Saturday, May 30, 2009

What Are Movies?

You don’t have to be a machinist to know that a device cannot work properly if its cogs are clogged with gunk, or if a piston ain’t firing, or a thingamajig isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do. If one little element is out of place, the contraption in question may run quite badly, or may not perform at all.

Movies are machines. They are not paintings or statues; those things do not move, and as extremely arousing as the best of such artworks are, they are much less complicated (let's face it).  Movies are machines.  They are the combined efforts of actors, directors, writers, art directors, cinematographers, editors, costume designers, musicians and artists of all stripes. If a film has all of these elements working in congruence, but then has the misfortune of having, say, a make-up artist who can’t form a fake beard to save his or her life, then the whole magilla can come crashing down on everybody. Then, all the efforts of so much money and human productivity--millions of dollars and manhours--are all for naught.

Movies are devices that are there to make us feel or think certain things that, in circumstances outside the experience of watching the movie, we wouldn’t be thinking or feeling at all. If one wants to go someplace, but the vehicle has a busted catalytic converter or something, then sorry, but one isn’t going anywhere.

Jean Luc-Godard, for a long time an idiosyncratic maker of machines that sometimes work and sometimes do not, once wisely said that if the movie industry were the airline industry, there would be cataclysmic crashes popping up repeatedly all over the globe, and the customer complaints would be overwhelming.  

It’s my opinion that there are indeed such crashes befalling us movielovers all the time. Despite giving us such exquisite machines as The Fall, The Wrestler, Wendy and Lucy, Let The Right One In and Wall-E, 2008 was a year in which there were many "bombs," as they are tellingly known as in the industry (and that's another kind of machine, too). In fact, I’d say that 2008 was one of the most miserable years in movie history, and further proof that the art form is dying, or at least in the process of undergoing a radical evolution.

I’ve been a movie fan all my life. A diehard. But I’ve found recently that I no longer visit the theaters with the idea that something great is in store for me. In fact, I buy my tickets with great trepidation—with the sense that I’m about to be hoodwinked, played for a sucker by an industry that profits on constantly disappointing the good faith its patrons put in the motion picture biz. This would be all right if movies cost a buck fifty to experience. But when one is paying 12 dollars for a movie (as is the case in New York City)—that is, 12 bucks for a mere two hours of entertainment that may either make you cheer or wretch your guts out—then this indeed is not alright. Would you plunk down 12 simoleons for a box of soap flakes that only got your clothes clean 10 percent of the time? I didn’t think so.

It’s always been my goal, through my writing, to help fix these devices we call movies. I don’t want to see movies die; I want them to thrive (artisitically more than in popularity--after all, despite the industry's soul-sickness, the profits are up in 2009). I know they can once again reach the heights they did in past decades. After all, there are a million, billion great stories left to tell. But with the internet, TV, video games, those old things called books, and so many other sources of entertainment out there sucking up our free time, I also know that the movies, like the presently failing American car industry, are doomed if they keep churning out so many poorly-designed machines. And I don’t want to see them end up on the cultural scrapheap. So I’m here to help.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

2009 Cannes Film Festival Winners

The results are in: PALME D'OR: The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke (Germany)
GRAND PRIX: A Prophet, Jacques Audiard (France)
SPECIAL PRIZE: Wild Grass, Alain Renais (France)
ACTOR: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds (USA)
ACTRESS: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Antichrist (Denmark)
DIRECTOR: Brillante Mendoza, Kinatay (Phillipines)
SCREENPLAY: Mei Feng, Spring Fever (China)
CAMERA D'OR (best first film): Samson and Delilah, Warwick Thornton (Australia)
JURY PRIZE: Fish Tank, Andrea Arnold (Britain) and Thirst, Park Chan-wook (South Korea)
FIPRESCI prize for Directors' Fortnight: Amreeka, Cherien Dabis (USA)

Monday, May 18, 2009

Film #129: Multiple SIDosis (R.I.P. Sid Laverents: 1908-2009)

In 2000, the National Library of Congress, in their yearly picks of 25 American films to be preserved by their National Film Registry, included a rarely-seen, amateur 16mm movie by Sid Laverents as one of their chosen few. Completed in 1970, Multiple SIDosis splashes as a simple idea on paper, but on celluloid, it's a whole other matter. Laverents--often the star of his movies--plays himself, and as the film opens, he's getting the Christmas gift he's always wanted. And, with it, he experiments, and halfway through, the film really gets underway (stick with it). Laverents made a living, during the vaudeville era, as a one-man band and here, at ages 58-62 (the 9 minute film took four years to complete), he revisits that particular talent through cinema. The movie follows Laverents as he performs Felix Arndt's jaunty ditty "Nola." Now, just watch...("Save the ribbons...")

At age 100, Laverents died on May 6th (you can read the New York Times obituary of him here). Though he never made much of a living as a filmmaker, he joins Abraham Zapruder as one of the few hobbyist moviemakers whose work are among the (now) 500 films in the National Film Registry. Multiple SIDosis is a marvel of technical ingenuity that might seem radically quaint in today's digital age (a film like this would be easy to do now, with ProTools and Final Cut). But in the 60s and 70s, it took a keen sense of timing to pull off what Laverents does here. And it required an exacting artistry (especially if you know what it once took to achieve multiple exposures--Laverents had to have cut a thousand mattes to hit this apex). To quote Bruce Weber's (as usual) exacting Times article: "Using repeated exposures of the same piece of film, Mr. Laverents kept adding different shots of himself playing the different musical lines. The skill, patience and fastidiousness of the filmmaking is extraordinary. Not only did Mr. Laverents perform all the individual parts beautifully, but because he was re-exposing the same piece of film again and again to layer on the next part, if he made a mistake on the eighth run-through, say, he had to begin again." This veritable orgy of color-laden, split-screen mania--made outstandingly funny by the slight nature of the concept itself--required a major amount of grunt-work from the impassioned Laverents (and his one-time wife, Adelaide, who gave him the tape recorder and often operated the 16mm camera), and it all pays off by making us feel wonderfully, unexpectedly giddy. It's a lovely, lovable film--a masterpiece, really--that makes me wanna see more by the man.

