Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Saturday, December 06, 2008
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Monday, November 24, 2008
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
More so than almost any other cinematic hero that comes to mind, Shane (Alan Ladd) is a mythical being, more myth than man. When he makes his entrance, riding unto the farm of Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) he’s a mystery – We start out knowing nothing about him, and we don’t know much more at the film’s close.
If Shane were just another Western about a group of farmers battling against an evil cattle baron, it would have been forgotten long ago. The thing that elevates this movie into greatness is the way the characters are twisted just a tiny little bit away from stereotypical.
Take for instance the evil rancher Ryker played by Emile Meyer. Ryker is a bad guy - There’s no question about that, but look at what the film does with him. When Ryker comes to see Starrett, it’s not with threats, but with an offer to come work for him. Ryker gets a great speech about how he was one of the first to settle the land, along with “men who are mostly dead now”, and for a few seconds, we can actually sympathize with him. How many other Westerns have bothered to scratch the surface of a bad guy like this?
How about the “relationship” between Shane and Starrett’s wife Marian (Jean Arthur)? The film doesn’t really develop any sexual tension between the two, but it certainly doesn’t ignore it either. It makes a point of showing her reaction to Shane’s initial arrival, and it doesn’t seem to be just a case of her being fearful of the stranger. There’s a scene where the two dance together, and their body language is noticed by Starrett, who basically gives approval to his wife to take up with this new man if anything should happen to him. Watch Shane in another scene where Marian and her son Joey discuss him from the next room, and you see an unmistakable sense of longing and regret wash over him. Shane is allowed to live with this family, and sort of share in their lives, but he will never be able to have the same thing, and he knows it.
Then there’s the films “stock” character – The hired gun Wilson, played by Jack Palance. Wilson is fairly obviously set up for a showdown with Shane, and he plays the baddie card well, cruelly gunning down one farmer in the mud. Even at that, there’s ….something…. about Wilson. Listen to him as Ryker lays out his last resort plan for Starrett. Ryker says “I’ll kill him if I have to.”, to which Wilson replies with more than a hint of derision “You mean I’LL kill him if you have to.” I take from this Wilson’s quiet distain for those who won’t do their own killing. Wilson is a killer, and makes no apology for it. In his own twisted way, he’s a man of morals.
Here’s a final little treat – the climatic gunfight. This sequence is a marvel of slowly uncoiling tension. (Even the dog gets the hell out of the way!) Notice how Shane is now the one prodding things towards their violent conclusion, after turning the other cheek earlier. Although he takes no joy in it, he is now in his natural element. A man has to be what he is.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Thursday, August 28, 2008
Do you realize that in addition to fluoridating water, why, there are studies underway to fluoridate salt, flour, fruit juices, soup, sugar, milk, ice cream? Ice cream, Mandrake? Children's ice cream!...You know when fluoridation began?...1946. 1946, Mandrake. How does that coincide with your post-war Commie conspiracy, huh? It's incredibly obvious, isn't it? A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual, and certainly without any choice. That's the way your hard-core Commie works. I first became aware of it, Mandrake, during the physical act of love...Yes, a profound sense of fatigue, a feeling of emptiness followed. Luckily I was able to interpret these feelings correctly. Loss of essence. I can assure you it has not recurred, Mandrake. Women...women sense my power, and they seek the life essence. I do not avoid women, Mandrake...but I do deny them my essence.
Saturday, August 16, 2008
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
The Film – Big Night, dir. Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci
The Set-Up – Well, there is no set-up. This is the final scene of this marvelous little gem of a film. If you’ve seen the movie, you would know it simply as The Omelet Scene. If you haven’t seen it, no amount of explaining could do it justice. It's a beautiful coda to the story of the relationship between two very different individuals – the brothers Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci). So, if you know Big Night, enjoy. If you don’t, try to see it soon, OK?
