29 April 2010

Flaws, Fractures and Forget-About-Its: Problems I Have With Various American Films

It's not easy to make a good film, let alone a great one. So many elements need to come together that rely on so many different people. Acting. Editing. Costumes. Set design. Script. And much, much more. It is thus a credit to the craftsmanship of numerous individuals that we are blessed with so many wonderful movies to enjoy. (Then again there's one helluva lot of garbage out there to be sifted through as well.)

A perfect film is nearly impossible to make. Even some of my most beloved movies have moments in them or aspects to them that make me cringe -- if just for a second. I now look at ten films with different levels of problems attributable to them. Some could have used a little tweaking (the flawed), some needed some patching up (the fractured) and some were dead on arrival (the forgot-about-its). I could cite many dozens of films in each category. Instead I offer ten as a sampling. I'll re-visit this theme in the future.

Strangers on a Train (1951) Flawed. I love this movie. But the drama of the last scene is predicated upon a police officer firing his gun wildly into a crowded area. I just don't buy it. You actually see this fairly often in films and say what you will about cops, they're generally fairly conscientious about not shooting where a bystander might get struck. A friend once told me the film was ruined for her by what happened after the gun shot, the whole business about the guy crawling under the merry-go-round. Come to find out that was real and that shooting the scene scared the bejeezus out of director Alfred Hitchcock.

Crash (2004) Forget-about-it. Where to begin? How about with the total implausibility of the story?  The film was set in modern Los Angeles yet people who seemed otherwise reasonable were walking about hurling racist comments as if in Alabama circa 1960. It was as subtle as a crutch that was being used to hit you over the head. I thought Crash would have been a perfectly good made-for-TV movie in 1980 but upon it's release six years ago it seemed laughably out of date and poorly done. Speaking of laughable, it beat out Brokeback Mountain for best picture Oscar. You can't make this stuff up.

A Night at the Opera (1935) Flawed. This is not alone among later Marx Brothers films in that it is constantly interrupted by pure unadulterated schmaltz. It comes in the form of some of the sappiest most nauseating songs ever produced. As in other Marx Brothers films, the chief perpetrator is one Alan Jones -- yuck! From The Cocoanuts (1929) through Duck Soup (1933) the brothers Marx were able to romp through their films uninterrupted by third rate crooners (course you had to endure Harpo's creepy harp solos but that's a topic for another day).  I single out ANATO  instead of other films because it was otherwise so exceptional.

Dr. Strangelove  (1964) Fractured. It's a great satire that is superbly done from start to finish. Except...except for the title character. Peter Sellers simply went over the top and turned the character of Dr. Strangelove into a silly burlesque that badly detracts from an otherwise excellent film. While Sterling Hayden, George C. Scott and Sellers in his other roles, play it straight and let the insanity of the story speak for itself (no fighting in the war room), Sellers as Strangelove is straight up 3 Stooges.

Million Dollar Baby (2004) Forget-about-it. I'll never understand the critical reverence with which this hokum was met. It was a totally unoriginal story that was riddled with cliches. Gee, I wonder if the young woman can ever talk the crotchety old man into being her trainer. She did?! Hey, the old guy has an African American sidekick (Morgan Freeman who won an Oscar for being inoffensive). And there's more to their relationship than meets the eye!!! Then there was the girl's family. I've seen comic book villains that were more believable than this lot. We're supposed to believe that anyone's family is this callous and stupid? A beautifully shot film. A terrible script.

It's A Wonderful Life (1946) Flawed. One of my favorite films of all time but come on George Bailey, you can't figure out you're in a world in which you don't exist? How many frickin' clues do you need? The drama has built and built and then flat lines as we wait for George to figure it out. And wait. And wait.

Spartacus (1960) Flawed. Another all time favorite. It shows how many different elements must come together for a film to succeed. In the case of Spartacus everything works fine except for the score. They used the music from a Douglas Sirk melodrama in telling this epic tale of a slave rebellion. My guess is the studio imposed this on director Stanley Kubrick which is one of the reasons he thereafter sought complete control of his pictures.

Casino (1995) Fractured. Simply put, too much Sharon Stone. Stone is not only essential to the film but excellent in it. The one film in which she truly shines. But director Martin Scorsese over did her role thus turning her relationship with Robert De Niro into a soap opera. Anytime you're watching a film and are tempted to fast forward through some scenes, it's a bad sign.

The Lady from Shanghai (1947) Fractured. Worst dubbing ever. I strongly suspect that there exists within The Lady From Shanghai a film that I would greatly admire. But the dubbing is so poorly done as to be at times a major distraction that totally takes me out of the moment. Director Federico Fellini and Welles himself in other films successfully dubbed in dialogue. It was most unsuccessful in this instance.

