Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Trap (1922)

Director: Robert Thornby                              Writers: Lon Chaney & Lucien Hubbard
Film Score: Stock Music                              Cinematography: Virgil Miller
Starring: Lon Chaney, Alan Hale, Irene Rich and Stanley Goethals

Because of the loss of so many silent films--estimates range from seventy to eighty percent--it’s great to see anything with Lon Chaney in it. Unfortunately, you don’t actually see much of Chaney in this film. Most of Chaney’s work today exists only in poor quality duplicate prints that are beyond restoration. Such is the case with The Trap. Much of the imagery in the film has become blurred and rounded off. In addition, the contrast is so high that most of the time the faces of the actors are completely washed out when they’re in the center of the screen. That would have been bad enough, but Alpha Video made some poor choices in attempting their “restoration.”

For one thing they created new title cards that, while they emulate the language of the originals, are so crisp and static that it doesn’t mesh well with the film. The font is also rather thin and difficult to read at time, especially in attempting to recreate the French-Canadian accent of Chaney’s character. Worst of all, however, is that the timing is off and many of the titles are onscreen too quickly to read. The second odd choice the company made is with the music. Alpha Video is well known for their shabby treatment of public domain films, though along with that comes the acknowledgement that without them many of these films would never see rerelease. While indiscriminate use of music slapped onto the soundtrack of a random silent film is sometimes maddening, in this case they chose a track of what appears to be new age piano music. It’s a very bad match with the film.

As to the film itself, it’s hard to believe that it was made the same year as The Blind Bargain or his wonderful Oliver Twist. Chaney seems to be overacting here, but again, all we see most of the time is his white silhouette in pantomime and very little of his actual facial expressions. But when we do, it’s clear this is a much better film that it appears from this print. Chaney plays a backwoods miner, working his late father’s claim. Alan Hale is the city slicker who comes in with the legal deed to the mine and not only takes it away from Chaney, but takes Chaney’s girl as well and marries her. The trap is Chaney’s revenge, seven years of sabotage on the mine has reduced Hale to poverty as well, but it has also put at risk the life of his former sweetheart who is wasting away. Once his plan has reached its conclusion Hale is in prison and his wife is dead. But they have a boy who Chaney takes on as his own.

The main problem with the story itself is that Chaney’s character seems so warped. But perhaps that is the point of the film. Chaney had a certain gruff quality that is undeniable, used to great effectiveness in Tell It to the Marines. It does have the unfortunate effect, however, of taking the edge off his pathos. His best films are the ones where he is the victim, even by his own hand, as in The Unknown. Here his character becomes so consumed with hatred that it makes it difficult to watch at times, but I would argue that this kind of discomfort is part of what makes a good film, and by the end he certainly does redeem himself. Though this is a lot of negative criticism, I still recommend the film to those who understand the flaws going in. I would say this is for Chaney fans only, or those who can deal with the technical difficulties of the film. The Trap, as is, is an interesting piece historically. One only hopes that someday a more artistically viable print will found in order to make a more genuine assessment.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Max Manus (2008)

Director: Joachim Rønning                            Writer: Thomas Nordseth-Tiller
Film Score: Trond Bjerknes                           Cinematography: Geir Hartly Andreassen
Starring: Aksel Hennie, Agnes Kittelsen, Nicolai Cleve Broch and Ken Duken

Based on a true story, Max Manus is a film of the Norwegian resistance movement during World War II. The film itself is Norwegian, which is a big plus. Unlike Hollywood films about the same subject like Edge of Darkness or The Heroes of Telemark, there is a genuine undercurrent of patriotism that is very palpable throughout. Manus began the war volunteering to help Finland against Stalinist Russia, and back home naturally fell into the resistance. But the inexperience in that kind of war, coupled with a youthful carelessness resulted in his being caught by the Nazis. Trapped in his apartment, he did the only thing he could think of and jumped through the window two floors up, landing him in the hospital instead of a concentration camp.

Aksel Hennie at first doesn’t seem to fit the part, incredibly young and seemingly incapable of the heroic feats for which he is portraying. But he makes it work. Naturally he escapes from the hospital and is whisked to England, participating in an independent commando unit attached to the British army that is periodically dropped into Norway to conduct sabotage. Nicolai Cleve Broch is his best friend in the endeavor, but he is a writer, a propagandist with no experience as a soldier. Hennie takes him under his wing, vowing to protect him and the two proceed with their missions in Olso. While in Stockholm between missions, Broch is seeing Agnes Kittelsen, a woman who is separated from her husband and who is helping with the resistance. Ken Duken plays the Nazi officer who is assigned to Oslo and attempting to weed out the underground resistance.

There’s nothing spectacular in the film, certainly nothing that hasn’t been done before. And that is, of course, one of the pitfalls in telling a true story. Whether it is in Norway, or France, or Germany itself, stories of the resistance movement follow a similar arc, initial success followed by discovery, either through mistakes from within or good detective work from outside. But this film has a very different, and somewhat unexpected, ending that deals with the very real predicament of the returning soldier and still manages to be upbeat. It’s a realistic ending, and the film is all the better for it.

I have no doubt, however, that the film was very popular in Norway. The name Max Manus, being equated with something like Sergeant York or Audie Murphy in the United States, needed nothing else in the title for Norwegian audiences. But in the world market it was give the subtitle "Man of War." For those who appreciate good war films, this is a must see. For those more ambivalent, not so much. And there is also a dubbed version available for those who dislike subtitles. Max Manus is a very good World War II film and a necessary addition to an already heavily cinematic period in world history.

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Director: Michael Curtiz                               Writer: Ranald MacDougall
Film Score: Max Steiner                              Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Starring: Joan Crawford, Eve Arden, Jack Carson and Ann Blyth

The film Mommie Dearest probably did more to hurt the long-term popularity of Joan Crawford than any other biopic did to another famous star. And it’s too bad. Crawford was a beautiful woman and an amazing talent. She excelled at a very specific character type and was a huge star in her day. But her later exploitation pictures, combined with her adopted daughter’s tell-all biography has served to put her below other, lesser talents of her day, like Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn, in popularity today. But all one has to do is look at her films, especially her Oscar award winning performance in Mildred Pierce to understand why she was so revered: she was a real live movie star.

Warner Brothers’ version of Mildred Pierce is as frustrating to watch as James M. Cain’s original novel was to read. And that’s a good thing. The tension from the main character’s refusal to see that her daughter as a spoiled, unappreciative brat is at the center of the story. The film reimagines Cain’s novel and structures it like The Letter with Bette Davis. Gunshots open the film and a man falls dead in a beach house. Crawford drives to the pier in Santa Monica and thinks about killing herself. Once the cast makes its way to the police station, the story itself emerges as her confession. After her husband abandoned her, she vowed to do everything possible for her daughters. She supported herself by owning and operating and increasingly successful chain of chicken shacks and became fairly wealthy in the process.

