31 October 2005

October

2 notes to begin things: 1) Chet is writing the history of Superjock, here, and 2) "Jesus, etc." is going to be in an online magazine here as soon as they update the webpage. That is all.

anyway, the review:

films seen for first time:
(films in the top 100 list are indicated by italics)

Lost: season 1 (TV)
Six Feet Under: season 2 (TV)
The Cincinnati Kid
Proof
Good Night, And Good Luck
Elizabethtown
Detour
Jui kuen II
Umberto D.
Meet Me in St. Louis
The Awful Truth
Ninotchka
City Lights
Sherlock, Jr.
Out of the Past
Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie

books read:

Learning how to die (G. Kot)

film:

days spent filming: 0

illicit gambling:

hours played: 84.9
+/-: +$804.84
$$/hr: $9.48
limit hands played: ~14,000
bonus $$ earned: $400

writing:

essays published: 1 (Jesus, etc.)
100 films reviews: 12

the iTunes top 25:
  1. Angela|Bill Ricchini
  2. Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out)|The Hombres
  3. History of Lovers|Calexico & Iron and Wine
  4. What a Wonderful Man|My Morning Jacket
  5. Lay Low|My Morning Jacket
  6. She Don't Come Around Here Anymore|Bill Ricchini
  7. Crown of Love|Arcade Fire
  8. I Was Wrong|Badly Drawn Boy
  9. Jealous Guy|Jimmy Scott
  10. Song to Woody|Bob Dylan
  11. Lord Did You Hear Harrison?|Danielson Famile
  12. Needle in the Hay|Elliott Smith
  13. Casimir Pulaski Day|Sufjan Stevens
  14. California Stars|Wilco
  15. Ingrid Bergman|Billy Bragg
  16. Daughters Will Tune You|Danielson Famile
  17. Lovin Her Was Easier|Richard Buckner
  18. Believe I've Found|The Soundtrack of our Lives
  19. Burning in the Sun|Blue Merle
  20. A No-No|Danielson Famile
  21. Anytime|My Morning Jacket
  22. Friends in Low Places|Garth Brooks
  23. Softley and Tenderly Jesus is Calling|Robert Sean Leonard & Steve Zahn
  24. The Hook|Stephen Malkmus
  25. It's All Over Now, Baby Blue|Bob Dylan
that's that.

100 films: Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie












starring: Fernando Rey, Paul Frankeur, Delphine Seyrig, and Bulle Ogier
written by: Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière
directed by: Luis Buñuel
PG, 102 min, 1972, France


Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie, or the Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, is one of last great films from legendary surrealist director Luis Buñuel. It is, quite simply, a film about rich people eating, only they never eat. They gather numerous times, have drinks and pleasant conversation, and occasionally even get to sit down at an actual table, but there is always something to prevent them from partaking in a meal. Either the host is having sex in the garden with his wife, or the military has come by for maneuvers, or the whole thing is just a dream, or they just happen to be actors in a play, but it's always something. The essence of the film is that of unfinished business.

As they're getting ready to not eat, the characters discuss a range of issue, but stick largely to the political and economic realm. Rafael (Fernando Rey) is the Ambassador of a fictional Latin American country, and there's a number of questions that revolve around what appear to be the sensitive issues in that part of the world circa 1972. Generally speaking, such topics appear to be distasteful to him, but being the good diplomat, he presses on. What's strange is that virtually none of the discussions are anything else, save for a tutorial on how to mix a dry martini. When the Bourgeoisie talk amongst themselves, it's largely in a dignified sense; it takes the introduction of commoners (usually military men) to tell tales of their childhood or odd dreams they've had recently. Is Buñuel trying to tell us something about the class system? Probably, but to be honest, I'm not sure what that is. There's an excess of traffic noise throughout the film, either cars driving by where they wouldn't normally be heard, or planes overhead completely muffling a conversation beyond our ability to hear. So perhaps Buñuel is trying to make the connection between the conversation of the wealthy and a sort of white noise that's persistently empty of any real content. It's also interesting to note that sex is given the same treatment as eating. There are a couple of occasions where characters are about to have sex, but something always happens to prevent it, such as her husband droping by unexpectedly for a visit.

In nearly everything you'll ever read about Buñuel there's a mention of the time he spent with Salvador Dali, and with it the classification of Buñuel as a surrealist, which instantly brings to mind weird sequences, as if somehow the film is going to revolve around a melting clocks theme. Certainly the films are a bit confusing and occasionally just odd (at one point cockroaches fall out of a piano), but Buñuel's a more literal filmmaker than some are willing to give him credit for. Of course, there's still those moments that perplex us, but for the most part we know what's going on. Here, he's having a bit of fun with us, I think. It becomes apparent pretty early on that the group isn't going to be allowed to eat an actual meal, so we start looking for things that could interrupt them. In an early scene it's been established that the men have been using the diplomatic immunity of Rafael to smuggle cocaine into the country and that he has some sort of terrorist group after him, so the characters have the underlying fear that the next interruption could be their downfall. Even when it appears the law has caught up with them, they are quickly released and Buñuel's game continues. To keep us on our toes, he throws a couple of dream sequences at us, including the always popular dream-within-a-dream, and the clever reveal that the dinner invitation is not a dinner at all, as the wall is removed and they find themselves on stage, mortified as their lines are whispered to them from just off-stage. I hesitate to use the phrase "Kafka-esque", but we're certainly in that territory.

