Monday, January 31, 2011

Big Screen in the Sky

One of our best film music composers has been silenced today. John Barry's prolific career composing film scores started in 1960 and earned him five Academy Awards® for Born Free (1966), The Lion in Winter (1968), Out of Africa (1985), and Dances With Wolves (1990). His unique ability to blend popular mod-jazz and large classical overtures stood out in 1962 when he composed what would become his signature piece, the uber-hip "James Bond Theme". He would go on to compose music for 11 of the Bond films, making his theme as iconic as the popular Bond, James Bond. Mix him a martini in heaven God, shaken, not stirred.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Fritz Blitz!

Werth: Hello Wise!

Wise: Hello Werth!

Werth: I am so excited that Film Forum here in New York is presenting a two week retrospective of the American films of one of my favorite directors—Fritz Lang!

Wise: Is he your favorite because he wore a monocle?

Werth: Only partly. Lang was a true cinematic visionary who crossed over from industry-standard-setting German silent films in the 1920’s to make some outstanding films for the Hollywood machine through the 1950’s.

Wise: It looks like Film Forum has lots of Lang goodies on tap: Scarlet Street (1945) with Edward G. Robinson, Ministry of Fear (1944) with Ray Milland, Clash By Night (1952)  with Barbara Stanwyck and Marilyn Monroe, Rancho Notorious (1952) with Marlene Dietrich, and You Only Live Once (1937) with Henry Fonda.

Werth: The other star of You Only Live Once, saucer-eyed beauty Sylvia Sidney, is also in Lang’s first American flick, which finishes up the Film Forum series, 1936’s Fury.

 Wise: That’s a title that screams for an exclamation point.

Werth: Subtler punctuation prevailed. Fury stars Spencer Tracy as the co-owner of a gas station who is driving cross-country to collect his fiancee (Sidney) after he makes a success of his business. Unfortunately their romantic reunion is interrupted when a country cop pulls Tracy over mistaking him for a fugitive kidnapper.

Wise: I hate when that happens.

Werth: Tracy plays it cool, expecting that justice will prevail when, unfortunately, word spreads through the small town that the notorious kidnapper’s been captured. The townspeople go hog-wild, turning into a frothy-mouthed mob out for vengeance, and even the sheriff can’t stop them. They light the prison on fire and watch it burn down as Tracy cries out from his cell window, the flames engulfing him.

Wise: Um, that’s not a very happy ending, even for Lang.

Werth: Oh it’s not over—cause through a small miracle, Tracy survives and escapes allowing the town and the news reporters to think he’s dead. From the safety of another town, singed and keeping his identity a secret, he proceeds to put the entire town on trial for murder.

Wise: You don’t see that on Law & Order.

Werth: You sure don’t. Lang was really ahead of his time in his depiction of crime and morality. Much like his German classic M (1931), Lang explored the grey areas between right and wrong with intelligence and depth. In M, Peter Lorre is a child killer pursued by a mob of low-life criminals who think he deserves to be executed—by them.
In Fury, Tracy starts off innocent, but due to the wholly undeserved retribution of the mob, he turns vengeful. His hunger for payback turns him, in essence, into a one-man mob. Lang asks the question, if mob rule exists, is there such a thing as innocence? Considering half-Jewish Lang (his mother converted to Catholicism) got out of Germany in 1933 after his film The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was banned by the Nazis, it was a subject that he could speak to with some authority. And Tracy really transforms from a typical everyman into a madman driven by rage, anger—

Wise: —and fury.

Werth: Yet he does it with his typical grasp of how emotions best play on the screen—coming  from within—not through wild gestures and temper tantrums. It’s an early film from him, but the man who would evolve into one of the cinema’s best actors shows hints of that future greatness. 
And Sidney’s turn as the anguished lover is a perfect example of this unique actress’s performance abilities—which sadly have been forgotten—until you remind people she’s the old, afterlife paper-pusher with the slit throat in Tim Burton’s Beeteljuice.

Wise: She does make me want to have a cigarette. My favorite Lang film sadly, isn’t on the docket because it’s not one of his American films. It’s Metropolis which made a lot of headlines last year when twenty-five minutes of footage, which had been hacked from the film during distribution and without Lang’s permission, was discovered in an archive in Buenos Aires.  

