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Monthly Archives: June 2016

Movie of the Day: Losing LeBron (2013)

LosingLeBron

The most quietly telling image in the documentary “Losing LeBron” is a Nike ad featuring LeBron James with his arms outstretched and his eyes cast upwards to Heaven.  Over his head is written the slogan “We Are All Witnesses.”  It is a Christ-like pose that speaks volumes to his importance to the town Cleveland, Ohio where he was raised.  Many felt that, in a way, James was Cleveland and many of its citizens looked up to him like a God.

Then a bomb fell on July 8, 2010 when James announced that he was leaving The Cleveland Cavaliers via free agency to join The Miami Heat. Overnight he went from favorite son to the most hated man in town. The people of Cleveland speak of “The Decision” in the same way someone might speak of The Kennedy Assassination or 9/11. As LeBron James moves on, the movie’s scope widens to show us the financial heart of a city whose glory days are long gone. Cleveland was once a mighty industrial city, but that moniker has washed away in the adamant of time so long ago that most of its citizens don’t remember when it was flourishing. LeBron James’ betrayal seems to wipe away any vestige of pride that the city had. His name became so hated that a local bar insisted the patrons not wear his jersey while on the premises. Local business offered former fans the chance to shred their LeBron James merchandise in public.

An even worse jolt hit on December 2nd, when The Cavaliers had their first game against Miami following James’ departure. We see a bar in which people are gathered to watch their former favorite son get his comeuppance (complete with a waitress wearing a 23 jersey embossed with the name “Judas.” The humiliation of that night is seen on the face of every person in attendance as The Cav lose to Miami 118 to 90.

The public reaction to LeBron James’ departure might seem harsh but “Losing LeBron” is about much more than just a sports hero pulling up stakes. It is about the emotional and financial psychology of a city that the rest of the country seems to have written off as a walking joke (every comedian from Johnny Carson to Yakov Smirnoff had fun at the city’s expense). What is interesting is that directors Nicole Prowell Hart and Allyson Sherlock have little interest in basketball. The loss of LeBron James was devastating to a town that already had a self-image problem.

We meet several people, most prominently gonzo journalist Scott Raab who, in two years, went from blogging about LeBron to publishing a book, derisively titled “The Whore of Akron: One Man’s Search for the Soul of LeBron James.” He remembers being in attendance when the Cleveland Browns beat the Baltimore Colts for the NFL World Championship on December 27, 1964 – the last time that Cleveland ever won a sports title. LeBron James was suppose to bring the city it’s glory back, but the hopes of a championship have been long forgotten as generation after generation can’t remember their city’s last sports victory.

We also meet Mike Brenkus and Candice Vlcek, dedicated season ticket holders whose entire collection of LeBron James merchandise has been tucked away into plastic tubs. Mike weakly pulls out a once-proud Number 23 jersey and can’t bring himself to completely unfold it.

Interestingly, James’ departure seems to affect the white population more than the black population. The black folks in town seem to take it in stride. You don’t hear it so much out loud, but it is implied the the words and actions of the people around town. We meet a fascinating father and son, Zack and Tyrone Shavers who are just trying to get by – Zach has a halfway approach to Job Corps classes while Tyrone works a series of temp jobs just to feed himself. They acknowledge that they don’t blame LeBron for leaving because, based on what is around them in Cleveland, they have a desire to pull up stakes and leave too.

“Losing LeBron” is an effective, if curiously short, documentary (it runs just under an hour) that deals less with sports heroes then the pride of a town that never seemed to have one.  The insights help us understand that Cleveland’s problems were far deeper than any sport hero, but you’d like some more insights into the story.  What’s here is interesting but if often just feels like an appetizer to a longer and more focused documentary.  Still it is an original and engaging piece of filmmaking dealing with human beings and how their environment effects their emotional well-being.

 

Movie of the Day: Rebecca (1940)

Rebecca

On the surface, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca seems inorganic to the rest of his work.  True, its slow pace and gothic tone are a little jarring after you’ve seen North By Northwest, Vertigo, Psycho and Notorious, but here is a film that can’t be discounted.  It is the most somber of his works and, in the haunting mysteries of the human connection probably comes closest to Vertigo, but it is not quite as deep.

Rebecca is, in many ways, a ghost story.  The spirit in question is not manifested through spectral light or ectoplasm but through the dark emotional chasms of secrets that it has left behind.  That Rebecca de Winter was young and beautiful deepens the loss.  That she was privately scheming and manipulative helps us understand her husband’s disorientation at her loss.

And yet, because this is a Hitchcock film there has to be some form of trickery on his part.  There has to be some form of audience manipulation that asserts his claim that he played us like a piano.  What he does in this film is brilliant.  He presents a central character, Rebecca de Winter, and never once has her appear on screen.  Her story is the entire movie, but there are no flashbacks, no photographs, no voice-overs, no actress credited with the role.  Rebecca exists in dialogue and set decoration.  We see her bedroom, her closets, her old possessions, her furniture, but we never see her.  Her presence is there but she is not.  At one point, Mr. de Winter tells his new wife about the night that Rebecca died.  As he speaks, the camera focuses and on an empty couch and the camera follows the invisible Rebecca as she gets up and walks toward him.  It’s a beautiful trick that plays with our minds – the camera movements create her even though she’s not really there.  Rebecca’s absence was easy to pull off in Daphne du Maurier’s book, but it takes skill to do this in a film.