As we near the end, one of the characters casually mentions how starving he is, and Rafael tears into a midnight snack with gusto. And why wouldn't he? The poor man hasn't been able to eat a thing since the film started.

30 October 2005

100 films: His Girl Friday

friday

starring: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, and Abner Biberman
written by: Charles Lederer, based on the play by Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur
directed by: Howard Hawks
NR, 92 min, 1940, USA


Perhaps the fastest-paced comedy ever made, Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday is often credited with being the first film to use overlapping dialogue, but is best known for the machine-gun rapport between its two leads. Rosalind Russell stars as Hildy Johnson, ex-wife and former ace reporter of newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant), who's come back to inform him that she's marrying insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) and moving...to Albany. Burns uses every trick at his disposal to keep Bruce in and out of jail and Hildy on the story of a murderer scheduled to hang in the morning. This is one of the best comedies you'll ever see.

Although he is in retrospect listed as one of the elite directors in the history of cinema, Howard Hawks was largely ignored, or at the very least taken for granted, by his peers. His resume is one of the most prolific of all time, yet he was only nominated for one Oscar (for 1941's Sergeant York) and three Director's Guild Awards. According to the Internet Movie Database, the only major award he ever received was a Honorary Oscar in 1974. This is the man who started in silent films, directed the original Scarface (1932), had a career that spanned nearly fifty years, and did an uncredited rewrite on The French Connection (1971), but here he shows a deft comic touch. He encouraged his actors to ad-lib and improvise and set a frenetic pace to match the natural rhythms of both the dialogue and the newspaper world it reflected. The shots are simple, with very little editing--essential in preserving the fluidity of the scenes. The breakneck speed of the dialogue is enough to hold the audience, and the amount of editing required to film the conversations in anything other than a master shot would be distracting, so Hawks doesn't try to force anything. He's smart enough to put the camera on a tripod and let his actors go.

Of course, it helps to have Cary Grant at his devious best. He's a fast-talking, conniving, egotistical, selfish bastard and no one could have played it better. This is a role he was born to play. You don't trust him--you'd have to be foolish to--but you sure do like him a lot and he sure is convincing and in a position like that of newspaper editor, he's more than willing to throw his considerable weight in any direction necessary to get the story. That includes getting Bruce arrested three different times in the span of a couple of hours on trumped-up charges and hiding a convicted murderer in a desk for the sole purpose of scooping his rivals. Ralph Bellamy's Bruce is the polar opposite. He's a naive salesman from Albany. Clearly he hasn't a clue what's going on. He's continually flabbergasted when he ends up in jail. Between this and The Awful Truth (1937), we see how Hollywood has typecast Bellamy as a well-meaning hick, dependable and dull[1]. The film even makes sly mention of this when Cary Grant, in a moment of frustration says he "looks like that film actor, Ralph Bellamy". Rosalind Russell has the difficult task of going toe to toe with Grant, and she's more than up to it. She manages to strike that balance between the tough newspaperman and the compassionate female. It's a fine performance all-around. She understands this world of reporting--lives for it, actually--and while she's able to convince Bruce that she wants to settle down, and possibly even convinces herself for a time, her fellow reporters don't buy it, and neither do we. It's obvious this is where she belongs. One of the reporters lays 3-1 odds that the marriage won't last 3 months, but no one will take the bet. Nor would we. The only person who might is Bruce, but he's in jail for stealing a watch.

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[1] To his credit, Bellamy would later subvert this trend and show a great deal of range. He won the 1958 Tony Award for Best Dramatic Actor and worked steadily until 1990's Pretty Woman, his final film.

28 October 2005

100 films: Out of the Past

starring: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, and Paul Valentine

written by: Daniel Mainwaring, James M. Cain, and Frank Fenton, based on the novel by Mainwaring

directed by: Jacques Tourneur

NR, 97 min, 1947, USA

Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is a simple gas station owner who steals off to the lake for picnics with the love of his life, until a visit from his past reveals that his name is actually Jeff Markham, a former private eye on the run from prominent gambler Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). As he explains to his love on the all-night drive to Lake Tahoe, he was once hired to track down Sterling's former lover (Jane Greer), who had shot him 4 times and absconded to Mexico with a rumoured $40,000. He finds her, falls in love, and they live on the run for years. Sterling, of course, learns of all this in due time, and it is the threat to make good or pay the price that forces Markham to steal some incriminating evidence in order to make good. Things get worse from there.

