Sunday, January 31, 2016

All that Heaven Allows (1955)

Director: Douglas Sirk                                     Writer: Peg Fenwick
Film Score: Frank Skinner                              Cinematography: Russell Metty
Starring: Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Agnes Moorehead and Conrad Nagel

Though I knew that Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman had done a series of films for Universal in the fifties, I didn’t know about this specific film until watching Martin Scorsese’s history of film called A Personal Journey. And while I had absolutely hated Magnificent Obsession, which had been filmed a year earlier, I discovered that All that Heaven Allows is one of the great films of all time. It’s a corny story, to be sure, with a predictable plot, that nevertheless captivates in the way that it subverts the traditional symbol of women who make sacrifices for others. At the same time it manages to criticize the fifties culture that had cut itself off from nature and plugged into television. It’s truly a marvel of a film and is criminally neglected on best film lists, though twenty years ago it was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. The original story was written by journalist Harry Lee and his mother Edna. And while not necessarily enamored with the story, director Douglas Sirk took it as a challenge, to imbue the production with an unambiguous point of view that was critical of American society at that time. Producer Ross Hunter had begun his film career as an actor and was friends with both Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman, originally casting them in the earlier film. It was Hunter who really allowed Sirk a free hand in expressing himself in a way that would solidify his reputation in American film history.

The film begins a few years after the death of Jane Wyman’s husband. Her friend, Agnes Moorehead, comes over to say she can’t stay for lunch, so Wyman invites the young gardener, Rock Hudson, to share her meal. Wyman lives in a New York suburb, in an expensive house and has expensive friends who all belong to the country club. She’s sort of dating a dried up Conrad Nagel, successful but hardly the romantic type. But then no one thinks she needs any romance, not her kids, William Reynolds and Gloria Talbott, or her snobbish friends which include gossip Jacqueline deWit. When Donald Curtis puts the moves on her at a party and she rebuffs him, he’s certain it’s only because she so chaste. Then one day Hudson says he’s selling his father’s business and heading upstate to start a tree farm. He invites her up to look at his place and she almost refuses. But once up in the country, she allows herself to fall for him. The problems, however, only begin with their age difference. The thought of giving up her home and friends at first frightens her. But then she meets Hudson’s friends, Charles Drake and Virginia Grey, and understands that Hudson is about as pure and noble as a man gets. He tells Wyman later that he’s met lots of girls, but has never been in love until he met her. When he proposes she is almost unable to let go of her life, but the life of a widow--or the sexless partner of Nagel--is not what she wants, and she says yes.

Of course this is the fifties, and everyone is outraged. Her kids turn on her, and her friends turn on her, and it’s all that she can do to say the course and honor her feelings despite what everyone else thinks. But in the end she gives in and breaks off the marriage with Hudson to placate her children. It’s what happens next that is such a powerful part of the film. Everyone wants to go back to normal. Everyone has been able to get what they want from her, and now they don’t seem to care about Wyman at all, especially her children. It’s finally this selfishness on their part that begins to gnaw at her and make her realize that the sacrifice she thought she was making has been for nothing. The fulcrum of the film is Jane Wyman’s character. To this point she has lived a life that has been defined by others. The actress comes in for criticism for a perceived vacuousness in her performance, but that is entirely the point. And Sirk makes it clear that her surroundings are equally empty, including her fancy house, expensive clothes, and country club friends. Even her relationship with her college-age children is a cliché in which she drifts rather than participates. This is made painfully clear in the juxtaposition between Hudson’s friends and her own. Hudson’s friends are boisterous and accepting, while Wyman’s are critical and judgmental. Hudson, she later learns, was a veteran of the Korean War and went into advertising, but he gave it all up to live on the land as his own person rather than working to satisfy some societal vision of normalcy.

