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.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Partners (1982)

Director: James Burrows                               Writer: Francis Veber
Film Score: Georges Delerue                        Cinematography: Victor J. Kemper
Starring: Ryan O’Neal, John Hurt, Kenneth McMillan and Robyn Douglass

Partners is a little known film that I only picked up because of the presence of Robyn Douglass. It’s a gay themed comedy that not only predates Chuck and Larry by twenty-five years, but it makes that film look even more juvenile than it already is by comparison. One of the interesting things about the film is that it was panned by reviewers at the time--Gene Siskel called in one of the worst films of 1982--and yet audience reaction through the years has been mostly positive. In reality, it’s not a good film. The pacing, for one, is bad and the story plods along. The premise of the police case the detectives are trying to solve is utterly unbelievable, as are the gay stereotypes. But with the exception of a couple of very bad jokes, there is a certain charm to the film that keeps it from turning audiences off. James Burrows is a hugely successful television director, filming episodes of some of the most popular shows in TV history for the last forty years. And the film definitely has a TV movie style. To its credit, though, it tries to take its subject matter seriously especially in the perception of gender by Ryan O’Neal. He learns what it feels like to be an object of desire by men and it makes him appreciate the plight of women all the more. At the same time the film’s obvious purpose is that of showing the bonding he does with John Hurt.

The film begins with police detective Ryan O’Neal being called into the office by his captain, Kenneth McMillan. While he’s waiting, John Hurt is called in as well, refuses to sit next to him, and shows no interest in the sexy receptionist. Once inside the office, McMillan tells O’Neal that they need to catch a killer who has murdered a gay man and that he needs to go undercover living with a gay police officer: Hurt. The two of them dislike each other immediately, O’Neal because he’s a homophobe, and Hurt because he doesn’t want to come out of the closet. The two check in to the hotel where the murder happened, and the manager, Michael McGuire, takes an instant liking to O’Neal. The investigation gets underway when McGuire tells them he saw flashes from the bungalow, indicative of photography. Next they rent an apartment in a gay building and a housewarming party leads them to the murdered man’s roommate, Darrell Larson, who tells him the murdered man was a model for a magazine called Man’s Man. This eventually puts them on to another male model, James Remar, and so O’Neal reluctantly decides to become a decoy by posing for the magazine. The photographer is none other than Robyn Douglass. O’Neal doesn’t want to strip for her, but that’s the job. Then they fall for each other and it puts the investigation at risk . . . as well as Hurt’s feelings.

Of the two leads, John Hurt is clearly superior. His performance is subdued, but very believable. Ryan O’Neal, on the other hand, is saddled with his usual lack of ability and isn’t able to generate much in the way of audience identification with his character. I came to the film through the wonderful Robyn Douglass. This role came after her debut in Breaking Away, but before her starring turn in the TV movie Her Life as a Man. She’s not really used well here, playing a rather vacuous and overly made up photographer. Still, it’s nice to see her in one of her few film appearances. There are also some very recognizable character actors in bit parts. Martin Kove, two years before The Karate Kid, plays a male model, while Sydney Lassick, best known as Cheswick from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, plays a photographic assistant. The hotel manager, Michael McGuire, has been almost exclusively a television actor throughout his career, but has done one a few features, most memorably as Charlie Parker’s agent in Clint Eastwood’s Bird. As for the production itself, it is merely serviceable, with a forgettable score by Georges Delerue. Partners, while an embarrassment in its day, is nevertheless a failure that has a good heart and is worth giving a chance. Just make sure you know what to expect going in.

Kiss of Death (1947)

Director: Henry Hathaway                              Writers: Ben Hecht & Charles Lederer
Film Score: David Buttolph                             Cinematography: Norbert Brodine
Starring: Victor Mature, Brian Donlevy, Coleen Gray and Richard Widmark

