that then cause the store to shape up and make things easier to find? Or do heads roll? Just curious....

There's a word that is joining "oh my God" (that's OMG to texters) as being grossly overused. I refer to "awesome." Recently my decision at a restaurant whether to go with the soup or salad was met by the server with an exclamation of "awesome." And today when finishing a purchase (I found everything "all right") I was asked if there'd be anything else. My response of "no, thanks" elicited an "awesome." Maybe I take the awe part of the word too seriously...

I hate to stray off topic but there's one thing that has always bothered me: why does it "take one to know one"? Never been explained to me...

And another thing, I've found many things hilarious, knee slappingly funny, and side-splittingly mirthful but never, not once has something been "so funny I forgot to laugh." Indeed I never ever need be reminded to laugh. It's always automatic. How then can some people claim that they remain straight-faced because of a memory lapse? Don't make sense to me....

Yesterday I watched Christmas in Connecticut (1945) a film I love far more than I should. I have learned to never question liking a movie beyond its artistic merits. I can get snooty and analytical enough when it comes to appreciating films. When I find something I love "just 'cause" I let it go. One reason I adore this film is because the great love of my fantasy life, Barbara Stanwyck is its star. She's as good here as she was in any movie. So sweet and sexy (that's not an easy combination to pull off) and funny and of course flat out bee-you-tee-full. It don't hurt Christmas in Conn. that it features the always likable Dennis Morgan being especially likable. There are also strong supporting players such as Reginald Gardner, Sydney Greenstreet and S.Z. Sakall. Sakall is a scene stealer here. And in a Stanwyck movie no less! Speaking of Stanwyck, that's her gorgeous puss atop this post. *Sigh* She's the cats.

21 December 2009

Possibilities, The Wonderful World of Me and Orson Welles

Imagine a movie so rich that it inspires you to write, to act, to research, to think, to play. A film about acting, about the late 1930s, about a great auteur, about theater, about young people discovering that the world is full of "possibilities." Those possibilities include enjoying and creating art and of course, romance, sex and where the twain can happily meet. Imagine that and you will start to appreciate director Richard Linklater's boffo new film, Me and Orson Welles.

The word and the very notion of "possibilities" brackets the central story contained in Me & Orson. That intoxicating idea that there are muses aplenty out there that a young person can enlist in the name of creative art. Zac Efron stars as Richard Samuels a 17 year old (he'll be 18 next month) high school student from Jersey who stumbles into a role in Orson Welles' Mercury Theater production of Shakespeare's Cesar. The year is 1937 and Welles is still a year away from the infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast and four years away from a little picture called Citizen Kane (1941). Yet he is already, at the ripe old age of 22, well known in theater and radio circles.

Christian McKay doesn't portray Welles so much as he re-creates him. In any other year he'd be a mortal lock for the best supporting actor Oscar but given Christoph Waltz's turn as Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, his chances rate at no better than 50-50. That's a shame, because he's brilliant. End digression.

McKay doesn't just look and sound like Welles, he has the gestures, the posture, the tone of the man. It takes about five seconds to go from: "hey that guy is just like Welles" to slip for the rest of the film into delightful make believe. Once you forget that someone is playing Welles the rest of the story can tell itself.

A chap named Leo Bill plays actor Norman Lloyd, not nearly so famous today (he was the Saboteur (1942) in the film of the same name) but his uncanny accuracy in playing Lloyd also enhances the film. Eddie Marsan is fine as John Houseman and James Tupper passable as Joseph Cotton. Efron has the great luxury of playing a fictional character. He's of course best known for those Disney musicals but is just dandy as the confident and conniving, yet ultimately naive aspirant. Claire Danes and Zoe Kazan play our young protagonist's love interests. Danes' appeal has always been a mystery to me though she's a good enough actress. Kazan, who was notable in a small role in Revolutionary Road (2008) may not have stardom written all over but its scribbled in some pretty conspicuous parts. Better than beautiful, she is interesting and a memorable actress who should grace the screen for many years to come.

