30 December 2005

The Top 10 Project

Yours truly has been added to the Top 10 Project being done by The Cinematheque. You can follow the link to find me, but I'll save you some trouble and post my list here:

1. Dekalog (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1989)
2. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
3. Scenes From a Marriage (Ingmar Bergman, 1973)
4. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
5. The Godfather, Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
6. Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
7. Les Enfants du Paradis (Marcel Carne, 1945)
8. Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
9. Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)
10. The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967)

Once I finish watching this stack of DVDs Netflix just sent me, I'll post my Best of 2005 list.

29 December 2005

100 films: Midnight Cowboy

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starring: Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman, Sylvia Miles, and Barnard Hughes
written by: Waldo Salt, from the novel by James Leo Herlihy
directed by: John Schlesinger
X, 113 min, 1969, USA

The only X-rated film[1] ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture[2], John Schlesinger's poignant Midnight Cowboy stars Jon Voight as Joe Buck, a wannabe cowboy and male prostitute from Texas who's come to New York City to make his fortune. His sales pitch, if you can call it that, is "I ain't a f'real cowboy. But I am one helluva stud!" Problem is he's a pretty bad businessman. His first attempt results in giving the woman $20 and his second--allowing a young Bob Balaban to give him a blow job in a movie theatre--doesn't make him any money either. Enter "Ratso" Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a sleazy degenerate who offers to manage him, but ends up conning him. After Buck hunts Rizzo down, they slowly form a friendship based largely on co-dependence as Buck tries to help a dying Rizzo get down to Florida.

Visually and narratively Midnight Cowboy operates from the same film DNA as Easy Rider and a host of other films from the auteur era. Schlesinger employs flashbacks both to fill in Buck's tortured backstory and provide a venue for Rizzo's delusions of grandeur. He even cuts occasionally to black and white to tell certain horrible parts of Buck's history. They filmed on real New York streets will real pedestrians, so when Dustin Hoffman gives his famous line, "I'm walking here! I'm walking here!" after a cab almost hits him, it's actually Hoffman improvising to a real cab driver who's driven into the shot. It isn't entirely out of the question to assume they filmed in a real condemned building. The film has that sort of feel. And it works in every way. For Buck to get so quickly as easily beaten by the city, it has to look like a real menace and there's no other way to do it. You can't mimic that sort of thing with extras and cranes and fifteen production assistants running around. You have to get a cameraman and a small crew and just shoot it like some French New Wave film.

Contrast this with the opening scenes in Texas centered around a proud, optimistic Joe Buck. He has all the confidence in the world and why wouldn't he? He's good looking, young, and apparently a great lover. The sky is always blue and it's always a beautiful day. Nothing, it seems, will prevent him from being the toast of New York. Jon Voight, in his breakout role, plays him as a man who can have any woman he wants, all he has to do is tip his hat and flash his big smile and they'll come running. But in New York, he finds his success rate is much, much lower. Cowboys aren't in high demand outside of the gay community and big smiles are easy to come by. So slowly his smile loses some luster, his clothes get a little ratty, he starts to smell. His confidence gets low enough that when he finally does score at a Factory party[3] he suffers a temporary bout of erectile disfunction[4].

He gets $20 for his time, though, thanks to Rizzo's negotiating. When Buck tracks down Rizzo to get his money back from the early con, he demands repayment in management services. Rizzo offers to let him stay in his condemned apartment, where Buck wisely keeps one eye on his few possessions. Eventually they form a fast friendship, teaming up to steal small items from the neighborhood. Hoffman plays Rizzo as a limping slimeball who knows all the angles, but there's a part of him that just needs to be needed, so he takes Buck under his wing, as it were, and Buck begins to worry about Rizzo's declining health. Hoffman's performance is easily the best in the film and perhaps the best of his storied career[5].

Eventually Buck makes a big enough score to get his close friend on a bus to Florida, but after a New York winter in a building with no heat, it appears to be too late for anything but miracles. For the duration of the trip this self-proclaimed hustler looks after his sleazy friend the way a mother would look after a sick child. What began as a friendship of convenience has developed into a lasting love between two men who would be completely lost without each other. At the last stop before their destination, Buck gets out to buy Rizzo a change of clothes and in the process abandons the cowboy outfit, boots and all, shoving them into a trash can. He remarks to Rizzo that maybe he'll get a real job in Florida; there's got to be an easier way to make some money. Rizzo then quietly passes away and Buck puts his arm around him, holding him up as if to say this is his friend and he's proud to say he loves him. Joe Buck, who used to be one helluva stud, is now one helluva changed man. A real man.

[1] The film was released in 1969 during a small window of time after the onset of film ratings and before the X rating was dominated by the porn industry and subsequently abandoned by Hollywood. The film has since been re-classified without undergoing any changes. It was given an M rating (Mature) in 1971, which later became R. But, for the sake of authenticity, we list it here as X.

[2] It ended up with 3 Oscars (Picture, Director, and Screenplay) against 7 nominations (Hoffman and Voight in the Best Actor in a Leading Role category, Sylvia Miles for Supporting Acress, and Hugh Robertson for Editing).

[3] Andy Warhol was supposed to make an appearance in the film, but was killed prior to filming. The rest of the scene remained as planned, so you can pretty much figure out what the party was like.

[4] Never good in that line of work, especially if you're starting out.

[5] The Muppets, if I remember correctly, named a rat after his character. It is a fitting likeness.

Note: This is not in the original list (which I've been sticking to), but I just saw it for the first time and it fits the criteria of the extended list.

26 December 2005

current cinema: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe


starring: Georgie Henley, Tilda Swinton, James McAvoy, and Jim Broadbent
written by: Ann Peacock and Andrew Adamson and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, from the novel by C.S. Lewis
directed by: Andrew Adamson
PG, 140 min, 2005, USA

C.S. Lewis, that iconic pipe-smoking professor and friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, found his magical universe not in some mythical place that suggests a time long ago, but rather in an unused spare room containing nothing but an old wardrobe full of fur coats. The premise, if you've been locked away without any contact with the outside world, is simply that a young child can find in the back of a wardrobe an entire world where it is always winter and never Christmas and where fauns and beavers live under fear of an oppressive regime personified in a White Witch (Tilda Swinton) and where a gentle lion can save the day. It is, to be sure, an idea filled with magic and whimsy, at the same time adorable and foreboding. The novels, full of wonder, are beloved classics, but will the same be said of the film adaptations? It may just depend on the worldview of who you ask.