Penny Serenade (1941) Forget-about-it. I can't believe I stayed awake. It's hard to imagine a movie starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne being boring. This is. It's hard to imagine a George Stevens film being boring. This is. Worse of all it is a painfully slow, depressing movie that goes nowhere -- slowly. Did I mention it's slow?

28 April 2010

I Give Actual Serious Advice to Young People

I've taken enough spins around the planet to feel entitled to pass along some advice to  you young 'uns out there in cyberville. I'm qualified based on having made an inordinate number of mistakes in my life time and managing to learn from a few of them. I hope someone out there finds something here useful.

1. Have a direction. I like this quote: "if you don't know where you're going, you'll end up somewhere else." People with no direction tend to end up nowhere, which is bad place to be.  Take it from someone who's been there. Starting with your senior year in high school have a sense of where you want to go in life. You can always change directions along the way. Drive and ambition are not in and of themselves bad.

2. Be a life long learner.  Learning should neither stop after high school nor college. Indeed education is not a destination but a process. This does not mean that one should continually take classes throughout their life (though that's actually not such a bad idea). Leave yourself open to new ideas, experiences and perspectives.  Warning: you'll find that the more you learn, the less you know.

3. Be a life long reader.  Many successful thinkers, writers, leaders have been avid, indeed voracious readers all their life. You not only learn and derive inspiration by reading, it's great exercise for the brain. Another warning: you will be frustrated to discover that none of us live long enough to read every book we want to.

4. Ask for help.  I always told my students that one sure sign of self respect is the capacity to ask for help when needed.  None of us can navigate the vagaries of life, whether as a child teen or adult, without the help of others.  At one point or another we may need medical attention, help with math homework, career counseling, a shoulder to cry or help with an addiction. A smart person knows when they can't manage a situation alone anymore and should ask for help.

5. Laugh. People with keen senses of humor are happier than those lacking the inclination to chuckle frequently. Laughter may not be the best medicine but it is an essential one.

6. Reflect. An unexamined life is not worth living. So said Socrates and he was quite right. One shouldn't brood and rue and regret. However learning from one's mistakes and reflecting on actions are our greatest teachers.

7. Don't get cynical. When life slaps you across the jaw it's easy to let cynicism set in. Bitterness and anger come easy too. They all represent the easy way out. It takes courage to persevere and believe, to have faith and be optimistic in the face of setbacks big and small. Don't give in to a hardened heart.

8. Exercise and eat right. Yes you'll live longer, but perhaps more importantly you'll be healthier and thus happier for whatever time you've got.

9. Meet the person of your dreams and hold on to him or her.  This is hard one because there's a strong element of luck involved.  But if fortune smiles on you and meet Mr. or Ms. Right do two things: thank your lucky stars and hold on. I was fortunate to meet the woman of my dreams and the poor dame is stuck with me to this day. There is nothing that brings a greater sense of well being than sharing your life with someone.

10. Be passionate about something(s). Happy, successful, fulfilled people are almost always passionate about something or things. Often its a combination of career, hobbies and family. Find what motivates, titillates and fascinates you and have at it with gusto.

11. Avoid haters. This would of course preclude watching Fox News. But seriously folks, whether they are voices from the political left or right or are apolitical, avoid those who are preoccupied with destruction. Seek the company of those who construct instead. You'll come across plenty of people who can do the easy work of tearing down, seek those who build up, especially those who endeavor to better the lot of others. Thems good people.

12. Remember the serenity prayer.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can
And wisdom to know the difference
It's not just a 12 step thing. This simple mantra can be a useful guide for anyone. It reminds you to know your limitations and pursue what's possible.

25 April 2010

The G Stands For Great-- My Ten Favorite Edward G Robinson Films

Most discussions of America's greatest actors leave out a man I'd put in the top five of all time cinema thespians.  If you've peaked at this post's title or the the above photo you know I'm talking about Edward G Robinson.

Robinson is most often remembered for two roles, as Rico in Little Caesar and Johnny Rocco in Key Largo.  Two films that bookended three decades of gangster roles for Robinson. But he also excelled being on the right side of the law, often successfully portraying the good guy. As you'll see from this list, which by no means encompasses all of Robinson's career, he could play all sorts in between. Here are my ten favorite Robinson performances, all in top drawer films.

1. Two Seconds (1932). Robinson is positively transcendent in this little seen film. He plays John Allen, something of an everyman whose life falls apart under the influence of a woman. Two Seconds is not available on DVD and has only been shown once on TCM in the past few years. Mervin LeRoy directed, Preston Foster co-starred.

