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, "The Greatest Gift," 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 buried so far down in the mix, 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 thought 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 the 1982 film Officer and a Gentleman in which he appears briefly at the beginning as Richard Gere's sailor father and in flashbacks. A more significant part came a year later 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 awarded 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.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Amadeus (1984)

Director: Milos Forman                                 Writer: Peter Shaffer
Film Score: W.A. Mozart                               Cinematography: Miroslav Ondricek
Starring: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge and Jeffrey Jones

Forget Titanic. Forget Lord of the Rings. Milos Forman’s Amadeus is the greatest film going experience of all time. I have never watched a lot of films in the theater, but this is one I thankfully attended at the time, and that experience has stayed with me my entire life. This is a film that is able to transport the viewer back in time like no other has before or since. It’s little surprise that art directors Patrizia von Brandenstein and Karel Cerný won Oscars for their work, or that the film itself won seven more that year. Forman shot the film primarily in the Czech Republic as well as Vienna, and the old buildings and cobblestone streets come to life under the director’s touch as the viewer watches the unfolding of greatness in Mozart’s last great period of composition. And surrounding it all is the magnificent music of Mozart as it fills the theater with the sound of genius. What is so magnificent about the film is the attention to detail in bringing the past to life. Today, much of that work would be done with computer imagery and color manipulation. And it would show. The natural light that Milos Forman and cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek worked with is so real and so believable that it surpasses anything that could, or would, be made today. The film rightly won the Academy Award for best picture in 1984 against a very strong field.

The film begins at the end of the life of Antonio Salieri, played by F. Murray Abraham, court composer to Emperor Joseph II of Austria. Abraham attempts to commit suicide by cutting his throat, and so a priest, Richard Frank, is called in to hear his confession. The bulk of the film is told in flashback as the aging composer tells of his love/hate relationship with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, played by Tom Hulce, the greatest classical music composer of all time. Abraham’s torment is that Mozart died young, at age 34, and his music continued to grow more and more celebrated while he lived to old age and found his music dismissed and forgotten in his lifetime. Abraham’s confession centers on the rumor that he killed the great composer. He speaks briefly of the childhood of Mozart, contrasting it with his own. On the death of his father, however, Abraham was thrust into the world of music and eventually became the court composer in Vienna. After Hulce, as Mozart, plays a performance there, the Emperor, Jeffrey Jones, decides to keep him in Vienna, and Hulce begins composing operas for the national theater. Shortly after his first opera appears, Hulce marries Elizabeth Berridge, at first as full of life and energy as her young husband. All the while Abraham is working behind the scenes to destroy the composer’s career as a way of getting back at god for not giving him the talent, only the ability to recognize it in Mozart.

One of the incredibly smart decisions that Milos Forman made was in hiring very good actors who did not have much notoriety at this point in their careers. F. Murray Abraham had done a series of guest spots on TV shows and bit parts in films over the previous decade. This part brought him not only worldwide acclaim but an Academy Award for best actor. And it is a magnificent performance. He of course plays the young Salieri to Hulce’s Mozart, but the most impressive part of his performance is as the old Salieri, at once childish and frighteningly bent on the other composer’s destruction. If ever a film performance deserved the Oscar, it was this one. Tom Hulce had been working in much the same manner as Abraham, his most memorable role to this point as the innocent pledge in Animal House. His playfulness and slightly manic performance won him an Oscar nomination as well. Jeffrey Jones had also been doing television guest spots and brings a perfect note of authenticity to his performance as the Emperor, while this was an early effort by Elizabeth Berridge who was unable to leverage her appearance in the film into a career and has, ironically, been consigned to television work ever since. Simon Callow, who appears as a friend of Mozart in the film, played the part of Mozart in Peter Shaffer’s original play, which Milos Forman had seen and immediately set about acquiring the rights to. Shaffer won a Tony Award after the play appeared on Broadway, as well as an Oscar for his screenplay.

Costume design, also a major aspect in achieving the amazing sense of realism in the film, was awarded an Oscar for the work done by Theodor Pistek. Paul LeBlanc and Dick Smith were similarly recognized for their make up work in transforming Abraham, as were the team that brought Mozart’s incredible music to life on the soundtrack. The film won eight Oscars in all, out of eleven total nominations. The greatest vindication of his work was Milos Forman’s Oscar win for direction, having already earned the award for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest a decade earlier. The film was not one that studios were interested in financing. The director said himself that in the age of MTV even he wasn’t sure people would want to sit through a two and a half hour film about classical music. As such, he cut out everything from the film that wasn’t directly related to the plot, which is part of what makes the film so great. As a result, this is one of many instances when the director’s cut, which adds an additional twenty minutes to the running time, doesn’t add up to a better film. In this case the theatrical release is the preferred version. The soundtrack album, conducted by Sir Neville Marriner, was also a big hit and also helped to spur new interest in Mozart’s music. Amadeus has yet to see a major re-release in theaters for some time. Hopefully that will change soon as it is one of the truly magical experiences cinema has to offer.

Kate & Leopold (2001)

Director: James Mangold                              Writers: James Mangold & Steven Rogers
Film Score: Rolfe Kent                                  Cinematography: Stuart Dryburgh
Starring: Meg Ryan, Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber and Breckin Meyer

While Meg Ryan was still a bankable romantic comedy star in 2001 she was clearly at the end of her run when she made Kate & Leopold, and was playing moms within a couple of years. Though forty years old at the time, she still looked great, with the exception of the collagen injections she insisted on getting in her lips. It completely destroyed her looks. Not like the nose job that Jennifer Gray had done that made her look different, but more like the face jobs that actually make actresses ugly. Written and directed by James Mangold, the film is a fantasy of an English nobleman who is accidentally transported forward in time and falls in love with a modern American woman. Mangold does a terrific job in writing a comedy that, while it could easily have spilled over into camp, skillfully treads the line and holds on to a thin thread of believability. The primary reason for that is Hugh Jackman. At no point does he allow the comedy to digress, and embodies his role in the best of ways. Unfortunately Meg Ryan doesn’t fare as well, but she wasn’t right for the part in the first place. The stressed out advertising executive doesn’t really come across in the film and everything about her performance seems out of place. It’s a shame, because the film had a lot more potential than it delivers, and in spite of a Golden Globe winning performance by Jackman it ends up being just an average romantic comedy.