It is no small mystery that the books exist primarily as a Judeo-Christian allegory, with Aslan filling in for Christ as he sacrifices himself and rises again. The Biblical imagery is all over the place. The White Which is likely Satan, hell-bent on devouring all of Narnia. So far she's done a good job, but when Aslan begins to make his promised return, her grip loosens and the lion wins the day. The film adaptation, released by Disney, retains all of the allegory (even adding some) while cleaning up the books for a PG rating. One of Lewis' themes was that good characters smoke pipes and bad characters do not, but under the Disney flag the only character who smokes is the Professor (Jim Broadbent). I'm guessing this is a change to reflect the changes in public opinion toward smoking, but the film is a period piece and suffers from any attempts to make it easier to show to children.

If we're going to be honest with ourselves, the ceiling on a film that relies primarily on allegory and is released with a PG rating by Disney is only so high. This cannot, due to those limitations, enter the upper echeleon of cinema. Allegory can only go so far and the Disney brand doesn't allow it to reach its full potential. But, with that in mind, the film is better than you would expect it to be...for the most part. A needless scene is added to the beginning of the film, and the ending feels rushed. Suddenly the children are all grown up and in the span of mere minutes, back in the wardrobe and into reality. We are shown nothing of their time on the throne, how they ruled, or what has become of Narnia. We can assume things are going well, but it would be nice to not have the film summarize to quickly. But the film already has clocked in at 140 minutes, so adding any to the end might be excessive. Unless, of course, we cut the pointless filler out of the beginning, or trim the middle. Parts of it have the feel of a rough cut, so I wonder if another couple of weeks in the editing room may have done wonders.

At very least they could have for some of the special effects, which border on cartoonish[1]. This is fine for a kids movie, but for the film to achieve the epic feel its going for, the effects need to feel seamless. In the case of Aslan they do. The CGI on him is nearly perfect, but the beavers could use some work, as could some of the landscapes that look suspiciously like matte drawings. Part of the problem, I think, is that the films are trying to be too many things at once. They want to be a Christmas movie, a kids movie, a Disney movie, an epic, an Oscar contender, and The Lord of the Rings. In the end, though, it falls just short of being all of these things. Were it to pick a couple and fully devote itself to that end, we might have something excellent, but what we get instead is something pretty good.

[1] Exactly the reason Lewis didn't want the books adapted.

24 December 2005

current cinema: The Squid and the Whale


starring: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, and Owen Kline
written by: Noah Baumbach
directed by: Noah Baumbach
R, 80 min, 2005, USA

Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale, a small little film in which a literary couple divorces and shares joint custody of their kids, shares a similar DNA with a littany of poems and short stories and first screenplays, but with one glaring difference: It's actually good. In fact, it happens to be very good--the type of film that will show up on a large number of year-end lists and pop up every so often in the Oscar discussion. A large number of people will hope against hope it gets nominated for Best Picture and mutter vague threats about the Academy when it invariably ends up with a sole Screenplay nod. But no matter, for this is the type of film that film buffs will periodically watch when they need a reminder that not every autobiographical film is automatically self-indulgent rubbish.

Jeff Daniels gives the film's best performace as Bernard Berkman, a formerly important novelist who's become a penny-pinching creative writing teacher after his wife Joan (Laura Linney) starts to become a successful writer herself. He looks exactly the way you'd expect a creative writing teacher in 1986 Brooklyn to look, right down to the graying beard. His one passion in life, other than his work of being an intellectual, is tennis. He refers constantly to McEnroe and Connors and other tennis greats, using them as a measuring stick by which to demean his son's tennis coach, Ivan (William Baldwin) and has this great desire to be loved and needed and, most of all, respected, but is unwilling to put forth any real effort toward that goal. When going to the movies with his son and his girlfriend (to see Blue Velvet, no less), he has the gall to accept cash from his son's girlfriend when they get food after the movie. In a great many ways, he operates from the same worldview of Gene Hackman's patriarch in The Royal Tennenbaums (2001), or at very least they were probably drinking buddies.

The entire film, actually, comes from a similar milleu as Wes Anderson's examination of a dysfuntional family[1]. Ivan the tennis pro is seen mostly in vintage Fila shirts, and for most of the film I fully expected to see a poster of Richie Tennenbaum in the youngest son's room.[2] I imagine the best litmus test to determine if you will enjoy The Squid and the Whale is to decide if you liked The Royal Tennenbaums. Few people will like one and not the other.

That is not to say that they are so similar that they become redundant. Baumbach shoots in a rough, uneasy handheld style because his protangonists are two children almost entirely disoriented by their parent's divorce. The youngest has taken to masterbating in school and spreading his semen around, and the oldest has started claiming Pink Floyd lyrics to be his own because he feels he could have written them, so the mere fact that he didn't, that they were already written, is a minor technicality. The eldest son (Jesse Eisenberg) idolizes his father, often asking him what he thinks of the books he has to read in school, so that when he's told a book is "minor Dickens", he feels free to ignore it, but does not bother to read "major Dickens" either. He does not, as his teacher points out, bother to read anything at all, not even The Great Gatsby, which he claims as his favorite book. When he uses the phrase "Kafkaesque" in front of his girlfriend, she goes to the trouble to read Kafka. This proves to be problematic when she tries to discuss it with him, only to learn that he clearly knows nothing about Kafka or his work.

The film's title is a reference to a museum exhibit from his childhood the oldest son remembers as particularly frightening, but provides a basis for conjuring positive memories of his mother. It reminds him of a time when they were a happy family without the petty jealousy and dischord that's currently such a big part of their lives. If there's any sort of redemption in a film like this, it's the simple redemption of remembering when things were better and you didn't hate your mother, because if it can lead to viewing her as something other than the woman who ruined your father's life, that's a major step.

It isn't often that a film runs less than 90 minutes for a good reason, but Baumbach (who won a screenplay award for this at Sundance) is able to tell his story so quickly and so effectively that we don't mind the missing minutes. A great many films could learn from this example that padding those 15 minutes to make the normal feature length may seem like a good idea at the time, but usually ends up in disaster. My old high school english teacher used to say "make it long enough to cover the subject", and at 80 minutes, The Squid and the Whale is long enough to cover the subject without starting to wear a bit thin. I daresay it is probably the best 80 minute film to reach mulitplexes all year.

[1] Baumbach co-wrote Anderson's The Life Aquatic (2004) and Anderson produced this film, so the similarities are probably not imagined.

