Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Our Town (1940)

Director: Sam Wood                                   Writer: Thornton Wilder
Film Score: Aaron Copland                         Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Starring: William Holden, Martha Scott, Frank Craven and Thomas Mitchell

Our Town is one of those plays that has been done by everyone, in every way imaginable, and in nearly every town in America, from Broadway and off Broadway, to college and university theater programs, local playhouses, all the way down to high school productions. If any piece of art can hold claim to being a genuine piece of Americana, it’s this 1940 film version of Our Town. From Thornton Wilder’s screenplay, to Frank Craven’s expert narration, to Holden and Scott’s fresh faced acting, to Aaron Copland’s magnificent score, it really is the definitive version. America may not have always been like his, or may never have been like this, but it’s what we like to imagine it always was.

One of the brilliant aspects of Wilder’s work is the poignancy that he brings to it. Where it could have been coy and cloying--and the early scenes with Holden and Scott can be at times--there is an undeniable realism at work. In the opening scene we’re not only told about the birth of twins in Polish Town, but also of the death of Mrs. Gibbs and the paper boy. It’s a harsh realization, even more so when we learn of Mrs. Gibbs’ burning desire to go to Paris before she dies, a trip we know she’ll never make. It mirrors something of what Scott’s character will go through later in the film. And that is what the best films do, find a way to make the viewer feel the same emotions as the characters.

Our Town is the story of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s the story of George and Emily, neighbors who have grown up together all their lives, fall in love, and get married. But it’s so much more. It’s really an homage to those who lived their lives complete, without the desire to be more or have more, and never felt the lack of anything. It’s for the millions of people who felt that the lives and opportunities they gave to their children was their purpose for existence. It celebrates the ordinary people of our world who are born, grow up, and die without ever having Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame. It’s one of the saddest and most mournful films ever made, and yet it is the finest celebration of life ever put on the screen. It is truly a masterpiece.

To begin with, the cast couldn’t be better. William Holden and Martha Scott have just enough youth left to pull of the high school scenes, and their two families are star-studded affairs, with Thomas Mitchell, Beulah Bondi, Guy Kibbee and Fay Bainter doing magnificent work. The real star of the show, however, is Frank Craven. Not only is he the quintessential narrator, but he also helped re-write some of his parts for the film with Wilder. The direction by Sam Wood is good, and at times great: the girl’s walk that turns into chickens, the church organist caught in the spider web of alcoholism, the gorgeous backgrounds. Normally I don’t care for classical composers who try their hand at films scores, but for this film Aaron Copland is as perfect as it gets. The ending was altered in true Hollywood fashion, but it’s forgivable. If you only see one version of Our Town in your life, this is the one to see, truly a national treasure.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Spartacus (1960)

Director: Stanley Kubrick                               Writer: Dalton Trumbo
Film Score: Alex North                                  Cinematography: Russell Metty
Starring: Kirk Douglass, Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier and Peter Ustinov

I’m not a big fan of the epic, but Spartacus is one I like a lot. Unlike The Ten Commandments or Ben Hur, the film really benefits from the lack of Christian themes. Although it’s alluded to in the beginning, and one can’t help the association with the crucifixions at the end, Howard Fast’s story of a slave rebellion in the Roman empire is mercifully free from proselytizing, even from its protagonist, Kirk Douglas. In fact, he’s one of the most refreshing hero/martyrs in all of film history. He’s not anguished, he’s not brooding, he simply takes each circumstance as it comes and attempts to make things better for himself and, by extension, the rest of humanity.

This is especially surprising considering screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten, persecuted by the House Un-American Activities Committee for alleged Communist affiliations, and whose ordeal was chillingly mirrored in the film Guilty by Suspicion with Robert De Niro. Blacklisted from film credits for over a decade, his onscreen acknowledgement in Spartacus was insisted on by Kirk Douglas and began the demise of the blacklist. If anyone had an ax to grind in writing about a slave who leads an uprising against the most powerful empire on earth, it was Trumbo. But through it all Spartacus never thinks of himself first, never anguishes about saving himself or his family at the expense of the rest of the slaves, and goes to his death knowing that the cause for which he gave his life must eventually be realized.

Douglas is great in the role. Perhaps not perfect, but it was his project and, freed from Hollywood studio contracts in a similar fashion to his character, he carries it off with great aplomb. But there are other brilliant performances as well, most notably Jean Simmons as the slave Varina, whose stoicism sinks all of her captors and yet hides an depth of emotion that she is able to share only with Spartacus. Again, it is largely due to Trumbo’s script, but Simmons does a terrific job of bringing the pages to life. Laurence Olivier is also an exceptional villain in the role of Crassus. Unlike the villains you love to hate, he manages to keep his inhumanity at a low simmer, rather than chewing the scenery like Charles Laughton’s Gracchus, and gives the audience a genuine, three-dimensional antagonist.

The most surprising performance for me, however, was Peter Ustinov as Batiatus. Used to seeing him mostly in his later years in Disney films or as Hercule Poirot, his performance as a sycophant goes right up to the edge of farce at times, but he always brings it back to an emotional center that is startling in its genuine emotion, and well deserving of his supporting actor Oscar. Spartacus won three other Academy Awards, but they were for set design, costumes, and cinematography, snubbing director Stanley Kubrick, along with the star and his film. But time has proven that the film’s popularity has exceeded those of its rivals that year and is consistently at the top of many critic’s lists. Ultimately, it’s a great film and its legacy well deserved.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Few Good Men (1992)

Director: Rob Reiner                                  Writer: Aaron Sorkin
Film Score: Marc Shaiman                         Cinematography: Robert Richardson
Starring: Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Jack Nicholson and Kevin Bacon

For years A Few Good Men has been a staple on cable TV for a very specific reason: it’s a great film. This is one of several films that director Rob Reiner made during his peak, among them Stand by Me in 1986, The Princes Bride in 1987, and When Harry Met Sally in 1989, and it may be the best of the bunch. Based on the play by Aaron Sorkin--and his first screenwriting credit--the film was so successful that the pair teamed up again for The American President in 1995. Sorkin, of course, is the Academy Award winning screenwriter of The Social Network and Moneyball, as well as the multiple Emmy Award winning screenwriter and creator of The West Wing, and this was quite an auspicious start.

At the time, A Few Good Men had some big name stars along with a supporting cast of relative unknowns. Seen today, however, it’s a star-studded extravaganza. The actors in just the supporting roles are J.T. Walsh, Kevin Bacon, Kiefer Sutherland, Noah Wyle, Cuba Gooding Jr., Christopher Guest and Josh Malina. Along with leads Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, Demi Morre and Kevin Pollak, it’s no wonder that it plays all the time on TV. In addition, while not quite up to the status of Clint Eastwood’s “Make my day,” Nicholson’s “You can’t handle the truth,” has had it’s own half-life as a cultural reference for over two decades.

