Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Film # 27 & 28: A Western Double Feature (Jun 29th)

The Searchers
1956, 119 min.
Directed by John Ford

1953, 118 min.
Directed by George Stevens

Yuck. I'm normally a fan of rain, but today's downpour left a lingering humidity in the air. It was feeling mighty tropical out there, and I was ready for some escape.

Entering the theatre was like an respite from the humid Amazon-like atmosphere. Luckily, there was a special event today that would further remove me from the yucky summer afternoon. "The Spoiled Doves of Texas" were there to set the mood. Saloon gals, cowboys, and riverboat-style gamblers were awaiting. I gotta admit, it was pretty darned exciting. Like a beam of sunlight through the clouds, they made me forget all about the rainy day.

Full writeup of the films is a work in progress...
Check back soon for the complete blog entry!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Film # 26: The Adventures of Robin Hood (Jun 27th)

The Adventures of Robin Hood

1938, 102 min.
Directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley

My, my. Ain't I a trooper? After Terms of Endearment and Places in the Heart on Sunday, I had but about 20 minutes to stretch and see what was in store for the evening's screening of The Adventures of Robin Hood. That's right, three movies back to back to back. Since I knew there were activities to be held before the last film, I rushed out to see what events were happening. I knew there was to be an archery competition indoors, and I was curious to see what that would entail. Surely, they wouldn't be using real bows and arrows. That could have been disastrous. Therefore, I was expecting a Nerf kind of affair. As I entered the parlor upstairs I found the competition.

It was a toy bow & arrow exhibition, thank goodness. Two targets were set up while patrons took their turns firing three suction cup arrows at them. If you hit the bulls' eye, you won a coupon for a free soft drink or popcorn. Neat-o!

Dozens of people took their turn as archers, and a great many did very well. It was fun to watch and to hear the crowds be supportive. I even took a turn and hit the mark on my second attempt. Walking downstairs to redeem my soda coupon, I was greeted by another surprise. There were several people downstairs in Renaissance attire to celebrate the screening of Robin Hood. All were in character and interacting with patrons and ushers alike. Ah, good times.

Below are some photos I took of the event.

Equipped with a soda and a huge smile, I made my way into the auditorium and took my seat. I was looking forward to this movie because of the influence it has brandished on action films in the decades since its release.

The character of Robin Hood has been revisited many times over the years and it seems like everyone's taken a swing at recreating the legendary figure. Kevin Costner had his version about 20 years ago (my goodness, has it been that long?) that I only remember because of that damn Bryan Adams song. Mel Brooks made a spoof with Cary Elwes (best known from The Princess Bride), and Ridley Scott just made an epic version with Russell Crowe. Even Disney once adapted a version with a charming fox playing the titular hero. But tonight was about the definitive model for most, the original swashbuckler (sorry, Douglas Fairbanks) himself, Errol Flynn.

There was a special treat before the film. It was another Merrie Melodies cartoon. I hadn't seen one of those in a while, and it even has Bugs Bunny! Presenting, "Rabbit Hood!"

When the surprise cameo appeared at the end of the short, the crowd went absolutely wild. Oh, this was gonna be a good time.

The movie then began. It started with an awful lot of preamble, setting the tale amidst the battles between Saxons and Normans. King Richard has been abducted on his way back from The Crusades and his shifty brother, Prince John (Claude Rains), is plotting to permanently plant himself upon the throne. Very few will defy John or his right-hand man, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone). They announce that taxes will be raised to pay the (literal) king's ransom, a move here that would get Tea Partiers up in arms. Robin, Earl of Loxley (Errol Flynn), calls the duo out on what he sees as a money grab. Of course, this doesn't mean he's Republican. Since Robin believes in giving this wealth back to the poor, the GOP would quickly label him as Communist.

Early on, we see Robin defy the rulings of the current administration. When Sir Guy (gotta love that name, huh?) attempts to arrest a man for hunting one of "the king's deer," Robin steps in and sends Guy on his way with a wink, a quip, and an arrow pointing at his chest. He knows acts of defiance like this will win sympathy from the masses while painting a target on your back. He shows up at the King's (er, Prince John's) dinner later with the very same deer and flings it onto the table while renouncing his formal title. How's that for a "f#&% you?" The Earl of Loxley then becomes the outlaw Robin Hood. Along the way he recruits more men to his cause and beguiles a skeptical Maid Marian.

Now England's most wanted, Robin lives in Sherwood Forest with his pal Will Scarlet (who is dressed in red, natch) and his growing band of merry men. I always thought that term was a bit derogatory, but after watching this movie I know why. These bandits are incredibly happy, always laughing and cavorting about like a college fraternity. Robin's behavior is particularly queer (as in "odd"), as I swear he bellows laughter after 80% of his lines. These indeed are merry men... in tights.

Overall, I found Flynn's performance and depiction of Robin Hood to be more "cartoony" than expected. At times, it was like he channeled Bugs Bunny himself as inspiration. Always ready with a one-liner and a mischievous attitude, all he needed was to be munching on carrots and to mention that left turn at Albuquerque. Don't get me wrong, I appreciated the fun and light performance. The main reason I skipped this year's version was because I didn't feel like watching a surly Russell Crowe grumble through yet another historical epic (he can be quite a downer). I was just surprised this film was so light in fare while being so Technicolor bright. It gave a real Wizard of Oz vibe. The colors really popped in a 1960s Batman kind of way, yet the movie wasn't quite as campy as the adventures of that caped crusader. Yes, I doubt England was that vivid in its hues back then, but it is the movies, after all. They were aiming for the entertainment factor here, and hit the bullseye.

The romantic angle was a bit simplistic for my tastes. Olivia de Havilland was a lovely Maid Marian, and I was more concerned that she see the scope of Robin Hood's efforts rather than become a mere love interest. She becomes rather instrumental to the plot as the film goes on, and it was the scenes where she was plotting and spying on Prince John's minions that captured my attention more than her swooning over Robin himself.

For me, a large part of the fun was the performances by the villains. Basil Rathbone is so pompous and heinous as Sir Guy that it's hard to believe he was chosen to be the iconic Sherlock Holmes in the years following this film. There's a detectable suave presence about him, though. He's the perfect henchman, and was clearly a model for Christopher Guest's character in The Princess Bride.

Claude Rains is excellent as the conniving Prince John, and he performed the role in a sinister yet foppish manner. I'm pretty sure Shrek's dastardly Lord Farquaad is directly based on Rains from this film. In fact, you could say this Prince John is the prototype for villains that are a bit of a dandy. We've seen different variations on this brand of antagonist (or stereotyping, if you will) in the decades since. Think for just a moment of the foes who fit this cliché over the years: Joel Cairo (from The Maltese Falcon), most James Bond villains, Tim Roth from Rob Roy, the Prince from Braveheart, etc. Even foes in animated fare follow the same pattern: How about Scar (from The Lion King)? Skeletor? Cobra Commander? Stewie Griffin? I could go on and on. Although that pattern may hint at something darker in our society, the point here is that Rains made it work. He's a real bastard in this movie. You just can't help but boo at him.

As far as the action was concerned, that's where I felt the real style of the film was found. Say what you will about the silliness of the performances, but the assembly of the film is top notch. Robin Hood is chock full of achievement in editing and choreography. There's a reason that the film is so highly regarded after 70 years. The only question is why anyone even tries to top it. It can't be done.

Despite some moments of excessive levity, The Adventures of Robin Hood is still a lot of fun. It was certainly a great experience as moviegoers young and old were swept up in the movie's action and humor that day. There were numerous cheers and applause for our green-clad hero as he charmed and fought his way through all obstacles. Everything was so lavish and vibrant; one couldn't help but admire this perfect popcorn movie. In many ways, it reminded me when I would go to The Renaissance Fair (near Plantersville, TX) in my youth. So many different people gathering together to have a great time escaping from the toils of our days. I mean, who wouldn't want a little swashbuckling fun on a Sunday? For me it was the perfect cap to an evening filled with bows, arrows, and free soda. Huzzah!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Films # 24 & 25: Texas Women Double Feature (Jun 27th)

Terms of Endearment
1983, 132 min.
Directed by James L. Brooks

Places in the Heart
1984, 111 min.
Directed by Robert Benton

Today on the menu: strong Texan women. Two 1980s films that have been widely acclaimed but have escaped me all these years. All I knew about Terms of Endearment was the ending, and the fact that one of the two leads didn't make it to the sequel nobody liked, The Evening Star. Places in the Heart I knew boasted a solid ensemble cast, but that was about it (oh, and there was a tornado in there somewhere)...