[2] This is something I definitely would have done, were I Baumbach. This begs the question of whether or not the inclusion of the poster is a good instinct on my part, or if it would come off as self-referential and crass.

22 December 2005

100 films: Charade

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starring: Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Walter Matthau, and James Coburn
written by: Peter Stone, from the story by Stone and Marc Behm
directed by: Stanley Donen
NR, 113 min, 1963, USA

Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) is in the process of divorcing her wealthy husband when, upon returning from a skiing trip, she finds her husband gone, along with every possesion in their luxurious apartment. He has sold them all, it seems, at public auction and headed for South America, but not before he was murdered at the Paris train station. At the funeral she receives a letter from H. Bartholemew (Walter Matthau), a CIA supervisor who informs her that her husband had stolen the sum total of his wealth from the American government during the war and that several of her husband's accomplices would stop at nothing to get the money from her. Having no idea where the money is, she confides in Peter Joshua (Cary Grant), a debonair older man she met on the slopes. But he, it turns out, is in cahoots with the dangerous men, or at least is pretending to be in order to steal the entire fortune. Or is he?

Stanley Donen's Charade is the high-water mark of what I like to call the "jazz thriller"[1] genre--that series of films of the 1960's where double-crossing murderous thieves ruled the day and Henry Mancini made a fortune composing the music[2]. The rules of the genre are rather simple: our hero (or heroine) must negotiate a labyrynth plot heavily influenced by Hichcock where people are trying to kill them or steal from them or both. Nothing can be as it seems, least of all the thing that seems the most certain, the entire film must turn on something very small and overlooked, and it must move quickly to a hip jazz score. When done well, this invariably makes for entertaining cinema, and when done poorly, it still has parts that are kind of cool.

One of the key, if overlooked, components of the genre is the ability of the entire cast, not just the leads. This sort of film relies on a strong supporting cast full of nefarious villians and suspicious-looking people around every corner. In a film starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, it's all to easy to overlook the efforts of James Coburn, Walter Matthau, and George Kennedy[3], but without them, the film suffers dramatically. Coburn in particular isn't given a lot to work with, but he creates a believable character in an underwritten role, as does Kennedy with his. It would be far too easy for them to play the roles like James Bond villains, but they don't, going instead toward the idea of being veterans.

Cary Grant never seemed to be lacking in on-screen chemistry and charisma, be it in His Girl Friday or North by Northwest, but as an audience we're used to being absolutely sure what side he's on, so it's refreshing in a film this late in his career that he picked a role that keeps us guessing. Peter Joshua is not his real name, nor is the next one he gives, or the next, but somehow he manages to maintain Hepburn's trust. It may be that his motives always seem pure, but it seems to fall in line with my theory that regardless of how things change, there is one constant: women will always fall for Cary Grant. His character is easily 30 years older than Hepburn's, is a confessed thief and liar, seems to have killed several people, and for all she knows is trying to kill her, yet she cannot stay away from him. Normally an audience would object to such a tendency, but with Cary Grant involved it makes perfect sense. We cannot stay mad at him, even if he is killing people left and right.

Charade is sometimes dismissed as a film that is too whimsical to achieve greatness. Indeed, it's fun and sexy and has popcorn tendencies, but it's also a taut, engrossing thriller that is expertly made and knows exactly how much information to reveal at every point along the way. And for a story with this many agendas, that is a crucial skill often ignored. Few thrillers are this tight and compelling and few love stories are this believable. To get both in the same film is a rare treat.

[1] No one, to my knowledge, calls it that. I made it up just now.

[2] Mancini wrote, among other things, the theme song to The Pink Panther, which was immortalized by numerous cartoons and Peter Sellers films.

[3] Kennedy you will probably recognize but not be able to place, so I'll help. He was in Cool Hand Luke (1967) and The Dirty Dozen (1967). Coburn was one of the Dozen as well, along with a number of great character actors. It's one of my favorite war movies, and definitely worth a look.

19 December 2005

100 films: Camille

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starring: Greta Garbo, Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore, and Elizabeth Allan
written by: Zoe Akins & Frances Marion and James Hilton, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas fils
directed by: George Cukor
NR, 109 min, 1936, USA

Parisian courtesan Marguerite Gautier (Greta Garbo) is torn between two suitors. She loves Armand Duval (Robert Taylor), an aspiring diplomat of modest means who has loved her from afar, but is simultaneously being wooed by the Baron de Varville (Henry Daniell), a wealthy and influential man who will give her anything she ever needs. When convinced by Duval's father (Lionel Barrymore) that she must leave Duval for his own good, she goes to the Baron.[1]

Camille is one of many adaptations of the Dumas[2] play La Dame aux camélias, and perhaps the most famous. At very least, it is the only one to star Greta Garbo. The story contains all the elements of a classic soap opera: multiple lovers, intrigue, a fated heroine, battles against class structures, and even a duel[3]. You see, Marguerite has what appears to be consumption[4], so no matter who she chooses, it is destined to end badly. And even though Duval's father doesn't know this, he does know that being attached to a courtesan isn't good for his son's career prospects and that left alone to his own devices he'll waste his life with this woman. So he asks her to make Duval not love her. And while she agrees for his sake, part of her is doing it because she knows her health means she won't last to old age. It is a painful decision to be sure, and a heroic, unselfish one that is viewed by those without intimate knowledge of her motives as the social climbings of a calloused soul.

And who better to play a woman torn between two motives than Greta Garbo? There's something inherent in her complexion that allows her to play anything, from a stern Russian in Ninotchka to the woman head-over-heels in love here, and be completely believable in both roles. Her face suggests she's seen the world, so little she does surprises us. A courtesan makes sense, as does a communist, and I imagine several other roles as well. There aren't many actresses that can play so many nationalities and play them all well.

It should be pointed out that while Camille isn't the greatest film ever made (or even the best film made that year, I imagine), it has a certain quality you can't quite figure out. Part of that is due to Garbo and Taylor's chemistry, and part of it may just be the slight shock in seeing Lionel Barrymore play someone other than Mr. Potter. Even for a period drama, the film has not aged all that well, but the story is a timeless one that cuts through the drivel and strikes a resounding chord that in the end all you need is love. Because the greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return. Even if the Baron gets her body, he cannot have her heart.