The story of Marines accused of murder in Guantanamo Bay was drawn from the real-life experience of Sorkin’s sister, who was sent to Cuba on a similar mission. From that, his Broadway play of the same name was born and it was just a matter of time before the property was purchased for Hollywood. Cruise and Moore seem impossibly young, and it works even better for the film now, as they play untested JAG core lawyers. Nicholson is the sun that the entire cast revolves around as his confidence as an actor exudes in his character as the lieutenant-colonel of Gitmo who actually ordered the hazing of the marine private and thus, ultimately bears the responsibility for his death.

But it’s not just the cast that is great. The screenplay by Sorkin is loaded with his trademark snappy dialogue, abundant wit, and fast-paced monologues. Set designs and costumes are also a key element to the longevity to the film, as the courtroom scenes could have just as easily been from the 1950s as from the 1990s. But it’s Reiner’s direction that brings it all together, especially his fluid camera work in the courtroom, that brings to life what could have been a static film in the hands of a lesser director. Nicholson and Reiner were both nominated for Oscars, but didn’t win because of the strong field that year. Ultimately, however, it’s the film’s life after the awards season that determines its greatness and, in that respect, A Few Good Men is most definitely one of the greats.

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

Director: Norman Jewison                              Writer: Alan Trustman
Film Score: Michel Legrand                           Cinematography: Haskell Wexler
Starring: Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Jack Weston and Yaphet Kotto

It’s one thing when a film from the sixties simply looks dated (and they pretty much all do) but it’s another thing when the film seems to embrace the sixties with both arms. Such is the feeling one has when viewing Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair. Made in 1968, it has it all, from Faye Dunaway’s mod fashions to Steve McQueen’s groovy dune buggy, a jazzy score, an acid-trip fade out, and a mosaic of split-screen images. Once you’ve allowed yourself to embrace the far-out aesthetic of the picture, it’s actually a pretty good film.

Steve McQueen is Thomas Crown, a real estate investor with a multi-million dollar company. He has a beautiful house in Boston, an unfinished beach house, an airplane and a beautiful woman--and he’s bored. So, to pass the time, he figures out a way to rob a bank and succeeds beautifully. Enter insurance investigator Faye Dunaway, who is sure that she can figure out who the perpetrator is, soon latches on to Crown as her most likely suspect, and commences to break as many police procedures and ethics as she needs to in order to get the proof. And that includes falling in love with Crown himself . . . apparently.

Unlike the insipid 1999 remake with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo, which is devoted almost solely to the relationship and the caper itself is almost a throwaway, the original takes a good deal of time to set up the caper and allow McQueen the luxury of reveling in its success before Dunaway comes along. The relationship between McQueen and Dunaway also crackles with tension, far more than the remake. Dunaway’s character is much more interesting that Russo’s blunt interpretation. But the relationship is also different in another crucial way. One only has to look at McQueen’s character and his addiction to excitement and danger--the reason why his real estate company was putting him to sleep--to understand the superior satisfaction of the original film’s ending

One of the great things about the film is that so much of it goes unsaid. When Dunaway learns from her detective friend that McQueen is still apparently seeing his girlfriend, she says almost nothing. And the chess game between the two is probably the most wonderful seduction scene in film. Jewison had a way with couples, going on to make romantic comedies like Moonstruck and Only You, along with his more serious pieces like In the Heat of the Night and A Soldier’s Story, embraced the sixties ethos to the extreme and made the original Thomas Crown Affair a real jewel.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Enter the Dragon (1973)

Director: Robert Clouse                                  Writer: Michael Allin
Film Score: Lalo Schifrin                                Cinematography: Gil Hubbs
Starring: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelly and Ahna Capri

Tragedies abound in filmmaking, and Bruce Lee is no exception. After numerous minor roles in Chinese martial arts films he had finally achieved star status, control over some aspects of the content of his films, coordinated all of the battles, and even began to insert his own personal philosophy into his films. But just as he had completed his break-out film, Enter the Dragon in 1973, he tragically died. Lee is often credited for making martial arts a mainstream genre and opening those films to western audiences, and in another case of Hollywood what-might-have-been we’ll never know what kind of impact he would have had on the film industry, though one presumes it would have been significant.

The film is based on a script hastily thrown together to capitalize on his recent Hong Kong films, and Lee was teamed with B movie star and TV everyman John Saxon at the request of the studio. Lee plays an agent who is infiltrating the island stronghold of a crime boss for a secret British intelligence agency. But at the same time he has also been given the task of taking down the boss, who was once a member of Lee’s martial arts temple, for breaking the code of the temple and using his knowledge for evil. Add in the fact that he is also there to avenge his sister’s death at the hand of the boss’s henchmen, and it's a potent brew in which to demonstrate Lee’s considerable skills.

As for the film itself . . . ? The obvious budget restraints make themselves evident early on, as the entire soundtrack was dubbed in later in the studio. The score by Lalo Schifrin, though, is classic 70s soul cinema with the occasional Chinese inflections, well worth a listen on its own. As for the fighting, Saxon is obviously not a great martial artist as the camera moves in close on him when he’s fighting so that you can’t really see his hands or feet. Jim Kelly is good in the time he’s allotted, but his character doesn’t last long. Lee, on the other hand, is simply magnificent. The slow motion shots alone are worth the price of admission. The climactic scene in the hall of mirrors is a great way to cap off the film that really launched the genre.

In his A List review of the film, former New Yorker critic Michael Sragow says “Lee’s triumph is one of personality and vision, not just physical performance,” and that is so true. In his films it is Lee himself we come to watch, not just the fighting. At the end of his review he says that no one since has been able to bring to the martial arts film what Lee did, and I would concur. There’s a temptation, from our distance of forty years out, to see Enter the Dragon as just another kung-fu movie. But it was the first and, in many ways, still the best, and that is really due to Bruce Lee himself, a talent whose time ended much too soon.

Alibi (1929)

Director: Roland West                                  Writers: Roland West & C. Gardner Sullivan
Film Score: Hugo Riesenfeld                        Cinematography: Ray June
Starring: Chester Morris, Harry Stubbs, Mae Busch and Purnell Pratt

Roland West’s Alibi is a challenging film, but it is also a fascinating example how early sound films mixed silent footage with music and sound effects to enable them to avoid being encumbered entirely with a new technology that was not only difficult to use but made dialog extremely difficult to understand. It also allowed studios to release not only a sound version but a silent version for theaters without sound equipment. The result is a curious mix of moving camera shots and interesting camera angles that are straight out of the silent era, combined with static, dialog shots with everyone standing in a row, muffled dialog, and a loud microphone hiss. In the end, Alibi has the benefits of neither. It lacks the majesty of the great silent films of the later period, and yet is substandard even by sound films of the following year.