Out of the Past is your typical film-noir (some would say a perfect noir example, but I hesitate to agree). It's all darkly lit and full of characters who smoke a lot, talk in sharp one-liners, and have a penchant for all kinds of treachery, but what seems to make Out of the Past stand out from your normal noir is just how cognisant Markham is of the machinery around him. At one point he mentions to the holder of the documents he's trying to get, "I think I'm in a frame" simply because he's been given a martini, and with it an opportunity to leave some fingerprints laying around. But what's odd is that he doesn't at that point (or at any point, for that matter) make even the slightest attempt to avoid leaving fingerprints. No gloves, no hankerchief to open a door, nothing. So he's either the dumbest noir hero in history or the smartest, depending on how you look at it. Does he know that no matter how many prints he leaves, it ultimately won't matter? That is, if he can't get out of the frame by other means he screwed? Or is it that his method of getting out of the frame will take him somewhere a manhunt won't find him? I'd like to think it's the latter.

The wild card in all the double-crossing is Kathie Moffat (Greer), the woman who Markham tracked down in Mexico. She spends a great deal of time casting herself as a pawn in this whole ordeal. Over and over she claims that she had no choice, that this was the only thing she could do in the situation, but as the film progresses she appears to have more and more control in the proceedings. Like everyone else in a noir, she's got secrets and hidden motives. She seems to be playing both sides without remorse. These are intelligent men she's manipulating, but I guess when you look like Jane Greer it's a lot easier to convince people you're on their side.

Watching a film like this, it can sometimes be difficult to figure out what's formulaic and what's the standard-bearer. Everyone seems surprised when Markham runs off with Moffat in Mexico, and the film certainly seems to think we should be surprised, but it was exactly what I expected to happen from the moment they met. Is that because the film is following the noir rules (after all, it certainly seems rare when they don't fall in love) or creating them? At the risk of being labeled a fool, I'm going to say Out of the Past is following the formula. 1947 isn't exactly the beginning of the noir movement. Detour (1945) had set up a scenario where it knows that we expect the lead actor to fall for the lead actress, but wisely chose not to, and the film is better for it. But Out of the Past does the expected right down the line. There are few real suprises, and most of them are crammed into the ambiguous ending. In terms of the craft involved in making the film, there's nothing to fault. The direction, acting, writing, and cinematography are all expertley executed, but at no time does the film ever jump out and grab you the way great films do. It's disappointing too, because you certainly expect it to.

27 October 2005

100 films: Sherlock, Jr.

sjbk33
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starring: Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, and Erwin Connelly
written by: Clyde Bruckman, Jean C. Havez, and Joseph A. Mitchell
directed by: Buster Keaton
NR, 44 min, 1924, USA


Buster Keaton stars here as a projectionist who wishes to be a detective and as a result is unable to perform adequately in either capacity. His detective skills are limited to the contents of his "How to be a Detective" manual, which his rival uses to frame Sherlock for stealing a watch. Unable to solve the case of the missing watch, Sherlock returns to the theatre heartbroken and falls asleep on the job. But while sleeping his dreams take over, and what dreams they are. He outwits the criminals, solves the case, wins the love of his girl, but this is nothing for Sherlock, Jr., the world's greatest detective.

The story is nice, but essentially this film is on the list for the dream sequence, the type of thing that makes you sit up and go, "I had no idea anyone did that in 1924." Keaton falls asleep and his dream alter ego wakes up in a double exposure. He goes down into the audience, where the characters in the film have been replaced with Sherlock's rival and love. Sherlock then walks into the picture. In a remarkable scene, considering the time, the surroundings change from steps to a bench to a hill in the desert to the African safari to the ocean to a snow bank, only Sherlock stays constant in the frame. So when he jumps into the ocean, the edit comes while he is mid-air and he ends up planted in the snow. The whole thing is seamless, and reportedly done with nothing more than surveying equipment and the naked eye.

From there he is thrust into a mystery fraught with peril. The criminals replace the 13 ball on the pool table with a replica bomb and our hero manages to clear the entire table without touching the 13, unaware of the impending danger. Oh, but is he? Could it be possible that a detective as great as Sherlock, Jr. has noticed the switch and is using the bomb to learn the identities of the crooks? The rest of the dream runs with a clockwork precision. He dives through a window and directly into a disguise. He rides the handlebars of a motorcycle for miles after the driver has fallen off, narrowly missing crash after crash. He rescues the girl, solves the case, and is declared a hero. Meanwhile, back in reality, the girl has done some basic detective work of her own and solved the case of the watch. It's fitting that a case so simple cannot be solved by Sherlock in real life, as he has not dedicated himself fully to either of his crafts. This, after all, is a detective who must consult a checklist that begins with the instruction to search everyone in the room, and is twarted when his rival deftly plants the evidence on the detective while he is reading.