Master Samuels has quite the time cavorting with Welles and company. Lessons about treading the boards, the politics of theater and screwing and getting, shall we say, screwed, will be meanwhile presented. He's that handsome, plucky sort that is easy to root for and root for him we do. The bonus is that we get to let our imaginations inhabit the world of Welles so wonderfully recreated here. It's not just the actors but the sets and costumes that evoke one of those magical times in American arts that stands at the cusp of great breakthroughs.

How does it all work for our hero? Does he become a long time protege of Welles, or is his tenure short lived? Surely, you don't want me to spoil that!

Ultimately this is a story about possibilities. All those possibilities within reach of those who dare to grasp. It has been said (on numerous occasions by yours truly) that the saddest thing in life is wasted talent. Young Richard and Gretta (Ms. Kazan's character) have not just the talent but the exuberance, the brilliance, the gusto to find its best uses. And while at it to sup of life's many delicious offerings.

Hanging out, however briefly, with the likes of Orson Welles (just who was "his like," you might rightly ask) should inspire anyone to soar. Ahh...the POSSIBILITIES.

19 December 2009

My Exclusive Photo of Santa at Work

Visited the very busy Mr. Claus in the frigid north and snapped this picture. He asked me to remind all readers to be nice not naughty.

17 December 2009

Clark Gable in Up in the Air, James Cagney in Inglourious Basterds and Other Actors of the Past in Modern Day Roles

You ever hear or read something like this: "if they re-made Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), the Bogart role should go to..." Stop right there, fella. I'll not entertain such blasphemers. No one will ever be able to play Fred C. Dobbs again, just like Cagney's performance as in White Heat (1949) can't be replicated, nor Cary Grant's in His Girl Friday (1940) nor Barbara Stanwyck's in The Lady Eve (1941). Full stop.

We've had enough re-makes of beloved classics with consistently awful results (think Greg Kinnear playing William Holden's role in Sabrina -- insanity!). What I'd like to do is flip the discussion. What if actors from the past could have be transported to recent times (via time machines -- duh!) and take over certain parts. It might initially be difficult to envision stars of the Thirties and Forties in color, playing opposite special effects, free to curse, and engage in realistic violence and sex, but it is by no means impossible. Yes they were stars in their time but they were actors first and I'm certain they could be just as good today. If someone could get cracking on a time machine I'd prove it.

Here now is a look at what stars from the past could have easily slipped into roles played by the likes of Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep and Brad Pitt. This will require a bit of imagination on the part of readers. I may have gotten some all wrong but I've tried to fit past actors into roles they'd be well suited for. I'm not offering any explanations or elaboration for my selections. Either they are self evident, become clear once imaginations are activated or I'm all wet. I'm also not suggesting that the past actor would be an improvement but they would always be worthy replacements. I invite you to offer your own suggestions in the comments section.

In all cases the now deceased actor would, in addition to being very much alive, would be the same age as the actor he or she is replacing.

Clark Gable (pictured above) taking over George Clooney in Up in the Air (2009).

Humphrey Bogart replacing Viggo Mortensen in The Road (2009).

Bette Davis instead of Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada (2006).

Ginger Rogers substituting for Charlize Theron in North Country (2005).

James Cagney taking over Brad Pitt in Inglourious Basterds (2009).

Henry Fonda replacing Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan (1998).

Ann Sheridan and William Bendix taking over for Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen in Knocked Up (2007).

Robert Montgomery instead of Sean Penn in Milk. (2008).

Judy Garland for Renee Zellweger in Chicago (2002).

Walter Huston replacing Tom Wilkinson in Michael Clayton (2007).

Joan Fontaine and Cary Grant filling in for Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in Revolutionary Road (2008).

Errol Flynn replacing Tom Cruise in Minority Report (2002).

Lana Turner and William Powell in for Scarlett Johansson and Billy Murray in Lost in Translation (2003).

Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck subbing for Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening in American Beauty (1999).

Claudette Colbert for Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich (2000).

Vivian Leigh and Dame May Whitty instead of Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench in Notes on a Scandal (2006).

Jimmy Stewart for Jake Gllyenhaal in Zodiac (2007).

16 December 2009

Trying to Explain Myself -- Why I Like The Shop Around the Corner

Here's the challenge: try to explain to others something you don't understand yourself. You like something, you like it a lot, of that there is no doubt. But explaining exactly why is difficult. You find it hard to discuss except in the most general terms. Explaining why you like it may help you gain insight. Insight into what you're not exactly sure.