Sunday, July 27, 2008
Saturday, July 26, 2008
Hello, little man. Boy, I sure heard a bunch about you. See, I was a good friend of your dad's. We were in that Hanoi pit of hell together over five years. Hopefully...you'll never have to experience this yourself, but when two men are in a situation like me and your Dad were, for as long as we were, you take on certain responsibilities of the other. If it had been me who had not made it, Major Coolidge would be talkin' right now to my son Jim. But the way it turned out is I'm talkin' to you, Butch. I got somethin' for you.This watch I got here was first purchased by your great-grandfather during the first World War. It was bought in a little general store in Knoxville, Tennessee. Made by the first company to ever make wrist watches. Up till then people just carried pocket watches. It was bought by private Doughboy Orion Coolidge on the day he set sail for Paris. It was your great-grandfather's war watch and he wore it everyday he was in that war. When he had done his duty, he went home to your great-grandmother, took the watch off, put it an old coffee can, and in that can it stayed 'til your granddad Dane Coolidge was called upon by his country to go overseas and fight the Germans once again. This time they called it World War II. Your great-grandfather gave this watch to your granddad for good luck. Unfortunately, Dane's luck wasn't as good as his old man's. Dane was a Marine and he was killed -- along with the other Marines at the battle of Wake Island. Your granddad was facing death, he knew it. None of those boys had any illusions about ever leavin' that island alive. So three days before the Japanese took the island, your granddad asked a gunner on an Air Force transport name of Winocki, a man he had never met before in his life, to deliver to his infant son, who he'd never seen in the flesh, his gold watch. Three days later, your granddad was dead. But Winocki kept his word. After the war was over, he paid a visit to your grandmother, delivering to your infant father, his Dad's gold watch. This watch. This watch was on your Daddy's wrist when he was shot down over Hanoi. He was captured, put in a Vietnamese prison camp. He knew if the gooks ever saw the watch it'd be confiscated, taken away. The way your Dad looked at it, that watch was your birthright. He'd be damned if any slopes were gonna put their greasy yella hands on his boy's birthright. So he hid it in the one place he knew he could hide something. His ass. Five long years, he wore this watch up his ass. Then he died of dysentery, he gave me the watch. I hid this uncomfortable hunk of metal up my ass two years. Then, after seven years, I was sent home to my family. And now, little man, I give the watch to you.
Friday, July 11, 2008
Tuesday, July 08, 2008
Sunday, July 06, 2008
Tuesday, July 01, 2008
Monday, June 30, 2008
For years, TVO’s Saturday Night at the Movies has been an oasis for film lovers in the province of Ontario. Host Elwy Yost would present two films, linked either by personnel (like, say, The Wild Bunch and Major Dundee) or theme (like The Grapes of Wrath and Bound for Glory). The films were enough on their own, but the cherry on top was Yost’s effusive interviews in the intermission between films. Here’s the first part of a discussion on the Auteur theory with some Hollywood notables.
Friday, June 27, 2008
The Magnificent Ambersons, screenplay by Orson Welles, based on the Booth Tarkington novel
Friday, June 13, 2008
Thursday, June 05, 2008
The Film - Fantasia, dir. James Algar (by way of W. Disney)
The Set-Up - A mouse and a magic hat. Nuff said.
What I love about Fantasia is watching with the knowledge that I am seeing a truly seminal moment. Disney had already broken the animation game wide open with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and now his animators took what they had already learned and went into hyperdrive. This film reached new heights in just about any area you care to name - Color, movement, music, plot. The bar was now raised.
Tuesday, June 03, 2008
Saturday, May 31, 2008
Friday, May 30, 2008
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Friday, May 09, 2008
Juno – I was disappointed in this one. There are some good things here, like resisting Hollywood convention by not making Allison Janney’s step-mother a monster, and the young couple played by Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner. My problem was that every time Ellen Pages’ Juno opened her mouth I heard a screenwriter in the background. When a teenager utters a line like “You’re acting shockingly cavalier.”, it pulls me out of the movie, and I hate that.
Big Deal on Madonna Street – What a treat this one was! A comic riff on European caper flicks like Rififi, Big Deal doesn’t treat its bumbling thieves like clowns, and the film is richer for it. You could have taken the same plot, the same characters, and played it as a straight caper movie, and it would have worked fine. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a movie laugh to compare to the climactic moment that the gang breaks through the wall. Highly recommended.
Look Back in Anger – In the pantheon of British “Angry Young Man” films, this is the angriest of them all. Richard Burton gives a terrific performance as the abusive Jimmy Porter, well educated but trapped in a working class existence. His treatment of his wife (Mary Ure) is striking in its cruelty, and eventually just wore me down. I recommend this one, just barely.
Monday, May 05, 2008
Thursday, May 01, 2008
The Set-Up – Bob invites the young waif Anne back to his place.
