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Saturday, May 31, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Director: Victor Flemming
Starring: Judy Garland

Perhaps no film ever produced has a more secure place in the collective imagination than The Wizard of Oz. It is a staple of most childhoods and touchstone for many adults. It isn’t just a “kid’s movie,” although a lot of people seem to classify it as such. It’s a deeply resonant film that has as much to say to an adult as it does to a child; it’s a film about discovering who you are and finding your way home, about seeing things the way they are and discovering the truth about that which exists behind the curtain. It is also a terrifically entertaining movie.

It’s difficult to know where to begin talking about The Wizard of Oz, but I suppose the most natural starting point is Judy Garland, who of course plays Dorothy. It’s hard to imagine the film without her, although she wasn’t the first choice for the role (that would be Shirley Temple). The film version of Dorothy is a character who could easily become tiresome to adult audiences because she’s so saccharine, but something about Garland makes you forgive her unshakeable earnestness – especially when she sings. “Over the Rainbow” was voted by the AFI as the best of all film songs, which seems absolutely right to me; it’s one of the few songs that can bring a tear to my eyes.

Dorothy’s wide-eyed innocence plays into the political undertones of the story. Much has been written about the novel which is popularly read as political allegory about capitalism wherein Dorothy is the Everyman, the Tin Man represents industrial workers, the Scarecrow represents farmers, the Yellow Brick Road represents the gold standard, and emerald city represents paper currency. Since the novel was written nearly forty years before the film was made, the politics which informed the former don’t necessarily correspond to the latter. Certainly, Dorothy can still be read as representing the ordinary American people who are at the mercy of political machinations they can’t see (the goings on behind the curtain), in which case the Wizard can be representative of anyone who wields political power, rather than one specific person. The Scarecrow and Tin Man may not represent workers in the same way they did in 1900, but the realization that the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion all possessed the qualities they were seeking and could access them if they had faith in themselves would have worked a message of self-reliance to a nation that had not yet been pulled out of the Depression. Like Scarlett O’Hara’s assertion that “Tomorrow is another day,” when Dorothy says, “There’s no place like home,” the line has connotations that would have resonated with the original audiences. Both lines suggest that there’s dawn at the end of the long darkness and that though things may be bad at the moment, it’s worth sticking it out.

But, laying politic readings aside, the film is also very effective as escapist entertainment. It is a testament to the technical achievements of the film that even amongst other films released in 1939, a year widely considered to be one of the best in film history (and considered by many to be the best as titles released that year include Gone With The Wind, The Rules of the Game, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Ninotchka, and Wuthering Heights amongst others), it still stands out from the crowd. This is a movie that is vibrant and alive, that commits completely to its creation of another world right down to the little details. To be sure, the land of Oz doesn’t look “real” in the way that more recent imaginary lands can be made to look realistic through CGI, but it works nonetheless. Perhaps because Oz is meant to be a place of a child’s imagination, the constructed nature of the sets with their exaggerations and bright colors just work. Whatever the reason, this movie still looks great, and Oz itself is a land that’s easy to slip into even after you’ve found yourself immersed in Middle Earth and Narnia.

The songs in the film are wonderful and memorable – even if you don’t know the words to “Lollipop Guild” or “If I Only Had A Brain,” I bet you can hum both – and so are the characters. Besides Dorothy and her three companions (four, counting Toto), there’s also Glinda the Good Witch and the Wicked Witch of the West, played by Billie Burke and Margaret Hamilton, respectively. The Wicked Witch is especially memorable – so ruthless that she’d take out your dog, too – and her evil is as indefatigable as Dorothy’s goodness.

Whether you experience this film as political allegory or as a masterful achievement of musical storytelling, whether it exists in your mind as a memory from childhood or as a film you return to as an adult, this is a film that will easily win a place in your heart. Of all the movies I’ve seen, this is the only one I’ve found to be a truly universal viewing experience, and the only one I’ve found that is so universally adored.

Friday, May 30, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: La Dolce Vita (1960)

Director: Federico Fellini
Starring: Marcello Mastioianni, Anouk Aimée, Anita Eckberg

La Dolce Vita is a story of contrast and symmetry – day and night, real and fake, lust and impotence – in the life of a tabloid journalist in Rome. Nearly fifty years after its release, it remains one of the most vibrant and lively of films, and also one of the most philosophically pensive. To spend time with Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) is to ask whether the sweet life is ever really attainable or only just another corrupted illusion.

The film follows Marcello, who is at a crossroads in his life. What he has no longer satisfies him, what he wants he finds doesn’t really exist… or at least not in the idealized way he had conceptualized it. He’s a journalist by trade and wants to become a serious writer but most of his time in the film is spent on one amorous adventure or another. There are three women in his life: Emma (Yvonne Furneaux), his girlfriend who bears the brunt of his anger and frustration as she attempts to domesticate and tie him down; Sylvia (Anita Ekberg), a movie star who drifts briefly into his life and then out again but captures his imagination; and Maddelena (the fabulous Anouk Aimée), a friend with whom he has perhaps the best chance of a successful relationship if only they weren’t both so passive and indifferent.

The genius of La Dolce Vita isn’t in its plot per say (it’s the kind of film where you could make the argument that “nothing” happens because even though things do happen, what’s important is what doesn’t happen), but in its structure. It’s a picaresque tale which follows Marcello from one adventure to another, his presence seemingly the only thing which connects them, but it’s so finitely structured that more connections become apparent when you actually look at the way the narrative is sewn together. The “episodes” usually begin at night and end at dawn and begin with the promise of something only to end with the disappointment of failure. Throughout the film Marcello is seeking something and finding that the source he’s seeking it from is somehow corrupted. For example, in Steiner (Alain Cuny) he sees someone to emulate. He’s a writer who seems to have the perfect life, a fine balance of work and family, of philosophy and love. Later when he learns that Steiner has killed himself and his children, he discovers that what he projected onto him is false. Marcello’s problem is twofold. First, he tries to make things that are “perfect” also be real. The opening and closing of the film foreground this through two religious symbols, the first being the statue of Jesus which flies through Rome via helicopter, the second being a fish that is dragged from the sea. One is beautiful but fake, the other is ugly but real, and both scenes feature a miscommunication between Marcello and a woman wherein she tries to tell him something but he doesn’t understand. As long as he continues to seek flawless perfection and dismiss the things which are ugly/real, he never will understand and the disconnect will forever remain.

Secondly, Marcello thinks that “perfection” can come without effort. He thinks that Steiner’s life just is “good,” not that he’s had to make it so. As protagonists go, Marcello is an incredibly passive one. He seeks things out, yes, but he’s never active enough to hold on to anything or move the plot to the next logical step. He has many romantic entanglements, for example, but at no point in the film can you ever really be sure that he’s had sex with any of these women. Even when he spends the night with Maddelena you can’t really be certain that they didn’t sleep together in only the most literal sense because it makes more sense that they wouldn’t have had sex given the way the film is structured around the promise which comes with nightfall, and the disappointment which greets the morning.

For all its symbolism and philosophy, La Dolce Vita is also a film that can be enjoyed simply for its entertainment value. There are many sequences that will stay with you long after you’ve see it: the famous scene between Marcello and Sylvia at the Trevi Fountain, the crowd that follows the children who claim to be able to see the Virgin Mary, the final party scene which devolves into an orgy of surrealism (if not actually sex). The scene that has stayed most vividly with me, however, is a scene at another party, when Marcello sits alone in a room and Maddelena speaks to him through a fountain. Marcello responds but Maddelena doesn’t hear him; she’s already engaged in an embrace with another man. It’s another miscommunication, another failure to launch for Marcello. It’s the story of his sweet life.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: City of God (2002)

Director: Fernando Meirelles
Starring: Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino

City of God, a masterpiece from Fernando Meirelles, is a film teeming with life and the promise of death. Shot in a pseudo-documentary style, Meirelles captures the grit, the rhythm and the passion of life in the slums of Rio de Janeiro in this powerful condemnation of the drug trade and the governmental powers that allow it to carry on unimpeded. This is a brutal, thrilling film. One that you can’t look away from even for a moment.

City of God is told from the perspective of Rocket (played by Luis Otavio as a child and Alexandre Rodrigues as a teenager), but isn’t about him as much as it is about the world around him and the people who inhabit it. The narrative unfolds in an episodic, anecdotal fashion, telling stories in the middle of other stories, all of which are flowing towards the same narrative climax. By breaking it down this way, relating the various legends that have sprung out of the slums – all of which are naturally connected by the ever escalating violence of slum life – rather than telling the story in a linear fashion, the film provides us with a more deeply realized sense of place than we might otherwise have. It also imbues the characters with greater shades of complexity. There are a lot of characters in this film, too many to really get to know during the course of a straight narrative, but by showing them in different episodes, we get to see different sides to them, enough to fill in the blanks between episodes.

