Friday, December 25, 2015

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

Director: Frank Capra                                    Writers: Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett
Film Score: Dimitri Tiomkin                            Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore and Thomas Mitchell

Capra corn? Not this film. It seems that Frank Capra’s entire career was spent leading up to this film. It’s a Wonderful Life is the ultimate expression of what Capra was attempting to do, combining sentiment and American values into a perfect blend of entertainment and cinematic artistry. And audiences through the years have felt the same way. At the time it was released, however, post-war audiences weren’t quite ready for the sentimentality of the film and reviews were mixed. But over time it has come to be recognized for what it is, the apotheosis of the career of a great American director. What’s interesting is that the director today who most resembles Capra is Steven Spielberg, and yet the two have had almost opposite career trajectories. Capra began with earnest attempts at Academy Award recognition in the thirties with films like The Bitter Tea of General Yen, but when he won his first Oscar for the romantic comedy It Happened One Night he abandoned those pretensions and built the rest of his career aiming toward the brilliance of his holiday classic. Spielberg, on the other hand, began with sentimental claptrap like E.T. and Close Encounters, and thus had to toil for years before finally earning the grudging respect of the Academy with Schindler’s List.

The original story was written by Philip Van Doren Stern, who was unable to get it published at the time, and had it printed himself as a Christmas card. His agent, however, was able to sell the movie rights to RKO and it eventually wound up in front of Capra, who could see the potential at once. Unlike some of his other classics of the late thirties and early forties, this film seems far less forced. The aspirations of his characters are not idealistic, they are firmly realistic, and it is in the face of ordinary but equally realistic enemies that the common man prevails. If someone were to ask for one film that represented the cinema of Frank Capra, this would be it. Another aspect that counts, not insignificantly, for its greatness is that this is the first film that Capra had complete, creative control over. Though it was released by RKO, it was Capra’s film, made under his new production company, Liberty Films. He thought of Jimmy Stewart for the lead right away, while Jean Arthur was first offered the part of Mary, which would have replicated the leads from his Oscar winning You Can’t Take it With You. And while Donna Reed was at the end of a long list of actresses, her onscreen innocence was perfect for the part. Lionel Barrymore, who played the nominal hero in the earlier film, was eventually brought in as the villainous Mr. Potter. A host of brilliant Hollywood character actors rounded out the cast.

The film begins with many people praying for Jimmy Stewart, while up in heaven god and Joseph have to decide who to send down to help him. The choice is Henry Travers, a bumbling but intuitive angel who hasn’t earned his wings. The first part of the film is Travers seeing Stewart’s life from childhood, then maturing and working at his father’s building and loan. He meets Donna Reed--a rival of Gloria Graham in the film--and falls in love with her, but wants to see the world before settling down. When his father suddenly dies, he is faced with the choice of leaving for college or seeing the building and loan closed at the behest of the richest--and meanest--man in town, Lionel Barrymore. Stewart stays and watches everyone else become successful, including his brother Todd Karns. When his uncle, Thomas Mitchell, loses eight thousand dollars of the business’s money--actually stolen by Barrymore, Stewart sees no way out other than suicide. It’s then that Travers intervenes, and shows Stewart how bad life for others would be without him. It’s a sobering journey for Stewart, especially when he sees how bad things are for those he loves the most, and the purity of the upbeat ending is one of the greatest in all of cinema. It was exactly what Capra had been attempting his entire career and he finally achieved it.

The film is a long one at over two hours, and something a studio would have frowned on. But with his freedom Capra could do as he pleased. The film was shot on the RKO lot, and the set for the main street of Bedford Falls underwent several changes during the shoot, not only to indicate different seasons but to reflect the alternate universe in which Stewart doesn’t exist. Dimitri Tiomkin, one of Capra’s frequent collaborators, was hired to write the film score, but most of it was toned down so much, or not used at all, that it essentially ended their working relationship. Though Capra remembered mostly negative reviews at the time, there were some positive, but the film failed to make back its investment. It wasn’t until the 1970s, and the film’s saturation on television during the Christmas season, that a new generation of viewers recognized the film for the classic it is. At the time, the film’s release was pushed up by RKO for the holiday season, thus putting it into stiffer competition at the Academy Awards. It earned six Oscar nominations, including best picture, but failed to win in any of the categories. Fortunately Capra lived to see the resurgence of the film’s popularity. Along with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life will be forever associated with the magic of Christmas and the holiday season.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Wings of the Morning (1937)