Werth: I love it when they find missing footage.  

Wise: Metropolis is perhaps the most famous example of movies that were hailed as masterpieces immediately after premiering only to be butchered by distributors in the name of making bigger profits by having more frequent screenings.  Erich von Stroheim’s Greed is perhaps the most prominent American example. 

Werth: I’m surprised you didn’t mention Judy Garland’s A Star is Born (1954).

Wise: You beat me to it. But Metropolis is unusual in that it has continued to be so influential even in its incomplete form.  Films like Blade Runner and Star Wars owe an obvious debt to Lang’s vision, but small nods to the movie’s brilliance occur throughout the history of cinema—

Werth: —like Madonna’s “Express Yourself” video.

Wise: The design of Metropolis is highly influenced by German expressionism and the sets and costumes aren’t mere window dressing, but instead become an integral part of the emotional landscape of the movie.  Thus, a factory entrance isn’t just a door, but a gaping mouth swallowing the miserable workers whole; the country club where the wealthy idle is a gilded Eden; and the titular city looms overhead like a sparking dream only to descend into twisted chaos below. 

Werth: And statues of the Seven Deadly Sins aren’t just statues—well they are just statues—but they move!

Wise: Metropolis isn’t all spectacle, even though Lang does stage those set pieces brilliantly.  At its heart, Metropolis is a story of aspirations and failed dreams told through the lens of a son’s relationship to his father.  Joh Fredersen founded and runs the city with a mirthless efficiency.  His son Freder, raised in rich indolence, catches a glimpse of a beautiful worker Maria, and follows her to the depths of the underground city where the downtrodden labor thanklessly to provide luxuries to those who live in the opulent towers above.  

But amid the factory disasters, the riots, the floods, the disguises, the mistaken identities, attempted murders, subterfuge, the mad scientist, and a machine man masquerading as Freder’s love Maria, there are some tender moments.  Joh Fredersen confronts the tragic death of his wife while his son finds purpose and love while fighting for the rights of workers.  

Werth: Father vs. son, proletariat vs. the bourgeoisie, man vs. sexy woman robot—it’s got it all!

Wise: But Lang’s brilliance transforms these human dilemmas into grandiose extravaganzas.  He can afford to have the most spectacular, over-the-top pageantry because he always ties it directly to the motives of his characters.  

Werth: And that’s what separates his films from the typical Hollywood blockbuster. Lang is concerned with the people caught in extraordinary events instead of selling special effects.  

Wise: So, do yourself a favor and spend an evening at Film Forum catching up with a true cinematic genius.  

Werth: And wear a monocle! See you next week for more Film Gab.  

Friday, January 21, 2011

Let Them Eat Gab!

Werth: Wise! 

Wise: Werth! 

Werth: So, the Golden Globes were last weekend. Have you been making a dent in your awards season movie viewing?

Wise: I saw Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere

Werth: NY 1’s Neil Rosen would scold. 

Wise: I actually really liked it.  I think her movies can be something of an acquired taste, but once you fall for them, you fall for them hard.  One of her most interesting films is her version of Marie Antoinette starring Kirsten Dunst as the titular doomed queen.  

Werth: She’s not the first director you would think of for a period film... and you said ‘titular’.

Wise: Most of her work is very contemporary, sorting out the strange mores and odd habits of modern life, but she brings that same sensibility to Marie Antoinette.  The movie is a strange pop fantasy of a costume drama with an 80s New Wave and Post-Punk score and a cast that looks more like teen comedy than the usual line-up of Shakespeare-trained Brits either wolfing down the scenery or being so staid you can hardly feel a pulse.  
Marianne Faithful plays Marie Antoinette’s mother, the Empress of Austria; Molly Shannon and Shirley Henderson play gossipy ladies at court; Steve Coogan plays the Austrian ambassador who helps Marie negotiate French politics; Rip Torn plays randy Louis XV; and Jason Schwartzman plays Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette’s inept husband who inherits the throne of France long before he’s ready to be king. 

Werth: I kinda wished Louis got bit by a radioactive bug and then Marie made out with him while he hung upside down.