That’s not the limit of Hitchcock’s trickery.  This was the first film he made after coming to Hollywood and you can already see some of the great tricks that he would later employ.  One constant throughout his work is that he begins the film one way and then turns it into another.  The outward framework of Rebecca is an uneasy love story between a dowdy American girl (Joan Fontaine) and the wealthy but emotionally damaged Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), Rebecca’s surviving husband.  The film opens in the south of France with Mr. de Winter leaning over a precipitous cliff overlooking the sea, contemplating suicide.  He is saved by a shy young woman (Joan Fontaine) who is working as the travelling companion to Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates), a stuffy old bat who talks too much.  This young woman is our guide for the rest of the story despite the fact that she is never given a name.

The couple meets and seems to have nothing in common.  Despite their obvious differences, they fall in love and get married.  From immediate appearances, there is no reason in the world that these two should be together.  They come from two separate social stations and two completely different personalities, but Maxim makes it clear to her that there is something genuine in the way feels about her.  As the trip comes to a close, he brings her home to his ancestral country estate of Manderlay where his wife, the beloved Rebecca, died a year earlier.  Based on what transpires for the rest of the film, it is fitting that the new Mrs. de Winter first arrives at the house during a violent thunderstorm.

In these few scenes Hitchcock does what he does best, he establishes a story that seems to be leading in a certain direction and then switches tracks so we find ourselves in a different kind of story.  Based on the social differences between Maxim and his new bride, one might expect a comedy of errors or maybe a diabolical plot by Mr. de Winter to lead her into a web of deception (or vice versa).  But there is something much more going on, something much deeper than we might at first realize.  This is not a story about a murder in an old dark house, but about the lingering secrets stowed away in a man’s heart and about the curious power of grief and mourning.  A year earlier, Rebecca de Winter, Maxim’s first wife drowned in a boating accident not far from the house.  We can feel the impact of that death through the funerary tone established by those she left behind.

What is best achieved in Rebecca is the somber atmosphere of a house in the weeks after the funeral has ended and the mourners have gone home.  Manderley is still haunted by memories of Rebecca’s youth and beauty and the sadness of her tragic death.  For most of the film Hitch establishes that he is the master of his canvas, making us feel the tone of the story without having to express everything in words.  The light and shadows of the interior of the house (brought to life by cinematographer George Barnes) giving the feeling of a mausoleum.

In this crypt-like setting comes a character that is one of the great oddities of American literature.  Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), the head housekeeper is as stiff and immobile as Mr. de Winter.  Bird-like, dressed in black and with a smooth, cool voice, she moves through Manderlay like a wraith, protecting Rebecca’s memory (her motions and her appearance remind us of Dracula).  She is at odds with the new Mrs. de Winter, feeling that she has come to try and replace Rebecca.  It doesn’t take long before we realize that Mrs. Danvers’ devotion to the late Rebecca more than borders on the obsessive.

Du Maurier’s novel made no bones about the obvious question of lesbian feelings in Mrs. Danvers toward Rebecca.  Nor is the movie despite Hitch’s fight with the censors.  That’s obvious in a moment when she shows Rebecca’s bedroom to the young Mrs. de Winter, boldly opening her underwear drawer than introducing her to a negligee that she keeps hidden under a pillow case.  She resents the new Mrs. de Winter and lets it be known that Maxim can never love her as he loved Rebecca.  Later, at a moment of near-hypnotism, she tries to encourage the young woman the throw herself out of the third-story window.

Who is Mrs. Danvers?  What was her connection with Rebecca?  Late in the film, we learn that Rebecca wasn’t quite the angelic personage that everyone seems to play up.  She was an adulterer, and a bit of a con artist.  Her connection with Mrs. Danvers is mysterious.  Were they lovers?  Or did she admire Rebecca from afar.  Why does she use the “Mrs” salutation?  Was she married?  Why is she so protective of Mr. de Winter?  Why is Rebecca’s memory worth giving up her life?  The fact that we don’t know is the greatness of this story, a story in which most of the secrets remain hidden in the shadows.

The greatness of Hitchcock’s work is his ability to build in us a sense of anticipation.  His characters maintain dark secrets, some of which are revealed and some of which aren’t.  We engage our minds to figure them out and he leaves us with just enough to leave us curious about them.  A lot is revealed in Rebecca but a great deal more remains unsaid.

 

 

In Theaters: The Neon Demon (2016)

NeonDemon

“She’s a diamond among a sea of glass,” says a fashion designer of the pretty but not outrageously remarkable ingénue who has just arrived in L.A. to be part of its haughty fashion scene.  Her name is Jesse and she stands out yet it is hard at first to figure out why.  The body isn’t remarkable, the face isn’t remarkable, but in her natural state of being she is something special.  The other models know it and she knows it, and that’s the beginning of her problems.  What happens next is a devolving horror show fit for Stephen King.