Director: Harold D. Schuster                         Writer: Thomas J. Geraghty
Film Score: Arthur Benjamin                         Cinematography: Ray Rennahan
Starring: Annabella Charpentier, Henry Fonda, Leslie Banks and Stewart Rome

Though this is usually touted as the first British film to be shot in color. Wings of the Morning is almost wholly a 20th Century Fox production that just happened to be filmed in Britain. The casting of Henry Fonda was done as a hedge against the possibility that their star, Annabella, was not a hit with U.S. audiences. The French actress began her work in silent films by appearing in Abel Gance’s epic Napoleon, and made the transition to French sound films shortly after. Henry Fonda only accepted the role for the free trip to England, but it turned out to be a fortuitous decision as a group of American tourists visiting the set included the woman who would eventually become his wife. Though the film was successful upon release, it hasn’t aged well over the years and is primarily remembered for its color photography more than the story. The film was one of the last by veteran studio writer Thomas J. Geraghty who had been working in films since the late teens. He was assisted by another veteran, John Meehan, while the film score was composed by Arthur Benjamin, a Brit by way of Australia, who had worked for Alfred Hitchcock during his British period.

The story begins in Ireland in 1890. Soldiers spy a Gypsy camp and try to run them out, but when they insult Annabella, her father, D.J. Williams, hauls one of them off his mount. Before they can respond, lord of the manor Leslie Banks shows up and shoos them off. It’s then that he sees a magnificent horse that Williams owns and asks to buy it, and winds up being charmed by Annabella, proclaiming that the Gypsies can stay there and spending all his time with her. Eventually, the two get married, but when Banks is killed in a riding accident Annabella is unable to inherit the estate and must leave, even though she’s pregnant with their child. The film them jumps ahead fifty years to Spain and, with the civil war in full swing, Irene Vanbrugh as the older Annabella character returns to Ireland and then sends for her granddaughter, Annabella again. After she arrives--still dressed as a man to aid her escape--she needs to get word to her fiancé that she’s safe, and rides off on a prize Gypsy horse, outracing the ones being trained by Henry Fonda on Banks’ former estate. The property is now owned by Stewart Rome, the cousin of Banks who was still a child when he inherited. At this point the film becomes something like Sylvia Scarlet with Annabella sticking to her male disguise with everyone assuming she’s a young man.

The title comes from the name of the horse that Annabella has inadvertently traded to Fonda, not knowing it is from the line of the horse Banks saw decades earlier. Upon leaving after the death of banks, a fortune-teller told her that it would take four generations for the Gypsy blood to be bred out of her family line and make her heir acceptable to the British nobles. The new Annabella is the third generation, as is the horse. The rest of the story centers on the up and down relationship of Annabella and Fonda, as well as his training the horse to run in the Derby. The film itself is pretty staid, and for the country’s first Technicolor prestige picture it’s also pretty underwhelming. Even with the attempt at a generational story line, as well as drawing on the popularity of the Derby in England, at its center the narrative is not very interesting. It also suffers from the inability to understand Annabelle’s accent most of the time, as well as some of the other uncredited cast members. Still, there is a bit of chemistry between Annabella and Fonda onscreen. In fact, she fell in love with him at the beginning of the shoot and it took all of Fonda’s diplomacy to disentangle himself from her, especially after her husband caught wind of it and headed to England to confront him.

Director Harold D. Schuster was actually brought in to replace Glenn Tryon, who was primarily an actor at that time. He had shot the Derby scenes and some of the Irish estate scenes before arguments with producer Robert Kane resulted in his being fired. Schuster was an editor at Fox and was given his first chance to direct in the film. He was assisted by cinematographer Ray Rennahan, who had already shot the Techicolor Becky Sharp two years earlier. And there are some nice moving camera shots, as well as a plethora of second unit montages of Ireland and London, which do look terrific in color and for many British audiences might even make up for the lackluster story. To pad the film even more, plus add to its drawing power, Irish tenor John McCormack was brought in to sing several numbers. For fans of classic Hollywood films there is another notable appearance in the film. A very recognizable Evelyn Ankers plays a bit part as a party guest. Leslie Banks doesn’t have much of an impact on the film as his character dies early on, but Annabella is surprisingly effective in the later half with Fonda. As for the star, his performance is solid, though there’s very little for him to work with. All in all, Wings of the Morning is definitely a lesser film, notable as an example of early Technicolor but not much else.

