Archive for the Dailies Category

The ‘Forbidden’ William A. Wellman

Posted in Dailies, DVD with tags , , , on August 17, 2010 by leclisse

I tend to associate certain seasons with films from particular decades or genres.  Summertime conjures a certain nostalgia for the dusty grit of the 1930s or anything that takes place during the Depression years, which serves as a kind of visual mirroring of the heat of the day.  While at the library the other day, I picked up the first disc from Forbidden Hollywood Volume 3 because I had something of a yen to see an early Barbara Stanwyck film.  I love her work in the early Thirties, particularly what I’ve seen from the Forbidden Hollywood Collection.  She always seems so perfectly cast in these films, much more so than at any other point in her career, and that familiarity and level of authority really come to the forefront of these performances.

What I wasn’t expecting from the films on this disc (Stanwyck’s The Purchase Price and Mary Astor’s Other Men’s Women) was to be so impressed with William Wellman’s direction that I decide to skip a straightforward film analysis in favor of a more visual commentary on these films.  What intrigued me in particular, especially while watching Other Men’s Women, was the frequent use of unconventional close-up shots as well as the ease with which Wellman uses long shots of his actors.  The frequency of the latter in The Purchase Price serves as a silent reinforcement of his professional confidence in Stanwyck; his respect for her and Astor allows him to do this because he knows they do not need to constantly remind the audience of their presence and are skilled enough to sacrifice a little publicity for the sake of directorial artistry.

Baby Doll (1956)

Posted in Dailies with tags , , , on July 1, 2010 by leclisse

She’s nineteen. She makes her husband keep away — she won’t let the stranger go.

Elia Kazan’s 1956 production of Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll outraged the censors upon its release and was condemned by the Catholic Legion of DecencyCarroll Baker plays the title role of Baby Doll, a nubile cross between nimphet Sue Lyon in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962) and party girl Lee Remick in Anatomy of a Murder (1959).  Baby is married to Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden), a man more than old enough to be her father.  Their marriage has not yet been consummated because of a promise the two made to wait until Baby’s twentieth birthday, when she would be “ready.”  Despite Archie’s sexual starvation and obvious lust for his bride, the dynamic of their relationship approaches a vaguely incestuous parent/child interaction.  His jealousy is constantly aroused by Baby’s flirtatious nature, and are is all the more suspicious because they have yet to have relations.  Archie vocally reiterates his ownership of Baby, but this seems to be more of a means of reassuring himself that they are, indeed, man and wife.

Archie’s cotton gin business has recently closed in the face of competition from newcomer Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach in his fantastic film debut), leaving him with mounting debts.  He can’t even pay for the furniture on lease that clutters the once-great manor house he bought as a spousal gesture for the demanding Baby Doll.  At a total loss, Archie steals away one night and sets fire to Vacarro’s gin works in a desperate attempt to reestablish himself in the local business community, and by extension in the estimation of Baby Doll, whose admiration (or his imagination of such) has been battered by his bankruptcy.  In a painfully obvious about-face, Archie swoops in to assist Vacarro, bringing him out to his dillapidated home and offering him a job.  Archie leaves Vacarro to the entertaining vices of Baby, absurdly confident in her sterile skills as a hostess and believing that she is mannered enough to resist any flirtation on the part of Vacarro. 

Archie’s bumbling sets the stage for perhaps the most sensational scene in the film.  Vacarro latches on to Baby, cooly perceptive of her flirtatious weakness and acutely aware of the boredom that has taken hold of her life since her marriage to Archie.  He follows her around the rambling grounds of the house, barely letting her get more than a few feet away from his explosive virility.  He pets and teases her, providing even more physical tantilization than a mere kissing scene could ever offer.  Kazan’s handling of this scene is all at once coy, acutely aware of the limitations of the censors yet superbly confident in the perception and intelligence of his audience, and at all times understanding that the portrayal of physicality has more power in what is not shown.  The languid drawl of Baby’s speech clings to Vacarro’s exciting masculinity with a saccarine tenacity, aching for him to kiss or embrace her and in a constant state of anxiety over whether or not he will.

The object of Vacarro’s pursuit is a signed testimony from Baby implicating Archie’s guilt in the gin fire.  Triumphant after a tortuous and borderline masochistic struggle to wring from Baby her signature (and by extension her betrayal of Archie), a satisfied Vacarro is about to turn his back and leave when Baby convinces him to stay for a nap and later for supper with her and Archie.  Vacarro’s decision to remain at the house sets into motion the beginning of the end for Archie.  It does not take him very long to realize that he’s been duped, a cuckolded husband who comes home after a day at work to find his wife in her slip and his business rival refreshed after a rest in her bed.  Malden tears Archie apart in this scene, skillfully transitioning from the realization of his wife’s idea of “entertaining” guests to a mounting fury that promises to destroy everyone in the house.  The lighting and framing of this scene recalled some of the exaggerated elements of Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955), lending an almost surreal element to Archie’s crackup:

Kazan could have easily turned Baby Doll into a sleazy story of lust and failure in William Faulkner’s South, but achieves instead a brilliant portrait of a man well past his prime, struggling to hang on to a child bride who is repulsed by the thought of him and ultimately betrayed by her, the one who should have been most faithful to him.  Carroll Baker brings much to the role of Baby Doll, allowing the audience to understand, if not sympathize, on some level her motivations in light of the circumstances she must live with.  She is no more than a child and probably not an ounce more mature during the course of the film than she was on her wedding day to Archie.  She acts totally from whim and impulse, desireous of pleasing only herself and exacting whatever advantages she can from those around her, particularly Archie.  The interplay between Baker’s Baby, Wallach’s Vacarro, and Malden’s Archie coalesce from merely a combination of commendable performances into a pulsating, ravenous film that transcends the boundaries of Faulkner’s written story into something living, dynamic, and ageless.