[1] Shades of Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! (2001), to be sure. Minus the songs and the dancing and the narcoleptic Argentinian, the plots are almost identical. This can mean one of two things: 1) Luhrmann took most of the plot from Camille, or 2) Cukor built a time machine and took the plot from Moulin Rouge!. The romantic in me would like to think the latter, but that seems unlikely.

[2] Alexandre Dumas fils wrote this play and the original novel, but is not to be confused with his father, the legendary Alexandre Dumas père. The elder Dumas wrote The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.

[3] Lest someone actually assume all of these things exist in the original play and/or novel, I'll add this disclaimer: I have not read it. And if you think I'm going to read an entire play just to check for accuracy here, you've lost your mind.

[4] Also known as tuberculosis. Just like Nicole Kidman.

17 December 2005

current cinema: Pride & Prejudice

this review may also appear in the wissahickon

starring: Keira Knightley, Brenda Blethyn, Matthew MacFadyen, and Donald Sutherland
written by: Deborah Moggach, from the novel by Jane Austen
directed by: Joe Wright
PG, 127 min, 2005, UK

We all know the story behind Pride & Prejudice[1], as we all had to read the novel in literature class back in our formative years[2], so it should come as no surprise to learn that the five Bennet sisters are focused solely on finding a husband. They are thrown into a tizzy when handsome and wealthy Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) shows up with the dour Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen). The sisters cannot stand Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) chief of all, be he wins them over in the end and they fall in love.

If IMDB.com is right and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice has been adapted nine previous times for either film or television, then do we really need a tenth? Is it necessary to come up with a nice, even number for the sake of completeness, or do the good folks at Working Title Films really think they can add a fresh approach to this classic? Attempt number eight was just two years ago in a forgettable version that included scenes in Las Vegas, and number nine was last year in Gurinder Chadha's Bollywood version, so perhaps the feeling was that the story could benefit from a return to form. But if that is the case, why not just hype the DVD release of what many consider to be the definitive version: the 1995 BBC miniseries with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy? At least, this is what I'm thinking as I'm waiting for the film to start. I'm also wondering why there couldn't be a late showing of The Squid and the Whale, but I digress.

This being a British period drama, the film has a large cast of supporting characters who provide the story's ballast and give an air of authenticity to the production. Case in point, Dame Judi Dench turns up as Lady Catherine de Bourg, which shouldn't really be a surprise to anyone, because when doing a British period drama, you're going to have your film viewed as a second-class citizen if you can't get Judi Dench. Otherwise, why even bother? I always get the feeling watching these things that part of the reason the film was made was to provide work for a small army of struggling actors, almost as if period dramas existed solely as a British arts initiative similar to the American theatre programs during the Great Depression.

So with that in mind, it is certainly odd to see Donald Sutherland[3] playing Mr. Bennet and Jena Malone as Lydia Bennet, but perhaps that serves as a half-hearted attempt to draw in American audiences. In the end, though, Sutherland gives the best performance of the film. Mr. Bennet is in many ways an unfortunate man. He is not a rich man by any stretch of the imagination and has a small house filled with a wife and five daughters he loves dearly, but as young girls are wont to do, there is a great deal of giggling and screaming and such. The poor man must be exhausted. Sutherland plays him with a weary grace that reminds us of just the type of performances he used to give on a regular basis[4]. In a very strange film for it to occur, we are reminded just how cool he is.

But Pride & Prejudice is better than you'd expect it to be for one very specific reason: director Joe Wright. Rather than use the normal method of filming a period drama where you put the camera on a tripod and occasionally throw in a pan or tilt, Wright (with a great deal of credit going to cinematographer Roman Osin and editor Paul Tothill) approaches it as he would an indie drama. Primarily employing a steadicam, he uses the moving camera to bring the film to life. Normally a static genre, the infusion of a strong visual style gives it a new spin without detracting in any way from the story. And it's rarely even things an average audience member would notice. He doesn't speed up the film stock or spin the camera around or give us strange angles or any of the other flashy techniques that can occasionally feel forced, it is simply a filmmaker coming at the story with great respect, but a completely different worldview. It is an inspired decision, as it updates and modernizes a classic while seeming to be the farthest thing from the production's mind.

[1] The filmmakers, in an attempt to be confusing, have replace the "and" with an ampersand. So here's what I shall do: in talking about the film I will use the ampersand, but will revert to the "and" in discussing the novel.

[2] I did not read the novel, but did manage to produce a very fine paper on it based on the small part I did read. I got the general plot from some literature majors.

[3] To be fair, he is Canadian, which is close.

[4] Besides MASH (1970), Ordinary People (1980), The Dirty Dozen (1967), and Animal House (1978) he starred in Fellini's Il Casanova di Federico Fellini (1976).

15 December 2005

100 films: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

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starring: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates, and King Donovan
written by: Daniel Mainwaring, from the story by Jack Finney
directed by: Don Siegel
NR, 80 min, 1956, USA

When Dr. Miles J. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy[1]) returns to his small town from a conference, his secretary informs him of an odd tendency of the townspeople showing up at his office for treatment of a malady they refuse to talk about and won't seek help from anyone else for. They seem to be fine, though, with no indications of any problems. One of his first patients is Jimmy Grimaldi, a little boy who claims his mother is not really his mother, even though it is clear to everyone that she is exactly the person she always was. Later, as he's out to diner with old flame Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), he gets a call from Jack Belicec (King Donovan), who's found what seems to be a corpse with no fingerprints and a vaguely blank expression. Upon further investigation, they learn that the corpse is destined to somehow take over the body of Jack while he sleeps. These creatures have managed to take over most of the town. Can the good doctor escape before they take him?

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is best classified as cinema of the paranoia. Released during the height of the Communist Red Scare, many have theorized that the film is an allegory about communism[2]. The good doctor, who is relaying most of the story through a voiceover, is pretty much convinced the entire town is out to get him and that he cannot, under any circumstances, sleep else the pod people snatch his soul. And from what we can tell, he's absolutely right. Then again, how much can you trust a guy who hasn't slept in a couple of days? Well, thanks to some studio interference, we learn that the doctor isn't insane after they find a truck containing a load of weird pods, thereby verifying his story. But this wasn't intended to be part of the film. The studio, in a way that only a Hollywood studio can, felt the original ending of the doctor in the middle of the road ranting "You're next, you're next" was too much of a downer for 1950's audiences, so they insisted on a new ending where he manages to convince the FBI to intercede.