2. Key Largo (1948). A signature role as the slimy gangster, Johnny Rocco. He's not just a crook, he's a vulgar one whispering goodness knows what into Lauren Bacall's ear. This is Robinson at his most despicable. John Huston directed, Bacall, Humphrey Bogart and Lionel Barrymore co star.

3. Double Indemnity (1944). Robinson is nuanced, eccentric and ultimately fascinating as insurance investigator Barton Keyes. The more you see of this classic noir the more you appreciate his performance. Billy Wilder directed, Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray co star.

4. The Stranger (1946). Robinson as Mr. Wilson is tracking down Nazi war criminals in the aftermath of World War II. For more on the Stranger see this recent post. Orson Welles directed and co stars along with Loretta Young.

5. Sea Wolf (1941). Robinson is evil incarnate as an early 20th century ship captain. As Wolf Larsen, Robinson combines great intelligence and vulnerability with sadism. Though based on a Jack london story, Sea Wolf is often seen as an allegory for fascism with Larsen the tyrant. Michael Curtiz directed, John Garfield and Ida Lupino co star,

6. Scarlet Street (1945). A very different Robinson role as he plays a poor sap taken in by a femme fatale and her pimp. It is an utterly heart breaking and totally effective performance. Fritz Lang directed, Joan Bennett and John Duryea co star.

7. Five Star Final (1931). Robinson is Joseph Randall, the editor of big city scandal sheet in the midst of a circulation war. They'll gladly exploit someone's misery for a story. But Randall develops a conscience. It's a compelling story given its moral gravitas by Robinson's convincing transformation. Mervin LeRoy directed, Boris Karloff and Aline MacMahon costar.

8. Brother Orchid (1940). Robinson a gangster again but this time one who may see the light. He hides out in a monastery where he is exposed to a crowd that is the polar opposite of what's used to.  What effect will these self sacrificing men of God have on professional crook? Lloyd Bacon directed, Bogart, Ann Sothern and Donald Crisp co star.

9. Larceny Inc. (1942). Yes, Robinson could do comedies as he proves in this perfectly delightful film that was the basis of Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks (2000).  Robinson is J. Chalmers Maxwell, aka "Pressure." After being released from prison, Pressure buys a furniture store so that he can tunnel into the nearby bank for a big score. Bacon directed, Jane Wyman and Broderick Crawford co star

10. Little Caesar (1931). Robinson's breakthrough role as Rico is the classic gangster rise and fall tale. Rico is all bluster and ego, lacking any subtlety or self awareness. Robinson and others would play variations of Rico for many years to come. This is the original. LeRoy directed Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Glenda Farrell co star.

Other excellent Edward G films: Women in the Window (1944), Dr. Erlich's Magic Bullet (1940)Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), Ballots or Bullets (1936), Smart Money (1931) and Barbary Coast (1935).

23 April 2010

Educators Write the Darndest Things

For the last two school years I've being working as a substitute teacher while earning a certificate in Teaching English as a Foreign Language.  I've been to over to over 20 schools and more than 100 different classrooms.  One of the few benefits derived from this line of work is exposure to the unintentionally hilarious writings of people ostensibly in the business of educating the youth of America.

Here's a sampling of what I've come across.

*A sign in a classroom reminding students that they need to be quiet during, "role call." What sort of classroom was this? English.

*A notice about driver's education opportunities said: "Sessions begin in October. Each one will be five weeks until the end of school." I don't know what it means either.

*A notice in a high school classroom admonished students that "The use of fowl language and the blatant use of profanity must stop at our school."
Really, "fowl" language is a problem? Students actually go around talking like poultry?

*Here's a notice a principal sent around to the school staff:

No chewing gum in the classroom.  We are all professionals.  Let's act like one!"
Too bad you don't write "like one."

*From a notice about an upcoming Read-A-Thon:

"When you sign up you will receive a permission slip to take home and have a parent sign the slip and return the slip on Thursday, December 17 in the library during 1st and 2nd lunch and receive your pledge sheet and reading journal."
Stop the sentence already, I'm almost out of breath.

*And from a notice to students about a fundraiser: "The classroom that raises the most money for each read will have pizza party or ice cream party your choice."
My choice is that you learn a little punctuation!

20 April 2010

Hey Stranger, New in Town? - Or - How One Actor Can Elevate a Good Film to Great

The Stranger (1946) is a taut, suspenseful, well-executed film directed by and co-starring Orson Welles. Welles plays Hans Kindler a Nazi war criminal who has escaped justice and lives as respected school teacher in a bucolic New England town (one is left to assume that schools didn't check references in post war America). Kindler, now known as Charles Rankin, has made such a remarkable transformation that, as our story begins, he is about to wed Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young) whose father is a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

Kindler/Rankin may have erased all traces of his past, but he still yearns for the day when Nazism is resurrected. Like Harry Lime, Welles' character in The Third Man (1949),  he is no garden variety bad guy, he is evil incarnate. The erudite, sophisticated kind of bad man who seems particularly dangerous.