The conflict in the story comes mainly from her oldest daughter, Ann Blyth, who wants all of the money that Crawford can give her, but is embarrassed about the pedestrian way she earns it. In an ironic twist on Mommie Dearest, the daughter here is snobbish, arrogant, insolent, and downright cruel in her treatment of her mother, and still Crawford keeps coming back for more. In the meantime Jack Carson, her ex-husband’s ex-partner keeps sniffing around Crawford, but he’s pedestrian and wolfish. More to her taste, and unfortunately her daughter’s, is down on the heel socialite Zachary Scott whom Crawford winds up getting married to, presumably with an eye to keeping her daughter out of his clutches, but with predictable results.

You know, it’s not a flashy movie, but it earns its reputation for greatness by being extremely solid in nearly every way. The direction by the magnificent Michael Curtiz is spot on, the music by Max Steiner is also wonderful. Of course, the source material, James M. Cain’s novel is the foundation, but the reworking into a noir film works great too. And the acting is top notch. Blyth’s performance makes you wish somebody in the film would smack her around, and Carson is just about as annoying. Eve Arden is fantastic as Crawford’s best friend and it makes one wish she hadn’t gone into television so quickly. There are also appearances by Butterfly McQueen as Crawford’s maid and George Tobias. But the star is definitely Joan Crawford. Unlike a lot of noir films of the period, Mildred Pierce has a solid story that can appeal across a wide range of audiences and that’s probably one of the reasons it has remained a classic through the years, that and the star power of the great Joan Crawford.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Hitchcock (2012)

Director: Sacha Gervasi                                Writer: John J. McLaughlin
Film Score: Danny Elfman                            Cinematography: Jeff Cronenweth
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel

The film Hitchcock, like the master of suspense himself, is not without its flaws. But unlike the great director it attempts to portray, Sacha Gervasi does not possess the genius with which to overcome those flaws. In the end, the film is a disappointment on a variety of levels. Though, that is not to say it is entirely devoid of entertainment value. The film limits itself to the making of Psycho, a transitional period for Hitchcock when he was leaving Paramount and going over to Universal with whom he already had a relationship from producing his Alfred Hitchcock Presents. At the same time, the secondary story line is about his relationship with Alma Reville, his wife of many years.

The screenplay is based on the book by Stephen Rebello, whose intent was not only to focus on the making of the film, but Hitchcock’s personal life at the time. One of the most unfortunate choices in the film, however, was to also bring in the story of Ed Gein, the serial killer from Wisconsin on whom Robert Bloch’s novel was based. The huge problem with all this is that every single story line seems to depend on the audience’s prior knowledge of all three areas. My own personal enjoyment of the film was completely dependent upon my knowledge of how important Alma was to Hitch’s success, from working on screenplays, overseeing production, editing, casting and the like. At the same time, my reading on the evolution of the Gein story, to the novel, to the motion picture sort of worked against the film as I wanted to learn more about the production and really didn’t.

The biggest disappointment was the emphasis on the relationship of Hitch and Alma, though Helen Mirren is absolutely captivating and ultimately steals the show. In true fifties fashion they don’t talk, and her supposed dalliance with writer Whitfield Cook was left frustratingly unexplored. Cook had adapted Strangers on a Train for Hitch, as well as writing Stage Fright, but this also seemed a bit unclear. Screenwriter John J. McLaughlin attempts to weave the same kind of dry humor into his title character as the man himself had, but it ultimately falls flat. Really, the whole film tries far to hard to make its point, and the audience can’t help but feel oppressed by it’s excruciating effort. Not only does Anthony Hopkins look nothing like Hitch, but the extensive makeup only serves to accentuate that fact. Not to mention that he does perhaps the worst impression of Hitchcock I’ve ever heard.

The Ed Gein subplot with Hitch imagining he’s talking to the killer himself also seems incredibly unrealistic. Sure, Hitch had his inner demons, but while his success did not cure his insecurity he seemed to be far more self contained and less childlike in the reading I’ve done than he is portrayed in the film. And yet, with all that being said, I did enjoy the film. Danny Elfman was put in the unusual position of rescoring Bernard Herrmann’s distinctive score for the second time, having previously done so for the Gus Van Sant remake of Psycho in 1998. Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel do a nice job of playing Janet Leigh and Vera Miles respectively, and other character actors like Danny Huston and Kurtwood Smith are very credible. Ultimately Hitchcock is a very strange film, and though I hesitate to recommend it, I can’t deny that I enjoyed watching it. Whether or not I ever do again, however, remains to be seen.

Possessed (1931)

Director: Clarence Brown                               Writer: Lenore Coffee
Film Score: Charles Maxwell                         Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Starring: Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Wallace Ford and Frank Conroy

It’s fascinating to watch early Crawford and Gable but the vehicle for them, based on the Edgar Selwyn Broadway play Mirage, was ten years old by the time it came to the screen and already shows its age. In Possessed Crawford plays the typical small town girl, working in a factory and dreaming of something better than marrying Wallace Ford and being poor all her life. When a train heading through town stops for a few minutes, she meets a drunk Skeets Gallagher who plies her with Champagne and tells her to come visit him in New York City. Of course he’s horrified when she actually shows up on his doorstep and he shows her the door, but then she meets the rich Gable coming out of the elevator and everything changes.

The title, of course, refers to her becoming a kept woman by Gable. Having been divorced once, in a scandalous fashion, he has no interest in repeating his mistake. Crawford also seems perfectly satisfied with the arrangement. The film itself, however, seems little more than a showcase for Crawford. In Gallagher’s apartment he shines a light on her and points out all of her glorious features. Then, when she hooks up with Gable he talks about all of the jewelry he bought her. The camera lingers over her, her expensive clothes, as she touches up her face in the mirror, and especially when she is singing at the piano. Of course, it strains credulity that a woman from a poor background could learn to speak French and German, as well as become accomplished on the piano in the three years the chronology jumps forward, but again, it’s not about the story, it’s about Crawford.

It’s not until the morality tale kicks in that the film really warms up. Crawford is embarrassed when a friend of Gable’s brings over a prostitute to a fancy party he is throwing, and when Gable kicks him out because of it he tells Gable there is no difference between his woman and Crawford. But that is just the start of the complications. The direction is rather uninteresting, though there are some nice moving camera shots that attract interest. Ultimately, however, it is a filmed stage play and doesn’t have much to offer except the dialogue and the chemistry between Crawford and Gable. But in this case that just might be enough. Going into it, however, you have to know that that’s all there is.

To be fair, Crawford is captivating. She has a commanding presence and had developed a character that resonated with women: self-assured, driven, and ultimately moral at her core. It’s no wonder that she became a huge star. Possessed begins haltingly, with standard static talkie direction, but eventually it turns into a story that holds interest, especially with the star power of Crawford and Gable. It’s not great cinema, but it is an example of great stars in action, and for that it’s definitely worth the price of admission.

Flight (2012)

Director: Robert Zemeckis                              Writer: John Gatins
Film Score: Alan Silvestri                              Cinematography: Don Burgess
Starring: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle & Bruce Greenwood

Flight is undeniably a powerful film. Everyone in the film, crew included, acquits themselves admirably. Zemeckis for once, stays out of his own way and lets the actors and the story take over. And what a story it is. It’s an incredible philosophical dilemma. Here you have an alcoholic pilot, Denzel Washington, with so much experience and skill that in an absolutely deadly plane malfunction he is able to save nearly all of the passengers aboard the disabled aircraft, something that it's obvious a lesser pilot would not have been able to do, and which would have resulted in the deaths of everyone on board. How do we then, as a society, assess that particular situation?