The other minor character in the film is the television set. Only recently a household fixture in 1955, Wyman doesn’t own one or want one. But in the most devastating indictment of American conformity her children buy her one for Christmas, at the same time that Reynolds gives the news that he is going to study overseas and Talbott announces her impending marriage. Prior to this the children virtually threatened to cut Wyman out of their lives if she didn’t break it off with Hudson, and now they are leaving her, oblivious to her needs, with only the television to keep her company. Rock Hudson, despite similar criticism about his “wooden” performance, is tremendous. The other major juxtaposition in the film is his life in the woods compared with Wyman’s carefully manicured life in the suburbs. One of the unintended delights of the film is the fact that Hudson was a closeted gay at the time. This is especially poignant during the scene when he is telling Wyman that his journey of self-discovery was ultimately about becoming a man, and then Wyman asks him, “Is that what you want me to be?” The color photography by Russell Metty is beautifully stark, like the hand-tinted postcard of the time, and the score by Frank Skinner is serviceable but little else, reworking a piano piece by Franz Liszt in several scenes. Few other filmmakers, if any, during the period had such a distinctive point of view as Douglas Sirk, and All that Heaven Allows is the perfect example of that view.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Madame Bovary (1949)

Director: Vincente Minnelli                              Writer: Robert Ardrey
Film Score: Miklós Rózsa                               Cinematography: Robert H. Planck
Starring: Jennifer Jones, Van Heflin, Louis Jourdan and James Mason

French author Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 novel Madame Bovary is a grim story of a woman who gradually destroys her life because of her own discontentedness. In a way, it’s similar to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina from 1877, or what American author Kate Chopin would do in her turn-of-the-century novel The Awakening. MGM’s version of Madame Bovary sort of splits the difference, keeping the French backdrop but completely Americanizing the tale the way most studio productions tended to do with European stories. In fact, the sets and costumes are highly exaggerated as a representation of the provincial life of its main characters. But while it may have been unrealistic, it did earn an Academy Award nomination for the team responsible for the production design. In terms of story, most of the set pieces are there, but the true dissipation of the title character’s life is toned down considerably for the screen. The manic quality of Jennifer Jones was also perfect for the title character, and sometimes spilled over in her off screen behavior. While the film was not only a critical but a popular success, earning over two million dollars at the box office, it was unfortunately not enough to offset its production costs, and it ultimately lost money for the studio.

The film opens with the trial of Flaubert, played by James Mason, for the publication of his novel about an adulterous woman. The prosecutor’s biggest complaint is that the heroine isn’t punished at the end of the novel. But the author didn’t need to insult the intelligence of his audience by doing so, when they could see that her own guilt was, as it should be, more than punishment enough. To the crime of forgiveness, Mason pleads guilty. It’s then that he says he wants to tell the court of the whole story, not just the sensationalized portions of the text the prosecutor read aloud. It begins with Van Heflin as a young doctor being called to a farmhouse. There he meets Jennifer Jones, a young girl who dreams of romance and believes that escaping her father’s farm as the wife of a doctor is the first step to achieving it. After securing a house in a small village Heflin asks Jones to marry him, and she immediately says yes, enchanted by the escape from the farm. On their wedding day she is repulsed by the crudity and juvenile behavior of the country people she lives with, and begs Heflin to take her to their home. The next day she sets about transforming the small house into a showplace, the first of her many dreams, not realizing that Heflin makes very little money, the first of her many disappointments. Jones is befriended by the young clerk, Alf Kjellin, and swindled by Frank Allenby, who lets her buy on credit without her husband’s knowledge.

When Paul Cavanagh as a Marquis stops by on his way through town and invites the couple to his estate Jones is ecstatic, that is until Cavanaugh laughs at the rubes she has invited over to her house. Years later, after their daughter is born, they receive an invitation to one of Cavanagh’s balls and Jones insists on attending. It’s there she meets Louis Jourdan, who begins visiting their village regularly and confesses his love for her. Having already escaped having an affair with Kjellin because his mother sent him off to Paris, she tells Heflin that the only way she’ll be able to love him is if he becomes a famous surgeon and operates on a club-footed young boy and wins the Legion of Honor. When he refuses, she takes her life in her own hands and determines to do what she wants despite the consequences. The faces of familiar character actors show up throughout the film. In the village where they live, Gene Lockhart plays the boorish pharmacist who believes he has a lot more refinement than he does, and the Bovary’s nursemaid is Ellen Corby. Harry Morgan puts in an appearance as the club-footed peasant that Heflin refuses to operate on, and George Zucco plays the lawyer that Alf Kjellin eventually works for.

