Monday, January 13, 2014

365 Movies A Year - January 5 through 7

A quick recap:

Jan. 5 - Looking for Richard (1996), directed by Al Pacino. This documentary follows Al Pacino, along with his hilarious colleague Frederic Kimball, who, over the course of several years, attempts a sort of quasi-dramatization of Shakespeare's Richard III, all while filming behind the scenes of the production, and his efforts to get at the heart of Shakespeare's words, and make them palatable to a modern audience. Amusing, intellectually engaging, and a great excuse to break out your dusty old "Collected Works of Shakespeare."

More than anything, this made me want to see a full length, big budget of Richard III starring Pacino and his assembled actors. The staging of the murder scene between Alec Baldwin (as George, Duke of Clarence) and the two actors playing the men sent to kill him is better than the equivalent scenes in the Olivier and McKellen/Loncraine versions, and Pacino looks like he could rival both Englishman for his portrayal of the skulking, scheming hunchbacked monarch -- with his macho, Tony Montana-esque aggressive Richard, who bears his open, hairy chest to a young Winona Ryder as Lady Anne, standing as a nice comparison to Olivier's fey plotter and McKellen's self-amused crook.

Jan. 6 - 5 Against the House (1955), directed by Phil Karlson. An interesting film noir from the tail-end of the original cycle. A group of college students hatch upon a plan to take a Reno casino's nightly earnings for themselves; things, as they say, do not quite go as planned. Interesting tone here: begins rather comedic, seeming almost like a 1950s Hangover-style romp, gradually gets darker and more dramatic until a finale that is both unintentionally (or perhaps intentionally?) absurd and strangely sentimental and happy for a noir. Brian Keith, as a Korean War hero using the G.I. Bill to attend a midwestern university actually named Midwestern University, gives the film's best, most realized performance by playing a man who is simultaneous angered from being left out of the post-war prosperity he thought he was promised, as well as feeling nostalgic for the thrilling rush of war.

On a mostly irrelevant note, Keith, who was about 33 during filming, looks old as shit, pardon my crudity. And this isn't just a "people looked older back then" issue: he genuinely looks 50. He's only a few months older than his co-star Guy Madison -- and yet when Madison's character, early on in the film, jokes that Keith is his father, I actually believed him for a moment.                                                                                                                                                     Anyways, like I mentioned above, there are some very odd touches to this film. Comedy runs pretty rampant for the first half hour or so, and not just any comedy, but midcentury campus comedy, one of the most specific and dated brands of comedy there is. Future Green Acres player Alvy Moore is one of Keith and Madison's roommates, and basically is doing a nightclub comedy routine for the duration of the film, even looking straight at the camera to deliver a joke at one point.

The film's bizarre climax is Keith and his cohorts, dressed in false prospector beards and cheap cowboy costumes, robbing the casino by convincing a guard that there is an armed, disgruntled dwarf crouching inside of a cart that actually contains a pre-taped recording. Did western stalwart Karlson grow tired of the modern trappings and decide to do a full-on "showdown in the desert" for the finale? I honestly couldn't say. It really must be seen to be believed.

Jan. 7 - Shoot the Piano Player (1960), directed by Francois Truffaut.

One of the reasons I started this project was to get caught up on the agreed-upon world classics that I remain woefully behind on. This, I am both proud and somewhat ashamed to say, is one of them. One of the things that makes this film somewhat difficult to write about is that it is, in my eyes, a willfully loose and disorganized film, a film that has no wish to present a unified whole or a fully coherent overarching message. And that's it's greatest strength! So many colorful shadings, so many interesting dead ends and detours. From the bouncing ball 'translating' a barroom singer's drunkenly delivered singalong, to an actual cutaway showing someone's mother dropping dead when a liar says "Or may my mother drop dead," this film is as replete with fun diversions and clever shakings-up of the cinematic form as Godard's near contemporaneous Band of Outsiders.

Truffaut's use of voiceover narration is particularly interesting. While at times lead actor Charles Aznavour's narration does the typical "explaining possibly inexplicable character actions" thing, just as often it seems to advise him to do the opposite of what he is about to do, creating a strange and fascinating aspect of the film: is Truffaut suggesting a thematic "mind-body" split, or just having fun with hoary old noir tropes? I don't know, and I'm looking forward to repeat viewings to try and either figure it out or embrace the mystery.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

365 Movies A Year - January 3 and January 4, 2013 - CASINO and THE PUBLIC ENEMY

I could lie and pretend that I don't know why I love gangster movies, but I know exactly why: watching a gangster movie is a cathartic experience. You can place yourself in the shoes of the lead character, and experience their thrilling rise to the heights of society, their intoxicating top-of-the-world lifestyle. You can admire their flashy suits, the fast cars, and maybe most crucially, the ability to do whatever they want to their enemies without repercussions. It's a dirty, vicarious thrill, but it speaks to something innately human, and if you're speaking to something human, you're accomplishing something.