Middle Age and the Movies

Posted in Dailies with tags , , , on June 20, 2010 by leclisse

Petulia (1968) is a movie I find myself returning to from time to time, but I wouldn’t classifiy it as a comfort movie.  It’s not even a film I necessarily think of when I find myself in a particular mood or or recalling the highlights of a specific genre.  However, it does share some major elements with several other movies I found myself watching during the past month, chief among these being the mid-life crisis.

Several weeks ago, Matt and I rented Weekend With the Babysitter (1970) from Netflix, a second choice after our gleeful dreams of a schlock-filled evening were dampened after finding that The Babysitter (1969) was not available on commercial DVD.  Even before turing on our television set, we both knew that we were not in for the wild ride that The Babysitter promised, but pragmatically settled for this, our next available option.  I won’t go into a substantial commentary, but what struck me most about this film was the inescapable creeper factor of the entire story arc.  George E. Cary plays Jim Carlton, a modestly successful screenwriter who is currently working on a swinging new picture about youth culture.  He lets his son’s nubile twenty-something babysitter read a couple of pages of dialogue, which she roundly dismisses as a feeble and unsuccessful attempt to capture the true spirit of how kids really talk to each other.  Intrigued, he joins her and some of her friends at a go-go bar, smokes up with them, and spends a carefree and uninhibited weekend away with the babysitter, who also happens to be named Candy (and is rather stiltingly played by Susan Romen).  The film was co-written by Cary, and is most obviously the titilating product of his (probably unfulfilled) fantasies.  Doughy, pasty, and decidedly unhip, both Cary and Jim Carlton are incredibly unlikely to be surrounded by a bevy of young willing girls like Candy, let alone take off for a sexy weekend getaway with one of them.

The Arrangement (1969) takes a more dignified view of the mid-life crisis, this time pitting Kirk Douglas as successful adman Eddie Anderson against the free-spirited Gwen, who is rather inconsistently portrayed by Faye DunawayThe Arrangement is an Elia Kazan film, and comes from an autobiographical novel that Kazan had penned not too long before the film’s production.  Driven mad by the soul-crushing nature of “making it” in the advertising world, Eddie Anderson almost commits suicide by driving his car under the wheels of a towering semi truck.  Kazan takes pains to mirror the lifelessness of Eddie’s home life with the emptiness he feels in the face of financial success, and even in his wife, Florence (Deborah Kerr, who rather gamely plays to the shrillness demanded of her by both the part and no doubt Kazan himself).  Kazan makes it perfectly clear that Eddie and Florence have the “perfect marriage,” but the effectiveness of this cliche is marred by the heavy-handed way in which it is at all times shown. 

Eddie looks for salvation from his wife, job, and the demands of his dying father and finds something like it in Gwen (Faye Dunaway, who unfortunately turns out a largely forgettable performance) and they start an affair.  Gwen’s character is meant to provide someone who is so totally opposite of Florence, someone so without roots that she doesn’t even have a last name.  As far as Eddie is concerned, her only mistake is that she is too demanding in asking him to divorce Florence so that they may marry.  The Arrangement is obviously an ‘A’ picture compared to the likes of Weekend With the Babysitter, but its storyline indulges in many of the same pitfalls of the latter.  Eddie’s wife, like Jim’s drug-addicted shrew of a spouse, is a little too easy to villify and lacks any kind of real human complexity.  All too often, the viewer distinctly feels Kazan’s sputtering attitude of “I’m right, and they’re all wrong” in Eddie’s reflexive flight from his everyday responsibilities.  We always see this, but Kazan never makes the connection to allow his audience to understand it.

Richard Lester ‘s Petulia (1968) succeeds not only where these other films have failed, but is also one of the most underrated films of the 1960s.  The film’s effectiveness lies in the effortless sincerity that is brought out in George C. Scott’s Archie and Julie Christie’s title character, Petulia Danner.  Archie is recently divorced from wife Polo (Shirley Knight), but seemingly not for any tangible reason other than an emotional deadness which can clearly be seen in Archie’s eyes as well as through his own admission that he just wants to “feel something.”  We never hear an explanation of the separation, but perhaps this is because he has none to offer anyone, even himself.  Archie’s more passive confusion and discontent contrasts with Petulia’s active (at some points aggressive) boredom and fear of the emotional unpredictability of her physically abusive husband David (played to slithering perfection by Richard Chamberlain).  Archie and Petulia have almost nothing in common save for their shared frustrations, but they find a certain kind of sympathy in each other that assuages each other’s private grief.  They don’t know where they’re going, but it really doesn’t matter as long as they can share in each other’s limbo.