It’s clear as the film progresses that our society has become a game of cover your ass. The owner of the airline clearly does not want to be held responsible. He would like to shift the blame, rightfully so, to the airplane manufacturer. But how can the manufacturer take responsibility when they have no control over the maintenance of the plane? At this point everyone starts looking to the pilot as the obvious scapegoat. And when he’s discovered to be a drunk, it would seem to make it that much easier. Yet how do we simply ignore the fact that he save the lives of nearly a hundred people who, in the hands of a lesser pilot, would have perished? Unfortunately, that question was not the emphasis of the film.

Gatins’ script instead focuses on the addiction of the pilot rather than the philosophical question, and it’s no doubt this fact that is responsible for the film’s lack of critical praise. The idea, while spot on in terms of accuracy, and made utterly believable by Washington, has been done already, from Days of Wine and Roses, to Clean and Sober, to When a Man Loves a Woman, and beyond. And for those who deal with that behavior from family members or friends, the film is not a powerful drama but an unwanted mirror on behaviors so exasperating in their pointlessness that it takes all of the entertainment out of it. Washington is completely paranoid, even of his own lawyer who is working miracles to help him. But that’s the behavior. He abuses alcohol to the point of passing out. But that’s the behavior. None of it makes any sense. But that’s the behavior.

While Denzel Washington was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, and deservedly so, he also has made some unfortunate choices in his career path that have not really been to his best advantage. Early in his career he did some incredibly important films, like Malcolm X, Cry Freedom and Glory, for which he won a supporting actor Oscar, but then went on to do films that are more in a pop culture vein, somewhat diminishing his stature in The Bone Collector and John Q. Now these are not necessarily bad films, but after winning another Oscar for Training Day, it doesn’t seem likely that he can keep winning for similar characters, especially going up against actors like Daniel Day-Lewis. Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood are great additions to the cast and lend a lot of weight. Kelly Reilly, as Washington’s partner in addiction, has done some nice work previously, but her role here is a bit generic. Zemeckis’s one misstep in casting is John Goodman, who brings unwanted humor to the situation. At the end of the day Flight is a good film. It’s not great, but worth it to see Washington’s very powerful performance.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Yojimbo (1961)

Director: Akira Kurosawa                              Writer: Akira Kurosawa
Film Score: Masaru Satô                              Cinematography: Kazuo Miyagawa
Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Yôko Tsukasa and Isuzu Yamada

Right from the opening credits, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (The Bodyguard) is magnificent. Focusing on Toshirô Mifune’s back as the credits roll, his hand emerges incongruously from under his collar as he itches his scalp, scratches his neck, then shrugs his shoulders to ease some hidden itch that is bothering him--perhaps the itch to kill. As he reaches a fork in the road, he throws a stick in the air and when it falls he heads in the direction it points. Rolling into the deserted street of the 1860s town a few minutes later, it’s clear the inspiration for Kurosawa is the American western, and Mifune is the out of work gunhand, a stranger in a strange town with no allegiance to anyone save himself. When a dog trots by with a severed hand in its mouth, he knows he’s in just the right place for a man with his skill set.

Mifune is absolutely masterful, dominating the screen with a quiet confidence harking back to hundreds of Hollywood westerns. The rest of the cast is great as well, quirky, comical, predating Sergio Leone’s westerns that began two years later with A Fistful of Dollars. In fact, Kurosawa’s story was the template for Leone’s western about two families attempting to gain complete control of a town. Here it’s gambling and the silk trade, with two mob bosses battling for control and being played off against each other. Mifune’s arms inside his kimono prefigure Eastwood’s poncho as well, but it’s even better when his hands suddenly emerge from the front of his kimono in unexpected ways. And there is a definite current of humor in Kurosawa’s film that influenced later westerns as well.

Masaru Satô’s score is easily a decade ahead of its time. Alternately humorous and menacing, Lalo Schifrin copied the effect for Enter the Dragon over ten years later. The production design is equally confident: wind blown dirt streets in the town, structures entirely of wood, dead leaves everywhere, and dust circling around as if threatening to form a cyclone. There is also some very nice camera work, and many of the setups are ingenious. While there is not a lot of fluid motion, there doesn’t have to be. The stationary setups reflect the period, the slower pace. Even so, the screen crackles with tension as Mifune begins lying to each side, collecting money but never taking sides, even when one of them brings in their own bodyguard who owns a gun. Yojimbo is a brilliant piece of filmmaking, and one of the most influential westerns ever made--it just happened to have been made in Japan.

Skyfall (2012)

Director: Sam Mendes                                   Writers: Neal Purvis & Robert Wade
Film Score: Thomas Newman                        Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem and Ralph Fiennes

After the disaster of the Timothy Dalton years the James Bond franchise was brought back to life by Pierce Brosnan, who had been angling for the role ever since his days on Remington Steele. Unfortunately he only made four films. But Daniel Craig is an excellent Bond, more in the mold of Sean Connery rather than the effeminate Roger Moore. There’s no dearth of action, as the film begins in the middle of a pursuit, a fantastic motorcycle chase on the rooftops of Istanbul, ending on the top of a moving train. The rather unexpected termination of the chase is followed by a classic James Bond title sequence, with Oscar winner Adele singing the title song of Skyfall.

The plot begins with the attempt to get back a stolen computer file, listing all of the NATO agents imbedded in terrorist organizations around the world. The problem? NATO doesn’t know the list exists, and if the organization who stole the list uses it to assassinate the operatives, it could be very embarrassing to MI6, who lost the file in the first place. But no fear, Craig and Judi Dench are on the hunt. Since the Prime Minister knows about the stolen file, she has her assistant, Ralph Fiennes, pushing Dench into early retirement. Craig, disillusioned and tired, feels that retirement is looking pretty good himself. But duty calls and there is no time for introspection, let alone pity.

Lest we get carried away, it’s important to remember that this is an action picture. Skyfall is not great cinema, but it doesn’t have to be. There is almost no character development, because James Bond needs none. This particular chapter is focused on Dench, who has played M in seven Bond films. In this one her past comes back to haunt her in the form of former agent Javier Bardem. There is a mildly interesting psychological aspect to the film in the way that Bardem and Craig are symbolic siblings, rivals for their mother’s attention and angry at her for seemingly maternal indifference. Ralph Feinnes, who would seem an odd choice for a small role, nevertheless becomes vital by the end of the picture. It’s also great to see Albert Finney as serious and very capable as an old man.