Film #128: White Hunter Black Heart

White Hunter Black Heart may not be a movie that many people consider a classic, but I certainly do: in fact, it may be producer/ director/ actor Clint Eastwood's most overlooked film. Released in 1990, screenwriter Peter Viertel's kinetic adaptation of his roman a'clef novel chronicles his mercurial relationship with uber-macho director John Huston while on location in Africa filming (or not filming) 1951's The African Queen. None of the real names are used here--Eastwood's John Huston is named "John Wilson"--but you'll easily spy all the players (including Marisa Berenson as Kate Hepburn/"Kay Gibson" and Richard Vanstone as Humphrey Bogart/"Phil Duncan").

Plopping two of the biggest Hollywood stars ever out in the middle of the Dark Continent was considered abject madness back in the era where verisimilitude in setting often was achieved on studio backlots or in front of a rear-screen projection system. But Huston wouldn't agree to film former critic James Agee's script until it was rewritten (by he and Viertel), and until the producer Sam Spiegel agreed to shoot it in color and on location. This alone ballooned the original budget, but Spiegel's troubles were just beginning. Once Huston's plane landed in the Congo, it was clear he had things other than filmmaking on his mind. In fact, Huston was wholly disinterested in the project, and was instead obsessed with downing Scotch, pissing everybody off and, especially, bagging his first African elephant on safari. As portrayed in White Hunter Black Heart, Huston viewed the trip as an opportunity to come face-to-face with the primal forces of nature, and emerge victorious. He saltily goads Viertel (a bright-eyed Jeff Fahey) into joining him on the hunt, even as the writer is desperately trying to do his work on the script. Meanwhile, Spiegel (George Dzundza) bleeds money trying to keep the cast and crew--and the African extras--ready for the first day of shooting (the fact that they arrive during the region's rainy season doesn't help matters).

Though, as usual in an Eastwood film, I don't feel the supporting characters are really all that well-played (including the rather limp Fahey), I do find Eastwood's performance so overwhelmingly impressive, the script (by Viertel, James Bridges and western auteur Burt Kennedy) so engaging, and the African locales so rapturously photographed (by Jack Green) that, for me, this becomes one of the director's most vivid efforts. In a complete departure from his usual persona, Eastwood is brusque and rather lovingly offensive as the perplexing, frustrating "John Wilson." The squint is still in evidence, but Eastwood does a pretty snazzy imitation of John Huston's distinctive drawl (it's still delivered through a pure Eastwood prism, though). It might be a little off-putting to viewers expecting to see Clint treading familiar waters, but Wilson's cruel rants are terrific material for this icon to sink into, so any doubters will quickly be won over. Wilson is one of Eastwood's most despicable characters eventually, but he does have possess an overpowering respect for the natives (he makes his African hunting guide an advisor on the film) and an admirable sense of honor. My favorite scene in the film has Wilson elegantly, imaginatively reading the riot act to a anti-semitic Englishwoman who's just insulted Fahey's Jewish character. Including the menacing dialogue from this scene will not dampen its effect onscreen in any way:

John Wilson: I would like to tell you a little story.
Mrs. MacGregor: Oh, I love stories.
John Wilson: Well, you mustn't interrupt now, because you're way too beautiful to interrupt people. When I was in London in the early 40's, I was dining one evening at the Savoy with a rather select group of people, and sitting next to me was a very beautiful lady, much like yourself.
Mrs. MacGregor: Now you're pulling my leg.
John Wilson: Now, just listen, dear. Well, we were dining and the bombs were falling, and we were all talking about Hitler and comparing him with Napoleon, and we were all being really brilliant. And then, suddenly, this beautiful lady, she spoke up and said that was the thing she didn't mind about Hitler, was the way he was treating the Jews. Well, we all started arguing with her, of course. Though, mind you, no one at the table was Jewish. But she persisted. Are you listening, honey?
Mrs. MacGregor: Mustn't interrupt Daddy.
John Wilson: That's right. You're way too beautiful for that. Anyway, she went on to say that that's how she felt about it, that if she had her way, she would kill them all, burn them in ovens, like Hitler. Well, we all sat there in silence. Then finally, I leaned over to her and I said, "Madam, I have dined with some of the ugliest goddamn bitches in my time. And I have dined with some of the goddamndest ugly bitches in this world. But you, my dear, are the ugliest bitch of them all." Well, anyway, she got up to leave and she tripped over a chair and fell on the floor. And we all just sat there. No one raised a hand to help her. And finally when she picked herself up I said to her one more time: "You, my dear, are the ugliest goddamn bitch I have ever dined with." Well, you know what happened? The very next day, she reported me to the American Embassy. And they brought me in for reprimand. And then when they investigated it, they found out she was a German agent. And they locked her up. [smiles] Isn't that amazing?
Mrs. MacGregor: Why did you tell me that story?
John Wilson: Oh, I don't know. It wasn't because I thought you were a German agent, honey. But I was tempted tonight to say the very same thing to you. I didn't want you to think I had never said it before. You, madam, are the--well, you know the rest...I think this is just a good a snatch of Eastwood-speak as anything that Dirty Harry ever said. Even if he is the textbook Ugly American, Eastwood forces us to root for Wilson despite his fistfights, insults, temper tantrums, deathly personal failings, and sturdy narcissism. Our morbid curiosity lasts right up to the film's unforgettable final dolly-shot, which always jolts me into even higher regard for White Hunter Black Heart.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Film #127: Marathon Man

