Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Best American Films of 1962

We've reached the end of 2012, so it's high time for me to list my favorite American films from exactly fifty years ago. 1962 was one of the great years in American cinema, remembered by some as the finest since 1939 when works such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach and Gone With the Wind were Hollywood's most celebrated productions. I'll let others argue as to which year was better, but take a look at the films listed below from 1962 - and remember that this is a list of American films from the year, so I'm not including Lawrence of Arabia, the Oscar winner for Best Picture from that year.

1) The Manchurian Candidate - directed by John Frankehheimer - One of two works from Frankenheimer on this list - The Manchurian Candidate, like most great films, stands up to repeated viewings; today the film is as relevant as ever. There are several subplots, each linked to the central theme of brainwashing, as Eleanor Shaw Iselin (brilliantly portrayed by Angela Lansbury) is the American leader of a plot to have her son Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), a Korean war hero, assassinate the leading candidate for President, so her husband, extremist Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) can become leader of the free world and, as one can imagine, lead America down a path of deceit and shame. The brainwashing sequence near the film's beginning where the soldiers have been told they are at a ladies' discussion of gardening, all the while being asked to kill their fellow combatants, is a masterfully directed scene, one that was undeniably chilling in 1962 and still has the power to shock today. A strong message of this film is that the main characters, especially Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra, rarely better) are haunted by their past; given the way that this story plays out, it is clear that they will be haunted for the rest of their lives.

2) To Kill a Mockingbird - directed by Robert Mulligan - One of the most famous and most moving of all American films, Mockingbird is, at its heart, a film about decency, a common theme for Mulligan. The brilliant screenplay, adapted by Horton Foote from Harper Lee's marvelous and wildly successful novel, is a model of efficiency and one filled with emotionally accurate dialogue. While the courtroom sequence in which lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck in his Oscar-winning role) defends an innocent black man accused of raping a white woman in the Deep South of the 1930s is the most well-known in the film, the scene in which Atticus' children come to his rescue as he is being taunted by his fellow citizens for defending a black man, is just as memorable and as beautifully played out. Especially noteworthy in this scene is how Atticus' young daughter Scout (Mary Badham in one of the greatest child performances ever recorded on film) recognizes the father of one of her classmates and asks, "Don't you remember me?... You brought us some hickory nuts one early morning, remember?" It is this sort of emotional detail combined with Mulligan's sensitive direction and Elmer Bernstein's lyrical and heartfelt score that makes this a classic work of Americana.

3) Advise and Consent - directed by Otto Preminger - Otto Preminger's highly entertaining look at the inside workings of Washington, D.C. politics is a reminder of how little things have changed in our culture (with the exception of the politicians of fifty years ago being a little more polite!) The main story line deals with a nominee for Secretary of State named Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda), who is both admired and hated by members of his own party; we follow the process of a congressional hearing and ultimately a Senate vote to learn whether he will be confirmed. Along the way, we marvel at the wonderful characters that populate this story, from the morally strong Majority Leader Robert Munson (Walter Pidgeon) to the cantakerous Seib Cooley, a Southern Democrat who likes to stir the pot to the less than scrupulous Fred Van Acekerman, who is out to see that Leffingwell is confirmed, no matter at what personal harm he may inflict along the way. Following box-office and critical successes with Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Exodus (1960), Preminger at this time was at a high point in his career; here the use of his camera, floating amidst the Senate chamber is something to marvel at, as is his direction of the final vote, both in terms of space and timing. The outstanding script is by Wendell Mayes, based on the best-selling novel from Allen Drury; Sam Leavitt's black and white photography is documentarian in nature and suits this subject beautifully. Superb ensemble acting as Preminger lets the performers have their moments; thankfully, he sees no need to super charge the film with odd or peculiar images, as the material is strong enough.

4) The Days of Wine and Roses - directed by Blake Edwards - Blake Edwards was most famous for his comedies, as with The Pink Panther films, but this drama is arguably his finest work. The story of how an agreeable businessman Joe Clay (Jack Lemmon) falls heads over heels with an attractive secretary Kirsten Arnesen (Lee Remick) and then turns her on to the lure of alcohol is a descent into hell. Both characters are devastated, but while he admits his problem, she does not. The final scene of the two of them together, as Joe tries to reason with Kirsten into returning to his life, is incredibly heartbreaking and this ending was surely one of the most downbeat in American films up to that time. Both performers are brilliant - Remick was never better - and the scene in the plant nursery where Joe frantically searches for a bottle of bourbon he placed somewhere, is unforgettable in its intensity; it's one of the finest moments for both actor and director. Charles Bickford gives a touching performance as Kirsten's father, another in a long line of great portrayals from this highly underrated performer. Some critics have complained that the troubles of the two main characters are somewhat exaggerated; their reasoning seems to be that instead of just becoming drunks, these two are world-class drunks, teetering on the edge of survival. But honestly, if these two individuals were not as affected as they are, would we really care about them? Would the film be as emotionally shattering? I think not.

5) The Miracle Worker - directed by Arthur Penn - Based on the William Gibson play about Anne Sullivan, the woman that taught Helen Keller how to speak and write, this is a highly absorbing film from Arthur Penn, who had sharpened his directorial teeth in television throughout much of the 1950s. Certainly that training explains his powerful staging of the film's most famous scene in which the two principals struggle with each other in a physical battle over table manners; this nine-minute scene is emotionally exhausting to experience. In many other scenes, simple gestures, such as forming an object with one's fingers, are powerful visuals and it's clear that Penn played up the emotional conflict of the two characters, as Keller strongly resists Sullivan's - or anyone's - search to get closer. Both Anne Bancroft as Sullivan and Patty Duke as Keller, repeating their stage performances, won Academy Awards. Penn's identity as a director who specialized in stories about the individual's inner demons was cemented with this film.

