Tuesday, October 29, 2013

As Time Goes By, Casablanca Still Speaks To Us

[1942, Michael Curtiz Dir., Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Dooley Wilson, Claude Rains, S.Z. Sakall, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre]

Even if you’ve never seen this picture, you’ll know it by reputation; you’ll know it by name alone. Casablanca has been an inspiration to generations of filmmakers, poets and lovers. I can think of no other film whose legacy has been as far reaching or whose testimonial is as relevant today as the day of its release.
Like most truly great films, Casablanca’s plot is disarmingly simple but populated by complex characters. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) owns the Café Americain in Casablanca, a Moroccan weigh-station to refugees fleeing Nazi occupied Europe. Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) is Rick’s old flame who walks back into his life as she and her husband Victor (Paul Henreid) - an resistance leader – are attempting to escape the Gestapo. An emotionally convoluted tale of passion, jealousy and hate ensues as Ilsa attempts to secure a pair of exit visas from Rick for her and Victor while also reconciling her feelings for the saloonkeeper. Rick himself is compromised not only by churning emotions over Ilsa, but the awkward situation of holding the exit visas as a favor to Ugarte (Peter Lorre), a low-level criminal, who died in police custody. Rick never wanted the exit visas, and he never wanted to see Ilsa again, but as he points out: this is a crazy world.
Humphrey Bogart became a star playing Rick Blaine. Prior to Casablanca, Bogart had made his way in Hollywood portraying an assortment of uninspired gangsters. The Maltese Falcon – released the year before - might be considered his break-out role, but really, it was just his first starring performance, albeit a good one. However, Rick Blaine is more than the prototypical (stereotypical?) private eye Sam Spade; Rick was a cynical man not without his vulnerabilities, an idealist, a businessman, a friend and a man in love just as capable of being hurt as the rest of us. Bogart breathed life into Rick, hitting every emotional mark and delivering some of the most quoted lines in film history with a coolness I’m sure has influenced actors from James Dean to Clint Eastwood.
There are many fine performances in Casablanca, from the obliquely creepy Peter Lorre as Ugarte to the smarmy suave of Claude Rains’ depiction of Renault, Casablanca’s police Prefect.  Dooley Wilson is best remembered for his role as Sam the piano man, Rick’s friend and confidant; Dooley was able to project a caring affection for Rick without coming across as melodramatic. Likewise with S.Z. Sakall - himself a refugee from Austria-Hungary - who played Rick’s Maitre ‘D Carl with affable charm, warmth and humor.
It says something about Casablanca that of all its’ dozens of speaking roles only three actors were born in the United States. This Hollywood set was very much like the place it was representing: packed with refugees from a war-ravaged Europe trying to survive. Nowhere is this sad irony better illustrated than in the story of Marcel Dalio who plays the croupier at Rick’s. A revered actor in his native France, Dalio starred in Le Grande Illusion (1937) and Rules of the Game (1939), both classics from French filmmaker Jean Renoir. After France fell to the Nazis, Dalio went on the run, and found himself playing a bit-part in what was at the time a minor Warner Bros. production. C’est la vie? No, c’est la guerre.
Ingrid Bergman literally takes my breath away in this film as Ilsa; the younger woman from Rick’s Parisian past whose youthful exuberance, even innocence, shined light into his world-weary soul. Not only does she possess an arresting beauty (filmed always from her “good” side by cinematographer Arthur Edeson) but Miss Bergman renders one of her finest, most natural, performances in Casablanca. Emoting deep love for two men, the quandary her heart creates for herself and those around her moves us to empathy. Ultimately, we come to recognize with Ilsa that her fate, her future and perhaps the future of the world rests with Rick – the man she abandoned without explanation, whose battle-hardened heart she touched and then broke. I cannot think of any other actress in 1942 who could have taken us on such an emotional journey so convincingly and yet so seemingly effortlessly.
     There is hardly a frame of Casablanca that cannot be proudly printed and posted on your wall, real or cyber. Filmed by the late Arthur Edeson whose credits also included The Maltese Falcon (1941) and James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), this man’s use of shadows and shallow depth of field in black and white is masterful 1940s photography. Edeson’s close-ups are portraits, intimate and character defining; his long shots intricately composed with action in both the background and forefront evoke an almost documentary realism. Technicolor was certainly available in 1942, but Warner Bros. understated film only rated a budget to cover black and white photography. The world should be grateful, because like those snapshots we have of our grandparents back in the 1940s, monochrome images convey this era in a way color never could. In Edeson’s work on Casablanca there is now nostalgia, a wistfully imagined understanding of what Rick and Ilsa’s world looked like in the darkest days of WW II. Also, there is truth in the beauty of b/w, something that would be lost in the vibrant shades of Technicolor.
