31 May 2010

Parting is Not Always So Sweet a Sorrow -- Malle's Au revoir les enfants

There are some wounds, both physical and psychological, that neither time nor therapy will ever fully heal. For Louis Malle such a scar was inflicted him when at age 12 he watched a friend being led away by the Nazis. That friend was a Jew and he would die at Auschwitz.

Malle undoubtedly found some catharsis in making a movie that climaxed with that incident, Au revoir les enfants (1987).

Some films are technically perfect but have no soul. There is not a wasted shot, the story flows, the performances are all spot on but while watching the movie is an enjoyable experience, it is also ultimately forgettable one. Not so with ARLE which embodies both the superior craftsmanship of Malle the director while being an expression from the heart of Malle the man.

Julien is a 12 year old mama's boy sent off by his glamorous mom to a Catholic boarding school to avoid the perils of war time Paris. It is early 1944 and liberation is still a dream for the French. The Nazis and their French collaborators have a firm grip on many aspects of life. The students at the school include three Jews living under assumed names, their true identities unknown by their classmates.

Gradually Julien and one of the Jewish lads, Jean, become fast friends. And gradually Julien discovers Jean's secret. Julien is no anti semite, indeed he's not even altogether sure what a Jew is.

The film is as evocative a telling of boys' pre teens years as you'll ever see. ARLE never veers into sentimentality nor stoops for easy laughs in its depiction of boys at school and play. Even with their country occupied by enemy troops and with occasional bombs being dropped by their supposed allies, boys will be boys. Math class goes on. English essays must be written. Piano lessons are taken.

Young men are by nature borderline cruel as they test and tease one another. They are forever pushing boundaries with adults and are not hesitant to break rules if its suits them. But at the same time boys are starting to find their place in the world, separating from parents whether mom and dad are near or far or in concentration camps. Talents are being discovered or perhaps already being refined. Strong friendships that can last a lifetime or maybe just a week are formed.

Having armed Nazis about is paradoxically of no consequence and the greatest bogeyman imaginable. Life goes on amid all manner of calamity. Boys are resilient, though not unbreakable.

At the 12 year-old Malle's school the three Jews along with the school's headmaster were betrayed and the Gestapo came to take them on one fittingly cold January day.
It is the headmaster who utters the farewell that gave the film it's title. "Au revoir les enfants" (good bye children). Julien and the rest of school can only watch.

It was over 40 years after the real events occurred that the movie premiered. The wounds of watching a friend, two other classmates and the headmaster being taken away had not been healed for Louis Malle. There was, he said after, a sense of relief to having told the story, but one can't imagine it served as a cure-all for the pain inflicted that day.

Remarkably, Au revoir les enfants is not a depressing film, nor particularly sad. Oh sure a tear or two may form as the closing credits roll, but that's not what one if left with. The story is too rich, too well told to be trivialized as merely "a sad story." The characters, in lead, supporting and small roles, are expertly realized. Malle's direction is perfect and thus all the events within the story too memorable to be left with just one closing moment, no matter how powerful. And indeed it is one of the most touching and beautifully told endings in cinema. Yet is is just one part of a masterpiece.

What great fortune for Malle to be able to share the story. The telling of it gave him some solace while giving audiences a film not soon forgotten.

29 May 2010

As Subtle as a Punch in the Nose But No Less Effective -- The Bridge on the River Kwai

Remember the scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) when Butch, played by Paul Newman, has to fight the towering hulk Harvey Logan (6'9" Ted Cassidy) for control of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang? Before the seemingly one-sided battle is to begin Butch insists they clarify the rules. "Rules? In a knife fight?" asks the incredulous Harvey. Long story short, Butch kicks him in the nuts and the fight is, for all intents and purposes, over.

That scene pretty much sums up David Lean's 1957 classic, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

The late 1940s and 1950s was a time when Hollywood started cranking out message films. Some are now dated like Gentlemen's Agreement (1947) and others seemingly eternal like 12 Angry Men (1957). Then there's a film like Kwai which masquerades (quite successfully I might add) as an epic. It's got scope, breath taking cinema photography and grand performances from a celebrated cast.

At its core, however, Kwai is an earnest little film (albeit tucked neatly inside a blockbuster) with a powerful message about the insanity of war. Indeed the last line of the film is the exclamation "madness!" Which is being repeated for full effect in case you missed it the first time or had dozed off for much of the picture.

A central question in Kwai regards the rules of war. Rules? When people are killing one another? Might as well talk of guidelines for the insane. Caught amid the rules and the killing is the presumptive hero of the film, its lone American, Shears (William Holden). "You're two of a kind, crazy with courage. For what? How to die like a gentleman... how to die by the rules - when the only important thing is how to live like a human being," he says to Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) a by-the-book officer leading a group of saboteurs that includes Shears. This is the character that most of us can relate to. Shears may be a cynic but he is a witty, handsome one with a touch of everyman to him. And he expresses sentiments we can relate to: the primacy of living to see another day.

Alec Guinness as Col. Nicholson and Sessue Hayakawa Col. Saito are the films other principal characters. The former is the quintessential spit and polish British career officer and the latter is an at times sadistic and at times befuddled "enemy" officer. They are both extraordinarily stubborn men and Kwai is like other films of the era in its disdain for such rigidity, unless by chance it is in the cause of social justice. In this film, it ain't.

