Friday, May 25, 2012

Gab is Hell

Wise: Hi there, Werth!

Werth: Hi, Wise! Don't you just love the smell of mustard gas in the morning?

Wise:I'd rather smell bacon and blueberry pancakes. 

Werth: Then bring your maple syrup to Film Forum today and watch the gripping Lewis Milestone WWI classic, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). The film, based on the Erich Maria Remarque book, won the Best Picture and Best Director Oscar that year and was even the subject of a Dogville Short spoof, So Quiet on the Canine Front (1931).

Wise: You've really arrived when you get your own fido farce.  But when I think of movies depicting the horrors of war I immediately think of Cold Mountain (2003), Anthony Minghella's sweeping adaptation of Charles Frazier's novel.  Told mostly in flashback, the film follows wounded Confederate soldier W.P. Inman (Jude Law) as he struggles to return to the mountains of North Carolina and his sweetheart Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman).  
Along the way he encounters heroes, helpers and blackguards, all while trying to avoid the Confederate Home Guard which is rounding up deserters and forcing them back to the front lines.  Back home, Ada loses her father and struggles to survive the wartime privations with help from Ruby Thewes (Renée Zellweger), a mountain girl with a sharp tongue and strong back.  

Werth: And an accent that could make the hillbillies from Deliverance blush.  

Wise: That accent won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.  

Werth: And inclusion in a group of cursed actresses.  

Wise: Still, she is one of the best things in a movie that occasionally loses its bearings.  Minghella's previous successes—The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley—both are sweeping, highly romantic epics, but somehow Cold Mountain fails to take flight.  Part of that failure stems from its leads: Jude Law is too precise an actor to be much of a matinee idol; and Nicole Kidman is too ethereal to fulfill the hardscrabble duties of her role.  

Werth: Maybe her Chanel contract blocked her from digging up turnips. 

Wise: Despite its shortcomings, the film is ravishing, full of colorful supporting performances, John Seale's haunting cinematography, and beautifully scored by Gabriel Yared.  But it's also a meditation on horrors of war and how they bleed into the lives of those that remain at home.

Werth: In one of my favorite war movies, the horrors of war are practically celebrated. When Quentin Tarantino announced he was making a WWII film about a U.S. corps of Nazi-hunting Jews it came as no surprise that the film would be filled with the kind of action-based gore he was famous for. But what is surprising about Inglourious Basterds (2009) is how the director has matured in his filmmaking. 

Wise: What? No characters with color-based names?

Werth: Inglourious begins with Nazi extraordinaire Col. Hans Landa (Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz) questioning a French milk farmer (Denis Menochet) about some missing Jews. The scene relishes its own length, stretching the tension to an uncomfortable level—considering that the Jews Landa is searching for are hiding under the floor beneath him
In a typical Tarantino flick, this length would show how referential and precious the dialogue can bebut it is as if Tarantino has grown up. Now he uses his bag of stylish cinematic tricks not to be cutebut to aid the story.

Wise: All this from a man who started off as an Elvis impersonator on The Golden Girls.

Werth: The plot quickly splits into several different threads with Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) plotting her revenge against the Nazi regime that murdered her family, a British agent (Michael Fassbinder) who is attempting to gain intelligence to assassinate Hitler, and 
Lt. Aldo Raine (a delightful, scenery-chewing Brad Pitt) whose team of Basterds is scalping its way across France. The stories converge on a French cinema where Tarantino literally re-makes history in a movie theater. 
It's something this renegade 
filmmaker has been doing ever since Reservoir Dogs first hit theaters in 1992, and with Inglourious and its eight Oscar nominations, Tarantino proves that he can do more than make "hip" films with eclectic soundtracks. So Wise, has all this talk about war movies made you want to bear arms?

Wise: Only if you were trying to steal my bacon and blueberry pancakes.

Werth: Check out next week's Film Gab for more Breakfast Armageddon!

Friday, May 18, 2012

It's a Wonderful Gab!

Werth: Hello, Wise.  

Wise: Hello, Werth. What cinematic-themed gab awaits us today?

Werth: Well, Wise. If I read my Film Gab Hollywood Birthday Calendar correctly, today would have been the 115th birthday of one of the most memorable directors of classic Hollywood: Frank Capra!  

Wise: Good ol' Capra. No filmmaker became more associated with Americana than Capra with his folksy approach to American society in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and It's a Wonderful Life (1946).

Werth: But what was so great about Sicily-born Capra is that he was equally capable of making flat-out comedies like It Happened One Night (1934)—and one of my favorites, Arsenic and Old Lace (1944).  

Wise: Arsenic and Old Lace. Sounds like our future codenames in the Shady Queens Rest Home.