The disjointed nature of Petulia’s narrative works not only through the skill of its featured players, but also through its impeccable editing which cuts forward, backward, up, and down with an understanding of the linearity that much remain for the audience’s sake.  This allows for an incredibly nuanced understanding of Archie’s characterization as well as the nature of his mid-life crisis.  While sharing many similarities with the predicaments of Jim Carlton and Eddie Anderson, he understands himself well enough to know that riding off into the sunset with some sweet young thing is definitely not an option.  He knows his affair with Petulia is doomed to be short-lived because it can’t possibly maintain itself.  By the end of the film, his initial emotional detachment from her grows into genuine affection, due in part to the fact that she has made him into a “kook” like herself but also because of his fear for her physical safety from David.  He wants to protect her, but by the end he understands that with a baby on the way, she feels some obligation to make the union last as long and as well as it can.  The poignancy of Petulia does not lie in Archie and Petulia’s breakup, but more so in the fact that Petulia has grown up; responsibility and impending motherhood has matured her irreparably, something that both she and the audience cannot ignore or deny.

Cat Ballou (1965)

Posted in Dailies with tags , , , on June 17, 2010 by leclisse

In a performance that nails down her reputation as a girl worth singing about, actress Fonda does every preposterous thing demanded of her with a giddy sincerity that is at once beguiling, poignant and hilarious.  Wearing widow’s weeds over her six-guns, she romps through one of the zaniest train robberies ever filmed, a throwback to Pearl White’s perilous heyday.  Putting the final touches on a virginal white frock to wear at her own hanging, she somehow suggests that Alice in Wonderland has fallen among blackguards and rather enjoys it.  Happily, Cat Ballou makes the enjoyment epidemic. (Review from Time magazine.)

I’m not by any means a fan of Westerns.  I can appreciate a good one just as I can appreciate a film from any genre that is well-done or remarkable in any number of ways.  My neutrality as far as Westerns are concerned is probably due to the fact that they often lack any real female character development, more often than not strictly studies in masculinity.  Once Jane Fonda is thrown into the mix, however, it is almost impossible to come away without some substantial feminine influence.  My respect for Jane’s skills as an actress is irrevocably grounded in her performances in Klute (1971) and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), but is still manages to grow with each film of hers that I see (yes, even after the spectacle of 1968’s Barbarella).

In Cat Ballou, Jane plays Catherine Ballou, a newly minted school teacher who is on her way back home to her father, a significant landowner who has run afoul of some encroaching business interests.  The film actually opens with Catherine in jail, fidgeting with a virginal white dress as she awaits her sentence of hanging for murder.  Nat ‘King’ Cole and Stubby Kaye provide a musical narration, meant to be reminiscent of the chorus in Greek tragedy, and bring the audience back several months from this scene in the jail to explain just how fair Catherine has found herself to be in such a mess.  Homeward bound, Catherine is deposited into the care of a masquerading priest, who also happens to be on board in order to spring an outlaw passenger in police custody.  Catherine is something of a victim of circumstances, but reluctantly assists in the getaway of the two.  Up to this point, Fonda’s Catherine is a skillful embodiment of old-fashioned femininity and virginal naivety, but all the while managing to convey the inner steel that will sustain her after the murder of her father.

Catherine is not home long before her father dies at the hands (or gun, rather) of Tim Strawn (Lee Marvin, who also plays Kid Shelleen), a terrifying steel-nosed gunslinger hired by the businessmen who have now stopped at nothing to wrestle away her father’s water rights.  This, despite her having hired gunmen (Lee Marvin as Kid Shelleen, and the escaped outlaws from the train, Michael Callan and Dwayne Hickman) to protect her father from these same businessmen.  Devastated and heartbroken, Catherine vows revenge for here father’s death, seeking refuge with Kid Shelleen, Sioux farmhand Jackson Two-Bears, and Callan and Hickman.  They flee to a protected community of outlaws, immediately setting to work at Catherine’s insistence in plotting a train robbery.  Unfortunately, the payroll they heist from the train is actually meant to provide much-needed jobs to the townspeople as well as pay for the protection of the outlaw community in which they’re currently seeking refuge.  After this, they haven’t a friend in the world.

Cat Ballou was a major financial success at the time of its release, and significantly elevated Jane’s star power.  Personally, she was engaged to be married to director Roger Vadim (who would go on to direct her in Barbarella) and the overflow of this joy can clearly be seen in the vivacity and fire of her performance.  The film’s satirical treatment of the Western genre makes use of a variety of common cliches, yet is able to turn these elements on their heads in order to move the film beyond a simple self-conscious look at the Old West.  Jane’s Catherine is the vulnerable schoolteacher, yet uses this position as a springboard to secure the help of the men around her who also want to protect her.  Ever practical, she wears slacks for much of her screen time but never falls from this initial virginal femininity.  Catherine is self-assured and self-reliant, open to the charms of lovemaking yet is able to unalterably remain unobsessed with love and courtship.  It’s a pleasant and exciting release, but she knows she need not depend on it in order to secure her well-being.  Even up to the very end, Catherine’s rescue from the noose is a team effort, not merely another instance of a man having to intervene to save a helpless female.  Fonda’s Catherine has already proven that she can take care of herself, but is not averse to the idea of a gallant rescue at the capable hands of Callan, Hickman, and Marvin.