6) Birdman of Alcatraz - directed by John Frankenheimer - This story of inmate Robert Stroud and his groundbreaking work with birds during his decades in prison is a gripping and somber film from Frankenheimer, who directs with great ease and assuredness. While we watch first with great joy and then with sheer awe at how Stroud (Burt Lancaster) cares for the birds in his cel, the other storyline of his relationship with warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden) is just as absorbing, as Shoemaker hates the idea of a convicted murderer doing anything but prison time, while Stroud only wants to better his world. Everyone remembers the stunning performance of Lancaster, which is clearly among his finest, yet few recall the outstanding work of Malden, who is called upon as a strong combatant to Lancaster. While this film tends to drag a bit toward the end in the scenes of a prison riot, there are so many powerful and poignant moments - as when Stroud tells his wife that he cannot see her anymore - that carry this film to great heights. The stark black and white photography of Burnett Guffey is stunning, as we are given a bleak world of hopelessness. At its core, Birdman of Alcatraz is a tribute to the human spirit and the quality of never giving up, no matter how great the odds.

7) Freud (aka Freud: The Secret Passion) - directed by John Huston - John Huston specialized in films about characters who embarked on a far away adventure; with Freud, that journey is one that takes place within the human psyche. The film focuses on Freud's work with patients suffering from hysteria; at first he works with a colleague, Joseph Breuer, who believes in Freud's theories, while the second half of the film is about Freud's work on his own, especially his treatment of a young woman named Cecily (Susannah York). It is during conversations with her that Freud pieces together his principles of childhood sexuality and repression; this neatly culminates with him sorting out incidents from his own youth and how he reacted to his parents. This is a film that demands a great deal of attention from the audience; one doubts that today's filmgoers would sit through this sincere treatment of Freud's work. Huston's direction is intense, as he brings out the overt meanings of the various dream sequences in beautiful visuals. An excellent, brooding performance by Montgomery Clift as Freud is among the film's highlights as is the subtle, edgy score from the great Jerry Goldsmith.

8) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance - directed by John Ford - While I don't find this film to be the classic that others do, there is much that I admire about this unusual Western, especially in the duality of its themes of law versus violence. The second half of this film, when attorney Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) slowly introduces basic schooling and the principles of democracy to the small town of Shinbone, where guns were always the previous way of settling an argument, is especially strong. The performances throughout are excellent - I particularly love Edmond O'Brien's larger-than-life take as Dutton Peabody, the town's newspaper editor - and the scene late in the film when Tom Donovan (John Wayne) tells Stoddard, "you didn't kill Liberty Valance..." is one of Wayne's finest moments on screen. The line from the penultimate scene, "this is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," is one of the most famous and devastatingly honest of any American film.

9) Lolita - directed by Stanley Kubrick - It's clear that this version of Vladimir Nabokov novel is not the film that Stanley Kubrick wanted to make - studio censors made certain of that - but this is still a notable work, one filled with great subtleties and marvelous irony. Nabokov adapted his own screenplay and contributed many moments of wonderful dialogue for the four main characters, each of whom is a fascinating, three-dimensional individual. There are some great sexual innuendos - the line about the "cherry pies" being the most famous, but my favorite quote is by Professor Humbert (James Mason) when he tells his wife Charlotte (Shelley Winters), "every game has its rules." It's wonderfully ironic at the time, but that line will carry greater weight as the story proceeds with its numerous encounters. Kubrick's direction is subdued and filled with a sharp eye for the droll humor in numerous sequences; his staging of the scene where Charlotte dances with Humbert in her home is supremely enacted and effortlessly carried out. Though a bit stretched at 152 minutes (the scene with Dr. Zemsh seems like a plot contrivance, while the final explanation of why Lolita left Humbert is rather straightforward in its exposition and not as clever as it should have been), overall, this is a fascinating film. First-rate performances by Mason, Winters (was she ever better?) and Sellers as well as exceptional dreamlike black and white photography by Oswald Morris.

10) Experiment in Terror - directed by Blake Edwards - Like John Frankenheimer, Blake Edwards also had a very successful 1962, most famously with The Days of Wine and Roses (#4, above), but also with this cleverly crafted thriller, which unfortunately is not as well known as it should be. Bank teller Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick) is grabbed by a crazed man named Red Lynch (Ross Martin) late at night in her garage and told she must abscond with $100,000 from the bank and hand it over to him; if she refuses, he will harm her younger sister Toby (Stefanie Powers). Kelly - as well as we the viewer - cannot see this man's face, so the only thing she can tell the FBI agent John Ripley (Glenn Ford) assigned to her case is that the man has asthmatic breathing; indeed we do not see this man's entire face for the first half of the film, adding to the tension. Edwards and his cinematographer Philip Lathrop create a world of light and shadow in which characters move from the relative safety of their brightly lit surroundings into the unknown dangers of the darkness. There is a constant theme of individuals being trapped in a structure, be it a bank teller's desk, a swimming pool (Toby is being watched there, unbeknownst to her) or within one's residence. Set in San Francisco, the opening and closing sequences - a late night drive across the Bay Bridge and a shootout at Candlestick Park - are eerie and beautifully shot. Henry Mancini contributed a wonderfully creepy score; his opening theme is one of the most spine-chilling ever composed for the cinema.

Honorable mention: Cape Fear (dir. J. Lee Thompson); Lonely are the Brave (dir. David Miller)

Friday, December 21, 2012

Actors on their Craft

"Acting is a masochistic form of exhibitionism. It is not quite the occupation of an adult." - Laurence Olivier

"Films were never in my budget. Didn't occur to me until much later. I hoped for a long, good life, which I've had and I'm having as an actor. I didn't expect the rest." - Peter O'Toole

"At least when you're acting, you can be someone. In front of the camera, you have to be yourself. And who am I?" - Stephen Rea

"I was trained to be an actor, not a star. I was trained to play roles, not deal with fame and agents and lawyers and the press." - Gene Hackman

"I decided to become an actor because I was failing in school and I needed the credits." - Dustin Hoffman

"Actors have bodyguards and entourages not because anybody wants to hurt them - who would want to hurt an actor? - but because they want to get recognized. God forbid someone doesn't recognize them." - James Caan