This is what I face as I try to write about The Shop Around the Corner (1940). A film directed by Ernest Lubistch (he of the famous "touch") and starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan.

It is the story of two co-workers, Alfred and Klara (Stewart and Sullavan), who quarrel constantly. They are young, single and don't realize that they are in love. They further are unaware that the other is their anonymous pen pal with whom they are carrying on a torrid, albeit strictly postal, romance. The story has been redone with limited success numerous times including two notable film versions, The Good Old Summertime and You've Got Mail. The original remains unmatched.

The primary subplot concerns the shop owner's (Frank Morgan) suspicions that Stewart is carrying on an affair with his wife. He's right about the affair but has the wrong culprit, its another of his employees, the sleazy Vadas.

Of all the many outstanding films Lubitsch directed, this was his personal favorite. Yet it is not as funny as To Be or Not to Be, nor as audacious as a Design for Living nor as sly as Trouble in Paradise. The humor here is what is so often called "gentle." Indeed the film itself is gentle. The characters, the music, the settings are soft and warm. Even the evil Vadas is is tolerable in small doses being more of a sycophant and a liar than any sort of menace.

So The Shop Around the Corner is a comfortable film. It does not challenge audiences with hard truths. But it is neither sentimental nor bland. Like many great films it is layered and reveals more and more of itself upon repeat viewings.

It is a film that stays within itself, never straying far from the shop physically, or its characters, emotionally. There is nothing broad about it, with scenes flowing naturally out of the impulses and desires of the varied shop clerks. The supporting cast is superior, especially Felix Bressart as Pirovitch. Watch him wax realistically about maintaining a family on a small income. Watch him dash in the other direction when he hears the boss (Morgan) ask for opinions. Watch him finally, bravely, stand up to the boss. And Morgan couldn't be better than he is as the cuckold husband and kindly employer.

Like most outstanding films this is about relationships and how the constantly shifting sands that can serve as their foundations. Clearly the Klara-Alfred relationship takes center stage and its happy conclusion is one of the finest film romances of all time. But other relationships are integral to the Shop, such as that between Alfred and his employer. It is sweet, turns sour and then becomes something different altogether. Let's say the Rock of Gibraltar.

I think I'm beginning to understand the challenge in describing my appreciation of this film. It is a wonderfully underwhelming movie. It is a sofa, blanket and cup of tea on a rainy day. It just feels good. It is a pleasure to know its characters. In fact, you might like to visit their shop, browse around, be a regular or maybe even get hired on with them. You care about them.

Imagine the risk of setting out to make such a film. Easier to make a straight comedy, a musical or a melodrama. But you get Lubitsch at the top of his game and a wonderful cast and it can be done. It was done.

Okay so I've made a valiant effort to explain my appreciation for The Shop Around the Corner. Did I, as I earlier suggested was possible, gain any insight? Only a re-affirmation that when it comes to films, strong characters trump everything and movies that successfully explore relationships are to be treasured. The Shop Around the Corner is a treasure.

12 December 2009

First Photos in from Streams of Unconsciousness Office Christmas Party

That's me, Santa and a live polar bear surrounded by some of the ladies on staff. That's a boatload of mistletoe above us and I only just got caught up with all the kissing.

This photo was taken early in the proceedings. The chap on the right is Lance from accounting. On the far left we have Sid from the graphics department. Those are their dates, Tammy and Brittney between them. On the far right is Crystal the second floor receptionist. That familiar face between and behind Lance and Crystal is, of course, Kate from Silents & Talkies (be sure to check out her recent posts on Sinatra and part one of her look at anti semitism in Hollywood, boffo stuff).

11 December 2009

Another Streams of Unconsciousness Classic "12 Films for Your 12 Days of Christmas"

I offer another re-run post, this from one year ago today. (I'll be taking a closer look at a few of these films individually in the days to come.)

I'd also like to draw your attention to a few other Yule related flicks to help get you into the spirit of the season. They are: Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), Elf (2003), Holiday Affair (1949), A Christmas Story (1983) and The Bishop's Wife (1947). I have also posted a classic Christmas cartoon featuring Pluto for your viewing enjoyment.