Edeson’s imagery coupled with Charles Jules Weyl’s art direction elevated Casablanca’s sense of location, creating a singular sense of atmosphere. The secretive shadows of Rick’s Café and the now ubiquitous, slowly-turning ceiling fans of The Green Parrot were conventions used in previous films, but never before did they fully add so much to a story. The ceiling fans were a constant reminder not only of the Moroccan desert’s heat, but of the troubles hanging over the heads of Rick, Ilsa and Victor. The shadows and dark corners created by the film’s Moorish architecture exuded an exotic film noir texture, but their presence was not so much sinister as symbolic of secrets, not only between characters, but secrets characters kept from themselves. The depths of Rick’s heart, or the inner workings of Renault’s self-serving mind, these were what lurked in those shadows, not gangsters with Tommy Guns.
     Casablanca strikes a chord still higher than atmosphere and romance. The careful viewer will observe that events in this film occur in the week immediately prior to Sunday, December 7th, 1941 – a very intentional setting. Casablanca tapped into the zeitgeist of its time, when the whole world felt the unwanted burden of having to stand up against tyranny and oppression. It also references U.S. isolationism before that infamous December morning when Rick, finding himself caught up in not only the whirlwind of WW II but of the emotional turmoil created by Ilsa’s return, ponders drunkenly “If it’s December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York? I’ll bet they’re asleep, I’ll bet they’re sleeping all over America”. Nowhere is the clarion call to arms and personal sacrifice heard clearer than in the Casablanca’s legendary final scene. Rick’s decision to send Ilsa out of Casablanca with Victor went beyond not wanting to break up a marriage, Rick knew his sacrifice would quite probably save lives and foster a future better than the present.
No piece about Casablanca would be complete without praising “As Time Goes By”, the most evocative and recognizable song ever to come out of a film. Written almost a decade prior to its inclusion in Casablanca, “As Time Goes By” was in the text of the unproduced stage play this film was based on. Its timeless quality lends credence to the film’s themes and its melody, worked into score, succeeded in creating a number of moods with its variations. Haunting and charming, the lyrics speak of fundamental truths, the fight for love and glory, it’s always the same old story. There are many fundamental truths to be found in Casablanca, truths that spoke to audiences in 1942, still speak to us today, and most likely will continue to do so for generations to come.
Little is sacred in LA, this was never more obvious than in 1994 when “Scarlett: The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind” hit television with Timothy Dalton as Rhett Butler. Besides the poorly received Michael Walsh novel “As Time Goes By”, there is a script currently making rounds in Hollywood for a Casablanca sequel based on a synopsis written by one of this classic’s original screenwriters. Purists by now are scoffing and loading their cannons with derision, but I think, based on what I’ve heard of the plot, that the producers - The Warner Sisters Company - may have something. Should the sequel Return to Casablanca be made? Sure, why not, if the original source material is treated with the proper care and respect, absolutely! Will it be the same? Not if the filmmakers do their job right; the best sequels build on the original story and its characters, and the Warner sisters’ property sounds like it does just that. Some sequels have surpassed the original, but could a Return to Casablanca ever be as successful as its parent? Probably not, but then no one knows the future. A sequel could work; if done properly, anything can work. But there are elements to Casablanca’s success that can never be repeated, some things are simply beyond the control of writers, producers, directors and actors.
I’ve said that there is a mere handful of motion pictures I feel qualify as genuine works of art. As a corollary to that statement I’d like to add this: there are even fewer films I can think of that have righteously achieved the status of legend. Casablanca is 102 minutes of old Hollywood magic, and is known to even casual movie watchers, regardless of age or taste preference, the world over. Though hardly a technically perfect film – the ridiculous angle of the model plane landing and the rear-projection scenes only remind us we’re watching an old movie – Casablanca inhabits a special place in the collective psyche of western culture. Casablanca is more than just a film, it is a celluloid time capsule that shows us today the generation who made it, where they were in history, and what was important to them. It is also their message to us, their posterity, that there were and always will be things worth fighting for, and sacrificing for, things more important than our own individual needs and desires.