None of this is important, though. The story exists solely as a reason for Keaton to risk his life for our entertainment. Do we wonder why three people were needed to write a silent film? Do we care that the dream sequence is beyond the suspension of disbelief? Of course not. It is breathtaking and years ahead of its time. That alone is more than enough.

100 films: City Lights

city_lights_foto
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starring: Charles Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Harry Myers, Allan Garcia, and Hank Mann
written and directed by: Charles Chaplin
NR, 87 min, 1931, USA


The 1930's were a watershed decade in the film history. The Jazz Singer had successfully merged sound with images, and the "talkies" were born. Suddenly, there was a new range of possibilities for this still-young medium--actors could talk and sing at liberty, a bustling crowd could sound like a bustling crowd, there were no more limitations. It was very exciting. That is, unless you were a silent film star worried about the transition. Numerous matinee idols found themselves out of work when their acting abilities no longer were effective under these new standards. It was, to put it lightly, rather risque if you were an established star. There was a lot to lose. And no one had as much to lose as Charles Chaplin, perhaps the biggest star in all of Hollywood. So expectations were understandably high for City Lights, his first film since the end of the silent era (and more so for his next film, Modern Times). But rather than having the iconic Tramp speak, Chaplin finds other ways to use sound in a film he subtitled "A Comedy Romance in Pantomine".[1]

Just to make the audience aware that he knows he can use sound if he wants to, Chaplin opens on a scene that seems to contain dialogue. A statue is unveiled, and who should be asleep under the sheet but the beloved Tramp? The removal of the sheet wakes him up and the various assembled dignitaries begin to yell at him for his transgression, but what comes out of their mouth isn't so much language as it is a type of humming, buzzing gibberish. Think of it as a cross between a hive of bees and the adults in the Peanuts cartoons. While slightly distracting, it's clever in a Andy Kaufman sort of way. Somehow, I imagine Chaplin got a great amount of joy from filling the first few minutes of his first talkie with gibberish. If you listen closely, you can almost hear him laughing in the back of the theatre. Later, after the Tramp accidentally swallows a whistle, he comes down with a case of the hiccups. Every hiccup brings another shriek from somewhere in his windpipe, and since it seems to be bothering everyone else in the party, he goes outside, where he immediately attracts a pack of dogs.

Chaplin's films often revolve around the plot of the Tramp somehow getting the girl, and City Lights is no different. On a maneuver around a police officer, the Tramp runs into a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) and is instantly, completely in love the way you can only fall in love in the movies. Since she can't see him, she has no idea he is just a tramp, so when their paths cross again and the Tramp is borrowing the car of a millionaire, she assumes he is the millionaire.[2] He maintains the charade long enough to provide her with enough money to cover her back rent and pay for a miraculous new surgery to cure blindness, but the police mistake him for a thief and he is arrested. It is, at the very least, a tragic tale.

Chaplin is known mostly for his unique blend of physical comedy. Take an early scene as an example. We are watching from inside a store as the Tramp admires a storefront display from the sidewalk. He has walked past a danger sign unaware and is standing directly in front of some sort of platform that is lowered down below the street and stops when it comes even with the sidewalk. The Tramp paces the sidewalk in rhythm with the platform. He walks forward as it lowers, then backs up just to the edge--hovering there just long enough for the platform to come even with the street before finally stepping back. He does this a couple of times, never falling down the hole, but rather he's standing on the platform when it makes a descent, much to his alarm. This all happens in one continuous shot. A lesser director would have shot it from several different angles, chopped it up, and finally had the Tramp fall down the hole. But Chaplin treats it as a high-wire act. Part of what makes it so breathtaking is the fact that we see the whole thing, unedited. Much in the same way that Hitchcock gave his audience more information than he gave the characters to heighten the suspense, Chaplin puts the Tramp in a situation where we know that surely he'll fall and we hold our breath, hoping he realizes just how close he is to danger. In these uncut routines (and especially in the boxing match), Chaplin treats his comedy like a ballet--the Tramp is dancing with danger (or the other fighter and the official), if you will. And the beauty of that dance is what keeps the Tramp beloved nearly a century later, perhaps more than the hat, the mustache, and the funny walk combined.

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[1] He does this again in Modern Times when the Tramp is expected to speak but, instead, sings.

[2] He has saved the millionaire's life, you see. He was going to kill himself, but the Tramp talked him out of it. Or, more accurately, he managed to put himself in the peril the millionaire had designated as his method of suicide and the millionaire felt compelled to save him.

25 October 2005

100 films: Citizen Kane


starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, and Everett Sloane
written by: Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles
directed by: Orson Welles
PG, 119 min, 1941, USA



Orson Welles parlayed the success of his War of the Worlds broadcast into an unprecedented film deal that gave him complete artistic control over two films. Citizen Kane, based largely on the life of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, was the first film produced under this deal (The Magnificent Ambersons would be the second). Upon it's release, Hearst spent a considerable amount of his influence to bury the film. It was a box office flop and won only one of the nine Academy Awards it was nominated for (Original Screenplay), but survived to be universally considered one of the greatest films of all time.