Anne sees Bob as a high rolling sugar daddy. She looks around his place and remarks that his family must be rich.
She asks Bob what he does for a living, and he replies that he is with the Ministry of Agriculture. “Equine preservation. I love the horses. I give them everything - My time, my money, my life.” Anne asks if it pays well, and Bob replies “Well enough to end up at the soup kitchen”
Bob then goes to the closet…
Which he opens to reveal a slot machine!
Bob plays a game…
This little sequence encapsulates Bob perfectly. He’s gambled long enough to be resigned to losing, but there’s still a little part of him that thinks the big score is out there. When Anne remarks on the slot machine, he says “This is just for fun.” Yeah, right. Gambling is imprinted on Bob’s DNA, and once you understand that, it’s easy to imagine the events that lead to the films’ wryly ironic conclusion.
Monday, April 28, 2008
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Jacques Demy made Lola in 1961, three years before his masterpiece, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and you can plainly see the skeleton of the later film being put in place here. Like Umbrellas, it’s world is essentially realistic, but with a tiny current of fantasy flowing through it. It’s like a snakes and ladders game, full characters whose lives run parallel to each other, with similarities that they aren’t aware of.
The title character is a cabaret dancer and single mother played by Anouk Aimee. Lola is a sweet and whimsical type who isn’t above sleeping with the odd guy. When we first meet her, she is in the midst of a little romance with an American sailor named Frankie. The two are playful and kind to each other, but they both seem to regard the relationship as a temporary fling. Frankie mentions offhandedly that he is engaged in the States, and Lola tells him that he looks a lot like a guy she once loved a lot. When she tells him this there’s no doubt that her feelings for the other guy are still pretty strong.
The other main character is living and working alongside these two, unaware of their existence. That’s Roland Cassard (Marc Michel). Cassard is a self-confessed dreamer who can’t seem to hold down a job, and has no idea what he wants to do with his life. As he sits in his café and smokes after losing his latest job, you can feel the ennui coming off him in waves. He listens in to a woman who swears that she has just seen her long-lost son, and he laments, “One day I’ll go away.”
Cassard has a chance meeting in a bookstore with a widow and her teenage daughter, and this leads to a dinner invitation from the two. There’s a complicated dynamic at work in this bit. The mother is plainly attracted to Cassard, as is the young daughter in her own innocent way. Cassard, on the other hand tells the young girl, Cecile that she reminds him of another Cecile that he used to know. We’re starting to get hints of what is to come.
A chance meeting between Roland and Lola occurs on the street – They literally bump into one another – and the threads begin to come together. Cecile, it turns out is Lola’s real name, and she’s the childhood sweetheart that he spoke of in the bookstore. Roland’s boredom dissolves upon meeting Cecile again, and they make a date for that evening. Watch Roland’s body language as he skips away from the meeting and you see a man who believes he may have just been saved.
In Jacques Demy’s universe, however, romance is never simple. We have a young man who is bored with life who falls hard for an old sweetheart. We have a girl carrying on a meaningless flirtation with a young American, mainly because he reminds her of her great, lost love. We have the American, who likes Lola a lot, but recognizes the relationship as just being a lark. We have the widow, who longs for companionship, and as much as tells Cassard so in their dinner together. Finally we have the younger Cecile, who wants to become a dancer, and is enraptured by the allure of freedom and adventure the older men have. All of these people have similar needs – the need for love and companionship, but they’ve all found themselves in situations that make it difficult to achieve them. It’s a theme that resonates throughout Demy’s work.
I mentioned above that there is a current of fantasy that runs through the film. This is brought to the forefront when Lola’s long lost husband Michel turns up after being gone for seven years. It seems like a bit of a contrived plot device that this man who left as a penniless lost soul comes back as a wealthy businessman to scoop up his wife and son. It’s necessary to the arc of the plot, I guess, that Roland’s dream is shattered by this outside force.
There’s a little wink here, however, that you wouldn’t know unless you know The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. In that film, a wealthy businessman named Roland Cassard (played by Marc Michel) comes between Catherine Deneuve and her young lover. In Lola, Roland talked about going off to a small island in the Pacific. Michel tells Lola that he went off to the same island and came back a rich man. You don’t need to have seen Umbrellas to see that Roland’s life is paralleling that of Michel, but it does reinforce the idea. This concept puts a slightly different spin on the film’s poignant final image, as Lola dives away in Michels’ big American car, and they pass Roland on his way to his boat. He’s just another dreamer who has to find his way.