The film begins with the dedication of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1876. Hugh Jackman is drawing a picture of the event while women stare at him, and Liev Schreiber is writing a news story on the event. But when Schreiber pulls out a small camera Jackman becomes intrigued, but Schreiber disappears on him. Later Jackman is revealed to be a European nobleman with no money, searching for a nouveau riche American bride. But not really. He wants to be an inventor, and finds the life of a nobleman a sham in an era of such ingenuity. At the dance that evening he spies Schreiber taking pictures again, and this time chases after him on horseback, climbs up the scaffolding on the bridge, and accidentally falls through a time portal with him. Next the scene shifts to Meg Ryan in an elevator that isn’t working correctly. Schreiber is her upstairs neighbor, and also her ex-boyfriend, and she is still bitter about the breakup. Even when he tells her what happened, she doesn’t believe him. After meeting Jackman next day, she still isn’t convinced, but when Schreiber falls down the broken elevator shaft, Ryan takes it upon herself to take him out to walk the dog and then abandons him. For Jackman’s part, the inventor in him is too fascinated by modern inventions to actually be afraid. With Schreiber in the hospital, and a week before the portal opens again, Jackman is essentially on his own.

Meanwhile, Meg Ryan is a go-getter at an advertising agency, with Bradley Whitford as her boss. He’s attracted to her because she doesn’t act like a typical woman, and he dangles a promotion in front of her to get her into bed. Ryan’s brother also shows up, an actor who is convinced that Jackman is an actor as well because of his personality. Though Jackman acclimates well to the future, his morality and manner stay intact, and Ryan is inevitably--though still guardedly--drawn to him. The rest of the film is fairly complex in plotting and, to its credit, not entirely predictable. The comedy is broad, in order to attract a larger audience, but not to excess. The worst of the principal actors is certainly Breckin Meyer as Ryan’s brother, but there are also some great actors in bit parts. Doing a wonderful job in a small role as a rich girl from 19th Century New York is Kristen Schaal in her first film, most well known as a semi-regular reporter on The Daily Show. Viola Davis also puts in a nice appearance as a beat cop, ticketing Jackman for not “laying hold of canine bowel movements.” But Philip Bosco is wasted as Jackman’s valet, as he is only in a couple of scenes. The final disappointment is Rolfe Kent's score. While he is usually one of my favorite film composers, his music here is not very memorable. Ultimately, Kate & Leopold might not be a great romcom, but it’s certainly worth a look, especially for fans of Jackman.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Sunshine Boys (1975)

Director: Herbert Ross                                  Writer: Neil Simon
Film Score: Irwin Fisch                                  Cinematography: David M. Walsh
Starring: George Burns, Walter Matthau, Richard Benjamin and Carol Arthur

Though Neil Simon has always been hit or miss for me, there is no denying his comedic talents. No one in the seventies, or any other decade for that matter, was able to consistently churn out one comedy gem after another, year in and year out. When looked at in purely logistical terms, he is the Stephen King of Broadway, but with screams of laughter instead of horror. The Sunshine Boys was another in a long line of hits for the playwright going back to the early sixties. The play premiered in 1972 with Sam Levene and Jack Albertson in the title roles. Alan Arkin was the director. The play ran well over a year and earned Tony nominations for Simon for best play, Albertson for best actor, and Arkin for best director. The play was revived twenty five years later featuring the stars of another of Simon’s brainchild’s, The Odd Couple, but in it’s television form, Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. One of the interesting things about the film version is that the part played by Matthau is clearly the lead role in the film, but the Academy Award that year for best supporting actor went to George Burns, as Matthau had already won a statuette for his work in The Fortune Cookie by Billy Wilder, yet another collaboration between Matthau and Jack Lemon. Matthau was also nominated that year for best actor, as was Simon for the adaptation of his stage play.

The film begins with Walter Matthau wandering through New York looking for an address. His nephew, Richard Benjamin, has arranged an audition with commercial director Howard Hessman. He’s an hour late because he went to the West Side instead of the East Side, and he can’t remember the name of the potato chips once he gets there. Matthau was one half of one of the great comedy teams in vaudeville. He lives alone, a grouchy old man who has a great comedic touch that infuriates everyone he talks to. When Benjamin gets him a job on an ABC special, Matthau refuses because he won’t work with his old partner, George Burns. Benjamin makes the trek out to New Jersey where Burns is living with his daughter. Though he appears to have no short-term memory whatsoever, he agrees to do the show. Then Benjamin rushes back to see his uncle, who agrees only on the condition that Burns knows he’s against doing the show. Long before there was Grumpy Old Men with the two stars of The Odd Couple, there were The Sunshine Boys. It turns out Matthau is still angry that Burns decided to retire and walk away from the act before Matthau was ready. The reunion, of course, has disastrous results and serves up plenty of the kind of comedy that Simon is known for. Even the ending, which had the potential for maudlin sentimentality, is perfectly done in a realistic and yet upbeat manner.