The Neon Demon is a neo-nightmare, a strange canvas of imagery that will either entice you or repel you.  Most have chosen to be repelled, but I found something to grab onto.  Maybe I’m just feeling generous.  In the same week that I stand alone in giving positive marks to Independence Day: Resurgence, I now stand virtually alone in my admiration of The Neon Demon.  Critics across the board have vented their spleen about this movie, dismissing it as a hackneyed helping of unappetizing pretentious vapidness served up with heaps of self-indulgence and dipped in arthouse sauce.  Are they right?  Well . . . yeah.  But come on, a little self-indulgence never hurt anybody.

The movie is a bizarre commentary on the world of fashion models told through breath-taking images that are art-directed within an inch of their lives.  How much arthouse imagery you are willing to stomach depends on you.  The superficiality of the fashion world is not exactly surprising, but where the movie is willing to take it is a matter of taste (cannibalism?  necrophilia?  Yeah, they’re both here).  Jesse’s journey is a nightmare scenario that moves back and forth between what is real and what is not.  Where the line is drawn is one of the great challenges presented to us.  This is not a visceral experience.  All of the supporting characters in this movie are out for themselves.  They’re all terrible.  They all live and work in an industry that is, by it’s very nature, cheap and superficial.  But the thrust of their motivation seems to be the law of the jungle.

The central core of the film is Jesse (Elle Fanning) who is pretty without being gorgeous and a country girl without being country fried.  She has something that the industry moguls want to sell and something that the other models want to possess.  The other models are sculpted, chiseled, honed to perfection with the help of their plastic surgeons.  Jesse has a natural quality that isn’t forced, that isn’t bought and paid for.  With that, she finds that she has a target on her head.

What’s tricky is that his film starts out as a portrait of the L.A. fashion scene but quickly turns into a revenge thriller that has the pacing of The Shining and the brutality of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Jesse’s arrives in L.A. with the countenance of a virgin, yet as time goes on she becomes a victim of her own image, and then turns perpetrator.  She knows how other models see her and what they want from her.  Yet, she finds out too late that she is in over her head.  They don’t just envy her, they want their pound of flesh.

That description makes this movie sound a bit more conventional then it is.  This very spare plot spends a great deal of time swimming in neon-colored imagery that is at times shockingly horrifying and at other times shockingly beautiful.  That’s odd for me to say since the movie comes from Nicholas Winding Rfen, a Danish director whose work I’ve not come to like very much in the past.  I absolutely hated his last film Only God Forgives dismissing it as a hapless arthouse mess that, I think, was trying to be a martial arts movie.  It had a lot of interesting imagery wrapped up in a story I couldn’t follow or even care about.  With The Neon Demon I find myself surrendering to Rfen’s imagery.  Every shot, every moment, every movement in this film has been organized and touched up and pieced together with mathematical precision.  He cares about the images he presents here.  They all have a purpose even if you don’t immediately know what they are.  He is obviously influence by Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch with grand bows to Dario Argento.  He’s made a horror movie about a horrible world made up of horrible people who do horrible things, ugly things, inhuman things.

Look, this is not a movie for everyone.  If you read the majority of reviews you’ll think it’s not a movie for anyone.  Where you end up with this movie is a matter of taste.  Again, this is not a visceral experience.  You can’t place yourself in the situation because the movie exists so far out of time that you often feel like your watching something piped in from another planet.  I like that approach.  I sometimes appreciate a director who isn’t reaching out to connect with me.  The Neon Demon is a movie that is impossible to get close to.  When it’s over you walk away shaking your head, but if you’re willing to surrender to it, themes start to emerge, connections start to be made in your mind as you reflect back on it.  This is a movie that redefines the word ‘challenging’.

 
 

In Theaters: Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

Independence Day Resurgence

As a critic, this is where I am suppose to tell you that Independence Day: Resurgence is just another needless sequel propped up for the summer box office.  Most critics have already jumped on that overcrowded train, but I’ll just stay here at the station and report that it would be impossible for this to be a needless sequel since we knew this was in the pipeline even before the original debuted back in the summer of ’96.  In this regard I wish my fellow critics well but grant them no points for originality.

Whatever you think of the original Independence Day it is hard, 20 years later, not to marvel at its initial impact.  It was a curious concept gone mad: What would happen if you took a cheap 1950s-style alien-invasion plot and gave it $75,000,000 budget and an all-star cast?  Add to that a breathtakingly ambitious ad campaign that still hasn’t been surpassed and you have a gorgeously junky $800,000,000 worldwide hit that has the good fortune to catch a multi-talented former TV star on his rise to the top.  Was I on board?  Sort of.  While I didn’t fall in love with it, I spent a great deal of time trying to divert my fellow moviegoers to the much better Charlie Sheen sci-fi sleeper The Arrival which dropped three months earlier.  I still think that’s a better film.

I wasn’t necessarily dismissive of Independence Day back in ’96 nor was I permissive of its faults.  It has a brilliantly threatening tone in the first half building up to the alien invasion, but then after the initial assault, the movie kind of deflates and the second half felt a little flat.  With a much less potent ad campaign, Independence Day: Resurgence didn’t quite get my hopes up.  I went in knowing what I was in for, and not surprisingly that’s what I got.