So let's assume for a minute that the film is a Red Scare allegory. What then is the film, complete with the studio-mandated ending, trying to tell us? Throughout the film, there's a perception that if the doctor can just get the attention of the FBI, all will be saved, because naturally the FBI will know how to deal with aliens who are stealing people's identities. Nevermind that the FBI would be pretty much lost as how to solve this crisis. It was important, at least in the studio's mind, for 1950's Americans to think the FBI could save them from whatever menace might rear its ugly head, which is perhaps why we see the FBI in this era as an all-encompassing messiah. Contrast that to current cinema where the government agencies are very often the villains wielding their power in ways our founding fathers never conceived. Why this change in attitude? Because if the commies ever did attack, we all needed to be able to align blindly with a figurehead who could battle them properly. And that was quite often the FBI.

Even if that's the reason the studio added the ending[3], it doesn't detract from the fact that the ending is a major blow to the film as a whole. Director Don Siegel goes to great trouble to craft a great deal of mystery, paranoia, and dread in this tale and, in the process, gives us a fine 80-minute diversion. It may not be great cinema, but as the alien invasion genre goes, it's about as good as you can expect. Minus the happy ending, it leaves enough questions to keep you thinking, but with it we have too many answers, and in a film like this, answers are not in the story's best interests. Because sometimes a loose end is a good thing. A little mystery can go a long way.

[1] If you watch this, you'll spend a lot of time early on trying to figure out who McCarthy looks like. I'll save you the time. He looks almost exactly like he belongs in the Sutherland clan, either as the patriarch or maybe Donald's uncle, but he doesn't appear to be related. Donald, however, did star in the remake, so apparently someone else thought they looked alike.

[2] No one involved will admit this, of course.

[3] Nothing more than speculation on my part.


A note that has nothing to do with the film: If you're one of the hearty souls who reads these reviews on a regular basis, you'll notice the addition of the Amazon.com link. Basically, if you follow that link and buy something from Amazon.com (like the DVD of the film in question) they give me money for sending people in that direction. This is always nice for poor people like myself. I did my best to make the link as subtle as possible. Some of them, while perhaps more effective, look horribly commercial and tacky.

14 December 2005

current cinema: King Kong

this review also appears in the Wissahickon

starring: Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, and Andy Serkis
written by: Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson, from the story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace
directed by: Peter Jackson
PG-13, 187 min, 2005, New Zealand/USA

Peter Jackson's remake of 1933's King Kong is pretty much exactly what you'd expect it to be--longer, bigger, and more expensive--yet it still takes your breath away. The story, for those who haven't been initiated, follows maverick filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) as he sails for Skull Island, hoping to find the footage needed to salvage his film before the studio takes it away from him. His lead actress won't make the trip, so he recruits Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) with tales of Singapore, and they sail away--one step ahead of the cops. Denham, being the conniving fellow he is, has managed to con most of the people on board this ship, including playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and movie star Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler)[1]. They run into Skull Island as it emerges from the fog, and while the ship is undergoing repairs, Denham and the film crew go ashore. After a run-in with the natives, Darrow is captured and offered to the island's biggest inhabitant, a 25-foot gorilla the natives refer to as Kong. Understandably Darrow isn't thrilled with this arrangement, but after Kong rescues her life several times, she begins to grow fond of the beast and he begins to see her less as food and more as something to be treasured. But Denham, seeing box office gold, conspires to capture Kong and bring him to New York, where he proceeds to go on a rampage, eventually ending up on the top of the Empire State building, swatting at bi-planes before he falls to earth.

Kong, while always compelling in a primitive way, is really brought to life by Andy Serkis and WETA's team of artists. Serkis, who famously played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trillogy, now stretches his range to include the beast. With the help of 132 sensors on his face alone, he humanizes Kong in a way the original filmmakers couldn't fathom. Thanks to Serkis, Kong becomes a sympathetic character with a range of emotions that truly rivals the real people on screen. He laughs, he roars, he sulks, he very nearly cries. It is a performance that deserves serious consideration this award season in the supporting actor categories. Between this and Gollum, Serkis has perfected an entirely new form of acting in a medium where five years ago actors were worrying about losing their jobs to computers. He has shown that to do the job properly, acting is precisely what's needed.

Whereas in the original Ann Darrow spent most of the film terrified and screaming, Jackson makes the wise choice of moving Darrow over to Kong's side of the battle. It always seemed strange to me that a woman who's been saved numerous times would still be trying to escape from the very thing that's keeping her alive. So when she steps back under Kong's protection as he faces down a T-Rex, it rings true. This is a pretty scary island, and it becomes quickly apparent that the only thing she can trust is that Kong will protect her[2], so for them to form a bond is only natural. This allows Jackson to include several scenes of quiet intimacy between Darrow and Kong that increases the impact of the final battle in New York. He wisely realizes that if the affection is mutual, Kong's death is much more devasting both to Darrow and the audience.

After his last project, Peter Jackson is the natural choice to helm this remake. He's been trying to get this film made for years, and it's clear that he has a great affection for the original. Wherever possible he includes moments from the original film, either in their original context or not (for example, the tribal dance of the natives now takes place as part of the Broadway spectacle). He fully understands the core of this film and is enough of a fan and film historian not to do anything to devalue Kong's legacy. Where he gets in trouble, though, is when he tries to add a sense of foreboding in the scenes leading up to Kong's introduction. For reasons beyond my comprehension he throws in horror film zooms and other such nonsense that really stand out from the narrative flow, and not in a good way. They seem lifted directly from his early low-budget efforts, but the problem is that the vast majority of those efforts were pretty bad[3]. All it really ends up accomplishing is a sense of dread in an audience member who wonders if maybe Jackson isn't quite up to the task, if perhaps The Lord of the Rings was a bit of a fluke. Thankfully, though, once we meet Kong all of that disappears. The scenes where Kong battles 3 dinosaurs at once[4] is as breathtaking as anything you'll see in a theatre for years. Though he may lose focus at points, Peter Jackson gets this film is ways most wouldn't. He very nearly creates his best film yet.

A quick word before we finish on Jack Black. When I heard he was cast in this film, I was initially concerned, as he didn't strike me as even a remotely good choice for Carl Denham, but it turns out he's perfect for exactly the reasons I thought he might be a disaster. There's always a manic insanity in Black's performances, as if he's about to introduce the next Tenacious D song, and he uses that to play Denham as a scheming version of P.T. Barnum. You can see him plotting how to turn this into a film that will make him rich or a Broadway attraction for the ages. He's always got something up his sleeve. Even as Kong is tearing himself free of his restraints, Denham is the only one in the theatre who isn't running. And why is that? Could it be that he expected this all along? With a guy like Denham you never can tell.