[“Casablanca” is currently available on DVD & Blu-Ray through Netflix, the Blu-Ray version offers fun and informative commentary from the late Roger Ebert.]

Thursday, September 19, 2013

It Happened One Night – The “RomCom” Of Yesteryear, Still Great

[1934, Frank Capra Dir., Stars: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns and Alan Hale Sr.]

      When I slipped the DVD into my player I truly was looking forward to once again experiencing this iconic film. I’d seen it before; once as a child and again sometime during my University days, but that was a long time ago. Those of us who love old movies embrace the wistful nostalgia they carry; but I really wasn’t sure what I would make of this film, regarded as the original screwball romantic comedy. So I guess my excitement stemmed from a sense of discovery, or rediscovery. I was curious to understand just what made this one picture, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, so memorable for so many.
           The story of It Happened One Night couldn’t be more basic – smooth smart guy reporter Peter Warne (Gable) escorts runaway heiress Ellie Andrews (Colbert) from Miami to New York City. Naturally, the two start out hating each other; him an out-of-work and uncouth nobody, and her - a spoiled and impractical brat. Travelling by any means available, the two of course fall madly in love. Between Miami and New York they share misadventures and legendary movie moments from the blanket hanging (Walls of Jericho) scene in a motel to the hitch-hiking leg flash, even a bus ride sing-along of “The Man On The Flying Trapeze”. No hot house flower, it should be noted, Ellie gives Peter just as good as she gets from him in the wisecrack department. Peter, on the other hand, proves to Ellie he’s not just some penniless rogue out to make a Depression Era buck off of her. Fair to say, these two landmark characters don’t just fall in love with each other – their natural charm and chemistry makes us fall in love with them as well.
            It Happened One Night swept the Academy Awards for 1934, and is to this very day one of only three films to take home all five major awards: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay. (The other two “Big Five” Oscar winners were 1974’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Silence of the Lambs in 1991.) Quite an auspicious result for a film that was turned down by Constance Bennett and Myrna Loy both, and Robert Montgomery walked away from the chance to play Peter Warne because he felt the screenplay was the worst thing he’d ever read. Even Claudette Colbert thought the film to be something of a joke, she demanded twice her usual salary and that shooting be completed in four weeks so she wouldn’t waste too much of her time. Hollywood loves those sorts of back stories to major successes; unfortunately today few in LA would have the guts to move forward on a production with that kind of initial feedback.
I may have a bit of an idealistic notion of Hollywood in the 1930’s, while romantic comedies have been around since the beginning, I feel they were more thoughtfully prepared and less formulaic then. Frank Capra’s eminently enjoyable little film holds its well-earned classic status because it came from a time when this sort of film wasn’t being made every day. Capra’s characters were strong and smart, there’s also no denying the very genuine on-screen chemistry between Gable and Colbert. The man pushed the envelope for 1934, too, by showing not only Claudette Colbert’s nicely developed leg in close-up, but also having her and Clark Gable playing an unmarried couple who – gasp! – share cramped travel lodgings. Today’s so-called romantic offerings seem more like cheap fast food compared to It Happened One Night, a proper gourmet meal prepared by a talented chef.
            “They don’t make movies like that anymore” I’m sure some people would say, but the trouble is they do make them, every, single, day, now. Today boy-meets-gets-loses-rediscovers-girl movies are produced en masse. I couldn’t tell you how many are available on Netflix right now for instantaneous romantic gratification and they just keep coming. Whether you call them “chick flicks” or rom-coms, Hollywood churns them out not only for the big screen but for that handful of cable channels geared towards an audience that laps up their syrupy cinematic tripe. Something valuable has been lost, I fear, since 1934. Falling in love, or watching two people fall in love, should always be magical. If it happens every day, love becomes cheapened and common place; it’ll never be as wonderful as it was when it only happened one night.