Now without further ado, my original post: "12 Films for Your 12 Days of Christmas."

Tis' the season for Holiday themed films. Here are twelve of my favorites. You'll note that some are not strictly speaking Christmas movies. Indeed the most revered of all, It's A Wonderful Life, begins and ends on Christmas but most of it takes place at other times of the year. That's consistent with many of the movies on my list, if they aren't plain and simple Christmas movies they at least end during the holiday. That's one reason I don't include the delightful Bachelor Mother (1939) starring Ginger Rogers. It begins in the Christmas season but the rest of the movie is after the holiday. It thus doesn't have the holiday feel to it. So although in point of fact there's not a lot of Christmas in The Man Who Came to Dinner, for example, it's a season staple and makes my list as it ends on December 25. Enough preamble, here are movies to make your holiday all the brighter.

It's A Wonderful Life (1946) An obvious choice. I never tire of great films and this is one of the best of all time, Christmas related or otherwise. Jimmy Stewart is at his best as we all know but so is Donna Reed, Thomas Mitchell, Lionel Barrymore and the rest of director Frank Capra's great cast. This is a movie that has stayed with me all my life as a reminder to be forever thankful of what I do have and not to under estimate the role each of us plays in one another's lives. Some people think its sappy and sentimental. Yeah, well its well done sap and sentiment.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945) You're not going to get any more Christmasy than this classic. My fave, Barbara Stanwyck, stars as a magazine writer who's boss, an avuncular Sydney Greenstreet, has her host a war hero in the kind of rustic traditional Xmas she extols in her columns. Problem is that Stanwyck's character is a big faker and has to go through all manner of shenanigans to pull the wool over everyone's eyes including the heroic sailor, the handsome and humble Dennis Morgan. You'll not find a warmer, fuzzier, cozier Christmas film. It's funny too.

Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944) One of the great film's from Preston Sturges' brief but spectacular run of classics. It's another film that begins and ends at Christmas. The usual Sturges' troupe is on hand led by William Demarest as Constable Kockenlocker (great name). Betty Hutton and Eddie Bracken co-star. It's a typically frenetic and witty Sturges comedy. Slipping this one by the censors was the true miracle of Morgan's Creek.

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) I've never seen anyone else in the role so I'm really not qualified to say but I can't imagine anyone better suited than Monty Wooley to play Sheridan Whiteside. What ego, what pomposity, what fun. Whiteside is of course the world famous columnist of print and radio whose fall down wet steps make him the unwelcome house guest in a small town home. Along for the fun are Bette Davis as his erstwhile assistant, the delicious Ann Sheridan and Jimmy Durante essentially playing themselves.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940) Very little of the holiday season is present in this Ernst Lubitsch classic, but it ends on Christmas Eve. The director's famous "touch" is evident in this story of two store clerks who anonymously fall in love as pen pals. Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan star but Frank Morgan as the store owner is a scene stealer. It's one of the better done love stories of all time.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) Stay the hell away from the newer and far inferior version. This original stars Edmund Gwen as Santa Claus. Is he really Saint Nicholas? So it would seem. He'll at least have you believing he's the best cinematic Santa of all time.

Home Alone (1990) The mark of a really good comedy is that it remains funny with each viewing. This is the best of the many films writer, director, producer John Hughes cranked out in the 80s and 90s. Obviously star Macaulay Caulkin had a lot to do with the film's surprising success. He plays an eight year old left behind when the family jets off to France for Christmas (hey, that's what we're about to do!). Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, as the two burgulars he terrorizes, help with the mirth-making. There's also a touching element to the story. Not to be forgotten is John Candy's cameo -- polka, polka, polka!

Home Alone 2 (1992) A sequel that's almost as good as the original! Another holiday miracle. Caulkin, his family and Pesci and Stern are back but this time the setting is New York and the cameo is provided by our old friend Bracken. The laughs continue and so too does the holiday message.