Rocket occupies the edges of the film, an observer who is at once distanced from story while also facilitating its telling. Through a loose connection with Bené (Phellipe Haagensen), Rocket inadvertently becomes a chronicler of the exploits of Li’l Zé’s (Leandro Firmino) gang, immortalizing them through photos that will be published in the papers. However, despite the gang war that is intensifying around him, Rocket remains more concerned with the fact of his virginity and his longing for Angélica (Alice Braga), who is Bené’s girlfriend. Bené, too, is more concerned with Angélica and decides to escape the slums with her, leaving the running of the gang to Zé. However, before they can get out, Bené’s life is cut short when he’s accidentally shot, resulting in an explosion of violence in the slums as both sides look to effectively eliminate the other forever.

The trend of murder and reprisal runs throughout the film, with each side of the gang war taking one life from the other, but then losing one of their own in return. In one of the stories that feeds into other stories, we learn about Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge), a peaceful guy until he’s attacked and his girlfriend is raped by Zé. He joins the rival gang but is determined only to revenge himself on Zé and not allow any innocents to get harmed in the process. How his resolve in this matter is broken down is revealed in a quick, but effective series of scenes showing the gang robbing banks in order to get money to buy more guns. The first time, he insists that no civilians be harmed – “the rule.” The second time, he condones the shooting of a civilian because it saves his life – “the exception to the rule.” The third time, “the exception becomes the rule,” and now Knockout Ned is no different from the rest and, in time, everyone on both sides of the war forgets why it even started in the first place. Towards the end of the film, Ned will meet his own end, shot by someone whose life he has just saved. The film doubles back, informing us that the boy who has killed Ned watched Ned kill his father during one of the bank robberies. In the City of God, what goes around always comes around eventually.

There are a lot of difficult scenes in this film, perhaps none more so than those having to do with “the Runts,” a gang of children. Zé’s gang catches two of them and uses them to initiate a new member of their own gang, one not much older than the two Runts. To become part of the gang, he must shoot the other two kids, either in the hand or the foot, depending on the choice of the victims. It’s a brutal scene, made even more so by the fate of the Runts at the end. They kill Li’l Zé and take over his territory, immediately compiling a list of people they’ve decided they must kill. They have learned nothing from the fate of all those who participated in the gang wars, who died in an unending cycle of death and reprisal, and they have learned nothing from the violence they themselves have suffered. One of the final things we see is the young boy who chose to be shot in the foot, limping along after his comrades as they put together their list and make plans to consolidate their power. There is no childhood here, but there’s no adulthood either because no one lives that long.

Most of the characters are played by people who’ve never acted before but rather than taking away from the film, it only enhances its realism as Meirelles captures a distinct rawness that is fundamental to the story’s success. In one voice-over we hear Rocket telling a story to Marina (Graziella Moretto), a woman who works for the paper that publishes his photos. The story he tells is unscripted, the product of a conversation the two actors were having off-camera that Meirelles decided to include. It’s these slice-of-life qualities that make the film so utterly powerful.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: On The Waterfront (1954)

Director: Elia Kazan
Starring: Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb

On The Waterfront is a film widely recognized as Elia Kazan’s response to criticism of his cooperation with HUAC, but even though the political subtext is firmly rooted and aimed at a particular moment in time, the film itself hasn’t become dated. It remains a carefully measured study of one man’s choice between being a fellow traveller in something that he knows isn’t just, or risking his life to stand up for a principle that everyone believes in, but no one believes in enough to die for.

The film is divided into two distinct worlds. There’s the rough world of the waterfront where some men thrive by doing favours for Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), and where all men survive by being D & D (deaf and dumb) even while they’re starving from lack of work and even if their friend happens to succumb to a suspicious “accident.” The other world – still rough, but not as rough – is occupied by idealists such as Father Barry (Karl Malden) and Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), people who believe that the only way to free themselves of tyranny is to fight against it, rather than silently accept it. Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) begins life in one world and spends the film fighting for the right to exist in the other. The driving force behind his desire for movement comes from his relationship with Edie, but before they even meet Terry knows that he can’t go on with the waterfront life. The film begins with him luring Joey Doyle (Edie’s brother) to a rooftop for Johnny Friendly. Terry thinks they’re just going to talk to him and is dismayed when he finds that Joey has been thrown off the roof to his death. His participation in Doyle’s death wakes him from his complacency with the way the waterfront is run. When he gets involved with Edie and Father Berry, he finds a way – and a reason – to turn things around, even as the people who would benefit most from change (the longshoremen) fight him at every turn.

This is a film with a point to make, but it doesn’t make it at the expense of the story, nor does it put all its energy into bashing the viewer over the head with its meaning while letting its characters languish underdeveloped. The characters in this film are full-blooded and full of life, and the story itself is made up of moments that are deeply moving. Everyone knows the “I coulda been a contender” speech that Terry makes to his brother Charlie (Rod Steiger). This speech has been referenced and parodied so much that, by all rights, it should have lost its meaning by now. But when you see it in the film, when you see the speech in the context of Terry having become fed up with the injustice of the world and men being denied their “shot,” when you see Charlie pull a gun on Terry and the way Terry just pushes the gun away, unable to believe that they’ve come to this point, you hear a speech that remains meaningful and relevant. Later, Terry finds Charlie dead and hanging from a hook, his punishment for not having made Terry fall in line. In an autobiography, Brando stated that during his first viewing of the film he had to walk out because he couldn’t stand his own performance. It’s hard to believe, given how pitch perfect his performance is, especially in the scene where Terry finds Charlie’s body, and the scene directly before it when he breaks into Edie’s apartment. This is a performance so complete and natural that you don’t think of Terry Malloy as a character being played by Marlon Brando, but as a person in his own right whom you just happen to be watching. The same can be said of Edie, a character who could easily have been a simpering victim, but is instead a strong and independent women as played by Eva Marie Saint, who more than holds her own opposite Brando.

There are moments in the film that could easily have lapsed into false sentimentality – Terry’s walk at the end, for instance – in the hands of a lesser director. That Kazan can keep the film in line, that he absolutely earns the moments that would otherwise seem sappy, is what makes it unfortunate that in some circles he’s considered first as someone who named names, and second as a brilliant director. Whatever you think of Kazan’s politics – and keeping in mind that the HUAC/McCarthy era isn’t quite as black and white as is often presented – his skill as a storyteller cannot be denied. On The Waterfront is a film about a specific place in time, but told in a way that ensures it remains timeless, a treasure of a film that can be returned to again and again.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Director: John Huston
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet

Never again would noir be so simple or unfettered, and rarely would it reach such brilliant heights. Earlier films sowed the seeds of noir, but this is where the elements of the genre really crystallized, emerging in its defining form and establishing tropes that would become crucial to the films - especially the detective films - that followed. But when you watch it, it isn’t just a matter of experiencing a cinematic landmark; it’s also a matter of being greatly entertained. As the man said, it’s the stuff that dreams are made of.

Humphrey Bogart stars as the iconic Sam Spade, a private detective who becomes enmeshed in the search for the Maltese Falcon by the original femme fatale, Mary Astor, playing Brigid O’Shaughnessey. In the course of his search he encounters Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), and Gutman’s henchman Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.), all of whom want to get their hands on the Falcon and are willing to do anything to get it.

Prior to this The Maltese Falcon had been made twice, in 1931 with the same title and in 1936 as Satan Met A Lady. The first version is a passably entertaining pre-code film notable for what it managed to get away with that the Huston/Bogart version couldn’t. The other version is more or less a parody, a ridiculous comedy starring Bette Davis. This version takes what works from the first two, puts its own hard-boiled spin on it and creates something that seems new even after you’ve seen the others. This is the film that made Bogart a bona fide star and it’s easy to see why. Here he plays a lovable scoundrel, an unsentimental tough-guy who can tell Brigid “I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. Yes, angel, I’m gonna send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in 20 years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.” As Brigid, Astor is like a ball of fire burning beneath an icy exterior, setting the standard for bad girls to follow. She and Bogart have great chemistry, both as lovers and antagonists, so that we’re never quite sure where they really stand with each other or who currently has the upper hand on whom.

Mixed in with Bogart and Astor are two of the eras great character actors, Greenstreet and the incomparable Lorre. Greenstreet with his huge (literally and figuratively) presence that is so affably threatening and his particular way of reading a line like “By Gad, sir, you are a character. There’s never telling what you’ll say or do next, except that it’s bound to be something astonishing;” and Lorre, who always looked like he was up to something, always trying to pull something over, and who supplies most of the film’s gay subtext (there are some undertones to the relationship between Gutman and Wilmer, but not nearly so developed as what we get with Cairo). Cairo is pretty much openly coded as gay, dressed in his effete way with his phallic cane and his gardenia scented handkerchiefs. And of course there’s the underlying sadomasochism of his relationship with Spade, who informs him, “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.”