Jennifer Jones does a nice job as the obsessed woman who can never attain the life she wants. The role was originally meant for Lana Turner but she was unable to work at that time and Jones stepped in. Van Heflin does the best he can in a supporting role, but the part gives him little to work with. Director Vincente Minnelli is also solid and the story very well filmed. The lighting in the interiors benefits from the skills of film noir cinematographers, and the moving camera during the ballroom scene is incredible as Jones and Jourdan circle faster and faster around the camera on the dance floor, a scene Minnelli described as one of his most difficult to shoot. The film score by Miklós Rózsa is appropriately sweeping, and at the moment when Jones decides to give herself to Jourdan, he uses a theme that he would rework for the Steve Martin comedy Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid over thirty years later. If there’s a down side it’s the voiceover and the scenes with James Mason, which seem an unnecessary and intrusive framing device. Ironically, this was meant to forestall the same type of outrage about the film that Flaubert’s novel received. Post-war conformity had already settled in and to the censors of the time a film like this seemed like something from the pre-code era. Madame Bovary is certainly a classic film of the studio period, and what it lacks in suspense, it certainly makes up for in glamour. It’s a solid MGM production that is definitely worth checking out.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Rocky (1976)

Director: John G. Avildsen                               Writer: Sylvester Stallone
Film Score: Bill Conte                                      Cinematography: James Crabe
Starring: Sylvester Stalone, Talia Shire, Burt Young and Carl Weathers

One of the powerful truths about this film is that you didn’t have to know or like anything about boxing in order to appreciate it. That’s one of the things that makes a film a classic. And as clichéd as Rocky may seem today, it was a vital piece of filmmaking back in 1976, and was recognized as such by the Motion Picture Academy by winning the award for best picture that year. But it’s no secret why the film was so popular, and that’s because it’s ultimately not a boxing film. It’s a love story. Director John G. Avildsen was a solid choice to direct the film, and in some ways his ability to stay out of the way artistically and let the story tell itself is one of the best parts of the film, and he was accordingly recognized with an Oscar of his own. The actors all do a tremendous job, especially Carl Weathers as the Ali-like champ that Stallone faces in the ring. Composer Bill Conte’s score is also one of the major contributors to the success of the film, especially his fanfare that opens the song, “Gonna Fly Now.” Stallone wrote the screenplay on spec, and had to beg the producers to allow him to star in the film. They relented, and as a result had a difficult time finding actors to fill out the rest of the cast. Though none of them were unknowns, they were mostly new faces to the screen--with the exception of Shire--and added even more realism to the production.

The film begins briefly with Conte’s fanfare, then opens on an exhausted Sylvester Stallone in a local Philadelphia boxing ring getting beaten by his opponent. But a dirty blow incites him into pummeling the man and winning a whopping forty-five dollars. The credits roll as he walks home, with white guys singing on the corner over a fire barrel. Stallone lives in a dump of an apartment, and has an affinity for animals. The next morning he stops to see a frumpy looking Talia Shire who works the counter at a pet shop and is abused by her boss, then he’s off to the docks working for mobster Joe Spinell collecting on debts and gets twenty bucks for his trouble and chewed out because he didn’t break the guy’s thumb like he was told. Then at the gym his trainer, Burgess Meredith, moves his gear out of his locker because he thinks Stallone is a loser. Despite his victory the night before, it hasn’t been a good day. Stallone is friends with Shire’s brother, Burt Young, and wants to know why she doesn’t like him. The scene then shift to boxing champ Carl Weathers. Even though his prizefight has been canceled he still wants to defend his belt, but no one wants to fight him. So he hits on the idea of fighting a local boy, and picks Stallone out of a book simply because of his nickname, “The Italian Stallion.” His trainer, Tony Burton, is worried because Stallone is left handed, but Weathers assures him he’ll knock him out in three rounds.

Just at the moment when Stallone is developing a relationship with Shire, he gets word through Weathers’ promoter that the champ wants to fight him. Suddenly everyone wants a piece of Stallone. Young wants to be a gopher, and Meredith comes sniffing around to be his manager. Stallone is angry at first because of the way he was treated by the old man, but then he relents and hires him. Training begins, and ends, with the centerpiece of the film, the iconic training run that concludes on the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, accompanied by Bill Conte’s rousing theme song. This is followed by the lengthy climax of the actual fight. Even in terms of mid-seventies filmmaking there’s a sense that the film is attempting to be more than it seems on paper. There’s also a grittiness Avildsen captures that would be almost impossible to replicate today without the forced artificiality of something like Gangs of New York, or the CGI cartoonishness of modern films like 300. Even though the street that Stallone lives on is on a sound stage, there is a reality to the real exteriors that is impressive. The other aspect of Stallone’s screenplay that doesn’t usually come in for praise is the humor he injects into his title character. It makes for an incredibly endearing film in so many ways, not the least of which is the relationship between Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire.