After winning Oscars in 1969 for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and again in 1976 for All the President's Men, legendary screenwriter William Goldman scribbled down the novel Marathon Man as well as its corresponding screenplay. Produced in 1976, the movie is clearly flawed, yet still I count it as an enjoyable tension-fest from Midnight Cowboy director John Schlesinger. A long way from Ratso, Dustin Hoffman plays an athletic Columbia University student who, through the actions of his desperate CIA operative brother (Roy Schieder), unwittingly becomes enmeshed in an exiled Nazi's scheme to retrieve a vile cache of concentration-camp diamonds. Marathon Man's an often outneedly vulgar movie (the opening scene--an ugly NYC street battle between an elderly, alleged Nazi and a Jewish accuser--is particularly distasteful), and it's repeatedly stultified by a romantic subplot involving suspicious Marthe Keller (she's always a Euro-nothing in movies, and her male counterpart, the equally untrustworthy William Devane, could be considered an Amerinothing). So I'm not really making a case for loving this film, am I? That's 'cause I'm holding back on the one outstanding feature that makes it worth seeing. I mean, yeah, Hoffman gives his dim character enough cunning and vulnerability to keep us caring, but really this movie makes my cut based solely on the searing supporting performance delivered by Lawrence Olivier, who wholly dominates the proceedings as Dr. Christian Szell ("The White Angel"), the ice-cold Nazi physician looking for those gems he filched from Jewish victims.

In the movie's most famous and distressing scene, Szell terrorizes Hoffman with Novocain-less dentistry and the horrifyingly vague query "Is it safe?" (Olivier repeats the same line over 20 times during his first major appearance, and each time the line's said with a radically differing inflection; it's an astonishing movie moment that no doubt accounts for Olivier's ninth Oscar nomination; I do need to also praise Hoffman's performance opposite Olivier, even IF--and maybe BECAUSE--the two actors hated each other). Chalk it up to Olivier; because of his late-career charisma, Marathon Man overcomes Schlesinger's lazy drabness and huge plot problems--this is NOT one of William Goldman's most well-considered writerly moments--and remains a memorable bit of 70s paranoia. Even so, Marathon Man's also a prime example of a movie that could easily go unseen were it not for the presence of a single jewel.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Film #126: Hoosiers

In 1986's Hoosiers--by far the finest basketball film out there--Gene Hackman is the bearish, enigmatic new teacher/coach at the tiny 1950s-era high school that anchors the Indiana farm town of Hickory. With its small student body and a dwindling supply of basketball talents to match, the coach finds himself against the bleachers in shaping a winning team (even the well-cast townspeople, who're mighty serious about their basketball, are on his back). He's got a star who refuses to play (Maris Valanis), another whose dad (Dennis Hopper) was long ago the Hickory team's great hope but who's spent the ensuing years as town drunk, a boss and best friend (Sheb Wooley) who's hitting the sickbed, and a teaching colleague (Barbara Hershey) who resents Hackman's and the town's passion for the game. And things get worse for Hackman before they get better.

It's all pure and simple corn, but it's mighty tasty corn. Based on a true story, adapted by Angelo Pizzo and directed by David Anspaugh (formerly a director/producer on TV's Hill Street Blues), Hoosiers manages to be one of those uplifting sports movies that doesn't make you feel like a dupe for cheering. Its writing is smart, its blue-hued period detail is convincing, and the unusual Jerry Goldsmith score is decidedly rousing in the right places. And though the acting is terrific all around (Hackman is particularly arresting in his scenes with the boys), it's Hopper who absconds with the film; as Shooter, he provides Hoosiers with many of its emotional highlights (his few words to his estranged son before a game is the stuff of cliche, but this nervous, sweaty character is imbued with a wobbly-voiced dignity that triggers our sentiment). Hopper was nominated for his first--and to date, only--acting Oscar for this supporting role that shines a contrasting light on that other notorious 1986 movie in which he excelled, David Lynch's Blue Velvet. I still think Hopper indubitably deserved the award for his maniacal, Lynchian superman Frank Booth, but he's surely excellent here, too, so we'll have to take what we can get from the Academy. Pizzo and Anspaugh would reteam in 1993 for another underdog sports movie, the arguably more popular Rudy with Sean Astin. But I think Hoosiers is their unassuming, moving highpoint.

Film #125: Broadway: The Golden Age

Even if you don't consider yourself a stage enthusiast (heck, I've only taken in five or six Broadway productions), you'll be overwhelmed by Rick McKay's joyful 2004 doc Broadway: The Golden Age. The charismatic McKay is a lifelong New York stage expert who, in narration, wealthily frames his movie with reminiscences of a now-unfathomably accessible time for Broadway (you could go see a play starring Marlon Brando for less than it cost to catch a film), then almost singlehandedly embarks on a quest to interview scads of mid-20th century stage stars, intending to center in on their stage recollections. The director ends up talking on-screen to 100 personalities, and emerges with quite a valuable document that--by showing us how important Broadway once was to shaping our taste in music, movies, writing and acting--does no less than put all 20th Century American culture into perspective. Among the subjects on which McKay focuses: the troubled gestation of West Side Story; Shirley MacLaine's storybook Broadway debut in The Pajama Game; the arrival of Brando on the Broadway scene; the now-forgotten matriarch of method acting Laurette Taylor (seen in revelatory, rare archival footage); and Angela Lansbury's stage triumph as Mame (McKay even includes some 8mm footage he secretly shot of Lansbury's performance).

