Friday, June 28, 2013

Hitch-Hitch Hooray!

Werth: Good, Eefning.

Wise: Nice Hitchcock impersonation, Werth.

Werth: Thank you.

Wise: Especially the double-chin.

Werth: I'm not wearing a double—yes, thank you. I'm wearing this clearly fake double-chin in honor of BAM's The Hitchcock 9, starting tomorrow.

Wise. They will be showing nine restored Hitchcock silent films giving Hitch aficionados the chance to see some of the master's earliest work.

Werth: We've covered many Hitchcock films over the last couple of years, but one Hitchcock film I've always wanted to gab about is his 1963 feather-fest, The Birds.

Wise: I hope you weren't too chicken to do it before. 

Werth: The Birds is a genuinely terrifying film that shows what would happen if Nature turned against her human oppressors and pecked out mankind's eyes. 
But I don't think that's what The Birds is really about. The more I watch the film, the more I notice how the environmental angle comes up quite late in the film, and that a good part of the film is focusing on something elsesex.

Wise: Sounds like we need a double feature of The Birds and Killer Bees.

Werth: The entire first part of the film has nothing to do with crazed seagulls. Melanie Daniels (introducing Tippi Hedren) is a blonde, debutante phony. After pretending to be a salesgirl in a bird shop to flirt with g-gorgeous Mitch Brenner (60's heartthrob Rod Taylor), Daniels decides to pursue this virtual stranger to his seaside country home to give his daughter a couple of lovebirds. 
As Daniels drives her expensive sportscar into the rustic town of Bodega Bay the townspeople gaze at her with distrust. This stranger isn't just a fur-clad city-girl in the country. She is a woman doing the unthinkable: she is chasing the man. Daniels' sexual aggressiveness is as garish as the two lovebirds in her car and Hitchcock slyly shoots the first part of the film to accentuate how unwelcome Daniels is. After sneaking into his house and dropping off the birds, causing Brenner to chase her, Daniels grins like a cat, sensing she has snagged her romantic prey. 
It is at this moment that the first bird dives at her head, drawing blood. From this moment on Daniels is not only being attacked by Bodega Bay's birdlife, but also Brenner's stuffy mother (Jessica Tandy) and the citizenry who tell her she is "evil."

Wise:It doesn't pay to cross Miss Daisy

Werth: But film analysis aside, Hitchcock is in top thriller form in The Birds. He uses his signature camera tricks of characters in the foreground, hallways that create a forced perspective, and an ingenious bird's eye view of the destruction of Bodega Bay care of Oscar-nommed special effects director Ub Iwerks. 
He takes great delight in making the audience aware of the dangers that the film's characters are not aware of. You just want to shout at Tippi, "Get off that bench and run before those crows mess up your impeccable hair!!!" 
And the sound design by Remmi Gassmann is eerie, achieving all its impact without a single note of orchestration. While it's never mentioned with the same gravitas as Vertigo or Psycho, The Birds is memorable because Hitchcock was exploring so much more than screaming kids being attacked by some peck-happy fowl.

Wise: Rope (1948) is another Hitchcock project where sex is the subtext.  Inspired by thrill killers Leopold and Loeb, the film begins with the murder of golden boy David Kentley (Dick Hogan) by his former classmates Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) who are out to prove that their intellectual superiority allows them to commit the perfect crime.  Before disposing of the body—and to add a grisly embellishment—they plan a party with the dead man's parents and fiancée as well as with their former prep school housemaster Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart).  
Brandon has always idolized Rupert who taught the boys about Nietzsche's theories, and by committing the murder, Brandon hopes to intellectually surpass his mentor.  The scheme only falls apart as Phillip gradually loses his nerve.  

Werth: It's hard to sit on a trunk containing a corpse and not sweat a little.

Wise: The action unspools in real time, and Hitchcock used long takes carefully edited together to simulate a single continuous take, the camera moving among the actors and the set in a complicated ballet that allows the tension to build to an almost unbearable extreme.  These extended shots also allow the actors space to explore their character's body language, moving in and out of the frame while still being present in the scene.   
Rope was also Hitchcock's first color film, and he uses his palette carefully, confining himself mostly to muted grays in the beginning as Brandon and Phillip attempt to convince each other of their rationality, but descends into lurid neon flashes as the horror of their act comes to light.

Werth: I love how Stewart toys with his old students. It's almost as if he knows from the moment he walks into the room that there's something in that hope chest...

Wise: Although the focus of the film is on a single murder, it films much closer to a movie about a lovers' quarrel.  
Brandon and Phillip stand uncomfortably close to one another and speak in a post-coital whisper, particularly in the moments just after they have committed the murder and dissect their feelings (Brandon is exhilarated while Phillip suffers from regret).  Even the practicalities of their daily lives are peculiarly intertwined; Brandon treats Phillip as a sensitive genius, managing his career as a pianist and carefully tending to his emotional outbursts.  
The thorn in their relationship comes with the arrival of Rupert who not only teases out the crime but also inspired it with his lofty talk of philosophy.  Brandon has obviously harbored a long-standing fascination with his former housemaster that festered into the kind of one-upmanship usually reserved for past lovers.  But it's this fascination twisted into obsession that finally unravels the crime. 

