26 February 2010

My Long Absence Explained. Peter Lawford is No Jahvid Best. The Road To Recovery. A Sibling's Crisis. The Unsurprising Role of Films.

Faye Dunaway in Chinatown
When I was absolutely at my sickest I said to the missus, "you know what the worst part of this has been?" She dutifully asked what. "Watching Peter Lawford play a college football player." She knew of what I spoke.

Three weeks ago I was nipped on the heels by my third cold of the Winter.  Working as I have for so many eons around young uns I'm used to having my share of colds and then some. Given that I've been blessed with remarkably good health otherwise I tend not to squawk too much. Because my big brother was going through a serious health crisis that included open heart surgery, I didn't curse the fates over a case of the sniffles.

Indeed five days after it began the cold was good and gone and I was able to devote attention to visiting my lone sibling's bedside as a remarkable recovery continued apace.  But what was this? Two days after it had gone my cold returned in double force, a cruel slap in my handsome face (okay, maybe not handsome, but certainly not ugly).

A few times in the days to come I seemed to rally only to then get worse. What sort of horrific cold was this that toyed with me so sadistically? My darling wife (as close to an angel as one will find among the living) kept urging me to see the doctor. A few nights ago when my illness even denied me sleep, I decided to heed her advice.

It was the proverbial middle of the night when I vowed to, at dawn's early light (or 8:30 when the offices opened) call the doc. Meanwhile I was wide awake and hacking as if a one man TB ward. I repaired to the sofa and my bestest friend, Turner Classic Movies. On the screen was some light fare (it damn near floated out of the screen) called Good News (1947). Even in my unhappy state I could tell that this was a musical set on a college campus. The starts were June Allyson and Peter Lawford. The later was the star running back of the school's football team. No, seriously. I love college football and of course love movies. But I love pizza and ice cream and you don't see me mixing the two. Anyway Lawford is better seen vamping with the Rat Pack or the Kennedys. As a football player he's damn silly.

Cometh the dawn and a few hours later I'm at the doctor's office. A quick but thorough examination reveals that I'm suffering from bronchitis (it is, as the say, going around) in my case a particularly virulent strain, and it is soon cured by antibiotics (I'll lend space to the probiotics forces anon). Oh happy day! A name for my malady and better yet a cure.

These past few days I've been gradually getting better and hope to be as fit as a fiddle (really, fiddles maintain excellent health and practice good conditioning habits?) by Sunday which is my birthday. I have been bereft of energy except for short spurts. I am experiencing such a spurt now. Gradually the spurts will lengthen and I'll be catching up on all manner of obligations at which I'm currently in arrears. One of them is of course this blog.

Most importantly I'll be able to visit my recuperating big bro. He faced a risky but altogether necessary surgery and came through better than anyone could have dared dream. Seven years my senior, he's one of the nicest men on the planet and has only recently become a grandpa courtesy of the oldest of the four of his wonderful children.

Peter Lawford notwithstanding I have been sustained through my illness by -- you guessed it -- viewing motion pictures. We suffered the death of one DVD player and acquired a new and better one that plays both region one and two DVDs.  It's good for European discs! So between the DVD player and the aforementioned TCM and the ministrations of my better half I had much comfort indeed.

But what movies did I turn to, you ask, and what of them?

In no order whatsoever they included: The Maltese Falcon (1941), Army of Shadows (1969), The Sea Wolf (1941), Smart Money (1931), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Inglourious Basterds (2009), Manhattan (1979), The Third Man (1949), Foul Play (1978), Chinatown (1974), George Washington Slept Here (1942), as well as parts of many other films too numerous here to mention.
Tomorrow I'll write a paragraph or two or twelve about each of these films as regular blogging resumes at last.

13 February 2010

Better Know A Movie, Recommendations on Specific Aspects of Films to Appreciate

Step right up my friends I have right here for you absolutely free of charge some movie suggestions!

Now any schmuck with a film blog can recommend film choices, but I'm not just any schmuck (like I need to tell you!). I have for you a list of ten films that includes specific aspects of that film to look for.