"Acting is not about being someone different. It's finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there." - Meryl Streep

"Nobody ever became an actor because they had a good childhood." - William H. Macy

"Even as far back as 14 when I started acting, I know I've never considered failure." - Jennifer Lawrence

"People say I make strange choices, but they're not strange for me. My sickness is that I'm fascinated by human behavior, by what's under the surface, by the worlds inside people." - Johnny Depp

"I didn't go out looking for negative characters; I went out looking for people who have a struggle and a fight to tackle. That's what interests me." - Philip Seymour Hoffman

"I think that good actors can do any part. It doesn't mean they are the best ones to do it." - Richard Gere

"Acting should be bigger than life. Scripts should be bigger than life. It should all be bigger than life." - Bette Davis

"I think all those actors from that generation, like Bogart - they were wonderful. They didn't act. They just came on and they did it and they were wonderful." - Anthony Hopkins

"To grasp the full significance of life is the actor's duty, to interpret it is his problem and to express it his dedication." - Marlon Brando

"I kept the same suit for six years and the same dialogue. They just changed the title of the picture and the leading lady." - Robert Mitchum

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

An Honest Look at a Tough Situation

Often the best way to tell a story is honestly and simply. That's the mode in the new documentary Burn, which has opened on a few screens across the country and premieres in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Sterling Heights, MI and Livonia, MI on December 7. This look at the situation of how the fire department in Detroit must deal with any number of crises is sincere in the way it shows this world, serious while never getting overly emotional.

The film deals with one specific crew, that of Engine Company 50, situated in Detroit's impoverished East Side. We are told in the first few minutes of the film that Detroit has more fires that any other city in America; sadly a good number of these fires are set by the city's residents. One fire fighter notes the various ways that individuals do this damage. "There's arson for profit, arson for revenge and arson for kicks."

Other fireman tell of the everyday mess they face in their area. "There are areas that look like bombs have hit" says one fireman; another talks of certain parts of the city looking like "Katrina without the hurricane."

The job of this crew is tough enough - we are given several excellent sequences in which the film crew manages to show us the dangers of their work from only a few feet away - but add to that the fact that the city's budget for the fire department has been squeezed dry. The film makers are smart enough not to hit us over the head with the financial problems in Detroit at the current moment - we know that the automobile industry there is struggling - so we can easily understand it when we are told that there just isn't the money from City Hall to fix aging fire rigs. So the firefighters are working with one hand tied behind their back.

Still, most of them wouldn't trade their lot in life with anyone, as they love what they do. They talk of the brotherhood of the crew, who spend 24 hours a day several times a week with each other. "We're like cowboys in a rodeo," one fireman comments.

One of the subplots of the film deals with a new fire commissioner, a native Detroiter who moved to Los Angeles and performed similar duties in that city. His immediate goal of course, is to trim expenses as well as try and acquire more money for everyday business. One of the ways he aims to do this is a controversial method of letting fires at vacant structures burn out. We're told that there are 80,000 of these structures in Detroit and while the mayor has plans to raze a number of these, there are still tens of thousands of these facilities remaining and the fire crew have to answer the call when they are ablaze.

The new edict seems to make sense - why endanger fire fighters' lives for a vacant building? - but as several crew members point out, you never know if there's someone in that building at any given moment. Indeed we see one fire where that is exactly the situation. Thus the station's crew chief and the commissioner are at odds.

It's a story line like this, where we see that things are not black and white, that help give Burn some added complexity. But to me the best thing about this documentary is the way that co-producers and directors Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez honestly deal with their subject. They don't treat the fire crew as heroes, as it too often done these days in television and in the theater. Rather they show them as hard working individuals with a job to do. It's a tough job and we see that in images - we're not pounded over the head with cheap talk. The film never gets overly emotional about its subject, rather it gives us a realistic view of what the world of a Detroit firefighter is all about.

The film is beautifully photographed - kudos to cinematographers Mark Eaton, Nicola Marsh and Matt Pappas - and is briskly paced. This is an engaging, well organized documentary that is a model for how a film like this should be made. Tell us the story, don't wrap it in some sort of fantasy world. By making the fire fighters into real people and not heroes (I'm sure that most fire fighters resent being called heroes), we the audience connect on a more direct level with these individuals. That helps give Burn the proper reality the filmmakers sought to achieve.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Political Wheeling and Dealing - Preminger Style

Fifty years ago, Otto Preminger treated us to his look at the inside world of Washington, D.C. politics in his mesmerizing version of Advise and Consent. Based upon the wildly successful novel of Allen Drury, Preminger's film remains today one of the most accomplished studies of the inner workings of American politics at the highest level. Varying between numerous narrative tones, from the reality of a congressional hearing to the melodramatics of a senator's homosexual affair from several years in the past, the director assembles all of this material in a highly entertaining film that refuses to take the easy way out.

That should come as no surprise to anyone who admires the work of Preminger, who in 1962 was at the height of his fame as well as directorial powers, fresh off the triumphs of Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Exodus (1960). While the latter film was a beautifully balanced look at the struggles of a group of individuals surrounding the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, it is the former work that in my mind is Preminger's finest film; a courtroom drama that leaves us with the ending that we, the audience, wanted to see, yet one that left us wondering if justice had indeed been served.

Preminger enjoyed great critical and box-office success with his film adaptations of the blockbuster novels Anatomy and Exodus, so it was no surprise that he continued in this vein for Advise and Consent, which was a publishing phenomenon upon its release in 1959, as author Drury composed a work that was not only an enthralling look at the everyday deeds of our politicians in Washington, D.C (with the emphasis on the Senate); it also became a bit of an enjoyable pursuit, as the reader could imagine the exact senator Drury was writing about. The author was diligent in not naming which senator belonged to which party; this was a smart move, as there were likable as well as less than upright senators on both sides of the aisle in this work. Of course, while there have always been philosophical differences between the Democrats and Republicans, the venom that is spewed forth these days was not so typical in the late 1950s and early '60s.