The inter-play of the actors in all their combinations is a joy to behold. My favourite is the first scene between Spade and Cairo when Cairo pulls a gun and finds himself disarmed by Spade. They proceed to have a relatively calm conversation and come to an understanding, at which point Spade gives Cairo back the gun, and Cairo sticks him up again. Bogart and Lorre play off each other very well as Cairo consistently attempts to make Spade take him seriously, and Spade just swats him down at every turn.

The Maltese Falcon is the prototype for detective noir, but differs from those that would follow in many key ways. Its story is relatively straight forward (especially compared to Bogart’s other great detective film The Big Sleep), its hero turns on the woman he loves where it’s more common to find the hero undone by a woman he knows is bad but can’t tear himself away from, and ends not only with the hero coming out alive but unaffected enough to provide the film’s final quip (in Out of the Past, Robert Mithcum gets to quip but loses his life, in Chinatown Jack Nicholson is alive but at a loss for words). This is a very uncluttered film that had the benefit of being able to create itself, rather than be created by the accumulated essentials of an established genre. It is also a ridiculously watchable film that rewards with each and every viewing.

Monday, May 26, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Boys Don't Cry (1999)

Director: Kimberly Pierce
Starring: Hilary Swank, Chloe Sevigny

To call Boys Don’t Cry an astonishing debut is something of an understatement. Throughout the film, director Kimberly Pierce shows remarkable control over the story, guiding doomed transsexual Brandon Teena towards an end that is as inevitable as it is tragic. The strength of the film is that it isn’t simply about Brandon, his struggles and his horrific end, but that in a more general sense it’s about all people stuck in small towns, forever trapped playing their small town roles, when all they want is to break free and make themselves something more.

Whenever I watch Boys Don’t Cry, I can’t help but notice the way that the characters – especially Brandon (Hilary Swank) and Lana (Chloe Sevigny) – are literally framed by their surroundings. They’re continually shot as if they’re trapped, photographed standing between door and window frames, between objects, between people. There are only a couple of scenes when Brandon and Lana are alone together when there is open space around them and they’re free, albeit briefly.

The performance by Hilary Swank has been hailed and rightly so. She won the Oscar, amongst other awards, and brings the right mixture of bravery and vulnerability to the role. But look closely at the performance by Chloe Sevigny. From her first appearance it’s obvious that Lana is a young woman who has already been deeply disappointed by life, who sees how little her town has to offer her, sees where she'll end up and how little she'll have to show for her life, but sees no way out and lacks the courage to try. Brandon is like a lifeline to her, someone who treats her with respect and encourages her to think beyond her small town. Does she suspect the truth about Brandon? I believe she does. During the first sex scene there's the suggestion that she sees Brandon's prosthesis. "I don't care," she tells him, but doesn't elaborate on what it is she doesn't care about. Ultimately, it isn't Brandon's physical gender that attracts her, and that's why she seeks him out after the brutal, humiliating revelation, and why she makes plans to leave town with him. Pierce is exploring a relationship that goes beyond the physical manifestation of gender, forcing us to ask ourselves what it is about him that makes Brandon a man that Lana can love.

The film is, of course, based on a true story, but it plays fast and loose with some facts (watch is alongside the documentary The Brandon Teena Story and you'll see what I mean). This is often presented as a criticism of the film, but I’ve never really seen it that way. The rape and murder of Brandon Teena plays a tremendous role in the film, but I've always thought that it's less about the literal truth of the crime itself than the more figurative truths about gender and identity that the crime brings to light. Brandon and Lana's relationship is one which transcends boundaries of gender and sexuality. This is never more apparent than in a scene towards the end, after the revelation, when Brandon lets Lana see his body (in the previous love scene, he remained clothed). "I don't know what to do," Lana says, alluding to how they'll go about having sex. "We'll figure it out," Brandon replies. It's a relationship that's beyond any easily definable categories; it can't simply be tagged as "gay" or "straight." By presenting Brandon and Lana’s relationship in such a sincere way, the film challenges traditional concepts of sexuality and gender, and questions their validity as normal or natural. Why do John and Tom kill Brandon? Is it because they're afraid he'll go to the police, or is it because they were fooled and don't want to face the fact that their ideas of what makes them "men" are poses that can be appropriated and are ultimately useless as "proof" of their masculinity? On the surface it's the former, but underneath lies the latter. If Brandon isn't a "real" man, but acts just like them and can be treated like a real man by Lana, then what are they? They'd rather kill him than have to answer that question.

Boys Don't Cry is a film that works on a number of levels. Watch it once for its take on gender politics. Watch it again for the human story at its heart, and the two brilliant performances at its centre that make it come alive.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Top Hat (1935)

Director: Mark Sandrich
Starring: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers

Have two people ever been as impossibly elegant and effortlessly charming as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers? To see them together is to see a perfection of craft and a joy of performance that is difficult to match. Top Hat, the fourth of ten films Astaire and Rogers would make together, is their best. With music by Irving Berlin and a story that makes the most of pairing them together (they dance more together in this film than in any of their others), this is a film that can’t be missed.

The plot of Astaire/Rogers vehicles never really mattered that much; the stories, if not always just a means of connecting the dance numbers, are always secondary to the dance sequences. Here we’re given a plot constructed and executed in the style of a screwball take on Shakespearean comedy, complete with mistaken identities, foils, and of course the clown. Astaire is Jerry, a performer collaborating on a show with Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Hardwin). Rogers plays Dale Tremont, a friend of Hardwick’s new wife, Madge (Helen Broderick). Dale meets Jerry but is under the mistaken impression that he’s Hardwick. The film sustains the mistaken identity plot by never having all four characters in the same place together until the end, and injects the story with some classic screwball comedy by having Dale and Madge plot to trap “Hardwick” in an attempt to have an affair, and introducing Beddini (Erik Rhodes), a rival for Dale’s affections who thinks that Hardwick is Hardwick, but not the Hardwick he thinks he is. Also featured is the incomparable Eric Blore as Hardwick’s valet, Bates, whose talent as a “master of disguise” helps bring about the film’s happy resolution.

The film features a number of the more famous Astaire/Rogers song and dance numbers. It begins with Astaire singing “No Strings (I’m Fancy Free)” with an accompanying dance. The shot pans down from his dance to the hotel room below his, where Rogers is attempting to sleep. She marches upstairs to tell him off, and he’s instantly smitten. Also on hand are the “Isn’t It A Lovely Day” number, which finds the two in a bandstand during a rainstorm with Rogers first doing a mock imitation of Astaire, but ending with the two dancing together in harmony; and “Cheek to Cheek,” with Rogers in a dress with feathers which caused much trouble during shooting. “Cheek to Cheek” is arguably their best number together in the film, but “Isn’t It A Lovely Day” is interesting in the way that it sets up a kind of gender equality between the two by having Rogers in pants, and by ending the number with a friendly handshake. This number considered alongside “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails,” which ends with Astaire using a cane and tapping to imitate mowing down a row of dancers with various kinds of “gunfire,” point perhaps to an attempt to masculinize an art form which is stereotypically considered feminine.

Astaire and Rogers are, of course, the stars, but the film surrounds them with a memorable cast of supporting oddballs. Hardwin, Brodderick, Blore and Rhodes more than hold their own, etching out firm places for themselves in the film and not being outshone by Astaire and Rogers, as much as they simply shine in a different way. These four make the comedic plot - on which the romantic one depends – work, with each supplying a different kind of comedy. As Hardwick, Hardwin is bewildered at how he’s always, somehow, in trouble with someone; Brodderick as Madge is the cool wit of the film, understated and cutting in every scene; Blore as Bates is the man who skirts the line between clever and foolish; and Rhodes as Beddini is the foolish man who simply becomes more foolish – but more aggressively so – as the film carries on. These characters (and their actors) are invaluable to the film as a whole and serve as a reminder of how much has been lost, especially in the realm of comedy, now that solid character actors are so rare and underused in films.

Top Hat is a film that is thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end. We know from the outset that Astaire and Rogers will end up together in the end, but then again, we don’t watch to see if they get together, but how, and to watch the footwork that comes between “boy meets girl” and “boy gets girl back.” As a musical, and as a comedy, this film delivers.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)

Director: Sergio Leone
Starring: Claudia Cardinale, Charles Bronson, Jason Robbards, Henry Fonda

This is a film that requires patience because director Sergio Leone is determined to make you wait. It begins with three men riding up to a lonely railroad station in the middle of an arid wasteland. They lock up the station agent and then they wait. A long period of silence follows. The train stops briefly and then begins to move on. The three think that the man they’ve been waiting for hasn’t shown up… and then they hear the harmonica being played on the other side of the track. The train departs and we meet Harmonica (Charles Bronson), one of the many loners and misfits we’ll meet through the course of the movie. He asks if the men brought a horse for him. They laugh and remark that they’re one short. “You brought two too many,” Harmonica corrects. Thus begins one of the best Westerns ever made.