The Santa Clause (1994) By all means pass on all the dreadful sequels to this Tim Allen vehicle. Ahh but the original is a delight with an interesting take on the whole Santa, elves and reindeer business. I haven't seen Allen in much I've liked but he comes through here in the story of an ordinary bloke who falls into the role of being the real Saint Nick. Some people think he's loony but he's got a surprise for them.

Scrooge (1951) For my money (albeit there's not a lot of it) Alastair Sim is the best Ebeneezer Scrooge in film history. Its not surprising then that this is the best cinematic version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. It is very dark when it needs to be and brightens up nicely when its supposed to. Along with It's A Wonderful Life, this is the ultimate secular holiday story, with its story of redemption and hope.

A Christmas Carol (1984) This was actually a made for TV movie but I don't see why that should exclude it. George C. Scott is Scrooge and though no Sim he's damn good. While the previously mentioned film makes a strong case for a black and white telling of the story, this film makes a compelling argument for a color version. This is a wonderful film directed by Clive Donner.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) Something for the kiddies that Mom and Dad can enjoy. The Muppet's appeal to all ages, of course, and so does Michael Caine as Scrooge. From what I remember of the Muppet films from when my children were wee ones this is the best of the lot. It's a musical with tunes that will dance in your head along with visions of sugar plums.

Also for your consideration are these shorter Christmas tales: A Charlie Brown Christmas (never ever gets old and its got a great message); How the Grinch Stole Christmas (not the poxy film version, you've got to have Karloff!); Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol (a staple of my childhood); the many Simpson's Christmas episodes available on DVD, the Twilight Zone's Night of the Meek (stars Art Carney); and the brand new A Colbert Christmas The Greatest Gift of All! (irreverent holiday fun).

06 December 2009

Il Mio Viaggio in Italia -or- My Journey Through Italian Cinema (Part Eight: Le notti bianche)

The wife hit me with the news this morning. Delivered it quite matter of factly. She thinks Marcello Mastroianni, in his prime, was better looking than me. Somehow she figured it would soften the blow if she admitted that Marlyin Monroe in her prime was prettier than she. It didn't.

This came up because we had watched Le notti bianche (1957) last which night starred the aforementioned Mr. Mastroianni. He was 33 years old at the time and I've got to admit he was no pock marked beast. He was the rare kind of guy that even vain, shallow, emotionally vulnerable men like me admit is handsome. (Wait a second, should I be using past-tense here? After all, the man is dead these 13 years, but then again this discussion relates to what he looked like while very much alive and not yet in middle age. This is particularly vexing because I'm just about to finish the most difficult course I've ever taken: Grammar Fundamentals for ESL Teachers, and it has made me conscience of every clause, phrase, preposition and modal I use or don't use. Sorry for the digression. I'll heretofore go with present tense).

So yeah, Mastroianni is a good looking chap and perhaps never more so than in this film. His opposite here is Maria Schell who is easy on the eyes too. But I must say that she can't hold a candle to other Mastroianni co stars like Claudia Cardinale, Sophia Loren or Anita Ekberg. Okay she can hold the candle all she likes but she ain't as purty as them are dames (who is?).

Why this obsession with looks? Because Le notti bianche (that translates in English to, the white night) is all about looks. The story is interesting, equalling the better film romances, but its the look of the film that is so utterly captivating. It is one of the many, many great arguments in favor of black and white movies. Indeed Mr. Fancy Pants Mastroianni prob'ly looked so good in large part because of the lack of color. That's no slight against the man, actors and actresses all look better sans the colors of the rainbow. The simple reason is that black and white does not reveal the acne that no doubt actually riddled Mastoianni's face, nor the hideous scars like the one that ran across his visage.

But seriously folks....

For cinematic beauty, black and white is unbeatable. In Le notti it's not just the faces that benefit, but the streets of Rome, especially the ones in the neighborhood where most of the story is set. In several scenes those streets are wet from rain, always a good look in black and white. For the film's heart wrenching closing scene, snow falls (hence the white night). It doesn't look cold, just gorgeous. All the exteriors were shot at night, and most of the interiors for that matter, adding to the romantic tone of the picture.