While many reviewers want to call the series a love story between the fighter and his trainer, that is not the emphasis of the first film. The original Rocky is a love story between a man and a woman, plain and simple. At the beginning of their relationship is a very clever section of the film where Stallone takes Shire out to an ice skating rink. It’s closed but he gives the guy ten bucks to let her skate for ten minutes. As the two of them are going around the rink he tells her all about his life as a kid and how he started boxing, and all the while the guy is shouting out how many minutes they have left as though the scene were in real time. The backstory gets filled out, their relationship starts, and some chemistry develops between the two, though that’s nothing compared to the love scene that follows in Stallone’s apartment. It’s one of the most intimate moments in film history. It’s little more than a kiss, but it almost makes the viewer embarrassed to be watching them. And there’s more. When Shire has a fight with a drunken Young, Shire decides she needs to move out and asks Stallone if he wants a roommate, to which he replies, “Absolutely.” And, of course, the final scene, when Stallone is swollen and bloodied is where they finally confess their love for each other. Like the rest of the film it’s real, and that’s what makes it great. Rocky has a lot of impressive layers, and is more than deserving of the Oscar it earned.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Unbroken (2014)

Director: Angelina Jolie                                    Writers: Joel & Ethan Coen
Film Score: Alexandre Desplat                         Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Starring: Jack O'Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund and Takamasa Ishihara

Every year at the Oscars it seems there is one film that, while seemingly poised to win a number of awards, is completely ignored. Thus was the fate of Unbroken. On the surface it seemed to have everything going for it. It was based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand about Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete who competed in the Berlin games of 1936 and then went on to fight in World War II, surviving despite all odds until the end of the war in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. The screenplay was written by, among others, the Coen Brothers, and was helmed by Angelina Jolie, at first blush not the most promising choice for director. But the fact is she has worked under a number of top directors, including Oliver Stone and Clint Eastwood, and this was not her first attempt at directing. Nevertheless, the film earned only three nominations in technical categories, two for sound and one for the tremendous work of cinematographer Roger Deakins. But upon the first viewing the problems are obvious. A reliance on CGI special effects as a way to save money renders, and a script with no soul, renders the entire film little more than a cartoon. It’s a shame, because the story of Zamperini is such a remarkable one, and yet the film fails to come anywhere close to realizing the war hero’s actual experiences.

The film begins with a squadron of planes flying across the dawn skyline on a bombing mission. After their run, the bomb doors on the plane won’t close and bombardier Jack O’Connell is send down to try to close them amid the bullets from the attacking Japanese fighter planes. Jai Courney and Domhnall Gleeson are the pilots, and though they have shot down all the enemy planes, theirs has been shot up as well and they may not make it back to their base. It’s then that O’Connell flashes back to his childhood, in church, a priest telling them that light and dark both come from God. His parents are Italian immigrants, they don’t speak English, and he is the bad kid in town, drinking, stealing and fighting with the other kids who call him a foreigner. His older brother, Alex Russell, seeing how fast he runs away from trouble, forces O’Connell into running track and by the time he’s a senior he breaks the national high school record for the mile and wins a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Back in the present the crew makes it to the island landing strip, and despite losing their breaks a flat tire enables them to land without crashing. O’Connell is still in training, hoping that there will be an Olympics in 1944. Next, they are sent on a rescue mission, but their plane loses two of its engines, and just as they are about to ditch O’Connell flashes back to the opening ceremonies in Berlin. Looking around the stadium as the torch is brought in, he makes eye contact with Takamasa Ishihara as one of the Japanese athletes. O’Connell finished eighth in the 5,000 meters, but had the fastest final lap ever recorded.