Of course, the best gangster movies, films like the first two Godfathers, or Sergio Leone's beautiful Once Upon a Time in America, have more to offer than just vulgar thrills, and more to say than just "Damn, it feels good to be a gangster."

I would not put 1931's The Public Enemy, directed by William A. Wellman, or 1995's Casino, directed by Martin Scorsese, in the very top tier of gangster movies. Big flaws keep them from equalling their closest analogues, Howard Hawks' Scarface and Scorsese's own Goodfellas. Still, the 1931 film remains one of the most seminal hallmarks in the genre, and its influence can still be felt, and Scorsese is Scorsese.

When watching two films of the same genre in close proximity naturally leads one to look for similarities, connections, and intertextualities: both films detail the story of two childhood friends who rise and fall within mob circles in adulthood, hardly a rare plot; both films have some of the quintessential New York actors pretending to be, oddly, Chicagoans.

Casino, though, tries to be more than a gangster movie -- probably too many things, even for its nearly 3 hour runtime. The film is often lambasted as being warmed-up Goodfellas leftovers, a charge with some merit; if Scorsese wished to avoid such criticisms, maybe he shouldn't have cast Robert De Niro as a control-freak crook and Joe Pesci as his hotheaded thug associate, essentially the same roles they played in the earlier film. But the film tries to take on other subplot and generic conventions, with mixed results.

So what exactly is going on in Casino? Well, on one level, it is a semidocumentary about the day-to-day operations of a Las Vegas casino in the days of the illegal "skim" -- told with an eye-of-God style, or in the words of De Niro's character: "The eye-in-the-sky is watching us all." This aspect is interesting, but it can't keep our audience for the whole length of the film, and recedes to the background for the most part by the end.

What else is Casino? Well, it's a Western. In the wild, wild west of the Nevada desert lies a young town nominally run by cowboy-hatted yokels, but in fact run by outlaws and desperadoes, raking in money from nightly poker games, robberies, and shows of strength. Scorsese uses the classic Western trope of the showdown in the desert, now re-purposed as a Mob meeting between Pesci and De Niro, juxtaposes a chintzy Cigar Store Indian with Pesci's unfeeling mug, lets Pesci's character calls his personal jewelry store "The Gold Rush," and even casts Peckinpah regular L.Q. Jones as a corrupt local politician. Still, this element feels more grafted onto the film than permeating throughout it, as if Scorsese is working out some of his cinephile amusements onto the project.

At times, Scorsese (and his co-screenwriter, Nicholas Pileggi), try to make the film into an epic high tragedy. De Niro's "Sam Rothstein" laments the fall of the Old Vegas to the strains of Bach's St. Matthew Passion at the end of the film, while the same piece of music plays over the opening credits, while De Niro's black soul goes through a visual "Harrowing of Hell," passing through flame and smoke to tell the story we're being presented with. Reference is made to the heads of the Midwestern Mob as being "The Gods," and indeed, they decide the fates of mere mortals while sitting in their dark, insulated back room, dining on wine and copious amounts of food like the Olympians toying with a hubristic Greek hero. While evocative, this too feels tacked-on. The characters of Casino, like the characters in Goodfellas, are shallow and amoral, and the attempt to give their wins and losses the grandeur of a passion play feels like projecting -- Henry Hill in Goodfellas never tries to claim his story is grand tragedy, and Scorsese knew not to force any comparisons there, while Jake LaMotta of Raging Bull at least had a deep streak of personal self-loathing that was reminiscent at times of Oedipus with his eyes gouged out, so themes of fall and redemption fit more naturally to that story.