Wise: Sadly, that doesn’t happen, but they do have an interesting chemistry together playing young teenagers married almost the day they meet and without any idea how to deliver the much-wanted heir to the throne of France.  As the years pass, they develop an affectionate and very real relationship so the final scene of them being whisked away from Versailles and toward their eventual doom is quite affecting. 

Werth: Pauvre, pauvre Marie and Louis. 

Wise: There are a couple romantic scenes between Marie Antoinette and Count Fersen, a Swedish nobleman who leaves to fight in the American Revolution.  He’s played by Jamie Dornan, a former Calvin Klein model who unfortunately gets a little lost under his wig despite all the smoldering he attempts.  But the rest of the cast is great mostly because they are so different from the usual period line-up.  The costumes look very authentic to the time, but somehow they move a bit more freely and the actors seem enhanced by what they are wearing rather than buried by it.  

Werth: I liked the visual use of candy and, of course, cake throughout the film. Some shots made the costumes, shoes and sets look edible.

Wise: The film is a real visual delight, filled with sherbet-y colors and fanciful patterns, plus the production had unprecedented access to the real palace at Versailles which gives the film an opulence a Hollywood sett could never deliver.  But it’s not just a feature-length music video.Coppola favors long, silent takes while the camera trails the actors.  And even when there is dialogue, she uses it less for exposition, and more as part of the soundtrack.  There are occasional scenes where one actor speaks English while another replies in French.  
It might be disorienting at first, but I think Coppola is more interested in emoting a story than in telling it.  I don’t know that she’s a filmmaker for everyone, but I think if you’re able to succumb to her vision the rewards are immense.  

Werth: Jamie Dornan’s rewards are immense.

Wise: Maybe I shouldn’t have used the word “succumb.”  What’s your pick this week? 

Werth: If we’re going to talk about pre-Revolution France movies, I have to say my favorite, guillotines down, would be 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons.

Wise: I kind of had you pegged as a fan of Dirk Bogarde in A Tale of Two Cities

Werth: I prefer my ToTC Ronald Colman-style. From the moment I saw Dangerous Liaisons as a teen in my dear friend Leanne’s basement, I was spell-bound by the artful human manipulation depicted. Vincent Canby in the New York Times perfectly describes it as a "kind of lethal drawing-room comedy." Set in France in the 1780’s, Dangerous Liaisons features the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont—

Wise: Somebody stayed awake during French class.

Werth: —as they conspire to not only help each other get revenge on past lovers, but turn their clever ill deeds into a game where the reward will be a one-night only re-kindling of their old romance. However, the unexpected happens, and the Vicomte (played with eel-like charm by John Malkovich) violates his own love-worn philosophy by actually falling for the woman he has agreed to ruin. It becomes a sexual tug of war with powdered wigs, corsets and bustles and by the end of the movie, no one is left standing.

Wise: It’s like High Noon—but with bodices.

Werth: Christopher Hampton who wrote the screenplay (based on the play he adapted from the original Choderlos de Laclos novel) turns words into stylish, deadly-accurate weapons. The dialogue is as charming as it is vicious. And the cast is superb: Malkovich; Michelle Pfeiffer as his stunningly vulnerable mark; a young, lithe, sexually awakened Uma Thurman; bitchily ignorant Swoozie Kurtz; worldly 1950’s film veteran Mildred Natwick; and the grand dame overseeing this human chessboard is Glenn Close.

Wise: She doesn’t boil rabbits in this one.

Werth: She doesn’t have to. Her tongue seduces and flatters you in one instant, then emasculates you the next. Close’s ability to create a human device—a female calculator—is fully realized in Liaisons and her final scene is one of the most devastating breakdowns in cinema. As great as Jodie Foster was in The Accused that year, I still feel Close’s performance should have won her the Oscar®.

Wise: You neglected to mention the fine acting of Mr. Keanu Reeves.

Werth: I very much appreciated his ability to bring his character Ted into the 18th Century—a task he repeated in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula.

Wise: And now that we’ve circled back to the Coppola clan, I think it’s time to bid adieu.

Werth: Au revoir mes Film Gab lecteurs!