The story is standard crime drama fare, though to be fair it was probably less so in the day. It begins in the tradition of films like Howard Hawks’ The Criminal Code, or the noir classic Kiss of Death, right on up to something like The Godfather III, with Al Pacino lamenting, “Just when I thought I was out . . . they pull me back in,” it’s the story of an ex-convict who is targeted by the police for the killing of a cop. Chester Morris is recently out of prison after being incarcerated for crime he didn’t commit, framed, he believes, by the police. When he falls in love with the daughter of a police sergeant, he becomes the prime suspect in the murder investigation headed up by Harry Stubbs--who just happens to be in love with the same woman. But of course, things are not always what they appear.

No doubt under the influence of The Jazz Singer, in addition to the crime aspect of the film there is also an emphasis on musical numbers and dancing girls to add an element of the spectacle in the new medium. But even more jarring than this is the purely silent elements of the film that were slightly under-cranked at typical silent speed, giving that footage a speeded up look, which then slows down when the sound portions are spliced on. The acting is also uneven at best. Morris has a solid silent film style, but he does have a good voice and had a long career in films and television. Stubbs is dull in this film, though he also had a lot of minor roles into the forties.

The most difficult problems for the film, however, are the technical difficulties. Those of the time are bad enough, but this is compounded by the deterioration of the film elements themselves. The sound drops out at times, and at other times drops to a low rumble, the whole thing enveloped with a significant microphone hiss. Normally Kino does a magnificent job with this, but without a complete reconstruction--which can’t really be done with the sound elements, they are limited in what they can really do in transferring the film to a digital medium. Alibi was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture for 1929 but lost to an outright musical The Broadway Melody. Probably for the best. While Alibi is a fascinating look at early sound pictures, it’s not a great film.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Uninvited (1944)

Director: Lewis Allen                                   Writers: Dodie Smith and Frank Partos
Film Score: Victor Young                            Cinematography: Charles Lang
Starring: Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Donald Crisp and Alan Napier

The Uninvited is a nice ghost story that satisfies just for the fact that the ghost is real. Hollywood had an obsession in the golden years of explaining away supernatural, much to the overall detriment of the films. And because it deals with a child and family issues, the most recent film with the same feel is The Changeling with George C. Scott. Even though the film is sprinkled with comedy relief, the last half hour is fairly tense, with all parties fully engaged in discovering what the ghost wants, and protecting the child who is in danger from it.

Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey are a brother and sister who discover a large house on a cliff in Devonshire and promptly buy it, despite the fact that it comes complete with tales of hauntings. The owner’s granddaughter doesn’t want him to sell because it was the house that she spent her first three years of life in with her mother, before her mother’s untimely death and the hands of her husband’s mistress. When the granddaughter comes over for a visit and is possessed by a spirit who takes her to the precipice of the cliff, she is saved at the last minute by Milland, and he and Hussey with the aid of the doctor, Alan Napier, begin to trace the family history in order to discover the unrest.

There seems to be a connection/inspiration with Rebecca, even though the original source material was a novel by Dorothy Macardle called Uneasy Freehold. One resemblance has to do with the deceased mother, Mary Meredith, and the worship shown to her memory not only by her father, but in the form of the large paintings in the granddaughters room as well as her friend, Miss Holloway. Cornelia Otis Skinner’s Holloway even looks a bit like Judith Anderson’s Miss Danvers from the Hitchcock film. Then, of course, there’s the cliff overlooking the ocean, and the reluctance of everyone in the village to be forthcoming with any information, as well as the accident that is discovered to have been a murder.

Victor Young’s wonderful score for the film included the song “Stella by Starlight,” named after the character of the granddaughter played by Gail Russell. It was a popular song and soon became a jazz standard that has endured to this day. There was a lot of nice lighting work, as much of the interiors were filmed as nighttime scenes. And there is also some nifty special effects work in realizing the ghost that is reminiscent of the one that would be used in Ghost Story. The humor is something that could wind up being annoying, as it is in many supernatural stories of the time, but it’s surprisingly integral to the story and is used sparingly and to good effect. It hasn't been released on DVD yet, The Uninvited is a classic ghost story and a great film.

The Duchess (2008)

Director: Saul Dibb                                  Writers: Jeffrey Hatcher & Anders Thomas Jensen
Film Score: Rachel Portman                    Cinematography: Gyula Pados
Starring: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Dominic Cooper and Charlotte Rampling

The Duchess is an incredibly beautiful film to watch. In terms of production design, costume and makeup, it’s one of the best I’ve ever seen, and it’s fitting that costume designer Michael O’Connor was awarded the Oscar that year. The difficulty with the film is a lack of plot, but that is really due to the source material the true story of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire in the biography written by Amanda Foreman. But the key, I think, to fully understanding the film and judging it correctly is to see it in this context. It’s not a novel, full of plot and irony and intrigue; it’s the story of a woman’s life, a woman who tried her very best to do the right thing and ended up suffering for it.

The film begins with Georgiana, played by Keira Knightley, being married off to the Duke of Devonshire, Ralph Fiennes, who seems to have little genuine interest in her save that of delivering him a male heir. Though she appears to understand the bargain in the beginning, the ways of the gentry are disturbing to her, and as she tries to find her own way she is blocked at every step by her husband. Both Knightley and Fiennes are very good, each in their own way. Knightley is the master of emotion, displaying volumes for us to read in her face without saying a line. If the best acting is re-acting, then she’s one of the best. Fiennes’ role for the film is the opposite. “Emotionally constipated” he called it, unable to maintain even the remotest of personal relationships with his own wife. He is a cipher, continually retreating into his world of formality and privilege to avoid knowing her in any way but as the guarantor of his successor.