Back to the war, as the plane crash lands in the water, O’Connell becomes stuck under some equipment. Fortunately the plane breaks in half and the tail section where he’s stuck briefly rises above the water. After it goes down for the last time, however, he breaks free and swims to the surface. The pilot Gleeson and crewmember Finn Wittrock are the only others who survived. After nearly two months at sea, adrift in a lifeboat and losing Wittrock, the remaining two are finally rescued. Unfortunately, it isn’t by the Americans. O’Connell eventually winds up in a prison camp run by Ishihara, and the rest of the film recounts the privation and merciless systematic torture that O’Connell endures at the hands of the Japanese. It is easily the best part of the film, not only because of the incredible heroism that it displays, but also because of the realism that is achieved by the filmmakers. It was clear that Jolie was attempting to draw on her experience with Clint Eastwood in the film Changeling, but with so much reliance on computer generated effects throughout the whole film, the quality of the direction almost doesn’t matter. While it works on something like Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong, in war films like Pearl Harbor or Red Tails it is a glaring artificiality that the film can never recover from. Watch any random episode from the HBO series Band of Brothers or The Pacific and the deficiencies of Jolie’s project become abundantly clear.

In addition to the CGI, the most surprising deficiency is with the screenplay. Aside from the bantering between O’Connell and his fellow soldiers--which includes the attempts at keeping everyone sane on the life raft--there’s almost no dialogue. It’s actually astounding that nothing of consequence is discussed . . . by anyone. The result is a vacuous character study where it should have been engaging, a predictable plot where it should have been suspenseful, and a boring story where it should have been inspiring. The film is one that feels completely objective, as though one were reading it out of a school textbook, with all the emotion sapped out of it and left as a husk that contains nothing but facts and dates. And while the film was criticized by some for not paying more attention to Zamperini’s religious conversion, the time that is spent on it is horribly cliché, even it if was true. None of the leads--while they are all more than capable--stand out as delivering noteworthy performances, even O’Connell. Even the performance by Takamasa Ishihara seems flat, when normally villains are the easiest characters to play. Cinematographer Roger Deakins does some nice work, worthy of his Oscar nomination, and combined with Jolie they do as good a job as possible with the script they had to work with. But the computer effects and a massive post-production manipulation of the images didn’t do him any favors. While Unbroken should have been one of the great unknown stories of World War Two, it is ultimately a disappointment.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Mask of Dimitrios (1944)

Director: Jean Negulesco                                Writers: Frank Gruber
Film Score: Adolph Deutsch                            Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Starring: Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Zachary Scott and Faye Emerson

After the startling success of The Maltese Falcon--Dashiell Hammett’s story had been filmed twice before by the studio--Warner Brothers made the decision to team two of its most distinctive character actors, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, in a number of other suspense films. Some of them were successful, like Casablanca, but most of them were not. One thing is undeniable, however, the onscreen chemistry between the two actors, and in that regard any film with the two of them is worth seeking out. It turns out that when John Huston had made his pitch for The Maltese Falcon, director Jean Negulesco had already been tabbed for the project. Huston apologized and told him that Warners had an equally exciting story in Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios, which he would eventually make as The Mask of Dimitrios. Negulesco wanted name actors in his film, and in addition to newcomer Zachary Scott, he credited himself with the idea of teaming Greenstreet and Lorre. But while Negulesco said in an interview that the film would have been a bit boring without Lorre, he’s overstating things. It’s a bit boring even with the actor. He and screenwriter Frank Gruber had attempted to do what Huston had done, simply filming the novel, but there is a vast difference between the European thriller they inherited and the taut pre-noir detective novel that Huston stole from him.

The film opens on text that tells of the greed of Dimitrios, followed by a map of Istanbul. In rapid succession, children find the dead body of Dimitrios on the beach, military colonel Kurt Katch closes the case in a hurry saying that they’ll never know who killed him but whoever it was did them all a favor. From there the scene moves to a party at the home of Florence Bates, and the reason for Katch’s quick departure. He wants to meet mystery novelist Peter Lorre, and then asks him if he would be interested in a real murder. Lorre is interested and after taking a look at the body, the two head to his hotel room where Katch tells him Dimitrios’s story. It begins twenty years early with Zachary Scott as the title character. He needs to get out of town quickly, but doesn’t have the money. So he enlists one of his friends and kills a pawnbroker because he knows where he keeps his money. Katch then goes on to tell of a list of crimes that Scott committed, robbery, espionage and assassination, and the writer is hooked. Downstairs, however, Sydney Greenstreet shows up and is visibly upset by the news of Scott’s death. He tails Lorre to Athens, and then the two meet on the train from Athens to Bulgaria while Lorre is doing research for a book about Scott. In Sofia he meets Faye Emerson, a nightclub owner who knew Scott and was in love with him. But when Lorre gets back to his hotel room he finds Greenstreet inside, and the fat man pulls a gun on him.