[“It Happened One Night” is currently available on DVD through Netflix and via VOD on Viki.com]

Friday, September 6, 2013

Before LOTRs... Before Excalibur... There was – SIEGFRIED

(1924, Fritz Lang Dir., Stars: Paul Richter, Margarete Schön, Theodor Loos and Hanna Ralph.)

            It happened 86 years ago, a tectonic shift in cinema that triggered a sink-or-swim period of upheaval impacting actors, directors and studio heads the world over. Today, we take the catalyst of that tumultuous time for granted. I’m not talking about color -- hand-painted "color" films have been around since the very dawn of film. I’m talking about synchronized sound in motion picture production and exhibition; in short, talkies killed the silent movie star.
            There was genius of necessity that drove the silent movie era. Without sound, actors relied on their faces, and eyes in particular, to emote; and directors thought long and hard on how to convey a story visually. While there is a conservation movement afoot to preserve silent films and rescue “lost” ones languishing in libraries, archives, even closets around the world, only a fraction of the thousands made remain. One film that was never lost but was all but forgotten is Fritz Lang’s 1924 medieval epic, Siegfried.
The saga of Lang’s Siegfried closely follows the ancient Nordic legend of Sigurd, a hero prince of Nordic legend who quests with his sword of power, Gram, to win the hand of a maiden princess. Thea Von Harbou, Lang’s wife, penned this film’s script (she also wrote Lang’s most revered masterpiece, Metropolis) and framed this majestic legend within a series of seven cantos:
Canto 1: Siegfried forges his sword and is told of the fair Princess Kriemhild of Burgundy, he decides to journey there and win the lady’s hand. Siegfried’s passage is detoured by the deceitful blacksmith, Mime, so he soon crosses paths with a dragon he battles and ultimately slays. This victory gifts Siegfried an understanding of the language of birds, from whom he learns that bathing in the blood of the dragon will make his body invincible in battle. Unfortunately, Siegfried fails to notice a single leaf fallen upon his shoulder as he bathes in the dragon’s blood, leaving him an “Achilles’ Heel” spot of vulnerability.
Canto 2: Still en route to Burgundy, Siegfried encounters the dwarf King of the Nibelungen, Alberich. The battle against the diminutive despot is easily won despite Alberich’s Cap of Wonder (more accurately, a chainmail veil) which grants the wearer not only the power of invisibility, but allows them to take on the form of anything or anyone. Alberich begs Siegfried to spare his life, and in return turns over both the Treasure of the Nibelungen and his Cap of Wonder. Upon finally arriving in Burgundy, Siegfried asks the hand of Kriemhild from her brother, King Gunther. The King first requests of Siegfried his help in winning stout warrior queen, Brunhild, as his own bride.
Canto 3: Brunhild issues King Gunther’s three challenges she has set for any who seek her hand. Siegfried dons his Cap of Wonder to become invisible and help Gunther in these contests: stone throwing, long jumping and lastly, a competition of spears. Defeated, Brunhild returns with King Gunther and Siegfried to Burgundy.
Canto 4: In Burgundy, Brunhild rejects the effeminate King Gunther insisting that she is his captive, not his bride. Again, King Gunther turns to Siegfried for help. Using Alberich’s Cap of Wonder, Siegfried takes King Gunther’s form and subdues Brunhild’s wilds, impressing upon her that the Burgundy king is quite man enough for her. During this struggle, however, Brunhild’s snake armlet is taken by Siegfried, a token that would soon prove disastrously telling.
Canto 5: Months later, Kriemhild and her husband Siegfried remain in the castle at the request of Kriemhild’s Mother; this leads to routine quarreling between Brunhild and Kriemhild. When Kriemhild discovers Brunhild's snake armlet, Siegfried tells her how her brother won the queen. Later, as the two queens of the castle argue while attending mass, an offended Kriemhild tells Brunhild of the deception Siegfried and King Gunther played upon her.
Canto 6: Brunhild seeks revenge by lying to King Gunther that Siegfried stole her virginity. Incensed, King Gunther conspires with his royal right-hand man, Hagen Tronje, to use a boar hunt as an opportunity to kill Siegfried. First, though, Hagen Tronje cons from Kriemhild the location of a rumored vulnerable spot on Siegfried's body by telling her that Siegfried has asked him to be his bodyguard, and now must know which part of the hero’s body most needs guarding. Brunhild fasts, the men depart for the hunt. Hagen Tronje lures Siegfried to an isolated stream where he impales the hero prince through the shoulder, where the leaf had fallen during his dragon blood bath. Siegfried, son of King Siegmund of Xanten, dragon-slayer and hero – dies.
Canto 7: In the final denouement, Brunhild confesses her treachery to King Gunther, treachery that has caused him to kill his true friend. Brunhild dies of starvation; her fast, having taken its toll, also frees her from marriage to King Gunther. When Kriemhild learns of the lies that lead to the murder of Siegfried, she swears her own revenge on Hagen Tronje.
Visually, Lang’s Siegfried is grand in scope and intimate with its characters emotions. The castle sets are vast yet austere. In fact, these Teutonic recreations seem to have had at least some influence on the sets of Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); they are simple, stark white edifices sparsely dressed with luxuriant yet rudimentary furnishings of the period. The facial expressions of the actors run the gamut from looks that could kill to moist-eyed love, confusion and regret. And Lang’s dream sequences are so powerfully evocative that I would readily hold them up with Salvador Dali’s work on Hitchcock’s Spellbound(1945) for their surrealism.
Fair to say, The Dragon in Canto 1 looked silly and well dated. Siegfried was made long before CGI, and Claymation was a skill being honed elsewhere in the world in 1928; still, I can’t help thinking Lang’s crew could have done better. All told, though, it is fun to think that this obviously phony dragon Siegfried killed was a 60-foot puppet it took three men to operate!
Gotfried Huppertz’s score accompanies Fritz Lang’s images perfectly. I’ve seen silent films where the music is monotone in its pacing, flat and boring; however Huppertz’s work for Siegfried kept me engaged and guided my emotional reactions to the scenes as any great score should for a silent film.
Movie fans not used to watching silents may not want to jump straight into Siegfried for a Sunday night screening. These pre-sound films can be brilliant, and Siegfried is an excellent example of that era’s art; but silent films are an acquired taste... And because there is no audible dialogue to move the story, the visual storytelling requires your complete and constant attention. If you’ve never watched silent films, start easy – check out Charlie Chaplin’s Mutual two-reelers or some shorter works by F.W. Murnau, Buster Keaton or Ernst Lubitsch. I guess a good analogy would be that one should learn to appreciate select arias before subjecting themselves to a five-act opera.
Fritz Lang originally filmed Siegfried together with its follow-up, Kriemhild’s Revenge, as a single five-hour epic. Such an extreme running time though proved too long even for German audiences in the 1920s, and so the full film – then known as Die Nibelungen – was broken into, and marketed as, its two component halves. While both films are available individually on DVD, Kino Video has in its’ Fritz Lang collection the master’s fully restored five-hour vision. This box set also includes the seminal Metropolis(1927), Spies(1928) and thrown in for good measure, Woman In The Moon(1929), the first film to show a countdown to the launching of a rocket. Kino’s Fritz Lang collection is a must-have for any Lang fan or aficionados of the silent cinema. (FTR - It has already been added to this reviewer’s Amazon Wish List.)
Modern cinema must remember its roots, just as any family or nation should. It helps one to see just how far they’ve come; to appreciate not only the present, but the genuine genius of those forefathers upon whose shoulders they happily stand. Silent films may be an acquired taste, but once that taste is attained, films like Siegfried open up a whole new dimension in a person’s appreciation of the art, and magic, of film. This film is not just an historical curiosity, but an engaging story and visually stunning grand opus. Watch Siegfried, and imagine wistfully what Fritz Lang might have achieved had he the technology now available to J.J. Abrams, or Peter Jackson.