Originally the roles had gone to Jack Benny and Red Skelton, but both of those actors were forced to drop out. Benny suggested his role go to fellow vaudevillian George Burns, while Matthau was a known quantity for Simon. Both of the actors do a terrific job, especially Matthau as the volatile Willy Clark. One of the really nice bits of casting is Richard Benjamin who plays the straight man to Matthau and comes off much more convincing than he did later in a series of bad comedies later in the decade. Also appearing in a bit part at the beginning of the film is the great F. Murray Abraham as an auto mechanic with a full head of hair. While the film score by Irwin Fisch is serviceable at best, one of the unsung aspects of the film is the tremendously masterful work by cinematographer David M. Walsh. His use of moving camera, not only in tracking shots, but in front and behind the actors is a much needed way of opening up the long sections of dialogue that take place in Matthau’s apartment. The film is a wealth of Jewish comedy of the kind that Simon was so versed in that one would have thought he invented it. Sure, it wears thin after a while, but there is so much to be impressed by that it doesn’t really matter. Matthau was already a major film star, but this was Burns’ first film in 39 years and it sparked one of the most impressive comebacks in Hollywood history as he went on to make several more moneymaking films at the end of this career. The Sunshine Boys may not be to everyone’s liking, including mine, but it is an undeniable comedy classic.

They Live in Fear (1944)

Director: Josef Berne                                     Writers: Samuel Ornitz & Michael L. Simmons
Film Score: Victor Young                               Cinematography: George Meehan
Starring: Otto Kruger, Clifford Severn, Pat Parrish and Hugh Beaumont

While there were a number of films critical of Nazi Germany that appeared before 1942, most of them tread a delicate line so as not to lose their German audiences. But once Hitler declared war on the United States after Pearl Harbor, all bets were off and Hollywood was free to be as vicious in the characterizations of Nazis as they wanted. The irony is, subsequent history has proven that despite some exaggeration, the caricature was not far from the truth. They Live in Fear is unique in presenting America with a sanitized glimpse inside a concentration camp, even if only for a few minutes in the opening. The film is a straight up propaganda piece and eschews any hint of subtlety in its portrayal of the Nazis as evil. The film was co-written by the staunchly anti-Nazi Samuel Ornitz, a screenwriter with openly Communist sympathies and most notable for being one of the Hollywood Ten who were blacklisted after the war. The real audience for the film seems to be Americans who are intolerant toward German immigrants, something that was more prevalent during the First World War. The other audience is teenagers themselves, who wind up exhibiting intolerance because of propaganda demonizing the Germans. Thus wartime propaganda is a fine line, especially in a country that gave into their fears and interred Japanese-Americans.

The film begins in a German classroom, with Nazi professor Frederick Giermann teaching his class of Hitler Youth that the West is weak and that strength is the only thing that determines right. When one of his classmates informs on his mother for wearing mourning clothes, Clifford Severn is upset by his actions and Giermann calls him a weakling. He then informs the class that they will be going to Dachau concentration camp to continue their training. When Severn gets home, he can barely contain his outrage. His father, Egon Brecher, urges prudence, but it’s clear that Severn’s patience is wearing thin. The first order the students are given by commandant George Sorel when they arrive at the camp is to take their shovels and kill the traitors lined up before an open pit and bury them. But before they go, the victims protest that they never received a trial. Severn is gentle with his victim, Wolfgang Zilzer, and wants to help him escape after the others go. Instead, he tells Severn to leave him and seek out the help of Otto Kruger in the United States. It turns out Kruger is the principal of an all-American small town high school, and in a letter to him Zilzer asks if he’ll attempt to show the boy how he’s been brainwashed in spite of his better nature. The first thing he witnesses is a student court run by Pat Parrish in which students take care of the discipline at school. And in a science class taught by Hugh Beaumont, Severn learns that science doesn’t have to be used for military purposes.

Eventually Severn comes into conflict with the school sports star, Jimmy Carpenter. Parrish wants him to get help from Severn in math so he can play football, but Carpenter bristles at Severn’s strict ways and shows him he needs to be more tolerant. But it’s Carpenter who needs to learn tolerance after he wrongly becomes convinced that Severn is still a Nazi at heart. As a film, it’s clear that this is one of Columbia’s poverty row efforts. The only real actor in the film is Otto Kruger, who doesn’t really get to show what he’s capable of because of the banality of his character. The other solid, though brief, performance is by Hugh Beaumont, a B-list actor who is best known as the supportive father on Leave it to Beaver. As for the teenagers, they are painfully inept, and the pair that acts as comedy relief is even more so. Interestingly, the direction by Josef Berne isn’t half bad. Berne had almost been exclusively a director of short films, and some of that is certainly present here, but given the limited budget and acting skills he does about as good as could be wished for. He’s assisted by studio veteran George Meehan behind the camera. Stock music is used throughout, some of it composed by Victor Young. As a World War Two propaganda film, They Live in Fear holds some interest. As piece of cinematic art, however, it’s clearly a failure.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Breathless (1960)

Director: Jean-Luc Godard                             Writer: Jean-Luc Goddard
Film Score: Martial Solal                                Cinematography: Raoul Coutard
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Daniel Boulanger and Henri-Jacques Huet

The year after François Truffaut made his debut as a director with The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups), he contributed the story for one of Jean-Luc Godard’s most famous films, Breathless (A bout de soufflé). Like so many New Wave films, it’s difficult for me to see what all the fuss is about. Certainly there is a more documentary feel to the production, but that just reads as amateurish rather than anything inherently innovative. Godard and his cinematographer Raoul Coutard use a hand-held camera exclusively, and while it can be intrusive at times, there are some impressive moments that result. Just one is when Belmodo is leaving the travel agency and Coutard hangs back behind a plant while Belmondo walks on the other side out the glass doors and into the street. Another effect Godard uses is during conversations when he makes small jump cuts between lines of the dialogue. Again, it wears thin at times because it’s used for effect rather than because of any need for it in the story. Toward the end of the film he has both Seberg and Belmondo walking around an apartment and films them turning in a circle from the center, something he would do again in the barnyard scene of Weekend seven years later.