Full writeup of the films is a work in progress...
Check back soon!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Film # 22 & 23: A Texan Double Feature (Jun 24th)

Baby, The Rain Must Fall
1965, 100 min.
Directed by Robert Mulligan

Lone Star
1996, 134 min.
Directed by John Sayles

The week was shaping up to be Texas-sized. My calendar was full, but I'd be darned if I don't make as many of these Summer films as I possibly can. I've come to appreciate the ambiance for the double features shown, and these couple of weeks have been particularly special. Starting with The Last Picture Show and Giant, the theatre was showing "Texas films" as its subject. Not chosen because of their location, but because I see these Texan characters resonate with themes that apply beyond the great state. For instance, I was very surprised by Giant and what it had to say about society's evolution of generations.

Thursday's films had a sense of promise. The first one, Baby The Rain Must Fall, was written by (Wharton, TX native) Horton Foote. As someone who grew up near the Gulf Coast (and only about 60 miles from Wharton), I was curious to see how much it felt like home to me. The second is one of my personal favorite films. I recall being one of the few people to actually see Lone Star when it came out theatrically. After reading a glowing recommendation in Premiere magazine, my desire was so great that I recall driving over 100 miles to see it (in a Corpus Christi theater called "Cine 6"). I love that movie. As I entered The Paramount that night, I couldn't help but smile at what I saw in front of me in the lobby...

Was it serendipity? Ah, I could not wait to see it again on the big screen. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before I could see one of my favorite movies again, I was ready to see another Texas story. Alas, I was not impressed.

To be perfectly honest, I found Baby, The Rain Must Fall to be terribly disappointing. For a movie that seemed to pride itself on being written by the prolific and gifted Horton Foote (Oscar winner for adapting To Kill A Mockingbird), I found the screenplay to be its weakest link.

Now, I fully understand that Foote writes "quiet pieces" (Tender Mercies is an excellent example of what Foote is capable of) but Rain is just a sloppy construction. The premise is interesting, but the events never coalesced for me. It feels like whole chunks of story are missing; scenes that explain motives better and those that may be, you know, good. I think the main problem is that Rain had no idea what kind of movie it really wanted to be. At times a family drama, a "man tormented by inner demons" story, and a spooky (?!) story, it's just a mess.

Henry Thomas (Steve McQueen) is a recent ex-con who is trying to start a singing career in the small town of Columbus, TX (his hometown). Perhaps he's trying to capture that Johnny Cash vibe, but Thomas seems unable to walk the line. His wife, Georgette (Lee Remick), and his little girl have relocated from Tyler to make a life with him, but he still dreams of making it big. Georgette agrees to work so he can focus on his music, and that setup seemed interesting. Sadly, the story just seems to sputter from there.

You see, there is someone else who has ideas on what Henry should do now that he's out of the clink. Miss Kate is an elder woman in town who evidently raised Henry and wants him to go to night school as a means to better himself. The fact that Henry is a grown man and doesn't have to take that from her is not addressed. Oddly, she is referred to with an air of fear in the town, almost as if she is Wharton's own Lord Voldemort. Kate keeps threatening to have Henry thrown back into jail if he doesn't give up his music career (dun-dun-DUNNNN). And it seems she might actually have the power to do so, since Henry appears genuinely worried. I wasn't sure how she was able to wield so much influence, since she's referred to in such mysterious tones yet is unable to leave her home.

To contest her strong opinions of his life, Henry repeatedly goes to her spooky house (which looks an awful lot like The Munsters' House from the old TV show) yet is never allowed to talk to her. He leaves messages with the housekeeper or simply shouts angry words up the stairs at Miss Kate during these visits. In fact, since her character's appearance isn't unveiled until the third act, I was fully expecting her reveal to be exactly like Norman Bates' mother. Instead, when the camera shows her, she's just an old lady who resembles Thomas Jefferson. I thought to myself, "This was the payoff?" Sigh. Needless to say, compared to the rest of the film, these scenes are just weird. The change in scenery and tone would be jarring enough, but the change in the film's score made these scenes feel like they were from another movie. Why the spookiness? Why the slow reveal of this character? W. T. F.?

The performances are, for the most part, uneven (only Lee Remick brought her A-game). McQueen occasionally shows flashes of brilliance in his role, but his role is so handcuffed by the screenplay that he's just a character with no sense of direction, instead of playing a man lacking purpose. He comes off as unnecessarily angry and "one-note" during the second half of the picture. If scenes are laying on the cutting room floor somewhere, I'm sure a tender performance from McQueen is in there. As the film stands now, such an acting job is not quite present.

Lee Remick, as Georgette, has the most interesting and underdeveloped role in Rain. I was fascinated by her character, who seems all too willing to make sacrifices for the man she loves. Of course, as I see Henry hem and haw his way through the movie, I found myself asking why she would do such things. What's her story? How has she been able to balance work and raising a daughter alone for so long? The film provides no answers. She becomes another ball for Henry to try and juggle, and I was dismayed to see this shoddy treatment of such a character and performance. Kudos to Remick also for getting the right accent and cadence for the region depicted (for the record, McQueen wavered into a distinct East Texas accent from time to time). Overall, she has the right tone for the film that I think this story was trying to be, but nothing else matches her.

Also, the film telegraphs its intents with the subtlety of a jackhammer. Mere minutes after the opening credits sequences, I could tell you the ending of the film (of who was going to run off with whom). The rest of the time was spent waiting for Henry Thomas to self-destruct. For the audience, time might also be spent trying to mentally train myself not to think of E.T. when anyone said the name "Henry Thomas." Such clumsy treatments of plot make for a very long experience watching this movie.

Worse, this story didn't feel authentically Texan at all. The location was pretty much generic flat land (which is a distinction of the Gulf Coast, mind you), but nothing about the film's experience felt like a Texas story. It could have taken place in any other Southern state, perhaps one that matched the cast's accents (since most actors were trying to sound like Gone With The Wind). Foote's screenplay is a half baked creation. He should have given it a few more rewrites to flesh out some ideas and plot threads. In short, the whole movie was a damn shame for all the talent involved. I got the impression that the narrative was supposed to be tragic (lack of subtlety, remember?). But is it tragic when the person has control of their destiny and just chooses to be a self-centered a%#hole? If so, should we care? Go to school or play your music, Henry. Just do something and grow a pair. You know what else falls besides rain? Testicles.

I was really bummed during the break between the two movies. I hadn't felt let down during the Summer Series before, but Rain really left a bad taste in my mouth. So downstairs I went to fetch some popcorn and Dr. Pepper. Time to revisit an old favorite on the big screen. After years of seeing it on tape and DVD, seeing it on the big screen was like a reunion of sorts.

Lone Star, in my opinion, is one of the great all-time underrated and overlooked films. If it would have had a bit more marketing behind it, I think it would have been a sure Oscar contender in multiple categories. Alas, this was in the late 90s, when the Weinsteins devoured up Academy Award nomination slots like Krispy Kreme. One, count it, one nomination for the screenplay (which is truly excellent). That's it. Friggin' Independence Day had two nods that year (technical categories, but still)! At least the National Board of Review gave this film special recognition for "excellence in filmmaking) that year. Because of its themes regarding race relations and generational differences, it's in many ways a spiritual sequel to a film like Giant. To me, Lone Star is the single finest film about Texas and the cultures of people inside and around our borders.

My praise could go on for hours and hours, so I'll try to be brief. The film begins as a murder mystery, but quickly expands beyond the borders of a simple narrative. The remains of a body are found on an old military base's shooting range near a South Texas border town. The local sheriff, Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) investigates and determines it may well be the remains of a predecessor from a few decades back, corrupt former sheriff Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson). Wade had simply disappeared one night after being confronted by a righteous young deputy named Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey) who became his successor. For years, everyone thought the virtuous had merely chased the nefarious out of the town. However, the younger Deeds holds a heck of a grudge against his late old man. Sam would like to discover that his father wasn't as squeaky clean as the rest of the town perceived him to be, and starts digging for dirt.

Not that anyone in the area missed the former lawman, because he was a true s.o.b., devoid of scruples. Kris Kristofferson (in his finest role) plays Wade as the most vile kind of man. The fact that he didn't get more recognition for this film is a sin. This is the kind of role that Oscar voters salivate for. Heck, Daniel Day-Lewis has been nominated twice since Lone Star was released for playing similar bastards (Gangs of New York and There Will be Blood). Charlie Wade won't just drink your milkshake; he'll seize it and then shoot you in the face. Kristofferson plays Wade not as a cardboard villain either, but a flesh and blood prick, steely in resolve and vulnerable to pride. Chances are, we've met people like this, but very few get to exercise this level of contempt while flashing a badge. Power and graft went hand-in-hand during the tyranny of Charlie Wade, and the fable of his departure made for local legend for both he and Buddy Deeds. His skeletal remains, however, suggest there might be more to the story.