Serpico (1973)

Posted in Dailies with tags , on June 1, 2010 by leclisse

There once was a time when I lumped any film made after 1971 into something of an untouchable category.  Looking back on this self-imposed exile, I realize that the only real reason I tended to do this was because I didn’t think these films were stylistically up to snuff.  They were too dirty, too gritty; their storylines did not offer the sort of escapism or romantic idealization that I liked in the movies I chose to watch.  I suppose I only made any significant progress away from this when I started college and worked in the library with some interesting characters who fed my penchant for idealistic social activism with some of the landmark films to come out of the late 1960s and into the 1970s, such as Easy Rider (1969), Three Days of the Condor (1975), Patton (1970), Apocalypse Now (1979), All the President’s Men (1976), Annie Hall (1977), Network (1976), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), The French Connection (1971) and on and on.  The same elements that I originally loathed about this time period actually form the basis of my respect for it now.

My experience with Al Pacino’s filmography seems to only cover his earlier films; with the exception of Dick Tracy (1990), I haven’t seen any of his work made after 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon.  I suppose this is probably the best possible introduction to his films, since it seems that no other part of his filmography has been quite as acclaimed as his work in the 1970s, and with good reason.  Sidney Lumet‘s  Serpico has been on my radar, albeit peripherally, since my dad mentioned how impressed he was when he saw it.  Based on true events, Al Pacino plays Officer Frank Serpico, a young graduate of the police academy who proudly enters the force in New York City.  The first sign of Serpico’s drifting from the staid tenets of the police force can be seen in the increasing length and carelessness of his hair and dress, which is adopted in an effort to blend in with the streets, concealing him from the ever-watchful gaze of dealers, pushers, gangs, and anyone else threatened by police presence.  For a time, Serpico straddles the line between being a cop and being part of youth culture.  Girlfriend Laurie (Barbara Eda-Young) doesn’t even believe him when he tells her his line of work; his discomfort in being seen as just a cop within her circle of friends is linearly drawn out, culminating in a party scene where he tries to blend in pricipally by not revealing his occupation.

The primary focus of Serpico‘s storyline is his disillusionment with the police establishment as the routine of internal corruption is revealed first through bribes and eventually through workplace harrassment when it becomes clear that Serpico will not take his money and shut up.  Lumet’s direction and Pacino’s performance synthesize perfectly as Serpico’s frustration, isolation, anger, and eventual sense of betrayal by the New York police come out in every scene, eventually reaching a head as he lashes out at those closest to him, principally girlfriend Leslie (Cornelia Sharpe).  Despite the hellish environment at work after repeated transfers and new work assignments, Serpico still seems to retain some loyalty by his insistent refusal to turn to outside sources like the New York Times to reveal the corruption that has insinuated itself into the daily workings of the NYPD.  After all this, Serpico still believes in the honesty of his superiors; there is no other explanation for his dogged determination to work with the established authority to weed out corruption and once again (in his mind, at least) institute honesty and fairness into police dealings with each other and local citizens.  It would be difficult to watch this film and not wonder why he does not up and quit, washing his hands of the whole ordeal.  It is that sense of loyalty to the department, or his idea of it at any rate, that keeps him from going.

It takes gun shot in the face to finally drive the point home that Serpico cannot hope to remain alive within the New York police.  A transfer to the narcotics division can certainly be interpreted as a death sentence, as he is warned about the ease of set-ups and the danger he faces not only from the streets but even from other officers.  His partners on a routine drug bust essentially leave him to die after they fail to offer the backup he desperately needs, even though they are less than ten feet away.  Perhaps the only thing that could have broken Serpico’s intangibe loyalty is a near-death experience, which here he finally receives.  In that sense, he is dead to the NYPD and free from any compunction he may have felt at testifying against the force.  Not only if he free from this, but also from the United States itself, as a postscript tells audiences that the real Frank Serpico left the States, subsequently residing “somewhere in Switzerland.”

Klute (1971)

Posted in Dailies with tags , , on May 26, 2010 by leclisse

I must have seen Alan J. Pakula‘s Klute about a half-dozen times in that last couple of years.  After the first screening or two, I tirelessly searched the depths of eBay for original stills, posters, and lobby cards from the film’s original release, coming away with a rather attractive one-sheet and a trimmed 7×9″ publicity still of Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland.  The cycle of my film obsessions follow much the same pattern; once I have materially sated the initial excitement over an outstanding film, I move on to something else.  In the case of Klute, however, I find that I keep coming back for more.