[1] Chandler is best known as that guy from the TV show about the guy who gets tomorrow's newspaper today and uses that knowledge not to win the lottery, but to help people. My parents used to watch it a lot.

[2] More so, even, than she can trust Denham and the rest of the crew from her ship.

[3] The exception, in my opinion, being Heavenly Creatures (1994).

[4] The filmmakers were unable, however to include the disclaimer that "no dinosaurs were harmed in the making of this film", so if you have an ethical dillema concerning the treatment of dinosaurs, this may not be the film for you.

13 December 2005

100 films: Singin' in the Rain

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starring: Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, and Jean Hagen
written by: Betty Comden and Adolph Green
directed by: Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly
NR, 103 min, 1952, USA

Silent film stars Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are in the midst of production of their latest film when the invention of the talkie forces the film to shut down and the stars are enrolled in classes to learn articulation and how to adapt to this new medium. Lockwood, with his background in Vaudeville, has no trouble, but Lamont's nasally tone does not translate even a little. In a moment of despair they hit on the idea of having Lockwood's new girlfriend Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) dub over Lamont's dialogue and songs. The film is saved, but Lamont, feeling the pressure of losing her career, threatens to sue if Selden doesn't continue to supply her voice.

Ask anyone anywhere what they know about Singin' in the Rain and they will invariably mention the title sequence with Gene Kelly stomping through puddles and twirling around the post of a streetlight. There's something inherently romantic about being so head-over-heels in love that you walk home in the rain with no regard for how foolish you look. Kelly captures that childlike joy so completely that it is the type of number that can melt the heart of the harshest cynic.[1] The image of Kelly hanging from the pole is so iconic that the temptation to mimic it surfaces nearly every time I walk down the street, especially in the rain.[2]

Donald O'Connor's Cosmo Brown carries the responsibility of supplying the film's comic touch, and he does so in a memorable performance. There's a scene early in the film when Kelly is feeling low and O'Connor tries to cheer him up with a song. He launches into "Make them Laugh", punctuating the song with a procession of physical gags that culminates with him running up the wall and doing a backflip. He spends most of the song, which was filmed in one continuous take, throwing himself around the room with abandon in a manner more in line with a stunt double than a song and dance man. And it's definitely him the whole time, no question about it. Actually, O'Connor's character is really the brains behind the whole operation. O'Connor comes up with the impromptu songs, O'Connor comes up with the idea to turn the film into a musical, and O'Connor thinks to have Hagen's voice dubbed.

And what a voice it is, only it doesn't belong to Debbie Reynolds. Ironically, the singing voice they used to dub the awful voice of Jean Hagen was actually dubbed by Betty Noyes[3]. Reynolds does all her own acting, though, and a fine job at that.

The dilemma shown here, of the silent film industry struggling with the move to talkies, was a real one. Many stars, including none other than Buster Keaton, lost their careers when the public found out that they couldn't make the switch. Either they had annoying voices or they weren't articulate or perhaps they were just dumb (or in the case of Lina Lamont, all of the above), but people just didn't want to watch them any more. So I'm sure it was a natural reaction for stars to go the route of Lamont and examine their contracts for any bit of leverage to keep their jobs. Remember that film stars, while well paid back then, didn't make nearly the amount they do now, so most of them didn't have piles of money laying around. If they couldn't manage to keep their style the way Charlie Chaplin did, they had to resort to other means. Dubbing was one method. Veiled threats were another.

But no one watches Singin' in the Rain to learn about the history of the film industry; we watch for the music, for Gene Kelly in the rain, for the dancing, for the chemistry between the trifecta of Kelly, O'Connor, and Reynolds. We watch for a vibrant use of technicolor, where the images seem to jump of the screen. But let's be honest, we watch to see Gene Kelly hanging from that lamppost. And to our surprise, the rest of the film is a thoroughly enjoyable, expertly made musical. You can't ask for much more than that.

[1] The story is that Kelly performed the number despite having a temperature of 103 degrees. The next day must have been hell.

[2] But not when it's really cold. A guy's got limits, you know. Regardless, this is not an urge that fits easily into my personality.

[3] If you don't recognize the name, don't worry. Her only credited acting role was in a TV version of Cinderella in 1965. She played Mother.

10 December 2005

current cinema: Syriana

this review also appears in the Wissahickon

starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, and Alexander Siddig
written by: Stephen Gaghan, from the book by Robert Baer
directed by: Stephen Gaghan
R, 126 min, 2005, USA

From Stephen Gaghan, the man who brought us Traffic (2000)[1], comes a similar investigation of the Middle East and it's monopoly over the petroleum industry. In a complex plot that takes us from Washington D.C. to Geneva to Iran, Gaghan reveals a multi-faceted look at a rare business that starts wars and controls the fates of nations.

The United States, it will suprise no one to learn, consumes the vast majority of the fossil fuels in the world, yet it produces only a small portion. So it is up to the government and business sectors to invent creative, if not entirely ethical, means by which to procure the amount needed. And within the framework of the law. Or, at least it needs to appear that way. So it is up to lawyers like Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) to cover the trails of men who use corruption as a means of doing business. He is charged with the task of outmaneuvering a government investigation that is holding up a potential merger, while giving the impression that he is performing "due dilligence" of the law. It is a high-wire act of sorts for Holiday, who must uncover the crimes of his clients before the government uncovers them first, meanwhile maintaining their trust and his own innocence.

In Geneva, Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) must negotiate deals with the Prince of Iran (Alexander Siddig) while mourning the death of his son. Such is a common theme of the film--most of the characters are shown dealing with life in two arenas. There is the obvious one of their work lives. They must negotiate and investigate and plot and scheme, but at the same time there is a personal conflict that motivates their dealings (or at very least influences them). Woodman is the prime example. He takes his family to a party at the palace of an oil-rich royalty where his son is accidentally electrocuted in the pool. In the midst of the mourning, he must negotiate with this same royalty. When he is awarded a contract, he tersly replies, "How much for my other son?" It is a compelling exchange, as Woodman attempts to maintain a bit of professionalism. In the end, though, he takes the deal and it has negative consequences on his marriage. Because in a film like Syriana everything that happens affects everything else, either in directly or through some sort of ripple effect. However, Gaghan is smart enough to not employ a "butterfly effect" worldview[2], but lets it happen organically. So Woodman's dealings with the Prince are set in motion by the corporate merger Holiday is trying to help get pushed through and directly influenced by Robert Barnes (George Clooney), a CIA operative sent to have the Prince assasinated. Naturally, none of them see all these strings that tie them together.