After Harmonica has disposed of the three henchmen, we meet the other three important characters of the film. Cheyenne (Jason Robards), Jill (Claudia Cardinale), and Frank (Henry Fonda). Jill is a newlywed bride who comes to the little town to start her new life only to discover that her husband and his children have been ruthlessly gunned down. Frank and his gang are the culprits, but everyone points to Cheyenne, an infamous outlaw. The townspeople are shocked to learn that Jill is already Mrs. McBain, having married her husband in New Orleans before coming to town. This fact throws a wrench into the plan of which Frank is a part. The railroad is coming through, and the McBain land is prime real estate to be developed. Frank looks for a way to get rid of Jill, and Cheyenne is determined to stop him, not only because he doesn’t like being framed, but also because he quickly develops a soft spot for the widow. Harmonica is after Frank, too, for reasons we don’t understand until the very end of the film.

Watching these four characters and the way that they interact with each other completely makes the film. Harmonica and Cheyenne are prototypical Western anti-heroes – one the strong, silent type (Harmonica), the other charmingly roguish (Cheyenne). Both visit Jill when she’s alone at the McBain house, before Frank and his gang come after her. Both approach her with menace – the threat of rape is always hanging in the air in this film overloaded with aggressive men whose choices seem to come down to shooting something or screwing something – but ultimately mean her no harm. Cheyenne seems to fall in love with her, even as it becomes apparent that she’s fallen for Harmonica. The final scenes between Cheyenne and Jill are beautiful, especially coming out of a film that’s been so markedly violent. These scenes are contrasted with the final showdown between Harmonica and Frank.

Jill is a really interesting and compelling character. In a genre where women are generally absent or relegated to the sidelines, she’s the central figure and a strong one. During her initial meeting with Cheyenne, he alludes to what he might do to her, and she responds: “No woman ever died from that. When you’re finished, all I’ll need is a tub of boiling water, and I’ll be exactly what I was before – with just another filthy memory.” What makes Jill stand out is that this isn’t just talk. She’s a very tough character and her attitude comes in handy later in the film when she and Frank share what is easily one of the most perverse sex scenes ever filmed. Frank, too, is an interesting character; one of the great screen villains played by an icon of American goodness. Frank is totally ruthless, seeming to enjoy gunning down everyone from men to women to children. If a job needs getting done, he’ll do it by putting a bullet in someone. “People scare better when they’re dying,” he explains.

A lot of blood is shed in this film, but it isn’t strictly a shoot ’em up, and it isn’t a revenge film either, even though revenge is the driving force behind Harmonica’s relentless quest. This is a film about the death of one way of life and the birth of another. All through the film, railroad tracks are being laid across the landscape, coming closer and closer to the McBain land, where a station and other buildings are quickly being built and will make Jill wealthy beyond her dreams. Jill and the McBain station and the railroad itself are signs that the West is about to be civilized, and this means that there will no longer be a place for Cheyenne or Harmonica or Frank or others like them. These figures who already exist on the fringes are about to be pushed out – by death or otherwise – and soon will disappear completely because there won’t be any undeveloped land left for them to roam in. This is an elegy to a life that is passing, and we realize at the end that the urgency that has been underlying the film stems from the knowledge of these outlaw men that they have to settle their business now because the train tracks are coming ever closer. The film ends with the tracks being laid across on the McBain property and Jill playing the role of entrepreneur. Two of the three men are dead, and the other has disappeared into what remains of the West – already forgotten in the marching of time.

Friday, May 23, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Sullivan's Travels (1941)

Director: Preston Sturges
Starring: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake

Sullivan’s Travels is Preston Sturges’ defence of comedy as an art form, and a figurative thumbing of the nose at the notion that comedies are somehow inherently inferior to dramas – a ridiculous idea given that some of the best and smartest films ever made have been comedies (and no shortage of those were directed by Sturges). Taking place in Hollywood and centering on a director (the titular Sullivan), the film satirizes the business of making movies and the conventions of romantic comedies (particularly of the opposites attract/love on the run variety popularized by It Happened One Night) while coming to the conclusion that, while the genre might not offer much prestige, the world ultimately needs a good dose of comedy.

Sullivan is played by Joel McCrea, who is quite possibly the most underrated actor ever to come out of Hollywood. He brings so much to this role, infusing Sullivan with lightness and warmth and ensuring that he isn’t simply a clown, a pawn at life’s mercy. Sullivan is a popular director of comedies who wants to break into “serious” pictures. “I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity,” he tells the studio executives, who eventually relent when he agrees to put “a little sex in it.” These initial scenes are razor sharp as Sullivan and the studio people dissect what makes a film work, what makes it speak to the populace, and come up with a plan for Sullivan to connect to this “common man” he wants to capture on film. Sullivan will go out on the road and experience life as a hobo – complete with studio costuming to make him look the part, and a studio crew following him at a short distance in an RV.

Sullivan’s “journey,” however, proves to be less than enlightening and plays out as a reversal of Homer’s Odyssey. In the classical story, the hero is continually waylaid as he tries to get home. Here, Sullivan is continually trying to get away from home, but through various mishaps keeps finding himself right back where he started. Along the way, however, he picks up a girl (credited simply as The Girl – because all pictures need a girl – and played by Veronica Lake), an aspiring actress who disguises herself as a boy and accompanies him on his trip where, eventually, he does see some of the life he wants to capture on film.

That Sullivan and The Girl fall in love is a matter of course, but how Sullivan comes to his great realization about the importance of comedies is something of a surprise. After experiencing life as a hobo, Sullivan decides to anonymously give money to some of the people whose paths he’s crossed, a decision which results in him being knocked out, losing his memory, being mistaken for something he’s not and taken to jail, where he works on a chain gang. Now he’s experiencing real hardship of the kind he couldn’t have imagined. At the end of an arduous day, the gang is treated to a movie, a Mickey Mouse cartoon. Sullivan watches the other men as they watch the movie and laugh, and he laughs, too, finally coming to appreciate this form he’s been so intent on rejecting. When he finally regains his identity and gets out of jail, he tells his bosses that he no longer wants to make a film about suffering. “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”

I’ve already mentioned my admiration for McCrea, but the supporting cast should not go unmentioned. Robert Greig and Eric Blore are on hand as Sullivan’s butler and valet, both turning in wonderfully funny appearances. Greig especially makes an impression as Sullivan’s drole and understated butler, who attempts to talk him out of his expedition by pointing out that “the poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous” – a truth that echoes in Sullivan’s own discovery that people in despair don’t want to experience more despair, but rather want something to counterbalance it and lighten the emotional load. As for Veronica Lake, prior to seeing this film I’d always been more aware of her as an image rather than as an actress, but she’s quite winning here. There isn’t a whole lot to the part (after all, she is just “the girl”), but what’s there, she delivers and she has a nice, easy chemistry with McCrea.

The screenplay and direction by Sturges are so self-assured, so perfectly measured, that it makes it look easy, which of course it isn’t. A good comedy is hard to find and even harder to make, and sometimes even having all the right elements doesn’t make a film add up. Consider, for example, the more recent O, Brother Where Art Thou?, which owes much to this film (the “document” Sullivan wants to make is, in fact, titled O, Brother Where Art Thou?). It is directed by Joel and Ethan Coen and stars George Clooney and Holly Hunter – Oscar winners all, and first rate performers in their respective fields. Together they created a film that is entertaining, but ultimately fails to work. It’s a film that should work, but somehow just falls short. Sullivan’s Travels, on the other hand, has that magic something that just makes everything gel. Watch it once and you’ll find yourself coming back to it time and again.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Mulholland Drive (2001)

Director: David Lynch
Starring: Naomi Watts, Lara Elena Harring, Justin Theroux

Mulholland Drive is David Lynch’s mind-bending masterwork about disenchantment with both love and the dream of Hollywood stardom, which are presented here as inseparable. It’s the sort of film you have to see more than once – first simply as an experience that washes over you and leaves you dazed, and then again to attempt to put the pieces together. This isn’t a film that can ever be fully “explained,” but that doesn’t matter. In fact, it’s part of its genius.

The film opens with someone lying down in bed – we don’t know who because it’s from their point of view, but the fact of this shot jibes with the most prevalent theory about the film, that two thirds are Diane’s (Naomi Watts) dream, the other third her reality, and makes it almost certain that the person lying down is Diane. In the dream, a car accident takes place, foiling an attempted murder and leaving Rita (Laura Elena Harring) stumbling around with amnesia. She wanders into the apartment of an actress who is on her way out of town, and makes herself comfortable, not counting on the fact that the woman’s niece, Betty (Watts) will be showing up to look after the place. Betty and Rita set about trying to find out who she is, her identity connected in some way to the money in her purse, a mysterious blue key and a woman named Diane Selwyn. It is also connected somehow to a man named Mr. Roque and a lowlife whose ineptitude when it comes to killing people has darkly hilarious results. In their quest for the truth, Betty and Rita fall in love and then go to the club Silencio where they seem to have some kind of supernatural experience and find a blue box into which Rita’s key will fit. However, once the box is opened, Rita and Betty cease to exist.