Like big, beautiful epics, another one of my cinematic weakenesses is for strong female characters.  Jane Fonda’s Oscar-winning turn as Bree Daniels is all at once violently assertive, stealthily manipulative, tirelessly self-confident and a string of other related adjectives.  Bree, an experienced New York City escort has known the heights of Park Avenue but cannot remain content in a life of turning tricks and paying up to Roy Scheider’s mercilessly brutal pimp Frank Lagourin.  Pakula narrates Bree’s ongoing struggle to break out of “the life” through a series of sessions with her psychoanalyst (Vivian Nathan), where she presents the audience with a powerful picture of a woman who knows herself incredibly well.  Bree is in a sense addicted to the power she is able to exercise over each john, confident that for a moment she is the “greatest actress in the world and the greatest fuck in the world.”  That sense of control over life is the key to Bree’s inability to let go of prostitution.  She has no control over her failure as a stage actress, a profession she sees as a tangible escape from prostitution, especially since she is able to utilize the theatrical skills that made her such a success in that life.

Donald Sutherland’s title character, John Klute, meets Bree in the course of investigating a missing persons case, the details of which are systematically revealed throughout the course of the film but at the same time seem almost peripheral to the relationship that develops between these two.  Unlike so many films in which romantic relationships seem anywhere from trite to childish to bizarre, Pakula takes the time to believably introduce these two polar opposites, ceaselessly wearing down their prejudices and defenses over the course of the film.  The interplay that unfolds between Bree and Klute is riveting and the chemistry between Fonda and Sutherland is a perfect synthesis of vulnerability and genuine trust.  Watching Bree advance and retreat, trying to entice Klute to give up his “square” morality and give in and become one of the group of faceless johns that she scorns is one of the most revealing character studies ever committed to film.  Bree admits her fright as experiencing genuine emotions toward Klute, which flies in the face of her hardened sentiment that men are all the same.  Her instinct is to destroy those emotions and retreat to the safety of being “numb.”

Klute presents an interesting social commentary on the ageless question of “square” morality and its attitudes towards prostitution.  The truth of Tom Gruneman’s disappearance and the revelation that family friend and coworker, Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi), is a murderous sexual deviant masquerading under the pretense of being a normal family man turns socially acceptable prejudices on their heads.  The film’s climax is shattering in its brutality, with Cable reassuring himself of his normalcy by venomously casting the blame on Bree and other women like her who have exploited his sexual predilections and threaten to ruin the idyllic work and home life that he has so meticulously built and fought to maintain.  So desperate is he to salvage this illusion, perhaps more for his own sake than for that of his family, Cable sees murder as the only way to silence those with the knowledge of his secrets.  The way Pakula ends this film gives the audience just enough closure to feel nominally satisfied, but at the same time leaves enough open to doubt the direction of any of the character’s lives.  It is a perfect balance between the surety of the Guneman case’s solution and the immediate directionlessness of the lives of Bree and Klute.

Crazy Heart (2009)

Posted in Dailies with tags , , , on May 23, 2010 by leclisse

I rarely make it to the theaters for first-run movies.  This is usually due in large part to the fact that I need to be convinced to spend almost $10 to see a film that I know I can probably get much cheaper on DVD through Netflix or my local library.  I don’t usually regret this decision, but that may be the case after settling down to watch Crazy Heart last night.

The first chords of world-weary Bad Blake’s (Jeff Bridges) whiskey-inspired songbook provide the soundtrack to the striking New Mexico landscape.  The expansive sky reveals an incomparably rich blue, studded with the whispy illusions of clouds.  The endless roads wind their way through this rocky country, leading Bad toward his next gig, hundreds of miles away from his last.  Bridges’ portrayal of Blake reveals an unapologetic drunk who still manages to make an appearance at his concerts, even if he has to run out midway to vomit the toxins that have been coursing through his bloodstream day after day.  He has obviously seen better days but somehow manages to not convey the bitterness that so often befalls entertainers in the last throes of their careers.  As long as Blake can get drunk and laid once in awhile, he seems content to let life continue as it has been for these last few years.

Not too long after this introduction, Blake meets an accompanying piano player in Santa Fe and agrees to an interview with the man’s niece (Maggie Gyllenhaal) for a local newspaper.  Jane Craddock (Gyllenhaal), recently divorced with a young son, presents herself as someone who knows a bit of Blake’s world-weariness.  Her bad luck with men has not hardened her attitude toward them, but rather seems to have made her all the more vulnerable.  She and Blake obviously like each other, although Blake’s initial flirtation appears to be born more out of animal instinct than any developing emotional entanglement.  They both seem to recognize the emptiness in each other’s lives and are drawn to that — if not to fill it, then at least to ease some of that loneliness for a little while.  The performances of Bridges and Gyllenhaal succeed in making this love story so much more tangible than a mere plotline.  It is obvious that both characters approach the situation tentatively, first as almost something of a one-night stand, and gradually building into a friendship more than anything else.  Sex is not some perfunctory benefit of their time together, but rather an outlet for both of them to find some kind of comfort without the judgments of family.  While their sexual relationship is obviously not going to last the length of the film, it is clear that they do love one another and probably will always have that lifelong regard.