The film begins in Marseilles with Jean-Paul Belmondo reading a paper, waiting for a signal from a female accomplice who helps him steal a car. He heads to the countryside toward Paris without her, planning to get some money and ask American Jean Seberg to run away with him. In the glove box he finds a gun. Too aggressive on the road, a motorcycle cop pulls him over but he shoots the officer and heads off on foot. He catches a ride to the city and steals the key to Seberg’s apartment but doesn’t find any money there, so he goes to see Liliane David at her apartment and steals her money while she’s getting dressed. Then later Belmondo meets Jean Seberg in the street selling newspapers. He buys one and discovers that the police have his fingerprints from the stolen car, so he wants to head to Italy, but Seberg says she won’t go with him. Minutes after he collects some money from his friend at a travel agency, police inspector Daniel Boulanger shows up looking for Belmondo and races out but misses him. That afternoon Belmondo wants to take Seberg to dinner and so he mugs a guy in a restroom to get the money. He’s a small time crook who will do anything and steal from anyone to win the love of Seberg. He even tells her a story about a bus driver who stole millions to get a girl and that she stayed with him acting as his lookout while he burgled, just to see her reaction. But she has an appointment and leaves him again.

Seberg is a writer, working for Dutchman Van Doude, and intimates that she may be pregnant. Meanwhile Belmondo is incessant in his insistence that Seberg sleep with him again, but she still needs time to make up her mind about how she feels about him. Later, after Boulanger tells her that Belmondo has killed the policeman, she loses the tail he’s put on her and embraces a life of crime with Belmondo. Or so it seems. Jean-Paul Belmondo as an actor is loose and rangy, his suit seemingly too big for his thin frame. He has thick, full lips that identify him thoroughly in close up. And though he is a professional actor, his seeming lack of discipline makes him fit right in with the new wave’s emphasis on non-actors. Jean Seberg seems more French than American and personifies the cool, distant blonde that drives men wild. One of the standard features of the New Wave was breaking the fourth wall. And while there are instances that can be interpreted as such, only two seem unambiguously clear. In the opening scene Belmondo looks into the camera when he says he loves France and then looks to the camera to say if others don’t they can get stuffed. And Seberg does it once more in the final shot of the film.

The A List essay by David Sterritt does a nice job of summing up the innovations in the picture and the influences on the New Wave directors without being boring, which is nice. In addition to the emphasis on reality, filming on the streets and in real apartments, Godard reveled in the sheer physicality of filmmaking, pushing Raoul Coutard around in a wheelchair or a mail cart. Critics, of course, were horrified by the liberties taken and not so subtly suggested that this wasn’t really filmmaking at all. And the critics also wrongly attempted to attach politics to Godard’s seemingly anarchist production, though that was never the point. The place that the film really stands out as unique is in its historical context. Where Hollywood was trying all kinds of new methods like 3-D and widescreen in the late fifties to pull viewers away from their television sets, Godard and company were flaunting conventions in both technique and story. In the decades since its release, Sterritt aptly calls it a “scruffy monument to . . . aesthetic freedom.” In terms of entertainment value, one of the things I prize most highly in film, it is certainly less than monumental. In the end, Breathless is much less so that when it was first released, but remains a prime example of a new approach to film that independent filmmakers would take up in the rest of the decade and change Hollywood forever.

Easy Rider (1969)

Director: Dennis Hopper                                Writer: Terry Southern
Music Dept.: Mike Deasy                               Cinematography: László Kovács
Starring: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson and Luke Askew

The history books say it was television in the fifties that ended Hollywood’s reign over entertainment in America, but it was the independent film in the sixties that really changed Hollywood forever. Easy Rider was one of the first independent films to successfully compete against the studio system for dominance in theaters and truly make an impact in the marketplace. The film was made for less than a half million dollars, and made over twenty million at the box office. In watching the film one immediately notices the inventive way that Dennis Hopper sets up his shots, giving the viewer lots of information without dialogue. Cinematographer László Kovács, who would go on to film a lot of big budget film, aids in the effect with a very fluid moving camera and nice close up work. Hopper indulges in an interesting style of transition, where the next cut is flashed several times before moving on to it, and while perhaps he is going for something like innovation it seems a little dated now. Overall, however, the shots of the Southwestern scenery and the traditional camera work seems just as good as any studio picture of the day. Another aspect of the film that is tremendous is the music. Songs by Steppenwolf, The Band, The Byrds, and Jimi Hendrix make for a soundtrack that could not be more suited to the subject matter.

The film opens with two motorcycle riders, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, driving into a Mexican gas station and conversing with the men there. They’re buying cocaine that they sell to a rich American on the south side of the border, Phil Spector, before going back to the states. There, they buy new motorcycles, Fonda hiding the money in the gas tank of his chopper. Then he throws away his wristwatch and two head out on the road through the desert Southwest as the opening credits roll to Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild.” The hotel they stop at refuses to give them a room, so they spend the night in the desert. Eventually they pick up hitchhiker Luke Askew and spend another night in the desert on their way to New Orleans for Marti Gras. First they drop off Askew at his home, which is a sort of commune where most of the people live in something like a Native American longhouse. All of the residents seem to be women and children, including Sabrina Scharf, but the men are out sowing seeds to raise food crops. They have a bizarre performance troupe staying with them and, though they feed Fonda and Hopper, they leave without staying the night and hit the highway again. The next scene has them driving through a small town, accidentally winding up in a parade and being arrested for it. Two meet Jack Nicholson in jail. He’s a lawyer and gets them out, so they invite him on the trip and he grabs his football helmet and hops on the back of Fonda’s bike to go to Louisiana together, riding free through the American South.