In the Bedroom (2001)

Director: Todd Field                                      Writers: Todd Field & Robert Festinger
Film Score: Thomas Newman                      Cinematography: Antonio Calvache
Starring: Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, Marisa Tomei and Nick Stahl

This is an absolutely fascinating family drama that is a throwback to films of the seventies. In the Bedroom is not concerned at all with pandering to modern audiences’ need for speed, but instead takes its time and tells its story in the way that it naturally unfolds. At the same time it honors New England novels as far back as Ethan Frome in the way that its characters are allowed their natural stoicism and doesn’t force them into exaggerated emotions and outbursts that have become incredibly tedious in most modern dramas. The film is based on the short story “Killings” by New England author Andre Dubus, and writer-director Todd Field and his screenwriting partner Robert Festinger stayed true to the spirit of the source material in the best possible way, earning an Oscar nomination for their efforts. The film was similarly nominated for best picture and the three leads were nominated as well, though none of them took home the prize. This is surprising considering it was a fairly weak field in all the major categories that year. Todd Field was born in Portland, Oregon, but moved to New York to study acting and had a substantial career in secondary roles in both film and television while at the same time honing his skills as a director making short films. In the Bedroom is all the more impressive for being his first feature.

The film opens on Marisa Tomei and Nick Stahl running through a field, then lying down in the grass to kiss as she professes her love for him. The next day, early in the morning, what appears to be the couple’s oldest boy goes out with Stahl and his father, Tom Wilkinson, to pull up his lobster pots. It’s not until the boy’s birthday party that the audience discovers the two boys are from Tomei’s marriage to William Mapother. Wilkinson is a doctor in the small Maine fishing town, and he’s married to Sissy Spacek, a high school choir teacher. It is the summer before Stahl is set to go off to graduate school for architecture but he’s having second thoughts, wanting to stay with the older Tomei for a year before he goes back to school. Mapother is a typically abusive husband, whose father owns the fish packing plant in town and clearly he’s been given everything he wants in life. The fact that Tomei doesn’t want him anymore is infuriating to him, not to mention her relationship with Stahl. Spacek wants Stahl to break it off with Tomei, especially after he gets into a fight with Mapother, but the more Tomei falls victim to his abuse, the more Stahl thinks about staying. Finally, everything becomes moot when Mapother shoots Stahl and kills him. The rest of the film deals with the trauma unleashed by the event, and especially the way Stahl’s parents attempt to cope with the death of their son.

In some ways this can be seen as a modern update of Ordinary People, with a slightly more blue-collar slant and from the parent’s perspective rather than the brother. Wilkinson isn’t quite as cuckold as Donald Sutherland, and Spacek isn’t quite the frigid witch that Mary Tyler Moore is, but there’s a similar dynamic going on between them. Everything about the last half of the film is masterfully done. The story, while familiar, never edges over into cliché, and the surprising realism in the confrontation of the grieving couple toward the end virtually dares the audience not to believe it. Both Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek were nominated for Oscars, and deservedly so. Marisa Tomei, though not nearly as believable as those two, does a solid job and earned a nomination as well. The other thing the film does so brilliantly is to deliberately keep the camera away from the violence. The audience hears about Mapother’s abuses, sees Stahl’s black eye, sees the aftermath of Mapother’s trashing of the house, and is even with Tomei on the stairs instead of in the room when Stahl is shot. The result is to put the viewer on the side of the parents as they struggle with Stahl’s death. Rather than the easy hatred toward a similar character in something like The Rainmaker, the audience is left to reason its way through the second half of the film rather than instinctively react emotionally, which is what most Hollywood films would devolve into. As a result, the ending is so much more powerful for the simultaneous resolution it gives and future emotional uncertainty that it promises.