Kiss of Death is usually only mentioned because of the bravura performance by Richard Widmark in his first film role--and the fact that he was given an Academy Award nomination for it--but there is so much more to this film that allows it to succeed in spite of Widmark. Director Henry Hathaway, who is better known today for his westerns, attempted a pseudo-documentary style noir film a year before Jules Dassin’s The Naked City. Rather than studio sets, the attempt was made to film entirely in New York City, as well as in Sing Sing and The Tombs, though it’s pretty evident that the finale was done on a sound stage. The film opens with Coleen Gray doing a voiceover explaining how Victor Mature does his Christmas shopping. But her narrative only returns once again, and there is a definite sense of irony surrounding it, not only because Mature is playing a career criminal, but also the way in which her female voice plays opposite to expectations for a noir film. The fact is, the film could have benefitted from more of her voice-over, the knowingness of her lines an ironic contrast to her fresh-faced innocence. In addition to Widmark’s Oscar nomination, the film was also nominated for best original story by Eleaszar Lipsky, a real-life Manhattan assistant district attorney.

Victor Mature has been out of work for a year since being released from prison, and when he gets into an elevator a snippet of Alfred Newman’s “Street Scene” can be heard. He and two of his associates rob a jewelry story on the 23rd floor of the building. They take whatever’s open, without breaking anything, and leave. But the three have to watch with excruciating patience as the elevator slowly makes its way to street level, only to run smack into the police once they arrive. Mature makes a break for it and is shot in the leg, Gray explaining that the same thing happened twenty years earlier to Mature’s father, who died from his wounds in front of Mature. Next the scene shifts to the office of district attorney Brian Donlevy. He offers Mature a deal, inform on his partners, and he’ll be able to go home to his wife and kids. But Mature isn’t having any of it. He hasn’t squealed before, and he isn’t going to now. Mob lawyer Taylor Holmes tells him later that he won’t be able to prevent a conviction, that they’ll have to work on getting him parole, and that it could take some time. Mature is put into a holding cell with another criminal, Richard Widmark. Right away it’s clear the difference between the two men. Mature is a thief, a man with a family, and a loyal soldier of the mob. Widmark, on the other hand, is psychotic, a killer who only seems interested in who he can hurt and how badly.

It’s not until Mature has been in Sing Sing a few years that he becomes worried when he hasn’t received a letter from his wife in three months. When he learns from another inmate that his wife has committed suicide, he becomes desperate to get out. Then his kids’ babysitter, Colleen Gray, comes to the prison to see him and tells him of the affair his wife was having with one of the mobsters. It’s also clear she’s attracted to him. Finally Mature gets in touch with Donlevy and tells him he’ll do anything to be back with his kids. Police sergeant Karl Malden is in on the conversation, and when Mature tells them about the robbery he primarily implicates the guy who was having the affair with his wife. But before the police can get to him, Holmes sends Widmark after him. In the iconic scene from the film, Widmark discovers he’s skipped town and sends his wheelchair bound mother down the stairs to her death. Mature is let out on parole, with the understanding that he is going to help implicate other criminals. His first assignment: Richard Widmark. The rest of the film is an agonizing wait for Widmark to seek revenge on Mature, and the ending is one that would be used by Clint Eastwood sixty years later in Gran Torino. The film is also notable for an appearance by Karl Malden, who has only a few lines, and a nightclub scene featuring the great swing drummer Jo Jones and his trio.

The great Ben Hecht is credited with the screenplay. The dialogue is lean and to the point, not flowery and poetic like Abe Polonsky on Force of Evil, or humorous like the Epstein brothers on Casablanca. There are some subtle touches, however, that are very nice. When Mature tells the warden he wants to see Donlevy, the warden decides to put him on the baseball team as a reward. He asks Mature, “Do you play ball?” and Mature responds, “I’m going to.” There’s the standard morality at play here as well, with Donlevy reinforcing the fact that Mature is different from the rest of the hoods, and this is mirrored by Henry Hathaway’s shot selection: at one point when Mature is entering the convent where his children are, a crucifix in stained glass is seen over his head. For a noir picture, there’s an incredibly powerful humanity at work, though most of the social criticism isn’t fully explored. But then that’s not really the point. Unlike Michael Corleone, who complains in the third Godfather film that they keep sucking him back in, Hecht and Charles Lederer elicit a genuine pathos for Mature, who wants nothing more than to leave his old life behind and raise his girls. Kiss of Death isn’t a great noir film, but it has quite a few things to recommend it, the acting chief among them. Not essential, but certainly worth a look.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Coma (1978)