This is such an interesting film thematically. In one respect there’s an obvious counter-culture theme running though it, with Fonda and Hopper abandoning the traditional American way of life. But at the same time, both of the protagonists exhibit an incredible reverence for the people they encounter along their journey. At a ranch where they stop to fix Fonda’s rear tire, he tells the owner how much he appreciates his way of life, living off the land. Even Luke Askew, the hitchhiker, pays for the two men’s gas. And this genuine goodness that they display is symbolized by the gas tank and helmet that Fonda has decorated with the American flag. After the two leave the commune this is juxtaposed immediately with an icon of small town America, a parade down Main Street with the two riders inadvertently becoming part of the parade, part of America. And even in Jack Nicholson’s U.F.O. rant there is a plea for equality. If there’s anything that undercuts this message of tolerance and acceptance, it’s the drug use in the film. But even that is a reflection of the times, in that all of the messages of good are drowned out by the vehemence with which society hates drugs, all the while embracing the one legal drug, alcohol, embodied by the lawyer Nicholson plays. The “good” citizens of Paris, Texas, where they stop to get food, are portrayed as the intolerant and dangerous, which is a foreshadow of the ending.

The best line in the film is delivered by Nicholson when he talks about freedom. This is a country that was founded on the idea of freedom, but he says that in reality people who are bought and sold by the capitalist system are really slaves to that system. And what disturbs people about hippies like them is that they are actually free, and it scares them. And when those people become scared they become dangerous. William Wolf’s essay in The A List spends a bit too much time simply recounting the plot, when that is hardly the point. He talks about the influence of the French New Wave in which actors, in this case, take it upon themselves to write and produce and direct their own, personal, films. One of the interesting things he discusses is that the ending of the film--or perhaps the film in its entirety--is a product of a decade of political assassinations. Though the film initiated a rush to find the next great independent film, the formula itself did not guarantee success. The film was a product of its time, and Wolf calls it a time capsule of the period, not only in the attitudes of the dominant culture as well as those who tried to change it, but in the way that it presages the future. Easy Rider is not only one of the great independent films of all time, but it continues to define the schism that exists in our country to this day: the battle between the conformist right and the rest of us who want to live in a tolerant and free society.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Satan Met a Lady (1936)

Director: William Dieterle                               Writer: Brown Holmes
Film Score: Bernhard Kaun                           Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Starring: Warren William, Bette Davis, Marie Wilson and Arthur Treacher

This is the second attempt by Warner Brothers at filming Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon. The first was the 1931 film of the same name starring Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade. The film was a success, but because of the enforcement of the production code in 1934, Warners could no longer reissue the film and so they elected to remake it, this time as a comedy. The resulting film, Satan Met a Lady, was much less successful than it’s predecessor. The film was not well received for a host of reasons. In the screenplay by Brown Holmes, the comedy was definitely forced. Warren William does his best to play along, but Bette Davis’s undisguised loathing for the picture comes through loud and clear. She doesn’t exactly sabotage the proceedings, but it’s close. And the supporting cast seems equally unable to lift the film. In the end, it seems impossible to really judge the film because of John Huston’s version. The story is so familiar that it’s difficult to imagine how confusing the final few minutes must have been for viewers when William is forced to divulge the entire plot all at once. And because the whole thing is played for laughs, it dilutes the mystery to the point that it becomes difficult to care about any of the characters. The direction by studio veteran William Dieterle is about the only positive, but it’s not nearly enough to save a critically flawed film.

The film begins with Warren William being run out of town by the local authorities who don’t like private detectives of his sort. Onboard the train he councils the wealthy May Beatty that she might need someone to protect her jewels, and at the same time is spied on by Bette Davis. William turns up at the office of his old partner, Porter Hall, who can’t seem to find anything to detect. Like a whirlwind William takes over everything, including the affections of secretary Marie Wilson, and Hall’s wife, Wini Shaw. The next day Bette Davis shows up at the agency claiming to want to find a man who has run out on her. The only lead she has is his friend, Sol Gorss, who she’s going to meet that night. Hall tails her, but unbeknownst to him he’s being tailed himself, and winds up dead in a graveyard. And then so does Gorss. The police want to arrest William, saying it was a revenge killing, but they don’t have any evidence. Before Bette Davis can skip town, however, William accosts her and she confesses that it was really Gorss she wanted tailed. He thinks she might be involved with one or both of the deaths, but she isn’t talking. Meanwhile William confronts the man who is tailing him--and was tailing Hall--Maynard Holmes, and laughs in his face at his ineptitude.

When William gets back to his apartment he finds it has been ransacked by Arthur Treacher while he was out. Treacher is looking for an historic horn stuffed with jewels that he believes William has. William lets him believe he has it, and lets him pay him for it. Then he goes after the horn at Davis’s apartment, and lets her pay him for protection, then finally goes with Holmes to meet the real mastermind of the operation, Alison Skipworth. It turns out that all of the major players were once working for her, but as soon as the horn was within reach they all went after it for themselves. At this point William’s only motivation is to get as much money off of all of them while they’re trying to get their hands on it, and stay alive in the process. Bette Davis, perpetually unhappy with the way she was being handled at Warner Brothers, rightly determined that the film was not a good one and failed to report for shooting on the first day. Needing to collect her salary, however, she finally reported three days later. William Dieterle didn’t like the film much either, but it’s his contribution that is probably the best thing about it. While Satan Met a Lady may have something to offer fans of William and Davis, it has little else to recommend it.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

Director: Cecil B. DeMille                               Writers: Fredric Frank & Barré Lyndon
Film Score: Victor Young                               Cinematography: George Barnes
Starring: Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde and James Stewart

Though Cecil B. DeMille had earned a lifetime achievement Oscar in 1949, the award would not really be considered a legitimate award by the film community until decades later. In fact, it could almost be seen as something of an embarrassment with same award having gone to Mickey Mouse and Shirley Temple in previous decades. It stands to reason, then, that DeMille’s Academy Award for best picture in 1952 was something of a gift made to him by Academy voters in recognition of his lengthy and prestigious career in Hollywood. The Greatest Show on Earth is generally acknowledged to be a bad movie and an undeserving winner that year, especially with films like Stanley Kramer’s High Noon and John Ford’s The Quiet Man in the running, and criminally snubbed pictures like Singin’ In the Rain and The Bad and the Beautiful not receiving any nominations at all. The film is essentially a three-ring soap opera, one of the earliest versions of The Love Boat, two years before The High and the Mighty cemented the format in the public’s mind. Had the Academy waited a few years they would have been able to give the award to DeMille’s most enduring film, The Ten Commandments, and in a cruel irony it is likely that picture didn’t win because the award had already been given to DeMille for this one.