"More to the story." This phrase becomes a major theme in Lone Star, and manifests itself in different ways in this town of Frontera, TX, touching many different people. Citizens argue over the content and point-of-view of history books, with some wanting a more balanced view while others still cling to the "John Wayne at the Alamo" version. The lives of several different people at the army base are slowly revealed to us and place human faces above the uniforms, especially the new colonel in charge (Joe Morton) who has a link to this town. A local business woman (Míriam Colón) glosses over her own cultural past while exploiting migrant workers. Games of politics are volleyed around an affable old mayor (Clifton James), who also served under Wade's iron-fisted rule and may hold clues to what happened forty years prior. Layers and layers of complexity are uncovered, making the stories more human and empathetic.

As Sam continues to investigate beyond the "popular version of the past," he also crosses paths with an old flame from his teenage years, Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Peña). Seeing an opportunity to correct mistakes from their own past, Sam and Pilar rekindle their old romance, one that was hindered by their respective disapproving parents. When they were kids in love, society wasn't as forgiving to the idea of a mixed heritage romance.

The integration of different cultures is another major theme of the film, and the maturity in which the subject is handled elevates Lone Star into genius. The point never feels forced, and the movie's guidance by John Sayles (writer and director) paints a Tex-Mex portrait of cultural ambivalence. All themes are anchored by the characters, and all characters feel true. the film is without a phony moment, and it's a wonder to behold the balance of tension, humor, drama and romance in its running time. By the end, you feel you know all of these people. And heck, you probably have met people like this over the course of your life. And if not, you will... if you live in Texas.

The great lesson is this: history does not have a singular point of view. Like any choice we make in life, we can learn from it or disregard it. Just be aware that the same story can be interpreted and remembered many different ways. Yours are not the only pair of eyes watching your history unfold. The past is not absolute. It isn't just one lone star, it's an entire galaxy.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Film # 21: Wings (with New Live Score. Jun 23rd)


1927, 139 min.
Directed by William A. Wellman

"D'you know what you can do when you see a shooting star? You can kiss the girl you love."
- Mary Preston (Clara Bow)

As a rookie to the Summer Film Series, I am constantly discovering the magnitude of the special events as they come. I'm also continuously finding myself amazed at what this theatre has to offer. Every expectation has been surpassed by the actual event and screening. Take for instance, the screening of Wings on June 23rd. I knew the film was released in 1927, won the first Oscar for Best Picture, was set in World War I, and it starred Clara Bow. That was about it. Oh, tonight was a "live score" too? That sounds kinda neat. I'll have to check that out...

As I walked under this marquee and into the theatre that night, I had NO idea what I was in for. First of all, a much larger crowd was present than I'm accustomed to. The level of excitement was recognizable, buzzing like a feeling of electricity in the air before a severe thunderstorm. There were patrons everywhere. They were in line at the bar, milling about discussing film with others, and perusing the goods at the merchandise cart. In addition to the usual items, there were autographed Wings event posters by tonight's composer, Graham Reynolds. A separate table was even set up offering collections of his music. Many people were just as enthused by Graham's body of music as the film itself. I must confess being unfamiliar with his work. What made him qualified to write a brand new score to the very first Best Picture winner? Well...

Graham Reynolds is an Austin based jack of all trades. A composer and musician, he performs with his band, the Golden Arm Trio. They have toured the country and Europe, and Reynolds has also become an accomplished film composer. His score for A Scanner Darkly, the 2006 film by Austin's own Richard Linklater, was recently named the best score of the decade by Cinema Retro magazine. Clearly, his works merit the challenging task of composing a brand new score.

As we took our seats and prepared for this event, the composer and his six-person crew took their positions at the orchestra area in front of the stage. Reynolds took some time to talk to us before the show, sharing his thoughts. He mentioned why he included familiar military anthems and how he created the melody that was the backbone of his score. His demeanor was humble and inviting, and he was obviously very honored in being assigned a daunting task such as this. Proactive in addressing the obvious questions, my favorite was when he addressed how many times it takes to watch a silent film before he could compose a full score. Reynolds' answer? "A lot."

My anticipation had reached a fever pitch by the time the lights went down and the film began. Despite my enthusiasm for seeing such a highly regarded movie, I wasn't expecting much from it. My experiences with silent film would be classified as more visceral than narratively engrossing. At a young age I saw F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, and it scared the bejeezus out of me. Late night viewings of parts of Alexander Nevsky and some old Chaplain and Buster Keaton on Turner Classic Movies over the years taught me that the pictures (and the acting in them) are more expressive and emotionally impactful rather than nuanced. Naturally, if one has title cards in lieu of spoken dialogue, you need other tools to help tell the story. The physical performance of actors is of prime importance, but the music is critical in conveying the power of the film. Wings began and Reynolds' score quickly and loudly enveloped the audience.

The film is a story of two young men who are initially established as rivals in their hometown. David (Richard Arlen) and Jack (Charles "Buddy" Rogers) both vie for the affections of Sylvia, who happens to be in love with David. Mary (Clara Bow) is quite literally "the girl next door" who harbors a crush on the clueless Jack. The boys enlist in the U.S. Army Air Service (there was no Air Force branch of the military, back then) to serve as pilots in World War I. The film follows them as they train in grueling fashion, and finally become best friends as they graduate. It's as if Maverick and Iceman let bygones be bygones in Top Gun, but here it works. They are shipped out to France to battle German forces, and the movie shows their missions in amazing levels of detail. In an effort to pursue Jack romantically, Mary also enlists and becomes a driver for medics. While I won't spoil anything for you, dear reader, suffice it to say Mary's military career does not end well.

I was completely engrossed with the story of the boys. The emotions and reactions felt very real, due in no small part to the acting and the emotional score. Jack is so naive and clueless about, well, everything. But his charm holds the audience, even as he angers us with his youthful boorishness. David is not as warm a character, but still agreeable. He's the more mature and steady of the two, and takes a bit of a "big brother" role. The friendship never feels forced. It's surprisingly organic and ultimately touching and poignant. I feel this is what Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor could have been like if, you know, it hadn't been completely freaking awful. Wings as a war picture nailed it 74 years earlier, without the tainted likes of Ben Affleck or Josh Hartnett.

Because the boys' story was so strong, I couldn't help but feel Clara Bow's role was shoehorned into the screenplay due to her star power. Mary as a character could have easily existed as a mere light romantic interest, perhaps only appearing in bookends to the film. I could easily imagine producers and studio heads saying, "this is one expensive film; we want some security and a bigger role for the big name star involved." Honestly, I can't say I blame those bosses. She is rather beautiful, after all. When she's onscreen, Bow is luminous. Her face, and particularly her eyes, are amongst the most expressive I've ever seen on an actress. She made the audience love her, all without saying a single word.

The spectacle of Wings can not be overstated. It is truly epic in scope, and is even more impressive now because of the passage of time. I can't imagine what this film actually cost to make. The battle scenes and dogfights are ranked among the best my eyes have ever seen on film. Bear in mind, this is long before CGI, before green screen, before the wide use of miniatures and models. It truly looks like they recreated war itself... on a grand scale and with a blank checkbook. Scary and enthralling, it's marvelous to behold.

Visually, the movie is stunning, and not just because of the depiction of war. The director has a great deal of style, and many small touches are just as inventive and slick today as they must have been in 1927. The title cards themselves sometimes broke out of the mold of simple white text on black backgrounds. At a few choice moments, the text is superimposed over unique moving images. Early, the approach of war is depicted with looming dark storm clouds moving into the title card's frame. Another card with an ominous whirlpool underlines the maelstrom that war brings. Not the most subtle of touches, but very effective. Some innovative camera shots and angles are also sprinkled throughout. An early camera shot set on a swing set made me grin, as did one specific tracking shot later on. Moving along the dance floor through tables and revelers at a Paris nightclub, it was most impressive. As I watched, eyes transfixed to the screen, one thought surfaced over and over in my mind: This is not a boring movie. It hit with a one-two punch of visual impact and the sonic adventure of the live score.

One could arguably say that silent film overcompensates its lack of sound by being visually melodramatic. I won't argue against that stance. What Reynolds' score did was not dial back from this inherent melodrama. In fact, he went in the opposite direction. The results were absolutely incredible. He ratcheted up the dial a few notches on the proverbial scale from one to ten. The fictional band Spinal Tap would be pleased, because Reynolds took the emotion of Wings to an eleven. While anchoring the film's sentiment to a piano melody, the rise of the percussion during battle was overwhelming and awe-inspiring. Boom! Clash! Crash! Each note rained upon the audience in droves, creating a brutal sense of beauty. Reynolds led the score that night like a general directing a battalion. I, for one, could not stop smiling at the onslaught of musical brilliance. The experience was glorious.