Usually we enjoy a film, especially with our initial viewing, for its overall presentation. The cast, the photography, the sets, the editing, all blend into a pleasurable viewing experience. This is a good thing. But sometimes we miss a majestic tree or two in seeing the overall forest.

Here then are some tips on what to look for in ten well-known films representing different eras and genres.

The shadows in The Maltese Falcon (1941). Director John Huston was reportedly apoplectic when he heard that Ted Turner wanted to colorize this film.(The fact that Huston died shortly thereafter is apparently unrelated, but ya never know.) Good film noir has to be in black and white because so much of the stories rely on shadows. Maltese Falcon is a prime example. Look at how often they appear and how effectively mood and ambience is set and exploited. MF is one of the many films that points to the beauty of black and white and why in many, many movies its a better choice than color. Try not to focus too much on stars Humphrey Bogart or Mary Astor or the wonderful supporting cast, and just dig the look.

Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity (1944). The man put on an acting clinic and disproved any notion that he was only suited to play gangsters. He is at once so real a man and utterly ordinary and so compelling a character. He manages to elevate the film, enhance the story and yet not steal any scenes. He's easy to miss the first time or two you watch the film, but the more you see of it the more you appreciate Robinson and his importance to the film.

The backgrounds in The Third Man (1949). I love the dialogue and the zither music but I could literally watch The Third Man with the sound off. In fact, that might be a worthy exercise just to appreciate what's in the background. You'll not only see some incredible shots of bombed out Vienna, but the faces of the Viennese. They generally aren't pretty faces but really that wouldn't fit with the story and they're captivating to look at nonetheless.

The period detail in Zodiac (2007). The film was set in San Francisco in the late 1960s and 1970s, a time I was in the area. So I can say with a measure of authority that director David Fincher and company got the look to a tee. More than that they got the feel. It's one thing to replicate, quite another to capture. This is capturing. How one does that is beyond my limited knowledge of film making. All I can tell you is that if you want to know what it was like in these parts in them days, watch this film.

The interiors and exteriors of Stagecoach (1939). Any question about what made John Ford a great director can in part be answered by Stagecoach. Look at how he tells the story in great part by opening up the outdoors and making them impossibly vast (look at the screen entrance of The Ringo Kid -- John Wayne -- the background is forever). Then see how confining all the indoor shots are, particularly, of course, in the stagecoach. When you appreciate how a director tells a story, you better appreciate the story.

The transformation of Michael Corleone in The Godfather (1972). I devoted an entire blog post to this topic. It's provided some interesting discussions and is worth looking at again because its the central point to this, the greatest of all films. You can have fun discussing what you think is the catalyst for his change and of course, watching those key moments. It will also help you appreciate what a magnificent performance Al Pacino gave.

The camera angles and positions in Notorious (1946). Here's another topic I've previously covered in an entire blog post. There are many other Hitchcock films you can choose from but in terms of looking for how he used the camera to tell a story, this is the best.

The relationships in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). It's perhaps the greatest anti war picture ever made and it works in large part because of how wonderfully it depicts human relationships. In the military, whether for the better or for the worse, relationships are critical. People are stuck together and often put into the horrifying spectacle of war together. That is to say the insane situation of killing other people. AQOTWF is all about how soldiers squabble, bond, play and fight together. How they rely on one another and love one another. It is thus all the more effectively heart breaking when many inevtiably perish.

The use of music in Goodfellas (1990). Director Martin Scorsese is the grandmaster of melding music into a story. In some cases he has the song in mind before he's even got the film in mind. He's especially effective with contemporary songs. Sometimes the song relates to the time period in the film, other times the lyrics accompany the action. But more often than not the tone of the music somehow just goes with the tone of the pictures. It has to be an instinct and it has to be done by the person with the vision of that story. To me Goodfellas is the absolute masterpiece of music working perfectly with what's on screen. Whether it's Tony Bennett, The Shangri-Las, Harry Nilsson or Sid Vicious, it works. Boy does it.