The device that sets this story in place is a simple one; Robert A. Leffingwell (Henry Fonda), a former head of the Federal Power Commission and now, as this tale begins, the individual in charge of the office of Defense Mobilization, has been nominated by the President (Franchot Tone, in one of the more subuded, self-deflating portrayals of a US president ever put on film) for the job of Secretary of State. We learn of this news in the very first shot, as we see a newsboy holding the morning edition of the local Washington paper with a headline announcing this development (more on newspapers and communication from the early 1960s later in this post).

Senators Seabright Cooley and Robert Munson

We soon meet two of the major protagonists of this tale: Senators Robert Munson (Walter Pidgeon), who is the senior senator of Michigan and also the Majority Leader and Seab (Seabright) Cooley (Charles Laughton), senior senator and self-admitted "curmudgeon" from South Carolina. Munson is a staunch supporter of the President who will do everything in his power to see that Leffingwell is approved. Cooley on the other hand, vehemently opposes Leffingwell and will make speech after speech criticizing the nominee's stand on foreign affairs, claiming he is soft on the threat of communism. Given the political environment in 1962 when this film was released - the Cold War posturing of the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union - this was more than an idle concern. (As a point of reference, this film premiered in June, 1962, only a few months before the Cuban Missile crisis in October of that year).

We are told upfront that these two senators are from the same party, which of course, adds a great deal of inner friction and tension to the proceedings. It also makes for some highly entertaining scenes between the two with some great exchanges (the first-rate screenplay was adapted by Wendell Mayes, who performed a similarly brilliant job on Anatomy of a Murder). After the first session of the committee hearing with Leffingwell is finished, Munson tells Cooley that he has enough votes lined up to see that the nominee will win approval; he asks him, "What do you think of that, you old buzzard?" Cooley's response is wonderful; "Us old buzzards can see a mouse dying from 10,000 feet up. Us old buzzards have the sharpest eyes in creation. Right now, I'm studying the terrain."

The approval hearing is the centerpiece of this film and these sequences are masterfully directed by Preminger, who uses a documentary approach in this section. I love how he gives us a two-shot of Leffingwell and the stenographer; most directors would have given us close-ups of the nominee, probably sweating a bit, perhaps squirming in his seat. That might have been fine, but it would have been a bit clichéd; with this image, the documentary impact - the witness answering questions while the stenographer records his answers - is strengthened. It's the objective approach that is a trademark of Preminger - we aren't given closeups of Leffingwell except for a couple of key answers, so we're not force fed how important his words are; combine that with the minimalist performance of Fonda and you've got the proper emotions that are called for in the scene. I've always admired Preminger for this directorial philosophy and it's in evidence in several other part of the film as well.

Another key element in the scenes of the committee hearing is the outstanding work turned in by Director of Photography Sam Leavitt. The cinematographer did a marvelous job lighting this interior, as we are given vividly sharp black and white images that also have a good deal of grey to them. This is in keeping with the message of this hearing, especially when a small-time clerk named Herbert Gelman (brilliantly portrayed in a nervous, barely audible manner by Burgess Meredith) announces that he knew Leffingwell years earlier when he was a student in one of Leffingwell's classes. Leffingwell says he did not know Gelman when his name is first brought up in the hearing; later on, he states that he did know him. The witness is taking the time-honored approach that hundreds, if not thousands of individuals in his position also took during their cross-examination - admit to nothing. Thus the facts and the accusations - Gelman claims that Leffingwell is a Communist - are not black and white, but interspersed with a lot of grey. (Note: it is a shame that the luster of Leavitt's photography is not evident in these photos, as his work is particularly luminous in these scenes. Do watch the DVD to appreciate the full visual appeal of this film.)

There are numerous twists and turns in this story, as a particularly cunning senator from Wyoming by the name of Fred Van Ackerman (George Grizzard) is out to discredit the committee chairman, Senator Brigham Anderson from Utah (Don Murray), whom he believes is against Leffingwell's approval. I won't go into the details of this subplot, but the consequences play out in the final 15-minute sequence in the Senate chambers, which is supremely directed, written, edited and acted. Preminger uses his crane-mounted camera to swoop in and out of this room, as we see the inner chaos of the final act come to a resolution, as Munson has asked the Senate to advise and consent to the nomination of Leffingwell. There are speeches given, protests raised, a call for yeas and nays on this issue and finally, a taking of the vote. We are given information a little bit at a time, as we learn that the vote is almost even or perhaps one or two in favor of approval; if there is a tie, the vice-president (Lew Ayres) has the tie-breaking vote and will almost assuredly support the nominee and thus his president.

The vice president (Lew Ayres) overseeing the Senate chamber

This sequence is a great finale to this film as we are thrust into the real time of a Senate confrontation. Will the nominee be approved? Will any senators change their mind due to events that took place earlier in the film regarding Senator Anderson who is being blackmailed? This is highly entertaining stuff and it's even more memorable, given the ending we don't expect.

One additional thing worth noting is the ensemble acting of the veteran performers that Preminger assembled for this performance. The director knew that if he wanted a box-office hit when filming a blockbuster (Preminger was a shrewd producer as well as director; his films never ran over budget), he needed to have stars up on the screen that the public not only wanted to see, but also in this case, ones that could be honestly believed in their performances. Of the stellar cast, Henry Fonda was far and away the top star at the time and his brief portrayal of Leffingwell is another throughly professional job from this great actor. Professional is also the word for the performance of Walter Pidgeon, who is the glue that holds this scenario together as the even-tempered Majority Leader.

Then there are the superb supporting performances of Lew Ayres as the vice president (rarely as good as in this role), veteran Franchot Tone as the President, George Grizzard as Senator Van Ackerman, Don Murray as Sen. Anderson and Burgess Meredith as Gelman. Each performance is first-rate and clearly any one of these actors could have been nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor. The fact that none of them were - in fact, the film did not receive a single Oscar nomination - is a shame and a bit of an outrage, based partly on the fact that 1962 was a particularly strong year for cinema with the releases of such works as To Kill A Mockingbird, Lawrence of Arabia, The Manchurian CandidateBirdman of Alcatraz, The Miracle Worker and The Days of Wine and Roses among others. Yet one wonders if Preminger's reputation as a tyrannical director had left Academy voters out in the cold. Regardless, the number of accomplished performances in this film is highly notable.