Just a partial list of interviewees--some of whom passed away before or quickly after the film's release--is daunting: Carol Burnett, Martin Landau, Uta Hagen, Alec Baldwin, Robert Goulet, Shirley MacLaine, Jeremy Irons, Gwen Verdon, Al Hirschfeld, Elaine Strich, Carol Channing, Harold Prince, Maureen Stapleton, Robert Goulet, Stephen Sondheim, Kim Hunter, Fay Wray...and the cast goes on and on. McKay's juggling of these pieces is deft; he takes a project that could easily be expanded into a six-hour miniseries and condenses it down to 100 minutes without ever making us feel rushed (McKay is working on two other installments of his Broadway project: one covering the 70s, 80s and 90s; and one covering the present state of the art form). Another thing: unlike the recent PBS miniseries about Broadway musicals, Broadway: The Golden Age gives just as much lip service to dramas by, say, Williams or O'Neill. Adorned with meticulous photo and film research, a closing-credits array of songs sung live by some of the participants, and an obviously obsessive, well-informed passion for the subject matter, Rick McKay's Broadway: The Golden Age is authoritative, essential, and remarkable in every way.

Friday, May 15, 2009

FILMICABILITY lands 5 Lammy nominations!

Wow! Thanks to all my fellow Lambs who submitted my site for the five categories in which I was included (Most Ambitious, Most Likely to Get Paid, Most Prolific, the Brainiac Award and the biggest surprise, for me, was the inclusion of my 20 Favorite Actors piece in the Best Blogathon/Meme category)! I didn't get a nod for Best Blog, but I did land in the top five most-nominated sites, along with Blog Cabins, Final Girl, Only The Cinema, and Lazy Eye Theater. So that's somethin'! At any rate, I hope to win at least one, but my competition is heavy on all fronts. Oh, well--it truly is just nice to be nominated. Good luck to all of my compatriots!

Film #124: Tess

I prefer watching my fiction to reading it (non-fiction tomes are my reading predilection), so it takes quite a movie to whallop me into reading the book upon which it's based. But when I first saw Roman Polanski's 1980 masterpiece Tess on the big screen upon its release, I rushed out to snap up Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'ubervilles, published in 1891. It's a rush of a tale--downbeat and downhearted--that's remains floral in emotion and description, telling the story of the shy, comely title character (played by Nastassja Kinski), the daughter of a harried Irish drunkard who, when invited to work for a distant and wealthy relative, catches the eye of her well-to-do cousin (Leigh Lawson), a cocky cad who tries to goad Tess into romance (the disappointing results lead him to a nighttime act of vengeance). Even so, Tess continues her daily duties, milking cows and working the fields, when she meets the farmhand, Angel Claire (Peter Firth), who's her hauntingly innocent romantic ideal. Polanski's surprising, gentle film documents this tragic triangle with a wellspring of gorgeous images--it's the director's most visually poetic work. From the gaggle of white-dressed dancing girls parading madly about the opening scene, to the stunning close-up of Tess reluctantly eating a strawberry fed to her by that man, to the sunrise denouement set at Stonehenge, there's plenty of elegance in which to bathe.

Polanski's then-19-year-old lover Kinski made the jump from awful European B-movies like To the Devil...A Daughter to this picturesque opus with deft ease. Even if Polanski hadn't been exiled to Europe after his Chinatown-era legal troubles, he would have had a difficult time finding an ingenue equally able to assay this role. Actually, it's not that Kinski's performance itself is so accomplished; it's just that she's so resolutely stunning to look at that you can't tear your eyes away. With her pouty lips, blank-slate stare, and naive underplaying, Kinski is an immensely attractive anchor for this massively-scaled movie; she need only be so beautiful that men would kill or die for her, and this she achieves. Polanski dedicated Tess to his one-time wife Sharon Tate (murdered in 1969 by the Manson family), and in doing so, poured untold amounts of love, past and present, into his work. After decades of abrasive, claustrophobic films, during what very likely could have been one of the more ennui-filled episodes of the troubled director's life, Polanski seems to be taking a long-needed walk through a downy meadow. Working from an adaptation co-written by Gerard Brach and John Brownjohn, Polanski finds both the winsomeness and the horror in Hardy's novel and transmits it to screen undisturbed.

The supporting cast--the peaceful Firth, the hissable Lawson, John Collin as Tess' besotted father, and Susanna Hamilton as her best friend Izz, among others--is superb. And the picture won three well-deserved Oscars: for Pierre Guffroy and Jack Stephens' opulent art direction, Anthony Powell's sumptuous costumes, and the delectible cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth (2001, Cabaret) and Ghislain Cloquet (Cloquet took over camera duties after Unsworth died mid-production). Philippe Sarde's majestic, well-arranged score was nominated for the Oscar, but lost to Georges Delarue's superior music backing A Little Romance, but that didn't stop the Tess soundtrack from taking its place on my turntable regularly in the early '80s. This unmissable, airy yet depressing costume drama was clearly produced by Claude Berri, who would go on to direct the similarly opulent late-1980s epic Jean De Florette / Manon of the Springs. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Film #123: Bigger Than Life

Bigger Than Life, released in 1956, is Nicholas Ray's masterpiece starring James Mason as a milquetoast elementary school teacher named Ed Avery, struggling economically at home and at work, and newly diagnosed with a rare, dooming affliction. The cure is a hormone--cortisone--that the menacing doctors advise him to take indefinitely. Once he's out of harm's way, the physicians also warn him to look out for any emotional changes, because cortisone often results in extreme manic-depression for its takers. But he's not listening. Immediately we get the feeling that only bad things are going to happen (Ray first has us glimpse Mason from behind, his camera looming ominously behind the character as he massages his stinging neck).