The story is: lonely man meets lonely woman and for the man its love at first sight. She's carrying a torch for another complicating the gent's efforts to win her over. He's persistent. She's moody. They dance (literally and figuratively). They laugh. He gives up. He tries again. She pulls away, gives in to him. So it goes until the melodramatic conclusion. In the hands of a hack it would be pure baloney but the director was Luchino Visconti and so its no surprise that you end up believing every word and action. Even if you're an old grump like me.

I've said this before about films and it's especially true with Le notti, you could watch it without the sound and love it to death. It's not just the people and the scenery, it's the way the story moves or stands still. Like the very best directors, Visconti knows when to hold a shot for a few beats longer than most directors would. Part of the magic of the film, one of the ways you access the romance, comes from being allowed to linger for a second or two with a character or setting or a character in a setting. There's no rush. When there is action its smooth. Neither stylized nor perfectly realistic, just, comfortable, sometimes pretty, to watch.

Mastroianni and Schell do more than just look good. They make the story work because they don't act, they are there. They are comfortable to watch in a way so many present day actors aren't. They do more with their eyes than a lot of hams do with all their verbosity and gesticulation.

I really liked this film because I liked looking at it. The story was somewhat pedestrian, but the delivery was molto bello.

But I tell ya what folks, you think Mastroianni was good looking, you should get a load of my mug.

05 December 2009

Remember Pearl Harbor! By Watching Tora! Tora! Tora! Where the History Channel Meets Hollywood

Monday is the 68th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (I know, time flies, don't it?) that led to U.S. entry into World War II. If you're at all predisposed to recognizing historical events by watching movies (who isn't?) then you can do no better than watching Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970).

It's a film that borders on historic re-enactment. It has all the glamor and sex appeal of trip to the hardware store. This is no From Here to Eternity (1953), an exemplary film but one that uses December 7, 1941 as a late backdrop and doesn't pretend to be recounting history. And this is certainly no Pearl Harbor (2001) which uses that same day to tell a silly, sensationalized and totally hokey love story.

From Here to Eternity boasted a cast that included Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed. Pure class. Pearl Harbor, meanwhile, had the likes of Kate Beckinsale, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Alec Baldwin. But Tora times three is all steak and no sizzle. You got your E.G.Marshall (I'll pause while the ladies swoon), Martin Balsam and James Whitmore. A veritable Mount Rushmore of Hollywood hunks they're not, but all do an admirable job in their respective roles. Oh yes, Joseph Cotton does appear but he was eligible for senior citizen discounts by this time.

Point being that Tora tripled is not your typical Hollywood blockbuster. It was meant to be, and quite successfully was, a detailed account of the events leading up to the attack on the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor and the attack itself. There's a lot of old guys sitting around reading documents and barking orders. Half the movie is dedicated to the Japanese side of the story and thankfully these portions were a Japanese production with Japanese actors and a Japanese director. This, of course, adds to the film's historical gravitas. So yes, you also get old Japanese guys doing things like studying maps, arguing with each other and barking orders. There's not the slightest whiff of a love scene in the film's two and quarter hour running time. Hell, there's barely any women in it all.

Doesn't sound like I'm trying to sell you on the film, does it? But I really like Tora to the third power. My appreciation stems only partly from the fact that I'm a border line history of World War II geek. For all its lack of glitz, this is an interesting movie that never drags. Posthumous hats off to directors Richard Fleischer and Kinji Fukasaku, as well as the screenwriters led by Larry Forrestor.

The exciting as vanilla ice cream cast also deserves kudos. Not a one of em takes a bite of the scenery. Besides the chaps I've already mentioned the cast includes a who's who of perennial co-stars and guys many of us remember from innumerable appearances on Sixties and Seventies TV shows. The producers were clearly less interested in star power than getting pros who could hit their marks, deliver their lines without any schmaltz and get out of the way.

The Tora triad has several things going for it. One is that we all watch out with varying degrees of knowledge and understanding about the general events depicted. We are thus getting some blanks filled in and seeing re-creations of events well known. We also see where mistakes were made (on both sides) and just how decisions are made or not made by the military in two very different countries. The other big up is that the attack itself, in addition to being faithful to history, is spectacular to look at. This in the time before computers were doing the work of artists. In the Pearl Harbor of hack director Michael Bey, the attack on Pearl Harbor looks like another spectacular video game. In Tora it looks like footage of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Take your pick.