There’s nothing terribly exciting here, no surprise plot twists, no happy endings. It is life, however distant in the past, and unlike fiction most people are loath to voluntarily put themselves in a position of peril. Georgiana is no exception. For all of her desire to have made different choices in her life, it’s difficult to know what might have been better, and of course the lingering reality that it could have been much worse has to be factored in. It is the study not of a character, but of a person, one with absolutely no power or freedom save that which is deigned to her by her husband. Emotion, however is there in abundance. It’s easy to sit in our twenty-first century world and be maddened that she doesn’t make different choices. But that is part of the film’s message, and we are left to watch, helpless, as much a prisoner to the plot as the Duchess herself. If you allow yourself that small conceit, I'm confident you'll find The Duchess a moving and rewarding experience.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

Director: Sidney Lanfield                                 Writer: Ernest Pascal
Film Score: David Buttolph                              Cinematography: Peverell Marley
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Lionel Atwill and John Carradine

Though this is the first of what is typically called the Universal Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, the first two features were actually made at 20th Century Fox before they dropped the concept. Meanwhile, Universal had purchased the rights to several stories and decided to continue the series in 1942. Arguably the most well known classic Conan Doyle story, The Hound of the Baskervilles is decidedly not the best of the series, even though the two Fox films were the only ones to be set in the Victorian era.

It’s difficult to find things to criticize in this film, especially in the context of the entire series. The characters of Holmes and Watson are already solid in their interpretation by the two leads. Rathbone is energetic, almost frantic, a physical representation of his intellectual speed, and he has no time for emotion, either negative or positive. When Bruce begins to pout about being deceived at one point, Rathbone simply chides him and pushes ahead relentlessly to solve the case. Bruce, bordering on doddering, believes he’s smarter than he really is and makes what he considers bold moves that actually backfire . . . which, of course, is exactly what Rathbone’s Holmes is counting on to flush out the murderer.

The story concerns the curse of the Baskervilles, dating from the 18th Century when the badly behaving patriarch of the clan brought about his own death by raising a hound of hell who destroyed him. Since then, all of the Baskerville heirs to the estate have died in similar supernatural means. The most recent death of Sir Charles Baskerville brings his friend and physician, brings Lionel Atwill’s Dr. Mortimer to Holmes to prevent the death of the most recent heir, Sir Henry, played by Richard Green in one of his early roles. Holmes pleads too much work to do, sends Watson with Sir Henry with explicit instructions to keep him off the moors at night, thus giving Holmes the ability to move at will without being detected himself and solve the case.

Though the remake by Hammer in 1959 was in color, had a terrific cast in Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Andre Morell, and changed the story slightly to make a better motivation for the murders, it still lacks in comparison to the joie de vivre of the original. Rathbone and Bruce would go on to make fourteen films in all, from the two Fox entries in 1939 until after World War II in 1946. What made the Universal series so popular is the updating of the setting to modern time, allowing Holmes and Watson to battle Nazis and other wartime dangers. The Hound of the Baskervilles is a great introduction to the series and fans of the Hollywood Holmes will certainly enjoy it.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Bourne Legacy (2012)

Director: Tony Gilroy                                     Writers: Tony & Dan Gilroy
Film Score: James Newton Howard                Cinematography: Robert Elswit
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton and Stacy Keach

First off, The Bourne Legacy is not a great film, but it is a good, solid entry in a franchise that is attempting to reinvent itself after the departure of Matt Damon, and in that sense it is a success. Like all genre pictures there are conventions we come to expect, and the film delivers in that regard as well. The one flaw with the new series is that without the identity issue, there is little else for the hero to do but elude capture. Though in the end, with far less baggage than Damon brings to the screen, Jeremy Renner may end up being a superior “Borne.”

Based on the novel by Eric Van Lustbader, who continued the series after the death of Robert Ludlum, the conceit of the film is that a parallel program was being developed simultaneously with Blackbriar and Treadstone. This is ingeniously done by inserting scenes from The Bourne Ultimatum that include David Straithairn, Scott Glenn and Joan Allen, and shooting a new scene with Corey Johnson to bridge them together. The new program, Outcome, is headed by Edward Norton and overseen by Stacy Keach and involves genetic engineering using viruses to increase not only physical strength and stamina, but intelligence in human beings. Once, however, Blackbriar and Treadstone have been exposed by Jason Bourne, Norton decides to pull the plug on the operation, keeping the science and data intact but eliminating the test subjects.

While in Alaska on a training mission, operative Jeremy Renner accidentally manages to elude destruction from a drone plane and make it back to the states in search of the pills that he believes are enhancing his strength and intelligence. To do this he seeks out one of the scientists working on the project who has also managed, by sheer luck, to avoid a similar purge in the laboratory where she was working. With his obligatory female companion in tow, the two team up together to elude the secret government forces who are out to kill them and simultaneously search out the manufacturing facility for the drugs that Renner needs.

There are plenty of great actions scenes in the Bourne mold, including attempted assassinations, bombs, escape from high-security facilities and the like. As stated earlier, however, the reason for what’s happening to Renner becomes clear early on and without the added layer of identity confusion to thicken the plot, it’s a relatively thin story. So much so that, by the end, it doesn’t really seem over. That is to say, the film just ends. It’s an obvious set up for a sequel but it doesn’t feel that way. It’s more like there is nothing else to really add to what’s already been done and so, like a television drama, it simply leaves off until the next episode begins. Overall, however, The Bourne Legacy is a satisfying addition to the franchise, and one hopes that future installments will be able to find a way to develop a bit more intrigue.

Shutter Island (2010)

Director: Martin Scorsese                                  Writer: Laeta Kalogridis
Film Score: Robbie Robertson                           Cinematography: Robert Richardson
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson

On its own, Shutter Island may not be a great piece of cinema, but as a remake of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it’s brilliant. I have to begin by saying that I’ve never really liked Leonardo DiCaprio, but apparently Martin Scorsese sees something in him that I don’t. That said, as he has matured I’ve been able to allow him not to get in the way of the story. That transformation, for me, probably came about in Revolutionary Road, as that felt like the first film where he was able to shed his more juvenile image.

Okay, first things first. Author Dennis Lehane claims never to have seen Caligari, and in doing so has actually become one of the delusional characters in his novel. The fact is, there is so much in the film that comes straight out of Caligari that it’s closer to the original than the 1962 remake with Glynis Johns. The plot, of course, is exactly the same, but there are also subtle homages to the original that are incredibly ingenious. Produced immediately after World War I, the original Caligari was a reaction to the carnage and a response to the jingoism that led so many young men to slaughter on the battlefield. In Shutter Island, it is the aftermath of World War II, with Nazis and Communists playing the roles of the enemies.

In both films the main character is convinced that an evil doctor of an insane asylum is using his patients for experiments in mind control. In Caligari the titular doctor is responsible for hypnotizing the somnambulist Caesar into killing for him. The doctor, of course, represents the German authorities who brainwashed the nation in to fighting a devastating war that killed millions of young men. In Shutter Island it is the communists, but with a twist. It is the House Un-American Activities Committee who is apparently controlling the asylum and operating on patients to turn them into killing machines for the government. It’s a beautiful symmetry.