Kwai,of course, is the story of a Japanese POW camp in the heart of the Burmese jungle in the heart of World War II. The Japanese didn't have a whole lot of  respect for soldiers who let themselves be taken alive and anyway they needed a bridge built for train transport. The prisoners would work on the bridge and like it. Fine, the Brits are game but Nicholson balks when Saito insists that the officers work too. That, the good colonel points out, is in violation of the rules, specifically the Geneva Convention. "Don't speak to me of rules!" Saito retorts, "this is war, not a game of cricket." This is no mere clash of cultures, this is war time. Consequences for such differences are magnified many fold.

Meanwhile while this clash of wills is going on, Shears has daringly/stupidly escaped into the jungle in a desperate attempt to find his way back to fellow allies. Miraculously he does so and finds himself recuperating at an allied base replete with booze and lovely nurses. He's escaped hell and landed in heaven. But this is war time, fella, and there are no free passes. Aware of Shears' unique knowledge of the area and that a bridge is being constructed, a British commando squad recruits him to help blow the bridge to smithereens. Go back!? The very idea is insane. But as he's only been posing as an officer, the Brits have him over a barrel.

Said bridge is being rather nicely constructed by the Brits fully cooperating now that Saito has caved on the issue of officers' working. In fact Nicholson is quite determined to construct a proper bridge; the building of which will help the morale and discipline of his men and leave a legacy they can all be proud of.

Hold on a sec.... Aren't the British essentially helping their enemy's war effort? Yes, there's that.

The film's climax is one of the greatest conclusions to a story ever filmed. The bridge is completed, on time, the commando squad arrives and sets its demolition aiming to blow the bridge during the inaugural crossing of an enemy train. But as Major Warden has repeatedly warned, "there's always the unexpected." Of all people it is Nicholson who sees the tell tale signs of sabotage and alerts Saito. 

So here you have the allies trying blow up a Japanese bridge built by allies for the Japanese and it is an allied officer trying to put the kibosh on the whole deal. Madness indeed.

One allied soldier is thus put in the rather awkward position of having to kill Nicholson, something he's reluctant to do, being on the same side and all. Shears enters the fray and is gunned down but not before confronting Nicholson with a simple but angry, "You!"

"What have I done?" Nicholson finally wonders before the most ironic way to resolve a sticky situation you'll ever see.

I've omitted one character from this discussion that being Major Clipton, an officer and a doctor who observes all the goings on with detached bemusement. It is he who repeats "madness" to drive home the film's essential point.

Sometimes its illuminating to get simple messages in complex forms. In Kwai not only is this case but we get a highly entertaining story with vivid characters. We aren't left wondering what the film is about but marveling at and enjoying the manner of its delivery.

Bridge on the River Kwai was adapted from Pierre Boulle's novel (which was loosely based on actual events) by two writers who were blacklisted at the time, Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman. These two brave men had refused to name names during the McCarthy hearings. Part of the insult added to this injury was that they did not receive the Oscars for best screenplay Kwai earned. Actually they did get them, but they were by that time dead. Madness!

22 May 2010

A Day in the Life -- A Page From My Diary

Woke up and had my usual hot shower and breakfast loaded with bran.

Met Lefty and Rocco at their hideout. We pulled a bank heist coming away with about 7Gs each. Not bad and no one was hurt.

Wrote the Pulitzer Prize Committee suggesting they create a category for film bloggers.

Finished the L-ME section of my translation of the Encyclopedia Britannica into pig latin. Should be finished with the whole thing next month. Then it's ka-ching!

Got several more emails from Marty Scorsese asking me to star in his next film. I'm hesitant because it might cut into my film blogging time. Anyway should I really have the lead role in a bio pic about Chester Arthur? Sure he was a great president but....

Was hungry so took the bus down to the marina, stole a boat, went fishing, caught a tuna, brought it home and made a tuna (duh!) sandwich, on rye. Yummy.

Took Jerry (our pet giraffe) for a walk. Still ticked off that we spent two hours last night looking all over the neighborhood for him. Turned out he was locked in the basement the whole time.

Came home to find the ghosts of Adolph Hitler and Groucho Marx arguing in my kitchen. Apparently they've settled their political differences and were in dispute over the position of the salad fork at formal dinners. Felt weird taking sides with Hitler.

Wife home from appointment with her psychic, Lonnie. She smacked me really hard across the face with her purse. Gave no reason but I assume it's related to my recent purchase of Enron stock. Oops!

Picked up the triplets from day care. Lost Cornelius on the way home, Gussie and Hermione made it safely. Wife smacked me across the face again. Ostensibly for losing Corny.

Wrote an essay in my internationally renowned film blog, about great musicals from the silent era. Irony is dead.

Due to the economic downturn I had to let the pool boy go. Didn't feel too bad about as we don't have a pool. The stable boy is next.

Corny showed up. That's one tough 3 year old.

Wrestled a mountain lion in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I'll never know.

The wife made dinner managing to smack me across the face with a skillet in the process. I think it was on purpose as I was in the den at the time.

Twins are back from boarding school. Gilligan still has tourettes and Delilah has developed a fear of air. We shared a few laughs over the time she was possessed by the devil though I don't recall it being funny at the time.