If you check IMDb you'll see what seems like quite a bit of boo boos noted in the goofs section, but for a story of this sweep with so much detail, the crew did a remarkably good job. Cars, weapons, typewriters and clothing all look appropriate to 1941 (and in most cases are). What we see of Washington D.C. Tokyo and Hawaii are faithfully recreated. The producers were also sticklers for not inventing or making composits of characters not creating any more dialogue than absolutely necessary. It's what you'd get if the History Channel met Hollywood, they got married and had a baby.

Tora three times repeated did not do well at the box office on this side of the Pacific (people flocked to in Japan). This was at a time when the Vietnam War was tearing the U.S. asunder and what seemed like conventional military story was not what people were interested in seeing. The film has rightly gained in stature in the intervening years.

Regardless of how much you know about the Day that Will Live in Infamy, Tora! Tora! Tora! will increase your understanding of an important slice of history. Sounds like a nice way to spend your December 7, 2009.

02 December 2009

Il Mio Viaggio in Italia -or- My Journey Through Italian Cinema (Part Seven: The Bicycle Thieves)

Nothing is as pure and beautiful as truth. It may go down hard, it may have rough edges that make it uncomfortable, but it is without tarnish or imperfection. The ugly, the distasteful comes from lies and distortion. There is no beauty in deception, just artifice masking an empty vessel.

Perhaps this explains the enduring beauty, 60 years on, of Lardi di Bicicilette (1948) aka The Bicycle Thieves, directed by Vittorio De Sica.

It seems on the surface such a simple story, even too simple to be the basis of a film. Unemployed man gets job that requires bicycle. Gets his out of hock. Happily starts job. Bike stolen. Devastation. Looks hither and yon for bike and/or thief with help of little son. Despairing, steals one himself, is immediately caught but released.

It is the very starkness of the story, the realness of it, that make The Bicycle Thieves so irresistible and allows it to work on so many levels. It is the quintessential example of neo realist film making that came out of Italy beginning in the mid 1940s. Famously, De Sica used no professional actors (though Cary Grant and Henry Fonda were both considered for the lead) and every frame was shot on location in Rome.

Lamberto Maggiorani in the lead brought an everyman face that is the Latin equivalent of Gary Cooper. The son, Enzo Staiola, is cherubic and heart breakingly authentic. To me it's their relationship that is most indelible about the film. A child who loves his father unconditionally and wants to believe him regardless of circumstances juxtaposed with a father who loves his child unconditionally and wants desperately to live up to his son's faith. The boy dutifully and gladly follows his dad everywhere helping any way he can. It is a metaphor for all children and their devotion to dad, especially those like Antonio who are both forthright and have a sense of fun.

In one scene Antonio temporarily abandons the search and takes his son to a restaurant for a lunch they cannot afford. But they both deserve something for their efforts. They revel in their meal far more than the well-to-do family at the next table, for whom the repast is just another lunch. But in another scene a frustrated Antonio slaps his son. We feel bad for the boy whose devotion to papa is challenged by the man himself. But we also feel for the father, driven to an act he clearly and quickly regrets.

There is no uplifting ending to The Bicycle Thieves, only father and son forlornly walking home increasingly just part of the crowd. Tacking on a "happy ending" would have rang false to a story that was all about truth. Truths such as the reality that the police could do virtually nothing for Antonio. Truths about the scarcity of jobs and the demoralizing effect of unemployment. Truths about how a job is not just a means of earning money, but an identity and sense of purpose. Truths about how quickly one's circumstances can shift and how one act of thievery can have a ripple effect. Truths about how good intention, dogged determination and faith are not necessarily rewarded. Truths then about life. Life can be full of disappointment and pain, but in the living of that life there exists opportunity. We may eventually find redemption. We may find hope. We may even find our bicycle and another job. There are no certainties, as The Bicycle Thieves reminds us. But there it is. Life without guarantees, just us to make of it what we will. All best pursued with the aid of loved ones. It is in the reflection of others souls in our hearts that we are truly blessed.