All the way around it’s a wonderful film. The production, while relying a bit much on CGI, still has an appropriately eerie atmosphere. The cast is also great. Max von Sydow, who has reemerged lately in films like The Wolfman and Robin Hood, has a small but vital role as the former Nazi doctor. Ben Kingsley is as solid as ever as the head doctor of the asylum. Also onboard are Mark Ruffalo, Ted Levine, and the wonderful Patricia Clarkson in supporting roles. But there’s no doubting it’s DiCaprio’s film and he does a terrific job of gradually becoming consumed by his search for a missing patient and increasingly paranoid as his quest uncovers the dark secrets residing in his own mind. Again, Shutter Island may not be the greatest film in it’s own right, but it is an ingenious and rewarding remake of the 1919 silent German classic.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Glass Key (1942)

Director: Stuart Heisler                                Writer: Jonathan Latimer
Film Score: Victor Young                             Cinematography: Theodor Sparkuhl
Starring: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Brian Donlevy and Richard Denning

While Dashiell Hammett was undoubtedly one of the best of the early noir writers, films made from some of his stories haven’t been nearly as strong. Two of his novels, The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, have made terrific films, but much of the rest of his work, set in small towns and dealing with local politics and publishing don’t quite pack the punch of his more popular works. The Glass Key is typical of this phenomenon. It’s a great cast, bringing together Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd again after their successful teaming in This Gun for Hire, but this time with mediocre results.

The plot concerns a small town political boss/mobster played with childlike glee by Brian Donlevy. When Veronica Lake, the daughter of a candidate that Donlevy has smeared in the local press slaps him in the face in public, he falls head over heals in love. So much so, that he switches allegiance and backs her father for governor. Alan Ladd plays Donlevy’s best friend and right hand man. He keeps his moves close to the vest during the crisis that arises from Donlevey rescinding his protection from the rackets boss played by Joseph Calleia. When Lake’s ne’er-do-well brother, Richard Denning, dies suspicion naturally falls on Donlevey as his sister was having an affair with him and he wanted it stopped. There are some nice plot twists at the end, for which Hammett was known for, but the film palpably lacks the big city intrigue of his other novels.

The assignment of Stuart Heisler was certainly an uninspired choice for director as he worked mostly in B movies filming low-budget westerns and horror films with equally uninspired names like The Monster and the Girl and The Cowboy and the Lady. The score by Victor Young is unmemorable, and there is nothing about the cinematography to attract attention. The obvious reason to watch the film is for the pairing of Lake and Ladd, but even that aspect is tepid. Still, The Glass Key is a mildly interesting murder mystery with typical Hammett flair. There is certainly nothing noir about it, and those expecting the same magic as This Gun for Hire will not find it here. The fact that it's only available on VHS tells you it's relative importance, at least to the studio. Turner Classics has released it as part of a Paramount box set, but it is only available on the TCM website, or when the odd used copy pops up on Amazon.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Hindenburg (1975)

Director: Robert Wise                                Writers: Richard Levinson & William Link
Film Score: David Shire                             Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Starring: George C. Scott, Anne Bancroft, Charles Durning and William Atherton

In the 70s tradition of Airport, Towering Inferno, and The Poseidon Adventure is the 1975 classic The Hindenburg. Classic in the sense that, like all 70s disaster films, it manages to adhere to conventions while still able to put its own historic spin on the formula. At the helm is veteran director Robert Wise, who began his career in RKOs horror unit under Val Lewton in the 1940s. It’s a high quality production of the time and has some prominent character actors portraying the Gilligan’s Island-like representatives of society associated with these films.

The picture begins in Germany where Luftwaffe Colonel George C. Scott is sent along on a trans-Atlantic flight of the Zeppelin Hindenburg in order to prevent sabotage warned about in a letter from a psychic in the States. Of course, this is pure fiction. There was no concrete evidence as to what exactly happened. Hitler, denied that there was any sabotage and declared it an act of God. Toward the end of the film, at the point of the explosion, the film goes black and white in order to fit with the documentary footage of the disaster.

George C. Scott is his usual stalwart self as the Colonel assigned to the ship by Goering. The heavy is played by William Atherton in an early role long before Die Hard. As will all of these films, there is a parade of character actors including Gig Young, Burgess Meredith who does very little, Charles Durning as the captain of the ship, Richard Dysart, Robert Clary particularly annoying as a circus performer, Rene Auberjonois and Katherine Helmond. Anne Bancroft is the other big star as a rich baroness who has no love for Hitler.

The exteriors are quite nice. At the time they probably seemed a bit garish but after seeing much of the color footage coming out of Germany from World War Two, it’s looks pretty realistic. The plot is fairly interesting and provides some suspense, as Scott has no dearth of suspects to choose from. It’s the historical aspect that really raises it above the pack, because even seen today it’s a historical drama and as such still holds up rather well. Don’t go in expecting great cinema, but taking into account the limitations of the period and the genre, The Hindenburg is enjoyable and comes recommended.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Just Like Heaven (2005)

Director: Mark Waters                              Writers: Peter Tolan & Leslie Dixon
Film Score: Rolfe Kent                             Cinematography: Daryn Okada
Starring: Reece Witherspoon, Mark Ruffalo, Jon Heder and Rosalind Chao

Another confession: I like a good romantic comedy, emphasis on the good. In the spirit (no pun intended) of films like The Family Man and Groundhog Day is Just Like Heaven. Part All of Me, part Ghost, the film follows all of the conventions of the genre but in a sit-com comic way rather than something more serious like Notting Hill. But of course that’s what we come to genre films for, to enjoy the way the actors work within the conventions. Unique is good in some films, but not in the RomCom (P.S. I Love You comes to mind), and in that respect, at least, Just Like Heaven delivers.

The story begins with Reece Witherspoon as Elizabeth, a doctor who had just been given her residency at a San Francisco hospital. On her way to a blind date she is killed in a car wreck and the scene fades out. Fade in on Mark Ruffalo’s David, who is looking for an apartment, preferably one with a nice couch. He eventually finds the perfect place, but it’s not until he’s settled that he discovers a hitch: it’s Elizabeth’s apartment, complete with Elizabeth in it. But as indignant as she is about finding a “squatter” in her living room, it soon becomes apparent to both of them that she’s “not all there.”

At first glance, neither Witherspoon nor Ruffalo seem like good candidates for the genre. Witherspoon has too much of a baby face and an acting style that still seems a bit artificial. If anything, Ruffalo is the opposite. His penchant for brooding, introspective characters not only doesn’t go with Witherspoon but sort of defies the genre type. In the end, however, it does work. And for that, much of the credit must go to the script by Tolan and Dixon. Tolan, who came out of television, writing for shows like Murphy Brown, Home Improvement and, most recently, Rescue Me, is a perfect mix with Dixon who has only written for cinema in films like Pay It Forward, The Thomas Crown Affair, and Mrs. Doubtfire.