Wise: You really did stay awake in that French class.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Big Screen in The Sky

Yesterday we said farewell to lovely British actress Susannah York. Combining beautiful features with sexy and smart performances, York was one of the most recognizable actresses of the 60's and 70's. In a film career that spanned 50 years, she starred in Oscar®-winning films like Tom Jones (1963), A Man for All Seasons (1966), controversial dramas like The Killing of Sister George (1968), and earned her own Oscar® nomination for Best Supporting Actress in the Sydney Pollack film adaptation of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969). In 1978 she made the excellent crime thriller The Silent Partner (excellent in good part because Christopher Plummer does old lady drag) and became immortal to little comic-book obsessed boys everywhere when she played Superman's mom in Richard Donner's Superman. Susannah York was 72.

Friday, January 14, 2011

There’s No Business Like Snow Business

Werth: Hi there, Wise.

Wise: Hello, Werth.  

Werth: I was just sitting here thinking about all this lovely snow we’ve been getting.  

Wise: I know.  It’s turned New York into a winter wonderland. 

Werth: Or a wonderslush depending on your street corner. I was worried about you.  I knew you had gone to the farm for the weekend, but didn’t know if you could make it back.  

Wise: Luckily, I left just before the snow started, otherwise I would have been stuck out there until the mule team came by on the sledge.  

Werth: I do hope John Proctor and Goody Smith brought their snowblower.

Wise: As it was, I got to watch the start of the storm from the train.  It was really beautiful to see the landscape gradually fill up with snow.  It reminded me of how great it is when movies use snow in interesting ways.  

Werth: Like in Scarface

Wise: Actually I was thinking about  Murder on The Orient Express.  Based on the mystery novel by Agatha Christie, it’s a classic turn on the locked room formula.  All the characters are trapped on a snowbound train, a murder is committed in the middle of the night, and Christie favorite Hercule Poirot must solve the mystery. 
Werth: That darned Belgian.

Wise: It’s also a classic of 70’s cinema with the cast packed with Hollywood luminaries from all over the map.  Albert Finney plays Poirot, Richard Widmark is the paranoid American businessman who winds up dead, Sean Connery is delightfully blustery, and Ingrid Bergman plays against type as a stuttering milquetoast.  

Werth: That train is jam-packed with stars! 

Wise: But that’s not even half the cast.  Lauren Bacall is in it and so are John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins, Michael York, and Jacqueline Bisset.  It even has Dame Wendy Hiller who is not only one of my favorite actresses but also originated the role of Eliza Doolittle in the film version of Geroge Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion long before Audrey Hepburn lip synced her way through My Fair Lady.  Every performance is delightfully juicy, filled with scenery chewing moments as well as some real tenderness.  It’s also a satisfying mystery.  

Werth: It must be hard to create story action when everyone’s stuck on a train.  

Wise: Director Sidney Lumet makes some interesting choices in the ways he shot the film.  During the interrogation scenes, the camera lingers on the characters’ faces, allowing the audience to speculate on their guilt or innocence.  There are also a number of flashbacks, and Lumet gives those a nightmarish quality, suggesting the furious anger of the murderer. 
Some of the most memorable shots, however, are exteriors of the train in the snow.  Lumet uses the train’s progress to telegraph the progress of the investigation: we see it stuck in a snowbank when the mystery is at its murkiest, and then, as soon as Poirot reveals the solution, the train emerges from the ice.  

Werth: So did the butler do it?  

Wise: I have to admit, the ending is not such a surprise, especially given the calibre of the actors present, but the conclusion makes a particularly satisfying end. What’s your favorite snowbound classic? 

Werth: Amazingly enough, my favorite snowy movie is a mystery as well—1996’s Fargo.

Wise: Ooh! That IS snowy.

Werth: From its opening shot of a small bird followed by a car emerging from a raging snowstorm, Fargo uses the heavy snow of a Middle-North winter to do more than just tell us they’re in Minnesota. The snow becomes an active participant in the film’s design. Fargo is what you might call a Film Blanc.

Wise: Is that a Belgian candy? 