The timing in Sullivan's Travels (1941). Comedy is all about timing. Especially when it comes to dialogue. When you've got a particularly witty story with some sophisticated points to make, that timing is absolutely crucial. Witness the timing in Sullivan's Travels. Start with the first scene between Sullivan (Joel McCrea) and the movie execs. It's not just rapid fire, it's not just clever, it's perfectly timed. See Sullivan and the girl (Veronica Lake) or Sullivan and anyone else or any two or three or twelve people. Director Preston Sturges, who started as a screenwriter, was a master of timing, both with action and conversation. He was especially adept at combining the two, and with multiple characters. Just watch Sullivan's Travels and you'll know what I'm on about.

06 February 2010

Happy Francois Truffaut's Birthday Everyone!

The great French director Francois Truffaut was born on this day 78 years ago. It's hard to believe that he has been dead for a quarter of a century. Though taken from the world much, much too soon, he left behind 25 films including some of the greats of French -- or for that matter any -- cinema.

That would be enough cause to sing his praises, but Traffaut was also an important film critic and author. His works include a book-length interview with one of his heroes, Alfred Hitchcock.

Truffaut was not just a very good director, he was an influential one, being a pioneer of the French New Wave. He thus helped establish a new style of cinema which departed from the traditional film making of the time. Now there were clever uses of the camera in the name of story telling. Now there were experiments in themes often dealing with existentialism. Now there was cinema that kept pace and influenced a rapidly changing Western Culture. The New Wave style would help bring about the cinematic revolution of the Seventies (that actually began in 1967).

Follows are a few thoughts on some of Truffaut's films:

400 Blows (1959) is considered by many the forerunner of New Wave, it was certainly the film that propelled Truffaut's career. Here was everyday realism told with verve. The film ended with one of the most iconic freeze frames in film history.

My favorite Truffaut film soon followed, Shoot the Piano Player (1960), a satire of American gangster films. I wrote about it at length in September 2008. Two years later there was another of my favorites, Jules et Jim (1962) a film featuring a potpourri of visual styles including stills, newsreels, panning shots and freeze frames. This story of a decades long love triangle was probably even more influential  for future directors than 400 Blows.

Stolen Kisses (1968) was the third of five films, starting with 400 Blows, to feature the character Antoine Doinel who was played by Jean-Pierre Leaud. It is interesting to have a series of films following the life of a relatively ordinary bloke. Indeed in Stolen Kisses he is something of a loser, though successful enough with the ladies. Day for Night (1973) is one of the best films on film making ever made. The cast includes Truffaut as the director. He appeared in or provided narration for over a dozen films.

Small Change (1976) was perhaps his most sentimental film as it follows the fortunes of various members of a small town, focusing on its children. I wrote about it last June. Truffuat's last great film was The Last Metro (1980). This is a compelling film set in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II. A Jewish stage director is in hiding beneath the stage of his still active theater. From there he guides his wife (Catherine Deneuve) in running the latest production.

I've actually yet to see The Wild Child (1970), a film based on the discovery in 1798 of a 13 year old boy who'd lived his entire life in the wilds. However I'll be watching it shortly after completing this post. It's kind of nice to have not seen that and a couple of other Truffaut films, it's giving me something to look forward. Then again once I've seen them all I'll have the joy of enjoying some for a second, third or fourth time.

05 February 2010

If I Don't Like the Country, Why Don't I Move?

I can't look at news websites any more because they constantly quote complete morons. I don't want nor do I need to know the ravings of lunatics. Yet they are often reported as if newsworthy. Case in point: Among the top stories today on CNN's website was word that the organizer of the Tea Party movement agrees with a former Congressman who called Barack Obama "a committed socialist ideologue."

What, they couldn't find someone who called Obama a Martian or the re-incarnation of Napoleon Bonaparte?  Do we need to know the thoughts of every idiot who manages to get ahold of a microphone?