Much of the dialogue between Witherspoon and Ruffalo is very sit-com like, especially when they’re arguing in the apartment. And the climax of the film is pure television. For that, Witherspoon’s particular brand of acting really becomes an asset. And with Ruffalo’s character still in mourning, his darkness can be explained and allows him to avoid the goofiness that is sometimes a danger in a film like this. The one thing that probably keeps this film from being great is the lack of chemistry between the two. There is a realistic sense of connection between them, but nothing that jumps off the screen. Still, Just Like Heaven is a very satisfying romantic comedy that connoisseurs of the genre will enjoy.

The Inheritors (1998)

Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky                         Writer: Stefan Ruzowitzky
Film Score: John Leipold                              Cinematography: Henry Sharp
Starring: Simon Schwarz, Sophie Rois, Lars Rudolph, Elisabeth Orth

I haven’t seen a German film in a long time, Das Boot was probably the last one, unless you count The Reader. The Inheritors, or Die Siebtelbauern in German, is an incredibly powerful film, though it doesn’t seem that way going into it. The concept is pretty straightforward: a group of peasants inherit a farm from its owner in rural Germany in the Nineteenth Century with predictably comic results.

The farmer, it turns out, has been murdered by a woman that no one knows. She is held in the jail while the ten peasants who work the farm are informed that they have inherited the whole thing. While initially amusing to the other farmers they quickly become agitated when, instead of selling out, the peasants intend to make a go of it. At first they attempt to bankrupt them by taxation, but the group manages to get together the money by selling off the famer’s things. When that doesn’t work, they resort to violence and that’s when the film takes a turn to the dark side.

Simon Schwarz is wonderful as the ebullient foundling, now in his twenties and illiterate, who finds joy in everything. The narration is by Lars Rudolph, an educated boy who has been to the city and observes with a careful eye all that is going on. Sophie Rois is the strong-willed Emmy, who suffers not only the class prejudice of being a peasant but the sexism of being a woman, is the driving force in the film. Leading the farmers against the one-seventh-farmers (after three of them left) is Danninger, played by Ulrich Wildgruber, who gradually figures out that the foundling is actually the farmer’s son, the result of a rape of the woman who eventually killed him. It’s then that he turns all of the power of the village against the peasants with horrifying results. The ending is profoundly disturbing.

The Inheritors is really an indictment of all forms of prejudice that is wielded through power. Allegorically, the prejudice in the film can be seen as mirroring that in countries and societies all over the world. Any people who have been marginalized though economics and legal manipulation are essentially helpless against the controlling majority. In one scene where the farmers are complaining that the actions of the peasants are inspiring their own peasants to disobey, the translation on the subtitles calls the peasants “uppity,” a word choice that directly references the treatment of blacks in the United States. Director/writer Stefan Ruzowitzky did a wonderful job of adding humor to an incredibly dark side of human nature and in fine European fashion has made a masterful film that's worth seeking out.

Duck Soup (1933)

Director: Leo McCarey                          Writers: Bert Kalmar & Harry Ruby
Film Score: John Leipold                       Cinematography: Henry Sharp
Starring: The Marx Brothers, Margaret Dumont, Louis Calhern and Edgar Kennedy

I have to start, first off, by saying that I am not a big fan of slapstick. I usually prefer something a little more cerebral from my comedy. Deadpan, from Buster Keaton to Albert Brooks, is more my preference. So, when it comes to reviewing the Marx Brothers I feel somewhat out of my element. But in the end I can only rely on what I believe about my purpose here. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that, to feel that what is in your heart is true for all men, that is genius. I do feel that there are universal truths about art, and so the critic’s function is, hopefully, to make those truths known to all. That’s probably a little deep for a comedy, but comedy is art too.

What struck me immediately about Duck Soup is wondering what might have been. The film appears to be butchered in the editing, though that could simply have been due to the impossibility of continuity given the anarchy of the Marx Brothers. But there was also the script itself. I’ve read where their best films came from material they had used on vaudeville and so a certain amount of going through the motions is in evidence by all of the brothers. There are obvious mistakes that apparently were never given another take, and I found myself feeling a strange dislike for Harpo’s destructiveness.

Duck Soup is, of course, the Marx Brothers’ classic story of Freedonia and its struggle for solvency. The longsuffering Margaret Dumont has loaned the government money on the condition that Groucho be put in charge. Vying for the affections of Dumont with Groucho is the great Louis Calhern playing the ambassador to Sylvania. Their conflict pulls the two countries into war by the end of the film, preceded by a full-blown musical number celebrating the glories of war. In fact, the entire film can be seen as an allegory of the inefficiency of government and the rigid diplomacy of monarchies that plunged the world into war in 1914.

My favorite moments, by far, are those with Groucho. Chico’s need to continuously point out his own jokes wears quickly, and the slapstick that he and Harpo perform together is tedious. Groucho’s wordplay, however, is marvelous and definitely the high points of the film, even though my favorite bit is the panning over the shoes by the bed in one of Harpo’s scenes. Which brings up an aspect of the film that is slightly eerie. As a child of the seventies, having grown up on sit-coms with laugh tracks, it’s quite an experience to hear the rapid-fire comedy in the film being delivered into a void of silence. Nevertheless, there is no denying the effectiveness of all the brothers in their individual comedic realms, and the exhilaration of the onscreen anarchy that the four of them created.

William Wolf’s essay in The A List puts the film in the historical perspective of the brothers’ career, the film’s lack of box office success ending their relationship with Paramount and heading them into more structured scripts at MGM under Irving Thalberg. He takes the reader though some of the great moments of the film without really explaining what makes them great, but that’s not a knock. The Marx Brothers really have to be experienced to be understood, and for sheer energy and zaniness, Duck Soup is a peak Marx Brothers experience.

Friday, January 4, 2013

There Will Be Blood (2007)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson                   Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Film Score: Jonny Greenwood                       Cinematography: Robert Elswit
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Dillon Freasier, Paul Dano and Ciarán Hinds

After watching The 400 Blows, it took me a long time to write my review. At first I didn’t like the film, but after taking several months to think it over I came to respect the film for what it did do, rather than dislike it for what it didn’t. The same holds true for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. I don’t really like the film, and after watching Truffaut I realize why. It’s a film that has stripped away everything but character. And I don’t like this character.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against unlikeable characters. James M. Cain made a career out of those characters and he is one of my favorite writers. But one thing Cain always had was a plot, and the combination was potent. Left with nothing but Daniel Day-Lewis’s early twentieth-century lone-wolf robber baron was a little tough to take, and not entirely because of the character. The most dominating character in the film is actually played by Jonny Greenwood: the score. From the moment the film begins to the final frame, the score is an unrelenting wall of dissonance and tension. Daniel Plainview is almost warm and cuddly in comparison to the soundtrack. It’s a large part of the film and one that can’t be ignored in the final analysis.