As the film ended, the last notes died down and the house lights came back up. The audience rose to its feet and returned the favor to Graham Reynolds, cascading him and the Golden Arm Trio with thunderous applause. The joy hung in the air like a mist, and the buzz continued as people slowly began to file out of the auditorium. Unable to resist, I hurried downstairs to thank Reynolds personally. Shaking his hand, I told him how sensational I thought the evening went. Ever humble, he replied that he was honored and pleased that I enjoyed the show. Still grinning ear to ear as I finally broke the handshake, I practically skipped out of the theatre and into the night.

Never would I have imagined how significant Wings was as a motion picture. Exhilarating and touching, it is worthy of any accolade it has received or will continue to earn. Breathtaking in its ambition, it's every bit as groundbreaking as Star Wars or Avatar. But never will I ever be able to view it again without hearing this amazing score in my head. Leaving The Paramount, I felt I could fly. It was one of the most impressive nights at the cinema I have ever witnessed in all my years. The evening's experience may well be the crown jewel of this year's Summer Series, but I could be wrong. After all, The Paramount does have a way of surpassing my expectations. Always.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Film # 20: Giant (Jun 22nd)


1956, 201 min.
Directed by George Stevens

"You all think that the glory happened here in the East, don't you, with Valley Forge and Bunker Hill? Do you know about San Jacinto? Have you heard about the Alamo?"
-Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson)

I'll come clean. I have always dreaded watching Giant. Not for any concerns over quality (it is my mother's favorite movie after all, and momma don't like crap), but because of the running time. I'm not the athletic type, so to me a marathon is frightening. For years, I've had ample opportunities to watch it, but just was unable (or more likely, unwilling) to set aside the time for it. Yay for the Summer Series, then. It gave me the perfect chance to finally watch this classic. In a theatrical exhibition, at that. Tuesday evening, then, was like a personal judgment day. I had perceived it as a daunting task as large as the lone star state itself.

As I drove past the theatre to park the car, I noticed many people out front. The Paramount always seems to have a healthy crowd attending these films in the Summer Series, but I was not prepared for the number of people I found in attendance on Tuesday's presentation of Giant. Let me, repeat, it was a Tuesday. These are the kinds of crowds I'm used to seeing on weekends, and rivaled the madhouse I encountered when I tried to see Toy Story 3 at the Imax Bob Bullock theater. If so many other enthusiastic moviegoers were willing to tackle the four hour show, then so was I. I'm sure it was going to be a great experience for all. Hmmm. Well, perhaps not for one guy. Someone foolishly parked right in front of the theatre, and was being towed away as I arrived. Whooops. Someone's going to have some tough phone calls to make at 11 pm.

Giant is a movie that seems tailor made for superlatives. It's a huge movie, an epic movie, a thorough movie that follows decades in the life of a wealthy Benedict family, who own thousands of square miles of ranch land called "Reata" and have built themselves an empire. The trials and tribulations of the Benedicts are all documented from the 1920s well into the post-World War II era. Not a particular subtle movie; it often feels like a giant soap opera, but it is captivating to watch. The film never drags or feels like a three-hour plus movie. Thankfully, it also never merely resembles a long episode of "Dallas."

Because of its inherent "soap opera" feel, I was surprised to find many great performances in the movie. The situations could easily have led to some melodramatic acting. Luckily for the audience, the cast never gets swept away by the grandiose events of the screenplay. The film is anchored by the Benedict couple, played by Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor.

The film begins with Jordan "Bick" Benedict Jr. meeting Maryland socialite Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor) and taking her as his bride. They go back to his ranch and, after a period of adjustment and quick tragedy, they begin to make a life on Reata. Note I didn't say they begin a life together; that's not a mistake. In fact, the first several years are probably amongst the hardest for the young couple. Sexism and machismo prevent Leslie from properly settling into her new home, and her efforts to help are blocked at nearly every turn. Even her efforts to help the Mexican-American ranch hands are rebuffed by Bick, admonishing her for paying too much attention to "those people." Once their own children enter the picture, Bick makes it clear his goals and aspirations for the next generation are more important than whatever ideals Leslie has.

Casting of this couple seems perfect for the story told. Rock Hudson as Benedict is larger than life, and quite frankly often looks like Superman on the screen. Elizabeth Taylor is his socialite bride, with sensibilities much different than those found in the Lone Star state. Now, I've seen stills and photographs of young Taylor, but I had never actually seen her in any of her early films. My images of her are from the 1980s, so seeing her in Giant was a revelation. She was breathtakingly beautiful, and incredibly tiny. While never a meek character, I found Taylor's size to be an important facet to her role. She seemed dwarfed by the scale of everything on the ranch, and helped emphasize what a different world she was living in. After all, you know what they say about Texas...

And like that famous phrase, everything is bigger in this picture, especially the cast. There are so many interesting characters, both big and small, that I imagine movie programs for the film in 1956 came with a helpful family tree (or least should have). Curious that with a 3.5 hour runtime, I would have liked to see more of certain characters. While all served their purpose in the film by placing their fingerprints on the Benedict clan, you want to learn so much more about all these people. Life events often remove important people from your life far too soon, and that is one of the poignant lessons Giant reminds us of. Thankfully there are some clear audience favorites who persevere throughout the decades, like Uncle Bawley (Chill Wills). Whenever he appeared, I smiled as he was always present to add an appropriate smart remark with a drink in hand.

Giant is also famous for being the final film of James Dean's brief film career. As Jett Rink, Dean adds to the tension as a local ranch hand who has been bequeathed a tiny part of Reata and harbors a grudge against Bick. The role is an interesting one for Dean, as it is showy without providing the character much substance. He drawls his way through the first half of the movie and then stumbles and drinks his way through the second.

By stubbornly holding out against Benedict's bids to purchase back the land, Rink just ambles through the first 90 minutes of the picture as a thorn in Bick's side. Flirting with Leslie openly, he is nevertheless instrumental in exposing Mrs. Benedict to the plight of Reata's pillars, the migrant workers. Rink in the first half is a rascal of sorts, but endearing because he does long to better himself and become sophisticated. The fact he has James Dean's looks probably doesn't hurt either.

Well, wouldn't you know it, but Rink strikes oil on his tiny piece of land. Quickly becoming an oil baron, he becomes a living example of how a segment of "the new rich" sprouted out of the Texas soil. With this wealth, Rink gets an upgrade to a genuine rival of Benedict's. Yet Jett rapidly loses his charm, and descends into an eccentric and creepy sort of fellow. These scenes of older Rink reminded me of Leonardo's Di Caprio's depiction of Howard Hughes in The Aviator, so much that I pondered how much Leo derived from Dean's performance here. Heck, after a while, I expected Jett Rink to repeatedly ask to "show me all the blueprints, show me all the blueprints..." Ultimately, his character is reminiscent of the character of Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) in The Royal Tenenbaums. He so desperately wants to be a part of the Benedicts clan, and there are no depths he won't succumb to to try and carve a place for himself in the mythos he perceived at Reata.

Giant's screenplay didn't seem to give him an awful lot to work with, so it's a testament to Dean's skills that we followed the character as closely as we did. Tragic to have lost a magnetic actor so young; we will never really see what his career would have held, since the best was clearly yet to come.

Despite it's "soapish" feel, I was fascinated by the stories and the melodrama, especially once the Benedict children came of ages and started to make their own life-changing decisions. As was the rest if the audience, since many laughs and groans indicated our own levels of approval for the lives of the new young Benedicts. It was a fun and receptive crowd at the theatre that night, and reminded me that I was in Austin. When one character expressed her desire to go to Texas Tech, the boos came loud and fast at the screen, and we all had a large chuckle immediately afterward.

As the film progressed, I began to wonder how many of this audience's reactions were uniquely Texan. I imagine the film plays very differently here in this state than it does throughout the rest of the country. The explanation of things we take for granted early in the film, like cookouts and barbecue, made me giggle and realize how much Texan culture I took for granted.

What resonated strongest with me is the film's subplot about race relations with the Mexican-American culture, in the name of society's progress and acceptance of different people. Texas has flown six different national flags over its land through the centuries, and it's role as a melting pot of cultures can be seen as a microcosm of America's same role. The blurring of the cultural lines is apparent in this movie, and is appreciated in the state in a much different way from others. It certainly isn't shared by Arizona, that's for sure.

After years resisting change and pouting about his family's legacy, Bick Benedict finally relents to the winds of progress (not that he had much of a choice). The last shot of the film is a powerful and understated one. The next generation of Benedicts are standing side-by-side in Bick's living room, watching him with very different but eager faces. Through the decisions of his children and the appearance of grandchildren, Bick finally accepts the fact that his best-laid plans were futile. That life can't be wrangled and corralled like a herd of cattle (even if he doesn't know he's accepted it). Life isn't Bick's story, or Leslie's story or Jett's story, the story belongs to all of us. Our goal for our children is to provide, but change is as inevitable as the shifting Texas weather. Change is eternal, and it can be equally subtle or giant.