Enjoyed the dinner. Always love the wife's turnip souffle. Made the mistake of asking her to pass the salt. This was an excuse for her to take a ten pound bag of salt and smack me across the face with it. She may need anger management.

Watched a couple of hours of network TV. This sent me into convulsions.

Took Jerry for his evening walk. The plastic shopping bag I brought along to collect his droppings proved inadequate. Hope neighbors appreciate the rare strain of fertilizer.

A bird in the tree in front of our house was loudly chirping. I suggested to her that she save her tweets for twitter. The bird laughed uproariously. Our whacky neighbor, came out to see what the commotion was and hilarity ensued.

Re-read War and Peace. Still don't get it.

Went to bed. Wife smacked me across the face with a pillow which normally I don't mind but she had put her iron into the pillow case. When I asked what the smacking was for she confessed it was in error and that she owed me one. I found this rather cold comfort.

19 May 2010

The Eternal Overcast of the Troubled Mind

Existential angst. A curse of the self aware. Introspection colored by philosophical musings. It's the occasional inability to merely take the next step in one's life without first contemplating its ramifications or those of the previous steps. Throw into the mix something like an addiction, or a deviancy or a mental quirk and you've got the recipe for a tortured soul. Or at least one that needs a lot of attention.

You've also got the recipe for a French film of the New Wave era -- Le feu follet (1963) (the English title is The Fire Within). It's directed by Louis Malle who adapted the script from a 1930s French novel that was undoubtedly inspired by the work of F Scott Fitzgerald. That for Malle this is more homage than rip off is evidenced by references to Fitzgerald during the film.

Some films seem trivialized by presenting a synopsis. It's like being asked of a complicated person: "what's he like?" You can summarize but it hardly does justice. But one must, so in this instance I'll cheat by copy and pasting IMDb's plot summary:

Life has become unbearably painful for Alain who is in his early 30s. He once used alcohol to dull the pain. His estranged wife in New York has paid for a cure at a clinic in Versailles and sends an emissary, one of the many woman he has known, to see how Alain is. She sees only the surface as does his doctor, who says it's time for Alain to leave the clinic. He goes to Paris the next morning and has lunch with old friends, a rendezvous in a cafe and is invited to a dinner party. Will Alain make a connection that will change his mind about ending it all?

Le feu follet is like a lot of great films in that is an invitation. In this case Malle is inviting viewers to follow the main character, Alain Leroy (Maurice Ronet) through various parts of Paris. But it is also a journey through one man's mind and we all know the curious directions such expeditions can take. The mind, the old ad campaign said, is a terrible thing to waste. But it can be a wonderful topic for a film. 

The pace of Le feu follet seems languorous. Malle might have added a fist fight or a car spun out of control or a sex scene. Through much of the movie I was hoping for such a diversion. Not bored, but uncomfortable by the meditative pace. Yet by the last frame I was exhilarated. It had all come together into a wonderful whole. A rich melange of episodes, some curious, others intoxicating. Isn't the thinking process the same? Lots of randomness, lots of going nowhere until viola

Here's an overused and overrated word: underrated. But sometimes it must be used, as in any discussion of Malle among great directors. If you need proof look no further then what a compelling film he made out the story of a recovering alcoholic wandering Paris. For one it is beautifully shot, serving as it does as another example of the powerful advantage black and white has over color cinema photography. Pacing in such a film is critical and Malle got it just right. The casting is spot on. Finding the right actor to play Alain was a chore for Malle given the somewhat autobiographical nature of the story.

Donet looks by turns like he must be the French first cousin of Tony Curtis or the Gaelic uncle of Jude Law. He's as good an actor -- if not better -- than both. In Le feu follet he carries the weight of a million woes and personal demons with nary a gesticulation nor frown. It's an incredible responsibility to have the camera trained on you for almost the entire running length of a film and Donet is equal to the task. He expresses more with his eyes or a turn of the head than many actors do with a long soliloquy.

Our Alain visits old haunts and friends. This includes a stop at an upscale opium den where Jeanne Moreau has a cameo. There is also an outdoor cafe where Alain's old army buddies rendevous and visits to flats both bohemian and upper, upper crust. It's a whirlwind 24 hours for a normal bloke but again not the usual stuff of movies. But the French New Wave was not just about different ways of telling stories but of telling a different sort of tale. Why not the curious meanderings of a troubled man?

Don't show Le feu follet to your 14 year old boy, especially if he's been fed on a steady diet of Spiderman and Iron Man (this is Thinking Man!). But for a mature person such as yourself....

This is an explorations of a character. Sad, troubled, sympathetic and altogether mysterious. It is not afraid to leave much to our imagination. I've written often, including in my last post, about admiring films that do not fill in all the blanks. I really don't mind if a film leaves me with room to think. I thank the director for dignifying me in such a way.

Le feu will also leave you yearning for Paris. A city to be fallen in love with again and again. Yes, the photography here would flatter Hoboken, but anyone having seen Paris will know that Le fou is a mere hint of its considerable charms.

This may well be a movie to fall in love with repeatedly. For me it was love at first sight.

16 May 2010

Sometimes You Have to Accept the Mystery of a Movie

Life is almost never episodic. It is less like a TV show and more like a river. It flows.