The story is a simple one, of one man’s relentless pursuit of success for the sake of success. Nothing shows that more than Plainview pulling himself out of a mineshaft with a broken leg and crawling to the nearest town to be paid his three dollars for the gold ore he could haul out with him, before ever thinking about going to the doctor. The only other character to rival Plainview onscreen, and in the story, is the young evangelist Eli, played by Paul Dano. The contest of wills between the two men occupies the central part of the story. Surrounding that is the inconsequential, in comparison, relationship of Plainview to the orphaned boy he takes on as his own son.

The sense of realism in the film, especially in the character of Daniel Plainview, almost works against it. If you mute the sound it looks like something filmed on the Australian Outback. We almost expect to see Ned Kelly riding up with his gang. What we actually have, is Plainview, and he is not a dynamic character. He is the same in 1898 as he is in 1927, and we never know what he is thinking except in two instances. The first comes when he asks the negotiator for Standard Oil, who wants to buy Plainview’s oil fields, what he would do with his life if he sold the land, the implication being that he has no life outside of his business. The second moment comes with the man pretending to be his brother, and Plainview tells him candidly that he hates people, all of them. (And I don’t buy Roger Ebert’s contention that he hates himself by extension.) So it is left to the score, then, to fill in his emotions for us, the raw hatred of having to deal with people on a day to day basis continually grinding in our ears for two and a half hours. By the end, we know Daniel Plainview.

There Will Be Blood is not a great film, but it is a powerful one. Of that there can be no doubt. But there is far more to analyze than can be done here. The central conflict between Plainview and Eli is the driving force in the piece. The relationship with his son is lost once he disowns him, and it is only Eli who is left. By the end of the film, then, when that conflict is ultimately resolved, he utters the final words to his valet: “I’m finished.” What he is finished with, at last, is humanity, having destroyed his relationship with every person who was close to him in any way. Is the ending the dissipation of Plainview, the inevitable descent into the abyss? Far from it; it is instead, the attainment of all he had attempted, and the reward of freedom from human entanglement. And that, is powerful stuff indeed.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Quiz Show (1994)

Director: Robert Redford                            Writer: Paul Attanasio
Film Score: Mark Isham                            Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro, Rob Morrow and Paul Scofield

You've got to hand it to Robert Redford; the guy makes beautiful movies. And nowhere is that more apparent that in Quiz Show. I know, I know, what about The Horse Whisperer? The thing is, anyone could have made that film beautiful, but historical dramas are particularly difficult when it comes to capturing realism. When the little girl comes out of the corner store in The Untouchables, you can tell that the camera setup was positioned just that way to avoid seeing anything modern in the shot. And in Peal Harbor, the whole thing looks like it was filmed in CGI in front of a green screen. But every set, even the exteriors, in Quiz Show seems organic and real and . . . beautiful.

The story today seems almost ludicrous. In our world of reality shows, professional wrestling and Jerry Springer, the fact that someone could be cheating on a game show is positively blasé. In the late 1950s, however, after the the communist witch hunts on capitol hill had ended, the country needed a new scandal and that kind of open deception was very salacious. Geritol, the sponsor of the popular game show, Twenty-One, was regularly giving answers to contestants. Into this stepped the brilliant instructor and on track to be professor at Columbia University, Charles Van Doren. He accepted the answers, became an overnight star, and soon found himself the target of an investigation by the congressional oversight committee.

In telling the story it’s not just the scenery that is beautiful. Because of Redford’s stature, he is able to acquire the services of A-List actors. Ralph Fiennes is brilliant as the conflicted Van Doren, who desperately wants the fame and the money, but feels incredibly guilty for lying to the public. Paul Scofield, in one of his last roles, is particularly effective as the model for ethical behavior that his son has violated, and the only actor to be nominated that year for an Oscar. The real tour de force, however, is John Turturro as the Jewish contestant Herbie Stempel, who despite trying to do the right thing doesn’t understand that what is important is implicating the network, and so only winds up making himself into a laughing stock. As Dan Enright, the producer of the show, David Paymer has one of his fines roles, and along with Hank Azaria, is a potent on-screen team.

But while the acting is top notch, the real scene stealer is the setting. Redford’s production designer, Jon Hutman is the star of the show, and it’s incomprehensible why he wasn’t at least nominated for an Academy Award that year. Each set, each exterior, is lovingly created, supremely believable, and a full immersion into the 1950s. The direction by Redford, as is his way, is fairy invisible, which is a compliment. Rather than having the direction slap you in the face, he allows the actors and the sets to enfold you into the story, allowing you to experience the story in a direct and powerful way. Quiz Show one of Redford’s best, and a film that comes highly recommended.

Dracula (1931)

Director: Tod Browning                            Writers: Garrett Ford
Film Score: Philip Glass                         Cinematography: Karl Freund
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Edward Van Sloan, Dwight Frye and Helen Chandler

Say what you want about the talkiness, the stageyness, the off-center pencil spots, the piece of cardboard on the bedroom lamp, the schizophrenic nature of the direction, but the magic of the original Dracula is what all vampire moves have been trying to emulate for the last eighty years. Based on the popular novel by Bram Stoker, Universal’s Dracula is the first modern horror film, and what it lacks in polish or excitement, it more than makes up for by its position as the first, free from the overwhelming burden of clichés and stereotypes that have plagued vampire films ever since.

I recently watched Dracula with the Philip Glass score, and it’s brilliant. Although new scores have been commissioned for numerous silent films over the past two decades, I can’t think of a new score for a sound film other than this one. What made it possible was the utter lack of scoring in the original; other than the opera scene, there is no music at all. My one problem with the new score, however, is that it is engineered too loud and, at times, tends to compete with the dialogue instead of supporting it. But it is a revelation, bringing out what is eerie and horrifying that the film isn’t able to quite manage on its own. The first twenty minutes, generally credited to cinematographer Karl Freund, is a completely different film, drenched with atmosphere and moving camera shots. Another thing that the Glass score does, however, is unify the two halves and make them more of a coherent whole.