The journey Mason embarks on is a veritable nightmare, pure and simple (I'm now wondering if 50s-movie-fan Todd Haynes got a little inspiration here for his 1995 film Safe, with Julianne Moore, because it features a similarly lifeless lead character who's propelled into turmoil due to a difficult disease). It's not long after he begins the cortisone treatment that Mason becomes a thoroughly offbeat person. Feeling "ten feet tall" after the treatment, he soon wants to feel even taller, and begins abusing the drug. First, he's physically manic: he's oily and sweaty as he throws his old college football around--inside a 50s-immaculate house--with his adoring son (Christopher Olson). Early in the movie, before the affliction really takes hold, Mason's character genially describes himself as "dull" to his wife, played by Barbara Rush (he says she's dull, too, and we can feel this exquisite yet housebound woman wilt at the description--she doesn't know how "exciting" her life is about to get). Reacting to this malaise, Mason forces his happy-as-is wife and son's accompaniment on an ill-advised spending spree that's not in line with his income as a teacher (also, Mason rashly ditches his at-one-time thoughtful but demeaning = second job as a taxi dispatcher, which he has kept secret from his wife and child).

The film's second act deepens the conflict. Now, not only is Mason overactive in body, he's overactive in mind as well. He holds court at a school PTA meeting, telling adoring parents that "Childhood is a congenital disease--and the purpose of education is to cure it. We're breeding a race of moral midgets!" (Interestingly, this splits the parents into factions: one thinks this man is a monster, one thinks he should be the school's principal.) Mason becomes a true terror at home, goading his once-loving son past achievement and into hatred, threatening to deny him dinner if he doesn't catch the next football pass or solve the math problem put to him (both scenes are terrifying, especially today; modern parents will find the sequences absolutely abhorrent). Mason, overdosing on the cortisone (he thinks something supreme is happening to him, and here the film becomes a drug-addiction parable), even comes to the conclusion that wife and son are trying to undermine his authority, and thus--in a sickening dinner-table sequence--he summarily disowns them.

SPOILER ALERT: The utterly mortifying third act has the son--who now knows the pink-bottled drugs are transforming his dad into a ghoul--rummaging through Mason's belongings in order to find and destroy the cortisone (the unbelievably well-directed scene results in the film's one true JUMP moment). The scene occurs just as Mason is turning his newly-cynical worldview to religion as well (we can see Mason shrinking into despair during dinner-time grace and church outings). After Olsen's "betrayal" (in which the boy says, amazingly, "I'd rather see you dead than see you like you are now"), Mason picks up the Holy Bible and refers to Abraham killing his son after he sins. Rush--who delivers a strong, superb performance--tries to dissuade Mason who, scissors in hand, is bound to kill Olsen. She tries to remind him that God was merciful with Abraham, but Mason emotes, in the film's most famous moment, as he slams the Bible shut, "GOD WAS WRONG" (the Bible is then noticably relegated to the floor). This movie's final twenty minutes will have you on biting your nails, as Rush calls on Mason's co-worker and athletic best friend Walter Matthau (terrific, as always), to come to their rescue. SPOILER ENDED.

Director Nicholas Ray (left)--with other films like On Dangerous Ground, The Lusty Men, In A Lonely Place, King of Kings, and Rebel Without A Cause--has consistently pleaded the case for out-of-bounds, truth-telling characters. But with Bigger Than Life, he's staked higher, more rocky ground. After reading Gavin Lambert's tell-all memoir Mainly About Lindsay Anderson, I now know that Bigger Than Life is Ray's confession about his own deadly addiction. His film makes us aware of the causes of Ed Avery's faults, but it nevertheless compels us to despise him first and pity him second. Written by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum (the latter most famous for being the scribe of many James Bond pictures), with contributions from Clifford Odets, Ray, and Mason himself, the movie is stultifyingly photographed in scary, shocking contemporary lights and shadows by Joe McDonald. This is especially so in scenes where Rush and Mason clash over the run of the house (these moments often take place on the home's staircase which, by the end of the film, is brutally demolished). Though I don't care for David Raskin's overemotive score, or for the movie's too-comforting final seconds, Bigger Than Life is an overlooked, influential stunner that deserves much more adoration.'

Friday, May 8, 2009

2009 Movie Diary (January-early May)

I have to clear my MOVIE DIARY sidebar, so I'm committing it to posterity as an entry into the body of my blog. I review each film in fifteen words or less (which is harder than one might think). This diary doesn't include individual episodes of such TV series as The Office (US), Lou Grant, The Bob Newhart Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Partridge Family, The Honeymooners, 30 Rock, and Lost in Space. The best movies are marked with 2 stars. Anyway, from January 2009 to early May 2009 (from bottom to top), I watched:

**My Bodyguard (as always, sweetly friendly film wins affection, thanks to neat cast and Dave Grusin score)
*House on Haunted Hill (funny, scary slice of late-50s horror with Vincent Price and Carolyn Craig's ear-piercing screams)
**Abel Raises Cain (affectionate portrait of American master hoaxters Alan & Jeanne Abel, filmed brilliantly by narrator/ daughter Jenny)
**Carny (strangely lovable, horrifying, scuzzy diary of carny life with extraordinary cast toplining perfect Gary Busey)
*Agnes of God (excruciatingly boring, save for comparatively radiant Meg Tilly title performance)
**Contact (better than I remembered--not flawless, but brave, brash, intelligent, and well-crafted by all)
**Targets (still an astonishing achievement; this time noticed the film's artfully muted color and sound)
*Atonement (molasses-paced doomed romance could've been told in 15 minutes; an over-rated waste of time)
*Mary, Queen of Scots (ambitious but frigid period drama with Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson as battling monarchs)
**Who'll Stop The Rain (engrossing, exciting, thoughtful Karel Reitz drug-running actioner with superb Nolte, Weld, Moriarty, and Masur)
**Broadcast News (unbelievably prescient TV news drama from James Brooks, with dynamic Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks)
**Election (Alexander Payne's funny, insightful high-school-based comedy is powerhouse satire of sexual and political mores)
*Crazy Love (doc about twisted NYC love affair is sordidly entertaining, but still not particularly outstanding)
**Prizzi's Honor (exquisite, classy John Huston mob comedy from 1985 holds up sturdily in every way)
*I'm Not There (Todd Haynes' Dylan biopic is inventive but patience-trying; co-stars a riveting Cate Blanchett)
*The Delicate Delinquent (one can see why Jerry Lewis turned to directing; he's too good for this material)
**The Rapture (Michael Tolkin's one-of-a-kind masterpiece; Mimi Rogers' finest moment and a creepy, essential film about faith)
*The Bourne Ultimatum (we've seen the first two: ho-hum--what's all the fuss about?)
** 42nd Street (zippy, fast-paced 30s-era musical; astonishing cast headed by cute Ruby Keeler; choreography by Busby Burkely)
*Down to the Bone (dishwater bland indie lucks out with admittedly standout Vera Farminga as drug-addicted mom)
**Quo Vadis (first and possibly best of 50s-era biblical epics; co-stars the incredible Peter Ustinov as Nero)
*The Lords of Flatbush (ugly look at 50s leather jacket gang with intriguing pre-fame Stallone and Winkler tossed in garbage)
*Privilege (the first disappointing effort I've seen from master filmmaker Peter Watkins; a tremendous bore)
*We Don't Live Here Anymore (shrill and unpleasant domestic disturbance drama ruefully wastes Mark Ruffalo, Naomi Watts, Laura Dern)
*Each Dawn I Die (engrossing but totally illogical 1939 George Raft/James Cagney prison film)
**In the Year of the Pig (dryly informative, yet extremely valuable Vietnam overview via radical director Emile De Antonio)
*Young People (quaint final Shirley Temple musical; unremarkable songs, but Jack Oakie is a powerhouse as vaudvillian dad)
*The World According to Garp (Hill's disappointing John Irving adaptation sports top-notch supporting work by Glenn Close and John Lithgow)
** Ryan's Daughter (unabashedly wonderful; exquisite David Lean Madame Bovary variation with Sarah Miles as surrepticiously naive villain)
* G-Men (inconsequential 30s-era vehicle with James Cagney as miscast good-guy)
* Uptown Girls (dunderhead comedy boasts of preternaturally great Dakota Fanning performance and dark lead by Brittany Murphy)
* The Last Shot (distastefully crude Hollywood-centered comedy with excellent cast slumming big time)
* Islands in the Stream (slow-as-molasses Hemingway adaptation with glistening Caribbean locale lovingly photographed)
** The Bellboy (superlative, silent-movie-inspired wackiness from Jerry Lewis, filmed at Miami's Fountainbleu)
* The War (Ken Burns WWII doc, typically detailed, emotive but a li'l repetitive)
** Tenacious D (the HBO shorts) (remains stupendously funny even after umpteenth viewing; great earworm songs, too)
** Playtime (Jacques Tati's picturesque comedy opus is staggeringly inventive, but really should be seen on screen)
**On Golden Pond (schmaltzy drama with Fonda and Kate Hepburn draws ill-won tears with autumnal photography, music, performances)
**Wife Versus Secretary (looks like comedy, but it's really a melodrama, starring handsome Gable, Loy & Lombard)
*Tantrums and Tiaras (complete access can't rescue ultimately empty Elton John home movie filmed by companion David Furnish)
*2010 (inconsequential 2001 sequel achieves eeriness when HAL and Keir Dullea re-appear in famed set recreations)
*I Am Legend (utter swill; this is what we waited years to see?)
**The Confessions of Robert Crumb (much more playful than Zwigoff's downcast--but superior--1995 movie; Crumb's gamely fun-loving here)
**Gideon's Trumpet (Emmy-winning TV movie with superlative, penultimate performance from Henry Fonda as history-changing prison inmate)
* Cinderella Liberty (James Caan and Marsha Mason are effective; screenplay and kid are not)
**John Adams (ambitious HBO miniseries starts strong, but inevitably ends weakly; excellent leads from Giamatti and Linney)
*Behind Locked Doors (very slight early Budd Boetticher mental-ward B-movie with Tor Johnson in small role)
*Skeches of Frank Gehry (Sydney Pollack's final directorial outing is daring if not entirely successful documentary portraying singular architectual genius)
**Macon County Line (love this 70s drive-in staple, despite awful Max Baer direction; just makes me feel good)
**L'Enfant (shattering, infuriating, revealing, exhausting; the Dardenne Brothers reach genius with this unparalleled melodrama)
*Up The Down Staircase (wildly uneven Robert Mulligan urban school soap starring as-always shaky Sandy Dennis)
**Border Incident (eerily precognative early Anthony Mann immigration drama adorned with crackling black-and-white photography)
*Shut Up And Sing (diverting but finally threadbare Dixie Chicks documentary teaches us nothing)
*The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (a major disappointment; dynamic Arkin and Locke imprisoned in so-so-land; based on Carson McCuller's novel)
*Entourage (season 3) (once-insightful HBO series about present-day Hollywood seems to be running on fumes)
*Forrest Gump (massive 90s hit is way more morally, politically insulting than I remember; utterly reprehensible)