Werth: Arsenic and Old Lace, based on the hit Broadway play of the same name, was filmed in the middle of a spate of WWII documentaries that Capra shot for the war effort—so its giddy, yet dark treatment of the Brewster Family must have been a refreshing escape from the horrors of the real world for Capra. 
The film opens on Halloween night as author and drama critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) gathers up his newlywed bride Elaine (Priscilla Lane) for some honeymoon action.

Wise: Doubles tennis with George Cukor and Edward Everett Horton?

Werth: Luckily for Mortimer, Elaine is the next-door-neighbor to his two spinster Aunts Abby and Martha (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair), so he can say goodbye to them before the happy couple catches a train for Niagara Falls. The only problem is that Mortimer's day begins to unravel as he discovers his sweet, kindly old aunts have been hiding something from him.

Wise: Compromising photos of Randolph Scott?

Werth: Abby and Martha feel so badly for lonely old men with no friends or family that they put notices in the paper for boarders and when these older men come to take the room, these angelic spinsters poison them so the men can stop being so miserable and alone. The most recent victim, Mr. Hoskins, is hanging out in the window seat when Mortimer accidentally finds him.

Wise: Those great old architectural details make a home so invitingand so convenient for homicide.

Werth: The comic plot spirals wildly from there with Mortimer's loony brother Teddy (John Alexander) shouting "Charge!" everytime he runs up the stairs because he thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt; Mortimer's other brother Jonathan, who has just finished a world-wide killing spree with his plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein (played with unsubtle creepiness by the droopy-eyed Peter Lorre), wanting to use the 
"Panama Canal" in the basement to get rid of his own pesky dead body, and a dopey beat cop (Jack Carson) trying to tell Mortimer his new play ideaall this while Elaine dithers between heady romance and annulment papers.

 Wise: Familial insanity would be enough for me to re-think a marriage.

Werth: At times the insanity is a bit much. Grant makes more bug-eyed faces and does more double-takes than any film of his I can recall and by the end there's a plethora of character types coming in and out of the plot at a dizzying pace. But it's all good fun, with the two murderous aunts coming off as the normal people in this farce. Capra's gift was a directorial light touch that could even make serial murder something to laugh at.

Wise: Here Comes the Groom (1951) stars Bing Crosby as Pete Garvey, an ace reporter assigned to post-war Paris where he files heartbreaking stories about war orphans in the hopes of getting them adopted by well-to-do Americans.  His work is interrupted when his fiancée Emmadel (Jane Wyman) reminds him that he promised to marry her three years ago.  Packing up and setting off for home, he can't help but bring along the two most adorable orphans in the hope that he and Emmadel can adopt them.  Arriving in Boston, he's stunned to discover that Emmadel is planning to marry her high-toned boss Wilbur Stanley (a good-natured Franchot Tone in the Ralph Bellamy role).  
Knowing that his orphans will be sent back to Paris if he doesn't succeed, Pete hatches a scheme to make Emmadel realize she still loves him, as well as helping Wilbur to discover the charms of his dowdy cousin Winifred (Alexis Smith).

 Werth: Because the only thing more adorable than Parisian street urchins is incest.

Wise: With Bing Crosby being the star, it's no surprise when he launches into song.  It's a bit of a shock, however, when Jane Wyman does too.  The film isn't exactly a musical—most of the songs involve Bing leaning against a piano—but there are two production numbers: "Misto Cristofo Columbo" is a spontaneous jam aboard the flight back to the U.S. with cameos from Louis Armstrong and Dorothy Lamour; 
and the Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael tune "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" that begins as something Peter hums with Emmadel in her office and erupts into a full song and dance number amid the filing cabinets and continues on the elevator and into the street.  Wyman spent much of her career playing ice princesses melted by love, but she began as a chorus girl, and seeing her hoof it on the silver screen is a welcome surprise.

 Werth: I guess after you win an Oscar for playing a deaf-mute rape victim, you want to dance with some filing cabinets for a change of pace.

Wise: Crosby is the real mystery in this film.  Capra often unleashed the desperation in his male stars—think of Jimmy Stewart's attempted suicide in It's a Wonderful Life—but Crosby's unflappably romantic persona (honed on the radio and in the "Road" pictures with Bob Hope) prevents the tension from ever escalating and making the happy ending feel a bit flat.  And unlike 
Wyman, who gamely indulges in the pratfalls intrinsic to screwball comedy, Crosby remains aloof.  Still, his charisma is undeniable and when the final credits roll, the audience is happy he's won Jane Wyman back.

Werth: Well after a post full of serial killers and war orphans, I'm ready to lighten up a little.

Wise: I've got some great pics of Randolph Scott, Arsenic.