Apparently Lorre has information about Scott that when, combined with what Greenstreet knows, will result in their earning a million French Francs when they get to Paris. Lorre is more amused than bemused by the whole thing, and agrees to Greenstreet’s plan, hearing more stories about Scott’s nefarious activities along the way. Reports have it that Lorre and Greenstreet spent a lot of their time on the set clowning around, and it shows in the film. Lorre in particular has a difficult time playing anything like fear. If the film has any merit today, however, it’s because of the two character actors. The reality is they needed a real star or two in their pictures to make them focus, allowing them to rise to the greatness of the supporting actors they really were. Cast as leads, however, they seem rudderless. There are also some wonderful appearances by other distinctive character actors. John Abbott plays the manager of the records bureau in Athens, and the great Eduardo Ciannelli plays a Bulgarian newspaper reporter who introduces Lorre to Emerson. But a wonderful surprise on the screen happens in a Yugoslavian government office when Lotte Palfi Andor suddenly appears in close up as a secretary. The film was made on the cheap, using existing sets, and it shows. Still, the lighting and shot selection is good, and the film has an interesting score by Adolph Deutsch. But while it’s called a forgotten noir gem by some critics . . . it’s really not. The Mask of Dimitrious is fun for the appearance of Greenstreet and Lorre, but little else.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Alan Rickman (1946-2016)

Like many Americans, the first time I really became aware of Alan Rickman was in his iconic role as the super-villain Hans Gruber in Die Hard. It seemed at the time as if he had come out of nowhere, which he essentially had. It was his first feature role after appearing in a few British television series. Even at that early stage in his career, however, his talent for acting was abundantly clear, especially his ability to straddle the line between villainy and comedy. The role couldn’t have been better suited for him. While he didn’t have an extensive career in films he did have many notable and well remembered roles, and he will be greatly missed. After Die Hard he went right into the star-studded The January Man, which didn’t get great reviews, and followed that with some more TV guest spots. His next big signature role was in the Tom Selleck cowboy picture Quigley Down Under, where he played an Australian rancher who wanted to be an American cowboy and winds up enemies with Selleck. He had the lead in the romantic comedy Truly, Madly, Deeply opposite the brilliant Juliet Stevenson, and then landed one of his most distinctive roles--good or bad depends on your taste--as the crazed Sheriff of Nottingham in Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. He really chews the scenery in that one, but within the context of the film and the time, it works.

A series of unremarkable films followed, including another staring role, this time in a biopic of early hypnotist Franz Anton Mesmer in Mesmer. Then came what I consider to be the greatest role of his career: Colonel Brandon in Emma Thompson’s version of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. While his more comedic and villainous roles demanded a certain amount energy from him, his portrayal of the love-struck lord called for exactly the opposite, an inner restraint that barely concealed his overwhelming desire for a woman who had absolutely no use for him. Even in a film loaded with stars, his performance stands out as essential to the film’s overall success. After a supporting role in the historical drama Michael Collins, he appeared in some very strange films, a staring turn in the HBO film Rasputin, the Damon-Afleck fantasy film Dogma, as well as a Spock-like comedy send up in Galaxy Quest, and the British romcom Blow Dry. What brought him attention to the wider world, however, was his next appearance in the series of Harry Potter films that instantly became a worldwide sensation. They weren’t films that I enjoyed, but he was very well cast as the enigmatic professor Severus Snape.

After the first of these films he gave a wonderful performance in a small, independent comedy called The Search for John Gissing, again displaying his tremendous comedic talents. He then worked as one of a large ensemble cast in another British romcom, Love Actually, and appeared in a couple of other historical films, a murder mystery called Perfume, and Tim Burton’s musical Sweeney Todd. One of my few disappointments in his film career was his appearance in the real-life story of a California winery that went on to win a wine tasting competition in France. Bottle Shock attempted to ride the coat tails of the success of Sideways, but simply lacked the kind of story and screenplay that Alexander Payne brought to his film. By this time, however, really good roles seemed to have passed him by and he was content to appear in smaller supporting parts and continue his ongoing presence in the Harry Potter films. Never the less, Alan Rickman, will always be one of my favorite actors. He was clearly well respected by all of those who worked with him and remains an irreplaceable element of every film he appeared in.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Diner (1982)