When a movie does not tack on an ending, when the "story" is not wrapped up in a nice neat package, a lot of people complain. There were howls from many people over the sudden ending of the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men (2007). A few more could be heard from their latest film, A Serious Man (2009). Both films concluded somewhat abruptly without resolution, with questions unanswered.

Evidently many movie goers have a hard time with ambiguity. They want their stories to have a "once upon a time" beginning and a "they lived happily ever after" ending. Others of us are happy to be invited to have our brains indulged in a little thinking. I welcome stories that ask me to ponder possibilities.

Film is, after all, art and art at its best encourages us to exercise our intellect. The absence of denouement is but one method. A Serious Man gives us much to ponder while still being fully satisfying at face value.

I recently enjoyed my third viewing of the film. This time I was particularly struck by a very minor character encouraging the main character, Larry Gopnik (Mark Stuhlbarg) to "accept the mystery." He could well have been the voice of the Coens telling the audience that not all this film's riddles need be solved. Indeed maybe they aren't even meant to be.

Larry's life is plagued with a series of Job like troubles. Answers, would be nice. Very nice. He visits three rabbis. The first, the junior rabbi, can do little better than marvel at the parking lot (emphasis his and mine). The second tells Larry the story of dentist who is a mutual acquaintance. The dentist once had a patient, a goy by-the-by, who had a message inscribed in the back of his teeth. The dentist puzzled over both the meaning of the message and its origins, written as it was in Hebrew, in a goy's mouth. Only when the dentist embraced the mystery was he again able to sleep, eat and enjoy life.

Larry was not amused.

The third rabbi, the senior of the synagogue's three, was "too busy thinking" to see Larry. So it goes.

Why is this all happening to Larry? Wife wanting a divorce (didn't see that coming) brother in trouble with the law (who knew?) and the tenure committee deciding Larry's future is receiving scurrilous letters about him (huh?). Oh yes and he's wrecked his car and the Colombia House Record company is on his ass. Wait, I forget about the menacing neighbor who seems to be violating their property line, the student trying to bribe him and the damage his car sustained....

Why do bad things happen to good people? Why aren't there answers to all our questions, or at least the important ones? Why is that as we get older, instead of everything becoming clearer, new mysteries emerge? WHY?

I think many people with strong religious faith (regardless of denomination) would agree that much is to be left unanswered in this life. Yet we continually struggle, if not for answers, for meaning. What about karmic laws? The old what goes around comes around business. We want to make events represent something. There must be a point. Things can't just happen. Can they?

Can and do.

So the Coens gave us this wonderful stew of a film. If you haven't seen A Serious Man you may at this point be picturing something rather bleak. On the contrary it is rich with humor. It has to be, life is rich with humor. A Serious Man succeeds in reveling truths about life while asking if we wouldn't like to contemplate meanings, whys and wherefores. Or not, up to us.

Stuhlbarg's Larry is the perfect protagonist for such a story. He never tries to impose his will on events. No, he's trying to survive and prosper and wants only to understand so that he can navigate events. Understanding is not a philosophical exercise for Larry, it is a survival mechanism. He is, after all, a physics professor. He is, after all, a serious man. It would be a different movie and maybe not so satisfying a movie, if Larry were raging, or ironic or anything other than...a nice guy.

Larry rides the river. Which, as I said, is what life is like.

Some meaning can be enough meaning. A lot of meaning can be faking it.

15 May 2010

More Movie Quotes? Yup! I've Got a Bad Case of FQF

It seems I can't get enough of my favorite film quotes of which there are many. So sue me. I first provided a list of my 20 favorite film quotes from men back in November. That was followed the next day by 20 favorites from women. Less than a fortnight ago I offered 20 more from men and again came back with 20 from females a day later. Evidently I've got film quote fever (familiarly known as FQF). There is no known cure. This may be due to the fact that no one suffering FQF has any desire to have it go away.

This time I've got...I don't know I lost count...quotes and it's co-ed -- men and women mixed. Please enjoy.

You know, I never feel comfortable on these sort of things. Victims? Don't be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax - the only way you can save money nowadays. - Orson Welles as Harry Lime The Third Man (1949).

Well, there's the trap door, the humidor, and the cuspidor. How many doors would you like? - Ginger Rogers as Jean Maitland in Stage Door (1937).

I don't gripe to you, Reiben. I'm a captain. There's a chain of command. Gripes go up, not down. Always up. You gripe to me, I gripe to my superior officer, so on, so on, and so on. I don't gripe to you. I don't gripe in front of you. You should know that as a Ranger. - Tom Hanks as Capt. Miller  in Saving Private Ryan (1998).

Now, get this, you double-crossing chimpanzee: There ain't going to be any interview and there ain't going to be any story. And that certified check of yours is leaving with me in twenty minutes. I wouldn't cover the burning of Rome for you if they were just lighting it up. If I ever lay my two eyes on you again, I'm gonna walk right up to you and hammer on that monkeyed skull of yours 'til it rings like a Chinese gong! - Rosalind Russell as Hildy in His Girl Friday (1942).

Maybe there ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue, they's just what people does. Some things folks do is nice and some ain't so nice, and that's all any man's got a right to say. - John Carradine as Casy in Grapes of Wrath (1940).

The saddest thing in life is wasted talent. - Robert De Niro as Lorenzo in A Bronx Tale (1993).