Citizen Kane is essentially an biopic of epic scope told masterly on a modest budget. It's a classic example of necessity being the mother of invention. Welles didn't have the resources available to tell this story in a traditional Hollywood fashion (at least, not with the artistic control he demanded), but what he did have was access to the RKO vaults and a background in radio that taught him how to make something very small seem very big. Take for example three scenes where we see a large crowd of extras. The first, a speech in the street where Kane is denounced as a fascist, is essentially stock footage intercut with a low shot of a man on a soapbox. The second, Kane's rousing campaign speech, is a matte drawing of an audience with a live Kane the center. The third, an opera debut, shows us a flood of spotlights from the back of the stage and cuts to reaction shots of various members in the audience. Over the course of the film, we see newsreel footage, rear projection shots stolen from other films, numerous matte drawings of large buildings, and several large, empty rooms further enhanced by cinematographer Gregg Toland's revolutionary use of "deep focus", a technique that keeps the entire frame in focus. It feels as if we've been around the world a couple times over, when in reality we've been to some RKO soundstages and through their archives.

A common complaint about the film is that we feel no connection to the character of Charles Foster Kane, but I think that's partly a product of changes in American history more than a fault of the film. Larger-than-life Americans such as Kane were much more common in the days before the Great Depression and a film of their exploits made a lot more sense to the viewing public in the 1940's than it does today. Secondly, I don't think Kane was a character we are supposed to feel sympathetic toward. Remember that the only time we really see Kane other than his death is in the newsreel footage shown at the beginning. Everything else comes second-hand from those who knew him well--a collection of their memories, if you will. But even they admit readily that they didn't know him nearly as well as they thought they should. Kane was a character who always kept people at an arm's length, so why are we surprised when the character we see in his story is somewhat distant? Essentially, we see different versions of the same man, but do we ever really see the true Charles Foster Kane? I think we might when we see him as a boy with his sled, but once he leaves Colorado he becomes something of an enigma.

Does this hurt our pure enjoyment of the film? Yes, but Citizen Kane was never intended to be viewed as sheer entertainment. So it seems a bit slow to us at first because there are no explosions or car chases, I guess, but the scene where he trashes his wife's room after she leaves him grabs your attention as well as any chase scene. And if no one's told you yet the meaning of "Rosebud", the mystery alone is compelling, but not as compelling as the larger mystery around this man who would be king. He is, as the reporter points out, a jigsaw puzzle that's never finished.

In the end, this is a film that demands multiple viewings; it is too complex to fully digest the first time around. It deserves every inch of its reputation.

24 October 2005

100 films: Ninotchka

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starring: Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire, and Alexander Granach
written by: Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder & Walter Reisch, based on the story by Melchior Lengyel
directed by: Ernst Lubitsch
NR, 110 min, 1939, USA


When three Russian emissaries sent to Paris to sell jewels are dazzled by the evils of capitalism, it is up to humorless Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) to ensure the Russian people and the socialist ideals are not abandoned and that the jewels are not held up in court by their former owner, the Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire), who lost the jewels during the revolution. Her faithful friend Count Leon d'Algout (Melvyn Douglas) makes it his goal to seduce Ninotchka, or at very least get her to smile.

While the US and the Soviet Union were still allies in 1939, this era between the two World Wars marks the beginning of Hollywood's war against the communist way of life. The filmmakers present a stark contrast between a dreary, oppressive Russia and a carefree, beautiful Paris, where one can live life without a care. Partly for security reasons, and partly because they are bad communists, the three emissaries rent the royal suite in the largest hotel in Paris, while back in Moscow they must live in cramped quarters, sharing a small room with several other people, constantly living with the fear of being reported and sent to Siberia. But in Paris, they can have grand parties in the royal suite with bottles and bottles of champagne. Ninotchka, upon her arrival, puts an end to all happiness. She inspects the Eiffel Tower from a technical standpoint, and when told that the tower is only used by desperate Parisians as a place to jump, she asks how long it takes them to land. When the Count does get her to laugh, it destroys her entire facade, and with it the majority of her ideals. To the filmmakers communism is not only an economic system, but a suppression of happiness. It is impossible to be a communist and truly be alive. Never-mind that this is obviously untrue, or at very least a cruel statement to make about any ideology. The film is capitalist propaganda of the most effective kind, and makes no apologies for that fact. Hitler was doing the exact same thing in Germany, only without the beauty of Greta Garbo to make the argument for him.