Perhaps most originally, Casino is a love story. Specifically, it is a love story between a man whose world consists of cold, rational numbers and figures, a brilliantly logical man whose life is run by calculation, who falls for a woman who represents chaos, disharmony, and the purely unpredictable. He seeks to control her, regulate her, make her into one of his known quantities, all while she warns him that she cannot be tamed, and that his trust in her is misplaced. Which it is. And for the mistake of thinking she was his to be contained, that man loses everything, and winds up "right back where I started." Interestingly, this love story, between De Niro's Sam and Sharon Stone's Ginger, is basically the opposite of the man-woman relationships seen in most of Scorsese's films: usually the man becomes obsessed with a woman, idolizing her as a prize to be won, but once she submits to him, his self-hatred is projected onto her, and he begins to loathe and distrust her -- essentially a tragic version of the old Groucho Marx joke about never wanting to belong to a club that would have someone like him as a member. Here, Sam never stops loving Ginger, even when she is continually trouble for him, and when he, by anyone's standards, should probably give up on her. This is likely the film's most thematically consistent element, and the idea of trust and whether or not you can put your trust in someone else, is neatly paralleled with the trust placed in Rothstein by the Mob's bosses, and with the very idea of gambling, the idea that you can trust a horse to come in first, or a Roulette ball to land on black. The movie is called Casino, but it could very well have been called The Gamble.

But even with this aspect, the movie is probably too overstuffed to devote the proper attention to it; there are long stretches of the film when Stone's character disappears and is not referred to, and then the film picks up with her character, and you go "Oh, yes, that's right, she's in this movie too."

Anything but overstuffed is The Public Enemy. The earliest gangster movies, like it, or Little Caesar, or Scarface: The Shame of a Nation are very simplistic in narrative, as audiences still unfamiliar with the young genre were not yet in need of Western motifs or complex love stories to spice up their gangster movies. All of these early classics have essentially the same narrative. The lead gangster, impoverished at first, rises up in the local criminal organization through a series of increasingly large crimes, gaining the favor of a father-figure boss. He likely has a best buddy who is not quite as ruthless as he is, but is willing to go along for the ride. The two get progressively richer and get duded up in fine clothes and fancy accoutrements. Eventually, the gangster has to commit a Freudian killing of the fatherly boss character, taking his place in the world, but his reign at the top will not last for long. The best friend will die, and the gangster enters a period of darkness and desperation. Rival gangs, or the police force, or both, will take aim at the lead character, who inevitable meets his Hayes Code-approved death in the streets, and then an epilogue comes on that ensures the impressionable audience that "thus will be the fate of all men of their kind" or somesuch babble.

But the devil, as they say, is in the details. Performances, direction, and clever turns in the writing separate the merely adequate (Mervyn LeRoy's Little Caesar) from the sublime (Scarface, or the later, somewhat atypical The Roaring Twenties, directed by Raoul Walsh).

The Public Enemy's greatest strength is apparent: Cagney is perfect as the swaggering hell-raiser Tommy Powers (a real precursor to Joe Pesci's later onscreen persona). But so are its flaws. Produced only a few years after the introduction of sound into Hollywood films, the direction seems stilted and unsure of itself at times, as do some members of the cast. Robert Emmett O'Connor, who plays the Irish-American saloon owner/bootlegger Paddy Ryan, is perfectly cast, physically. But, bizarrely, between his lines he takes the longest, most meaningless pauses. It almost seems like he's getting paid per second onscreen, so he's deliberately stretching out his scenes. It really takes the air out of the film's balloon when he's onscreen. The actor Murray Kinnell is obviously miscast as the neighborhood fence and Fagin-like figure of Putty Nose; his plummy accent reveals him for just what he was, an English pretending at being a Chicago hoodlum.

There are many ways I could approach the film: as an examination of Irish-American identity in its particular place and time, as a coming-of-age story (Tom is a particularly young screen gangster, and is only a teenager when Cagney begins playing him), as a film about a dysfunctional family, etc. etc. It's also quite interesting to compare the film's depiction of violence to similar film's depiction of violence: note that Cagney is never shown on screen killing someone, and in fact, there are only about three murders we know of for sure that happen in the film, four if you count a horse -- Scarface, conversely, luxuriates in graphic violence from the beginning, and considers death cheap, and even uses it as a gag.

The literature on classic gangster movies is out there, and these observations are hardly new, so I'd rather move on to other approaches, namely, an aspect of the film that, to my knowledge, no one has written about.

Tommy Powers is gay.

Seriously. It's all there, I swear. I caught something, and it all clicked, and fell into place. Tom Powers is a man who is attracted to other men, and not women. And it explains so much about the film.