You know if someone came in here, they wouldn't believe what they'd see? You and me with long faces plunged into despair because we find out a man didn't kill his wife. We're two of the most frightening ghouls I've ever known. - Grace Kelly as Lisa Carol Fremont in Rear Window (1954).

I wouldn't give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn't have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a little looking out for the other fella, too. - James Stewart as Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

You belong to that unfortunate category that I would call the "Park Avenue brat". A spoiled child who's grown up in ease and luxury... who's always had her own way... and who's misdirected energies are so childish that they hardly deserve the comment, even of a butler on his off Thursday. - William Powell as Godfrey in My Man Godfrey (1936).

Goddamn, that's great. So old Elaine Robinson got started in a Ford. - Dustin Hoffman as Ben Braddock in The Graduate (1967).

We didn't need dialogue. We had faces! - Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. (1950).

After living with you for the last six months, I'm turning into one of your scripts. Well, this is not a script, Diana. There's some real, actual life going on here. - WIlliam Holden as Max Schumacher in Network (1976).

To a new world of gods and monsters! - Ernest Thesiger as Doctor Pretorius in Bride of Franeknstein (1935).

Lose it? I didn't lose it. It's not like, "Whoops! Where'd my job go?" I QUIT. Someone pass me the asparagus. -Kevin Spacey as Lester Burnham in American Beauty (1999).

Sherry, the next time you do NOT want to see anybody, just let me know, and I'll usher them right in. - Bette Davis as Maggie Cutlerin The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942).

Why don't you go home to your wife? I'll tell you what, I'll go home to your wife, and outside of the improvement she'll never know the difference. - Groucho Marx as Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff in Horsefeathers (1932).

And Nietzsche, with his theory of eternal recurrence. He said that the life we lived we're gonna live over again the exact same way for eternity. Great. That means I'll have to sit through the Ice Capades again. - Woody Allen as Mickey in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986).

We didn't exactly believe your story, Miss O'Shaughnessy. We believed your 200 dollars. I mean, you paid us more than if you had been telling us the truth, and enough more to make it all right. - Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941).

A homosexual with power... that's scary. - Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Milk (2008).

Listen up, maggots. You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You're the same decaying organic matter as everything else. - Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden in Fight Club (1999).

Only one is a wanderer; two together are always going somewhere. - Kim Novak as Judy Barton in Vertigo (1958).

What is the law? It's a gun pointed at somebody's head. All depends upon which end of the gun you stand, whether the law is just or not. - Cary Grant as Leopold Dilg in Talk of the Town (1942).

The trouble with kids is they always figure they're smarter than their parents - never stop to think if their old man could get by for 50 years and feed 'em and clothe 'em - he maybe had something up here to get by with - things that seem like brain twisters to you might be very simple for him. - William Demarest as Constable Kockenlocker in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944).

Outside, countess. As long as they've got sidewalks YOU'VE got a job. - Joan Blondell as Joan Prescott in Footlight Parade (1933).

Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn't one today. - Bill Murray as Phil Connors in Groundhog Day (1993).

What would I say to a hamburger? Boy. I'd take Mr. Hamburger by the hand and say, "Pal, I haven't seen you for a long, long time." - Paul Muni as James Allen in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1933).

Well, here I am, anonymous all right. With guys nobody really cares about. They come from the end of the line, most of 'em. Small towns you never heard of: Pulaski, Tennessee; Brandon, Mississippi; Pork Van, Utah; Wampum, Pennsylvania. Two years' high school's about it, maybe if they're lucky a job waiting for them back at a factory, but most of 'em got nothing. They're poor, they're the unwanted, yet they're fighting for our society and our freedom. It's weird, isn't it? They're the bottom of the barrel and they know it. Maybe that's why they call themselves grunts, cause a grunt can take it, can take anything. They're the best I've ever seen, Grandma. The heart & soul. - Charlie Sheen as Chris Taylor in Platoon (1986).

My brother beat me. My sister beat my brother. My father beat my sister and my brother and me. My mother beat my father and my sister and me and my brother. The neighbors beat our family. The people down the block beat the neighbors and our family. - Woody Allen as Leonard Zelig in Zelig (1983).

I changed my life today, what did you do? - Paul Newman as Frank Galvin in The Verdict (1982).

It's becoming ridiculous the way you grab attention. Whenever I start to tell a story, you finish it. If I go on a diet, you lose the weight. If I have a cold, you cough. And if we should ever have a baby, I'm not so sure I'd be the mother. - Carole Lombard as Maria Tura in To Be or Not to Be (1942).

God gives us heartache and the devil gives us whiskey. - Edward G. Robinson as Joseph Randall in Five Star Final (1931).

The Uncertainty Principle. It proves we can't ever really know... what's going on. So it shouldn't bother you. Not being able to figure anything out. Although you will be responsible for this on the mid-term. - Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man (2009).

13 May 2010

Don't You Just Hate it When You Commit the Perfect Crime Only to then Get Stuck in an Elevator?

The film opens with Jeanne Moreau's gorgeous 30 year old face filling the screen. She is saying, "I love you," repeatedly. Whatever happens for the rest of the movie, Ms. Moreau had me at "I...."

Elevator to the Gallows (1958) is French New Wave Film Noir. The noir aspect of it means that the crime at the heart of the story will not go unpunished. We live with this when we watch 40s and 50s noir. We will be sucked into sympathizing with characters that cannot, by the rules of cinema at the time, succeed.