Werth: So, Wise, with all this gabbing about color Hitchcock films, I hope our devoted readers check out some of his black and white fare.

Wise: And neither killer birds nor murderous aesthetes will keep them away from next week's Film Gab.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Big Screen in the Sky

Film Gab has just learned that famed photographer Bert Stern passed away Tuesday. Stern was an innovative photographer well-known for his advertising photography and portrait work with Hollywood stars. In a 1963 issue of Life Magazine, Stern posed actors of the wattage of Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and others as stars from the early days of Hollywood.
Stern's most famous sitting was with Marilyn Monroe mere months before her death, revealing the skin and the soul of the actress at a time when she was attempting to re-invent herself. Like many photographers, Stern lived in the shadows of his more famous subjects, but we here at Film Gab tip our hats to a man who excelled at making the gods and goddesses of Hollywood immortal.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Film Gab Double J Birthday!

Werth: Wise, today's Film Gab birthday salute is to a really sassy gal.

Wise: You said it! Juliette Lewis has built an entire career on her big-hearted quirkiness. 

Werth: Juliette Lewis? I'm talking about silver screen star and Cross-Your-Heart bra icon, Jane Russell.

Wise: Should we toss a coin or compare cup sizes to see who goes first?

Werth: Decades before Juliette was making lewd tongue gestures at Robert DeNiro, Minnesota native Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell was one of the most talked-about women in Hollywood. 
Her film debut The Outlaw (1943) is the story of Billy the Kid, but one look at the marketing and it was obvious that producer/director Howard Hughes was more interested in telling the story of Jane Russell's cleavage. It was a strategy that worked, and Jane Russell was soon one of the most recognized starlets in Hollywood. Fast forward ten years and Russell's ample talents were being showcased again in what would become another iconic "body" film.  
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) follows chorusgirls Dorothy Shaw (Russell) and Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe) as they take a cruise to France to get Lorelei's millionaire boyfriend (Tommy Noonan) to chase her across the Atlantic.

Wise: Which is a clever strategy because most people run toward millionaires—unless it's Donald Trump. 

Werth: Dorothy and Lorelei are the perfect female odd couple. Dorothy is streetwise, sensible and crass; wisecracking that she is looking for a man "who can run faster than I can" as she marches through a gym populated by Olympic athletes. 
Lorelei, on the other hand, couldn't care less what a man looks like as long as his wallet is handsome. And while she might have trouble spelling "tiara," she's smart enough to get rich men to give her shiny objects of affection, even if they have to pry them off their wives' heads.

Wise: I didn't know you could use a chapeau as a safety deposit box. 

Werth: Based on the popular musical, and directed by successful multi-genre director Howard Hawks, Gentlemen is a brisk, funny, tuneful romp that sustained Russell's career, and shot Monroe's into the stratosphere. Both actresses are perfect for their partsand while that applies to their finely shaped body parts, it's important to remember that both of these gals were more than their measurements. 
Russell's arch banter turns a noir-like worldliness into comic jousting. She's particularly adept at mimicry in one scene where she has to pretend to be Lorelei for a French nightcourt. And Monroe's "dumb" blonde routine was so masterful, it would become the gold standard for comedic female roles for years to come. 
You could say that this is the movie that made Monroe a star, but also trapped her in a screen persona she would learn to deplore. But the sadness that would overwhelm Monroe's later career is nowhere to be found here. She is young, funny, dazzlingly beautiful, and has the whole world by the jewels. Russell and Monroe became friends and seemed genuinely to enjoy each other on the screen. 
They definitely looked chummy in the photos where they are pressing their hands into the wet cement of Grauman's Chinese Theatre, memorializing Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and themselves for future film buffs.
Wise: While certainly no bombshell, Juliette Lewis has had a long career playing sensitive oddballs and deploying her weird beauty to create characters both subtle and over-the-top.  In What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993), she plays Becky, a teen traveling across the country with her grandmother.  When their truck breaks down in the small Iowa town of Endora, she strikes up a friendship with Gilbert (Johnny Depp).  Gilbert's life is consumed with caring for his mentally challenged brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio), 
and complicated both by an affair with an older married woman (Mary Steenburgen) and by the depression of his severely obese mother (Darlene Cates).  As Gilbert grows increasingly frustrated by life, his troubles multiply, and he risks losing Becky's steadying influence.  

Werth: If Becky were as big as his mother, she'd be more steadying.

Wise: Depp brings tremendous sensitivity to the role, making Gilbert sympathetic while still acknowledging the character's faults.  Revisiting the film, it can be a shock to see Depp so modulated, particularly because his current career seems dedicated to outlandishness.  
He and Lewis are particularly well-matched in the film, and  the halting steps they take in revealing their mutual attraction feels painfully real.  Also painfully real is Darlene Cates as Gilbert's mother.  
Discovered by screenwriter Peter Hedges (who adapted his own novel) on an episode of The Sally Jesse Raphael Show, Cates was an actual recluse who overcame her own insecurities about her weight to take on the role. 

Werth: Cates lost 250 lbs. last year and is hoping to return to acting.