Before a single line of dialogue was written, came the tagline "Garbo laughs". The writing team, headlined by Billy Wilder, was given the job of coming up with a screenplay that would support that tagline, and they did a fantastic job. The script is just brimming with political jabs in both directions and stands easily with some of Wilder's best work. Garbo had never before done comedy, but here she does a masterful job. She maintains a perfect poker face until the point she laughs, but from that point on cannot for more than a few seconds without at least a hint of mirth. When she falls in love with the Count, she does so completely. Her performance earned her a fourth Academy Award nomination, and probably would have won had she not been against Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara (Gone with the Wind).

23 October 2005

100 films: The Awful Truth

starring: Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Ralph Bellamy, and Cecil Cunningham
written by: Vina Delmar, based on the play by Arthur Richman
directed by: Leo McCarey
NR, 91 min, 1937, USA

"Well, let's drink to our future. Here's hoping you and Barbara will be very happy, which I doubt very much"

"No, let's drink to your happiness with Buffalo Bill, which doesn't even make sense."

A slight misunderstanding, based largely in truth, leads to the divorce of Lucy and Jerry Warriner (Irene Dunne and Cary Grant), but Jerry retains joint custody of the dog, Mr. Smith. On his court-ordered visitation day he learns of a budding romance with Oklahoma oil magnate Dan Leeson (Ralph Bellamy) and naturally makes it his goal to undermine the impending marriage. She, in turn, does the same to him and in the process they rediscover how they fell for each other in the first place.

It's awfully hard to dislike a screwball Cary Grant comedy and The Awful Truth is no exception. Ralph Bellamy gives a great performance as the rival suitor who has no idea just how far out of his element he really is, and Leo McCarey won an Oscar for his direction, but this is clearly Cary Grant's film. The rapport he shares with Irene Dunne is the foundation upon which the whole thing relies. If there ever was a love/hate relationship, this would serve as the template.

Cary Grant always struck me as the kind of actor who you could just put in front of a camera and let it run, trusting that he'd be able to keep the attention of the audience just by the sheer force of his charisma. Irene Dunne had a similar talent, but in a much more understated way. It takes her a bit to really get going, but once she hits her stride, she owns the screen. There are moments where you even forget Cary Grant's there. In the history of film there are precious few actresses who could accomplish that seemingly small feat, but she does it. Impressive indeed.

22 October 2005

100 films: Meet Me in St. Louis

starring: Judy Garland, Tom Drake, Mary Astor, and Lucille Bremer
written by: Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe, from the novel by Sally Benson
directed by: Vincente Minnelli
NR, 113 min, 1944, USA

A grand old MGM musical, Meet Me In St. Louis is best known for its rousing musical numbers, vivid use of Technicolor, and one of Judy Garland's better performances. She plays Esther Smith, who would very much like to be on better terms with her new neighbor John Truett (Tom Drake). Her older sister Rose (Lucille Bremer) is likewise hoping for a proposal, but their father is threatening to ruin everything by moving the family to New York City. It all looks hopeless.

As is expected from musicals of this era, the plot and dialogue are just minor annoyances that bridge the gap from one musical number to the next. I don't pretend to know which songs are original to the film and which are recycled, but "the Trolley Song" ("Clang! Clang! Clang! Goes the trolley!") was nominated for an Oscar and "The Boy Next Door" and "Meet Me In St. Louis" certainly seem like they were written for the film, so on those alone, the original music is memorable.

Eveything seems vintage and crisp and orderly until somewhere in the middle, when the plot (such as it is) detours into some odd Halloween business involving the youngest daughter Tootie, which serves no real purpose in the film. There's no singing, no dancing, and no hope of a proposal. Instead, we have a bunch of children plotting around a bonfire. To me, it feels as if the scenes (and perhaps the character) were included to placate the author of the novel (Sally Benson), on whom the character is based. It is certainly an odd choice to include it for any other reason.

21 October 2005

100 films: Umberto D.

starring: Carlo Battisti, Maria-Pia Casilio, Lina Gennari, Ileana Simova, and Elena Rea

written by: Cesare Zavattini and Vittorio De Sica


directed by: Vittorio De Sica

NR, 91 min, 1952, Italy


A simple love story between an old man and his dog, Umberto D. was controversial upon its release in Italy, panned by several critics, and shelved for a time in various places, but in the end it survived to get an Oscar nomination and become one of De Sica's best loved films.

It took a nationwide search of bread lines and pensioners to find Carlo Battisti, who turns in an amazing performance in this, his only film. Battisti manages to find the inner sorrow necessary for the role of Umberto Domenico Ferrari, a public works employee of 30 years who's pension is insufficent to provide for him and his dog and is facing eviction. Maria-Pia Casilio, another non-actor, plays the sympathetic maid who befriends Umberto and is hiding a pregnancy from the landlady so she can keep her job. Both give performances that far exceed any expectations of anyone with their lack of experience.