The one thing Gaghan does so well, perhaps better than anyone currently working in the film industry, is to seamlessly insert his stories and characters into a world we see on the news everyday. A knowledgeable film buff will recognize many of the main characters (i.e. Clooney, Damon, Chris Cooper, etc.), but he fills a large number of the speaking roles with unknowns who may or may not be actors[3] and have a look of authenticity that lends a great deal of credibility to the film at large. He combines this with a carefully researched, nuanced script that certainly feels as if he's mixed movie stars into real locales with real Iranian princes and businessmen and CIA operatives. Much of this has to do with the actors (real or not) who manage to pull off the difficult task of naturalism. That is, none of them seem to be acting. Rather we get the feel of a documentary that just happens to have George Clooney and Matt Damon in it.

Syriana is the type of film that is too complex to fully digest initially; it's the type of film that your mind comes back to hours after you've seen it. It has a labrynth quality that borders on confusion, but when viewed with a bit of distance feels like a jigsaw puzzle of a cubist painting. Perhaps not all of the parts seem to fit, but when viewed as a collective whole, it really takes shape. I imagine it gets better with repeated viewings. This is a film that has the potential to outlast its subject matter, or at least our dependence on it.

[1] He did not direct Traffic--Steven Soderberg did--but he wrote the screenplay that earned him an Academy Award.

[2] The theory being that a butterfly flapping its wings can change the weather half-way around the globe. You see this quite often in French films, and more recently a very bad Ashton Kutcher movie.

[3] I have no idea if they are and no desire to find out, lest it tarnish the experience.

08 December 2005

100 films: King Kong

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starring: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, and Frank Reicher
written by: James Creelman and Ruth Rose, from the story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace
directed by: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
NR, 100 min, 1933, USA

Film director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) discovers on the eve of his voyage that his film is lacking a love interest, so he rescues Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) from a shoplifting charge and recruits her for the production. They sail to an island where they encounter Kong, an gigantic ape who falls in love with Darrow. Kong is captured and taken to New York, where he escapes and scales the Empire State Building in one of the signature scenes in the history of cinema.

It doesn't take a whole lot of searching to see the fingerprints of King Kong in modern cinema. The film moves a bit slowly until we meet Kong, but from there on it's non-stop action. Once he meets the girl of his dreams, he's forced to battle two dinosaurs, a giant snake, a flying reptile, and a Tyrannosaurus rex. And that's before he even gets to New York. The other creatures seem to be attacking at will, going after the crew and Darrow with little to no provocation[1], but Kong fights solely as a means of defense, either of himself or his girl[2]. Once in New York he is startled by the reporter's flash bulbs and believes that Darrow is being attacked, so he rips himself free from his restraints and goes on his rampage of the city. He knocks down walls, rips apart an elevated train, and knocks down a biplane with his bare hands. He is so focused on his goal of protecting Darrow that when he accidentally grabs another girl, he drops her without a thought to her safety once he discovers his mistake. If he weren't so concerned with his girl, he could have lived a long, if not miserable, life as a Broadway attraction, but he cannot stand silently while she appears to be in danger, and this is what proves to be his downfall. As Denham points out, "It was beauty killed the beast."

King Kong was, and in many ways still is, a technical marvel on several levels. Kong himself is a model brought to life by stop-motion animation. He looks exactly like the Abominable Snowman in Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), only it's 30 years earlier and not in color. The filmmakers use a litany of techniques over the course of the film, most prominently a good deal of rear projection that ensures we see Kong in the frame with the humans. It would have been easier, for sure, to show Kong in a closeup and then cut to a matching shot of a human and let our imaginations put them in the same jungle, but this film takes the extra time to show them in the frame together, bridging that gap and further adding to the realism of the scene.

And despite how primitive the effects look, there is a great deal of realism in the proceedings. It's obvious that Kong is a model and that he's knocking down model buildings, but the effects are done with such a sense of artistry that we get the full effect of the real thing. The destruction of New York rivals any number of big-budget CGI sequences that look almost real because the action in King Kong feels almost real in a way the computers struggle to match. Would the remake be half as exciting as the original, it would be a real treat. But it would be hard-pressed to recapture the intangibles that made Kong the icon he is today.

[1] One of the dinosaurs that eats a crew member is, I believe, a herbivore. At least, that's what I remember from when I was a kid and used to think dinosaurs were cool.

[2] He risks his life for her over and over, yet she still can't stop screaming whenever he's around. Once again proving that women can be impossible to please.

05 December 2005

100 films: In a Lonely Place

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starring: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy, and Art Smith
written by: Edmund H. North and Andrew Solt, from the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes
directed by: Nicholas Ray
NR, 94 min, 1950, USA

When struggling Hollywood screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is given the job of adapting a second-rate novel, he invites a coat-check girl to his apartment to tell him the story so he won't have to bother reading the book. She takes a cab home, but the next morning ends up dead. Steele, with his checkered past of fistfights, is the obvious suspect and his only alibi is courtesy of his neighbor Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame[1]), an aspiring actress hiding from an ex-lover. They fall in love, but the combination of the strain of the investigation and Steele's volcanic temper leaves Gray wondering if perhaps he did kill the girl after all.

If you've seen Casablanca as many times as I have, In a Lonely Place serves as a departure for Bogart[2]. No longer is he cool, collected, and unfazed by anything around him. In his cafe you got the feeling that if a bomb exploded at his feel, he wouldn't flinch. But here, something as trivial as being called a "blind knuckle-headed squirrel" ignites such a rage in him that he nearly kills the guy. But, and here's where the dichotomy of the character comes in, the next day he anonymously mailes him $300 with from the return address of "Mr. Squirrel". He isn't the purely sadistic lunatic the police chief suspects he is, nor is he hidding a pure heart of gold. To love Dixon Steele, as his agent tells it, is to take the bad with the good. They cannot exist apart from each other. It takes that limitless rage to fuel the brilliant screenwriter who writes all night and can imagine the most elaborate crime with a chilling degree of detail, and it takes the heart of gold to realize that a good love scene is not two people telling each other they love each other, but the simple act of preparing breakfast. To soften the rage would mean tempering the passion. And that would not be the man she fell in love with.