Werth: It’s like the photo negative of the Film Noir. Film Noir uses the stylized lack of light to create a distinct look. Shadows cut across the faces of femmes fatales and mugs with guns, hiding their motives and highlighting their dark intentions. In Fargo, instead of shadow, we have blinding, white snow. The bodies of the victims don’t lie in half-light, but contrast bloodily with the pure snow. 
The criminals aren’t dark masterminds like Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon or Kirk Douglas in Out of the Past. They are snowy morons blinking in the light reflected by snowdrifts. Jerry Lundergaard’s temper tantrum with an ice-scraper is acted out in a snow-covered, empty parking lot as if on a white canvas for all to see. The darkness (and the idiocy) of these characters has nowhere to hide.

Wise:  I think what’s interesting about Fargo is how it seems so comfortable being a dark thriller, and a comedy at the same time.

Werth: I remember seeing the trailer in the theaters and when we heard, “From the makers of Raising Arizona,” and the two hookers with their sing-song accents started head-bobbing, we were certain Fargo was going to be a laugh riot. But it’s not—not really. The Cohen Brothers film what is essentially a murder mystery with all the requisite blood, violence and tension, but they tell the story with characters that are so quirkily ordinary, it becomes comic. William H. Macy’s Oscar®-nominated performance as Jerry Lundergaard is so expertly pathetic you almost feel sorry for him—even if he is having his own wife kidnapped. Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare as the kidnappers are like a filthy, dysfunctional vaudeville act. 
And Frances McDormand, as the pregnant, homespun Columbo who tracks down the kidnappers, goes from the blandest of conversations with her husband about duck paintings for a stamp competition to walking through a body-filled crime scene where she nails every detail of the murder. Her performance is funny, brave and touching and it won her a much-deserved Oscar®.

Wise: Uh yeah?

Werth: Is that your attempt at a Minnesota accent?

Wise: Uh yeah?

Werth: And on that comically thrilling note, I’m going to go outside and try to find a snowbound trains full of old movie stars.

Wise: Would you settle for a subway car full of old hobos?

Werth: As long as one of them is Belgian.

Wise: Tune in next week for a piping hot serving of Film Gab!


Friday, January 7, 2011

The Yunioshi Problem

Werth: Hey, Wise.

Wise: Hey, Werth.

Werth: I’ve been thinking lately about something serious—

Wise: Your Jesse Tyler Ferguson scrapbook?

Werth: No—I mean, yes, that too—but I was thinking of something else. Maybe there's some racial zeitgeist in the air with the publishing of the new edition of Huckleberry Finn sans the 'n' word because a friend of mine posted something on Facebook recently that made me want to address a similar controversial topic in film history.

Wise: I’m hot for controversial. Please address.

Werth: Well, this posting started off by asserting that the casting of Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was racist.

Wise: I'd probably agree with that.

Werth: I know. It was 1961. The Civil Rights Act hadn’t even passed yet, so it’s no surprise that Hollywood was still selling racial stereotypes. But what really interested me about the posting was some of the responses to it. One person said Rooney’s performance made it impossible to watch the film at all.

Wise: But Breakfast at Tiffany’s is so wonderful! Wouldn't it be better to just close your eyes and plug your ears whenever Rooney appears on screen?

Werth: Like what I do whenever there’s a snake in a movie.

Wise: I’ve had to be your snake alert system so many times.

Werth: Due to the unfortunate parts of this country‘s history and culture, there are some really good movies out there that have some less than flattering depictions of minorities—or even worse, blatant black- or yellow-face performances.

Wise: I think the question becomes even more complicated when the portrayal isn’t intended to be comic.  Something like Broken Blossoms, a Lillian Gish film from 1919—

Werth: —directed by the always racially sensitive D.W. Griffith—

Wise: —where Gish plays the abused daughter of a prize fighter who finds temporary haven in the home of a Chinese immigrant.  Clearly this film was intended to address racism and yet it feels offensive to modern audiences because of actor Richard Barthelmess playing the hero Chen Huan. 

Werth: To quote a racial stereotype, “Ah so.”

Wise: Or look at  The Good Earth based on Pearl S. Buck’s wildly popular novel from 1931.  Buck grew up in China as the child of missionaries and was deeply interested in portraying that culture accurately.  When MGM made the film, of course a lot of the “Orientalisms” were emphasized, but the core of the picture is about one family’s struggle out of poverty and the treacherous blessings that prosperity can bring.  There are comic characters, yes, but the family’s plight is always treated with dignity and respect. 