As I mentioned above, the soundtrack to this film is truly phenomenal.  Jeff Bridges has done some previous musical work and  provides his own vocals.  His voice perfectly marries the raw talent of early country music with the indescribable beauty of the film’s locations in the Southwest.  His music carries the purity and genuine simplicity that is mirrored by and also contrasted with Blake’s approach to life.  He is a broken-down drunk, yes, but he never denies this fact.  And with this same honesty and conviction, he turns his life around by getting sober and penning the film’s title song for Jane.  Colin Farrell plays a supporting role as Tommy Sweet, who represents young country music and has eclipsed Blake’s celebrity, even though he readily admits his debt to Blake’s musical teaching and guidance.  Sweet’s character is without a doubt something of an essential addition to the plot of this film, if only to show how far Blake’s star has fallen and the very real trends in country music today.  Honestly, Sweet could have been played by almost any other actor and have been as effective as Farrell’s portrayal.  I guess I haven’t seen Farrell in very much so I am unable to compare his performance here with an array of other films, but I suspect that my conclusions would doubtlessly be the same.  He does provide his own vocals for the film, just as Bridges does, but they are at best average.  Mediocre is probably a better assessment.

It’s refreshing to witness a doomed love story that doesn’t fall into the trite traps of tragedy and self-consumption that make for good box office rather than substantial storyline.  More often than not, chance encounters do not necessarily work out for the long run, but almost always have the potential to provide some meaning for those involved beyond the physical relationship itself.  In the case of Crazy Heart, they can be a literally sobering experience and a foundation from which to reach for better things.

La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928)

Posted in Dailies, Silent Film with tags on February 5, 2010 by leclisse

During the course of a film class I had several years ago, we watched a 15-minute clip of Carl Dreyer’s La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928).  It was the first time I had ever seen a silent film (or part of one) without some sort of musical accompaniment, but I suspect that it would have only proved to be an intrusion on the unearthly spell of this particular film.  Watching it again, this time the whole way through, I can remember precisely the awe that I felt those years ago.  La passion is perhaps the purest example of the height of silent film as an art form, for it is first and foremost a stunningly visual piece.

Maria Falconetti stars in only her third film (her first two were made eleven years earlier), but the power of her performance is far superior to most actors who spend their entire lives dedicated to the art form.  Falconetti’s Jeanne is a saintly combination of youth, naivity, and complete consumption.  She is eclipsed as being merely an actor in her performance by the tangible fire that burns within her for France and God.  The apparent simplicity with which she assumes the role of Jeanne only serves to underscore the total purity of this production.  At one point, in the midst of her ongoing abuse at the hands of the clergy, a fly happens to land on her eyelid.  She does not even flinch, so consumed is she by her agitation, and she absentmindedly brushes the insect away with the slightest touch of her shaking hand.

Falconetti’s performance here is equal only to the direction of Carl Dreyer.  It would be difficult to think of a title that so perfectly marries the unearthly talents of two artists such as we see here in La passion.  Dreyer makes frequent use of extreme closeups and uncentered shots to give the audience the feeling that they are there with Jeanne, taking every abuse and humiliation that she suffers.  The sets are as simple as they can possibly be, making minimal use of props or anything else that would detract from the sharpness of true black and white.  Dreyer’s decision to refrain from the sort of extraneous clutter that could have marred (or even ruined) such a masterpiece is a stroke of genius, as this emptiness underscores better than anything else the overflow of Jeanne’s sufferings and anguish.  Shots ebb and flow in rapid succession in order to cultivate the desperation of Jeanne’s situation and, like the use of extreme closeups, sweep the audience behind Jeanne’s eyes as she is almost broken between the Church’s threats of excommunication and death and her conviction in the certainty of her mission from God and the survival of France.

Classic Comfort Movies

Posted in Dailies with tags , , , , , , , , on August 6, 2009 by leclisse

There are a handful of films that I return to over and over again, particularly when I am in a rather gray mood, or just in need of some hand holding.  As I’ve thought about these movies lately, I’ve realized that they are all ones that I’ve loved as a kid, and still enjoy just as much now.  I am fairly uncritical of their merits as films, but rather find myself drawn in by some intangible magic (which is probably just to say that my sense of nostalgia gets the better of me sometimes).  Here are just a few of them:

Jeanne Crain as Margie Frake

State Fair (1945)

For the young in heart! And romantic oldsters, too!

I was quite the connoisseur of musicals growing up, but I always maintained one rule that I believed separated the good ones from the mediocre.  The number of songs couldn’t exceed five or six, because to do this immediately caused me to suspect that they served only to cover a weak plot.  I still believe that I was right about that (in most cases, anyway), because my favorite musicals consistently limit their musical numbers in favor of solid plot development.

State Fair is my favorite Rogers and Hammertsein collaboration because it does not fall into the trap of the grandiose, self-important musical that I tend to detest.  Margy (Jeanne Crain) and Wayne Frake (Dick Haymes) are small-town Iowans, as wholesome as apple pie and as genuine as your favorite grandmother.  They come to the Iowa state fair with their parents, yearning for something new and exciting in their lives.  They find love with some city folks (Dana Andrews and Vivian Blaine), and all four find time to croon their way through food, amusement rides, glittering entertainment, and the senior boar championship.  State Fair is a simple story, but one that refrains from piling on the sugar in favor of something more savory and substantial.  The ending may be predictable, but at least is comes across as honest rather than hackneyed or trite.  And really, who can resist the infectous rhythms of “All I Owe Ioway” or “It’s a Grand Night For Singing”?  You’ll be singing long after the credits roll before you even realize that real-life folks don’t spontaneously burst into song.