To an extent she understands this, but still she's scared of him. And for good reason. A man this violent is not an inherently good man, no matter how much of a genius he may be. Fortunately, the investigation triggers enough tension in the relationship to show her this before she gets in too deep and marries him. Regardless of how docile he seems in his all-night writing sessions, he is dangerous both to himself and the people he loves.

What sets In a Lonely Place apart from the typical film noir is that Steele is not entirely a victim of his fate or a man without recourse or any of the other noir conventions[3]. It is, at it's heart, a character study of a man with a dual nature and the woman who loves him. The plot is just the instigator in the whole affair. Without the police investigation they may not have formally met and without the investigation, nerves wouldn't have been pushed to the limits they were. The whole plot, really, is a red herring to get these two personalities in a compelling enough storyline to build a film structure around. It doesn't really matter if Steele gets fingered for the crime, as it really won't change anything important. If no one else in the film understands it, at least Steele seems to, or perhaps he just isn't concerned since he's innocent. Ironically, it's that innocence that keeps him atop the suspect list and eventually serves as his downfall.

[1] Grahame, who at times looks a little like Scarlett Johansson, was the other girl in It's a Wonderful Life. Thanks to the studio system we seem to be running into these coincidences quite a bit.

[2] I am completely willing to concede that I don't know if it actually is a departure, as I'm no expert on the life and times of Humphrey Bogart. I do know he was cool as hell and that's good enough for me.

[3] It does steal a few scenes from Out of the Past (1947). Personally, though, it didn't seem to be all that vital to the film's core.

02 December 2005

100 films: It's a Wonderful Life

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starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, and Thomas Mitchell
written by: Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett and Frank Capra, from the story by Philip Van Doren Stern
directed by: Frank Capra
NR, 130 min, 1946, USA

Oddly enough, It's a Wonderful Life was a box office flop upon it's release in 1946, but managed to become the beloved Christmas tradition it is today largely by accident. Even though the film had earned five Oscar nominations, it's copyright was allowed to expire in the 70's, entering it into the Public Domain, where any television station can air it free of charge. So TV execs, being the frugal types they are, took to airing the film repeatedly during the Christmas season; so often, if fact, that the film came to be considered a vital part of the holliday.

The result is that we've all seen Frank Capra's tale of George Bailey (James Stewart), a man who's never turned his back on a friend in need, and how his death wish is subverted when Angel Second Class Clarence (Henry Travers) shows him what Bedford Falls would be like had he never been born[1]. George sees the error of his ways, Clarence gets his wings, and the town pulls together to help out in the end. If that just spoiled the ending for you, then you've been out of the loop for much too long.

George Bailey is, among other things, a terrible pessimist. He claims to hate Bedford Falls and has no other ambitions than to leave, but fate seems to constantly be finding ways for him to stay, at least that's what he tells people. But is it really? Or is George subconsciously looking for reasons to stay in Bedford Falls because everything he knows and loves is encased in that little town? Certainly a man with that much desire to see the world wouldn't find an excuse to stay every time something went wrong. He could have, for example, told Ernie to keep driving on his wedding night instead of preventing a run on the bank. He could have taken Potter's offer to work for him with all the perks of business trips and the like. But he doesn't. He stays in Bedford Falls, working and paying and living with the rabble of the town, constantly forgoing his own needs to help those around him. Had he left and perhaps become rich investing in plastics, would he have ultimately been any happier? Perhaps, but then who would have come to his aid in his darkest hour? Probably not Clarence, and certainly not the townsfolk who come without questions to give George cash when he needs it most.

In a way it's become a part of all of our Christmas, even if we don't watch it. The simple fact that it will be on in the days prior has a comforting quality about it, but I wonder just how many of us have actually sat down and watched the entire film not as a tradition, in the way we might watch Frosty the Snowman, but as an actual classic piece of cinema, minus the commercials and the hype and the baggage it may carry. Because outside of those constraints, It's a Wonderful Life can take on whole new aspects you'd never think it had. It's easy to view it with a shade of cynicism when every five minutes you have to sit through a Hallmark commercial and other such nonsense, but by itself it is a moving and profound cinematic experience where prayer coupled with karma can lead to the happy ending where God smiles on George Bailey. For a moment, you catch a hint of the divine. Even an angel without his wings will tell you that's a rarity.

[1] It turns out to be a rural Las Vegas, minus the casinos.

01 December 2005

100 films: It's a Gift

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starring: W.C. Fields, Kathleen Howard, Jean Rouverol, and Julian Madison
written by: Jack Cunningham and W.C. Fields, from the play by J.P. McEvoy
directed by: Norman Z. McLeod
NR, 73 min, 1934, USA

Local grocery owner Harold Bissonette (W.C. Fields) dreams of moving to California and running an orange grove, but is constantly thwarted by his nagging wife and annoying children. When an uncle dies, he inherits the money necessary, but the orange grove turns out to be a bust.[1]

David St. Hubbins, lead singer of the band Spinal Tap, once noted that, "It's such a fine line between stupid, and clever." On the clever side, you have a band that can't find the stage and an album cover that's completely black, on the other side you have the W.C. Fields comedy It's a Gift, which feels more like an exercise in annoyance than an actual comedy the audience is supposed to enjoy. Fields spends most of the film trying to do menial tasks such as sleeping or shaving, but he has to work around annoyance after annoyance. He mutters, "yes dear" over and over again, and is clearly frustrated by the lack of control he has over his daily routine, which probably explains why he buys the orange grove without asking his wife. This, of course, turns out to be a shack surrounded by some ground that might grow weeds.

I assume the sum total of all these annoyances is supposed to equal comedy, but it turns out to just be annoying. You feel some sympathy for the man, but not as much as you do for yourself. Fields has created his own private circle of hell by marrying a nosey shrew, fathering little brat children, and trying to take a nap outside in broad daylight, so our sympathy can only go so far, but what have we done as an audience to be dragged down with him? Is it our fault we're making the effort to watch old comedies? What have we done to deserve this sort of headache?[2] Nothing that I can see.

To be fair, a film that relies this heavily on slapstick is not generally my sort of film and I'm having a pretty bad day already, so I may not be in the best mood to watch this, but I simply cannot see how this is a highly-regarded film. Perhaps it has not aged well and was much more enjoyable in 1934, but I doubt it.

[1] If this doesn't seem to be much of a premise it's because, well, it isn't. Fortunately it only takes 73 minutes to conclude.

[2] And I do now have a headache, actually.