*Music and Lyrics (lunkheaded Barrymore/Grant rom-com lacks charm, excepting okay songs by Adam Schlesinger)
**A Man for All Seasons (fetching, regal Best Picture winner with endlessly fascinating Robert Bolt script and Paul Scofield lead)
**Papillon (love this Steve McQueen prison drama, regardless of everyone thinking it a snoozefest)
*The Tarnished Angels (wobbly Douglas Sirk soaper with totally dismissable screenplay based on William Faulkner)
**Ticket to Heaven (Canada's religious cult drama chills blood despite 80s TV-movie trappings; incredible lead from Nick Mancuso)
**Bubble (haunting, low-key Soderburgh-directed murder-mystery boasts of insightful all-amateur cast)
* The Bucket List (Nicholson and Freeman are clearly coasting on already-won charm while stuck with doofus screenplay)
**Seinfeld (Seasons 1, 2, 3) (we now see it's powered largely by acidic Larry David touch)
**When Televisions Attack (dizzying pastiche of bad TV from Vice magazine that'll have you snorting with laffs)
**Das Boot (Wolfgang Petersen's radically fascinating, perfectly-designed Nazi submarine epic with fantastic art direction, cinematography, and sound)
**Night of the Juggler (scummy early 80s B-movie with lively cast, colorful early 80s NYC locations, and exciting action)
**Persepolis (perfection in design and animation; however, surprisingly cold emotionally)
*Son of Rambow (sort of charming, sort of dull British coming-of-age comedy)
**The Mist (outlandish, fun, hole-ridden horror from Frank Darabont, though Carpenter's The Fog is better)
**Mad Men (season 1) (perfectly-produced, hateful series is so incredible I cannot yet put it into words)
**The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (perfection is had in Brad Pitt/Casey Affleck performances, Dominick's direction/screenplay, Deakins' photography)
**Be Kind Rewind (unremittingly silly, but heartfelt elegy to the now-dead video store, with inventive "sweded" movie recreations)
**The Dark Knight (as muddled, dull--and electric via Ledger--as I remembered; recommended only for his performance)
**The Wrestler (Mickey Rourke, Mickey Rourke, Mickey Rourke!)
**Doubt (stellar acting from Streep, Hoffman, Davis, and Adams; gorgeous Roger Deakins images; better than expected)
**Falling Down (Michael Douglas' finest hour; addmittedly overwrought, but well-crafted nonetheless)
**Soylent Green (70s sci-fi classic more relevant now than ever; don't let clunky sets turn you off)
*Milk (way overrated; watch The Times of Harvey Milk instead)
*Frost/Nixon (pointless Ron Howard movie zinged only by Frank Langella's lead)
**The Full Monty (still moving British crowdpleaser with a unique ensemble cast and Oscar-winning Anne Dudley score)
*Comes A Horseman (succulent Gordon Willis cinematography redeems too-thoughtful, slow-paced western; excellent support from Richard Farnsworth)
*Anchorman (nothing's more embarrassing than bad improv captured on film)
**Dark City (emotionally cold but visually resplendant 90s sci-fi from writer/director Alex Proyas)
**True Grit (still wildly enjoyable 1969 western, with eccentric Wayne performance and brilliant Elmer Bernstein score)
**The Longest Yard (1974 version) (best-ever football movie, with incredible editing /split-screen and raucous laughs; one of Burt Reynolds' best)
**Noises Off (Peter Bogdanovich toys boldly with staginess and earns high marks with yeoman cast)
**Auntie Mame (snappy Rosiland Russell showcase, colorfully designed and costumed)
* Hairspray (the musical) (annoying; Michelle Pfeiffer and Christopher Walken are good, though)
**Paranoid Park (lyrical Van Sant character study of troubled skateboarder with evocative soundtrack and Chris Doyle cinematography)
**In Bruges (un-freakin'-believeable! Perfect cast excels with perfect screenplay! A real surprise)
**The Magician (Sneaky, lighthearted and often spooky early Bergman film about wandering performance troupe)
**Breaking Away (joyous 1979 Oscar-winner is still sharp, exciting, touching, funny and somehow gritty, too)
*The Fisher King (here, director Gilliam is unwatchably sentimental, but he nevertheless stages stunning moments)
**The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford's final true masterpiece, with Stewart, Wayne, and Marvin remains heartbreaking and sublime)
**The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston film about greed never gets old; it's essential viewing)
*The Fall of the Roman Empire (jaw-dropping sets/costumes, but confused epic tumbles under own weight)
**Fatso (Anne Bancroft's sole directorial effort is utterly unique, with perceptive, big-hearted lead from Dom Deluise)
*Brannigan (drab 70s John Wayne actioner set in 70s London; unctious score by Dominic Frontiere)
*The Horse Soldiers (uneven John Ford Civil War tale is enlivened by pro cast, including John Wayne and William Holden)
*First Person (master documentarian Errol Morris profiles a series of truly unconventional thinkers; weird, and sometimes gross)
**L.A. Confidential (sorry, but Curtis Hanson's noir-flavored critical darling from 1996 ages rather badly)
*My Name is Bruce (embarrassingly awful vanity project from Bruce Campbell is not even good for cheap laughs)
**The Insider (always-worthwhile anti-tobacco screed represents career bests for Michael Mann and Russell Crowe)
**JCVD (surprise! Van Damme delivers a kick-ass performance!)
**Gran Torino (Eastwood impresses again with well-modulated, old-fashioned, self-referential entertainment)
**The Awful Truth (hysterically funny screwball comedy with debonair Cary Grant and ultra-sexy Irene Dunne)
**Awakenings (Penny Marshall's once too-sentimental medical drama is positively subtle in today's light)
**The Honeymoon Killers (Leonard Kastle's horrifying, darkly humorous B&W masterpiece about soulless lonelyhearts killers)
* The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (intermittently funny final Harold Lloyd comedy wears out welcome way too soon)
**God Told Me To (perfectly bizarre Larry Cohen horror tale with strong spiritual resonance)
**Hollywood Party (unexpectedly surreal laughs abound in weird Durante/Laurel & Hardy/3 Stooges/Mickey Mouse mishmash)
**The Tall T (sumptuous, heartfelt Budd Boetticher western starring understated Randolph Scott)
*The Walker (yet another in a series of recent crushing bores from writer/director Paul Schrader)
*The Klansmen (a terrible, ugly abomination; Lee Marvin and Richard Burton emerge obliterated)