Of course, watching the legendary Charles Laughton dominate the scenery here (as he did so often in his career) is a treat unto itself. Moving his hefty frame across the screen (even standing up and sitting down in his chair in the Senate chamber is an effort), Laughton is having the time of his life as Senator Cooley, a proud, cantankerous fellow whose bark is usually worse than his bite. I love the way he carries himself during the opening of the hearing, interrupting questioning and then making speeches designed to have those in attendance admire him more than the nominee. At times jovial and at times brooding, Laughton is his last film role is brilliant.

Watching this film some 50 years later is a fascinating experience, not only as the film holds up beautifully, but also because of the difference in technology today versus 1962. Thus we watch events in real time, as a Senator has to call someone from his office or hotel room to gain the latest news; he couldn't just take out his cel phone and get in touch on the spot. Newspapers and not electronic media were the main sources for information, so one's opinions were largely based on what a reporter wrote for the public to read the following day. This allows more complexities in the story line and more doubt to creep in among the characters, as everything is not decided in an instant. Preminger lets the action play out in a slightly charged atmosphere; this is a bit of a potboiler, especially in the final sequence, but it's remarkable in its look at both the rules as well as the wrong doings of the game, the game being politics, the biggest in the town of Washington, D.C.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Perilous Threads

In Argo, the latest film from director Ben Affleck, the lives of six people are literally defined by pieces of paper. These include fake passports, disembarcation cards, phony resumés and most hauntingly, scraps of shredded paper. It is this fragile balance that gives this true story its power and immediacy, as we watch this knowing that any of these six people could be our co-workers, friends or even ourselves. More than a recreation of an historical event, Argo asks the viewer to understand how so many things had to go right for these people to survive; government agencies may have power to take action, but in the final analysis, those logistics depend on brave people carrying them out.

Argo is based upon the famous incident in November, 1979 when more than fifty employees of the American embassy in Tehran, Iran were captured and taken as hostage. The people responsible for this act did so as a form of protest regarding the United States offering asylum to the Shah of Iran, who had been recently overthrown. President Jimmy Carter, seeing that the Shah was in poor health, allowed him to come to American to spend his final days.

Affleck begins the film with a brief history of Iran - shown as comic book frames - starting from centuries prior all the way up to the point in 1979 when the Ayatollah Khomeini took charge of his country. The film immediately puts us in harm's way, as we are there at the embassy grounds seeing how the everyday business of granting visas is juxtaposed with the angry mob storming the gates, desperate to get in and create a scene. They succeed in breaking down the barriers and entering the building at various positions and while the embassy troops do what they can to fight off the mob with tear gas, they are hopelessly outnumbered; the employees are taken as hostage.

Amidst this chaos, six employees escape via a side entrance and hurry along local streets, fearing for their safety. They quickly come upon the residence of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), who lets them into his home. As long as they stay in his house, they are safe - or at least until the Iranian police squads can find them.

The Central Intelligence Agency immediately learns of these six and realizes they must be rescued before they are discovered, but how? One of the most powerful agents at the Virginia headquarters calls in Tony Mendez (Affleck in full beard), an "exfiltration" agent who had successfully led previous rescue missions overseas. Mendez explains the risks involved to the agency heads, but can't come up with a plan until he is inspired by a science fiction movie he watches on tv. His solution? He will create new identities for these six, who will now become employees of a film production company from Canada who are in Iran to shoot a futuristic epic.

While the agency bosses are initially leery of such a plan ("Don't you have a better bad idea?," asks one of the agents), Mendez eventually convinces them that this is their only alternative. Of course, to convince anyone that the six "Canadians" are truly there to make a movie, he has to create one. He meets with John Chambers (John Goodman), an Oscar-winning makeup artist as well as a former CIA agent and down and out producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, who is hilarious) to come up with the film, screenplay and production company. Their choice is a ridiculous Star Wars-inspired adventure entitled Argo, which everyone admits will be a pretty cheesy film.

The three of them do their job brilliantly, even convincing Variety, the Hollywood show-biz Bible, to run a story about the film's upcoming production. One of the best sequences in the movie is a read through of the script at a lavish party, as the film's performers, garbed in ridiculously absurd costumes, act out their parts. Just to remind us how phony this world is, Affleck then intercuts to a scene of the captured hostages being hooded and led to the embassy basement where they face Iranian soldiers who fire their empty weapons at them - just to see the fear in the Americans. It's a brief, but chilling moment that displays the insanity - or absurdity, if you will - of this entire situation.

Affleck does an excellent job presenting this various layers of this story; things start to get quite tense once his character arrives in Iran and meets with the six in their hideout. A few are reluctant to go along with this plan, fearing it will be instant suicide, but eventually they realize they must act as a team. The scene where Mendez takes them through the streets of Tehran, as they are supposedly scouting possible locations for their film, is beautifully directed by Affleck, as we see the anxiety on the faces and in the body language of these six; there's a nice piece of business when Mendez has to tell one of them that he's looking through the wrong end of a viewfinder. As they walk along a busy avenue amidst a huge throng of locals carrying on their everyday business, they cannot help but feel they are being watched; this sequence is nicely staged and directed with just the right feel.

In his two previous directorial efforts, Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010), Affleck displayed impressive talent, especially in terms of atmosphere as well as timing; he presented the action in these films in a manner that was not rushed, letting his actors have their moments. His cutting was quite notable on the latter film, especially in the opening and closing robbery scenes. Now with Argo, Affleck does an even better job with cross cutting, especially toward the end of the film where we go back and forth between the plight of the six at the airport as they wait upon customs and security to let them board their flight and C.I.A. headquarters where split second decisions must be made by a few agents if this mission is to succeed. This is a classically structured sequence, as we're on the edge of our seat waiting to learn the protagonists's plight. One can finally take a deep breath once this action is played out.