What is one of the first things we hear a young, preteen Tommy say when his friend Matt embarrasses himself in front of a girl? "That's what you get for fooling with women." Later, an older Tom is contrasted with both Matt, who is a regular womanizer, and Tom's older brother Mike, who has a regular girlfriend. Tom gets one girlfriend, and is remarkably un-physical with her; counterintuitvely for Cagney, who was one of screendom's most physical actors. He later gets bored of her and throws her out of his life. He gets another girlfriend, played by Jean Harlow, who even complains that their relationship isn't going in the direction she wished it would. Unless I'm misremembering, he never kisses her, and even when the gorgeous Harlow lounges around Tom's home in slinky outfits, Tom sits far away from her, looking bored, barely glancing at her. She even remarks that Tom "isn't like all the other men," and wonders what his "boyfriends" will think! When he has a chance to get physical with her while dancing at a nightclub, he tears himself away to look at an male mentor who betrayed him years earlier, all while his friend Matt gets rather frisky indeed with his paramour. In one scene that would later be cut from re-released prints, Tommy gets fitted for a new suit by a very effeminate, gay-coded tailor who is all but hitting on him, complimenting him on his impressive, muscular arms. But Tom, despite being someone whose typical reaction to things is violence and anger, basically let the tailor's comments go by, unremarked upon. He even seems somewhat amused with the guy! This all occurring in a highly homophobic, straight male chauvinistic era, too.

All throughout the film, Tommy tells Matt about how all they need is each other, and how they'll be looking out for each other for the long run. Tom Powers, unless my reading of the film is totally ridiculous, is in love with Matt, although he'd never admit, and could never admit it.

For the skeptical, recall how often gangsterism and criminality is associated with 'deviant' sexuality in older films -- Scarface's Tony Camonte is obsessed with his younger sister Cesca, and reaches his most pure state when he and his sister engage in a psycho-sexually charged shootout with the coppers, White Heat's Cody Jarrett is incestuously fixated on his mother. Whether these filmmakers from a less tolerant age genuinely associated crime with "kinky" sexual behavior, or whether the portrayal of villainous characters allowed for them to depict said behavior in a way that they couldn't have with "virtuous" characters, I could not say. But the tradition exists, and The Public Enemy could clearly be read as a piece of that tradition.

Another, and perhaps the most revealing, bit of evidence for my theory that Tom is gay, and that his homosexuality is key to understanding the film, is that his sexual desires and fears ultimately lead to his undoing. When Tommy is raped by Jane the innkeeper woman near the end of the film, he reacts with extreme shock and disgust , naturally. He immediately rushes out of the hideaway and into the streets with Matt. Matt tries to calm him, and Tom pledges his eternal devotion to him, saying that they're all they need in the world, playfully hitting him on the shoulder.

Just then, a hail of phantom machine gun fire strikes down Matt. He's dead. Tom loses all his bearings in life, spending the rest of the film in a downward spiral.

In other words, Matt and Tom are both punished for Tom's "sin" of homosexuality.

Trust me, it's all there. Watch it again, or for the first time, with this in mind, and you'll be able to see it too. It adds another, more interesting layer to a story that, while stunningly fresh and original at the time of its 1931 release, has been told time and time again, and has thus lost much of its novelty, and deepens the customs and traditions of the genre.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

365 Movies A Year - January 2, 2013

On January 2, 2013, I watched (for the first time) Terrence Malick's sixth completed feature To the Wonder.

I love the films of Terrence Malick. There are times when I think The Tree of Life was perhaps the greatest film to be released in my lifetime so far. Nevertheless, To the Wonder struck me as being likely that great artist's weakest film yet.

It is Malick's most narrowly-focused and "smallest" film yet, lacking the more inherently dramatic subject matter seen in his other films -- the murder spree of Badlands, the Biblical plagues of Days of Heaven, the combat scenes of The Thin Red Line, the civilizations-in-collision of The New World, or the birth of the universe portrayed in The Tree of Life. While most of Malick's films focus on small interpersonal relationships, they're usually juxtaposed with epic conflicts and big, broad themes of life, death and existence. To the Wonder does not completely break from this pattern, but its attempts to find a more universal resonance to its characters' plights seem more forced, or don't connect in the way that they should.

The "plot", so to speak, is rather vague and undefined, naturally. Olga Kurylenko plays an ambiguously European single mother living in Paris who falls in love with an American played by Ben Affleck. They frolic in France before moving to Affleck's hometown in Oklahoma. There problems begin to develop, as the two (along with Kurylenko's daughter) gradually become aware of their flaws and contradictions, and of what our modern society has come to term "irreconcilable differences."The only subplot concerns the local Catholic priest, played by Javier Bardem, who is struggling to find God's in the world around him.