Werth: Bring 'em on, Old Lace!  

Friday, May 11, 2012

Mother Gabber

Wise: Well, Werth. Sunday is Mother's Day and it's time for us to honor our mothers.

Werth: Of course. Here's to Mildred Pierce, Margaret White, and Mrs. Bates

Wise: And let's not forget Debbie Reynolds.

Werth: Let's not. She might make us jazzercise.

Wise: One mother of a movie movie I'm awfully fond of is Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited (2007).  The film follows three brothers—Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman)—as they journey across India by train, ostensibly in search of spiritual enlightenment, although the ulterior motive of Francis, who planned the trip, is to find their mother (Anjelica Huston) who absconded to a remote Himalayan convent after the death of their father.  

Werth: She should have checked out Black Narcissus (1947) before packing her bags.  

Wise: Along the way they bicker, get drunk, smuggle a cobra into their compartment, smoke, indulge in fisticuffs, and are eventually thrown off the train.  When they eventually do find their mother, she is both everything they hoped and everything they feared. 

Werth: What else could you expect when Anjelica Huston is your mother?
Wise: Anderson's style is heavily influenced by his cinematic heroes from the French New Wave and 1960's Italian cinema, but The Darjeeling Limited emerged from his admiration for Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, to whom the film is dedicated.  
Ray's films inspired Anderson to travel to India with his co-writers Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, and the resulting screenplay, though still full of his stylistic tics, feels more inquisitive about life, the characters more open to chance entering their hermetically sealed lives.  

Werth: And cobras.

Wise: Even the mise en scène feels much less restrained as Anderson and his longtime cinematographer Robert Yeoman forgo his typically muted palette in favor of dynamic combinations of azure and lime, amber and indigo, cerulean and gold.  The vividness added to Anderson's careful compositions reflects his characters' dawning realization that their dogged myopia has only hindered the search for their mother and prevented them from appreciating life. 

Werth: One of my all-time favorite flicks has not one, but two mothers. Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life (1959) is a masterwork of excess. Already well-known for his overly dramatic romances with tragic turns like Magnificent Obsession (1954), All The Heaven Allows (1955), and Written on the Wind (1956), Sirk really went to town on this story about a pair of mothers—one white and one black who raise their daughters together. 
Lora Meredith (glamor puss Lana Turner) is a poor single mother trying to start an acting career and Annie Johnson (the beatific Juanita Moore) offers to be a live-in maid for her so Annie and her daughter Sarah Jane can have somewhere to stay.

 Wise: Being a maid for an out-of-work actress sounds like a bad career move.

Werth: It actually turns out pretty well for Annie, because Lora is ambitious and is soon the toast of Broadway, fighting for respect, good scripts and fabulous furs.

Wise: So, Annie moved up to being a maid for a diva.

Werth: The movie has long been a source for racial equality discussions. Some have even posited that the 1934 William Wellman directed version was less racist. 
But what I've always found fascinating about this movie is that underneath the unnaturally vibrant colors, the stylish gowns, glittering jewels and grandiose sets is a story of two people who really don't see race. Lora and Annie crawl up the ladder of fame together—and even if Annie isn't on the same social rung, Lora never forgets who she owes it all to. And Annie is eternally grateful to Lora for what she's done for her. The two main characters are oblivious to the racial issues that cause such a stir in the audience. 
Grown-up Sarah Jane (played with sizzling animosity by Susan Kohner) embodies the racial tension by "passing" as white, desiring all the same things that Lora's daughter Susie (Sandra Dee) has, only to find out tragically that pretending to be someone you're not is the real sin.

Wise: Tell that to C. Thomas Howell in Soul Man

Werth: All the great face-slaps, two-timings and passionate embraces build-up to an ending that's a true tearjerkerguaranteed to make you pick up the phone and call your mother.

Wise: Werth & I would like to wish all you Mothers out there the happiest of Mother's Days.

Werth: And remember, you only have one mother... but you have TWO Film Gabbers.

Friday, May 4, 2012

There's No 'Gab' in Team

Werth: Good day, Wise!

Wise: Hi, Werth. I assume you're going to tell me why you're wearing a cape and tights.

Werth: Certainly, good citizen. Today the film The Avengers is opening in theaters, and I feel like I'm part of the team!

Wise: Really? Is your team headquarters the backroom at Marie's Crisis?

Werth: If the rest of my team were here, they would berate you in song.

Wise: Comic book fans everywhere are agog at seeing The Avengers, in part, because some of their favorite Marvel heroes are banding together to form a team to fight off evildoers.