Umberto is trying to raise the money for his back rent, but is unwilling to outright beg for charity. He's unable to sell what little dignity he has left. However, his watch and prized books are sold at a fraction of their worth, and it's clear as he's forced to lower his asking price that this is the last hope for a man trying to stay afloat. Through it all, he has his dog Filke for comfort, but when he disappears while Umberto's in the hospital, we see the seeds of panic in his eyes and the absolute relief when Filke is recovered.

There isn't much of note in the direction and camera work. Much like Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage, De Sica knows that for the film to work, we must focus on Umberto, so he allows us to do just that while reminding us just how powerless he really is. There's nothing left for Umberto; he hasn't a chance in the world. All he has is a devoted dog, and sometimes that's all you need.

19 October 2005

100 films: Detour

starring: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, and Edmund MacDonald
written by: Martin Goldsmith, based on his novel
directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer
NR, 67 min, 1945, USA


"Ever done any hitchhiking? It's not much fun, believe me. Oh yeah, I know all about how it's an education, and how you get to meet a lot of people, and all that. But me, from now on I'll take my education in college, or in PS-62, or I'll send $1.98 in stamps for ten easy lessons."

Yeah, it's one of those films.

The studio didn't give the cast and crew of Detour a lot of money to work with, but they made use of every penny. Al Roberts (Tom Neal) narrates the film from a diner in Nevada, where he's clearly just been through a tough time, and his narration is quick, efficient, and brimming with lines like the one above. The lights in the diner are dimmed and focus on Roberts' eyes in that classic noir shot as he tells of how a New York piano player hitchhikes his way to Los Angeles to find his girl, but gets unwittingly caught in a web of murder and lies.

It's a sad story, really. All Roberts wants is to marry his gal, but circumstances take over, and in the end he's resigned to his fate and has given up on love, life, and everything in between.

Part of what makes the film work so well, despite the low budget, is how director Edgar G. Ulmer moves the action along at such a quick pace that we aren't given a chance to see the duct tape holding everything together. He knows he's got a solid cast, a compelling story, and a tight (if not cliche-filled) script, so he cuts all the filler that might slow the production down and just lets the story take over. This might not have been possible had the studio taken more interest in the film, or insisted on casting a name in the lead role, or given Ulmer more than 5 days to shoot the whole film. Ulmer, though, knows how to turn a liability into a strength, and in doing so, ends up with the best film of his career. In a lot of ways, Detour serves as a forerunner to some of the recent indie explosion, especially when you consider that nearly all indie films have more than $30,000 to spend.

17 October 2005

100 films: Jui kuen II

starring: Jackie Chan, Lung Ti, Anita Mui, Felix Wong, and Chia-Liang Liu
written by: Edward Tang & Man-Ming Tong & Kai-Chi Yun
directed by:
Chia-Liang Liu
R, 99 min, 1994, Hong Kong

Released in the US under the title Legend of the Drunken Master (i.e. Drunken Master 2), Jui kuen II is the sequel to Jui kuen (1978), the film that made Jackie Chan a star. Chan plays Wong Fei-hung, a master in the discipline of drunken boxing, a form of karate that uses alcohol to losen the body and raise the pain threshold. When the British ambassador begins to steal priceless artifacts, Fei-hung is pressed into duty against his father's wishes.

The copy I saw was unfortunately dubbed, with Chan doing his own voice, but other than that annoyance there's little to dislike. There's a substantial amount of wide-angle lenses used in close quartered fight scenes, but that's probably a technical cheat more than an artistic choice. This is clearly Jackie Chan at the peak of his fight choreography, but what makes the film really stand out is the attention to characters and narrative themes that films of this genre usually lack. At the same time though, the storylines wisely never get in the way of the fighting, but manage to walk that fine line between supplimenting without distracting.

As you'd expect from a kung-fu film, there is the requisite army of bad guys that attack one at a time and elaborate fights that occur for what seems to be no good reason, but the fight choreography is stunning and Chan turns in one of his best performances, especially when fighting drunk. The tension between father and son is well done, and the film continues in the Chan tradition of using humor to suppliment the fighting.

In short: While this is the best of Jackie Chan's films, I don't know if it warrants inclusion over Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

06 October 2005

the 100 films project

the way i see it there are 3 ways to approach this task, which is just a precursor to watching all 1000 of the films on the NY Times list.

1. The Completist Method. you watch every single film on the list in some pre-determined order, such as alphabetical or chronological (which would be ideal), so that you can be completely sure you've seen all 100. this refreshes your memory of the ones you've previously seen. of course, there is the problem of not being able to track down the films that have yet to be released on DVD.

2. The Not-So-Completist Method. working under the theory that certain films do not necessarily need to be seen again in order to achieve the goal, the viewer is given a pass on certain films they've seen numerous times already. for example, i have a standing tradition of watching the Godfather every year on Thanksgiving. it's then safe to say i can skip those in the list.

3. The Rational Easy Way Out Method. you watch the ones you haven't seen, taking care of include any film you're not positive you've seen in its entirety. this begs the obvious question: just because you watched it when you were 8, does that mean you've really seen "Pinnochio"?