With Argo, Affleck has taken his next step as a director, capturing the power of images. I wrote at the start of this post about pieces of paper being a literal factor in the lives of the six. The most unforgettable image in this film is that of Iranian children huddled in a room assembling shredded documents that when assembled properly will identify these escapees; the fact that the Iranians could go to such lengths is a sign of the ruthlessness in which they went about their deeds. These long, thin pieces of paper are flimsy, yet also very powerful when fit together. Contrast that with the story boards of the phony film that Affleck carries with him to convince the Iranians that his production company will make their fantasy/adventure film and you realize how people's lives can be saved or destroyed by a mere document. It's a chilling message.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Failing Grade

Like most people, I believe that teachers are wonderful people. They are entrusted with the weighty responsibility of shaping the minds of our young children. Bur for this vital job, they are paid poorly.

So when I learned of a documentary called American Teacher about this topic, I was quite interested in seeing what sort of insight the filmmakers would bring forth. Sad to say, after watching this film, there isn't much one learns about this subject that I didn't express in my first paragraph.

The less said about this film, the better, as it's a tremendous disappointment. The problem here is that director Vanessa Roth (who won an Academy Award for Best Short Documentary as producer of the 2007 film Freeheld) treats this much like a CNN report; to me, this barely had enough insight to merit that comparison. We are given glimpses into the lives of four teachers across the country and they're mildly interesting, but again, they don't tell us anything new or even remotely fascinating.

Another big strike against this film is the dreadful musical score by Thao Nguyen. This is wall-to-wall music - if you can call it that. It isn't very melodic nor does it even remotely highlight what's happening onscreen. (I'd certainly hate to listen to this noise on its own). The score is another example of how music can ruin a film. Can't we simply listen to a teacher tell us his or her story without music, especially when that music is inappropriate? I realize that this might not be of concern to a good number of viewers, but this score drove me up the wall and lowered my opinion of the film even more (the composition that accompanies the end titles is particularly nauseating).

Matt Damon narrates the film and toward the end, he talks about comparisons between countries such as Finland, Singapore and South Korea - the three leading nations in terms of math, science and reading scores - and the United States. We learn that teaching is an honored profession in these lands and that most people there look upon teaching as a life-long occupation; this as opposed to the United States, where many teachers look upon their role in the classroom as merely a stepping stone to another position. This short section is valuable and gives us some insight as to what this film should have been.

Near the end of the film, we get the usual shots of talking heads mouthing clichés such as the "amazing dedication" teachers have or how there is a "compelling public interest" for the best education for our children. As I said, this is low rent CNN stuff that tells us nothing.

What a waste of time. I give American Teachers a failing grade.

American Teachers will be shown on Documentary Channel on Saturday, Sep. 1 at 8:00 PM EDT.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Jerry Lewis Marathon

Something tells me that if I were to host a Jerry Lewis blogathon, I wouldn't receive too many entries. I'll leave you to figure out the reasons why - after you stop laughing, that is.

So no blogathon on the brilliance of Mr. Lewis' directorial expertise - or his moving subtle performances - but I was intrigued to see that Antenna TV - one of the numerous television stations that show old tv shows and movies - will be featuring a Jerry Lewis marathon on Labor Day (I wonder how they came up with that date?). Four of Lewis' films will be shown; two that he directed and starred in: Three on a Couch (1966) and The Big Mouth (1967) and two, in which he starred but did not direct: Don't Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (1968, directed by Jerry Paris) and Hook, Line and Sinker (1969, George Marshall).

I've actually seen three of these films previously and I have to tell you that I was prepared for the worst. There are some dreadful moments, but overall they're not that bad and I have to admit I enjoyed certain moments quite a bit. When you consider the stupidity of so many films over the past two decades that were quick vehicles for sitcom or Saturday Night Live performers, well, these Lewis films don't look so bad.

So you now know what I'll be doing on Labor Day (what does that say about my life?). I'll review the films soon afterwards. Seriously.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Working in Hell

"What was really frightening is that the soldiers I was with were quite clearly scared. They'd never been under fire before. I realized that I had been under fire more than any of these soldiers." 
Christina Lamb, foreign correspondent, Sunday Times, London

I will say this as simply as I can - Under Fire: Journalists in Combat is a brilliant documentary, a film that gives us remarkable insight into the individuals that deal with war on an everyday basis and how they deal with it during and after the atrocities. It is a film that anyone who needs to understand what is going on in the world needs to see.

What makes this work so special is the ease in which director Martyn Burke organizes this film, basically interviews with about a dozen journalists - reporters, videographers and still photographers - who have covered wars around the world over the past twenty or so years. Burke films these individuals against a simple black background, opting at times to display video or photographs behind the reporters, underlining their tales. 

As we listen to these journalists speak of their experiences, we are mesmerized by the intensity of their lives during their time spent in combat. Director Burke realizes there's no need to interview family members or anyone else here, as the stories told by these reporters are what make this such an absorbing film experience. In fact the only person we view in this documentary who is not a combat reporter is a psychiatrist, Dr. Anthony Feinstein, the producer of the film, who helps these individuals deal with their reactions to the madness they witness.

The remembrances of these men (Ms. Lamb is only one woman reporter that is interviewed) are chilling. Jon Steele, a videographer from ITN in London, speaks of the high he gets during his work in combat. "You're never feel as alive as when you're staring death in the face." He adds that war journalists are like "prophets of death and suffering. Like most prophets, we don't end up that well."

Ian Stewart, a reporter from the Associated Press, recalls the incident in which a bullet entered his brain (we also see the x-ray); he is still alive to talk about that moment, while his driver was killed. Several journalists in this film discuss particular incidents in which children or fellow reporters were killed, simply because they stopped in the wrong place for just a split second. The surviving reporters admit feeling a sense of responsibility for these deaths.