Todd Field seems equally adept behind the camera as his is with the screenplay. The film is shot in natural tones without artificial color manipulation, and as most of the story is set during the summer it has a vivid, colorful palate that plays nicely against the unfolding story. But the most impressive technical aspect of the film is easily the camera work by Field and his cinematographer Antonio Calvache. The camera angles are deceptively simple, which means that while they don’t draw attention to themselves, there are actually quite unique in almost every scene, especially in the way that the two utilize depth of field to frame both subjects in the foreground and background rather than relying on lateral interaction on the screen. It’s some of the best camerawork in modern filmmaking I’ve seen. There are also a couple of spots where Field makes his talent more obvious. After Stahl’s death Wilkinson goes to visit Tomei at her job in a convenience store and the sound is pushed up on the register with makes for a nice aural intrusion into their conversation. He also visits with his lawyer and the camera pushes in on the lawyer’s mouth, while muddling the sound, as the camera shifts to Wilkinson’s eyes, then to the lawyer’s pocket where he jingles his change, again with an increase in volume. The cliché of the lawyer as a mouthpiece only interested in money rather than justice could not be more obvious and yet it is delightfully rendered. In the Bedroom is easily one of the best pictures made in the last twenty years and yet seems criminally neglected. It should be on everyone’s must see list.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Robert Loggia (1930-2015)

The recent death of the great Robert Loggia is an irreplaceable loss to Hollywood filmmaking. Though he was never a leading actor, he did star in a TV detective show, Mancuso FBI in 1989, which unfortunately did not attract enough viewers to be renewed. I watched the show religiously and though it was one of his signature roles. His only other staring television vehicle was for Walt Disney, 10 episodes in which he played the western lawman Elfego Baca. But while he was never a romantic lead, his career as a character actor is one of the most impressive in the last fifty years. Loggia was born in New York and began his career as a TV anchor in Panama. Soon after returning to the States he began an extensive series of guest spots during the sixties on television programs as diverse as Wagon Train, The Untouchables, and the soap opera The Secret Storm. It was in the seventies that he really solidified his credentials as a first call actor in crime dramas. Beginning with a guest shot on The FBI in 1970, he made similar appearances throughout the decade on Kojak, Mannix, Harry O, Ellery Queen, Columbo, SWAT and Police Woman.

Loggia’s first significant film role came in a crime spoof, The Revenge of the Pink Panther in 1978, though he continued television appearances in The Rockford Files, Starsky and Hutch, Hawaii Five-O, and Quincy. He returned for two more Pink Panther sequels in the eighties, but really stood out onscreen in the remake of Scarface with Al Pacino. My first acquaintance with the actor came in Psycho II, the sequel to the great Hitchcock film. Loggia played the psychiatrist for Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates, and again performed the duties of a detective as he attempted to figure out who was trying to drive Perkins crazy again. His next big film role was as the investigator for Glenn Close’s attorney in The Jagged Edge. This, to me, was Loggia’s best film role. He’s abrasive, and coarse, and yet has a heart as big as a mountain for his former boss, and the role earned him his only Oscar nomination. After an appearance as the mob boss in Prizzi’s Honor, he made a change of pace appearing in the Tom Hanks film Big as the CEO of a toy company that hired the grown up child played by the star. The iconic moment in the film is when he plays “Heart and Soul” with his feet as a duet with Hanks on a giant keyboard.

Two other minor roles I remember seeing him in were as a general in Independence Day, and a mysterious neighbor in the Scandinavian mystery Smilla’s Sense of Snow. But no matter what film roles he accepted, he always continued to appear in television--like The Sopranos--to the end. Loggia worked virtually up until his death from complications of Alzheimer’s Disease and still has a few projects in post production. The power of his presence onscreen is undeniable. But he also knew how to work with other actors to bring out the best in their performances. He was ironically strong and tender at the same time, able to shout down his enemies and yet show his vulnerable side to the characters he cared about. Though he was never won an Oscar, he didn’t need to. His work speaks for itself. Robert Loggia was one of the most recognizable faces on either screen and he will truly be missed.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

Director: Richard Fleischer & Toshio Masuda      Writers: Larry Forrester & Hideo Oguni
Film Score: Jerry Goldsmith                                 Cinematography: Charles F. Wheeler & Shinsaku Himeda
Starring: Sô Yamamura, Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall, Wesly Addy and Takahiro Tamura