The film opens with DeMille in voiceover, images of the Barnum & Bailey Circus both in performance and behind the scenes. The film begins in winter camp in Florida, foreman Charlton Heston going around the camp to check on the animals and crew. Then he’s called into the office by the owners who want to limit the season to ten weeks, playing only the big cities. Heston convinces them otherwise by hiring temperamental trapeze artist Cornel Wilde. But then he has to tell the equally temperamental Betty Hutton that she’s being pushed out of the center ring. The two are having an affair and she angrily marches off after accusing Heston of having sawdust in his veins. At the same time one of the clowns, Jimmy Stewart, is in love with Hutton and, like the Lon Chaney vehicle He Who Gets Slapped, she barely notices him and only wants to talk to him about Heston. There’s also a sub-plot involving organized crime, with Lawrence Tierney running a scam with the midway games to trick circus patrons out of their money. Once on the road, Wilde attempts to ingratiate himself with Hutton, inviting her to perform at the same time he does, though Hutton takes it as an opportunity to best him, much to the consternation of both Heston and Stewart who worry she’ll fall during their impromptu competition. It’s strange that Stewart wears his makeup all the time, until his mother shows up and tells him people are looking for him again and it’s clear he’s using the circus to hide.

Every once in a while DeMille comes back to narrate a section of the film that is accompanied by color documentary footage of the real circus. Except for his voice, the writing and the visuals could be from a Disney film. It turns out Gloria Graham, as one of the beauties who rides the elephants, knew Wilde as a womanizer back in Europe and tries to steer Hutton clear of him. But Hutton thinks she wants him for herself and won’t listen, providing the conflict for the rest of the story. The worst part of the film by far is the overacting by Betty Hutton, if not the overacting by everyone involved. But it almost can’t be helped given the inane dialogue by longtime DeMille screenwriter Fredric Frank and TV writer Barré Lyndon. Cornel Wilde comes off like Pepé Le Pew with his French accent pawing at Hutton all the time. And the criminal sub-plot doesn’t even make another appearance until halfway through the film. In fact, it’s not until the climax, where the circus performances are over, that the film really takes off and works like a film. A couple of things that date the film are unavoidable. The first is the trapeze act by Cornel Wilde and Betty Hutton, which is much more a balancing act than the kind of gymnastics modern audiences are used to seeing. The other thing is the training and treatment of the animals, one of the reasons that most circuses thankfully no longer exist.

If there’s a positive aspect to the film it’s the confident camera work by George Barnes, who worked for the likes of Hitchcock and Capra, after getting his start with Busby Berkeley in the thirties. The most impressive part is the numerous tracking shots that go all over the circus grounds and inside the big top, usually following Heston. Another bright spot is Jimmy Stewart as Buttons the clown. His work in the real circus brings to mind Buster Keaton working at the Paris Medrano Circus a few years earlier. Normally what a patron at the circus watches depends upon the ring they’re seated nearest. What DeMille attempts to do over the course of two and a half hours is give the viewer every seat in the house, filming all of the acts that perform in every ring. In terms of the documentary aspect of the film, DeMille should be credited with capturing the end of an already dying art form. But in terms of cinematic quality, the film doesn’t hold up because of how much of that footage the film is forced to carry. Had a similar film been made today it’s likely that it would have had a running time well under two hours, and with much of the documentary footage trimmed it might have made for better viewing, even with the poor dialogue. As it stands, The Greatest Show on Earth is a film by one of the greatest directors of all time, but considered undeserving of the Academy Award by many of today’s viewers and critics.

Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995)

Director: Stephen Herek                                Writer: Patrick Sheane Duncan
Film Score: Michael Kamen                           Cinematography: Oliver Wood
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Glenne Headly, Jay Thomas and Olympia Dukakas

Mr. Holland’s Opus is a marvel, simultaneously funny and serious, tragic and uplifting, it is sometimes corny but never disingenuous. It’s a very powerful picture, deceptively at times, and not always in those moments when it strives for greatness. While primarily about public school teaching it touches on issues of economic hardship, physical disabilities, wartime loss of life, the generation gap, frustrated artistry, and enduring friendship. The film was written by Patrick Sheane Duncan, who is primarily know for writing military stories, and in terms of his overall career this is easily his best work, receiving a Golden Globe nomination for the screenplay. The director is Stephen Herek who peaked with this film as well, and gradually settled into television work after making a few more features. For the most part the direction is good, with some nice transitions using stock footage to indicate the passing of years. The film score was written by the late Michael Kamen, a second-tier composer who seemed to prefer tonal washes of sound rather than true melodies. But he had worked with Herek both before and after this film, and would provide the music for a documentary that Dreyfuss hosted for the History Channel about the monuments in Washington D.C., in addition to starting a foundation named after the film to provide musical instruments to disadvantaged students and school districts for their band programs.

The film begins in the late fifties in Portland, Oregon. Richard Dreyfuss is a struggling composer who wants to get financially ahead so that he can take some time off for composition. His wife, Glenne Headly, is a struggling photographer and the two of them decide that the best way to make some money is for Dreyfuss to teach high school music for a couple of years. While this is just a fallback position for him, initially, principal Olympia Dukakas makes it clear that the students are to be his first priority. He’s helped in his first year by the inadvertent friendship he develops with P.E. teacher Jay Thomas. One of his first discoveries as a teacher is in his music appreciation class, in which he learns that the students appreciate music much more than their textbook. He also tutors hapless clarinet player Alicia Witt and learns how to be a better teacher in the process. But while he began teaching to allow him to compose music, life intervenes to keep him in the classroom. Headly becomes pregnant and wants a house for her family, so Dreyfuss teaches driver’s ed. in the summer. Soon the early sixties become the late sixties and he finds himself running the marching band and putting on musical productions in the spring. But the most crushing blow comes one afternoon after the city parade, when Headly discovers that their young son is deaf. Not only will more money be needed for special schools and training, but his son will never be able to share in his passion for music.