A section of the film deals with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition that almost all of these journalists endure upon their return. Several tell us that they cannot embrace their spouses as they need to be by themselves; alienation is a common symptom of PTSD. Other speak of nightmares they experience, although Chris Hedges, formerly a reporter for the New York Times says that these moments "are not nightmares. They're a revisitation of trauma - much worse than a nightmare."

Burke ends the film with a lengthy reminiscence by Canadian photojournalist Paul Watson, who has worked for the Los Angeles Times and the Toronto Star. He recalls the story of how he took a photo of one of the most brutal incidents of the war in Somalia in 1993, when the mostly naked body of a dead American soldier was being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. The photo earned Watson a Pulitzer Prize in 1994, but it has haunted him ever since, as he believes he had something to do with the desecration of this solider, an action (the desecration of a corpse) that he believes is as evil a thing that any human can do. He tells us how he tried to reach the mother of this soldier soon after the photo was published and the consequences of that experience. He explains why he had to take that photo (I will not give this detail away), but admits that he has never quite gotten over that day. "I don't feel like I'm a good person anymore," he frankly states. 

Early in the film, titles tell us that only two journalists were killed covering World War I, but that over the past two decades, almost 900 reporters and cameramen have died while in combat. The success of this film is that director Burke sits back and lets these people tell their stories simply and matter of factly; there's no embellishing needed to make this work. That these reporters would take the time to relive these horrific experiences in their lives is a testament to their inner strength.

Under Fire: Journalists in Combat will be shown on Documentary Channel at 8:00 PM EDT on Saturday, August 11.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Wild - and Exuberating - Ride from Oliver Stone

Savages is the movie that Oliver Stone has been trying to make for many years. Never afraid of controversy, Stone has tackled a variety of contentious subjects in his films ranging from political deception (JFK, Nixon) to combat (Platoon, Born of the Fourth of July) to mass murder (Natural Born Killers) to financial greed (Wall Street, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps). He's always attracted attention but his results have been mixed; I loved Nixon and JFK, liked Wall Street very much, but hated Natural Born Killers. But with Savages, the director has given us a film that is textbook Stone in its grab-you-by-the-throat style of filmmaking that works brilliantly. This is unquestionably one of his finest efforts.

Based on the 2010 Don Winslow novel of the same name (Winslow co-wrote the screenplay with Shane Salerno and Stone), Savages is a disturbing, thrilling tale, a look at the workings of the drug cultures in both California and Mexico. Illegal activities on both sides ensure that the characters - even the ones that appear normal - are savages to some degree, more or less. At various times in the film, a character representing a particular group in the story calls one or more of the opposition a savage (or savages). This common thread unites all of the major players in this grim, violent tale and leaves us with a world that is sordid and filled with many unanswered questions. Given the issues raised in this film, this is how it should be.

On one side, we have three characters who represent the freedom and bliss (if you can call it that) of the drug world of California. Here, Chon (Taylor Kitsch) is the brains behind the outfit, the man who has developed some of the world's finest cannabis. Yes, he makes money off this stuff - tens of millions of dollars - but he puts much of that into helping underdeveloped nations with educational aides. His activity may be illegal, but he has our sympathies and we root for him.

His friend Ben (Aaron Johnson) is the brawn of the outfit, a former combat soldier who uses whatever force he needs to collect debts from drug dealers. His easy good looks notwithstanding, he is a wild tiger ready to pounce on his unsuspecting subjects.

Both Chon and Ben are in love with the same woman, O (short for Ophelia) portrayed by Blake Lively, who feeds off the dual energy of these two. O narrates the story and in one brilliant line, tells us the difference in the approach of the two. "Chon gives me orgasms. Ben give me wargasms." Clearly, O, who loves strolling on the beach and heading to the mall for the latest fashions, craves the yin and yang of this relationship that is the most meaningful thing in her life.

Representing the opposing side in this story are the members of a Mexican drug cartel, the two most powerful being Lado (Benicio del Toro) and his boss, Elena (Selma Hayek), who directs her minions from a distance, watching her players acting out her commands as she gets her thrills watching on a live stream on her computer or closed circuit television. Her love of expensive things (furnishings, horses, jewelry) stands as an ironic contrast to the unspeakable horrors that seem to satisfy her. Her character is the most complex in the film and Hayek's portrayals is among the very best in a collection of fine performances.

Rather than go into all the twists and turns in this story (especially during the last fifteen minutes), I'd rather deal with the look and feel of this film. The cinematography by Daniel Mindel is mainly high key and quite bright, representing the beauty and "good life" of California, all the while making an ironic statement on the glamor of the Southern California seaside where the film originates. Stone's direction is well, frantic to some degree, but it is a controlled madness, as combines his use of different visual looks with imaginative cross cutting (one of the editors is Joe Hutshing, who has performed these chores for Stone on six of the director's previous films, having won two Oscars in the process) to ratchet up the nervous energy of this film. The story is constantly transferring back and forth between countries and characters and Stone displays the same energy here as he did back in 1991 for JFK. As I wrote in the title for this post, it's a wild ride and it's a highly watchable, entertaining film. Stone has been quoted as saying this film is a little bit like a Western and he's right - we root for the bad guys and root against the bad guys.

Except that if this a morality play, the morals here are pretty loose. Are Ben and Chon really good guys? Ben's violent nature moves him to shockingly injure Dennis (John Travolta in a wonderfully disarming performance), the DEA agent who is seemingly their only hope to rescuing O, who has been kidnapped by the drug cartel. Even Chon, who is the peaceful half of the duo, will perform an act during the film that links him to murder.

As for Lado, the evil soul that directly oversees the killings that are routine for his fellow businessmen, while he has no problem shooting someone, he takes time to pause and wonder what he has to do to please Elena, as he confesses in a scene with Dennis. This scene, more than halfway into the film, is a key moment, as we learn that Dennis is not exactly playing it straight. Early on, it is revealed that he is turning his eye away from Chon and Ben's illegal activities, so we know that his actions are tainted, but when he encounters Lado, we understand that Dennis is not acting as a professional, but simply as an individual who knows what side (or sides) of his toast to butter.