Film # 19: The Last Picture Show (Jun 21st)

The Last Picture Show

1971, 126 min.
Directed by Peter Bogdonavich

"If she was here I'd probably be just as crazy now as I was then in about 5 minutes. Ain't that ridiculous?... Naw, it ain't really. 'Cause being crazy about a woman like her is always the right thing to do. Being an old decrepit bag of bones, that's what's ridiculous. Gettin' old."
-Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson)

It's an exciting week for the Summer Film Series, and I was rubbing my hands in anticipation. This week has a series of Texas-themed stories, from Giant to Lone Star to Places in the Heart. What better place to partake of these grand stories than Texas's cultural center? Austin is known for its cultural diversity, so to me there's no better place to celebrate the life of Texas on film. After a busy weekend, the week would kick off on Monday night with The Last Picture Show. This time, I made sure to arrive early. This was a show I did not want to miss. As I arrived, I found many others had the same idea. It was a packed house, y'all.

I've always wondered, is there a greater curse than being labeled a "rising talent?" Expectations are a heck of a thing; they carry burden and risk. Risk of being a star that may burn too brightly, too soon. A great start to a career creates a sense of expectancy that few can ever maintain. Take for example, Peter Bogdonavich. The Last Picture Show was not his first feature, but is amongst the best to come out of that newer Golden Age of American cinema, the 1970s. Widely regarded as a brilliant film, it has remained Bogdonavich's crown jewel. It is a masterpiece painted in a palette of black and white, but the details and souls involved exist in shades of gray. Everyone in the film seems to be stuck in this one light town; their lives parked in neutral as they don't know what to do with themselves.

The Last Picture Show is a subtle but insightful film, and is one of those that slowly sneaks up on you while viewing it. It's a "slice of life" picture, and follows life in the fictionalized town of Anarene, TX in the early 1950s. Ostensibly a coming-of-age story about two friends during their last year of high school, the film slowly pulls back the curtain to reveal the lives of many of the townsfolk. Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges) are two teens who are typical in many ways. They play sports, hang at the local billiard hall, go to the picture show, and neck with their girlfriends. It's a directionless existence for the duo; barely outlining any future plans but lacking any stimulus but their hormones. These boys have little to no ambition, but it's interesting to see how the limits of a small town have fostered this apathy and restrains the dreams of its young.

What's immediately striking in the film is the atmosphere of a small town, be it in Texas or anywhere else. You can see the latent boredom as the driving force behind the young and old. People talk of ambitions and long term plans, but everyone is shackled to the state they're in. Bear in mind, I'm not talking about Texas, for these people dwell in a state of malaise. As anyone who grew up in small-town America knows, the gravity can be pretty damn strong. It's hard to let the initiative of your personal rocket ship escape a small town's inertia. Dreams rarely take flight because, once the town has its hooks in you, its difficult to escape. For some, the best they can hope to accomplish is to merely stay in orbit. Trust me, I grew up in a smallish city near the Texas coast. This authentic illustration of despair is captured perfectly. Perfectly, I tell you.

Despite depicting a whole lot of nothing going on, Picture Show is very frank in its presentation. It presents those good ol' days with a healthy dose of reality. Those with romanticized ideals of the post WWII era are in for a shock. The '50s weren't just poodle skirts and slicked hair. The movie's forthright attitude is seen in the townsfolk repeated scorning of the local football team, in coaches challenging manhood, and in the presentation of sex. Frankie Valli was mistaken, Grease isn't the word, sex is. Lots and lots of sex. Now that I think about it, maybe I was wrong also regarding the occurrence of nothing. In Anarene (as Jerry Lee Lewis said), there's a whole lotta shaking going on.

Picture Show is very carnal in its nature, and everyone seems to have a case of wandering hands and wavering monogamy. While initially shocking to see, the sexual dalliances are ultimately saddening because it's one of the few reminders that the town is still alive. Baseball may be America's pastime, but sex seems to be Anarene's. A close second place is gossip, since so many are quick to stick their noses (and other body parts) into other people's business. Everyone has an ear to the ground and loose lips. The older generation may be just as lecherous as their kids, but it appears discretion may be the only thing they learned over the years. Careless teenagers are much more cavalier with their bodies and the hearts of others.

Boys will be boys when it comes to their sex drives. It is interesting to note that the level of nudity, while shocking to the audience, is merely old hat to the young males. They learn that nudity may be one thing, but sex is a whole different animal. Duane is persistent in his attempts to deflower his girlfriend, yet shows complete surprise when he begins to make progress in his campaign. Sonny's views are more sensitive than his single-minded buddy, but how he handles sexuality proves to be just as feeble.

In stark contrast to the boys in town is Duane's girlfriend, Jacy (Cybill Shepard). She is the school's beauty and resident popular girl. Did I mention she's also the richest? Because that helps sweeten the deal, as well. Although presented with more opportunity because of her wealth, she still struggles with the town's (and her mother's) grasp on her life. While she is the only one of the youth with any semblance of having a long-term goal, it does keep shifting (and leads more to self-gratification than actual progress). Jacy may be an emerging independent young woman, but she's still short-sighted. I'm pretty sure that Gloria Steinem would not be amused. Jacy tries to wrestle control of her hazy future by using her body. Sex is but a part of the game, and her talent for manipulation is a toxic side-effect. They say girls love a bad boy, but the problem is her boyfriend is just an entry-level jerk. Therefore, her sex drive calls for her to play the field. Jacy may be the most complex of the young characters and Cybill Shepard plays it very well; showing the nuances of a girl unsure if what she's doing is right while having the will to follow through.

Despite the fine performances from the young cast, the finest acting is showcased by the tired and despondent adults in the film. The elders are populated by character actors, but each shines brightly in this film. My personal favorite is Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson in an Oscar winning performance), the most respected man in the town. Because of his paternal nature and the fact he owns the pool hall, the diner and the movie theater, you could say he is the very soul of Anarene. He is also a father figure to the two boys, providing guidance when he can and trying to break this generation of the "trashy behavior" he's been around all his life. Sam is a moral compass who hopes to point the way out of Anarene. Shame everyone is too busy doing nothing to listen.

Also noteworthy are the older female roles. Each are strong women with their own crosses to bear. Ellen Burstyn is Lois, Jacy's mother, a slightly overbearing woman who wants the best for her daughter in an effort to correct her own mistakes made in the past. Eileen Brennan, as Genevieve (the local waitress) is touching as a woman who works hard towards the carrot dangling in front of her, but has no illusions of ever reaching her goal. Like Sam, she adds a parental touch to the boys that indicates what they need before direction is guidance. These women add to the atmosphere of the town's sorrow, and they help reflect the tone of the film. Their performances hint at the truth that becomes apparent to the audience... that Anarene is a ghost town and doesn't even know it.

Cloris Leachman also won a Oscar for her supporting role, and she is by far the most tragic character in the film. Those of you who are familiar with Leachman only from her recent appearance on "Dancing with the Stars" should see his film to see why she was a star to begin with. Her role as a depressed housewife drips with melancholy, and we can feel how lonely she really is. As she transforms because of her newfound sexual glory, we in the audience wince because we can see that the other shoe will eventually drop. Yes, she should know better; but after years of unhappiness, it's really hard to reject the promise that hope brings. If Ben Johnson is the soul of The Last Picture Show, then Cloris Leachman is its heart. As a result, our heart breaks with hers.

Flavored by the old country music by the likes of Hank Williams, Eddy Arnold and Bob Wills, the film is a Texas-sized platter of small-town hopelessness. The Last Picture Show displays a wisdom far beyond the years of its director, since Peter Bogdonavich was 31 when he made this film. While it's not hard to believe someone so young could hit the nail on the head about teenage angst, it is remarkable that he could also nail the lamentations of middle age so well. Although he made a few strong films after this, none approached this level of sheer brilliance. In retrospect, Bogdonavich should've just pulled a Harper Lee. Write your "To Kill A Mockingbird," recognize it can't be matched, and retire.

The Last Picture Show isn't just Bogdonavich's crown jewel; it's a gem for all of us to treasure. Curse of the "rising talent" label or no, I'm simply glad we have this masterpiece for generations to experience. It paved the way for "high school as metaphor for life" cinema, and such deliberations on the merits of youth versus experience broke ground that John Hughes would continue to cultivate in the 1980s. Ultimately, it reminds the audience how disheartening it can be watching youth being wasted on the young. The world may be their oyster, but often they don't have the knowledge to really give a shuck.