Director: Michael Crichton                              Writer: Michael Crichton
Film Score: Jerry Goldsmith                           Cinematography: Victor J. Kemper
Starring: Geneviève Bujold, Michael Douglas, Richard Widmark and Rip Torn

Medical thriller writer Robin Cook had his biggest success with Coma, which soon after was turned into a wonderful film written and directed by Michael Crichton who worked the same side of the street as Cook for much of his career. The two were also friends, which is how Crichton came to own the film rights to the New York Times best selling novel. Primarily a writer, it had been five years since Crichton’s previous film, Westworld, which was also written by him. Predictably, the studio wanted to recast the film version of Coma with a man in the lead, but Crichton was dead set against it. And his instincts were correct. It is the novelty of the female lead that makes both the book and the film work, and with Crichton’s commitment to the original story, he produced a film that was actually much better than it would have been otherwise. French-Canadian actress Geneviève Bujold was the perfect choice, having already earned an Academy Award nomination a decade earlier. This was Michael Douglas’s first project after his run on The Streets of San Francisco, and he was impressed with Crichton’s screenplay as well as his vision as a director. Hollywood veteran Richard Widmark as the chief of surgery is also an inspired addition to the cast.

The film begins with a Geneviève Bujold driving to work as a doctor at Boston Memorial Hospital. A brief shot of Michael Douglas shows that he works in the same hospital. As the two of them come home at the end of the day, Douglas is only interested in hospital politics while Bujold has her own agenda, which doesn’t include being “the little woman.” They argue and she goes home to her own apartment, resenting the fact that she has to suffer too in demanding respect as a doctor and a woman. The next day her friend, Lois Chiles, goes in for a routine operation and something goes wrong in the operating room, putting her into a coma. Bujold is devastated, but tries to put on a brave face, so much so that Douglas begins to worry about her. The only thing she notices out of the ordinary in the file is that Chiles was tissue typed by accident. The lab tells her that the requisition was computer ordered, but the computer guy can’t bring up that information. So she gets a record of all surgical patients diagnosed with coma and begins combing through the patient files. Chief of surgery Richard Widmark gets wind of the illegal computer access and calls her into his office, in the hopes that she will forget about it and get back to her job. But then another patient undergoing minor surgery, Tom Selleck, ends up in a coma as well, and now she can’t let it go.

Rip Torn, the chief of anesthesiology has all of the charts she needs, and when he won’t give them to her she suspects he’s hiding something. Meanwhile a maintenance man, Frank Downing, knows what’s going on and tries to tell her about it, but he’s murdered before she can get any information from him. One of the set pieces of the film is the chase in the medical school that ends up in the anatomy lab amid a pile of dead bodies. The other iconic image in the film is the hospital where the coma patients are transferred, The Jefferson Institute, where a science-fiction type ward houses all of the patients hanging from the ceiling on wires, so they don’t get bed sores, and which she breaks into because she thinks it’s also part of the conspiracy. Once she knows too much, however, she suddenly finds herself on the run from an unknown assailant, and looking for safety she runs right into the arms of the leader of the conspiracy. As a woman in peril film there is little to complain about. It’s a taut medical thriller that delivers so much suspense that it’s impressive. Crichton’s screenplay makes the conspiracy look a lot bigger than it really is, which allows the viewer to really share in her paranoia.

The acting is tremendous. Geneviève Bujold is absolutely beautiful, and yet gives no indication that she isn’t the equal of any male doctor. Awash in a world of sexism, she navigates her way admirably without becoming a stereotype of the angry women’s libber. Michael Douglas is one of her sexist challenges, attempting to maintain a relationship with him while not allowing herself to be subsumed within it. Because of when it was filmed, in the late seventies, there are a host of young actors in minor roles. In addition to Tom Selleck and Lois Chiles, Charles Siebert, who was best know for his television role on Trapper John, M.D. appears as an anesthesiologist. Ed Harris plays a pathologist whose partner, Richard Doyle, inadvertently guesses how the patients are being put into a coma. And Elizabeth Ashley does a great job as the creepy nurse from the Jefferson Institute. Though Crichton didn’t direct many films during his career, he does a solid job here, especially in his shot selection and pacing. The film score by Jerry Goldsmith is also first rate, with an emphasis on dissonant piano chords and a subtle but effective leitmotif in the suspenseful scenes. The film was a hit and gave Bujold and Crichton some of the best reviews of their careers. Unlike a lot of seventies films, Coma seems timeless when seen today, one of the first and still one of the best medical thrillers ever made.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