If we allow ourselves to, we can wonder at how they will be undone. Better still we can enjoy the story for what it is. Like mystery and detective stories, characters must be well drawn and strong and the plot imaginative. Director Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows does not disappoint on either score.

Moreau's character, Florence, is married to a wealthy arms trader. He is an older man and we shouldn't be surprised that she has fallen for his younger, more handsome right hand man Julien (Maurice Ronet), a decorated army veteran. We shouldn't be surprised that anyone would fall for Florence or for that matter anyone else who looks like Ms. Moreau. Julien is so smitten that he'll kill the boss for her.

The first part of the crime comes off without a hitch. The cuckold is dead and for all the world it looks like a suicide and its impossible to see how Julien can be implicated. Ahh but there's always a matter of human error that will pop up along the way. When Julien realizes he has forgotten a rather conspicuous piece of evidence that would surely implicate him, he tries to return to the scene of the crime. But the elevator he rides gets stuck between floors and a whole unexpected chain of events have been set off.

This will include an amazingly stupid young couple who steal Julien's car and ride off into the night where they commit their own crimes. Meanwhile Julien has missed his rendezvous with Florence. She doesn't know what to think and proceeds to try to think it anyway. While walking the streets of Paris, sometimes in the rain, stopping at a bar or two in the process. This makes for some famous shots of Ms. Moreau that helped propel her to stardom. There was the raw beauty of her face, sans make up, that expressed so much of the inner turmoil that would surely be bubbling within this character. Malle's career was off and running from that point on as well.

Oddly, the two stars don't actually get the lion's share of screen time. The two misfit young crooks probably get an equal amount, but Moreau and Ronet are the ones we will remember. The teenaged thieves get into one deuce of pickle and subsequently manage to botch a double suicide. But while they're galavanting around it is the stoicism of the two older lovers that is the glue of picture. While Florence walks and wonders, Julien is left quite stuck in a confined space and alternately determined to extricate himself and resigned to his sad fate. Ronet, like Moreau, had to make do with very little dialogue and he was playing a man who was by nature self contained, methodical, unemotional. Not the easiest of parts and he handled it with aplomb.

The story twists and turns in surprising ways, that while seemingly not plausible are more than possible. We buy everything that happens within ETTG because we like its style so much.   The lovely soundtrack from Miles Davis, who recorded it in one night while chilling with Malle and Moreau and sipping champagne, is as indispensable to the story's allure as Moreau's face.

A key question about any film noir is whether, after having had its secrets revealed, you would want to watch it again. With regard to ETTG I am not alone in answering with an emphatic, yes. There is so much to enjoy that goes beyond plot points. Like any film that one considers "great" it is a joy to look at. Savor is the proper word for it. Any time a director decides to bookend his movie with the face of Jeanne Moreau, you know he's one smart cookie.

12 May 2010

Not Your Typical Road Trip Film (Thank God) Y Tu Mama Tambien

Insatiable. Such are many men in their early twenties. Supping voraciously at life. Consuming copious amounts of alcohol, drugs and indulging in hungry, desperate sex whenever and wherever possible. Great passionate sexual affairs are mixed with deep, seemingly forever friendships that are likely to end suddenly and permanently.

Life is lived to the fullest and great ribaldry seems free of consequence. Hangovers, guilt and recriminations are fleeting. Another party awaits, another jaunt to night clubs, another road trip, another evening of debauchery. Friends and lovers are plentiful. Let the good times roll....

Which they do until inevitably the responsibilities and cares of being an adult necessitate a bit of settling down. Those jobs or studies that had once been in the background -- often as occasional intellectual exercises or means to fund bacchus -- now take center stage. At last one lover becomes permanent, perhaps even as a spouse. Other friends are distanced either geographically or by emotional distance.

If we're smart and not an addict, we leave behind, or at least greatly temper, our reckless appetites, seeing at last the virtues of moderation. If not, the good times roll right over us. Desperate attempts to rekindle fires now dead retard our development often causing collateral damage to those close to us.

Many, many films, particularly of recent vintage, try to exploit the days of young male bawdiness. The resulting movies all too often present mere caricatures. These films are played for laughs (and not particularly sophisticated ones at that) using young women as props, far more cynically than we ever did. Only occasionally do these stories allow for character development or for any nuance. Characters are archetypes, events are set ups for gags. The road trip movies are the worst offenders of this genre.

Nine years ago the exception that makes it a rule came out of Mexico with director Alfonso Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001).

Two young men, Julio and Tenoch (played by the now familiar Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna) are freed of their girlfriends for the summer and end up conniving an older woman into joining them on a road trip to the perfect beach. Never mind that the beach is a total concoction of their combined imagination. Never mind that she is married to Tenoch's cousin. Never mind that neither has a car available. They are young, determined and have the financial means.

The journey begun, we as an audience have no idea where the trip will take them, or by extension us. Their passenger is Luisa (Maribel Verdu) whose ulterior motives for going are partially motivated by her husband's drunken confession of an affair.

Sex is much on everyone's mind. No film has dealt with the sex more openly and frankly, yet managed to maintain a level of eroticism in the bargain.

Drugs and booze are plentiful as are conversations about drugs, booze and sex. Indeed part of the fun is that when you're not "doing it", you're talking about it.