The relief with Independence Day: Resurgence is that it is a true sequel.  It isn’t trying to recreate the first film but to build up where the original left off.  A generation after space aliens whomped the tar out of the human race, and subsequently got whomped back, the human race has built on what it has learned.  The planet has become a global community that has utilized the alien technology to better itself.  There are flying cars (FINALLY!!) and we humans have been smart enough to establish a self-defense plan just in case the Octopus Empire strikes back.  The problem is that when they strike back, our defense system turns out to be woefully unsuited for what the aliens have brought with them.

I’ll remain mum on the spoilers but let us just say that on the return trip, the grudge-bearing aliens this time have a reason for declaring war on our planet that is slightly better laid out than in the first movie.  The first time around, their purpose was for us to “Die!”  Here the plan is a little more complicated, and involves issues that are not-so-subtly being held over for the third movie (oh BOY does this one leave an open door).  Their attack on Earth has been supersized.  What they wrought in the first movie has been ballooned up so much that their technology is threatening to break this planet in half.  That means we get a lot of montobulous special effects sequences with giant things crashing into smaller things like cities and stuff.

Running from those special effects is a cast of at least two dozen characters, some of which are returning and some of which are new.  The first hour of the movie is a long, and exhausting game of catch-up in which we are brought up to speed on the fate of the world, everyone’s individual problems, and the question of where the heck is Will Smith.

We meet new characters and catch up with old ones.  The surprise is that the new characters are mostly boring and forgettable.  They are played by young actors that I haven’t seen before and generally forgot about when they weren’t on screen.  The only saving grace is Liam Hemsworth as a hotshot pilot whose job is to throw out all the one-liners in a role that is obviously meant to fill the absence of Will Smith.  His absence is explained away in a disposable subplot that I don’t think is going to make anyone very happy.

The best roles are occupied by Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Judd Hirsh and Brent Spiner whose role as Dr. Okun has been vastly expanded and so has his crazy-man schtick.  Goldblum knows the ropes here and gives us exactly what we expect – doing that thing where he stares into the middle distance while uttering technological portents of doom.

Doom is everywhere in this movie and the job of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin is to take everything about the first movie and make it bigger, louder and more spectacular.  In that spirit they succeed, at least in terms of chaos, but the original had a sense of cold doom that this movie is missing.  I give it points for plot (in that it actually has one) but I felt let down that the movie was missing those great moments that made the original memorable.  There are cities destroyed here but nothing can match the tickling joy of the White House going up in flames in the original.

The special effects are the highlights in a movie that tries to be all highlights.  While reviews and general consensus are determined to sink the movie like a stone, I have to say that I enjoyed the fact that I felt I was watching the same world as the first movie without feeling like I was watching a remake.  It had surprises, especially in what the aliens are trying to do.  I liked that about it.  I liked that there was some thought put into this movie and that it doesn’t feel like an empty cash-grab.  It hovers, it rattles, it shakes, it thunders and it booms.  It does what I expected it to do and much to my surprise, I liked it even though I still think you should check out The Arrival instead.  I’m still on that bandwagon.

 
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Posted by on 06/25/2016 in In Theaters

 

Movie of the Day: The Book of Life (2014)

BookofLife

The Book of Life is a joyful, giddy experience, brimming with energy and life, which is odd to say since much of it takes place in the land of the dead. But don’t let that description dissuade you, just because it is about the dead does not mean it’s a dreary experience. It’s more about remembering those who have come before, honoring one’s heritage, and being true to yourself. It’s all there but not in a preachy manner.

The movie is bursting with creativity, it not only honors Mexican culture and the Dios De Los muertos, but it also honors the animated form. Animators work with more freedom than the creators of live-action – they have to create an entire world completely out of scratch. Yet, somehow in the last few years, the animation market has been overstuffed by uninspired retreads of familiar – and not to mention safe – subject matter. The characters are as bland and forgettable as the stories they tell.

The Book of Life is different, and it’s creative engine is provided by Guillermo del Toro, the whip-smart filmmaker who previously gave us Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth. With The Book of Life, he puts together a beguiling experience that looks and feels new. Dispatching the usual band of roly-poly characters, the occupants of this film look like puppets, wooden puppets right down to their hinged-joints. We feel that we’re watching a marionette performance without the strings – the effect is not only great pop art, but it’s kind of magical.

The story is simplistic, but not simple minded. It begins in the land of the living and involves a love triangle between three childhood friends: good-hearted Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna) who wants to break his family’s bull fighting tradition by becoming a mariachi singer. There’s spunky and independent Maria (voiced by Zoe Saldana) who Manolo will be in love with forever after. And there’s Joaquin (voiced by Channing Tatum), a rustler-buster whose medal-strewn military uniform hides a great deal of insecurity. They both love the beautiful Maria, but it is Manolo who loves her from deep down in his very DNA. In one brief, magical moment, he serenades the beautiful Maria with his rendition of “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You.” It’s a moment that will break your heart.