Saturday, April 12, 2008
Tuesday, April 08, 2008
Heston was not the world's greatest actor, but as a "movie star", he had few peers. He was an icon, and he will be missed.
Thursday, March 27, 2008
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Let’s go back in time a bit. In 1996, the “big” movies - the ones that garnered all the talk and awards were Fargo, Shine, and The English Patient. Virtually unnoticed was a perfect little Sayles jewel called Lone Star, which popped up on a lots of critics’ lists for the year. A murder drama which eschews big stars and violence in favor of spot-on characters and sublime storytelling, it’s an American masterpiece. I think it was the best film of the 90’s.
Lone Star is set in a smallish town near the Texas/Mexico border, where whites, blacks, and Hispanics live together in a cultural gumbo. There are frictions at work in this place, as evidenced by a school board meeting where there are arguments over whose version of local history is going to be taught in school. The film, however creates the palpable sense that these people really have lived together all these years, disagreements and all. That’s the thing about Sayles’ work – He never fails to create a strong sense of place in his films, and LS is arguably the best example.
Sheriff Buddy Deeds has long been dead when the movie begins, but his presence is felt throughout. Deeds was a larger-than-life legend, and in the estimation of the older townsfolk, the current sheriff comes up short in comparison. Especially since the incumbent is Buddy’s son Sam. (Chris Cooper). The film doesn’t quite avoid delving into the relationship between the son and his late father, but it doesn’t put it up front, either. There’s a great scene early on when Sam speaks at a ceremony honoring his father, and there is a definite undercurrent of bitterness in Sam’s words.
The tension between generations is the theme that pervades Lone Star, and it’s interwoven stories are all variations on the same topic. Besides the two Deeds, there’s the all-business Army officer (Joe Morton) who has returned to his hometown to run the local base, and who encounters his estranged father. And finally, there’s Pilar (Elizabeth Pena), the teacher who re-kindles an old romance with Sam to the consternation of her mother. All these story lines could have easily created a mish-mash of a movie, but the film is remarkably fluid.
The murder I spoke of at the beginning involves a long-dead skeleton found on the Army base. An old Masonic ring and a badge are discovered with the body, and Sam begins to realize that the dead man is Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson), a murderous redneck who was the Sheriff before his father. As Sam pieces the story together, he begins to suspect that the murderer may well have been his own father.
This theory, of course, doesn’t much wash with the town’s fathers. A fishing-hole encounter with the Mayor (one of Buddy’s old deputies) illustrates this and shows off Sayles talent for writing dialogue that says a lot more than it seems.
“Hey, look at all this, will ya? Tackle, boat... All just to catch a little ol' fish minding his own business down at the bottom of the lake. Hardly seems worth the effort, does it, Sam?”
Lone Star is full of flashbacks – That’s how we get to meet Charlie Wade, and one of the true pleasures of this film is the way Sayles recreates the past. He will hold the camera on characters in the present, and then sweep it away from them to the same characters in the past, without a cut. It’s potentially a confusing technique, but it works wonderfully here, as in a scene with Sam and Pilar fades into a scene with the two as teenagers, and also where a character hiding from Sheriff Wade under a bridge morphs into a shot of Sam standing on the same bridge years later. It’s virtuoso use of the flashback technique.
The denizens of Lone Star are people who have had past events dredged up, and everything they thought they new is altered. Sam’s investigation into the death of Charlie Wade leads him eventually to the truth – But it’s not the truth that we expected.
His renewed love with Pilar isn’t exempt from thunderbolts from the past either. The film drops a revelation on him about Pilar that I will not spoil for you. The film leaves hints about it, but it would take a very astute viewer indeed to catch them. The film’s finale is a wonderful summation of it’s themes, and although the plot would seem to have led the two lovers into a dead end, Sayles pulls it off.
The conversation between Sam and Pilar occurs in an old, deserted drive-in theatre, and it’s beautiful in its sense of regret and longing. The whole thing lasts a few seconds, but it encapsulates years of resentment, deceit, …and love. Pilar’s final three words are so pitch-perfect and simple that they still astound me, even as many times as I’ve seen this.
"Forget the Alamo."