The emotional gap that began in childhood soon widens the older his son gets, and grows between Dreyfuss and Headly as well, as he is slow to pick up sign language with all of his time absorbed in school responsibilities. One of those is Terrence Howard in an early role, as a disadvantaged athlete that Thomas wants Dreyfuss to put in his band to get his grades up. But the success he has with Howard is dashed a few years later when he dies in the Vietnam War. And tragedy continues to dog Dreyfuss as John Lennon dies a decade later, and he grows ever more estranged from his family. At the same time, budget cuts are affecting the district, Dukakas is replaced by vice principal William H. Macy, who has never liked Dreyfuss, and a young singer, Jean Louisa Kelly, falls in love with him. The transformation of the lead characters as they age is well done--though the younger years strain credulity--and the film becomes a look at a lifetime in teaching rather than a moment. And it is the moments of teaching that are the best part of the film. Dreyfuss is confronted endlessly with challenges that he wants to avoid, but instead his meeting them makes him a better man in addition to a better teacher. And the friendship that he shares with Jay Thomas is as moving as the one he shares with his wife. The struggle he goes through with his deaf son, however, is the real heart of the film and what elevates it to the realm of greatness.

Unlike other actors, Richard Dreyfuss seems to be best at playing regular people. Though his short-lived television series, The Education of Max Bickford lasted only one season, this is the kind of role in which he excels. Dreyfuss received an Oscar nomination for his performance, the only nomination for the film that year, and how Nicholas Cage beat him out is just one of the many travesties of the awards. Glenne Headly and Jay Thomas are very good in their supporting roles, and deserving of nominations themselves, while Olympia Dukakas and William H. Macy are a little more stereotyped as characters. The students in the film are also very good, though. Terrence Howard, Alicia Witt, and Jean Louisa Kelly are all terrific in their roles and add immeasurably to the appeal of the film. The role of Dreyfuss’s deaf son was played by multiple actors, all of them deaf, and both Dreyfuss and Headly had to learn sign language. In addition, Dreyfuss had to put in extra work learning to fake the piano and conducting. The end of the film, while striving to be uplifting, must be conceded as the ultimate failure of our society to support the arts, part of an overall trend of diminishing value placed on art and culture that seems to have no chance of being arrested. Nevertheless, Mr. Holland’s Opus makes a profound statement about the qualities of life that truly matter, all within the context of a wonderfully entertaining film.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Bringing up Baby (1938)

Director: Howard Hawks                               Writers: Dudley Nichols & Hagar Wilde
Film Score: Roy Webb                                  Cinematography: Russell Metty
Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Charles Ruggles and Barry Fitzgerald

Though I haven’t gone back to reassess her later work with Spencer Tracy, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that Katharine Hepburn is one of my least favorite actresses from the golden era. There’s a vast difference between most of the leading ladies of the period who are making an effort to give a quality performance and Hepburn, who thinks she’s so great she doesn’t have to try. Bringing up Baby was not successful on its initial release, though it did eventually make back its production costs after a few years. But in the decades since it has earned the reputation as a classic screwball comedy. Howard Hawks had recently signed with RKO and while waiting on production of Gunga Din, he remembered reading a short story by Hagar Wilde and immediately had RKO purchase the rights. But this film was delayed as well while the studio attempted to negotiate the rights to the song, “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby.” He had Hepburn in mind for the female lead all along and instructed Wilde and screenwriter Dudley Nichols to tailor the screenplay to her. Further delays happened when they couldn’t get a panther--the animal in the original story--and had to change it to a leopard, which was available.

Cary Grant plays an anthropologist and Virginia Walker his straight-laced assistant. The two of them are going to be married the next day, but she insists that nothing interfere with his work and that they not even have a honeymoon . . . much to Grant’s disappointment. He goes golfing that afternoon to drum up a donation to the museum, and winds up meeting Katharine Hepburn instead. She’s a go-getter and initially oblivious to Grant’s bumbling charms. That night, still trying to find George Irving, he meets her again in a restaurant and even after learning that he’s going to get married--especially after learning this--she decides to spend as much time with him as possible. That includes an early morning phone call explaining that her brother has left her a leopard to take care of, and being the only zoologist she knows she desperately needs his help. From there things only get increasingly zany, as Hepburn takes Grant and the leopard, named Baby, out to her country house and she steals his clothes after he takes a shower. When her aunt arrives, May Robson, he learns that she is Irving’s client, the woman who is going to donate the million dollars and now he thinks he’s ruined his chances. Even worse, the dinosaur bone that he needs to finish the brontosaurus at the museum has been taken by Robson’s dog and buried. While Grant is exasperated beyond all measure, Hepburn is in love and it’s clear she’ll get him in the end.

The humorous dialogue, while cleverly written, is actually upstaged by the slapstick, something I’m normally immune to. But the pratfalls are actually quite wonderful in the way that they seamlessly integrate into the story and don’t seem forced at all. The leopard is a bit much, but then so is the entire film. Grant’s harried behavior is as relentless as Hepburn’s behavior is obtuse. While the rest of the character actors move in and out of the scenes, it’s essentially a two-star vehicle. But Grant and Hepburn have no subtlety at all, and the frenetic pace, the overlapping dialogue, and the endless physical comedy leave the viewer numb after a while. That said, it is an impressive feat, and as a whole the work is admirable in its ambition. Charles Ruggles and May Robson don’t appear until the second half of the film, but make equally comedic foils for the lead team. Barry Fitzgerald does a workmanlike job, but it’s Walter Catlett as the hick constable that really steals the show at the end of the picture. Roy Webb’s music is barely noticeable behind the antics on the screen, though the special effects work with the leopard by Vernon Walker are exceptional.