In addition to the award for best song, Skyfall won another Academy Award for best sound editing. Though how you distinguish that from sound mixing, or distinguish that particular skill in a film at all, is a mystery to me. Still, two Oscars are more than a lot of other films won. This is only Craig’s third Bond film, but one hopes that he’ll be around for a few more. Skyfall is a worthy addition to a franchise that still shows a lot of vitality some fifty years later and, unlike its characters, with no signs of slowing down.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Inception (2010)

Director: Christopher Nolan                           Writer: Christopher Nolan
Film Score: Hans Zimmer                             Cinematography: Wally Pfister
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page and Ken Watanabe

Wow. That was an incredible film. Though Christopher Nolan had not impressed me with his Batman series, his attempt here to out matrix The Matrix is daring and, for the most part, successful. Like the Batman films, his action-on-action can be confusing at times and the character development is nonexistent, but his ability to build four credible levels of dream world in the film and tie the whole thing together logically should be commended. This was an extraordinary feat, from the screenplay down to every level of film craft. Indeed, though Inception was not nominated for many major awards at the Oscars, it did win Academy Awards for cinematography, special effects, sound editing and sound mixing. But there’s much more to the film than just technical work. I’m no fan of Leonardo DiCaprio, but the old he gets the better actor he becomes. He’s still not very convincing for me, but unlike a lot of actors who diminish with age, I get the feeling that DiCaprio will be around a long time and, similar to someone like Max von Sydow, will give some impressive performances the older he gets.

DiCaprio plays an extractor, a person who goes inside of another person’s dreams to retrieve information that is locked inside their mind. He and his partner, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, are working with a wealthy client, Ken Watanabe. Initially it seems as if they are attempting to steal secrets from him, and Gordon-Levitt is concerned that he knows he’s in a dream. But then the three of them wake up in a seedy apartment with Lucas Haas running the dream machine, while angry people stream down the street to storm the apartment. Before long guns are being pulled and threats made, though it’s not until Watanabe winds up on the carpet that he realizes this is yet another dream. In the end, though Watanabe is impressed with their abilities he needs something more: inception. He wants DiCaprio to get inside the mind of his competitor and plant a thought that he should break up his company once he inherits it from his sick father. There is a certain inherent difficulty in doing this, however. Part of that is also due to DiCaprio’s past and the complications it bring with it. With the loss of Haas, DiCaprio seeks out a replacement by going to his father-in-law, professor or architecture Michael Caine, to see if he can recommend one of his students. The architect of the new dream world they must create is Ellen Page. She is drawn into this grey market undertaking by the challenge it presents and the adventurous nature of the dreams they inhabit as well as her natural talent in creating them.

There is a certain Matrix quality to the film, but only in conception. The dream world they inhabit has different rules that the matrix and is certainly more tenuous, as the entire structure collapses once the dreamer begins to awaken. There have been several precursors to this idea as well, namely Brainstorm with Natalie Wood and Christopher Walken, and Dreamscape with Dennis Quaid and Max von Sydow, but not only is this idea far more adventurous, but the special effects have improved so much that it literally made this film possible. While Nolan calls his dream creator an architect, that is also very much the emphasis of the film itself, buildings, mazes, streets and bridges all work together as the structure for the story as the team navigates uncharted territory. In fact, when Page first begins her work with DiCaprio she attempts to manipulate the physics of the world, turning streets upside down, walking through mirrors, and the like. The only problem is, the more she manipulates physics the more that the people who inhabit the dream--supplied by the actual dreamer, not the architect--become angry and attempt to kill the architect. It’s an interesting twist that keeps all of the participants curiously inter-dependent on each other.

DiCaprio and Page are the real stars of the film. Gordon-Levitt gives some solid support as does their thief, Tom Hardy. The dying old man is played by British character actor Pete Postlethwaite and his young son by Cillian Murphy, while the real power behind the “throne” is Tom Berenger as the cutthroat lawyer whose abilities to consolidate the influence of the corporation is what has Watanabe going after it in the first place. It’s difficult to talk about this film without giving a lot of it away, and the unfolding of the plot is very integral to the enjoyment of the work. And that's probably the film's biggest downside: I'm not sure it's something that is going to hold up to repeated viewings. It’s interesting to note the similarities to another DiCaprio film released the same year: Shutter Island. DiCaprio plays a character haunted by his past in both, this time with Marion Cotillard, and there is a similar quality to the image manipulation. Ultimately it’s the idea running through the plot that is so captivating. And while the characters interact in a dream, there are real and palpable dangers that they face that creates some terrific suspense. It’s not the greatest film ever, but for folks who loved The Matrix trilogy or Shutter Island, I would say that Inception is a must see.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Bardelys the Magnificent (1926)

Director: King Vidor                                    Writer: Dorothy Farnum
Film Score: R.H. Bassett                            Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Starring: John Gilbert, Eleanor Boardman, Lionel Belmore and Arthur Lubin

There’s been an unfortunate trend in recent silent film restoration, that of casting aside the original titles and substituting modern, digital titles. To me, this has a very negative effect in watching the film. We go from the obvious motion of film in a camera and then cut to the completely static and sterile title cards and back again. I find it too disjointed and it disrupts the film in a way that makes it impossible to enjoy in the way that it was intended. This is certainly the case in Bardelys the Magnificent with John Gilbert, and the film suffers for it, though through no fault of its own. There are also some sections missing in the film because the original negative was destroyed by MGM rather than renew their rights to the work.

The film was based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini, and begins as a fairly standard costume drama set during the reign of Louis the XIII with Gilbert as a Don Juan character. After teasing on of the counts of the court because he couldn’t get Eleanor Boardman to marry him, the count challenges Gilbert to a wager, betting his entire estate that Gilbert can’t get her to marry him. Gilbert has no intention of getting married, but his pride gets the better of him and he accepts--even over the express orders of the king not to. I had never seen a Gilbert film before, but was prompted after reading parts of his brilliant biography by Eve Golden. One discovery I made right from the beginning of the picture: Gilbert is a much better actor than Douglas Fairbanks. He is far more expressive and less histrionic, and despite the stylized acting of the period, is more interesting in close-ups.

Another factor than no doubt helps the film is the direction of King Vidor, who brought his wife, Eleanor Boardman into the project. Of course the two worked together on the critically acclaimed The Crowd, but she is a tremendous talent on her own and one wishes that she could have made the transition to sound and had a lengthy career similar to that of Lillian Gish. Also, Vidor had previously worked with Gilbert on the box office smash, The Big Parade. He would have done better to team them in a modern piece, instead of a costume drama, but it’s still a very good picture. It’s a myth that Gilbert’s voice is what killed him in the sound era. What did it is his insipid dialogue; you can tell he’s just saying whatever comes to mind in the film and it has nothing to do with the script. But it didn’t really matter in silent films. In sound, however, it did

The restoration in nicely done, except for the aforementioned titles, with a single blue tint for night scenes and a rich black-and-white for day. It would have been nice to have a larger orchestra for on the soundtrack, especially on a historical piece like this--one gets spoiled listening to Carl Davis--but it works. The lost sections are filled out with still photographs, zoomed in and panned in the manner of Ken Burns, and it works much better than simply leaving those sections out. The story is also rather terrific, and provides lots of entertainment and suspense. The one area where Gilbert is weak in is the fencing scenes, and Fairbanks has him beat by a long way in that respect. But overall, Bardelys the Magnificent is an entertaining silent film, and a wonderful introduction to John Gilbert.