Outside of their mortal coil, the trio are being watched by two married deities, La Muerta (Kate del Castillo) and Xiabalba (Ron Perlman). They watch over The Land of the Remembered, a happy place where people go when they die, and also The Land of the Forgotten, a dreary place where the dead go when the living forget them. The two make a bet on the love triangle. La Muerta bets that Maria will choose Manolo, while Xiabalba has his money on Joaquin. The winner gets to rule the netherworld.

What happens next, I leave for you to discover. Yeah, you will probably be able to see what’s coming next, but the story is not the point. The film’s great joy is the glorious worlds it creates. It is one of those rare animated films that never stops reinventing itself. The movie excels in its tiny details rather than overwhelming with its broader intentions. There’s a trio of squeaky angelic nuns, a mariachi band that murders “You Got What I Need” (a song that was half-dead to begin with), and a bull that is part parody and part steampunk nightmare.

What makes the film special is its willingness to go for the jugular. The ball gets rolling and it doesn’t stop for the insipid detail of most animated features these days. When it does slow down, it’s for tender moments between Manolo and Maria that create a special bond – you feel that they’re really in love. If the movie fails at anything it may be that the casting (which is made up mostly of Hispanic actors) sometimes goes over the edge. I liked Channing Tatum’s mustache-twirling machismo as Joaquin, and I liked Zoe Saldana as Maria, but honestly, the movie clangs when we meet the overseer of The Land of the Remembered, voiced by Ice-Cube with all the predictable hip-hop renderings and sign language – he brings the movie to a dead stop (no pun intended). That limitation aside, this is still a magical experience. It’s something new in a genre that relies on the familiar. It’s fun, it’s energetic, it’s got great music and great animation. This is one of those films where the filmmakers really cared.

 
 

Armchair Oscars – 1954

Best Picture

THE WINNER:
On the Waterfront (Directed by Elia Kazan)
The Nominees: The Caine Mutiny, The Country Girl, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Three Coins in a Fountain


MY CHOICE:
Rear Window (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
My Nominees:
The Caine Mutiny (Edward Dmytryk), On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan)

1954-RearWindow

For 1954, I am choosing Alfred Hitchcock’s voyeurism over Elia Kazan’s politics and this was not an easy decision to make. This is the reason that the business of the academy awards is more or less superfluous because how could anyone compare these two great films? Both are great on their own terms. The academy’s choice was On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan’s expose of the dirty politics of a labor union among dock workers in Hoboken, New Jersey. This is very much a film of it’s time especially after Kazan spoke up to the House Un-American Activities Commission during the Communist witch hunt. This film was his answer to why he spoke up.

On the Waterfront is the more important film. Hitchcock, on the other hand, created a masterwork of pure filmmaking and when it comes down to deciding which film I could easily watch, right here, right now, I choose Rear Window.

I consider myself a student of Hitchcock. His films are pure, with little confidence in symbols and egghead analysis. It is said that he treated his actors like cattle but the payoff is that he treated his audience like gold. He made his films for the public, he made them entertaining and he made films with characters that at least approximate human intelligence.

Rear Window is mounted on an idea of complete simplicity. A man is trapped in one location, an island – in this case, a wheelchair. Jimmy Stewart plays L.B. Jefferies – Jeff to his friends – a traveling photographer who is in a state of confinement after an accident. A brilliant tracking shot gives us the entirety of his predicament as we see his broken camera and a photo of an airborne racecar tumbling right at Jefferies’ lens.

Jeff’s days of confinement are spent staring out of his window, which like all others, are open due to the intense heat. He takes daily inventory of the tenants in the apartments across the tightly packed courtyard. His travels haven’t given him much time to get to know his neighbors. There’s the lady he calls Ms. Torso, a party girl who has a steady stream of gentlemen callers. There’s the couple who live on the top floor who lower their dog in a basket to the garden below. There’s Ms. Lonelyhearts, a sad spinster who has dinner with imaginary dates or gets dressed up to go to the restaurant across the street and pretend she’s expecting someone. There are the newlyweds who pull the shade and rarely come up for air. There’s the frustrated musician whose labor bears no fruit. And there’s burly Mr. Thorwald who has an invalid wife and a marriage that seems to consist mainly of tolerance.

The habits of Jeff’s neighbors become routine and then one day he notices that Mrs. Thorwald has disappeared. Later that night, he sees Mr. Thorwald wandering in and out of his apartment during a rainstorm. Jeff’s curiosity centers on a few vital clues that lead him to believe that this man may have killed his wife. First comes a large suitcase, then the appearance of a saw, then a change in the arrangement of Thorwald’s flowerbed.

Jeff’s mounting suspicions come only from what he observes from his window. He’s in a wheelchair so his visual plane is limited and Hitchcock never allows us to see anything that Jeff can’t see. We become participants because Hitch puts us in the wheelchair with him. Close-ups are provided first through a large pair of binoculars, then through Jeff’s telephoto lens which allows us to see with clarity. There is no musical score (the only music comes from the musician’s apartment) so all of the sounds are natural. This allows the sounds coming from Thorwald’s apartment to be muted so that we think we know what we are hearing, but we aren’t sure. We strain to listen, to hear some hint of what is being said, but it is to no avail (closed captions don’t help).