Enter Edward G. Robinson in the role of  an investigator from the War Crimes Commission. We not only have quarry and prey but an especially intriguing story line to boot. We can also be certain, especially given the year this picture was released, that Kindler will be exposed. 1946 was not a time when Nazis got away with anything in films.

Absent the mystery of whether the jig will be up for our villain, we are still left with much to ponder, such as the means of his exposure, whether he will suffer capture or death and whether there will be innocents who, in modern parlance, are collateral damage, most particularly his unsuspecting bride. Welles delivers a strong if not entirely nuanced performance, while Young is striking for her combination of vulnerability, naivete and courageous intelligence. Lighting, pacing, camera angles and editing are all quite good as one might expect from Welles. The Stranger is then a fine if unspectacular film. Except for Robinson.

Though best remembered for excellent portrayals of  gangsters, Robinson also wore the proverbial white hat in numerous films and usually to good effect.  The Stranger is one such film.

As in other movies in which he's a good guy, such as Double Indemnity (1944) and Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), Robinson is easy enough to overlook during your first viewing. But the more you watch him, the more engaging he becomes.

As The Stranger's Mr. Wilson, Robinson is his foe's intellectual equal but without a hint of pretense. While Wilson can sit comfortably at a dinner party with the local elite, he can also play checkers downtown with the rascally local clerk. But his mind is always working and for this we admire Wilson. Robinson could convey a man thinking better than any actor I can name. There was a studied casualness to him; yet we could bloody well tell that his noggin was hard at work.

He also brought passion to such roles, particularly here where he is determined to round up the worst of the Nazi scum. Knowing what evil the Third Reich wrought, we endorse his desires.

Robinson was well into his 50s when The Stranger was made and his looks were never going to make you forget Cary Grant. In pursuit of Kindler, we note that he's physically a capable sort though far from an action hero. Yet we like him. There is a sad basset hound quality to that mug but its offset by his being a terribly likable bloke with a big heart.

This is the type of film that one can't imagine Hollywood successfully making today (if indeed they'd even try). There would be too much of everything thrown in and if you could find an actor to even approach Robinson's subtly they'd run him off the set.

The Stranger is a product of 1940s Hollywood and a forerunner to the kind of earnest, serious stories that were made throughout the 50s on both the big screen and television. The Stranger's success, then and now, is a tribute to Welles the director and that wonderful star, Ms. Young. But I think it is made special by Robinson who brings a moral gravitas to a key role. He does it without indulging in long winded speeches or lectures. He instead brings himself as an exemplar of a simple right-minded man of intelligence for whom doing the right thing is not a credo, but a job and a commitment.

(Coming soon, a look at my ten favorite Robinson films.)

18 April 2010

This Post is Not as Much About Shutter Island as it is About How We Watch Movies

It should have been obvious. If a person (in this case me) goes to see a movie a second time on the pretense of making up his or her mind about said film, that individual must like it. The movie, I mean.

I was not being honest with myself or you my vast legion of readers (hello Courtney B. in Arkon, Ohio) when I rambled on in two recent posts about needing to see Shutter Island  a second time to clear up my confusion regarding, of all things,  what I thought of it.

I mean what idiot goes to see a movie in the theaters twice in two weeks at today's ticket prices if he (or she) has any ambiguity in the "did you like it or not" area? Not this idiot.

But I was desperately curious about how a second viewing on the big screen would sit with me. As mentioned in a previous post I felt influenced by having read Dennis Lehane's novel upon which Shutter Island is quite faithfully based. I also had interference in the form of a lot going on in my life, plus there'd been a zillion reviews of the film which taken together fell into the category of "mixed."

Here's the thing, once you see a movie that has a profound effect on you, it's part of what's going on your life. Shutter Island jumped right into my brain sharing space with studying for my Second Language Acquisition class final, falling behind in my French class (tres stresse !) and other cares, woes, concerns and preoccupations. I don't know about the rest of you (of Clive N. in Leeds U.K. I have my doubts) but it can get pretty crowded in my brain. Compartmentalizing is not always so easy. You've got general stress, or elation or depression or ambiguity going on, and a movie can be a distraction or it can mix right in. And don't think you can watch a film without the filter of what's happening in the "real world" (I hate that place!).

You see movies through a prism.

Imagine watching a film with a blank slate. Okay you didn't read the book it's based on. You haven't read or seen any reviews. Your mood is just fine. Nothing much on your mind. Something is going to tap into your biases, prior knowledge or maybe even your  metacognition, for crying out loud. We've all got an affective filter going.