Lord of War (2005)

Director: Andrew Niccol                              Writer: Andrew Niccol
Film Score: Antonio Pinto                           Cinematography: Amir Mokri
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Bridget Moynahan, Jared Leto and Ian Holm

I make no bones about it; I actively dislike Nicholas Cage’s early films. He’s not just uninteresting, but the characters he played were repellant for me. That said, there are a number of films from his later career that I absolutely love. The tipping point for me, I would say, is Guarding Tess, where his character became serious for the first time, the eye of the hurricane in an otherwise insane situation, and in that way he has drawn my admiration and enjoyment. He can still do stinkers like Ghost Rider, but for the most part I enjoy his films now, whether it’s something completely offbeat, like The Weather Man, or strictly mainstream like National Treasure.

Lord of War is a difficult film in many ways. While there is seemingly a certain amount of suspense, there isn’t really. For the most part the plot is straightforward and predictable. Cage is a second generation Russian in New York who finds easy access because of his background into the gun trade. As he works his way up in the business with his brother, he attempts to buy the American Dream life he always imagined he wanted, a trophy wife, a young son, beautiful Manhattan apartment, all while attempting to keep his two lives completely separate. Of course his brother can’t handle what they’re doing and resorts to drug abuse, his wife never sees him, his son begins to play with toy guns, and he begins to hate himself. The requisite “moment of clarity” comes toward the end but, to the film’s credit, it takes a different turn. And this is what saves it, the predictability becoming a moment of clarity for the audience by the end.

The subtext of the film is selling arms to third world countries, whose only use for them is to kill their own people in civil wars, ethnic cleansing, or to maintain power. None of them seem justified, and yet the guns keep pouring into those countries and the “bath of blood” continues unabated. If he quits selling, Cage constantly tells those who will listen, someone else will move right in and continue. The relationship that is used as the symbol for all of them is with Eamonn Walker, who plays a fictional African leader named Andre Baptiste--it’s a great name, because it sounds enough like Batista to ring true. Walker is great in the role, as is his son Sammi Rotibi, and their seemingly indiscriminate murders underscore the precarious position that Cage is in. But is he really? Walker needs him and, ironically, so does the country selling the arms. While Cage appears to be in danger the entire film, things are not as they seem.

Cage does a tremendous job playing Cage in the film. The rest of the cast, with the exception of the execrable Ethan Hawke, is very good in support. Ian Holm is the Russian who is competing with Cage. The younger brother whose conscience won’t let him enjoy his success is played believably by Jared Leto, and Cage’s supermodel wife is very well done by Bridget Moynahan. Donald Sutherland even gets an important voice-only role. Lord of War is disturbing in many ways, and some will be disappointed with the ending. But that is the only way it could end with any satisfaction, and certainly symbolizes the problem in a realistic way.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)

Director: H.B. Halicki                                 Writer: H.B. Halicki
Film Score: Ronald Halicki                         Cinematography: Scott Lloyd-Davies
Starring: H.B. Halicki, Marion Busia, Jerry Daugirda and James McIntyre

The beginning of this film is wild. It’s basically a silent film with dialogue over the top of the action to let us know what’s going on. Obviously done to save money, it’s like no other film I’ve seen and what could have been bad filmmaking actually works in a very original way. Gone in 60 Seconds was, of course, very successfully remade, sort of, in 2000 with Nicholas Cage. The later film is not a strict remake but more of a reworking of the main idea: stealing a bunch of cars in a short amount of time for a rich buyer. The film is definitely very low budget, but Halicki makes the most of every penny and it really works.

Renaissance man Henry Blight Halicki not only wrote and directed the film, but starred in it and did many of the stunts. He plays the part owner of an insurance investigation business specializing in stolen cars. Naturally, this gives them all kinds of information that they can use to steal the cars they need. After receiving an order for 48 high-end cars inside of a week, the crew postpones everything and begins to fill the order. At the same time the company is being called in to investigate the same cars they’ve stolen. It’s a great, original idea, and the famous chase that ends the film inspired car chase films too numerous to mention, including Ron Howard’s Eat My Dust and Grand Theft Auto all the way up to films like John Landis’s The Blues Brothers.

In my review of the original Thomas Crown Affair, I talked about the embracing of the sixties style. This film completely embraces the seventies with leather jackets, big sunglasses, leisure suits, floppy hats, go-go boots, bikinis and a period soundtrack, including country-tinged music during the chase scenes. If only the production values were better, it would certainly be a classic film of the period. Even so, many other aspects of the film are great. I just can’t get over how well done this film is. I mean, there are terrible night scenes that are almost impossible to make out what’s going on, and muffled dialogue, but there are places where brilliant editing by Warner Leighton and the voice-over dialogue turns this into something very special.

Ultimately, the bulk of the film is simply a prelude to the chase, in which the tag line for the film claims, “93 Cars Destroyed in 40 Minutes!” Halicki was obviously inspired by films like The French Connection and Bullitt, but he takes the char chase to an epic level, through five different cities in and around Los Angeles, California at a cost of a quarter of a million dollars in destroyed vehicles. For the period, the chase is fantastic, the point of view shots from the cars are terrific and while the sound effects (squealing tires on dirt) are a bit off, it all works. The original Gone in 60 Seconds, for all its low-budget beginnings, delivers a tremendous amount of entertainment and is one of the hidden gems of the seventies.

The Little Foxes (1941)

Director: William Wyler                                Writer: Lillian Hellman
Film Score: Meredith Wilson                        Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Starring: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, Teresa Wright and Richard Carlson

The Little Foxes is a fascinating criticism of Southern society a generation after the Civil War. The real importance of it can be seen when juxtaposed with a similar film from a year earlier. Much of the script, from the story itself, to the family setting, to the pacing of the dialogue is certainly influenced by Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. But where Wilder’s New England town has an underlying joy beneath its gruff exterior, Lillian Hellman’s town in the Deep South seems as corrupt and rotten as it was in the antebellum period. There is a certain cruelty, a bitterness, a shame pervading the families and characters that inhabit the film that make it difficult to watch at times. And that is one of the traits of a good film, something that challenges us to see and understand things we’d rather forget.

Bette Davis plays the conniving matriarch of an extended family that incudes her brothers, Charles Dingle and Carl Benton Reid, and Reid’s son Dan Duryea, as well as her husband, Herbert Marshall, and her daughter Teresa Wright. Dingle and Reid are attempting to make a business deal to open a cotton manufacturing plant in town along with Northern businessman Russell Hicks, but they need Marshall’s money to close the deal. Marshall, however, is a sick man, terminally ill and with little motivation to make the deal. With Davis already spending her inheritance and Reid with thoughts of grandeur in his head, the backstabbing and double-dealing all under the polite veneer of Southern hospitality is nearly sickening.

Davis, of course, plays Bette Davis, and with her usual confidence. She is teamed again with Marshall, no doubt to capitalize on their success in Warner Brothers’ The Letter. It is odd to see Herbert Marshall play the sickly invalid after normally associating him with more commanding roles. This was also the debut of Teresa Wright, an actress who would have a long a successful career. One of the sub-plots involves her and her love interest, Richard Carlson, well before his days as an icon of 1950s science-fiction films. The story is not an easy one to watch. The treatment of the blacks seems little changed from the days of slavery, and this of course reflects the continuation of the corrupt society that continued right up until the 1960s and lingers to this day.