Wise: The breakout star of the film, of course, is DiCaprio who received an Best Supporting Oscar nomination for the role of Arnie.  He loads the character full of verbal and gestural quirks without resorting into caricature or descending into the maudlin.  
His Arnie has believable motivations and strong emotions that he expresses using the character's limited faculties.  When Gilbert abandons him in the bath, Arnie is angry, and even though he is unable to articulate his frustration in words, DiCaprio communicates his character's indignation and hurt as forcefully as any speech.  
Director Lasse Halström carefully integrates his cast's vibrant performances with the sweetly elegiac tone of the film, making Gilbert Grape both a showcase for some great acting as well as a beautifully rendered meditation on life. 

Werth: Since this is a birthday post, we need cake.


Wise: I'll grab my 'J'-shaped cake pan. Visit us again next week for more alphabetically delicious Film Gab!

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Gab of Steel

Werth: Wise, look up in the sky!

Wise: Is it a bird, or a plane?

Werth: No it's a Hollywood promotional juggernaut for the latest Superman reboot, Man of Steel.

Wise: Henry Cavill's chiseled puss is everywhere.

Werth: While I personally am excited by the trailer—

Wise: And Henry Cavill in a skintight unitard.

Werth:—I have a feeling I'm going to miss that old "comic book" sense of style that some earlier incarnations of Superman embodied. In 1941 producer Max Fleischer of Popeye fame and his brother, director Dave, brought the Superman comic books to the big screen in an animated short-form format for Paramount. 
This was the Golden Age of the animated short, when Bugs, Mickey and Tom & Jerry delighted movie going audiences between feature films and Movietone News segments that showed Europe dissolving into war. They gave the audience time to breathe in between Citizen Kane, Suspicion, and Hitler.

Wise: And made it even harder to sneak out to the john. 

Werth: But with the Superman series, the Fleischers did something a little more elegant than the other cartoons. Sticking to the comic's origin story, these shorts quickly absorbed the audience into the story of Superman, the last survivor of a doomed planet who has super powers like being faster than a speeding bullet and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound. 
When he isn't fighting for truth and justice, he is disguised as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent whose competitive relationship with deep-throated co-worker Lois Lane will undoubtedly lead to romance.... someday.

Wise: Lois put up a better fight than Hildy Johnson

Werth: What makes these simple cartoons so thrilling is the animation that was used. The comic book becomes cinema with art moderne and industrial designs for everything from a radio, to a cityscape, to a huge death ray; and a film noir lighting scheme that uses shadows and light to rival The Maltese Falcon
Shot in Technicolor, Lois Lane's salmon jacket and skirt are muted yet bold, and the way the figures move is mesmerizing with their jerking, yet fluid movement. Eight of the original cartoons are worth a gander with Superman fighting various mad scientists, a thawed-out tyrannosaurus rex, and a big ape who runs amok on the midway. 
The robots in The Mechanical Monsters clearly inspired the robots used in 2004's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, proving that even a 72-year-old cartoon can still inspire today's filmmakers. 

Wise: The Adventures of Tintin (2011) is based on the beloved comic by Belgian artist Hergé and follows the intrepid young reporter (Jamie Bell) and his dog Snowy as they delve into the mystery surrounding a family curse, a valuable ship model and a sunken treasure.  Combining three Hergé books—The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn, and Red Rackham's Treasure—the film is a madcap frenzy of chase sequences, slapstick humor, and derring-do, taking full advantage of the combined talents of director Steven Spielberg and producer Pater Jackson.  

Werth: That's a lot of talent.

Wise: The film was animated using motion capture and does so much more successfully than other projects which have used the technique and rendered their actors as a pack of creepy Botoxed mannequins.  

Werth: It's like being sucked into an all-day Housewives of Beverly Hills Marathon on Bravo.

Wise: The technology allows Spielberg to indulge in every action sequence daydream he's had for the past four decades.  Tintin is not bound by the same physics as Indiana Jones, and as a result doesn't simply evade a boulder or weather a nuclear blast in a refrigerator; 
instead Spielberg stages a chase sequence that involves a jeep, a motorcycle, tumbling buildings, a tank, the torrent rushing from a dam, a trained falcon, a clothesline, a crowded bazaar, and a hijacked ship making its way out to sea.  

Werth: And all of it unleashed in 3D.

Wise: The one element lacking is the emotional heft characteristic of even Spielberg's most lighthearted fare.  It's difficult to say if this is the fault of the format (although Jackson's Weta Digital seamlessly marries Hergé's elegant line with incredibly realistic detail) or the cheerful blankness of the film's everyman hero.  
Andy Serkis is both comic and touching as Tintin's tipsy but stouthearted ally Captain Haddock, and even Daniel Craig's sinister Sakharine has more emotional range.  But even if the film doesn't make audiences cry, it can still make them cheer, which is quite an accomplishment for a comic book thrown onto the screen.

Werth: I'm ready to see if Zack Snyder can make me cheer.

Wise: At least as much as you cheered for the giant, blue, naked guy in The Watchmen.

Werth: Tune in next week for more big screen heroes right here on Film Gab!