American Sniper (2014)

Director: Clint Eastwood                                 Writer: Jason Hall
Film Score: Joseph S. DeBeasi                      Cinematography: Tom Stern
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes and Sammy Sheik

One of the biggest surprises I had at last year’s Academy Awards was when American Sniper lost out for best picture. In retrospect, however, it makes a certain sense. After films like Three Kings and Jarhead about the first Gulf War appeared, followed by The Hurt Locker--which won the Oscar in 2008 for best picture--and Zero Dark Thirty about the post-9/11 conflicts, it no doubt caused some war film fatigue. It’s a shame, because the film was not only better than the eventual winner but it was also based on the true story of Navy Seal Chris Kyle. Warner Brothers had purchased the rights to Kyle’s book, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, just a few months after it was published. Bradley Cooper was set to be the producer, but when Kyle was killed less than a year later the studio insisted that Cooper star in the film, while Stephen Spielberg was brought in to direct. It was Spielberg who put a face to the enemy sharpshooter who was trying to kill Kyle in the field. But Warner’s budget limitations caused Spielberg to pull out and Clint Eastwood was eventually brought in to helm the project. Not only did the film fail to win for best picture, it was nominated for six Oscars and only took home one for sound editing.

The film begins with Bradley Cooper on his first sniper detail in Iraq. He spots a woman and a boy coming out into the street after a convoy has gone by. When the woman gives the boy a hand grenade the film flashes back to Cooper’s childhood. His father was a religious man and taught him to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves. Later he becomes a rodeo cowboy and when he sees the attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, he feels compelled to join the military. Eventually he becomes a Navy Seal and meets his future wife, Sienna Miller. The two marry and after a brief honeymoon he is deployed soon after 9/11. The story picks up again with the boy in Cooper’s sights. As he begins to run Cooper shoots the boy, and in a shocking development the woman picks up the grenade and he is forced to kill her as well. As the film progresses, two threads weave themselves together. The first is with his wife, pregnant with their first child and worried for his safety every day, especially as he goes back for multiple tours. The second thread is the conflict itself. Cooper quickly becomes known as “The Legend” as he racks up dozens of kills in defense of his comrades. But this splits off into two narratives as well. One is his personal search for Mido Hamada, a man known as “The Butcher” for torturing and killing Iraqi informants. The other is the hunt for Sammy Sheik, a marksman from Syria known as Mustafa, who is killing Marines.

While some critics complained that there was no context for the combat scenes and that the enemy was one-dimensional, they are missing the point of the story. To be fair, it’s not an obvious one and so they can be forgiven for not understanding. The key to interpreting the entire piece doesn’t come until the end, with what appears to be a standard psychiatrist office scene when Cooper can’t seem to shake off his PTSD. VA doctor Robert Clotworthy is able to discover in just a few minutes that Cooper’s obsession is with protecting others. His inability to return to civilian life has to do with his knowing that there are men still fighting that he can’t protect. Clotworthy immediately takes him into the ward of the VA hospital to show him the many veterans who need his help here at home, attempting to recover from wounds both physical and psychological. Given this new mission, Cooper suddenly finds a reason for living and is briefly able to be himself again with his family before his tragic murder. Though it may not be obvious, there is an underlying connection between Chris Kyle and the football player Michael Oher, whose story was told in the biopic The Blind Side. Both men were able to truly find themselves once it was realized how much their personalities were formed by a desire to protect other people.