Two Weeks With Love (1950)Lobby card for Two Weeks With Love

The Gayest LOVE STORY EVER FILMED!

My fondness for Two Weeks With Love is grounded in many of the same reasons I mentioned above for State Fair.  The plot is fairly unassuming, but its Technicolor cheer blooms when the characters take to song and dance.  Turn-of-the-century Patti Robinson (Jane Powell) has just turned 17, but can’t stand to wait another eleven months before she reaches the milestone of 18.  Her mother (Ann Harding) treats her “like a child,” but “inside [she’s] a woman.”  What girl can’t relate to that?  Even though she sits up half the night lengthening her dresses, she’s still little Patti, a girl to be protected from “rounders” and “figure pinchers.”  Sulking and mooning her way on the family’s annual two-week vacation at Kissimmee in the Catskills, she is startled and electrified when she catches sight of the dashing Demi Armendez (Ricardo Montalban).  This immediately throws her into competition with the vain and preening Valerie (Phyllis Kirk), who is 18 and therefore among the “older set.”  Although Valerie feigns friendship with Patti, she does everything she can to manipulate and maneuver Pattie toward humiliation so she can have Demi all to herself.

Watching the film now, I am amused at the fact that I never saw anything remotely unsettling in the fact that Patti, at 17, is smitten with a man who is at least in his mid- to late-twenties, and even goes so far as to requite her affection.  In fact, I think I identified all too well with Patti.  I was one of those girls who always had a crush on some teacher (usually History or English), and could not abide boys my own age.  Patti’s 12-year-old sister Melba (Debbie Reynolds) echoes this age gap in her puppy love for 16-year-old Billy Finley (Carleton Carpenter), so perhaps it runs in the family.  Or it could just be a girl thing.  The ending, of course, is as happy as any MGM musical, and affirmed all my girlish dreams of snagging some sophisticated and worldly charmer.  Patti can keep the corset, though.

Rex Harrison and Gene TierneyThe Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

Is Lucy Muir’s love really a ghost, or is it a man of flesh and blood she yearns for?

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is among my revered trinity of Gene Tierney movies (the others being Laura and Leave Her to Heaven), but unlike the other two, she does not play an alluring femme in this film.  She is a widow, in fact, and leaves London with her daughter, Anna (Natalie Wood) and housekeeper, Martha (Edna Best), in order to get away from her obnoxious and self-righteous in-laws.  She moves into Gull Cottage by the sea, a house that is haunted by the crotchety old Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison) who lived and died there.  When ghost Daniel realizes he can’t scare away the feisty Lucy, he kindles a begrudging friendship with her that inevitably develops into love.

Bernard Herrmann’s sweeping score lends the film a breathtaking beauty, and shrouds the improbable story with something like fairy dust.  The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is not a movie that makes me feel as if I need to explain my slavish devotion, because there is nothing remotely ridiculous about it.  Watching this movie always gives me the feeling of warm blankets on a winter’s night, something soothing and altogether pacifying.  This is not to say that the movie is one giant pacifier — George Sanders is delightful as the slippery two-timer Miles Fairley (“Uncle Neddy”), who happens to be a children’s author.  He meets Lucy at a publishing house, where she has gone to get Captain Gregg’s memoir of colorful sea life, Blood and Swash, published in order to pay off some debts.  His silver tongue ensnares the naive Lucy into believing that he wants to marry her, but her illusions come crashing down when she finds out he is already married and with several children to boot.  I guess they can’t all up to the measure of Blood and Swash, but at least everyone gets his or her due.

The Ten Commandments (1956)Anne Baxter and Charlton Heston

It would take more than a man to lead the slaves from bondage. It would take a God.

Big, beautiful epics are a particular weakness of mine.  Throw Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner in there, and you’ve got a surefire way to hook me.  I remember once when I was ten or eleven I had a bad bout of the flu.  I must have watched The Ten Commandments repeatedy for several days (for some reason I keep thinking it was ten times, but that is unlikely) while laid up on the couch.  And each time that thunderous orchestral score rumbled on the screen, it was like I had never seen the movie before.  My eyes devoured the sumptous technicolor production, and in particular all those gauzy, flowing gowns worn by Nefretiri (Anne Baxter).  I always rooted for Ramses (Brynner) in his competition with Moses (Heston) over Nefretiri, just because it made me feel almost guilty, like I was eating too much ice cream or something.

Heston’s hammy acting has been the target of some deserved criticism, but I really don’t mind it so much.  The guy is playing Moses for goodness’ sake, so I think a little bit of over-the-top delivery is justified.  Charlton Heston was born to play epic men, and anyone who watches The Ten Commandments can not only see it, but feel it as well.  He has a remarkably commanding screen presence, and it’s not hard to believe that he is, in fact, parting the Red Sea before your very eyes.  Cecil B. DeMille certainly takes his share of liberties with the biblical story of Moses, but even the most religious come away from the film wishing that it really happened that way.  It’s just so much more… pretty.  Pretty awesome, that is.