Jeff’s state of immobility is the anchor of the story. Everything that Thorwald does seems to make sense if one just rationalizes it long enough. When he binds a trunk with heavy ropes and then has it picked up, we suspect that it contains his wife’s body. When Mrs. Thorwald’s purse appears in a window we suspect foul play because what woman would leave it behind? When Jeff’s detective friend goes to investigate, he comes back with a very reasonable, rational explanation that punches a hole in all of the evidence. Yet we have been drawn in, and we have invested so much in Jeff’s belief that we become a participant ourselves. Lisa (Grace Kelly), Jeff’s gorgeous fiancé, and Stella (Thelma Ritter) his level-headed nurse, at first scold him for peeping on his neighbors but eventually they become participants themselves. They, in a sense, become our point of view, disgusted by what Jeff is doing but eventually curious.

This is a film of limited characters, and one of those characters is the setting itself. It is important that the set feel like an additional character. The courtyard and the building across the way create a feeling of tight, closed-in space. It was a brilliant touch to set the film in the heat of summer so that all those windows are opened so that we get the noise of each apartment and we are able to peer in on each tenant. We can’t see the street on the other side, since it is obscured nor can we see the other tenements on Jeff’s side of the building. We see only what we need to so the mystery is held in our minds just as it is in Jeff’s mind.

Rear Window is Hitchcock at his best, toying with our expectations and then not only giving us what we expect but a great deal more. He is a puppeteer pulling the strings in such a way that the ending doesn’t come as a surprise but doesn’t come to any false conclusions. The final confrontation with Thorwald is not just tossed into the plot, it is built on everything we’ve seen before. Hitchcock famously said that he played his audience like a violin and with Rear Window, we like being played.


Best Actor

THE WINNER:
Marlon Brando
(On the Waterfront)
The Nominees: Humphrey Bogart (The Caine Mutiny), Bing Crosby (The Country Girl), Dan O’Herlihy (Robinson Crusoe), James Mason (A Star is Born)


MY CHOICE:
Jimmy Stewart (Rear Window
)
My Nominees:
Humphrey Bogart (The Caine Mutiny), Marlon Brando (On the Waterfront)

1954-JimmyStewart

Far be it from me to take anything away from the great Marlon Brando – and I’m not being cynical. Brando was part of the new generation of actors who brought Lee Strasberg’s method acting style to film, using a naturalistic feel to his performance to better replicate real life. Out went the old theatrical gestures and in came the “go with it” kind of acting style. He never used this to better effect than in On the Waterfront, playing Terry Malloy, a dock worker who dreams of being a prize fighter, and gets into trouble when he witnesses the murder of two of his corrupt boss’s hired goons.

I liked Brando’s performance. It is an example of pure acting (he practically invented it), but I think my choice for Best Actor had a more difficult task. Jimmy Stewart, in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, eeks out one of his best performances while almost completely confined to a wheelchair. Due to the complexities of the plot, Stewart’s performance doesn’t get enough praise (he wasn’t nominated for either an Oscar or a Golden Globe), but I think that L.B. Jeffries may be just as interesting as any of the great characters that Stewart played.

L.B. Jefferies is a busybody, a man who spends his career staring through the lens of his camera. The theme of the film is how his nosy nature gets him into trouble with his next door neighbor when his confinement leaves him with nothing else to do. The foreshadowing of his lack of self-preservation is signaled right at the beginning as we see a series of photos that end with a picture of a tumbling race car headed right toward Jeffries lens, then his broken camera, then a shot of his cumbersome cast. We know that he is a man who has a nose for trouble, but we also sense that he is a man who doesn’t know when to quit.

He also seems to be a man who doesn’t know what’s good for him. Over his shoulder for nearly the entire film is his girlfriend, a breathtaking beauty named Lisa (Grace Kelly) who want him to settle down and get married – preferably to her. But Jeff has itchy feet, he’s a man who likes to be in the thick of things and Lisa’s plans don’t fit with his. Jeff continues Hitchcock’s theme of confinement. Most of his male characters are confined by something – Norman Bates is confined by his mother, Scotty Ferguson is confined by his fear of heights, George de Winter is confined by secrets about his dead wife. Jeff is stuck in that wheelchair but has the itch to want to know what’s going on in the world. Within his small window, he finds his nosy nature drawing him to the business of the neighbors.

Jeff is probably the most ordinary of characters that Stewart ever played. In most of his post-war roles, the character is either haunted by his past or comes upon a revelation that becomes an obsession. He plays the latter here, a man who just likes to people watch. It is interesting that he and Hitchcock were able to combine all of these character elements into a character who 99% of the film is in the same room. Now that’s talent.