It’s Lugosi, though, who makes the film the powerhouse it is. Again, at the time, Lugosi himself was free from cliché and controls the film with measured (probably phonetic) dialogue and movements. Edward Van Sloan is the ultimate Van Helsing, bold and unafraid in the face of the supernatural, the model for the great Peter Cushing’s portrayal. Dwight Frye’s performance as Renfield is so singular that he was never again able to move from beneath its shadow and was mired the rest of his career in similar performances. The rest of the cast has little to offer, especially David Manners, for whom the phrase “ineffectual leading man” must have been coined. Helen Chandler had the potential for a much better performance, but I think was hampered by her direction, or lack thereof. Manners is said to have claimed he rarely remembered Browning being on the set at all.

Carl Laemmle, Jr. was responsible for the green light on this film as well as the original Frankenstein, both of which were credited for keeping Universal from going under during the Depression. There wasn’t really a horror genre in films before that time, in spite of the string of great German silent masterpieces. It was only after Universal’s foray into these kinds of sound films that the genre became one. It’s easy to pick apart early talkies and cast them aside as inferior to those that came later. But if you really give them a chance, turn the lights off and watch them on the biggest screen you can, they really are rewarding. Dracula, with the Philip Glass score, is even more so.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The 400 Blows (1959)

Director: François Truffaut                         Writers: François Truffaut & Marcel Moussy
Film Score: Jean Constantin                      Cinematography: Henri Decaë
Starring: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Albert Rémy, Claire Maurier & Guy Decomble

The title, The 400 Blows, is a French idiom about delinquency and, as such, the direct translation makes little sense in English in the same way the phrase “raising hell” wouldn’t make much sense directly translated to French. But there’s something in the direct translation that is inherently apt. It was the first film as a director for the film critic François Truffaut, and it was a stunning debut. From the opening credits when the camera travels through Paris, it’s focus steadily on the Eifel Tower, it is also the opening of what would become the New Wave in cinema, an emphasis on realism and almost documentary style that never really caught on in America but was profoundly influential in Europe.

The story, an apparently autobiographical one, concerns young Antoine who seems to have trouble in nearly every aspect of his life no matter how hard he tries. He can’t get along with his pedantic teacher in school, or with his overbearing mother and cuckold step-father, and eventually winds up stealing a typewriter, with consequences that entirely change his life. What could have been a depressing descent into the life of a misunderstood child, nevertheless retains an element of hopefulness due in large part to the characterization of Antoine by the intense Jean-Pierre Léaud in the lead role. Truffaut’s camera simply follows him around from one minor adventure to another, most of which find Antoine on the receiving end of adult disapproval. Another part of what keeps out dramatic lethargy is the music by Jean Constantin, which maintains a lightness throughout.

Though the camera angles are well thought out, there is a naturalness to them that is part of what makes the New Wave so appealing. Unlike more obvious “cinematic” manipulation used up until that time, especially in Hollywood, the camera simply observes, lingering in one spot for long takes. And when it does move it becomes a natural part of the environment, even when the shots are painstakingly set up. It’s sometimes difficult to see what was so revolutionary about this new style of de facto amateur filmmaking from a distance of over fifty years, especially with the use of hand-held cameras and the abundance of cinema verite, even in television. But if one studies the other films of the day, it’s easy to see what a breath of fresh air this must have seemed.

The review in The A List is by the late Peter Brunette who was, in addition to being a film critic and an expert on Italian cinema, the director of film studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. He does a nice job of briefly encapsulating how Truffaut and his contemporaries came to make their own films, and sees The 400 Blows as not only the first, but the finest example of the style. He also singles out the main thematic element, the seemingly unconscious harsh treatment of children in a culture that revolved entirely around adulthood. Like the film, Brunette’s review is informative, insightful, and does its job to perfection.

Round Midnight (1986)

Director: Bertrand Tavernier                             Writers: David Rayfiel & Bertrand Tavernier
Music Arranger: Herbie Hancock                      Cinematography: Bruno de Keyzer
Starring: Dexter Gordon, François Cluzet, Herbie Hancock and Gabrielle Haker

The 1980s are tough. Most of the films made during that decade don’t hold up well. Maybe it’s the synthesized soundtracks, or a dearth of good writing, or the rise of Touchstone and Top Gun. Whatever the reason, there are very few 80s films on the lists of great movies of all times. Round Midnight, however, is one of those few. Made with a deft hand by director Bertrand Tavernier, it’s also one of the best fictional films on jazz ever made.

1959 was one of the all-time great years for jazz. Not only had hard bop become firmly established as the new style for cutting-edge jazz, but there were still lots of musicians of other styles plying their trade. Musicians of traditional jazz, swing and small group, as well as vocalists, pianists and beboppers, were all still having productive careers. Evidence of this can be seen in the photograph that is the basis for the documentary A Great Day in Harlem as well as the Tom Hanks film The Terminal. It’s this time period that the film captures, both in Paris and New York City as we follow the last year in the fictional life of saxophonist Dale Turner.

Tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Turner, a fictional combination of pianist Bud Powell and tenor saxophonist Lester Young. The years don’t quite work out though, as the 63 year-old Gordon--at the time--would have certainly grown up playing swing, or even tradition jazz, instead of bebop in the time frame of the film. And yet no one really cares. His mirroring of Bud Powell’s final year in Paris is beautifully done, and grafting on the unique jargon of Lester Young is no less inspiring. The sets, alternating between studio and actual exteriors is nicely done and captures the period in a great way.

Ultimately, it is the music itself that is so captivating. The aging Gordon, like his real-life film inspirations, was nearing the end of his storied career, and it showed. And so for fans wanting to hear some great jazz, the Round Midnight soundtrack is not the best way to go. To hear Dexter Gordon in his later prime, you need to get his last truly great album, recorded in 1980, Gotham City. Still, the music in the film is great to hear, as he essays some of his classic compositions, standards not ordinarily heard, like "As Time Goes By," as well as bebop chestnuts and some rare soprano work. Ultimately, what make Gordon so great in his younger days was still there, and so the appreciation of the fans in the film is justified.

But Gordon didn’t do it alone, and the supporting cast is excellent. François Cluzet is outstanding as the obsessed French fan who finally takes the saxophonist in to live with him and his daughter. Gordon’s on-stage band mates include Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shoter, Bobby Hutcherson, Freddie Hubbard and Billy Higgins, all of whom recorded with Gordon for Blue Note back in the early sixties. Plus, there is a cameo by Martin Scorsese as Gordon’s New York Agent that is terrific. Round Midnight is a period piece that captures the mood and the spirit of jazz better than any fictional film yet. It’s just a wonderful film as well as being an enjoyable piece of history.