The lighting of a scene. The soundtrack. The actor's accent. A violent act or a kiss. We react, we relate we contemplate. Ever notice how differently people from similar backgrounds can view the same film? And I'm talking about people who all love it.

The editing! The use of metaphors! The realism! The acting! The movement of the camera in that one scene.... Because everything we see is caressed or slapped or nudged by our world view

I'm going to let you in on something -- we're all different. Very different. Its remarkable any of us get along at all. One thing that's different about all of us is that we look at the same blessed thing and see something else. Problem is that some people are afraid to like or not like certain things in our culture because of good old peer pressure. That's a powerful fear and though most prominent among teens it can strike any of us. Bravo to those brave souls who say what they like and dislike without reservation.

So I maybe wasn't quite so preoccupied my second time seeing Shutter Island. Plus I knew where the story was going, no surprises to deal with. (That's a whole other topic, how surprises in a movie can be wonderful or distracting or not really a surprise at all.) It's always with the second viewing of a film that I can really determine how much I like it because I'm not having to worry about what happens and can focus on how it happens and how it makes me feel. Sometimes that second viewing causes me to realize that the movie was just about "what" and how it was told wasn't that interesting. Other times I see it again and like it even more because of how wonderfully the story was revealed. The same phenomenon is true of songs.

If not properly done Shutter Island could have been a classic one-and-done film because of what I must assume is a very surprising twist at the end to people who haven't read the book. Thus if this story was merely adequately told people would be satisfied with one viewing but feel no desire to re-visit it. But Shutter Island is a Martin Scorsese film and whether you like this particular one or not you know you he's grand storyteller.

The other night when wife and a child were watching a network TV drama I was struck by how facile the series is and worse how intellectually dishonest it comes off. It's a bunch of actors in a made up story acting out emotions. It was as real as to me as The Flintstones.

Scorsese is nothing if not a brutally honest director. His films don't involve pretense. The story feels real, immediate, without artifice. (William Wellman and John Ford were the same sort of directors.) While, for example, Shutter Island has shades of gothic horror to it, it's every bit believable and not a single punch is pulled. Scorsese draws magnificent performances from actors and it never hurts that he's able to lure the creme de la creme from the profession. Hell, in Shutter Island Patricia Clarkson showed up for a small role

Here's another sub topic. Famous or familiar actors. You see an actor in a film and your mind steps out of the movie for a second to say: "hey look, it's Max Van Sydow!" Or even more distracting, "who's that actor, I've seen him somewhere before."  If the performance is strong enough, such mental interruptions are short lived.

Leonardo DiCaprio is in every scene of Shutter Island. That's a helluva responsibility to put on one bloke in a two hour 18 minute film. He's excellent. After the nonsense that was Titanic it was difficult to imagine Leo becoming one of our better actors. But he is.

I feel the urge to summarize now but will fight that urge to my last breath. Hot or cold I've said what was on my mind about the experience of seeing a movie.  I leave much more yet to be said but have tried your patience quite enough (thanks for hanging with me, Didrik N. of Oslo, Norway). Suffice to say, more in the future.

But, what you ask, of Shutter island? What did your second viewing tell you about the film? Fair enough questions so here's my answer: I liked it!

11 April 2010

I Stop in For a Quickie, Comments on Films I've Seen Recently

Before I get totally immersed in studying for my Second Language Acquisition class final (next Saturday, check your local listings for exact time and channel) I'm going to make a few quick comments about some of the films I've watched recently.  I offer these in no particular order and without further ado.

Female (1933). Ruth Chatteron is the wealthy CEO of a car company who uses men, sometimes as sexual playthings. At the risk of being obvious this is a pre code film and is in fact a classic example of the genre. Such a film would not only have been impossible to make in the first 30 years the code was enforced, its hard to imagine it today. Its so wonderful to see a woman in  charge, even if she finally does meet her match in George Brent.

Baby Face (1933). Another pre code film, this is to me the epitome of those daring movies made before the Hays office started its heinous censoring. Moreover its one of the better films of all time. Barbara Stanwyck couldn't be better as a woman who ruthlessly sleeps her way to the top, casting men aside like used banana skins. Like Chatterton in Female, she too gets more than she bargained for upon meeting George Brent. What was it with that guy?

Lacombe, Lucien(1974). It's a good enough film but one would certainly expect more from director Louis Malle. He set himself a heck of a task making the protagonist such an unlikeable fellow. While an interesting and never boring, LL does not show the craftsmanship of most other Malle films. This was my second viewing and I like it less, maybe because I first saw at the Pacific Film Archives on the big screen. It's the story of a somewhat dim witted young Frenchmen who stumbles upon and joins forces with the collaborationist French police force during Nazi occupation. Full of good performances.