William Wyler and Gregg Toland do a good job of staying out of the way, which is admirable in itself. Likewise Meredith Wilson’s score is rather generic and adds little to the production. But this is as it should be. It’s Hellman’s story that is the real star. The film had a slew of nominations that year at the Oscars, but wasn’t able to win a single category, which is understandable. It’s not a brilliant film, as a film. Nevertheless, The Little Foxes remains a powerful story with a powerful message, not only an important part of American history but an important part of film history as well.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Director: Jim Sharman                                Writer: Jim Sharman & Richard O’Brien
Film Score: Richard O’Brien                        Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky
Starring: Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick and Richard O’Brien

Am I the only person in the U.S. who has never seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show? Quite possibly. But I would have had to be in a coma the last forty years not to have heard of it. This is what I would call the first video to “go viral,” and it happened well before the digital age. What strikes me most, as a Rocky Horror virgin, is just how cinematic the whole thing is, and I’m not talking just about the story. There is a sense that the film occupies a distinct place in film history and not only harks back to what has come before, but also looks ahead to what would follow it. Since I have no real experience with the audience participation aspect of the film, I’ll have to limit my observations to it as a film.

There is a distinct dissonance that happens from the opening titles, when what purports to be a horror musical contains a song that references numerous science-fiction films of the past. That, however, is something that will be resolved later. The film wears its London-Broadway stage beginnings on its sleeve, as it has very little time for straight narrative. This is no doubt a reflection of the musicals of the past like Jesus Christ Superstar or Hair. The music itself is rather tuneless rock-opera fodder, similar to that of films like Tommy that came out the same year. But there is a distinct connection with what would come after, namely Grease. That movie, from another Broadway production, has the same kind of overt sexually and is the direct progeny of Rocky Horror. And for me, Grease is the last rock musical of its kind and the end of a genre.

The review in The B List by Kevin Thomas is shockingly bad. A mere five paragraphs that do nothing . . . nothing but tell the plot of the film. And yet, even with that it misses one of the most important aspects of the film: Meatloaf. The film is a celebration of victory in the sexual revolution. Meatloaf represents the nineteen-fifties with his Elvis haircut, Marlon Brando motorcycle, and tenor saxophone. He has been in the deep freeze and, accidentally being allowed to escape he must be killed once and for all by Tim Curry’s transvestite-Frankenstein character. The film is not a “gay” film. Instead it celebrates all forms of sexuality and especially the throwing off of old (fifties) morality and gender distinctions. In this context the sixties were just a gateway, the revolution that was finally achieved in the seventies.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is decidedly a B movie, but it does hold an important place as the penultimate rock musical. It also signals the move toward disco, though in fashion and attitude rather than music. It’s great to see Susan Sarandon, who would go on to play a nun in Dead Man Walking, and Barry Bostwick, who would play the father of our country in George Washington, at the beginning of their careers with no idea what big stars they would become. This was Tim Curry’s first film, reprising his role from the stage. And author-composer Richard O’Brien is perfect as his henchman. The film is obviously a cult classic, but in the end it is also an important cinematic signpost. It’s too bad The B-List couldn’t have come up with an author who recognized that.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Letter (1929)

Director: Jean de Limur                                Writer: Garrett Fort
Film Score: Stock Music                              Cinematography: George J. Falsey
Starring: Jeanne Eagels, O.P. Heggie, Reginald Owen and Herbert Marshall

The first filmed version of Somerset Maugham’s play The Letter, it’s fascinating to compare this pre-code version and Warner Brothers' remake a decade later with Bette Davis. Previously thought to be a lost film, a 35mm print was discovered that was missing the music track. Fortunately most of the dialogue track is still intact and has also preserved one of the ultra-rare appearances in the talkies of Jeanne Eagels. Eagles was a Broadway star who was notoriously difficult in Hollywood. Drug addiction led to her death after finishing her next, and final film, Jealousy with Frederick March. Eagels is an interesting actress. She had a halting style of delivery and odd physical movements that makes one wonder if it wasn’t due to her drug use. But she was also quite a commanding figure on the screen.

Eagels plays the wife of a plantation owner in Singapore and Herbert Marshall plays her lover. In an ironic twist, Marshall wound up playing the part of the husband in the remake with Davis. Reginald Owen, who had a long career in Hollywood, played the husband in this version. O.P. Heggie, most famous as the blind hermit in Bride of Frankenstein, is on hand as the defense attorney for Eagels and Irene Browne plays his wife. The plot revolves around a letter that Eagels wrote to Marshall on the night that she killed him. The Chinese woman he was living with has the letter and is holding it as blackmail in exchange for ten thousand dollars. Japanese born Tamaki Yoshiwara plays the Chinese assistant of Heggie and is the go between for the transfer of money to Marshall’s Chinese mistress, Lady Tsen Mei who wants it delivered by Eagels herself.

Where the 1940 version was done in the style of a noir film, and the ending changed to reflect that, the original is still very close to its roots on the stage. The scenes have the usual stage bound quality of the early talkies, though there are a few interesting camera setups by director Jean de Limur. It’s easy to fault de Limur’s uninspired direction, but it’s certainly no worse hundreds of other talkies during the same period. It also doesn’t help that the music is gone. Of course, what music that existed in early talkies always came from situations in the film itself, what theorists call diegetic. In this case there is a small group of musicians outside of Eagels’ house as well as a group of Chinese musicians in Marshall’s house that are both mute. It would have been nice to have the entire music track, but during a dance scene and a snake charmer scene there are a couple of pieces of music still in existance. The Chinese are of course played as stereotypes, but otherwise the overt racism seems very much part of the story and the setting.

Though little more than a filmed play, it’s still a powerful story and the film itself has great interest because of the appearance of Eagels. Is that enough to recommend the film? On the whole, yes. As long as one can see it in its historic context and is prepared to judge it in that way it can be a fantastically rewarding experience. If not . . . then probably not. Ultimately the original version of The Letter is an important piece of film history and one well worth watching.

The Buddy Holly Story (1978)

Director: Steve Rash                                   Writer: Robert Gittler
Film Score: Joe Renzetti                              Cinematography: Stevan Larner
Starring: Gary Busey, Charles Martin Smith, Don Stroud and Maria Richwine

For the life of me, I can’t figure out how The Buddy Holly Story makes it on to a list of B-Movies. This is one of the great rock ‘n’ roll movies of all time, made about one of the greatest originators of rock music. It has a brilliant cast, great direction, wonderful music, everything you want in a must-see film. The only thing I can come up with is that art has imitated life and rock ‘n’ roll movies, like the music that it documents, is still suffering from prejudice that keep them second class cinematic citizens and causing reactionary films like Paul McCartney’s The Real Buddy Holly Story. It’s too bad because, in purely cinematic terms, this is one of the great films of all time and should be on anyone’s A List.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: great cinema does not need to be historically accurate. That’s what we have Ken Burns for. This film does exactly what I’ve been saying for a long time that more filmmakers should be doing, taking the original material and reimagining it to make a great film. First, you have John Goldrosen’s excellent biography of Holly. Then you have Alan Swyer who took that material and reorganized for more dramatic impact, finally handing it off to screenwriter Robert Gittler to provide dialogue and vision. Sure, it’s not exactly what Holly’s life was like, but that’s not the point. It takes that life as raw material and makes great cinema from it.