Running parallel to this story is another, this one involving a director named Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux). Adam is coerced into casting an actress named Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George) in his film. “This is the girl,” the Castigliane brothers inform him in what is the film’s most sinister line reading… until we meet the Cowboy (Monty Montgomery), who proceeds to terrify Adam with his polite soft-spokenness and his promise to Adam: “You will see me one more time, if you do good. You will see me two more times, if you do bad.”

Following the opening of the box, we’re thrust into (actually sucked into) the “reality” part of the story where we finally meet Diane Selwyn (Watts), a downtrodden woman who has failed both as an actress and in her romance with a movie star named Camilla Rhodes (Harring) who is engaged to… Adam Kesher. Many elements from the first part of the story reappear in different forms in the second. At a dinner party Diane talks about meeting Camilla when they both auditioned for the same role – the name of this film is the same as the film we see Betty auditioning for earlier. There is also a connection through Adam and his film. In the dream, Betty shows up on set, locks eyes with Adam but ultimately has to leave, which is just as well since Adam must cast Camilla. In reality, Adam casts Camilla and Diane gets a smaller role, where she looks on as Camilla and Adam fall in love. And, of course, there’s the fact of Diane hiring someone to kill Camilla and being given a blue key.

Much of the film’s emphasis is on the falseness of Hollywood reality, where the beautiful, glossy surface hides a darker truth underneath. Adam must pretend to want to cast Camilla, that she’s “the girl;” Rita adopts her name after seeing a poster for Gilda, starring Rita Hayworth; at the club Silencio, Rebekah del Rio pretends to sing and collapses on stage while the song carries on without her (“There is no band. It is an illusion,” the M.C. tells us). When Diane is given the key by the hitman, she asks what it opens. He laughs because it doesn’t open anything. They key is just another empty symbol, a pretence to add to the layers of falseness and illusion that are weighing Diane down and driving her towards madness.

What’s fascinating about this film is the way that the dream section is linear and relatively straight-forward, while the reality is jarring and harder to follow, as it’s filtered through Diane’s increasingly fractured psyche. It jumps forward and back and there’s no way to be certain that what’s happening is “really” happening or just a delusion on Diane’s part as she attempts to cope with the way that she’s been used and discarded by the woman that she loves. Words can’t even begin to describe how amazing Naomi Watts is in this film, playing the dual role of sunny heroine Betty and sullen revenger Diane. It’s difficult to believe at first glance that the two roles as being played by the same actress, she immerses herself so completely into the opposing personas of both. Harring is also good playing two roles that are equally tricky – but deceptively simple looking – as blank-slate Rita and vampy climber Camilla. Together the two have excellent chemistry – romantic in the first sequence, and adversarial/sadomasochistic in the second.

Mulholland Drive is a movie you’ll find yourself thinking about long after having seen it. You’ll want to get to the bottom of it – although the idea that you can is, itself, one of the illusions produced by the film. It was designed so that not all the pieces fit together, creating a maddening, thrilling experience.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: The Last Picture Show (1971)

Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Starring: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ellen Burstyn, Cloris Leachman, Ben Johnson

It begins and ends with sweeping shots looking over the quiet, desert town, which resembles a ghost town more than a place where people actually live. Country music plays, lamenting lost love and lost hope, something that reverberates through every scene in the film. More than anything else, The Last Picture Show is an elegy, not just for the dying town of Anarene and its people, both young and old, who trudge through life more out of habit than desire, but also for the motion picture and the experience of going to the movies, which forever changed with the invention of television.

Television sets are always present in the film, both in the foreground and playing somewhere in the background. Rather than going out to the picture show, the people of Anarene mostly sit around watching television, waiting for something worthwhile to happen. Boredom permeates their lives, where even the local gossip isn’t that exciting, even when it has to do with Sonny’s (Timothy Bottoms) affair with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the high school coach’s wife. But, then again, everyone seems to be involved with someone they shouldn’t be involved with, but it does little to lighten their heavy lives.

Much of the story concerns Sonny, his best friend Duane (Jeff Bridges) and Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), the girl they both lust after. All three are in their final year of high school at the beginning of the film, graduate in the middle to little ceremony, and by the end of the film have gone on to start the rest of their lives. Duane will join the military and be shipped out to Korea, Jacy will go away to school in Dallas, and Sonny will stay in Anarene (despite a fierce desire to leave, he just can’t break away) and become a fixture in the town. While watching a football game towards the end of the film, a man will ask him if he recalls when he used to play for Anarene. It was only a year ago, Sonny reminds him. “Seems like longer,” the man replies and it does, perhaps because Sonny seemed to have no particular attachment to that stage in his life while he was living it, as if it had already been forgotten.

Both Sonny and Duane plod through life, going to the movies, taking turns with their girlfriends in Sonny’s pickup, driving around, searching for something to do. They only experience real excitement on the occasions when they leave town, as when Sonny and Jacy run off to get married (a sequence which tells you the most about attention loving Jacy, who scans the highway looking for the police she hopes her parents have sent after them), and when Sonny and Duane go down to Mexico for a weekend, only to return and learn that Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) has died in their absence. The loss of Sam is a blow to the town in general and Sonny in particular. Sam owned the picture show, the café and the pool hall, the only three places anyone seems to go in Anarene and in losing Sam, the heart of the town seems to stop beating. For Sonny, the loss is of the only real adult presence in his life; he doesn’t have much of a relationship with his parents (he and his father share one scene, where they run into each other at a Christmas dance, exchange awkward hellos and go their separate ways), but Sam is always there, a comforting presence and one who is always ready to teach Sonny a lesson if he needs it.

All of the performances in this film are remarkably good, but that of Ben Johnson is especially so. There is a scene where Sam tells Sonny about a girl he once knew that is so full of happiness, sadness, regret and amazement that it alone would have earned Johnson his Best Supporting Actor Oscar, even if this moment wasn’t surrounded by several other great scenes involving Sam. After Sam’s death we learn that the girl he loved was Lois (Ellen Burstyn), Jacy’s mother, a bored housewife having an unhappy affair with Abilene (Clu Gulager) and on the watch to make sure that Jacy doesn’t make the same mistakes she did. In a scene following Sonny and Jacy’s elopement, he learns that Lois is the woman Sam was talking about. “I can understand why he liked you,” Sonny tells her. “He loved me,” she corrects and in this moment the gap between the generations is never more apparent. Sonny, Duane and Jacy define their relationships in terms of “like” (which can also stand in for “lust”), while those with more experience understand the distinction between “like” and “love,” and the remorse that can follow when you act impulsively and without knowing the difference.

Burstyn is fabulous and gets many of the film’s best lines, my favourite being her assertion that 40 is “an itchy age” when she tries to explain to Jacy why she and Ruth are both cheating on their husbands. As Ruth, Cloris Leachman delivers an extraordinarily controlled performance. When we first meet her, she appears as someone whose inner light has long since been extinguished. When she begins her affair with Sonny (which begins with the most appropriately awkward sex scene ever filmed), it’s as if she’s come to life again. And then, when Sonny’s head is turned by Jacy, we watch Ruth waiting for him, seeming to deflate as she realizes that he’s not coming. Leachman delivers a really powerful and brave performance, especially in that final scene where Ruth finally lets loose all the anger and hurt that has been building up inside of her.

This is a film of tremendous sadness. The night the picture house closes, the last film to be shown is Red River (which it seems that only Sam and Duane and their friend Billy attend). That film, John Ford’s classic western about the promise of the West, is in stark contrast to life in Anarene, where such promise has faded away and left little behind. We end where we began, with a pan across the empty main street. It is one of the loneliest shots I have ever seen.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Director: Howard Hawks
Starring: Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn

Cary Grant is often accused of only ever playing himself, but Bringing Up Baby proves that old standby wrong. This isn’t the dashing, charming Cary Grant of legend. This is Cary Grant as the straight-man, the punchline, and, for lack of a better word, the dork. He’s very different in this film that is possibly the screwballiest of all screwball comedies. Throw in Katherine Hepburn as the zany leading lady, a wonderful supporting cast of character actors, and the tight, well-timed direction of Howard Hawks, and you’ve got yourself a bona fide classic.

Grant is David Huxley, a paleontologist who has spent the last four years building a brontosaurus and is engaged to his colleague, Miss Swallow (Virginia Walker). The film opens at an important juncture in his life: he’s getting married the following day, the final bone of the brontosaurus has just been uncovered and delivered, and that afternoon he has to make a presentation to Mr. Peabody (George Irving), an attorney whom David hopes will convince his client to donate a million dollars to the museum. The meeting takes place at a golf course where David is quickly hijacked by care-free heiress Susan Vance (Hepburn), who doesn’t much care if she finishes her game with his ball and then drives off in his car instead of her own.