There is no overt attempt to ruminate or be philosophical, this is a frank look at hedonism and its immediate consequences.  Acts of indulgence abound but ones committed by people with a conscience. It is YTMT's honesty, its lack of pretense, that allows viewers to explore its deeper implications and issues.  In fact there is the frequent appearance of police and army troops and references to politics and Mexico's class system throughout the film. We in the audience can make what we will from these backdrops and goings on. The narrator does not direct us toward adopting a particular point of view. Cuaron trusts us to make our own interpretation.

Y Tu Mama Tambein is a film that does not resort to contrivances in either plot or character. We are invited to laugh, flinch, speculate and ruminate. Like many exceptional movies it allows us to take away from it what we will. There is much on the life and death of close camaraderie, the sort that is at once so strong and so fragile both because of and despite homoerotic tension.

Relationships are a never ending source of exploration for films and YTMT doesn't disappoint. It also -- unlike too many American movies -- is respectful of its female character. In America less is known of the Spanish actress Verdu than her two co stars. But she brings a wonderful balance to the randy duo with her own strong sexuality mixed with equally powerful intelligence and self awareness.

YTMT is a strong concoction in which sex and drugs are mere spices. The main course includes the joys of youthful discovery by those who dare live to the fullest. Its other fare includes pain, regret and another kind of discovery. The ageless exploration of self and the never ending lessons we can learn just be paying attention.

I wish they made more films like this.

11 May 2010

What People Are Saying About the Film They Just Saw

"I can't wait for the sequel!"

"I can't wait for part three."

"They should do a prequel!"

"What the hell's a prequel?"

"It sucked."

"It was nothing like the book."

"That movie would be so cool to watch totally stoned."

"I'm so wasted I probly won't remember the movie tomorrow."

"You should totally see it."

"It was so much better than the original."

"The original is so much better."

"I didn't get it."

"The special effects were awesome."

"What was your favorite part?"

"Screw the critics, that was hilarious!"

"That's two hours I'll never get back."

"I can't believe I spent ten bucks on that piece of crap."

"I am totally going to buy the DVD of this movie when it comes out."

"It's got Oscar written all over it."

"What have I seen the guy who played the assistant in before?"

"What was with that scene in the fountain?  It made no sense."

"Seriously, you liked it?"

"Seriously, you didn't like it?"

"I feel asleep for awhile in the middle; was the secretary supposed to be one of the bad guys?"

"When I get home I'm going to read all the reviews online."

"What dya think?"

10 May 2010

Streams of Unconsciousness Celebrates its Second Anniversary! Photo Highlights of the Celebration

Some of the guys on the staff pose for this picture prior to the banquet.

As you can see the lads cleanup real nice.

Staff, family and guests settle in for a sumptuous repast.

"The boys" enjoy a post dinner cigar as I look on.

Senior staff pose for a photograph that will soon grace our main lobby.

The main entertainment was a big hit.

"Let's get this party started!" Someone shouted. And we did.

Some of the fellas hamming it up.

The ladies get into the act too.

A few of us finally head home.

08 May 2010

You're History! Great Cinematic Portrayals of Famous People

One of the great challenges for any actor is to portray a character well known to audiences through real life deeds. The actor must create his or her own interpretation of someone who audience have either seen on film, read about or perhaps even met.

The actor risks doing an impersonation, which may recall the figure they're playing but adds nothing to the film and fails to cast the character in a new light. A convincing performance has us thinking that actor looks and sounds like Mr. or Ms. Famous. But a great performance obliterates such relative trivialities and we become lost in the story.

Here are ten such performances. I could easily have doubled, tripled even quadrupled the total. But I sought a representative sampling from both recent years and the past, men and women. And yes, I may compose a second part in the future.

Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen (2006). This role was an amazing challenge for an Englishwoman and it required someone of Ms. Mirren's stature and talent to pull it of. Any portrayal of a reigning monarch could easily, despite intentions to the contrary, slip into parody. But Ms. Mirren was up to the task. It was probably not meant to be a sympathetic portrayal (just an accurate one) and yet it reminded audiences that QEII may be royalty, but she is also human.

Bruno Ganz as Adolph Hitler in Downfall (2004). This performance was controversial to some who felt it humanized Der Fuhrer. To me that was the beauty of it. Hitler was after all, a human being. As awful a one to walk the face of the earth, but still it is important to remember that he is akin to the rest of us humanoids.Asfar as monsters do exist, they are humans. As someone who has read a lot about the Third Reich and its leader, I became totally lost in Ganz's portrayal, as it seemed to be at once a true depiction of Hitler in his last days and a tour de force performance.

Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Milk (2008). Watch Milk and you quickly become enraptured in a wonderful film with a superb cast led by Sean Penn in the title role. See the late great Mr. Milk in the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) and you marvel at how Penn magically embodied the man. If I ever dared something so stupid as ranking acting performances, this would have to be at or near the very top of my list.

Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues (1972). It can probably be said that this was the part Ms. Ross was born to play because her acting career shows nothing of note preceding or following this film. I never thought she did very much to be Billie Holiday, but she did one helluva lot to create a remarkable character that enhances our understanding and apprecitation of Lady Day.