King & Country (1964). Speaking of the PFA, I saw King and Country there last Thursday. I now have another film to add to my list of outstanding World War I movies. It's got elements of Paths of Glory (1958) though the man on trial here is actually guilty of the charges. Whether he deserves the death by firing squad is another matter. Tom Courteny is excellent as the naive  war weary young British soldier charged with desertion and Dirk Bogarde gives a superb performance as the officer who defends him (any Bogarde fans out there?). One of a legion of films that examines the lunacy of war. Done in 18 days on the cheap, it feels like a stage play but with all that rain and mud looks and is a really good film.

Shutter Island (2010) One of those rare films that I absolutely have to see again to decide upon. I wrote about it the other day so won't go on too long here other than to re-iterate that it has had a lingering effect on my thinking and even though I'm not sure how much I like it. Must see it again on the big screen.

Flame and Citron (2008). In terms of movies, World War II is the gift that just keeps on giving. Released last Summer in the States and now available on DVD was this film about two heroes of the Danish resistance. No, I knew nothing about the Danish resistance and in fact as much as I've studied the war I'd never given it much thought. Flame and Citron were the code names of two Danes whose primary jobs were as hit men. Their targets were generally Danes who'd gone bad, that is collaborated with the Nazis. It's a true story and a powerful one well told. Two relatively ordinary sorts become heroes due to the extremely unusual circumstances of the time and place. Appropriately bloody, sad, nerve wrecking and fascinating.

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943). You're a fine actor Robert Downey Jr. but when it comes to playing Sherlock Holmes, give me Basil Rathbone anytime. As for Dr. Watson, I'll take the lovable Nigel Bruce over Jude Law or anyone else any time. That said this particular edition of the Rathbone/Bruce Holmes films is merely adequate. Likes others made during WWII it tries too hard to be anti Nazi and takes us away from what Holmes does best, match wits. Still a diverting and delightful film with a good bit of sleuthing.

Taxi Driver (1976). Wow. It's one of those cinematic experiences that makes you wonder what you should single out and praise. How about the performance of its star, Robert De Niro? You could also go with the screenplay by Paul Schrader. Maybe Martin Scorsese's direction? The supporting cast? A particular scene? The mood of the film? It's influence? Great films are like that. You find different things to admire with each viewing. This time I was struck by lead character Travis Bickle and his utter and complete separation from society. Bickle made attempts to engage with his fellow humans but really didn't have it in him. The one person he got along with was a teenage prostitute and she ended up having to watch him shoot holes through three people. It's a great story of an alienated man.

Germany Year Zero (1948). I've already promised to devote a whole post to director Roberto Rossellini's extraordinary war trilogy, of which this is the third part. I'd never see this one before and suffice it to say was suitably impressed. To say it belongs right up there with its predecessors, Open City and Paisan, is high praise indeed and praise I give without hesitation. See all three and meanwhile I'll try to find time in the coming weeks to go on and on and on about them. This latter is, as the title implies, set in Germany. The war has ended and we see that Germans are paying a heavy price for their defeat. We follow in particular one young lad trying against all odds to make the best of a sad situation.

Captain Blood (1935). I didn't so much watch it as have it on while I tended to other matters. It's a familiar enough film with Errol Flynn swashbuckling and Olivia de Havilland looking gorgeous, which of course came naturally for her. You also get Guy Kibbee, the great Mr. Rathbone, Harry Stephenson and Donald Meek. Michael Curtiz directed and he knew how to make a rollicking good adventure story. You can have your Pirates of the Caribbean, give me the pirate adventures of Hollywood's Golden Age.

Europa Europa (1990). This is one of those films that isn't terribly well told but you don't mind because its such an amazing story. A Jewish-German teenager living in Poland at the outbreak of World War II escapes the Nazis and is taken in by the Soviets.  When Germany and Soviets go to war he's on the run again until being captured by the Nazis. He pretends to be...well I could go on about this incredible tale. The kid ends up in of all places the Hitler Youth where he squires a young Jew-hating Aryan bird played by Julie Delpy. Wait a second, didn't I say earlier that he himself was a Jew? Yup. What makes it all the more remarkable is that this is a true story. Not a cinematic work of art but when the story is this compelling, who cares? Very well worth seeing.

08 April 2010

Musings on Walking, Weather, that Socialist Captain Blood, Rossellini, Sequels and a Medical Comeback

As I was walking home a minute ago guess who ran into me? A jogger! If it's not a bicyclist or a skateboarder terrorizing us pedestrians, its some idiot using the sidewalks as a track. This klutz was apparently startled to see someone afoot. I had just recovered from being banged into when a another jogger sped by me startling me in the process.  Silly me, I do my running on a treadmill at the gym where I've yet to collide or interfere with something taking a stroll.  I also don't have to bounce up and down when I get to a red light as there are no red lights nor even intersections on the treadmill.