The movie's brilliance was certainly discernible to all that night. Each of us in the audience were touched. We were laughing and crying when the moment called for it. As the end credits rolled, they were met with thunderous applause. Imagine that, cascading cheers and adoration on a film that is nearly 40 years old. But like its themes, the movie itself is timeless. For me, it left emotions in it's wake, rippling in my mind long after this picture show at The Paramount ended that evening. It continues to glow upon the silver screen all these years later; shimmering because the stars that night were big and bright indeed, deep in the heart of Texas.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Films # 17 & 18: Audrey Hepburn Double Feature (Jun 19th)

Breakfast at Tiffany's
1961, 115 min.
Directed by Blake Edwards

Roman Holiday
1953, 118 min.
Directed by William Wyler

"And I said, What about 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'??
She said, 'I think I remember the film?

And as I recall, I think, we both kinda liked it.'

And I said, 'Well, that's the one thing we've got.'"

-A really crappy song from the band Deep Blue Something, 1995

Ok, I'll be the first to admit it. Going into Sunday's double feature, I was fairly unfamiliar with the work of Audrey Hepburn. Of all her films, I believe I had only seen Sabrina (the original one) and Always, a Spielberg tearjerker that featured her last performance (more of a cameo than a supporting role). I was even less familiar with Breakfast at Tiffany's, a beloved movie that many feel is the iconic role of Hepburn's career. All I was familiar with was that one iconic image that is now a poster in young ladies' dorms across America, and it was referenced in a "Seinfeld" episode. Yes, I may sound like just another guy, but I was still curious to attend the double feature so I could at least see what the big deal was about. I have an open mind, after all. This from a guy who has actually seen all episodes of "Sex and the City." But don't ask me why. It's classified.

Before Sunday's shows, there was a mini-manicure event with treats from Walton's Fancy and Staple, a local Gourmet Delicatessen/Bakery and Café. It was special VIP treatment for those who purchased a specific package for the matinee double feature. Now, although I had no intention of having my nails done, I make it a point to attend every special event I can at The Paramount. Breakfast at Tiffany's was scheduled to start at 2 pm, so I arrived at 1:30 and charmed my way upstairs to have a gander.

There were still dozens of ladies waiting in the upstairs lounge area, visiting and waiting patiently to get their mini-manicures. Also displayed were tables with numerous baubles and trinkets to catch everyone's fancy. While giving a cursory glance over the items, I finally found the petit fours from Walton's. The little cakes were decorated to resemble Tiffany wrapped boxes, and they were elaborate, tiny and adorable. The temptation was great to try and sample one, but I left them for the guests. Of course, I did make a mental note to visit Walton's very soon.

As I was documenting the event, I ran into Brooklyn Barbieri, The Paramount's Marketing & PR Associate, who organized the day's event. She informed me that women had been lined up since the event opened at 12:30. Dude. And I thought there was a large crowd when I was there. Another note to self, never underestimate the devotion of ladies who want to treat themselves on a weekend afternoon. After all, chances are they deserve it, and then some.

For your enjoyment, there are several photos below. Included in the last shot is Ms. Barbieri herself (Brooklyn, I hope you don't mind; It is a nice pose).

With a crowd like this, I immediately recognized we were dealing with a near full house in the auditorium. Luckily, I was able to find a seat in short order. Trailers played for Breathless, Giant and The Adventures of Robin Hood (again).

Breakfast at Tiffany's is a romantic "comedy" about Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn), a free-spirit and "love 'em and leave 'em" kind of party girl. When new neighbor Paul Varjak (George Peppard) moves in upstairs, she brazeningly invites herself into his life. And why not? He's a charming guy; quite handsome and dapper. Alas, he lacks the most important quality for her to determine worthiness for courtship. You see, he's rather poor. Holly is a gold digger, not to put too fine a point on it (and decades before Kanye West made his song). She's taking aim on New York's richest and looking for her one big score. Rather despicable, huh? I agree. In fact, it's a good thing she's so congenial, or else the audience would likely never care what happens to her. Nevertheless, it doesn't take the viewer long to figure out something is amiss about Ms. Golightly. Is her extroversion calculated? A ruse to cover something up flawed inside her? Some deep secret? Ohhhhh, you betcha.

As it turns out, Paul isn't so squeaky clean himself. The reason he's moving in is because his sugar momma just set him up there. Proclaiming himself to be a struggling writer, he seems to have slipped into a creative coma long ago, getting by on what a monogamous gigolo can afford. Within days, they are the best of friends. Why, they may be the very definition of codependence. Because she's emotionally unavailable and he is "under contract," they make an ideal couple as they window-shop New York City. Not just longing for the lavish baubles, but the cosmopolitan lifestyle itself.

This early 1960s metropolitan sexiness is, in fact, the real star of the film. Everyone is so fashionable, with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. It was a simpler time. Surgeon General's warnings were merely suggestions, evidently. There was also no texting back then; all your messages had better fit on a cocktail napkin. The film has a certain retro appeal (the same kind that makes shows like "Mad Men" wildly popular). It's seductive to see a side of New York that is so en vogue, even if it's not entirely healthy. While I was miffed about the superfluousness of the lifestyle depicted, I didn't have a serious problem with it, personally. After all, Holly herself is described by her "agent" O.J. Berman (Martin Balsam) as "a phony, but a real phony." Truer words were not spoken in the rest of the film.

In fact, my only early complaints would have only been about the presentation. There must have been some shenanigans in the projector's booth that day. The first reel was incredibly dark. Images were rather difficult to make out, and I would just consider that the audience listened to the first 15 minutes or so. Also, after the second reel, there was no third reel... at least not right away. When the film stopped in mid-scene, many groans filled the auditorium. I heard someone pronounce from downstairs that it was an intermission for refreshing drinks. Riiiiiight. Come on now, it's not like we're watching Giant (that, for me, would be on Tuesday). It was a rather brief intermission then, because about 90 seconds later the film resumed. Oops. Sorry for those in line getting drinks in the lobby. Like I said, I'm not sure what was going on. Perhaps someone's nails were still wet.

Once I could see, however, I was appalled, repeat APPALLED at Mickey Rooney's performance. He appears in the film as a Asian neighbor, and it may well be the most insensitive and racist performance I've seen in years. It's the most vile kind of caricature. Using stereotypical dialect and buckteeth is not acting. The first time he appeared, I was only mildly offended. Looking back, I think I was more shocked than angry, since that first reel of the film shown was so dark. Yet with every subsequent appearance in the film, I grew more and more angry. Mostly because his character serves no purpose other than comic relief, and it's not funny at all. Who thought this was a good idea? Did no one look at dailies and say, "whoa, that's a bit... much?" Look, I know I may come off as over-sensitive, but this sticks out like a sore thumb in this movie. I know Tiffany's director Blake Edwards would use similar tricks in later films (usually with Peter Sellers), but Sellers never crossed the line into offensive territory while portraying a silly Frenchman in the Pink Panther films. Even in 1968's The Party, Sellers didn't rile my feathers while playing an Indian man. In those cases, Sellers was playing a character that happened to be of a certain nationality. Here, Rooney is just playing the stereotype as the character, and it's very disappointing to see.

From a technical standpoint, Tiffany's is lovely to behold. Edwards gives the entire movie a whimsical feel, even as we learn Holly's soul isn't as luminous as her outward beauty. Much like "As Time Goes By" became the theme to Casablanca, "Moon River" by Henry Mancini becomes the soul of this picture, and instrumental reprises serve as the film's score. Edwards also does an amazing job of emphasizing Hepburn's beauty in this story of n unbridled party girl. It was a role that was against type for her, but she's still engaging because the audience loves her so much already.

Everything looks so pretty in this movie. Having the legendary Edith Head as your costume designer never hurts, since everyone looks dashing in their metropolitan duds. Even New York City itself looks ravishing and inviting. It's very easy to see how Holly is enchanted with the City, and the adventures she and Paul undertake have a great deal of charm. He introducing her to the library, and she introduces him to the world of petty shoplifitng. Hey, you learn something new every day, right? They have a love affair with the City, even if not with each other. Watching them is like watching Carrie and Mr. Big, if they, you know, were destitute and on a Dave Ramsey plan. Of course, I don't think Ramsey would advise anyone to be a gold digger or a man-whore. It's probably best to diversify a bit more.

In many ways, Breakfast at Tiffany's is the inspiration behind "Sex and the City." Like Carrie Bradshaw, Holly Golightly finds that she loves her city and her lifestyle more than any one person. Just like it was frustrating to watch Carrie and Big in their on and off relationship, it is vexing to watch Golightly skip and jump from one suitor to the next. In this film, the user keeps finding herself being used. Oh well, as long as the drinks keep coming. Party on, right? Wrong. Truth is, I've known many "Hollys" in my lifetime, chasing material things and running away from adult responsibilities. They're even more frustrating in real life. Trust me.