The Bicycle Thieves has earned a place in the pantheon of "Greatest Films" lists, even topping the prestigious Sight and Sound's debut list in 1952. Watching it today I was struck by how often I was moved by moments within it. Antonio's realization that his bicycle has been stolen evoked so strongly the same feelings I've had when a possession has been stolen. His desperate often quixotic search felt familiar to any of us who have tried in vain to recover something stolen or missing. And looking at people who have their bikes, who have jobs, who have plenty of cash, recalls any trace of envy, covetousness or jealousy I've ever had.

This then is the mark of great cinema, of great art. To be moved. To relate. To see truth in all its magnificent clarity and beauty.

01 December 2009

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

Saying that this is Ingrid Bergman at her most beautiful is like saying this is Sinatra singing his best song, or Michael Jordan playing his best game of hoops. But say it I will: Folks, Ingrid was never, ever more beautiful than when she appeared in Stromboli (1950).

One supposes that much credit goes to the film's director, Roberto Rossellini. Off camera, director and star had just began an illicit affair that would eventually lead to pregnancy, scandal, divorce and marriage. So it shouldn't be surprising that his camera treated her rapturously. It can be further speculated that Ingrid was in the head over heels phase of love that can make a woman positively radiate.

But you know what else? She played a real stinker. You thought her character, Alicia, in Notorious (1946) was shady, get a load of Karin in this picture. She is one selfish, pouty, manipulative lady. The way she treats her poor fisherman husband, Antonio (Mario Vitale) is a caution. He's not a bad bloke either. The honest and ernest hard working kind of guy that too often gets stepped on.

We meet Karin at the end of World War II in a displaced persons camp. Antonio is an Italian soldier who courts her through the barb wire that surrounds the camp. She's knocked around lot in large part because of the war and she lost a husband, totally because of the war. Karin has had some tough breaks and gets another when her application to emigrate to Argentina is denied. It's then she latches on to Antonio who marries Karin and takes her to his hometown, the island of Stromboli.

The sparseness of the island, the lack of amenities and the close proximity of an active volcano gives the bride second, third and fourth thoughts about her new situation. When the locals shun her, bad gets worse.

One of the great things about films like Stromboli is you can go interpret in two ways: 1) what was Rossellini trying to say? or 2) what do I take from this film? Indeed it is a characteristic of many films from the post war neo realism school. At the risk of a spoiler I must add that the ambiguity of the ending (though there was at one time a Hollywood ending tacked on to please low brows) certainly adds to any discussion on Stromboli's underlying message.

Rossellini reportedly wrote the film as he filmed it and in lieu of a script used his own hand written notes. Clearly characters and setting were of equal importance to anything so mundane as a screenplay. The director also utilized "real people" (as opposed to the fake plastic ones in most movies) in the form of island residents. This included amazing fishing scenes (real fish, no actors). There was audible squeamishness among the audience when I saw Stromboli recently at the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley ( I thought some people were either going to puke or call PETA during the ferret/rabbit scene). The scenes of the volcano acting up were also amazing and doubtless done with nary a special effect. Well you can't have neo realism without such strong doses of realty. It all added to the feel of a true story. Stromboli felt like something of a documentary at times, so much so that the never lovelier Ms. Bergman couldn't totally doll it up.

Actually the Ingrid/villagers contrast was not a dichotomy. She had to be in contrast to everything and especially everyone else in the film. This was the brilliance or luck of Rossellini, to have a film goddess who was a brilliant actress to provide such a startling but believable contrast to her environs and thus make the story he was telling all the more compelling.

We watch Karin's struggles with her environment, both the physical and human. It's really a struggle within herself. Whatever is around us just is and there's little if anything that we can do about it. What's key is how we deal with and react to our surroundings. We, like Karin, also confront the question: do I stay or do I go? Either way we answer, as Karin finds out, leads to another set of ponderables.

With Stromboli you might say that some audiences would come for Ingrid but stay for the story. Not a bad deal.

(Some might squawk at my including this film in my series on Italian cinema inasmuch as it was largely in English and backed by an American studio. But this was an Italian film all the way, not just the director and all but one of the performers, but the crew and most importantly, the style.)

Happy Woody Allen's Birthday Everyone!