            [“Siegfried” is currently available through Netflix on DVD and in some regions as On Demand video. As mentioned, Kino Video has also released the fully restored ‘Die Nebelungen’ in a four-film box set of Fritz Lang’s works. This silent epic is also available at the time of this writing, in its’ entirety, on YouTube.]

Monday, August 19, 2013

Ian McKellen’s Most Vile RICHARD III

[1995, Richard Loncraine Dir., Stars: Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jim Broadbent, Nigel Hawthorne, Edward Hardwicke and Robert Downey Jr.]

            Shakespeare does not always translate well to film. For every successful cinematic treatment of the Bard’s work, there are perhaps a dozen or more critical and commercial failures. Shakespeare’s language is dated for today’s audience; complex and hard to follow, with many monologues too long to fit into modern cinematic pacing. Still, there have been, and will continue to be, successful adaptations to the big screen. Back in the 1990’s, Kenneth Branagh was ruler of the roost when it came to Shakespearean cinema. However, there was one adaptation in 1995 that did not come from his hand – Ian McKellen’s Richard III. Even though this film was directed by Richard Loncraine (The Haunting of Julia, Brimstone & Treacle), McKellen was the true creative force behind this incredible re-imagining of the tragedy of Richard of Gloucester. It was he that adapted the script and turned in a truly outstanding performance as the title character.
            For those unfamiliar with this popular piece, Richard III tells the story of the deformed youngest son of the House of York, who schemes, murders and manipulates his way into a short-lived possession of the Crown. The story begins with one of the most stirring of Shakespeare’s soliloquys – “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York...” – which both hails the ending of a bloody civil war and preambles Richard’s own dastardly plans to usurp his eldest brother and claim the crown for his own.  What follows is a convoluted journey from obscurity to notoriety for Richard, fueled by his ambition and masked by his perceived goodness.
            Whether Richard’s hunch-backed and palsied physique is an outer representation of his inner ugliness, or the cause of his sociopathic nature, is certainly open to debate. Suffice it to say, by Richard’s own justification his devious plotting is brought about by the gnawing knowledge that one such as he is built more for war than for the tender pleasures of peace.
            Ian McKellen, best known today for his much-lauded portrayal of the wizard Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films, penned his version of Richard III while portraying Richard in a touring production of the play. I don’t know whose idea it was to place this controversial account of 15th century British upheaval in a 1930’s setting, McKellen’s or director Loncraine’s, but the inspiration was an undeniable flash of genius. In the 1930’s, Europe was a hotbed of burgeoning dictatorships, from Franco to Hitler to Stalin; a fitting environment for the likes of Richard of Gloucester. Also, Shakespeare’s intricate iambic pentameter verses do not seem terribly out of place in what many consider the last decade of the “old world.” Taken together, McKellen and Loncraine’s shared vision makes Richard III not only accessible to a modern audience, but engaging as well as strangely fun.
As mentioned, McKellen’s performance was brilliant, as it had to be: he is the focal point of this film and carries the weight of Shakespeare’s darkest character fiercely. It is creepy to watch McKellen so adept at performing tasks with his crippled character’s one good hand, from lighting a cigarette to opening a bottle of gin. Each obsessively precise movement is an eerie reminder of the man’s life-long afflictions (It’s easy to imagine that during the touring production, the man labored long and hard honing the skill of using only his right hand). To anyone who has seen the Lord Of The Rings movies, it’s no great discovery that McKellen has an extremely expressive face, capable of delicately conveying a kaleidoscopic range of emotions in quick succession. This venerable actor utilizes his gift in Richard III to project a smarmy-yet-passionate interpretation of Shakespeare’s most eloquent villain. Richard habitually concludes long monologues of lies with a smirking aside through the fourth wall, letting us, the audience, share in the fun he has in playing his game of thrones. Perfect timing, perfect delivery, McKellen’s performance in my mind easily outshines Olivier’s from 1955.
This film features many noteworthy performances from what was at the time the very cream of the British theater. Kristin Scott-Thomas portrays the Lady Anne, widow of Edward, the Earl of Westminster (whom Richard killed in combat), as a woman whose heartbreak and loss have left her in intense despair. Jim Broadbent plays Buckingham, Richard’s co-conspirator but eventual victim, as a grinning, lackey charlatan, for whom it is hard to muster sympathy when his come-uppance arrives. Maggie Smith is a strong and embittered Duchess of York -- Richard’s mother -- the only person unafraid of the deviant usurper king and the only person who can reach what is left of his twisted heart. Annette Bening delivers what is perhaps the most haunting line of this picture – “Where are my children?!” – when she confronts Richard with the holy fury of a mother with little left to lose. Nigel Hawthorne, Edward Hardwicke and Robert Downey Jr. round out the cast, to name but a few other fine talents, but really everyone who “carried a spear” in this production deserves high praise for their amazing work.
While large action set-pieces were never Shakespeare’s thing (how could they be? He wrote plays to be performed on a small stage in Tudor London!), this version of Richard III still packs some remarkable, sometimes even graphic scenes and locations. From the garish morgue where Kristin Scott Thomas deliver’s Lady Anne’s lament over her husband’s corpse to the final battle at Battersea Power Station, there truly is some striking imagery. These visuals not only keep us engaged, but lend this film the epic scope that this story demands.
Earlier this year, the remains of a man believed to be Richard III were unearthed in a Leicester parking lot. While historical accounts from the era are spotty at best, there are some who believe the true Richard of Gloucester has been given the dirty end of the stick by popular culture -- including in Shakespeare’s play. (It might be worth mentioning, too, that when the Bard penned his script, the ruling British monarch at the time, Elizabeth I, was the granddaughter of the man who took the crown from Richard). This recent archeological find, however, presents us with some curious evidence of Richard’s persona. Not only is the spine of the skeleton twisted, but collateral damage to the remains suggests that when Richard was killed he was given humiliating post-mortem injuries as well. Whatever sort of man Richard was in truth, those who took his life and his crown really hated him.
In this production, as in the great play, Richard is thwarted when his evil comes to light among his family and the other aristocracy. This is presented with swinging jazz-era style. Richard falls to his death at the Battle of Bosworth Field, filmed at the iconic, art deco Battersea Power Station -- best known as the image on the cover of Pink Floyd’s album, “Animals.” The music playing, however, isn’t that of Floyd, but Al Jolson, merrily singing of being on top of the world. We watch Richard descend fittingly into a fiery hell, waving goodbye to us, his audience, and smiling, no regrets. From start to finish, Richard III is cinematic gold, and well worthy of its “cult classic” status.