Werth: Even though half of that family is played by white actors in slanty-eye make-up. 

Wise: That’s very true.  As you mentioned in a previous post, Anna Mae Wong lost the female lead to Luise Rainer because Hollywood wouldn’t allow a romantic scene between a white actor and an Asian one. But I have to say Rainer is fantastic as the self-sacrificing wife O-lan.  She doesn’t look anything like a Chinese peasant, but her performance is so heart-felt that by the end of the movie, at least for me, the preposterous make-up fades away and I find myself deeply moved.

Werth: I’m moved that Luise Rainer is still with us and will be turning 101 years old next week.

Wise: Happy Birthday, Luise!

Werth: But back on topic, with dramas like The Good Earth you have the time to develop characters so that these faux racial performances can grow on you. I think reactions to performances like Rooney’s in Tiffany’s are so intense because it comes out of nowhere. Here’s this modern-feeling, comic take on female sexual independence and then, Hello! Rooney in buckteeth and Coke bottle glasses.

Wise: Everything about those Rooney scenes feels out of place, the pacing, the humor, even the logic of the world they exist in.  It’s like they were imported from an entirely different film. 

Werth: One of my all-time favorite comedies has the same issue. Preston Sturges’ 1942 screw-ball classic The Palm Beach Story is a riotous adventure with a loose take on marriage and divorce. Vivid comic bombshell characters abound like The Weenie King and Toto, the unknown foreign language spouting ex-paramour of Princess Centemila (played with sheer joyous abandon by normally staid Mary Astor). Then all of a sudden there’s a scene in a train where the black bartender is all, “Yessuh” and “Nawssuh,” to a group of drunken hunters who force him to throw crackers into the air for their target practice, the buckshot narrowly missing him in the gun revelry.

Wise: To quote another racial stereotype, “Lawdy, lawdy!”

Werth: The pop-eyed antics and shimmying are right out of the “Colored Actors Playbook.” Even the actor’s screen-credited name smacks of a minstrel show—Snowflake.

Wise: Snowflake?  That’s like a ten-year-old’s name for her pony.

Werth: And this wasn’t the only time Sturges used African Americans in a similarly degrading way. The otherwise brilliant Sullivan’s Travels has a black cook thrown around the inside of a careening trailer until he winds up with his head in a bowl of batter, wearing white face. For a director whose themes always seemed to be so much ahead of their time, Sturges was still susceptible to the overriding culture’s “funny” stereotypical depictions.

Wise: But does it make you not want to watch these movies?

Werth: No. And to dispute one of the other post responses, it doesn’t make me want to edit the offensive scenes out either.

Wise: I think editing out a stereotype gives it more power than it deserves.  If past mistakes are hidden away, how can we confront them and avoid them in the future?  A sanitized version of history is a faulty one.

Werth: And to edit a work that was created outside of the current social setting is a slippery slope. What will be edited next? Is Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind  an editable stereotype? Is Carmen Ghia in The Producers too stereotypically gay a character to be seen? Will future obesity rights activists have us remove Martha Dumptruck from Heathers because she is the object of weight-obsessed ridicule?

Wise: And who will be deciding these edits?

Werth: Exactly. We’ve been there and done that. From 1934 to 1964, rabid Catholic Joseph I. Breen as head of the Production Code Administration had a say in almost every Hollywood picture made. It amounted to movies where characters didn’t use language that real people used and nobody could lie on a bed together without one foot touching the floor.

Wise: That’s how I’ve always done it.

Werth: Not to mention that films with black characters in them were made in such a way that when they played in the South, the characters could be cut out by the theater owners who didn't want black characters in their all-white cinemas. Do we really want to go back to a time where someone decides what we should and shouldn't see?

Wise: Not in my America.

Werth: I guess what I’m trying to say is, there are some awful stereotypes in these old movies. We must learn from them, not reject the entire movie or pretend the problem scenes aren’t there.

Wise: I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Werth: Thank you.

Wise: Now can next week’s posting be less serious?

Werth: Tune in next week for a return to our light-hearted and un-serious Film Gab!