The film begins, perfectly, in the roller rink where Holly played locally in Lubbock, Texas. The kids, of course, love the new music, but that scene is juxtaposed with the next, in church the following morning with the preacher condemning the music. It’s the perfect shorthand to show the controversy the new music provoked. Does it matter that it didn’t really happen that way? I would say no. The elements are the same, the fact that the details are different is unimportant when those elements are there to serve the film. The story goes on to show Holly’s disastrous attempt at recording in Nashville, his breakout period on a national label, then adding strings and poising himself for a transcendent career before his tragic death. Being a slave to the details would only lessen the impact of a film about a life with tremendous impact. Thankfully, Steve Rash did the right thing.

Gary Busey, for all of his foibles and the joke his life and career have become, is perfect as Buddy Holley. In fact, like a lot of films on musicians, he is perhaps more animated than the original, more excited about the music he was pioneering than the man he was portraying. Would we want it any other way? I would answer a resounding no. The rest of the cast is equally appropriate, the wild and uncontrolled drummer Don Stroud, and the bassist that is a combination of the original and the rhythm guitarist in Charles Martin Smith. Newcomer Maria Richwine is also a great choice as Holly’s wife. Even the character parts are well cast and lend an overall polish to the production.

The B List review of the film by David Ansen suffers tremendously from being written in 1978. It’s tremendously difficult to assess the impact and influence of a film at the time of release. To his credit, he does understand the importance of the film as the first to seriously attempt a rock biography, and even further back as the first non-sentimental film to deal with famous musicians. He also nails Gary Busey’s importance to the success of the picture. What he doesn’t get, and really can’t from his limited perspective, is that this is decidedly not a “lower-case movie,” as he calls it. This film was profoundly influential, the progenitor of films as diverse as La Bamba and Coal Miner’s Daughter right on up to Ray. The Buddy Holly story is not just a great biopic, but the most influential biopic in film history.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Lady with the Dog (1960)

Director: Iosif Kheifits                                  Writer: Iosif Kheifits
Film Score: Nadezhda Simonyan                  Cinematography: Andrei Moskvin
Starring: Iya Savvina, Aleksey Batalov, Nina Alisova and Pantelejmon Krymov

It would be interesting to know what Russian filmmakers during the Soviet era thought of the fact that all of their great literature centered around the bourgeois society which they had overthrown, and what their government thought when they wanted to film some of those stories. Though it probably doesn’t matter. Most of the characters in Russian literature are pretty unhappy, and it doesn’t take much of a stretch for a filmmaker to make it appear that it’s the society’s fault rather than any inherent defect in being Russian. Based on the story by Anton Chekov, the Russian film The Lady with the Dog is a perfect example of this as Kheifits emphasizes a certain hollow decadence in the film that doesn’t exist in the original.

The story begins in a resort in Yalta by the sea, wealthy vacationers bored and unhappy until Iya Savvina shows up with her dog and gives them something to gossip about. Aleksey Batalov at first seems utterly uninterested in the new arrival until she sits down next to him at dinner. This is quite different from the story where he knows she is married and is intent on having an affair with her right from the start. But the lack of internal dialogue seems to be the only difference between the two. The first part of the film adheres to the story in every other way down to the smallest details, which makes sense as this would be a story that most Russians would have been familiar with. Where Kheifits takes liberties is with the middle section in Moscow, focusing on an extravagant lifestyle that has failed to make its denizens happy.

The production design is an odd mix of real exteriors, studio sets, and rear projection, though it is in keeping with the same sixties quality that was prevalent in Hollywood at the time, complete with entirely dubbed dialog and sound effects. What is incongruous about that is how it seems utterly oblivious to the realist moment going on elsewhere in Europe since the end of the war. Certainly the Soviet filmmakers studied American films and in attempting to emulate them did a terrific job. But at what cost? There’s a certain vacuous quality to Hollywood films, anyway, that it seems they would have wanted to avoid.

Even with all of that, it’s a wonderful love story, as painful as it might be to watch. Savvina is absolutely stunning, and one longs to see her luminescent blue eyes in color. Batalov is reminiscent of Ronald Coleman in The Talk of the Town, and has an easy, commanding presence on the screen. There are also some gorgeous, black and white exterior shots. Still, one wishes that writer-director Iosif Kheifits would have taken some more risks with the photography in order to achieve a more realistic look in the rest of the film. The Lady with the Dog is, however, a satisfying adaptation of the classic Chekov story and certainly worth seeking out and watching.

Forrest Gump (1994)

Director: Robert Zemeckis                                 Writer: Eric Roth
Film Score: Alan Silvestri                                  Cinematography: Don Burgess
Starring: Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise and Sally Field

I hate this film. Hate, as an emotion, is by definition irrational but this actually makes sense. The first few times I saw Forrest Gump on cable I actively disliked it but couldn’t figure out exactly why. It was this huge blockbuster success and won six Academy Awards, but there was something wrong about the whole thing for me. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I figured out why when I read the awkwardly titled but incredibly insightful essay by Joseph E. Green, “Reality and the Moving Image: The Paranoid Style in American Cinema.” In his essay he calls Forrest Gump “one of the most insidious films ever made. To postulate that utopian societal reconciliation is depicted in the relationship between a mental deficient and a suicidal drug addict is lunacy. The fact that Forrest learns nothing, is in fact incapable of learning, never made a dent in the fantasy-seeking audience. Gump is the perfect soldier and the perfect citizen, one who is happy and content in a world of meaningless symbols, following the orders of authorities and reveling in the wisdom of convention.”

But this is only the start of the problem for me. Of course everyone is familiar with the story. Gump starts out life both physically and mentally disabled, and while he overcomes the physical challenge nothing changes the mental. He’s in love with his childhood friend, Jenny, but she goes her own way. They cross paths many times during the decades, with Gump conforming to society’s expectations and Jenny doing the opposite. Director Robert Zemeckis manages to insert Gump digitally into some famous scenes and fans simply ate it up. But Green’s point can be taken another step further. Gump is obviously the ultimate conformist, doing whatever society expects of him. What is less obvious, and far more insidious to use Green’s word, is the role that Jenny plays in the film. The reality is that she is just as much under the sway of society as he is. She is a reactionary, plain and simple. Every action she takes is a direct attempt to go against society’s expectations and in that way she is every bit as much a conformist as Gump.

Mykelti Williamson’s role as Bubba is far from “touching,” and felt insultingly racist to me, while Sally Fields’ Mama is trite and clichéd. The only character that I felt was real in any way was Lieutenant Dan. The anger and frustration Gary Sinise displayed in the film was at least honest, and made the one-dimensional conformist characters that inhabit the rest of the film all the more transparently meaningless. And yet Lieutenant Dan is written as a joke in the film, the guy who doesn’t “get it.” But it’s the audience that didn’t get it, and winds up being just as lemming-like as the characters they love in the film. In the end, that is the most telling thing about the popularity of Forrest Gump: the joke is on the audience. They love Forrest and Jenny because they’re just like them, going along with the crowd or reacting against it, totally controlled by what others do and not even realizing it. And then paying millions of dollars for the privilege . As the great Somerset Maugham put it: “If forty million people say a foolish thing it does not become a wise one, but the wise man is foolish to give them the lie.” So I won’t lie to you. I hate Forrest Gump.

Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

Roger Ebert was not my favorite film critic, not by a long shot. His reviews, while sometimes insightful, were usually too glib and shallow for my taste. Like fans of the Beatles, I think everyone had their favorite. I was more of a Siskel guy. That said, there’s absolutely no denying the influence, in a very good way, that he and Gene had on film criticism and, I would even say, films in general. Today the format seems almost comical, two guys in the balcony showing clips of movies and giving a thumbs up or thumbs down. Two little Caesars determining the fate of films, whether they would live or die at the box office. Except it wasn’t really like that.

I can remember with vivid clarity the first time my family and I watched Sneak Previews. It really was revolutionary. I mean, who the hell read movie reviews in the paper? You looked at the ads that the theaters had in the paper and, if there was a star you liked or a premise that looked good, you ponied up your buck twenty-five (that’s right, a dollar and twenty-five cents to see, usually, a double feature) and took a chance. What Roger and Gene did was give you an actual preview, not in the Hollywood sense of seeing the whole picture, but taking the film review out of the paper and telling it to you in person, complete with clips from the films themselves. It really was genius. And far from killing movies with a thumbs down, it often had the effect of driving people to see them, just so we could share in the same experience as our friends Roger and Gene.

I miss Roger Ebert. I miss Gene Siskel. I miss seeing two guys who, in the beginning, had absolutely no use for each other, who could become incensed that the idiot across the aisle didn’t “get it,” and come to love each other in the process. It was their passion for films that we loved, their complete and utter genuineness, their bald and unvarnished honesty, and it was for their total commitment to the art of film that we watched them. I would love to believe in the fantasy that the two friends are back together now, discussing films again, but of course Roger believed no such thing. And neither do I. But they will always remain together in my memory, icons of the twentieth century, and will always have been a memorable part of my experience on this earth. Goodbye, Roger. I’m glad I knew ya.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Bicycle Thief (1948)

Director: Vittorio De Sica                              Writer: Cesare Zavattini
Film Score: Alessandro Cicognini                  Cinematography: Carlo Montuori
Starring: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell and Gino Saltamerenda

Before there was the French New Wave, there was Italian Neorealism, or as I call it, plain old European Realism. What that means to me is small, personal stories about people, dealing with issues that seem insignificant, even trivial, compared to Hollywood stories of the time. But that was precisely the point. Instead of attempting to compete with the product that was being made in the U.S., European filmmakers made movies about everyday people, dealing with the realities of life for Europeans at that time, and it was extremely influential throughout the continent. Bicycle Thieves--the actual Italian title--is usually considered one of the earliest examples of this new style of cinema.

In post-war Italy, Lamberto Maggiorani is looking for work, like hundreds of other men, hanging around every day at the employment office. That day fortune smiles on him and he gets a job putting up posters around town. The only problem is he needs a bicycle to get the job, and he has pawned his. His wife sacrifices for him by selling the sheets of their bed and they get the bike back. He goes to work the next day with great relief and enthusiasm. But while he is putting up a poster, someone steals his bike. The next morning, with his small son in tow, he goes to the market where bikes are bought and sold on a futile search for his bicycle, which may already have been taken apart and sold. His desperate search is all the more frustrating not only because of its seeming impossibility, but because of his dogged refusal to give up.

There’s a powerful sense of helplessness and hopelessness in the film and, in true European fashion, it does not have a happy ending. There are any number of ways to analyze the film, but on its surface it must reflect the desolation of the post-war period, having followed Mussolini off the cliff, defeated by the Allies, and then left alone in poverty to be preyed upon by criminals with no recourse from the police. The use of real exteriors and interiors is only deviated from in one scene while a truck is driving in the rain and the city is seen in rear projection. The acting is outstanding, especially the part played by Enzo Staiola as the young son. The film won an honorary Oscar for outstanding foreign film before there was an official category, and though he didn’t win that year, director Vittorio De Sica eventually won a best supporting actor award. Highly influential, Bicycle Thieves is post-war Italian realism at its best.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008)

Director: Mark Herman                              Writer: Mark Herman
Film Score: James Horner                         Cinematography: Benoît Delhomme
Starring: David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga, Asa Butterfield and László Nádasi

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is an interesting “what if” Holocaust story by John Boyne that, unfortunately, suffers from the same problem as Steven Spielberg’s War Horse. The inability of writer-director Mark Herman to move beyond the juvenile literary source ultimately dooms it as adult entertainment. Now I hesitate to call anything dealing with The Holocaust entertainment, but in purely cinematic terms that’s what we’re dealing with when looking at feature films. What this kind of film needs is for the original text to be reimagined in a way that makes it pure cinema rather than just a filmed novel. In this case, the strict adherence to the juvenile story forces comparisons to that cinematic kiss of death category: the TV movie.

The story is from the point of view of Asa Butterfield, whose father is a high-ranking SS officer in the German military in 1942. Forced to move from their Berlin home that he loves, he finds himself in the country, with a nearby “farm.” Isolated, and with no friends, he naturally seeks out the company of the children he’s seen there, with obvious consequences. The story as is, screams out in need of voice-over to tell us what he’s thinking. Again, the reason for this comes from the ill-advised desire of Herman to stay true to the book and thereby rendering the main character mute. There are so many other things that could have been done.

I would have made the central character in the story the mother. Early on the grandmother provides some weak dissention, but if the mother had disagreed with what her husband was doing right from the start it would have provided much more tension, adult interest, and a more realistic context for the boy’s behavior. I would have changed the title as well. The film also desperately needs some manipulation of the visuals. Spielberg’s Schindler’s List benefitted tremendously from the black and white images, but it didn’t need to be that dramatic. The Grey Zone, with its attenuation of the color scale to match the title, is equally fine. Because of the spare, clean sets, vivid color, and bad direction of the actors, the film lacks the verisimilitude that one would hope for from a film attempting to depict the Nazi horrors and instead winds up being little more than a WWII version of The Fox and the Hound.

On the positive side, David Thewlis and Vera Farmiga are excellent casting choices as the parents. Thewlis has a Reinhardt Heydrich look as a Nazi, and Farmiga the haunting feeling that you’ve seen her in hundreds of similar pictures. Also, the casting of the soldiers is uniformly excellent. The story on its own holds some interest, but left twisting in the wind without a shred of inner dialogue by the main character fatally flaws the entire production. This is especially tragic considering the powerfully unexpected ending. There must be a dozen major films that deal with a boy in wartime that are infinitely better, Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun and John Boorman’s Hope and Glory come immediately to mind. Unfortunately, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas falls well short of those films, and is a disappointment for those who seek to explore this dark side of world history in a realistic way. The only thing that deserves merit is the disturbing subject matter and the unexpected but appropriate ending.