Ultimately, Breakfast was a meal I think I could have skipped. It had several sweet moments but, like Holly, ran away from its problems. The film is populated with dark and troubled characters, but chooses to focus on the fluff and provide a typical Hollywood romance, complete with happy ending. As the film concluded though, I felt no sense of resolution. Like The Graduate, I was left with a sense of "ok, now what?" Superficial lifestyles offer no solutions to life's problems, and Hollywood endings rarely do so either. Sadly, I think most moviegoers miss this point. The movie's praise is warranted, but I do feel people over the years have focused on the wrong aspects. The sexy metropolitan lifestyle may have its allure, but its best to tread lightly. Material things are no substitute for true happiness, no matter how shiny they may be... or how pretty those Tiffany gift boxes look.

The second feature made for much lighter fare. It was a tiny dessert to the day's events. I knew little about Roman Holiday, so I was looking forward to this one also. All I knew was that it had scooters and Italians, as told to me by Eddie Izzard in a comedy routine. See for yourself.

So yeah, this was to be a learning experience. A classic film should be more than a punchline.

Roman Holiday is a bit of a modern fairy tale movie, starring Audrey Hepburn as a young European princess who longs to break away from the burdens of the royal routine. Kind of like Princess Jasmine in Disney's Aladdin, or even Eddie Murphy in Coming to America. Okay, maybe not quite like Eddie Murphy.

While on a goodwill tour through Europe, she decides to sneak out one evening while in Rome incognito. She happens upon Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), an American reporter who is assigned to interview her. Alas, Bradley is not the most ambitious of journalists, since he doesn't even know who she is at first. Only after putting her up for the night does he discover who this young guest really is. Bradley sees opportunity, and his eyes light up at the thought of snagging more than a mere interview, but the story of the year. This could be the ticket to establishing some professional credibility and get him back to the States.

While hiding his profession from her, he accompanies the princess on her excursion to see the sights of Rome, and together they have the most amazing day off. Even Ferris Bueller would be envious. Along the way, they run into Bradley's colleague Irving (Eddie Albert), a photographer who Bradley has recruited to capture the day's events clandestinely. Irving, however, always seems to be a step behind Bradley in his scheming, often coming perilously close to blowing their cover. As a result, he often ends up with egg on his face... or vino on his lap. Who knew Eddie Albert could play the fool? I don't recall any hints of that from his later "Green Acres" days.

Director William Wyler certainly knows how to show off Rome. Sprinkling postcard-esque shots of monuments, buildings and landmarks throughout, this film could be a promotional video for travel to the Italian city. Sure, not all of us can tour while accompanying royalty, but that won't make the trip any less majestic. The sights and sounds and gelato certainly made me want to partake of a Roman holiday of my own. Heck, maybe even putt around in one of those Vespas. Although I must confess it would still be difficult to do so without hearing Eddie Izzard in my head.

Roman Holiday is a delightful little film, a treasure that took home Oscars for Best Actress, writing, and costume design (Edith Head, once again). In fact, I'd consider it a near flawless romantic comedy except for one thing I just kept having issue with. This is the type of film that Cary Grant can carry in his sleep, so the choice of Gregory Peck seemed odd. Perhaps colored by his later roles (and especially To Kill A Mockingbird), Peck seems too paternal for a romantic lead, and certainly more than a bit too old for Audrey Hepburn. As the romance blooms between the two onscreen, it's sweet, but mildly creepy. But overall, it's easy to overlook that when you're charmed byt he rest of the film. Besides, who wouldn't fall in love with Audrey Hepburn?

I was so taken by Hepburn's performance in this, her first starring role. She was the right balance of being regal and innocent. Recent comparisons between Natalie Portman and young Audrey certainly appear justified in my mind; for there's a wisdom inside their natural grace and beauty. Throughout the film, the audience laughed and giggled and sighed when the movie called for it. We were all mesmerized by her spell.

So as I walked back to my car after the show, I had a new appreciation for the career of Ms. Hepburn. More than a UNICEF ambassador or a dorm poster, she was easily one of the most adorable and charming icons of the silver screen. Whether a princess or a gold digging pauper, one thing is for sure, it's very easy to love her characters. I found myself still smiling as I got in my car and turned the key. Now, off to go find some gelato. Perhaps a trip to Mandola's is in order...


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Films # 15 & 16. Scorsese Double Feature (Jun 16th)

Raging Bull
1980, 129 min.
Directed by Martin Scorsese

1990, 146 min.
Directed by Martin Scorsese

Man oh man, things are getting good. During the Summer Film Series I recently got to partake of old favorites (Bogart, Hitchcock) and have been introduced to some new ones (Thin Man, Kazan, Robert Shaw). Wednesday was another treat with a double feature by the man I've considered my favorite director for about two decades. Martin Scorsese is so familiar and revered by me and a good number of my friends, we refer to him in conversation as "Marty" (as if we ever met the guy). Since Cape Fear in 1991, I have seen every one of his films theatrically. Even Kundun, which was no easy feat at the time. It played in my tiny hometown for about 4 days in a theater only as large as most people's kitchens.

So it was with another dose of undiluted giddiness that I was looking to attend the mid-week features. Wednesday's double feature was two of Scorsese's finest, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. These two films were made ten years apart and are now widely regarded as the best films of the 1980s and '90s, respectively. Oddly, neither won Best Picture or Best Director, a fact that led many to believe Scorsese was "Oscar cursed" until The Departed finally won both in 2006.

Before the show, there was to be a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Raging Bull presented by Steve Wilson. He is the Harry Ransom Center's Associate Curator of Film, located on the University of Texas campus. Doing a little research on the HRC, I discovered that there is a current exhibition on "Making Movies," showing the collaborative efforts behind many film classics. Imagine that, a little more cinematic gold, right here in Austin! Elation ran through my veins as I quickly decided this was another film mecca I had to visit in the next couple of months. What a great summer this is turning out to be!

When I got to the Theatre, Wilson was already giving his presentation. It was quite impressive, with stills and storyboards to underline his points and illustrate the making of this film. I immediately got a "college lecture" kind of vibe, and felt incredibly embarrassed to have walked in late. Like a guilty student I simply sat in the closest seats I could find (way in the back). It was fascinating and I felt like taking notes; an old condition from my college days when I was afraid the information would reappear on a future exam. Old habits die hard, even if I was never a motivated student in my youth. Ha ha.

Now, as I recall, I had seen most of Raging Bull back in my early high school years, but I don't remember much of it sticking with me. The vivid and violent imagery stuck, but was hazy on the sequences of events and the story itself. I was curious to see if time had ripened me into a more attentive viewer, particularly now that I am more familiar with Marty's work. To make a long story short, it did.

Raging Bull is the biopic of boxer Jake La Motta, a middleweight fighter who contended in the 1940s and '50s. In it, Scorsese creates a character study of a completely despicable man. Also starring Joe Pesci as his devoted brother and Cathy Moriarty as La Motta's wife, both are also punching bags for the troubled boxer. While a story of a simple (and seemingly unimportant) man, Scorsese's extraordinary direction and skill illustrate that even the most insignificant of lives can tell a story and provide a moral lesson, even if as a cautionary tale of wasted opportunity.

Brutality aside, this is a marvelously beautiful film. The cinematography is top notch, and the pacing and editing is superb. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker and Scorsese have spent most of their careers working together, and Raging Bull may prove to remain the zenith of their working collaboration. The entire film is operatic in its tone, and is underlined by the use of the symphonic Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana. Even the boxing bouts have a unique tempo and dark musicality in their choreography, a rhythm punctuated with violence. To me, Raging Bull is also the quintessential film on the sport of boxing, knocking Rocky to the mat easily. It depicts the poetry of men in the boxing ring, exposing the magnificence of the sport beneath its violent exterior.

Although the film is renown for its high level of technical craftsmanship, it is arguably even more famous for the award-winning portrayal by Robert De Niro. His performance as La Motta is a rare tour de force, and can be described as brutish, masochistic, jealous, and ferocious. Throughout the movie, La Motta tests the patience of his family and friends as he lashes out in fear. It's like watching someone banging their forehead against a concrete wall, and even for the audience it can be tough to endure. This rage makes for decent boxing fuel, however, as he channels the fury and insecurity into vulgar displays of power in the ring. He's a man bent on controlling his life: trying to challenge for the title without any assistance, keeping his wife on a short leash, and pulverizing anyone who challenges his manhood.

Perhaps most significant in De Niro's showcase of method acting is his massive weight gain to portray a washed-up La Motta during the post-boxing days. He gained 70 lbs to transform himself and cement this role as the stuff of legend. It also set a precedent for Oscar gold; gaining or losing weight and transforming oneself physically for a role. For additional examples, see Tom Hanks in Philadelphia and Charlize Theron in Monster. Be sure to note they also received little gold statues for their work.