Best Actress

THE WINNER:
Grace Kelly (The Country Girl)
The Nominees: Dorothy Dandridge (Carmen Jones), Judy Garland (A Star is Born), Audrey Hepburn (Sabrina), Jane Wyman (Magnificent Obession)


MY CHOICE:
Judy Garland (A Star is Born)
M
y Nominees: Grace Kelly (Dial M for Murder), Grace Kelly (Rear Window), Debbie Reynolds (Susan Slept Here)

1954-JudyGarland

The story goes that on the night of the 27th Annual Academy Awards, Judy Garland – who was nominated for her performance in A Star is Born – was in the hospital having given birth to her son Joey. Television cameras had been set up in her room so that she could give her acceptance speech from her hospital bed if she won. When Grace Kelly was unexpectedly declared the winner, the crews immediately dismantled their equipment and cleared the room without a word of comfort for her loss nor congratulations on the birth of her son.

In a way, that kind of defines how Judy Garland was treated by the industry for most of her life. She had been a child actor, the youngest member of The Gumm Sisters kiddie act when she was a young child, billed as “The Little Girl With the Great Big Voice”. In her teens she would find herself under contract to MGM and under the thumb of the bullish studio boss Louis B. Mayer. She became a movie star in the series of Andy Hardy pictures and found her legacy at 17 in The Wizard of Oz.

The studio worked her day and night, giving her drugs to put her to sleep at night and further drugs to wake her up in the morning. The image-conscious publicity department hounded her about her appearance and her weight while she was already deeply insecure about these things in the first place.

By 1950, the pills had turned to an addiction and it was beginning to affect her work. After a disastrous shoot on Annie Get Your Gun, MGM deemed her unmanageable and fired her. No one seemed to care that her distractions at work came from the fact that she had recently broken off her relationship with husband Vincent Minnelli and then suffered a nervous breakdown which led to her attempted suicide.

When MGM dismissed her in 1950, it was the first time since 1934 that she was without studio support. She went on the stage and had a successful tour for the next four years and when she came back to Hollywood it was on her own terms. She formed her own production company, Transconda Enterprises with George Cukor and husband Sid Luft and began to put together a remake of the Janet Gaynor classic A Star is Born. The end result wasn’t met with great support, as exhibitors complained when the film ran over three hours, a running time that Warner Bros. executives demanded cut by at least 30 minutes. Those cuts took the guts out of the film and studio boss Jack Warner decided not to sink a single dime into promotion. The film flopped at the box office.

In spite of the box office failure, most were certain that Judy would win the Oscar for her performance. The movie showed that, despite her personal problems, she was still a powerhouse performer. When she lost the Oscar, most were outraged. Groucho Marx called it, “The biggest robbery since Brinks!”

The surprise winner for Best Actress was Grace Kelly in George Seaton’s joyless backstage snoozer The Country Girl. Pried from a play by Clifford Odets, it tells the story of a washed-up alcoholic showman named Frank Elgin (Bing Crosby) who is given the opportunity to revive his career through the efforts of director Bernie Dodd (William Holden) who puts his reputation on the line to help him and then spends the rest of the movie shouting at him. In the middle of these shouting matches comes Grace Kelly (unattractive and dowdy), who plays Crosby’s long-suffering wife Georgie who crabs at the director while he crabs at her husband.

Grace Kelly was a luminous presence in the movies, beautiful, intelligent, and talented. Yet in the year of her double success with Hitchcock, Dial M for Murder and Rear Window, the academy gave her an Oscar for one of the least impressive performances of her entire career. Perhaps the academy was giving her credit for taking an unglamorous role – she wore thick glasses and little makeup – but I cannot understand why they were not willing to welcome back Judy Garland for, arguably, the best performance of her career.

Garland is wonderful in the role of the unfortunately named Esther Blodgett, a small-time showgirl with a band who has a great big voice and an amazing stage presence. During a show one night, a drunken actor stumbles out and begins to imitate the dancers. Esther improvises and dances him offstage. The man is Norman Maine (James Mason), once a box office champ whose star has begun to fall due to his age, his carousing and his alcoholism. Even while intoxicated, he charms Esther, using her lipstick to draw their initials on the wall in the middle of a heart.

Later, having sobered a bit, he sees her in a club singing “The Man that Got Away.” He’s charmed by her stage presence and introduces himself. Something in his eyes tells Esther that this isn’t a pass or a glib compliment; there is sincerity in his voice. This is the thing that will stay with her all through the remainder of their relationship. What he sees in her is a woman who is a born performer, a woman who is emotionally generous and someone who will not judge him.

Using what little pull he has left with the studio, Norman gets Esther a contract with a studio and her career takes off. The studio puts her through the rigorous beautifying ritual including wigs, a false nose, a false chin and a new name, Vicky Lester. Amused by the studio meddling, Norman removes all the applications and the putty but leaves the name.

The romance blooms and they get married in private, under an assumed name. Esther’s career takes off and she becomes a star almost overnight. Meanwhile, Norman’s career is rapidly deteriorating, his contacts want nothing to do with him, the studio won’t hire him and he is made to look like a heel. He begins to realize, very quickly, that all he really has in the world is Esther’s support. She refuses to devalue him even when a drunken incident lands him in jail. Deep down inside, Esther knows that Norman is the reason for her success and she knows he still loves her. There is never a moment when the two have a screaming match (though we expect it), she knows his faults and won’t devalue his support of her even after he stumbles drunk onstage during The Academy Awards after Esther wins an Oscar and ruins her moment. All those around Norman have given up but Esther stays by him.