[“Richard III” is currently available through Netflix on DVD and in some regions as On Demand video. Also, the original 1995 trailer for this film is available on YouTube, should you wish to view it before adding this feature to your watch list.]

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Remembering Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire (a.k.a. Der Himmel über Berlin)

(1987, Wim Wenders Dir., Stars: Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Otto Sander, Curt Bois, and Peter Falk in a special appearance as himself.)
I remember the first time I watched Wings of Desire in 1989. I had no idea what I was getting myself into that night. It was a VHS rental from Blockbuster (Remember Blockbuster? For that matter, remember VHS?). The film had been chosen strictly because it “looked” interesting and the cover had a girl riding a trapeze. I watched the video twice that night in awe, and by morning it had replaced 2001: A Space Odyssey as my favorite film. Like 2001, Wings of Desire is one of a handful of films I feel can be considered serious works of art.
This film opens with a monologue considering the views of an enigmatic “child;” their desires and habits. This mysterious young soul is revisited throughout the course of the film. Perhaps this concept refers to the “child” of God. Alternatively, in a more general sense, the “child” is all of us, singularly and collectively -- wishing, as many of us did in our youth, that our personal river of time would flow faster and the puddle of our lives in eternity would be an ocean.
Wim Wenders draws us into his vision of angels in the skies over Berlin, in much the same way as his angels are drawn into our world. The traumas of birth, growth and death resound within the first ten minutes, as we voyeuristically listen in on the thoughts and everyday lives of various citizens of Germany’s capital city. Such is the existence of angels, Damiel and Cassiel (Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander, respectively) and their kind: unseen, non-corporeal, witnesses of life and time’s passing, but nothing more. Damiel wants to join the world, though; to feel cold and stub his toe, to get ink on his fingers from a newspaper and be excited by a meal; even lie through his teeth -- all for the life experience!
Damiel’s decision to “fall” into the river of time and become mortal is made resolute after he discovers Marion (Solveig Dommartin). Damiel and Marion’s story is one of unabashed romanticism at its best and works perfectly. As a trapeze artist, Marion is a woman whose every physical motion is poetic and precariously balanced; the very embodiment of beauty in physical existence. But in observing Marion’s life, Damiel comes to understand that she, too, is at a crossroads. With her circus closing for the season, Marion is being set adrift in Berlin, a fate that doesn’t frighten her, but doesn’t roll off her back as easily as it had in the past.
Peter Falk (best remembered as TV’s rumpled detective, Columbo) makes a great, fun cameo in this film, playing himself. However, in the world of Wenders’ film, Falk is more than himself; he is a “fallen” angel as well. Falk chose to surrender eternity and become human in the late fifties, but still feels the presence of his old compańeros. Falk wishes the angels would join him in the physical world, to experience the simple pleasures of corporeal existence.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds make a surprising cameo in this film, as well; performing in the bar where Damiel and Marion finally meet in the flesh. This much-anticipated scene is truly elevated by the prelude of Nick Cave and his crew performing a raw, live rendition of “From Her to Eternity.”
Damiel is let off lightly in confronting the woman for whom he surrendered eternity to be with: Marion does all the talking! It is almost impossible to describe the layered intensity of Marion’s monologue. Having grown older, she finally feels alone, and this loneliness somehow completes her as a person. She is tired of coincidences in her life; things have now become serious. Breaking the forth wall, but addressing Damiel, Marion invites us to become a part of her world; part of the art on the screen. She and Damiel represent more than just themselves; they incarnate everything...and people around the world, she tells us, await the answer of whether or not they will be together in that moment -- the moment that becomes real and therefore eternal itself.
It’s absolutely stirring cinema and the film’s emotional, spiritual and physical climax. The very thought of Solveig Dommartin’s performance in this scene leaves me breathless just thinking of it!
Besides the sweetly basic main story of Damiel and Marion, Wings of Desire walks a piano wire-thin tightrope between art film and straightforward narrative, and does so with a skillful balance worthy of any circus. Thoughts on life and death, not only of people, but of cities and eras, are explored.
Some of the most remarkable scenes in Wings of Desire take place in the Staatsbibliothek, Tiergarten, Berlin – one of the city’s largest libraries. These scenes are presented with a haunting collage of sound reminiscent of the Monolith music from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Here, angels gather where the peace and quiet affords them the best environment to listen to people’s thoughts.
It is in this library that Cassiel, Damiel’s angelic best friend, discovers the elderly Storyteller (Curt Bois) reflecting upon his life and the changes he’s seen, changes in the city and in its people. People used to sit in circles listening intently to stories; now they sit alone -- no longer listening and not even facing each other. Cassiel monitors the Storyteller as he wanders vacant lots of overgrown rubble and discarded furniture. In these scenes, the Storyteller recalls places of his youth long gone.
In the late-1980’s, when Wings of Desire was made, vast stretches of Berlin were still flattened from allied bombing during the 2nd World War decades earlier. The ignoble “Berlin Wall” was still standing then, too; dividing the city into Eastern and Western Berlin, another reminder of the war. These locations are shown in a very offhand fashion, as is occasional stock footage of Berlin during the war and its devastation. Even the movie that Peter Falk is supposedly filming is a WWII period piece. I believe, for Wim Wenders and his generation, the legacy of the Nazis is one to be acknowledged, but also detached from and disowned. The general sense I got was that the sins of the fatherland should perhaps not necessarily be handed down to the children. The river of time flows on; people change, societies can change as well.
In visualizing his ethereal subject matter, Wenders switches effortlessly between black-and-white and color cinematography. The angels’ disconnected, spiritual world is presented with flat, yet warm, black-and-white images. The richly living world of Marion and all humanity is shown in vivid color. Wenders plays these two formats off of each other with subtlety and purpose, building upon his symbolism as any good filmmaker ought to be able to do. In the end, Damiel is shown helping Marion with her acrobatic exercises in color, but in a corner of the screen is an unobtrusive circle of black and white where Cassiel sits, the silent heavenly observer.
Wings of Desire did spawn a sequel, Faraway, So Close (1993). This film followed the post-fall adventures of Cassiel, as he helps Damiel and Marion, along with some of Marion’s circus performer friends, to rescue their daughter from some Euro-trash baddies. Unfortunately, Wenders’ follow-up, while fun in its own way, simply didn’t capture the magic of his previous work.
Similarly, later in the 1990’s, a U.S. version of this film was made retitled City of Angels, starring Meg Ryan and Nicholas Cage. In this flimsy re-imagining of Wenders’ work, the spiritual romance is replaced by Hollywood schmaltz and the depth of the themes Wenders explored is lost completely! For example, City of Angels presents Meg Ryan as a heart surgeon as opposed to a trapeze artist, who becomes the object of angel Nicholas Cage’s affection. A “heart” doctor – get it? Pathetic. Sandlot symbolism is no replacement for honest art.
There is a distressing epilogue to the story of Wings of Desire. In 2007, the very lovely and talented actress, Solveig Dommartin, who played Marion, died at the age of 45. I feel it is important to bring this up because she was too young to die when she did, and as evidenced by her work in this film, too talented to be forgotten. I can think of no other actress who might have breathed life into Marion with such effortless grace and accessibility. Mlle. Dommartin left behind a small collection of films, the best of which she made with Wim Wenders. When I get a chance I’ll track them down, view them and review them here.
After watching Wings of Desire for the first time in years, it was easy for me to remember why I love it – to me it’s a near perfect film. It has romance, drama, humor, and a spirituality that speaks to not only the human condition but what we can all do about that condition insofar as how we affect our own lives. This is an art film you can enjoy without feeling like some intellectual prat who dresses in all black and dreams of really good cappuccino. I remember the first time I watched Wings of Desire in my subterranean apartment in 1989. I think you’ll remember where and when you first watch it too.
[“Wings of Desire” is currently available through Netflix on DVD, and at Hulu for instant streaming. The Criterion Collection has released a Blu-Ray of this film, and this is available on Amazon. Select scenes are also available on YouTube, should you wish to preview Wenders’ masterpiece before adding it to your library or Netflix queue.]

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Taxi Driver – Isolation in the City