Still, he's riveting to watch, and is reminiscent of a young Marlon Brando. He specifically evokes the Brando of Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront, as the embodiment of animalistic rage and self-loathing. After watching Raging Bull, it's very easy to see the comparisons of Brando and De Niro as acting titans. Raging Bull took the role of the self-delusional male to new extremes, and the final scene of La Motta's delivery to a mirror would be heartbreaking if he was a sympathetic character in the very least. Never have delusions of grandeur and narcissism blended so well, and its a powerful scene of a man who hit rock bottom. So strong, in fact, that Paul Thomas Anderson couldn't help echoing the scene in Boogie Nights.

Because Raging Bull isn't the most accessible of movies, I can see how an audience may find it hard to digest on first viewing. Often difficult to watch, and by no means is it a conventional uplifting biographical movie. It's a siren's song of a film, luring you with its inherent beauty while daring you to gaze upon this repugnant character's life. A raging bull in his own personal china shop, La Motta never seems to learn the old adage, "you break it, you buy it." And even after he loses everything, he masks his loss with his continuing contempt for those around him... forever paying the price for his sins.

As the lights came up after the movie, I myself felt a little battered. Time for a Dr. Pepper; but trust me, I was tempted to drink something stronger. I did not, however, want anything interfering with the enjoyment of the follow-up feature, Goodfellas.

Now, "Goodfeathers" is a cartoon short about three pigeons who- wait, that's not right. I meant Fellas, not Feathers. Hold on, let's back up and start again...

For film buffs, there is always a private mental list of movies one wishes they had seen in a theater. For me, Goodfellas has always been near the top of that list. It was one of those seminal films that awoke a new sense of appreciation for cinema when I saw it on VHS at age 14. At certain times in my life since, I've become fanatical about the film. Not to the extent that rap stars get with Brian De Palma's Scarface, but my intoxication with Goodfellas sometimes runs hot like a fever.

Much like a latent virus, my fascination with Goodfellas manifests into a bit of an obsession every few years or so. Look no further than the picture on the right. Yes, that's an old photo of me wearing a custom shirt using artwork from the movie. You may know the scene:

"One dog goes one way, the other dog goes the other way, and this guy's sayin', 'Whadda ya want from me?' Guy's got a nice head of white hair, it's beautiful."

I made it about six or seven years back, and stopped wearing it once I had lost some weight. If I recall correctly it became a garage sale item, meaning someone out there is wearing it. Although, they most likely don't know the image and simply use it while mowing their grass or something. Oh well. One man's treasure can become another man's disposable shirt.

Like many pointless disputes, there seems to be an eternal argument of the ultimate Mafia movie, Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas or Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather. It's a futile exercise, akin to fanboys arguing who would win a fight between Superman and Batman. Now, I would never dispute the greatness of The Godfather, but I just can't bring myself to proclaim it as the greatest mob movie of all time. For me, the reason is because I refuse to label it merely as a mafia movie. The Godfather to me was always more personal; a story about a clan over generations. It's a cinematic saga about an American family tree come to life. Goodfellas, on the other hand, is about American fraternity painted with broad strokes of nostalgia. This is like the stories of guys you grow up with or work with. It's about strangers who, through the pursuit of a common goal, become like family. That friendship bond is similar, but very different than that of relatives. The greatness of both films can not be denied, but the question of which is greater is merely a matter of opinion. There's no formula to figure out, and one should just be happy there are two quality pieces of art to dispute. No one ever has these arguments about... say, Deep Impact versus Armageddon.

Anyway, back to task. Goodfellas is a biopic about Henry Hill, who grew up and became immersed in the New York mob over a few decades. "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster," he narrates at the beginning of the film, and the story of his humble beginnings prove it. Some kids dream of becoming President, or a fireman, or a veterinarian, but Hill doesn't want to be anything so blue-collar. Why work to make a living when you can make a living without the work? Ah, that's the very allure of crime itself. There is temptation to shortcut across laws that are usually there for a reason, and these guys succumb to that desire. These wiseguys run around New York like kids in a candy store. This movie is not hesitant to show how many good times can be had in this life. Yet the film reminds us that, while it may be seductive, this life is inherently dangerous.

The film's signature scene perfectly encapsulates the charm and terror of the criminal life depicted. Joe Pesci, in his Oscar-winning role as Tommy DeVito, is a hothead mobster with little man syndrome and a temper as big as his ego. He does whatever he wants and yet seems to be a helluva guy to hang out with. But it's certainly not wise to ever cross him. He can strike like a viper in the blink of an eye. One such scene starts innocently enough, with a funny anecdote over drinks in the company of friends. But when Henry makes a vague compliment about Tommy being a "funny guy," things quickly veer into a scary new direction.

"What do you mean I'm funny?"
"It's funny, you know. It's a good story, it's funny, you're a funny guy."
"What do you mean, you mean the way I talk? What?"
"It's just, you know. You're just funny, it's... funny, the way you tell the story and everything..."
"You mean, let me understand this cause, ya know maybe it's me, I'm a little f---ed up maybe, but I'm funny how, I mean funny like I'm a clown, I amuse you? I make you laugh, I'm here to f---in' amuse you? What do you mean funny, funny how? How am I funny?"
"Just... you know, how you tell the story, what?"
"No, no, I don't know, you said it. How do I know? You said I'm funny. How the f--- am I funny, what the f--- is so funny about me? Tell me, tell me what's funny!"

No matter how many times I've seen the movie, I always find myself holding my breath during that scene. The long pause after this exchange is excruciating. It's like waiting for a bomb to go off, and that's the very point. Life may seem like fun and games with no consequences, but there are always rules to follow. It's the peek at this culture that holds your interest and doesn't let go. Hill narrates and tells his story to us, and it's our privilege that turns into our pleasure.

Scorsese's use of Henry's voiceover narration drives the film. It heightens the ease with which the audience can identify with these characters who live a life we could never imagine. Midway through the film, Marty wisely shifts the narration over to Karen (Lorraine Bracco), as a girl who dates Henry and eventually becomes his wife. Her insight into the lifestyle is another viewpoint and equally fascinating. She is charmed by Henry, just as Henry was by the life as a kid. As the story continues, Karen and Henry slowly see life isn't so rosy. They descend into new positions of desperation, always chasing rewards with as little effort as possible. As I said, there are always rules to any workplace (even the Mafia), only the Mob won't let you go with a pat on the back and a letter of recommendation. The Hills know this all too well, and their paranoia is contagious to the audience. We can see the twisted logic of their perspectives, even if we can barely understand why someone would do the things they do.

Marty constructs Goodfellas with his usual technical expertise. The performances and Nicholas Pileggi's screenplay are its core, and again Schoonmaker's editing propels the movie like a roadster tearing up the highway's asphalt. Also, the film's vitality is sustained by a litany of pop songs from the timeline depicted, just like a midnight race on the blacktop would. the sequence using the piano exit from "Layla" is so good it gives me the chills thinking about it. And that incredible tracking shot through the Copacabana club? OMG. No words can describe its excellence. Make no mistake, Goodfellas may be a modern tragedy of people chasing a perverse version of the American dream, but it's a damn fun ride. Perhaps not as heavy as Raging Bull, but no less brilliant. I prefer to look as this film as part of Scorsese's "Self Destruction trilogy." I see Raging Bull as part one, Goodfellas as part two, and 1995's Casino as part three. All are similar thematically, and all bear Marty's signature touches. Grade A, top-caliber stuff, at that.

"You know, we always called each other good fellas. Like you said to, uh, somebody, :You're gonna like this guy. He's all right. He's a good fella. He's one of us.: You understand? We were good fellas. Wiseguys." -Henry Hill

Goodfellas is such a quotable movie, but in the "hanging out with your friends" not "in front of Grandma at Thanksgiving" forum of quoting lines. My old friends and I were all enchanted by the film back in the 1990s. Women may have been from Venus, but my friends and I thought we were from a Nick Pileggi screenplay. For years, the biggest sign of disrespect amongst my friends (usually while playing video games) was the phrase, "go home and get your shinebox!" This was oh so long ago; shouted during games of Mortal Kombat or NBA Jam. There was always something amusing about us shouting obscenities at each other while playing such childish games. We were wise asses, maybe, but not wiseguys. The closest we got to Italian was Mario and Luigi. Unlike Henry Hill, we all must grow up sometime. Occasionally, I miss that sense of fraternity with those old buddies. It's one thing that Facebook can never bring back. It's why I treasure my favorite films, and one more thing revisiting cinema can evoke inside us. For a couple of hours, we can remember who we were when we first watched a favorite movie... the emotions you felt, and the people you shared it with. Yeah, those were some good times with good friends. Good fellas, indeed.