Jamie Foxx as Drew "Bundini" Brown in Ali (2001). While Will Smith in the title role deserved kudos, as do many of the other cast members portraying familiar figures of recent history, for me it was Foxx who practically stole every scene he was in. Bundini, along with trainer Angelo Dundee, was the man Muhammad Ali's career for most of The Greatest's career and so is familiar to Ali devotees such as yours truly. Foxx presaged what is already an excellent acting career with this powerful performance.

Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams in Amistad (1997). All right, so none of has ever seen any film footage of America's sixth president and few of us know very much about him. But for crying out loud somehow Hopkins was Adams (then an ex prez serving in Congress). This one is impossible to explain but I swear to Allah that Hopkins had me thinking that he had brought Adams to life. Certain things just can't be explained. But they can be marveled at. This is one of them.

Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein in All the President's Men (1976). People who knew the Bernstein claimed that Hoffman captured virtually every detail of the Washington Post reporter. Most of us hadn't seen a lot of Bernstein on the telly when this film came out, but we imagined that this surely was what the man was like. By the strength of such such performances, the film added to our appreciation of the Watergate investigation in particular and newspaper reporting in general.

Cate Blanchett as Kate Hepburn in Aviator (2004). It was an incredible challenge for Ms. Blanchett to play someone on the screen who so many of us have seen so often on the screen. It was impossible to look "just like" her. But Ms. Blanchett managed to sound like Hepburn, walk like Hepburn and fully remind of us Hepburn while creating her own character. In other words she pulled off the double feat of being someone we knew in her own way.

Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth I in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). There's not so much as a photograph (though often there are portraits) for an actor to go by in portraying historical figures of the more distant past. The challenge then is to create a character who seems to be what so much of the audience will imagine that person was like. Especially with so well known a figure as QEI. Many have done a fine job of portraying her, such as the aforementioned Ms. Blanchett, but no actress can outdo Davis when it comes to regal bearing. Perhaps it is a matter of my own prejudice, but I think Davis looks so good in the role because she has come to embody cinematic royalty. Anyway, acting is not just emoting, it is being. Bette Davis had that aspect of her job down to a science.

James Cagney as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). I don't know a lot about Cohan but I do know a transcendent performance when I see one and this fits the bill. More than "play" Cohan, Cagney threw himself into the role and created a version of the great showman that we can all appreciate and enjoy. It was a totally uninhibited performance that wowed everyone then and still does today. No doubt, Cohan is still beaming.

05 May 2010

America's Unspeakable Tragedy-- Having to Press One For English

I've become aware over the years that a great number of Americans are upset about having to press 1 for English when dealing with an automated voice system. These objections are quite understandable. We're all acquainted with the difficulty of raising a digit to push a number. I know, I know, its the idea of it that Americans object to. Making accommodations for others is, evidently, un-American.

There seems to be an increase in these type of complaints in the wake of the controversy surrounding Arizona's decision to enact Jim Crow laws in the pursuit of illegal immigrants.

This country has never been particularly kind to newcomers despite it's invitations for anyone and everyone to drop in and stay awhile. To quote the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

The original illegal immigrants were, of course, those plucky European settlers of the 16th and 17th centuries who terrorized the natives, stole their land and slaughtered any one of them who proved an inconvenience. 

In the early days of the republic, indeed even in colonial times, it was the Irish who came to these fair shores only to be pushed around by the natives. They stayed and made the best of it. Then it was Germans who arrived here only to face harsh discrimination. They stayed and made the best of it. Later Italians showed up only to suffer ill treatment. They stayed and made the best of it. Finally Eastern Europeans, many of them Jews, sought a better life in America and were given a less than warm welcome. They stayed and made the best of it. Asians were next to flock to the land of the free only to be told to get lost. They stayed and made the best of it. Now it is Mexicans and others from Central and South American countries looking for a better life in the US of A. They are suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous discrimination. I venture they'll stay and make the best of it. It is as if there was a sort of unspoken hazing process for newcomers.

America is a melting pot full of xenophobes. Just as it was the home of democracy and equality and yet maintained slavery. That is to say the U.S. continues its paradoxical, contradictory utterly dumbfounding ways.

The harshest thing I can say about this country is, I believe, also one of the truest: it is a nation chock full of whiny babies. A proposed two cent tax on soda, as with any minor tax increases will get hordes of citizens off their sofas and away from their TV sets to scream "socialism!" in mass rallies. No matter who would benefit (sometimes because of) Americans will object to any raise in taxes. Indeed the very notion of any sort of self sacrifice for the greater good seems an anathema to far too many Americans. These are people who object to having to push the 1 on their telephone. It is a far cry from the US during World War II when Americans sacrificed many luxuries without complaint and gladly maintained victory gardens. And it is the polar opposite of John F. Kennedy's call for people to "ask not what their country could do for you but what you could do for your country." You could maybe press one.

I conclude with this scenario: Pedro has moved -- legally -- from Mexico to the U.S. He is gainfully employed as a carpenter. Pedro is good at his work, he's a law abiding citizen and pays his taxes. In addition to working all day he goes to ESL classes every night to improve his English. He is determined to speak and write better English. But when he calls the local cable company to inquire about a bill or a possible change in service he knows that the English voice instructions and menu will be a bit too complicated to understand. So he presses two (it's an option!) and gets all he needs to know in his native tongue. He is thus able to handle his business. Pedro hopes that someday he'll be able to push 1 for English. When that day comes, he'll be proud to do so.