           I grew up in New York City in the 1970’s, so “Taxi Driver,” along with a few select Woody Allen films, really takes me back. Locations, fashions, even the grain structure of this film remind me of a simpler time in my life. A time, ironically, that was distinctly dark for America -- when the Vietnam War and Watergate were current events, not vague historical memories. Sentimentality aside, Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film is a stark reflection of the troubled era in which it was made. The general themes of interpersonal alienation and societal decay were obvious hallmarks of the 1970’s even to my child’s mind; they are the very core of “Taxi Driver.”
            Alfred Hitchcock once suggested that a film is little more than a collection of good scenes tied together by some kind of plot. If you’re looking for a cohesive plot in “Taxi Driver,” let me warn you now to not even try. This film is a two-hour long character sketch of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a discharged Marine and Vietnam vet, drifting from day to day, each blurring into the next, as he drives his taxi anonymously in New York City. It’s easier to isolate oneself in a crowded room than at a small table with three strangers, and Travis successfully isolates himself in the massively-populated city to the point of psychosis.
Narration from Travis is monotone, very matter-of-fact, yet holds disturbing undertones of seething at the filth and depravity of the world beyond his cab’s windows. Travis is an island unto himself, a loner in the big city who keeps even his few cabbie friends at arm’s length. Travis knows something is wrong with him; he gets headaches and worries about stomach cancer as he journals his thoughts. Travis pops unexplained pills while living his solitary existence in a tiny apartment, drinking beer, watching TV and practicing with his impressive assortment of handguns. At one point Travis practices drawing on potential enemies in front of a mirror and we are treated to the most memorable scenes of 70’s cinema as Travis delivers the now iconic line: “Are you talk’n to me?”
For a time Travis is taken with a lovely and equally lonely political campaign worker named Betsy (Cybil Shepherd), but this obsession only leads to the world’s worst first date. [Psst - Hey Travis, here’s a tip – save the X-Rated films for the third date, maybe forth.] Travis assembles his arsenal as he slowly descends into his new obsession, killing the Presidential candidate for whom Betsy works. Fortunately, Travis’s plans are foiled when he is recognized by secret service men at a rally and is forced to flee.
Finally, Travis focuses on an attempt to save Iris (Jodie Foster), a 12 year-old prostitute he has come to know. In a blood bath of bullets and knives, Travis goes to war against Iris’s pimp and Mafioso handlers, emerging the victor.
In a very real way, Travis Bickle is a textbook anti-hero. He’s not terribly likeable, and it goes without saying that he is not just flawed but certifiably insane – but in the end, we can’t help cheering on his liberation of Iris. Even Betsy reaches out to him again in the final scenes after reading of his exploits in the news. But Travis drives away from Betsy after comp’ing her taxi fare. With a manic look in his eyes, he sets off again under neon lights, past the cheap hotels and dive bars that infest the city floor.
According to the IMDb, apparently Paul Schrader’s script for “Taxi Driver” was an autobiographical reflection of a particularly lonely and dejected period of his life; a shame for him. But Schrader’s script was sharp, tight and above all, human, despite the insanity of his central character. Given Travis’s narration and the unadorned credibility of the other characters and their interactions, it’s no wonder Schrader was nominated for the 1976 WGA (Writer’s Guild of America) Award for Best Drama Written Directly for the Screen.
The visual style Scorsese exhibits in this film is simple and yet complex, like an intense Miles Davis jam. There are no terribly extreme camera angles, nor blatant cinematic symbolism, yet Scorsese’s images are thoughtful and I never got the feeling anything was shown by happenstance. Scenes in “Taxi Driver” are played out with a dramatic accompanying score by the late Bernhard Herrman, coupled with brilliant work from trumpet soloist Uan Rasey. The overall experience is one that evokes memories of the great film noir era of the 1930’s & 40’s.
All the actors who participated in this film deserve high praise from their naturally affecting performances. Robert De Niro made his name creating Travis Bickle, a man who could go from innocent charisma to disturbing in a hair’s breadth. Cybil Shepherd played Betsy with a bland charm but had me genuinely concerned for her going out with Travis. Peter Boyle realized Travis’s friend and fellow cabbie, Wizard, with a crude, salt-of-the-earth manner that shows why Mr. Boyle was one of the premier character actors of his generation. Harvey Keitel played Sport, Iris’s pimp, with a smarmy cool that seemed disturbingly natural to him. Albert Brooks performed Betsy’s co-worker on the campaign, Tom, a vanilla type of guy with humor and drab likeability. Last but not least was the 12 year old Jodie Foster as the pre-teen prostitute, Iris. What can I say? The kid garnered an Academy Award nomination for her performance. Foster made Iris both a vulnerable, abused soul and a street smart hooker, yet never lets us forget she was really just a kid. Impressive work for 6th grader! Even Scorsese himself turned in a strong performance as a unhinged husband in the back of Travis’s cab one night. However, Scorsese’s best performance was undoubtedly the one he gave behind the camera, where he shepherded an incredibly talented cast through Schrader’s phenomenal script to create such a visceral success.
 “Taxi Driver” is a film that can easily hold its ground today among the grittier works of Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie and even Danny Boyle (remember “Trainspotting”?) – All of whom, I’m sure, owe Mr. Scorsese a great debt for his influence on their styles. Still, this is by no means a film everyone will enjoy. It pulls no punches in its portrayal of Travis’s descent from isolation into madness and never compromises the integrity of its dark subject matter. Also, it sadly drags in places because of its meandering character study structure. Today, Times Square in Manhattan is akin to Disney World; a family friendly tourist spot along with Rockefeller Center, Broadway and Radio City Music Hall. If you want to see New York City in the 1970’s, when people were disenchanted, disheartened and groping for any kind of redemption, watch Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”... But try not to see it alone. Yeah, I’m talkin’ to you!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Definitive – 2001: A Space Odyssey