One thing that confirms the fact that Obama is not a socialist is that I'm not dancing in the streets. I am a "committed socialist ideologue" so I would be ecstatic if we had a socialist president. We don't.

I have it on good authority that there are dictionaries and encyclopedias and books of various kinds that offer definitions of a numerous terms. Socialist among them. Conservatives in particular may want to take advantage of these wonderful sources of information.

Everyone is entitled to an opinion. I just wish that people who uttered their opinions publicly had considered opinions. You know, be able to back up what you say with a fact or two.

Instead of mislabeling people, why don't Americans try engaging in spirited debate about the issues. And how about if the media concentrates on that sort of discussion rather than giving voice to every jerk who opens his or her yap?

Ever since Obama was elected president there have been idiots of the right wing (is that an oxymoron?) making claims ranging from Obama not having been born in the U.S. to his being a Nazi. (Make up your mind, socialist or Nazi?) Fair enough, people are upset and want to ventilate, but so often its reported as news.

Of course one of the problems we have these days is what is laughingly offered as "news." There is an entire "news" network (hint: rhymes with box) that is nothing more than right wing propaganda. They don't report news, they re-interpret it for conservatives. They have a slew of blowhards whose sole purpose is to further entrench the opinions of their audience and to further inflame their passions. It is the very antithesis of journalism. This network has continually made itself part of the story meanwhile neglecting to report the story. Seriously, they hired Sara Palin to comment joining Karl Rove as one of their voices. Fair and balanced? You're kidding, right?

(Yes, MSNBC is guilty of some of the same from the left which is no excuse for Fox -- God, I miss Walter Cronkite.)

I'm not an apologist for President Obama. I don't think he's going anywhere near far enough to the left. I'm not happy at all with his policies which too me are just a tad to the left of the center.

I'm just tired of having to read utter poppycock being reported as news and intelligent people having to waste time refuting it. I swear to God sometimes this country gets on my last nerve.

02 February 2010

It's National "So What?" Day For Cinephiles, Oscar Nominations Announced

When I used to drink -- and boy did I used to drink -- those of us who were serious about our alcohol consumption considered New Year's Eve to be amateur night. People who got no more than tipsy all year suddenly became sots for a night. We were not amused.

In much the same way, Oscar season emboldens every Tom, Dick and Mahmoud to venture an opinion on nominated films. Even though they haven't seen most of the films, if any.

Here's the thing that one should remember about the Oscars and every other award show or list that names the "best" film or performance of the year: They're full of crap.  There is no empirical evidence for the best work of art or performance of the week, year, decade or century. What is being named is the favorite. In the case of the Oscars it's the favorites of the voters of the The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences. And these are people who have a notoriously bad track record. Please see, time permitting, this post of mine from a year and half ago in which I detail just a few of the egregious omissions the Academy has made. (To be fair, last year I provided some examples of when Oscar and I agreed on the "best" picture winner.)

Picking a "best" in the arts is an interesting parlor game but nothing to be taken seriously. One reason many of us sports fans love competition is that you can in fact name a winner. This Sunday's Super Bowl will be the definitive answer to the question, what was the best team in professional football this year. Of course sports fans can always fall back on things like, "yeah well the ref blew a call," or "our best player was injured." But savvy  fans know that there is no category for woulda, shoulda, coulda.

The Oscars are no better than the Golden Globes, the New York Film Critics or this blog in naming the "best" of anything. Does that mean that the whole shebang has no value? No. While it is an always bloated show, constantly interrupted by commercials (I DVR it and start watching a half hour after it starts so I can fast forward through the ads) it does at least bring attention to some films that are worth seeing that many people may have missed. There are also some nice moments when clips of films are shown, sometimes as a tribute to a director, other times to pay homage to the recently deceased and other times as part of some theme.

Plus this year Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin are co-hosting. It's hard to imagine a more delightful pairing. I anticipate laughs aplenty, enough to offset the dreary acceptance speeches of people we never heard of thanking people we never heard of.

Just please don't think there's any great significance to what "wins." That's a lot of hooey.