A Little Self-Promotion

I'm frantically trying, right now, to visit absolutely every website listed in the Large Association of Movie Blogs (or the LAMB's) pantheon. It's really difficult to do, even in the space of a week. But, as the site's annual blogger awards, the LAMMIES, are fast approaching, I have to post this ad I concocted tubthumping my own achievements this year.

In little over the space of one year, I've posted 200 articles. Some are as short as this one, some are longer than you could possibly imagine. But I couldn't let the voting period go by without attempting to tout the time I've spent pouring over my love for the cinema. As for my competitors and comrades, I know I have my favorites out there and, in the interest of fairness, as a voting LAMB, I'm trying to get to know each and every LAMB personally. But I must confess that there are some extraordinary blogs which I've been following for a while now, so they have the "leg" up on the others. Still, I wanna be introduced to more great film writing, so I'm methodically making my way through the entire LAMB list before submitting my final votes.

Anyway, it's been a great year for me. I love doing this blog. It's as much a reference site for me as it is for anyone who visits filmicability. And I hope to be doing it for many years to come. Of course, if I could get PAID to do it, that would would make life all the more sweet. At any rate, thanks to all my fellow LAMBS for visiting, and for being as dedicated as you are. Good luck to you all in this current awards season. Really, I hope you all get noticed.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Side Orders #11

Just to break up The 9 Years a bit, here's another edition of my film clip series SIDE ORDERS. We start with the first film ever made -- and no, it's not Women Leaving A Factory by the Lumiere Brothers. That was the first film over 30 seconds, and was made in 1895. This is Thomas Edison's Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze, filmed on Jan. 7, 1894. So that means we just passed the 115th Anniversary of the art form! Thanks to the Library of Congress, an indefatigable reference source for movie history.

Here's one of my favorite love scenes of all time, from George Stevens' 1951 film A Place in the Sun. Montgomery Clift is a poor boy working a factory owned by the father of Elizabeth Taylor. They're conducting an affair while Clift is also off getting frumpy factory co-worker Shelley Winters "in trouble." Steven's claustrophobic, intimate handling of Clift and Taylor's first dance together undoubtably propelled the director into receiving his first Oscar that year (as did the film's superior, Oscar-winning black-and-white photography by William C. Mellor). I, and millions of other filmgoers, have swooned over the palpable nervous energy these two actors have together, and Taylor--with her famous final line--has never been sexier. Great film, and the winner of four more Oscars for its screenplay (by Michale Wilson and Harry Brown), costumes (by Edith Head), editing (by William Hornbeck) and music (by Franz Waxman).

This is a short scene from a movie I love, but on which very few people agree with me: Franklin Schaffner's Papillon, released in 1974, with Steve McQueen as Henri "Papillon" Cheriere, a prisoner at the brutal jungle prison that was once run out of French Guiana in South America. Papillon spends most of the movie trying to figure out how to escape from this hellhole, with fellow prisoner and best friend Dustin Hoffman acting as his one investor. It's an exciting film, both in action and in its filmmaking quality. My favorite sequences come when Papillon is thrown into solitary confinement for a ridiculous number of years--a state which drives him to despair and lunacy. Occurring during this period, the following is a dream sequence of such stunning power (I love its brevity) that I think it's been hard for many viewers to forget; I've even seen it referenced in an episode of The Sopranos. The two men to whom Papillon is running to greet are supporting characters who earlier met bloody fates. I feel this is an undeniably powerful sequence, especially in the context of the film. TURN THE SOUND UP FOR THIS.

I've always been a big Peanuts fan. So, of course I love the TV shows taken from Charles Schulz's strip and, perhaps against my better judgment, I like the movies, too--Snoopy Come Home, Race For Your Life Charlie Brown, and A Boy Named Charlie Brown. This scene, from the latter film, made in 1969, is unusual in that it gives a visual voice to one of the strips more inscrutable characters: Schroeder, the Beethoven-loving, piano-playing wunderkind. It's a perfect scene to lift out of the movie, because it involves no plot: it's just a beautifully-designed bit of Bill Melendez animation that puts pictures to what's going through Schroeder's head as he assays Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" on his toy piano. This scene never fails to bring a tear to my eye, somehow, especially when I note Schroeder's lovingly pained expression as he finishes the piece. It's a scene that indelibly illustrates fandom.