Werth: But teams don't have to be made up of comic book super heroes to cause agog-ery. One of my favorite teamwork movies is Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's dark French fantasy City of Lost Children (1995). 
In a strangely futuristic/retro dystopian seaport town a group of one-eyed, part-mechanical cultists called Cyclops are sneaking through dark alleys stealing children for the dream experiments of mad scientist Krank (Daniel Emilforth).

Wise: You lost me at French.

Werth: The Cyclops steal the wrong kid, however, when they kidnap young munch-aholic Denree (Joseph Lucien) from his brother, street circus strongman One (Ron Perlman making his French teacher proud). 
One teams up with a group of underage pickpockets led by the lovely Miette (Judith Vittet), a drug-addled flea-circus master (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), and an underwater hoarder known as The Diver (Dominique Pinon) to rescue young Denree from the ocean rig where Krank is trying to steal young children's dreams to make himself younger.

Wise: Don't tell Joan Rivers that, or children will start to go missing in this country.

Werth: Adding in a midget wife, a flock of clones and a talking brain in a fishtank, the story is obviously overly complicated—but what makes this film a must-see are Caro and Pierre-Jeunet's astounding visuals. 
Like their previous outing, 1991's Delicatessen, the directors create a dark, dingy world of rusting iron and rotting wood filled with strange characters that, if they aren't already in a circus, belong in one. But the imaginative choices they use to bring delight and whimsy to this landscape are truly cinematic art. 
Krank's Santa Claus dream turned nightmare, a pair of Siamese twin sisters called the Octopus (Genevieve Brunet and Odille Mallet) cooking dinner with precision choreography, and the epic journey of a small flea across the city are all witty and disturbing feasts for the eyes. 
And of course I must mention the other visionary member of the design team, Jean-Paul Gaultier, whose nautical-themed costumes in vivid, distressed colors give a special zing to the industrial-Gothic production design. While the amazing visuals may at times overwhelm the film,  the rag-tag group of  rescuers of City of Lost Children is still a team I want to be on.  

Wise: Of course not all rag-tag bands of adventurers accomplish their goals, and even those that do are sometimes driven even further apart.  In The Searchers (1956), director John Ford assembles his usual bag of tricks—iconic landscapes, granite-faced actors, cowboys, Indians, and revenge—but builds a bitter tale of racism, sexual violence, and betrayal.  

Werth: God, I love this movie. 

Wise: John Wayne stars as Ethan Edwards, Confederate veteran of the Civil War, who returns to his brother's Texas ranch after a long and mysterious absence.  
Soon after, the neighborhood men are lured into chasing a cattle rustler only to discover that the ranch has been attacked by Comanches, the buildings burned, and the family murdered.  Only the two daughters appear to have survived, although kidnapped by the marauders.  
Setting out to avenge his family and rescue his nieces, Edwards is joined by his brother's foster son Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), a cadre of Texas Rangers led by the Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnston Clayton (Ward Bond playing both comic and stentorian), his elder niece's fiancé, and the local idiot Mose Harper (Hank Worden).  

Werth: Every good Western needs a local idiot. 

Wise: Things get off to a rough start only to get even worse when the posse is ambushed by the outlaws they are seeking.  After a series of gun battles, arguments, and mounting desertion, only Ethan and Martin are left on the trail, and their already strained relationship deteriorates even more as Ethan's hatred for Native Americans begins to fester, especially toward Martin's Cherokee heritage, and even toward the niece he is seeking.  
After years on the trail (plus a tip from Clara Bow's cinematic It beau Antonio Moreno playing a Spanish gentleman), they finally find the remaining niece (Natalie Wood), only she seems reluctant to return to her family.  

Werth: It would be hard to give up a glamorous life of feathers, turquoise and buckskin.

Wise: Ethan and Martin return to the ranch in defeat, barging in on the wedding of Martin's childhood sweetheart Laurie (Vera Miles), who gave up carrying a torch for him and decided to marry a guitar-playing rube instead.

Werth: You know it's a good western when the local idiot is joined by a guitar-playing rube.  

Wise: Especially when Mose reappears with a clue that ignites a climactic gun battle and ultimately allows everything to return to order.  
But it's not a classic happy ending.  Ford and his cinematographer Winton C. Hoch designed the film so there are no easy sympathies: the stereotypically villainous Indians are revealed to be noble, and the gung ho hero is really a cad.  The Searchers uses all of the Hollywood Western clichés to paint a morally ambiguous panorama of the Old West. 

Werth: So I have your cape and tights here so that we can be a movie gabbing super hero team.

Wise: Why don't I just agree to join you again next week for more Film Gab without the costume?

Werth: You sure? These tights really make butts look good.

Wise: Join me and the local idiot next week for more Film Gab.

Werth: And the cape is very slimming...