David and Susan meet again later that evening and chaos once again ensues, eventually resulting in both their outfits being ripped and the two having to make a hasty retreat together. Susan finds out that David has been trying to talk to Peabody, whom Susan knows and affectionately refers to as “Boopie.” Against his better judgment, David agrees to go with Susan to see Boopie, which ends badly when Susan accidentally knocks Boupie out as she tries to hit his window with a rock. David is determined to have nothing more to do with Susan, but she now has a problem. You see, she’s come into possession of this leopard named Baby…

The plot of Bringing Up Baby is very silly, but the tone of the film completely supports that so that as an audience, you just go with it. Grant and Hepburn, who had starred together previously in Sylvia Scarlett, and would star together again in Holiday and The Philadelphia Story, have an easy chemistry together and make it look like they had a lot of fun making the film. So, too, do the supporting players who go all out in their creation of finely tuned comic characters, each memorable in his or her own way. It is, essentially, an ensemble effort, though Hepburn and Grant are clearly the stars.

It’s difficult to choose the film’s funniest moment. There’s David and Susan – who have Susan’s dog with them - trying to sing Baby down off of a roof, resulting in kind of a quartet when Baby and the dog join in; the dinner party scene in which Susan’s aunt, Elizabeth Random (May Robson) and her guest Maj. Applegate (Charles Ruggles) become increasingly disturbed by the way David – whom, thanks to Susan, they think is Mr. Bone, a big game hunter – keeps getting up from the table to follow the dog outside (earlier in the day the dog had taken the brontosaurus bone and buried it somewhere in the yard); the scenes of David and Susan out hunting for Baby, who has gone missing and whom they mistakenly believe to have been captured by the circus, who have a leopard of their own (this might be the only film to take the trope of mistaken identity and apply it to leopards) that Susan releases. Forced to choose, I would have to go with the scene where David and Susan are in jail and Susan plays at being a gangster in order to trick the local Sheriff and make her escape. Hepburn isn’t an actor you would naturally associate with comedy, at least not of the zany, madcap kind, but she really does excel in this film, knowing when to play it up and when to pull back (when asked by her aunt what “Mr. Bone” hunts, she replies in a hilariously understated way, “Animals I should think”). It’s a shame that Bringing Up Baby was such a commercial disaster when it was released, because otherwise we might have gotten to see this side of Hepburn on more occasions.

Bringing Up Baby doesn’t offer any deep insights into the human condition, and it’s basic plot won’t surprise you (stodgy intellectual meets wildchild who turns his life upside down but turns out to be perfect for him), but it will entertain you. Just sit back, relax, and let it take you on the hilarious journey from Point A (the brontosaurus is almost complete) to Point B (the brontosaurus has completely collapsed). You won’t regret it.

Monday, May 19, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: The Matrix (1999)

Director: Andy & Larry Wachowski
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Ann Moss

The effects might not seem quite as spectacular anymore, but I remember when The Matrix was first released and all anyone at school could talk about was how cool it looked. This film presented something different, something new and exciting. It would also lead to countless imitators and spawn two sequels (I found Reloaded damn near unwatchable and never bothered to see Revolutions), all of which would attempt up the special effects ante. But there's still something special about this one, something worth coming back to.

At a very base level, the plot of The Matrix isn’t fundamentally very different from that of a film like Star Wars or the stories that inspired it. We are presented with a single man who possesses gifts which have as yet been untapped. He joins a rag-tag group of misfits, one of whom will become his mentor, and together they will attempt to save humanity. What separates The Matrix from Star Wars - and what is perhaps the key to the film’s appeal – is that rather than creating a far away land as the setting, The Matrix is firmly grounded in the here and now, presenting us with the idea that reality, as we know it, is an illusion and that to see the “real” world we must take the pill and “unplug” ourselves from the dream world. The idea that we’re all just plugged-in to a false reality is perhaps the best way I’ve ever heard to describe the Internet age and the way that the internet has shaped our world and our view of it in ways that are often contradictory (for example, the internet makes the world more “accessible” and brings people closer together… through everyone’s isolation at their computer stations). Neo (Keanu Reeves) is given a choice: one pill will allow him to erase his memory of seeing the “real” world and let him slip back into the wonderland of his existence; the other pill will allow him to continue seeing things as they actually are. This, too, is a way of grounding the story in our own reality, a time when there’s a pill that can be prescribed for every ailment real or imaginary. The implication is that we’ve drugged ourselves into complacency, into not being able to recognize that we’re plugged in and that there’s something just a little… off about the way things are.

But the success of The Matrix isn't based on story alone. This is a film that’s look can only be described as slick, and not just in terms of the special effects. You only need to look briefly at Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) to know that you’re seeing one of the coolest guys in any movie, let alone just this one. The costume design of the film helps to elevate it above you’re average action movie and into the realm of mythology. The long, black jackets when contrasted with the suit and tie look of the Agents, emphasizes that this is a battle of youth and rebellion against an old and conservative ideology. These same jackets would also become controversially symbolic of a particular subset of youth culture. In the wake of the Columbine massacre, the stylized violence of the film in connection with the “anti-social” dress of the characters would lead to this being one of many films accused of glorifying violence and desensitizing the audience. There’s no denying that the film glorifies violence, specifically gun violence. All you have to do is watch the shot of the bullet rippling through time and space to see that. But to place the blame on a film (any film) is to ignore the fact that art reflects what is already present in the culture.

The special effects of the film have been copied and parodied almost out of relevance, especially the shot of Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) hanging in the air in Kung Fu pose while the camera does a 360 and the action starts again. To see this now is to see something you’ve already seen hundreds of times in different variations. But for those of us who first saw it in The Matrix, it was awe-inspiring, and that’s why the film has managed to maintain a place in the collective imagination rather than fade away to obscurity like other fads. Of all the CGI extravaganzas that have come out in the near decade since it was released, this film remains one of the best, a standard against which others can still be measured.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Psycho (1960)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh

Psycho is probably Alfred Hitchcock’s most effective film, but it is also his most flawed. It’s a psychological horror film, scaring us not with what we see (which is actually very little), but with what it makes us think we’ve seen. It is a tightly controlled, stripped-down film that is an unqualified masterpiece… until the end, when it begins to lose the thread, forgetting something essential about fear. What can be explained away, laid out for us step-by-step, is not terrifying. It’s what isn’t explained that scares us the most.

With its protagonist Marian Crane (Janet Leigh), Hitchcock breaks a lot of rules. First, he gives us a “bad” girl – an adulteress and, eventually, a thief – without providing a “good” girl as counterpoint, and without redeeming her before the end. Second, and most importantly, he kills her off half-way through the film. He sets us up to identify with Marian as we watch her flee with the money she’s taken, as we listen to her inner thoughts as she imagines being found out and caught, and then he takes her away from us, forcing us to shift to Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Now, where once we feared for Marian, we fear for Norman, who at first glance appears to be a victim as well (though as anyone familiar with the twist knows, he is anything but). He looks with shock at what his mother has done, then collects himself and calmly goes about cleaning up the evidence, ridding the bathroom of any trace of Marian. When he gets around to disposing of her body and her car in the swamp, we - like him - have a feeling of dread when it appears that the car might not sink to the bottom after all. And when Arbogast (Martin Balsam), the private detective, comes around, we’re made almost as nervous as Norman is by his questions.

Much of what happens in the film is foreshadowed in earlier scenes. In the first scene, Marian and her lover Sam (John Gavin) are in a motel which she states is of the kind that you can check in whenever you want “but when it’s time to go…” The Bates motel is similar. You can check in at midnight, but when it’s time to go, you really do go. Later, when she’s being shown her cabin at the Bates Motel, Norman happily takes her through it until he gets the to bathroom, which he can’t seem to bring himself to mention. It’s Marian who says it and Norman just nods, already knowing how and where this will end. Later still, Marian and Norman sit in his parlour which is littered with stuffed birds that loom ominously over the room, foreshadowing the revelation of his more sinister taxidermy project.

Psycho functions on its ability to suggest. The shower scene is one of the most famous scenes in all of cinema and one of the most terrifying. But we never see the knife going into Marion and we hardly see any blood. Similarly, when Arbogast is murdered, we don’t actually see the knife going into him, we just see him recoil with the first shock, fall down the stairs, and then we see Mrs. Bates on him, knife in hand and hear him scream. We don’t really see what happens to them, but Hitchcock is able to make us think that we’ve seen something most gruesome. The Arbogast scene, to me, is the more effective of the two because of the way it’s shot (and perhaps because it isn’t as famous and not part of the collective imagination the way the shower scene is). We follow him up the stairs and then the camera overcomes him and we watch Mrs. Bates come out towards him and then watch him fall from her perspective. All the scenes in the Bates house are effective because they’re shot at strange angles, suggesting that all is not well here.