Got an email from a friend who always mentions current climate conditions. Today he closed by saying: "gorgeous weather." Where does this far flung acquaintance reside? In the same exact city that I do. Berkeley is not so sprawling a metropolis that one end of the city experiences different weather than the other. Moreover I do not share my friend's obsessive love of warm, clear weather. Oh, I like a sunny day every now and then but day after day of it is boring. I'm particularly fond of rain especially when local environs such as ours have experienced below average rain fall these past few years. I've made my views on weather known to this friend so am led to believe that his weather updates are the equivalent of reminding someone that their favorite sports team lost. "ha, ha, we're getting the kind of weather I like..."

Anyone out there watch Glenn Beck? (If so this blog is strange one for you to visit given my left wing proclivities.) I sure don't. I'm just wondering if he caught Captain Blood (1935) on TCM last night. If so I'd imagine he'd be in a real lather right now. For he'd have seen Blood (Errol Flynn) gather his crew and tell them that all loot was to be shared equally (socialist!) and that anyone losing a limb in battle would be compensated with a set amount in gold (health care!). In Beck's fantasy world (now there's the making of a horror movie) pirates would no doubt be paid according to rank and would have to use their own funds to pay for medical care.

If any of you lot (as my British friends would say) has not seen the new Roberto Rossellini war trilogy released on DVD in February, do so soonest. It features not one, not two but three GREAT films: Open City (1945), Paisan (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1948). I'd not had the privilege of viewing the latter until recently and it is as powerful as the other two which is saying quite a bit indeed. I think it better that I devote an entire post to these three films at a later date. But I do think that anyone who loves film should see them. You don't need to be a fan of Italian, neo realism, war films or Rossellini to appreciate these masterpieces.

At the theater the other day I saw a preview for Iron Man 2. I realize I've made this point before but it bears repeating: what a novel idea to make a film about a comic boy character and then to create a sequel! This type of original thinking is what separates the geniuses in Hollywood from us mere mortals. Kudos for thinking outside the box!

Several months ago I mentioned on this blog that my brother had just faced a very risky operation. He recently returned home after two full months in hospital and is on the road to a full recovery. There was great feat for his future prospects but in this case all's well that ends well. Way to go big brother and thank you medical profession. Just think, we may be getting to the stage when one and all in this country will have access to the best health care (sorry, Glenn, medicine isn't a privilege anymore).

07 April 2010

In Struggling to Understand how I Felt About Shutter Island I Investigate the Process of Film Viewing

One of the best movie experiences I ever had was when I saw Gods & Monsters (1998). I went to see it knowing only one thing: it was getting rave reviews. Didn't know the first bloody thing about it. I did not know that it was about the director James Whale, nor that Ian McKellan starred. Hadn't even seen a preview for it. Great way to see a film and nearly impossible to replicate.

No pre conceptions, not looking for anything. Everything would be a surprise, provided the film wasn't formulaic. It wasn't.

I had a very dissimilar experience yesterday in going to see Shutter island. Having read the novel upon which the film is based and having seen various versions of trailers and having seen scads of reviews, I was going to be pretty hard to surprise.

I'd been anticipating Shutter Island for months and fully expected to see it on its opening weekend. I don't miss a Martin Scorsese movie and particularly one based on a novel I much enjoyed. Then the reviews came out and they were mixed. Plus I was quite busy. Not so busy that I wasn't going to any movies (been to several since Shutter Island came out in mid February) but spare time was scarce and set aside for must-see experiences.

Meanwhile the excitement about seeing Shutter Island faded fast. I'd get to it -- eventually.

Eventually was yesterday and I went more out of a sense of obligation than with any anticipation. I did wonder how the rather major twist toward the end would be handled but mostly I wanted to "get this out of the way."

Fast forward to last night after I'd returned home from the cinema. Inevitably enquiring minds wanted to know what I thought. I gave the briefest possible answer. One that would discourage a follow up query.

I just didn't know what to think.

I knew that Shutter Island was a visually stunning experience. This is no small thing. The look of a film is integral to how a story is told. I knew the book had been pretty faithfully followed and the liberties did no harm to the story. I knew that that Shutter Island boasted a host of excellent performances, not the least of which was from its star, Leonardo DiCaprio.

But I was otherwise confused and not sure why.