I was privileged to see this film as a kid, in 1970, in a theater in Seattle that had recently been retrofitted for surround sound. It was a powerful experience that probably more than any other led me to a lifelong interest in World War Two. But Tora! Tora! Tora! is also unique for attempting to present the most balanced account of the Japanese attack possible, by editing together film shot by two different crews, one working in Japan and telling their side of the story, and an American crew telling ours. The result is easily the best account available of that day of infamy, and will unlikely be surpassed because of its completeness and historical accuracy. The film was one of the most expensive in Hollywood history and, because it only made back sixty percent of its cost, it forced studio executive Darryl Zanuck to resign. His vision was to make something of a sequel to The Longest Day about the D-Day invasion of Europe in 1944. While finished in 1969 the project underwent delays in editing the two parts of the film together, as well as the special effects and miniatures that needed to be inserted, which were responsible for the film’s only Oscar win that year. The title of the film comes from an article by Gordon W. Prange, who was able to interview Japanese leaders as well as Americans to give an overall view of the attack.

The film opens with a proclamation of historical accuracy, that the events and characters are actually those who participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The opening credits appear over a ship of Japanese sailors at attention. Their new admiral, Yamamoto, played by Sô Yamamura, has just been put in charge of the naval fleet. The army wants an alliance with Germany, but the navy is against it. Meanwhile Japanese diplomats are trying to decide if it’s worth pulling out of China and risking American intervention, or whether the U.S. will ultimately back down. Though diplomatic ties are still open, the secretary of state Cordell Hull, played by George Macready, believes they have no intent of reaching an agreement and that the Japanese are just stalling for time. Unbeknownst to the Japanese, however, the U.S. has broken their diplomatic code--E.G. Marshall and Wesly Addy are in charge--and can decode their messages faster than their embassy. The problem is that the U.S. military doesn’t trust their own overseas messaging systems, and thus none of the commanders in the Pacific have access to this information. In Hawaii Admiral Kimmel, played by Martin Balsam, has taken over the Pacific Fleet and is warned about the way the ships are bottled up in Pearl Harbor. Yamamoto believes that if Japan goes to war with the U.S., the only chance they have for victory is to destroy the fleet before they can get started, in Pearl Harbor. No one, at first, thought it would ever be a surprise attack.

What changes things is that the Japanese army decided to invade Indo-China, prompting an embargo by the U.S. of all supplies going into Japan. Without fuel and other raw materials, the Japanese would no longer be able to wage war. Thus, the attack on Pearl Harbor became a necessity rather than a contingency. Darryl Zanuck’s intention was to expose the truth in what happened. Along with Admiral Kimmel, the head of security on the islands, General Short played by Jason Robards, were blamed for the lack of preparedness. But the truth is much more complex. Both men were aware of the danger, and suspected as much from the Japanese, but conflicting and incomplete reports from Washington D.C. prevented them from doing what was actually necessary to anticipate and detect the Japanese fleet before it attacked. If Short is responsible for anything, it was his decision to huddle planes together in the middle of the airfields to prevent espionage, allowing them to be decimated by Japanese aircraft. The leader of the assault was Isamu Fujita, played by Takahiro Tamura. He rightly predicted that without the complete destruction of all ships in Pearl, the U.S. would be able to regroup. But Yamamoto knows that it doesn’t matter how many ships at Pearl are destroyed, with all their aircraft carriers still out at sea, the U.S. will be able to mount a comeback anyway, which they would amply demonstrate at Midway.

The direction and cinematography is standard for the day, and the supervision by production manager Elmo Williams forced the Japanese crew to make their footage fit as seamlessly as possible with the American. Initially Akira Kurosawa was hired to shoot the Japanese sequence, but he couldn’t work under such close supervision and left the project. One of the terrific choices by the producers of the film was to leave the Japanese sequences intact and not dub them into English. Subtitles are used and this allows the film to command even more respect for its authenticity. The attack scenes are incredibly well done and realistic, and convey the overwhelming element of surprise the Japanese achieved. Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the film really doesn’t become memorable until just before and during the attack, but it’s nowhere near as iconic as his score for Patton had been earlier that year. The film is a star-studded affair that also includes James Whitmore as Admiral Halsey, Joseph Cotton as Henry Simson, Leon Ames, Richard Anderson, Edward Andrews, and G.D. Spradlin are just some of the other familiar faces. While Tora! Tora! Tora! was critically lauded by historians it did not made a profit for Fox, and didn’t fare well with critics as they felt there was no actual through story to center the plot.