Hollywood Outlaws: A second look at Public Enemies (2009)

Posted in Dailies with tags , , , on July 19, 2009 by leclisse

 

Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, viewing himself in a "Most Wanted" newsreel

Stranger stop and wish me well,
Just say a prayer for my soul in hell.
I was a good fellow, most people said,
Betrayed by a woman dressed all in red.

It’s taken me some time to gather my thoughts on Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009).  I actually went to see the film twice — the first time being two weeks ago at Milwaukee’s Landmark treasure, the Oriental Theater, and the second time at an IPic theater at Bayshore Mall.

Initially, I was incredbly disappointed in this production.  I made my way to the Oriental with high hopes, eagerly anticipating what I thought would be a stellar production filmed, literally, in my backyard.  I was in Columbus, WI in early 2008 when they were filming the getaway after John Dillinger’s second prison break.  You can see the downtown area retrofitted to 1934 as Johnny et al. cruise out of town in a stolen Ford coupe.  That being said, I still don’t think I had wildly unrealistic expectations about this film.  What I saw, however, was a visual mess.  The lighting in almost every scene was dingy, the camera movements jarring and unnerving, and the sound jagged and piercing.  All the actors appeared haggard, above and beyond the grit that is called for in any gangster picture.  At least twice, the digital picture pixelated.  I felt as though this was quite possibly one of the ugliest films I had ever seen.

Coming in to work the following Monday, I discussed the film with a friend of mine who had also seen it that weekend, but at a different theater.  She was incredulous when I told her my disgust with the production, which rather surprised me because I know there is no way she could have loved the same film that I saw.  After doing some internet digging, I came across an article describing how some theaters are not equipped to properly show digital films.  This immeditely caught my attention, and I decided that I would give Public Enemies another shot, but this time at a theater that I knew could handle digital.  And boy, am I glad that I did.

Christian Bale (center) as G-man Melvin PurvisMichael Mann’s 142-minute adaptation of John Dillinger’s two-year crime spree across the Midwest must have been a daunting prospect to tackle.  Over five hundred pages of history had to be condensed into a two-hour feature film, a task that required some blurring of fact and forsaking of significant character development.  Johnny Depp really shines as the swaggering, self-assured Dillinger, expertly capturing the charisma that held the public’s attention and adultation, despite the fact that it belonged to a criminal.  This charisma remains largely on the surface, however, because the scripted events of Dillinger’s life do little to reveal much motivation beyond infatuation (his love for Marion Cotillard’s Billie Frechette) and perfunctory loyalty to his criminal comrades.  Christian Bale is G-man Melvin Purvis, driven to prove the FBI’s worth as first-rate crime fighters on the strength of utilizing “scientific techniques.”  Bale’s Purvis is really not given much to do, other than appear concerned when his officers are gunned down by Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson or artificially confident in the face of the Bureau’s glaring lack of field experience.  This isn’t Bale’s fault — his Bruce Wayne/Batman is an excellent update of the legendary comic book hero, example enough of his skills as an actor.  I think the fault lies largely with the screenwriters, who seem rather hesitant to provide this film with a real focus and instead resort to the thrills of firefights and chase scenes.  Cotillard speaks with only traces of a French accent, which is a rather nice touch for her turn as Billie, who is half French-Canadian.  The rather sorry upbringing that the real Billie Frechette had is only glanced at during the film, explained in the minutes following her and Dillinger’s first night together.  Frechette and Dillinger were drawn to each other in part because of this shared desire to escape from their personal histories, but this motivation is lost during the film.  Their relationship is consequently reduced to a whirlwind romance, cemented with the motions of love rather than the emotion itself.  Dillinger’s farewell to Billie is poignantly played, however, as Cotillard softly weeps at his final words: Bye bye, blackbird.

Marion Cotillard as Billie Frechette at Arizona's Hotel CongressThis second time around, I saw incredibly pleased to see cinematography that did not assault my eyes.  The scenes of Dillinger and Frechette’s vacation in Arizona is bathed in this wonderful yellow glow, softly saturating the picture with warmth and sunlight.  As long as the camera remained relatively still, the picture revealed a crystal focus.  I could see the pores and textures of skin as well as the minutest details of costume fabrics.  The sound was much smoother as well, with more polished variances but just enough roughness to suggest the grit of a gangster flick.  The explosions of gunfire took on a rawness that lent very well to a realistic feel, not the usual cleanliness of a more stylized picture.  I was still bothered by the hand-held movements of the camera in some scenes, such as the woodland battle at Little Bohemia.  The time spent with this jarring movement was minimal, however, and excusable in the larger scheme of the film’s camerawork.

The bottom line: definitely go see this film if you have not already done so.  However, please make sure your choice of theater is equipped for digital — call ahead if you have to.  You will not be sorry.  Public Enemies is one of the finest offerings of the summer box office.