While there is no denying that Clint Eastwood took on this film with deeply held feelings of his own to honor the men and women who serve in our military, he is not without his shortcomings as a filmmaker. The most obvious is when it comes to music. Where Spielberg’s version of the story would have been buttressed by the majestic compositions of John Williams, there is not even a film score for this picture. And while the opening emotional conflict of shooting the boy--and presumably his mother--is returned to again when a small boy picks up a grenade launcher from a man Cooper has just killed, there is very little emotional exploration of the experience of other snipers who might not have been as morally stable as Chris Kyle. The death of Luke Grimes touches on it, but it is never brought up again. And while this could in no way be considered a bad film, it is also not a great one. Still, as a biography, a look at the life of one soldier who wanted more than anything to protect his brothers in arms, it is undeniably magnificent. That, however, doesn’t necessarily make for great cinema. All of the actors acquit themselves admirably, and it is equally clear that they wanted to do as much justice to their subject as the director. American Sniper is not a great war film, and that is certainly the reason for its lack of success at the Academy Awards, but it will always remain one of the great stories of one of America’s great military heroes.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Green for Danger (1946)

Director: Sidney Gilliat                                    Writers: Sidney Gilliat & Claude Guerney
Film Score: William Alwyn                              Cinematography: Wilkie Cooper
Starring: Trevor Howard, Sally Gray, Leo Genn and Alastair Sim

While this British production has earned a positive reputation in recent years, there’s a reason that Green for Danger wasn’t better known before it was released on a Criterion Collection disc. Even the studio that director Sidney Gilliat worked for had turned down the original novel by Christianna Brand. The hospital setting especially, was deemed to be bad box office. But Gilliat purchased the book before a train trip and found in it the opportunity for cinematic exploration in, of all things, the anesthetics, “with all those crosscutting opportunities offered by flowmeters, hissing gas, cylinders, palpitating rubber bags, and all the other trappings.” Gilliat also didn’t find the detective, played by Alastair Sim in the film, particularly interesting either. And that is one of the drawbacks of the final product. Sim’s performance is a little too flippant, especially when the rest of the proceedings are so serious, and had the potential to build on that gravity throughout the film with a like-minded police detective. Without that, however, the ending wouldn’t have the same strength, because one of the more interesting aspects of the story is the way in which Sim’s lack of seriousness comes back to haunt him at the end of the film.

The film begins as a police report narrated by Alastair Sim about a series of deaths at a local hospital in Heron’s Park. Postman Moore Marriott is the first to die. The suspects are all shown in the operating theater and Sim tells the audience that before long two of them will be dead, one of whom is the murderer. It’s 1945 during the tail end of World War Two, and a German V-1 rocket flies overhead, the explosion from which sends Marriott to the hospital too sick to speak. Head surgeon Leo Genn gives a suspicious look when talking with nurse Megs Jenkins about his past, though it’s clear that head nurse Judy Campbell has a tremendous crush on him. Meanwhile anesthetist Trevor Howard is intent on spending more time with his girlfriend, Sally Gray, but the more he tries it seems the more he drives her away. And it soon becomes clear that Genn would be more than happy to move in and take his place. Genn wants to operate on Marriott’s leg first thing in the morning, and of course he dies on the table. It’s clear that he was killed because of what he knew, but there’s no way to know who is responsible. At the hospital Christmas party, when Campbell becomes jealous to the point of no return, she announces to the entire staff that she knows who killed Marriott, and then of course she is killed herself, compelling the visit of Alastair Sim from Scotland Yard.

It’s at this point when the film turns from what could have been an espionage picture--with the killer working with the Nazis to guide the V-1 rockets that fall throughout the film--to something of a drawing room mystery with Sim acting as the detective who gathers all of the suspects together to announce that one of them is the killer. One of the interesting things about the screenplay is that the story begins in media res, and the viewer only learns of past history and relationships as the film goes on. This makes for a number of suspicious moments, from Genn’s skittishness about his past, and Howard’s prior relationship with Marriott, to Campbell’s failed affair with Genn. The moving camera work by Willkie Cooper is outstanding, with numerous tracking shots that add a lot of technical interest to the film. The sets themselves are highly artificial, but that is the case with most British productions, and the rich black and white photography is somewhat forgiving. Ultimately, however, the film is a mixed bag, part soap opera, part medical thriller, part cozy murder mystery, and none of them are really done to perfection. What stands out most are the performances of the male leads, Trevor Howard and Leo Genn, though the quality of Alastair Sim’s performance is going to be up to how the viewer likes the character. Green for Danger, while not essential, is definitely worth checking out should the occasion arise.