Right up to when we finally see Mrs. Bates, both the “real” and the “fake,” this is a deeply engrossing film, and then the film segues into a scene that really drags it down in terms of tone and overall psychological effect. When the psychiatrist who has interviewed Norman at the police station enters to deliver his monologue on the “whys” of Norman’s condition and the crimes he’s committed, the story loses its way. Up until this point, Hitchcock has proved that what we’re left to imagine is much scarier than what we actually see with our own eyes, and the same principle applies to this scene. Having it all explained to us stabilizes the character of Norman in a way that spoils the effect of the character. Norman is a character who ought to remain unstable in our minds, not pinned down with psychiatric explanations. Besides which, none of the conclusions the psychiatrist reaches couldn’t also be reached by the average viewer, which makes this scene entirely redundant. However, until this scene, this is an absolutely peerless film and if what comes before doesn’t exactly excuse the last ten or so minutes, it certainly makes them easier to forgive.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Double Indemnity (1944)

Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson

Why does he do it? It’s the central question of Billy Wilder’s noir classic. It’s easy to say that he’s seduced into it, but watch that scene closely. It doesn’t take much for Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) to talk him into it. As a matter of fact, it appears as if Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) has been waiting for just such an opportunity to present itself. It’s what’s always intrigued me about this film, Neff’s motives, which on a base level appears to be sex (in the form of Phyllis) and money (in the form of the money Phyllis will get from her husband’s “accidental” death), but is actually much more twisted. Neff does it simply to see if he can get away with it. The detachment that this implies, and the coldness that radiates from both Neff and his femme fatale give the film sharper edges than even your most hard-nosed noirs.

It begins with Neff, an insurance salesman, already dying, recording his confession to his boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). What’s ingenious about the way Wilder tells the story is that he allows it to play out in two different, competing ways. What we hear is the voice-over narration in which Neff relates the story to Keyes, but what we see is how Neff relates the story to himself. Both versions have the same plot – Neff and Phyllis meet, discuss insurance, come up with a plan to kill her husband, execute it and then turn on each other – but the tone is distinctly different. In the voice-over, he sounds like a man smitten, blinded by his lust for the fetching Mrs. Dietrichson who appears to him for the first time wrapped in a towel at the top of her stairs, her ankle bracelet catching his eye. “I killed him for money – and a woman – and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman,” he says, framing it as a matter of lust and greed, because while those are motives that people can understand, boredom is not.

That the true motive is boredom – on the part of both Neff and Phyllis – underlies the way they interact. The banter they engage in is charged in a different way than you usually see in noir, as if they’re just saying what people in their situation ought to say, pretending that they’re talking themselves into something that they’ve both already decided on, and pretending that they’re talking themselves into love and/or lust with each other simply because that’s what one does in this situation. These are two very cold characters, and their dialogue is clipped and crisp. There is no warmth, no tenderness between them (the only time we see either emotion from Neff is at the end when he says “I love you, too”… to Keyes), no fire when they’re playing at being in love or after they’ve turned on each other, only when they’re committing their crime (the look on Stanwyck’s face as she waits for the moment when her husband will be killed is deliciously evil).

Stanwyck and MacMurray are both perfect in their respective roles, each walking a fine line in terms of how much to give and how much to hold back. You can certainly see how Phyllis could have lured Neff into her web, had that been necessary, and you can see how Phyllis might have been attracted enough to Neff that it put the idea in her head to rid herself of her husband once and for all, because Stanwyck is just alluring enough and MacMurray is just charming enough, but they’re also just detached enough from what they’re acting out that you can believe they’re only using each other as an excuse to do something that each of them wants to do anyway. Again, what makes this film so brilliant is that Wilder presents the story in such a way that we’re seeing it both as it might have happened and as it did happen in each and every scene.

The cinematography by John Seitz is superb, giving the scenes shadows that are very severe and distinct. There is frequent use of the shadows cast by Venetian blinds, which fall across the characters faces to look like bars, suggesting just how trapped they’ve become by their own machinations. The lighting adds to the way that the scenes become increasingly claustrophobic as the story goes on. “Suddenly it came over me that everything would go wrong. It sounds crazy, Keyes, but it’s true, so help me. I could hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.” How Neff knows it will all go wrong could be tied to his motives for committing the crime in the first place. Does he do it in order to be caught? The fact that he returns to the office in order to record his confession to Keyes seems to suggest as much. Was it part of his scheme all along, making this a long, convoluted suicide? That you can’t answer for sure is part of the film’s strength and what makes it worth coming back to time and again.

Friday, May 16, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: A Very Long Engagement (2004)

Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Starring: Audrey Tautou, Gaspard Ulliel, Marion Cotillard

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement is a carefully constructed, beautiful executed film. Starring the engaging Audrey Tautou, baby-faced Gaspard Ulliel, and a pre-Oscar, frighteningly intense Marion Cotillard, this story of lost love, lingering hope, and the brutality of war rises above your standard tales of romantic tragedy to create something genuinely moving and artistically breathtaking. As bitter as it is sweet, as ugly as it is beautiful, as disillusioning as it is hopeful, it is a masterwork on all levels.

It begins with a striking image: a statue of Jesus on the cross, one hand loosened so that the top hangs at an angle with the bottom nailed in place and the mid-section gone completely, having been blown away in the course of fighting. We know immediately with this one shot that nothing is sacred here, that anything even resembling mercy is long gone. Below the statue is the French trench Bingo Crepescule, where five condemned soldiers are being led to await their deaths. All have been sentenced to be executed for self-inflicted wounds, though only four are actually guilty of having sought to injure themselves while the fifth shot himself accidentally. With disgust, one of the officers in charge of carrying out the executions reveals that the condemned men won’t receive a proper execution, but will instead be sent out of the trench and into No Man’s Land, where they will either be killed by the Germans or will succumb to the cold or starvation. Manech (Ulliard), the youngest of the men, has gone mad with shell shock and announces to his fellow soldiers that as soon as the execution is over, he’ll return home to marry his beloved Mathilde (Tautou). Officially, all five soldiers are killed after being sent into No Man’s Land.

In 1920, Mathilde, still hopeful that somewhere Manech is alive, is given a box containing the belongings of the five condemned men. Using the contents as clues, she begins to unravel a mystery which leads her to believe that one of the condemned men, the one wearing German boots, escaped and possibly took another soldier with him. In a parallel story, a prostitute named Tina Lombardi (Cotillard), the girlfriend of one of the condemned men, is conducting an investigation of her own and takes it upon herself to extract justice from those who brought about the deaths of the men. Her methods of murder are inventive and she’s proudly defiant even after she’s caught, discovering only too late (and with the help of Mathilde) that what she’s done for Ange (Dominique Bettenfeld) runs contrary to what he would have wanted.

Though the film focuses primarily on the story of Manech and Mathilde, it also fleshes out the stories of the other condemned soldiers, though none more so than Bastoche (Jerome Kircher), the soldier who was originally in possession of the German boots and whose back story features an appearance by Jodie Foster as Elodie, the wife of Bastoche's best friend, over whom the two will fall out. The stories of the five men serve to drive home the wastefulness of war – in one scene Ange passes two soldiers making crosses for graves and remarks that they must have been hit pretty hard, seeing as there’s so many, only to have the two confess that they’re just getting a head start, implying that the mission Ange is about to take part in is doomed – and the savagery of World War I military politics which sends the five men to their deaths. Manech, in particular, is mentally unfit to be held accountable for his injury, having been so severely traumatised by his experiences. The others, though they’ve retained their mental faculties, are similarly traumatised, their mutilated hands marks of anguish rather than cowardice.

I’m loathe to reveal any more details of the plot since discovering how all the elements come together – particularly ownership of the German boots – is part of the power of the story. In terms of how the plot is framed within the film, it’s refreshing to see a story like this – a war story – played out from a distinctly feminine perspective. The narrator is female, and much of the information Mathilde gets comes from women (Tina, Elodie, the sister of a German soldier, and Vero, Bastoche's girlfriend) acting as inner-narrators . The fact that the investigation is being spearheaded by Mathilde is also of import because it allows A Very Long Engagement to play out like a rewritten version of the Odyssey where instead of a passive, waiting Penelope, we have a Penelope actively seeking out her Odysseus.

As a contrast to the feminine voices that shape the story, Jeunet shows us the horrors of trench warfare. The film opens with the men wading through the muddy trench while other soldiers take cover from the rain as best they can, all looking distinctly miserable. In scenes of active fighting we watch the trench shake under the force of shelling and see part of it collapse, burying a handful of soldiers in the dirt. The ways that people die in this film are horrendous, but the camera remains unflinching, making the story all the more powerful. Fighting from the trenches was an awful, shattering experience and that’s exactly what Jeunet is determined to show.