Even Elena has a few moments in which to enrouse our sympathies, particularly when she talks with O at a dinner at her hidden retreat in California (she has ceded to O's wishes for some normal food during her time as a captive). This encounter, however, is more than a nice gesture on Elena's part; it is a need for her to talk to another woman, as she deals almost exclusively with testosterone-fueled madmen (this an interesting comparison with O, who has sex with two young, libido-driven men).

Elena confesses her love for her two remaining children, a son and daughter, as her other children were violently murdered, no doubt due to her vicious business practices. She communicates several times during the film with her early 20s daughter Magda (Sandra Echeverria), who wants no part of her mother's life. As she tells O of her loneliness, we sense at least some sense of decency on her part, but we are then shocked as in closeup, she tells O, "Let me remind you that if I had to, I wouldn't have a problem cutting both their throats." Stone immediately cuts to a long shot of Elena and O at this glamorous dinner under the stars as Elena asks the servant to serve the pastry course. It's a chilling moment and this scene is one of the best written, photographed, edited and directed in the film.

"It's been a great ride, " Ben tells Chon late in the film, as they head toward a final encounter with the cartel. "I enjoyed it." That pretty much sums up my thoughts watching this film, one of Oliver Stone's most entertaining to date. It is a film that dares us to watch some horrible and immoral actions by numerous characters and leaves us wondering who among us is not a savage, as least to some degree?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Who is this Batman you speak of?

Gary Oldman

Last night I watched Gary Oldman on the Jimmy Kimmel show. I knew I'd be in for a great time, as he is an engaging and very funny individual. It's nice to see such an accomplished actor have some fun and for Gary, it seems very natural. He was introduced during Kimmel's monologue in which he read an excerpt from R. Kelly's new book (a masterpiece, I'm sure); Oldman put as much effort into his role as narrator of this text as he would have if he were performing in one of Shakespeare's tragedies.

As for the interview with Kimmel, Oldman was there to talk about his new film, The Dark Knight Rises, in which he portrays Commissioner Gordon. This is the latest effort in the hugely successful Batman series, directed with great flair and gusto by Christopher Nolan.

The best part of Oldman's interview was his story about the script. He related the story of the first time he saw it; he received a phone call at his home in England from a studio representative, just to make sure he was home. Then when the rep showed up at his door, Oldman recalled that he was given the script much in the manner of being served a summons to appear in court.

He also recalled an incident in Pittsburgh, where part of the filming took place. He said that he forgot where he put the script in his hotel room and had a cold sweat for about thirty minutes until he could finally locate it. He mentioned that each copy of the script has a serial number as well as a personal watermark. He added that the script is on red paper, so it can't be copied.

Oldman then mentioned that the same thing was done for the Harry Potter script. He got off the best line of the night, when he wondered why these precautions were put in place for a Harry Potter screenplay. "Everyone's read the book!"

This got me to thinking about the attention paid by the studio about the latest Batman script. This is obviously a huge production and the writers certainly don't want anyone stealing it. Given all the hackers and mischievous characters out there, I can't say I blame them. If the script was stolen, anyone could post the thing on a website; there's enough intellectual property that is out there in the public domain and I certainly sympathize to some degree with writers, composers and others about this situation.

But really, this is a script for a Batman movie. No offense to Nolan and the others that developed the story and screenplay, but people are going to see this film for its action scenes, pure and simple. This isn't Chinatown or Wall Street, movies that had a beautifully crafted screenplay at their core, this is a film where the movement on the screen, the costumes, sets, photography and editing are what will excite people. That's not to say there won't be some good lines in there - in fact, I'm sure this will be a clever script, but come on.

I wonder what independent filmmakers who write their own scripts think about the seriousness of protecting a script such as this. The mind boggles.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Ernest Borgnine, 1917-2012

(Los Angeles Times photo)

Ernest Borgnine, who passed away Sunday at the age of 95, was an Academy Award-winning actor who was too often overlooked by critics who wrote about the great movie stars; indeed, his Oscar (for Marty in 1955) seems to be a footnote or point of trivia for many. Yet Borgnine had his own flair on-screen, one that should be recalled.

There are several factors why Borgnine is not generally thought of as one of Hollywood's great icons. Undoubtedly one of the reasons was his physical appearance, as he was not blessed with typical movie star good looks. Another notion may have been the fact that his acting style was not the subtle approach taken by such celebrated performers as James Stewart or Henry Fonda. Perhaps his credibility as a serious actor took a hit due to his years of appearing on television in McHale's Navy. Or the reason could be as simple as time, as many of today's critics and film bloggers weren't even born when Borgnine was at the height of his career.

I will admit to not liking his performances in some films; he seemed to be a bit of a caricature in his role as Trucker Cobb in The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), a film with several wonderful ensemble performances. Yet his rugged physical appearance and deep, often threatening voice certainly added instant credibility to his roles as Fatso in From Here to Eternity (1953) and Dutch Engstrom in The Wild Bunch (1969). You just didn't want to mess with his characters in these pictures!

Then there was his sensitive side, most famously represented by his portrayal of Marty Piletti in Marty; this is the role that he is most remembered for. But another lovely performance he delivered was for a segment of the collaborative film September 11 (2002), a world wide study of what that terrible day in 2001 meant to filmmakers around the world. Borgnine portrayed an elderly widower (the actor was 85 years old at that time) who lived in a small apartment in New York City; his devotion to his late wife, seen in his arranging of flowers for her or laying out her dresses on her bed, is quite touching. Sean Penn directed this short and he was able to get Borgnine to deliver a performance of wonderful humility and heartbreak. It's a side of Borgnine few had seen until then and it's a lovely acting job.

So while there will not be as many loving tributes to Borgnine as there have been for more iconic actors, we should at least remember that here was a movie star who worked for more than 60 years in the cinema, right up until the end of his life. He left us with a number of memorable performances, which is more than enough reason to remember his career.