04 October 2005

films, films, and more films....

ok, so here's how the Time list breaks down (i'm going to watch the entire time list on the assumption that they're all in the NY Times list as well, then start on that one. it makes it seem more manageable)

I've definitely, without a doubt, seen 32 of them already: Barry Lyndon, Bonnie and Clyde, Brazil, Casablanca, Chinatown, Citizen Kane, City of God, The Decalogue (i'm thrilled this is on there), Double Indemnity, Dr. Strangelove, E.T., 8 1/2, The 400 Blows, Finding Nemo, The Godfather, Goodfellas, A Hard Day's Night, His Girl Friday, It's a Wonderful Life, LOTR, The Manchurian Candidate, Notorious, On the Waterfront, Pinocchio, Pulp Fiction, Raging Bull, Some Like It Hot, Star Wars, A Streetcar Named Desire, Talk to Her, Taxi Driver, Unforgiven

There are 13 that, for some reason, I can't be sure I've seen all the way through: Blade Runner, Charade, Drunken Master II, Farewell My Concubine, The Fly, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Lawrence of Arabia, Miller's Crossing, Psycho (i've seen the remake, but can't be sure i've seen the original, which seems odd considering how many Hitchcock films i've seen), The Purple Rose of Cairo, Schindler's List (i know, i know), Singin' in the Rain, Umberto D.

that leaves 55 I haven't seen at all.

i've seen 191 of the NY Times list

03 October 2005

read a book, moron!

if you had to come up with a reading list for someone, my guess is you could do a lot worse than this one: The 100 most frequently challenged books (1990-2000)

it's kind of shocking that Roald Dahl has more entries than Brett Easton Ellis or Stephen King.

the two oddest enties? Where's Waldo? (???) and How to Eat Fried Worms. can you imagine the damage to our society if more children ate worms and searched dilligently for men in funny hats? (actually, on second thought...)

sadly, i've only read 10 of the 100. i do better on the controversial movies lists.

...ok, a quick edit...i've decided right now that i'm going to watch every film on one of those "greatest films of all-time" lists....so which one? the options:

Time
AFI
NY Times (1000, so would obviously take longer)
or none of the above...

who's with me?

01 October 2005

September: a month I survived.

isn't that ultimately our goal? anyway, let's see how we did, shall we?

films seen for the first time:

The Constant Gardener
Broken Flowers
Arrested Development: Season 2 (TV)
The Brothers Grimm
Curb Your Enthusiasm: Season 2 (TV)
Super Size Me
Saraband
Just Like Heaven
My Favorite Year
The Sting
Last Orders

books read:

Positively Fifth Street (J. McManus)
Me Talk Pretty One Day (D. Sedaris)

film:

days spent filming: 0
editing projects started: 0
editing projects nearly done: 2
films submitted: 1

illicit gambling:

a little better, but not as good as it looks, as i had a session go into the wee hours of Oct 1 where i was down roughly $100, so that, for some reason, counts for October.

hours played: 112.5
+/-: +$1069.66
$$/hr: $9.51
limit hands played: ~ 11,000
tourneys played: 38
tourneys cashed: 10
final tables: 3

for october, i'm cutting back drastically on tourneys, as they drain my hourly rate.

writing:

essays written: 1
episodes outlined: 4

misc...

combined record of fantasy football teams: 6-0
cool chairs purchased: 1
plays attended: 3
consecutive days eating fruit: 3

the iTunes top 25:
  1. Exodus Damage (John Vanderslice)
  2. Jealous Guy (Jimmy Scott)
  3. Casimir Pulaski Day (Sufjan Stevens)
  4. Promising (Wilco)
  5. Moonshadow (Cat Stevens)
  6. Portland, Oregon (Loretta Lynn)
  7. Softley and Tenderley Jesus is Calling (Robert Sean Leonard & Steve Zahn)
  8. Trouble (Ray LaMontagne)
  9. Soul Suckers (Amos Lee)
  10. Sideways (Citizen Cope)
  11. Black Cowboys (Bruce Springsteen)
  12. In My Own Mind (Lyle Lovett)
  13. Such Great Heights (the Postal Service)
  14. Blue Skies (Willie Nelson)
  15. Wake Up (Arcade Fire)
  16. She Don't Come Around Here Anymore (Bill Ricchini)
  17. Counter Spark (Sondre Lerche)
  18. Dear Employer (The Minus 5)
  19. My Baby Just Cares for Me (Nina Simone)
  20. Just Can't Fall in Love (Bill Ricchini)
  21. Cutest Lil' Dragon (Danielson Famile)
  22. Flint (Sufjan Stevens)
  23. Pre-Present (Thee More Shallows)
  24. Clark Gable (the Postal Service)
  25. Une Annee Sans Lumiere (Arcade Fire)
that's all
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