There is a spark in their relationship, we know they love one another and the film doesn’t shy away from all the reasons. We feel the romance between them. That’s especially true of a brilliant scene in which Esther shows Norman the production number she’s been working on, an around-the-world number called “Born in a Trunk” as she dances around their apartment practically using every object – the couch, the chair, the lamp – as a prop. There is a vibrant joy and energy and the smile on Norman’s face is real. There are moments when Esther performs (and she exudes effortless joy) that Norman sits back and simply smiles, admiring her.

The ending is one of the saddest, most touching that I can remember. After having spent time in jail, Norman knows that he will continue to be an albatross around Esther’s neck. He decides to end it all and walks into the ocean and dies. The papers the next day report that it was an accident and a heartbroken Esther still stands up for him. Returning to the stage, she tearfully tells a waiting crowd, “This is Mrs. Norman Maine!”

Judy Garland had an ease on screen, she had a wonderful screen presence that made you believe she was having as much fun performing as you did watching her. A Star is Born showed that even after all of her real life problems, she was still a brilliant actress. It makes me sad the film under-performed because it kept her away from the screen for another six years until a surprisingly good performance in Judgment at Nuremberg (and another acting nomination). But who knows where the success of this film may have taken her? We’ll never know.

 
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Posted by on 06/22/2016 in Blog, Uncategorized

 

New Review: Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (2016)

Raiders!

Not long ago, I gave myself the singular mission of sitting down to watch every Spielberg-directed film in chronological order from 1971’s Duel right up through the 2015 Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies.  It was a month-long project that, aside from watching the evolution of one of the greatest American filmmakers, was a chance to tap into the great Spielbergian magic that had so enraptured my generation.  Because of this – or perhaps inspired by it – my generation was the first to really dive head-first into the trough of full-bore fanaticism (the advent of the internet helped), and we have Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to thank for that.

I thought that my mission to see all of Spielberg’s movies was a bit overly-fanatical, and then I saw the documentary Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, a grand confirmation that a certifiable obsession with the movies is not only widespread, it’s a cultural norm.  It is a relief to see this at a moment when Hollywood seems hell-bent on reconstructing past successes (seriously look at the major releases coming out this year).  I say that, and then I must turn around and confess that this is exactly what Raiders! is all about.

In 1982, a full decade and a half before Gus Van Sant recombobulated Hitchcock’s Psycho into a shot-by-shot chunk of cinematic hedonism, three kids from Ocean Springs, Mississippi – Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala, and Jayson Lamb – were so captivated by Raiders of the Lost Ark that they decided to remake it themselves, shot by shot.  Beginning in ’82, their modest production was, to say the least, low budget and was given the even more modest title of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation.

The project took seven years to complete and was stalled by one scene they wouldn’t attempt until they got it absolutely right.  In the meantime they started two fires, one at their house and another to their otherwise inseparable friendship.  The project was abandoned in 1989.  Their incomplete opus languished on the shelf for many years until 2003 when a VHS was uncovered by Harry Knowles of “Ain’t It Cool News!” and director Eli Roth, who began shopping it around film festivals.  Even Spielberg himself gave acknowledgment of their work.

Raiders! is not simply a talking-head documentary.  It’s about the full-blown obsession that drives people to tap the greatness of the cinema.  It moves back and forth between first-hand accounts of the making of the film and Zala and Strompolos’s recent attempts to put up the money to finish their missing scene – the airfield scene that includes a large explosion, a fistfight and the gory fate of a brutish mechanic who gets a little too close to the plane’s propeller.  This, of course, brings about continuity issues that don’t go unnoticed by potential investors.  Since the project was begun in ’82 and filmed over several years, the ages of the actors varies back and forth.  Obviously a film populated by teenaged actors would be a jolt if they suddenly seemed to be in their mid-40s.

What’s interesting about this movie is the way in which it deals, quietly, with the adamant of time.  In the midst of their current mission to complete the final scene, we get inside the story of what happened along the way.  As the years went on Zala, who directed and played Belloq, and Strompolos who played Indy, drift apart.  Life gets in the way.  Childhood rapture gives way to teenage indifference.  They choose other paths in life and the project that once bound them together begins collecting dust.  The best commentary comes from Chris’ mother who watched the trio omnisciently and had a ringside seat as the Eric, Chris and Jayson came apart and notes the way that Jayson somehow got pushed further and further out of the project and their lives.  The movie then provides a bit of suspense as to whether or not Jayson will regroup with the trio once again.

Here is where I must make an admission.  I’ve never seen Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation except in bits and pieces of what I found on the internet over the years.  For hardcore movies fans, this adaptation is something of a legend.  Everyone initially has the same question: Why is it so important for these guys to finish making this movie?  It’s not like the public was missing anything.  Why watch a rickety shot-for-shot remake when the original is readily available?  It’s a valid question, but it is not really the point.  Raiders! is ultimately about the push and pull of our obsession with movies; finding the line between the magic of the movies and the things that pull us back into the cold light of day.  More than that, it is a love letter to movies and to fandom, of the need to create and the need to show our love for those things that meant the most to us when we were young, before we grew up and became men . . . top men.