The essay in The A List by Morris Dickstein begins by citing the difficulty of dealing with romantic relationships after the production code tightened down on anything sexual. Thus, screwball romantic comedy was born, flourishing in the later half of the Depression. The film is notable for being the first time that Grant played against type, normally as the troublemaker, and took on the role of the harassed innocent, something he would ironically become know for in films like Arsenic and Old Lace, and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. Dickstein likens Hepburn’s role to the kind perfected by Carole Lombard, and it makes the viewer wish she could have played this part too. Early in the film the character--or more accurately caricature--of the psychiatrist, played by Fritz Feld, expresses the primary theme of most screwball romantic comedies, that opposites attract and that love reveals itself in conflict. Dickstein also notes the quality of the physical comedy, especially torn and missing clothing that is even better than the witty dialogue. The ending, while almost whiplash inducing, nevertheless symbolizes the relationship between Grant and Hepburn as well. For my money, Bringing up Baby, is just a little too wild to be enjoyable, but it’s equally clear there’s also a lot more to the film than can be gained on a single viewing.

Kill the Messenger (2014)

Director: Michael Cuesta                               Writer: Peter Landesman
Film Score: Nathan Johnson                         Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosemarie DeWitt and Andy Garcia

This was an absolutely fascinating idea for a film, the true story of Gary Webb, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News who uncovered the link between the influx of drugs into the U.S. in the eighties and the CIA sponsored war in Nicaragua. But despite a tremendous cast and solid direction, Kill the Messenger never really lives up to its promise. The problem is the screenplay by Peter Landesman, and it’s a similar problem to the one faced in American Sniper. Webb died in 2004 from an apparent suicide, and there seems to be a real sense of obligation on the part of Landesman to adhere as closely as possible to the facts in homage to the writer. Unfortunately that doesn’t allow for a lot of leeway in finding ways to change the story for dramatic effect. The screenplay was based on two books, the first is Webb’s own book-length writings on the original story and the aftermath called Dark Alliance. The second is movie's namesake, a biography of Webb called Kill the Messenger by Nick Schau written after the reporter’s death. The irony is there are still factual inaccuracies in the film reviewers quibbled with that could have been easily overridden had the changes resulted in a more dramatic story arc. But director Michael Cuesta, who has primarily worked in television, does as much as he can with the story, creating a good-looking film that should garner him more feature work.

The opening credits are paired with documentary footage of U.S. presidents from Nixon through Reagan pay lip service to the War on Drugs, when drug money was being used to fund all kinds of covert activities that couldn’t be funded through legal government channels. The film begins with Jeremy Renner as Webb, getting an interview with Robert Patrick, who has had his home seized as part of a drug bust, even though he wasn’t convicted. But before the interview can really get going, the police break in and arrest everyone, including Renner. Though his editor at the paper, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, doesn’t like the direction he’s taking, he is writing interesting stories. After reading the story, Paz Vega contacts Renner because her boyfriend is in jail on drug charges. She claims that the man testifying against her boyfriend, Yul Vazquez, is a government funded drug dealer. So Renner, chasing down the story, goes to court and confronts prosecutor Barry Pepper about the alleged connection between the government and Vazquez, and suddenly Vega’s boyfriend is set free. At that point Renner realizes she was just using him to get her boyfriend released, but she tells him that despite what she did, Pepper’s release of her boyfriend proves the government connection. At this point Renner contacts Tim Blake Nelson, who is the lawyer for the boyfriend’s boss, Michael Kenneth Williams, who is also in jail awaiting trial. He confirms that the government drug dealer, Vazquez, had more drugs than his underlings could sell.

This time Renner sits on his knowledge and waits until Vazquez is actually on the witness stand to testify against Williams. When Nelson, who is cross-examining him, starts to question him about his government connections, Pepper essentially threatens the judge to get her to stop Nelson, but it backfires and she allows him to be fully questioned and Vazquez admits that the money he was making from selling drugs in the U.S. was supporting revolutionary efforts in Nicaragua. Armed with that knowledge, Renner heads to Central America to interview the man who ran Vazquez, now sitting in a Nicaraguan prison. Andy Garcia confirms that the CIA was funding his drug operation, and sends him to his lawyer, Brett Rice, who also confirms this and shows him the private property where the operation was located. But when Renner writes his story, bad things begin to happen. The CIA makes an all out assault with its public relations department to deny everything. They smear Renner by digging up an affair he had, coerce his witnesses to change their stories, and get other major newspapers to print that he lied in his article. At this point not only does his editor and her boss, Oliver Platt, turn on him, but so does his wife, Rosemarie DeWitt, and their oldest boy, Lucas Hedges. It’s a downward spiral that can’t be stopped, even after the truth comes out a few years later that his story was correct.

The best thing this film has going for it is the incredible star power involved, including a cameo by Ray Liotta as a former CIA operative who confirms everything. Jeremy Renner gives perhaps his best performance since The Hurt Locker, but the screenplay hems him in in terms of dealing with any serious threat to his family. The CIA is smarter than that. They harass from a distance, but with his article being public record, they’re not going to kill him . . . yet. What’s most disappointing is the way his editor, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, abandons him. It’s embarrassing that she and Oliver Platt let themselves be dissuaded from their personal knowledge of this man they’ve known for years. The same goes for Rosemarie DeWitt. The best part of the film is the disillusionment that Renner undergoes as a result of his experience. He is given a journalism award when his article first appears, but by the time of the ceremony his reputation has been trashed. During his speech he says that he used to think he was a good reporter, but as a result of this recent controversy he realizes he had never written anything of importance before. Webb’s story, however, is an important one and is very well done, as demonstrated by its initial popularity. Though whether the film, as a film, will hold up in the long run has yet to be seen. Despite its flaws, Kill the Messenger has a lot to offer and is certainly worth a viewing.