As Mathilde, Tautou carries the weight of the film on her shoulders. If she fails, the film fails, because we must care about her in order to care about the story’s resolution. Tautou is more than up to the challenge, rendering a plucky and engaging performance that makes Mathilde much more than just “the woman who waits” in this visually stunning, thoroughly engrossing film.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

Director: Milos Foreman
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher

I always tend to think of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest as a comedy and it’s only upon reflection that I remember that it’s actually a drama in which some scenes play as comedy. The deftness with which it mixes comedy and drama is no doubt one of the reasons why it remains so well-loved and why it’s ending is still so devastating. Given the lighter-hearted moments of screw-you-rebelliousness from Randall McMurphy, the film seems to be moving on a trajectory towards a happier ending, and the fact that it doesn’t makes it all the more powerful.

Randall McMurphy (played marvellously by Jack Nicholson) is a convict faking mental illness in order to serve out his time in a mental hospital rather than prison. The hospital’s administrators are more or less on to him from the beginning, but let him play out his con nonetheless. He and the audience are then introduced to a group of colourful patients and, of course, Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). McMurphy spends the rest of the film trying to teach his fellow patients to take charge of their lives and not be blindly submissive to authority, and going head-to-head with Nurse Ratched in one of the great film rivalries.

The comedy comes whenever the patients are all together, but this isn’t a movie that makes fun of mental illness, or that gets laughs at the expense of those who suffer. In its scenes of group therapy, it highlights the absurdity of putting together a group of people with different problems and different needs in terms of handling those problems, and providing all of them with the same treatment. When he arrives, McMurphy essentially begins hijacking the therapy sessions in his ever-growing battle with Ratched, but it’s difficult not to be on his side. He’s usually standing up for the others in the face of rules that he believes to be unfair, imposed simply because the staff has the authority to impose them and because the patients are convinced that they have no choice but to accept them. The comedic highlight of the film comes when McMurphy, the only “sane” one, discovers during one of the sessions that he’s the only one actually committed to the hospital; the others are all there voluntarily. It is of course a commentary on larger socio-political issues that those who rebel against the dominant ideology are forced into submission – in McMurphy’s case it’s first through confinement, then through drugs, then shock therapy, and finally a lobotomy which leaves him a vegetable – while the masses voluntarily submit to their own oppression and help the power structure remain intact.

Chief Bromden (Will Sampson), the silent giant of the film, represents the fear of the average person in going against the status quo. Assumed to be deaf and dumb by everyone else in the hospital, he eventually speaks to McMurphy, revealing that he, too, sees things for the way they are, but that he lacks the courage to go against it. “My pop was real big. He did like he pleased. That’s why everybody worked on him… I’m not saying they killed him. They just worked on him. The way they’re working on you,” he tells McMurphy. To rebel is to risk standing alone and having the world come down on you with full force. Chief knows this – he’s seen it happen – and so he’s resigned himself from the world, playing along in order to be left alone. But as the film and McMurphy’s schemes progress, he can no longer be content to stand idle, an observer rather than a participator in life. The film’s final and most powerful moments are so profound because McMurphy rebelled and failed, but his spirit inspired the Chief (“Now we can make it Mac; I feel as big as a damned mountain.”), who will succeed.

There are far too many great supporting performances to mention them all (though of all of them, I’ve always thought Sampson as the Chief is the best, expressing so much with so little dialogue), but it’s impossible not to talk about the performances by Nicholson and Fletcher, both of whom won Academy Awards for their performances. Nicholson has a nice, showy role but doesn’t overplay it and it isn’t until the film is over that you really realize how close he kept it from going over the top. Fletcher, too, walks a fine line, playing a character who is evil in the most reasonable of ways, a character who is of the firm conviction that what she’s doing is right, even when it seems cruel (as it does near the end, when it leads to Billy’s suicide). The key to both these characters is that neither one can just walk away from the other; both need to see this through until one is thoroughly defeated. McMurphy has lots of opportunities to escape, but somehow always fails to take them. Ratched has the chance to send McMurphy back to prison, but declines, insisting on keeping him in the institution. Ultimately, these two need each other, they need to fight each other and define themselves by this fight. And with two so finely matched competitors, you can’t help but have a show worth watching.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Rebel Without A Cause (1955)

Director: Nicholas Ray
Starring: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo

Rebel Without A Cause may not have “invented” the teenager, but it certainly played a large role in redefining what the word meant, and how companies market towards that particular demographic. It also defined one of the most iconic actors in the history of cinema: James Dean, the eternal teenager, the eternal rebel, already dead by the time this, only his second film, was released. But this isn’t just about kids running wild; it’s about gender and sexuality and the disconnect between parents and their children. It’s a film vibrating with meaning, with the need to reach out and grab the audience.

“You’re tearing me apart!” Jim Stark (James Dean) screams, not just at his parents, but at the world in general. He exists in the typical teenage headspace where everything is upside down and inside out and nothing quite seems to fit. His family is dominated by his mother and grandmother (Ann Doran and Virginia Brissac, respectively) while his father (Jim Backus) cowers in the background, leaving Jim without a strong male role model at the time when he’s most in need of one. Instead, the closest thing Jim has to a role model is his rival at school – the fantastically named Buzz Gunderson (Corey Allen) – resulting in death and chaos.

The rivalry between Jim and Buzz is carefully crafted, playing on the social dynamics prevalent in the cloistered world of high school. Jim, the new kid, wants to be friends with Buzz and his gang, which includes Jim’s neighbour, Judy (Natalie Wood). However, they aren’t impressed by his suit-and-tie look and polite demeanour and write him off. He continues trying to ingratiate himself with them, but all his attempts fail and eventually result eventually in a showdown between Jim and Buzz. Before their fatal chicken run, Buzz confesses to Jim that he’s grown to like him. “Why do we do this?” Jim asks. “You’ve gotta do something. Don’t you?” The entire sequence of events between Jim and Buzz takes on a ritualistic form, as if Buzz is the leader of a herd testing the strength of Jim, the interloper, before allowing him to join. The knife fight, the chicken run, these are just rites of passage. And once the chicken run has been completed (resulting in Buzz’s death when his door jams before he can jump out), a fundamental change takes place in Jim. Gone are the staid, suburban clothes. Out comes the red jacket, a sign of danger ahead.

In the fall-out from Buzz’s death, Jim goes on the run with Judy and Plato (Sal Mineo), and the three hide out in an abandoned house. The friendship between Jim and Plato is fraught with tension, with Plato clearly coded as gay not only through his longing looks at his friend but also by the fact that he has a photo of Alan Ladd lovingly pasted in his locker. Plato’s earlier suggestion to Jim that they spend the night together is now stabilized, and the undercurrent between them contained, by the presence of Judy and the way the three fall into the roles of Father (Jim), Mother (Judy) and Son (Plato). In spite of what’s going on outside (the police and Buzz’s gang are looking for them), the scenes in the house are light and playful, perhaps because the three have now formed the sort of familial bonds that are so lacking in their own families. But this serenity isn’t to last and the film will end with Plato dead, killed needlessly after Jim has disarmed him.

The film’s most overt theme has to do with gender identity, with Jim’s struggle framed as a struggle to become a “real” man. His father is henpecked, playing a passive role in the family that Jim can’t reconcile himself to. At the depths of Jim’s despair, he sees his father wearing an apron, cleaning up a mess he’s made. Jim doesn’t know how to deal with this image or with the anger it builds inside of him. He attacks his father, lashing out not because he’s mad at him, but because he wants him to stand up for himself. In his relationship with Plato, Jim becomes not the lover that Plato desires, but the father that Jim wants, someone strong and capable and reassuring.

The film’s other main theme is the generation gap, depicted here with parents and children as, essentially, lifeforms from different planets. Two of the film’s most important scenes (the knife fight and Plato’s death) take place at the observatory, and there’s much discussion in the film of the cosmos, including a prophetic exchange between Plato and Jim:

         Plato: Do you think the end of the world will come at night time?
         Jim: Uh-uh, at dawn.

For Plato, at least, this proves to be literally true, but for Jim and Judy it’s true in a figurative sense. Both are still alive, but they’ve passed through one stage of life and into another. Their “teenage world” ends with Plato’s death and they’re thrust into the adult world they so abhor.

There are many iconic scenes in this film, but the most lasting impression it leaves is no doubt the image of James Dean himself, an image which has become defined more by this role than his other two big screen roles, though it could be argued that at the time East of Eden had the bigger cultural impact. This is truly his movie, with every moment he spends on screen ringing with the intensity and immediacy of teenage angst. In many ways, the film has become dated, but on the strength of Dean’s performance and the direction of the criminally underrated Nicholas Ray, it remains nonetheless utterly and endlessly watchable.