Director: Stuart Rosenberg                              Writer: Barry Levinson
Music: Bruce Brody                                          Cinematography: Peter Sova
Starring: Steve Guttenberg, Mickey Rourke, Daniel Stern and Kevin Bacon

His first directorial effort, Diner is a very nice slice of life, coming of age, historical piece by Barry Levinson. There were lots of these kinds of films being produced at the time beginning with George Lucas’s American Graffiti, and along with some dismal failures like John Sayles' Return of the Secaucus 7 there was also some excellent work like the early parts of Michal Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and especially the film Breaking Away. Levinson’s film is nominally a comedy, which means that it’s not trying to be funny but allows its characters to inject humor into the situations through their behaviors and conversation. The film was based on Levinson’s experience growing up in Baltimore as he and his friends gradually moved into adulthood. The film almost wasn’t released because executives at MGM didn’t really understand what the film was supposed to be doing. In many ways, this is the film that prefigures Seinfeld--a television show about nothing. What the film is actually about is the relationship between the characters, shown through their dialogue with each other. And while the film was only moderately successful at the time, it has gradually gained in critical and commercial notoriety through the years. Of course Levinson was nominated for an Academy Award that year for his screenplay--already his second such nomination at the time--and he would eventually win the Oscar for his direction of Rain Man.

The film begins at a Baltimore high school Christmas party in 1959 that is attended by a group of former graduates. Mickey Rourke is the soft-spoken ladies man, with ties to the mob and a vague desire to become a lawyer. Steve Guttenberg is a sports nut who is about to get married, provided his fiancée can pass a football test. Paul Reiser is the introspective intellectual who has a Jewish sensibility of never stating exactly what he wants, while Kevin Bacon is the rich, juvenile delinquent of the group. Daniel Stern, who is already married, is still part of the group though one wonders for how much longer, while Tim Daly has already graduated college and feels like the odd man out. The film centers on conversations that happen in the local Diner as the distinctions between the characters and the circumstances of their lives unfold in the process. In terms of plot, it’s fairly minimal. Guttenberg is afraid he may be settling down to early, especially when he sees Stern’s marriage to Ellen Barkin is not exactly wonderful because she doesn’t understand his obsession with records. Rourke is in over his head with gambling debts and Michael Tucker eventually has to bail him out. Bacon is an angry rich kid with no motivation other than vandalism. And Daly has come back to town early for the wedding because he has gotten one of his high school girl friends pregnant and he wants to convince her to marry him.

In The A List essay by Peter Rainer he calls the film a “minor miracle,” because of the way that it is simultaneously “thoroughly familiar and yet, because of its artistry and perception, seems totally fresh.” The word “totally” may be stretching things but it certainly does defy expectations by the restraint it shows, which seems the most captivating thing about the film today. Indeed, it is the surprises--that Guttenberg is a virgin, or that alky Kevin Bacon knows all of the answers on a college quiz show, or when Rourke doesn’t bed a willing Barkin to win a bet--not the genre expectations, that make the film so enjoyable. But perhaps that is the “perception” that Rainer is speaking of. One of the other elements of the film that Rainer rightly explains is the uneasy relationship between the sexes. But where he says that the women “feel excluded from the men’s lives without really wanting to take part in their rituals,” this is only a half truth, for there are moments that bespeak a genuine desire of the women to connect. One is the overt willingness of Guttenberg’s future wife to take the football test in the first place, and another is the more subtle opening that Barkin gives to Stern to enjoy the music with her rather than obsess over the minutia of the recordings themselves. Rainer is right on, however, in his final observation of the film, that it “reveals its people for who they are and also what they will become.” The beauty of Diner is, in fact, the sadness of the loss of vibrancy these characters once possessed as they go forward into a much more uncertain future.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Outside the Law (2010)

Director: Rachid Bouchareb                           Writer: Rachid Bouchareb
Film Score: Armand Amar                              Cinematography: Christophe Beaucarne
Starring: Jamel Debbouze, Roschdy Zem, Sami Bouajila and Bernard Blancan