(1968, Stanley Kubrick Dir., Stars: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester & Leonard Rossiter w/Daniel Richter as “Moon-Watcher” and Douglas Rain providing the voice of the HAL-9000.)
            There are a handful of motion pictures I believe truly qualify as works of art, films that have not only deeply impacted our culture but have risen above the entertainment medium. Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 science fiction offering “2001: A Space Odyssey” is one such picture. According to the IMDb, in 1965 Stanley Kubrick had dinner with author Arthur C. Clarke and expressed his desire to make the “proverbial good-science fiction movie”. Starting with “The Sentinel”, a short story Clarke had written years earlier, Kubrick went on to produce a film that reset the standard -- not only for science fiction but for films that sought to explore Humanity’s place in the universe.
            The story of “2001: A Space Odyssey” spans eons of history in observing Humanity’s relationship with a mysterious black, rectangular structure now popularly known as “The Monolith.” At “The Dawn of Man”, simian proto-humans wake one morning to discover the Monolith set squarely in their world. Above the Monolith, the sun and the moon are aligned... Not long after this, Humanity’s first tool is improvised when the thigh bone of a pig is first perceived as a club. This club not only leads to Humanity’s domination over animals, but over his fellows in a watering hole skirmish! In one of the most celebrated juxtapositions in cinema, the thigh-bone club is thrown victoriously into the sky where a jump-cut millions of years into the future replaces the bone with an orbital nuclear missile platform at the turn of the 21st century.
As a space plane docks with an immense, rotating space station the audience hears the silky strains of Johann Strauss II’s waltz “By the Beautiful Blue Danube.” Here we are treated to a technological ballet performed within precise mathematical parameters against a backdrop of planet Earth’s organic beauty. Through secret meetings among top impresarios we learn that a Monolith has been discovered on the moon. This is Humanity’s first hard evidence of life beyond the planet Earth and this discovery is kept secret. To everyone’s shock when the Monolith is touched it sends a powerful radio burst to the planet Jupiter. There is a banal coolness to the white-room lives of the Kubrick’s characters in this brave new world -- even when a man calls his young daughter there is sweetness but little warmth in his voice. It seems in this vision that Humanity has spent all of its passion in perfecting technology and reaching into space, but has lost touch with those intangible qualities that make us human.
Once again, we flash-forward - but only 18 months this time - to existential life aboard the Jupiter-bound US space craft Discovery. Astronauts Dave Bowman and Frank Poole (Keir Dullea & Gary Lockwood, respectively) live like hyper-clean test animals in the giant hamster wheel of the Discovery’s interior. Frank jogs in the wheel while Dave pursues more thoughtful distractions like drawing and playing chess against the ship’s main computer – arguably the mind of the ship itself – the HAL-9000. Almost immediately HAL displays nervous, paranoid suspicions and curiosities. This is a sharp contrast to the significantly-detached Dave and Frank, two men who can be emotionally 10,000 miles apart while sitting side by side eating a meal and watching the same TV program on separate screens. When HAL is proved wrong in his assessment of a failing component of the Discovery, Dave and Frank are forced to consider disconnecting the computer. HAL learns of their intentions and reveals a keen sense of self-preservation, which ultimately leads him to kill Frank in a preemptive move. (It would seem our “tools” not only become as smart as we are, but just as deadly when threatened!) After HAL abandons Dave outside the Discovery, Dave has no choice but to brave the bone-chilling vacuum of space without his helmet to re-enter the ship through a manual air-lock. Once aboard, Dave disconnects HAL’s higher electronic brain functions with an almost preternatural calm. Here, finally, we hear a bit of old Humanity as HAL’s fearful, dying words become the most emotionally evocative of the whole film: “Dave – Stop – Stop Dave – Will you stop? – Dave – I’m afraid – My mind is going – I can feel it --”
            Alone in space, a sole survivor, Dave journeys into another, giant Monolith discovered orbiting Jupiter - a Monolith in complete alignment not only with Jupiter and the Sun, but all of Jupiter’s moons as well. And so, having come full-circle, we are at a new pivot point in Humanity’s history. Once drawn into the other-worldly Monolith, Dave evolves into “The Star Child;” musing over a shining blue planet, generally considered to be Earth, though there are no direct visual indications regarding which planet it is before him. This “Star Child” drifts thoughtfully over the blue world, ultimately turning his eyes out towards us, the audience... either to consider us or to challenge us to join him in his thoughts; in his world; to take the next big step in our own evolution.
                        It’s fair, if not necessary, to say that the science fiction genre - on film at least - can be seen in two periods: pre-“2001” and post-“2001.” Compare spaceships pre-“2001,” when their hulls were smooth, such as on the United Planets Cruiser C-57D in “Forbidden Planet,” to spaceships post-“2001,” when suddenly the hulls became cluttered with bits and pieces that all seemed, inexplicably, necessary and real as on the Millennium Falcon from “Star Wars” or the Nostromo in “Alien.” What happened? “2001: A Space Odyssey.” This film re-wrote the book for the genre’s visual standards. We can’t take the model-making as “2001”’s only achievement, though, for after 1968 it became clear that science fiction was no longer a B-Movie genre; merely a fun timewaster for the kids at matinees and teens at drive-ins. Science fiction on film came of age with “2001,” paving the way for serious films such as “The Andromeda Strain,” “Blade Runner” and more recently “Moon” and “The Matrix” franchise - the sorts of films that not only take us to other worlds... but asked us to examine, thoughtfully, our own.
Obviously, Kubrick and Clarke’s vision of “2001” was well off-base, as we now know in the second decade of the 21st Century. Still though, this is a science fiction film from the 1960’s that hides its age well (any image from this near-silent film could easily be framed and hung on a wall today and hold its relevance far better than any of its contemporaries). Sure, the Space Stewardesses’ costumes are a bit “60’s funky,” as are the men’s suits; and no, Pan Am no longer exists... but the visuals of “2001: A Space Odyssey” display such incredible craftsmanship in the photographic science of filmmaking that I doubt we could really do any better with today’s CGI tech. If we do, someday, have giant space stations and daily flights beyond our atmosphere, I’m guessing they’ll look a lot more like Kubrick’s vessels than George Lucas’ or Gene Roddenberry’s.

After seeing “2001: A Space Odyssey” for the first time, a person might spend hours deciphering the film’s visual and musical symbolism or trying to fathom the deepest meaning of the Monolith. Whether or not the Monolith represents some truly ancient civilization seeding the universe with intelligent life or if it is a straight-forward allegory for those moments when “the stars align” and great leaps in evolution or thought are made - or both - is more than open to conjecture. A person could easily fill an entire library with the articles and books available that analyze the meaning of the Monolith and still lack certainty. That’s cool, because the real power of Stanley Kubrick’s artistic achievement with “2001: A Space Odyssey” is this: You may never understand it all, but you’ll always want to...

[“2001: A Space Odyssey” is currently available through Netflix in both DVD and Blu-Ray formats. Select scenes are also available on YouTube, should you wish to preview this great masterpiece before adding it to your queue.]