I'm currently reading the third and final volume of Richard Evan's remarkable history of the Third Reich. It will surprise no one to hear that reading about the shenanigans of the Nazis can, after awhile, be a bit depressing and frightening, not to mention thought-provoking. Meanwhile I'm enjoying a week off. I had a major presentation in a linguistics class on Saturday and my French class doesn't meet this week nor am I subbing this week as school is out for Spring break. My brain is free to roam a bit but it never strays to far from my studies nor the cares and joys of daily life. Then there's Nazis (the real not the cinematic kind). So then I see this much ballyhooed film from one of the great directors of all time that has met with something less than universal praise. In fact, some critics really disliked it. As someone prone to reflection and contemplation I was set up nicely to see a film dealing with sanity.

Okay, so why should I care what anyone else thought of the movie? What should I care how it compares to the book? What should I care what else is happening in my life? After all, a movie is supposed to take you away from all that. You enjoy it or dislike it for it's own sake.

In theory, yes. But that's like suggesting that journalists or historians can be unbiased. In other words it is, in truth, an impossibility. Still, if Shutter Island was any good I'd have thought of nothing else while watching it and would marvel at the achievement of it after.  N'est ce pas?

Again, you'd think.

There was a swirl of ideas that danced about my head last night as I reflected on the film. With some of these came emotions. Had it tapped into something? Had this film that is so much about the human mind and how easily and how badly it malforms struck some nerves?

Well there it is. Forget classifications. Forget how I'd rate Shutter Island on IMDb or what adjectives I'd used in describing it. I've been a slave to rating and classifying and even to defining. For me, this first time at least, Shutter Island was not about "what I thought of it" but what it made me think, how it made me think and why it succeeded so wonderfully at teasing my intellect. Shutter Island defied quantification and begged long musing.

I cannot imagine how I would have reacted to Shutter Island if I'd gone into the theater the same way I did when I saw Gods & Monsters. It is an absolute certainty it would have touched me in different ways. But you cannot leave your baggage outside when you enter a movie theater or play a DVD.  The key to a movie is how it manages to strip away that baggage or uses it further provoke and stimulate.

This is why a second viewing of a film, particularly one at a very different stage of our life, can produce such a different reaction. It's not just that we change, but the circumstances surrounding our life on that given day are altered. You can have a different response to a film not just ten years later but if you happened to see it on Wednesday rather than Tuesday.

Shutter Island was a great film viewing experience. I'm setting aside, for now, a discussion about the specific virtues or faults of the movie. I instead praise it for happening upon my life at a time when it was able to engage me, and work this little brain of mine. Who could ask for more from a film?

04 April 2010

Hey Everybody! I'm Part of a the Nattering Gaggle!

New York Times film critic A.O. Scott has an article in the Arts and Leisure section of today's paper about the slow demise of newspaper film criticism. I was reading said piece with much sympathy and agreement when I came upon this: "Where once reason debate and knowledgeable evaluation flourished, there are now social networking and marketing algorithms and a nattering gaggle of bloggers." (Emphasis mine.)

Hey! I thought. That's me!

One of the sins I'm frequently accused of (and arguably am guilty of ) is that when it comes to films I'm somewhat of a snob ("somewhat?"). But never have I penned anything so high brow as what Old Man Scott is guilty of.

That print edition film criticism is dying off is, cinematically speaking, a tragedy. But that on line Joe Schmoes like yours truly are flourishing is nothing to get all high hat about. Many amateur film bloggers undoubtedly possess the brains of gnats. But the same can be said of many member of the United States Congress and virtually everyone on Fox News. There are also many film bloggers who can string together words to form coherent sentences and have reasonably intelligent things to say about films. Indeed I've read some film blog posts that far surpass the "natterings" of  many print critics.

So there!

There's not a lot worse than the hoi polloi screaming and moaning about higher ups when they don't know what the deuce they're talking about (see the Tea Partiers). But one thing is as bad is when hoity toity crowds slings mud down at us plebes.  Lay off, Scottie. You've got a job writing about films at a decent enough newspaper and no doubt make a good living at it.

Us members of the nattering gaggle perform a most valuable service indeed. When the latest blockbuster from big name director with big name stars hit the screens we are another voice with another perspective tossing in our two cents. But more importantly we're the ones renting DVDs and watching Turner Classic Movies and re-watching favorite classics and reminding the world of what a great actress Garbo was or how many terrific films Guy Kibbee was in or turning each other on to a relatively obscure French film, or Italian director or forgotten performance by Trevor Howard. (And we often do it without resorting to run on sentences like that last one.)

We alert fellow cinephiles to what's coming out on DVD and what's coming up on TCM. We recount the great films of an era, an actor or of a genre. We find and post great photos of great stars. We share and share alike. We are community of people who love films and don't get a nickel for our troubles but don't care because like I said at the beginning of this sentence we love films.

I admire and revere the great and well known film critics of past and present but I can no longer imagine a world without the nattering gaggle of film bloggers of which I am a very proud member.

Suck on it, Scott!