For my annual January 1st screening of a French film I’ve chosen Outside the Law (Hors la loi) or literally translated, “Outlaws.” Though not a sequel in terms of story, this is the follow up to the artistically successful Indigènes (The Indigenous) from 2006--stupidly translated as Days of Glory--about racism against Algerian soldiers fighting with the French during World War Two. Both films star one of my favorite French actors, Jamel Debbouze, as well as Roschdy Zem and Sami Bouajila. This is a powerful film and, while there is a temptation to associate it with films like The Godfather or Once Upon a Time in America, but unlike those film which celebrate the illegal activities of their protagonists, Outside the Law is an historical film that emphasizes the sacrifice that the characters make, namely their lives, so that their country might finally gain its independence. As such, the final scenes are not celebratory as much as they are sobering in their depiction of the lengths to which the Algerians would go to gain their freedom from France. In so many ways the colonization of Algeria was a throwback to a pre-World War One ideal of imperialism that had already gone by the historical wayside. And this idea is not only demonstrated in the Algerian fight, but in the French loss of Vietnam-a conflict in which the U.S. incomprehensibly took over.

The film begins in Algeria in 1925, with Ahmed Benaissa being told to vacate his land because a French colonial has purchased it. Benaissa’s family has lived on the land for generations but, without a deed to the land, he is forced to leave. His three young sons witness the eviction and see the misery it has caused, and the oldest even has to leave school because his father can’t afford it now. Before they leave, though, he tells them that this is still their land. Next, the credits roll over French documentary footage of the end of World War Two and the German surrender, then shifts to Algeria the same day as the film resumes. Now that the Algerians have fought the Nazis, they want their freedom from France. The youngest of the three brothers, Jamel Debbouze, isn’t interested and simply wants to get back to his job of training young boxers. But French police have moved in and begin shooting the unarmed protesters in the street. One of the fallen is a young boy who dies in front of Roschdy Zem, Debbouze’s older brother. Once the Algerians begin shooting back, the French Army is called in with their machine guns and start slaughtering the protesters. By the time Debbouze makes his way home, his brother is taken prisoner and his father and sisters are all dead. Eight years later his oldest brother, Sami Bouajila, is in Vietman fighting for the French, Zem is still in prison, and Debbouze is left to take care of their mother.

One day a year later, in Algeria, Debbouze sees a young man shoot two French colonists in a street café and barely reacts. Immediately after, in a scene right out of The Godfather II, he goes to see the policeman who evicted his family from their land and sticks a knife in his belly, killing him where he sits to avenge his father’s death and humiliation. He then takes his mother with him to France where Zem has been in prison for ten years. Meanwhile Bouajila is in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp, but by 1956 he returns to France to find his mother and brother living in a shanty-town, Debbouze making money as a pimp, and Zem released from prison. While Debbouze wants to continue his criminal activities, as well as own a gym to train boxers, Bouajila and Zem team up to support the military resistance in Algeria by starting a resistance movement in France. It’s slow going at first, but after a few murders they begin winning Algerians to their side. Zem quickly becomes the leader of the movement in Paris, with Bouajila as his strongman. At the same time, however, the national police, led by Bernard Blancan, are trying to stop them, and end the terrorist attacks. The film continues on with the brothers’ illegal activities that eventually end in 1961, less than a year before the French government would grant Algeria their independence.

Writer-director Rachid Bouchareb is once again at the helm of the picture, as he was in Indigènes. His style is not flamboyant, and for good reason. There’s a lot of historical meaning behind these two films and he takes that responsibility seriously. While Jamel Debbouze was the driving force in the previous film, and even co-produced, it was Bouchareb who took the lead here, having done the research on the first one and feeling that there needed to be a conclusion that resulted in Algerian independence. Debbouze is solid, as usual, but it is Roschdy Zem and Sami Bouajila who dominate the screen in this production, all of them of Algerian descent. Zem is terrific as the dissident whose mother shames him into becoming the leader of the independence movement, while Bouajila is the war veteran who gives his mother the grandson she always wanted, but is afraid he’s lost his soul in the process. All of the period sets and costumes are extremely well done and, while somewhat claustrophobic in its inability to open up post-war Paris, is still incredibly impressive. What’s fascinating about the film is that the protagonists know that what they are doing is illegal, but compare themselves to the French resistance during the war to justify their actions. But the film doesn’t play on their oppression in a way that makes them the heroes. They fight because they are compelled to free their country, but it comes nowhere near to a Hollywood underdog story. In the end, Outside the Law (Hors la loi) is a tremendous piece of filmmaking, an important story told extremely well.