To accuse a Malick film of having an underdeveloped plot seems farcical to anyone familiar and appreciative of his works, but To the Wonder genuinely feels stretched-out and a bit underthought. As always, the cinematography (by Malick's frequent collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki) and the sheer visual wonder is top notch, whether Malick is showing us the natural beauty of rural America, or the urban beauty of Paris. And, of course, the film is nothing if not deeply felt. But perhaps To the Wonder could have withstood a little bit more time in the editing room, allowing for the director to deepen and further work out what he was trying to say.

To the Wonder tries to do no less than understand the nature of love -- the "wonder" of the title, where Kurylenko and Affleck find themselves slipping in and out of -- not only romantic, passionate, erotic love, but also the nature of love as a universal existential presence; it seeks to examine both the love between a man and a woman, and the love between an all-knowing God and the small people who populate his creation. Malick, as ever, is nothing if not philosophically ambitious and spiritually reaching, suggesting an artist who has more in common with Francis of Assisi than Francis Ford Coppola.

But I think the problem may be that the concept of "love," as we know it today, is in fact so vaguely defined that Malick's efforts to connect Kurylenko and Affleck's love affair with Bardem's crisis of faith seem tenuous and uncertain. Similarly, while Malick is terrific at visualizing the feeling of being in love, the transcendent qualities, the feeling of existing in a plain above the squalid mortal world, his attempts at replicating the subtle shifts in desire and spite, the push-pull of personal conflict, are much less effective. The drifting apart of Affleck and Kurylenko's characters makes logically sense, but does not feel as right as their initial head-over-heels playfulness. Nor, for that matter, can it compare to the perfectly realized struggle of masculine wills seen in the director's artistic peak The Tree of Life. In all honesty, the material with Javier Bardem's priest character is the most affecting and intellectual engaging in the film, though it seems to relate only tangentially with everything else that is going on. At  the risk of Monday-morning-quarterbacking, maybe Terrence Malick would have been better off having Bardem's character arc be the film's backbone, as opposed to the clearly personal, but much more diffuse romantic plotline.

Nevertheless, a below-par Malick film is more deeply thought and felt than just about anything you're likely to see at the contemporary cinema, and his singular style (often imitated, never equaled) has a voice that is unmatched, and, when the day comes that Malick sadly shuffles off this mortal coil, we will all be regretting the passing of his works of beauty and grace from our world.

Friday, January 3, 2014

365 Movies A Year - January 1, 2013

Pieces in 365 MOVIES A YEAR will be briefer and more loosely written. Sorry!

Thoughts on 28 Up -- Michael Apted's 1984 documentary that I watched on Netflix Instant Streaming on the first of January, 2013:

My year, or more accurately, this series, gets off to an unusual start, in that the inaugural entry in the series comes midway through another personal project that I'm not writing about.

Lately, I've been binging on the films in Michael Apted's Up series of documentaries. If you're unfamiliar with this remarkable series of films, I hope this summary should suffice: 

In 1964, a team of British filmmakers (including, as a young researcher, Michael Apted) selected a group of fourteen children, all aged seven, to study for a continuing series of documentaries. The children came from different strata of the British class systems --  rich and poor, black and white, from elite preparatory schools to inner-city charity homes -- and were interviewed, asked about their lives, their families, their schooling, their interests, and their thoughts on life. Ever since then, every seven years, Michael Apted (now taking on the mantle of director) returns to these fourteen subjects and films them going about their lives, interviewing them, comparing and contrasting them with their fellow documentary subjects.

It's inherently compelling. But there are also inherent problems -- or maybe just "problems" -- that arise that become more clear in 28 Up, the fourth film in the series.

For one thing, adults with jobs and families, who, in some instances live thousands of miles away from England, are much harder to wrangle together and get to participate in yet another documentary. And 28 Up suffers a bit from the absence of a few participants and the inability (or unwillingness) of the filmmakers to get some of the subjects together for the same interview. I, for one, would love to have seen the three upper-class boys John, Charles, and Andrew together in the same interview again, particularly since one of the highlights of the previous three documentaries was watching Charles and John seemingly move further and further apart, culturally, ideologically, and personally. 

Regardless, there is enough drama and insight in 28 Up -- particularly in watching the heartbreaking segment involving Neil, or getting the chance to see the marvelously charming Tony again -- to make it a riveting viewing experience. 

If you want to hear God laugh...

...tell him your plans.

My goal is this: see a movie a day. Every day. For the whole year. 365 movies. At the very least.

I probably won't be able to keep this up...but for now, I'm gonna try and I'm gonna keep track of everything I watch.

Wish me luck.