Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A Born Loser


Th Coen brothers love losers.

I can't believe it took me this long to figure that out, but the Coens clearly have a soft spot in their hearts for individuals who try desperately to achieve success and yet fail. Barton Fink, Larry Gopnik, Ed Crane and even Sheriff Tommy Lee Jones... all characters who reached for something and yet fell short of their goal. Occasionally they make a movie about a "loser" who actually wins (Hudsucker Proxy, True Grit, O Brother Where Art Thou, etc) but those seem to be the exception rather than the rule and oftentimes their accomplishment comes more from luck than from their own ingenuity, skill or intelligence. In a cinematic landscape filled with protagonists who defy all odds to win the day, the Coens' focus on those who end up with the short end of the stick is rather refreshing.

 Llewyn Davis is the latest in a long line of Coen losers. He navigates New York's 1960's folk music scene trying to break through but never quite getting there. It's not because he's bad. Indeed he's quite good and we get many opportunities to see him play (the film could almost be considered a musical), but for whatever reason fame and recognition elude him. Is it cosmic justice for the numerous poor decisions he makes along the way (sleeping with his friend's wife, antagonizing his few friends, behaving selfishly and acting just generally self-destructive; in many ways he's his own worst enemy) or is it just bad luck? You don't get discovered but the guy who goes onstage after you becomes a huge sensation (just as some lost cats find their way home and others just wander the wilderness). The movie never tells us.

I love the Coen brothers and I loved Inside Llewyn Davis. It is, like all of their films, impeccably constructed with some great images (the look of the film has a subtle, melancholy beauty), colorful characters played perfectly by a fine cast, fantastic music (yet another soundtrack I'm going to gave to buy) and some truly hilarious moments. While not perhaps their best film (although lately I find ranking there movies a virtually impossible task), I'd dare say it's one of the best films of 2013.

 That's what I got.



Saturday, February 22, 2014

Robo-Robocop


One's ability to enjoy Jose Padhila's re-imagining of Robocop will probably be in direct proportion to how well one can forget the original. It is not a bad film by any means, and compared to the string of recent remakes, reboots and relaunches, it is probably near the top of the heap, but when put next to Verhoeven's sharp, satirical and eerily prophetic 1987 masterpiece, it is inferior in almost every way.

The plot, in broad terms, is essentially the same: in the near future, tough Detroit cop Alex Murphy is killed/critically injured, given a second chance at "life" as a cyborg police officer and eventually undergoes an existential identity crisis as he takes on the corrupt corporation that built him. It is in the particulars that the film establishes its differences: Murphy's wife and son play a much bigger role this time around, the suit's new design -- obviously influenced by the Iron Man franchise -- is sleeker and a somewhat dull all-black rather than the bulky shiny chrome of the original, the story still stops occasionally for media/exposition breaks (though rather than a news broadcast we are treated to amusing talk show clips with an alarmist Bill O'Reilly-like host) and while the first one dealt with issues relevant to the 80's (the rise of corporate America, the privatization of public institutions, the militarization of the police, the slow bleeding of our nation's economic resources, etc), this one, while still tackling some of the same issues, emphasizes more contemporary concerns (drone warfare, America's foreign policy, big brother-like surveillance, the increasingly blurred line between human beings and technology, etc). The whole thing is intelligently and competently done. All of the elements are in their proper place, but the whole enterprise feels... well, mechanical. While the first Robocop was infused with a thorough (and at times surprisingly moving) humanity, this Robocop so often feels like it is, much like the protagonist at various points in the story, on auto-pilot. It moves along at a relatively brisk pace but still seems to lack the energy or conviction of its predecessor. I found it holding my attention without really engaging me emotionally. The CGI, like all modern Hollywood movies, vacillates between very good and extremely cartoonish and the action is diverting without being especially thrilling (which is ironic given that this Robocop can both run and jump rather than just lumber along slowly like the original did).

What it's also missing, unfortunately, is the original's wicked sense of humor. Verhoeven's film was not only provocative in its socio-political observations and highly astute in its criticism of American culture, it was also REALLY damn funny. I kept waiting for a sequence with the biting hilarity of the original's Ed-209 eviscerating a hapless executive in a board meeting demonstration gone wrong. In fact, the film in general is pretty sanitized (one could even say "neutered"), drained not only of its namesake's extreme violence but also of its wild and unpredictable, but not incoherent, shifts in tone. This Robocop is very "safe" and "middle-of the-road" and it is reflected in its family--friendly PG-13 rating (whereas the original was forced to make cuts to receive an R instead of a dreaded X)

The cast is good: old Commissioner Gordon Gary Oldman and even older Batman Michael Keaton play the ying and yang of Omnicorp (the company that creates Robocop) and both are very effective. It's nice to see Keaton in a major movie again -- he reminds you of his ability to play a convincing, but not cliched "mustache-twirling" villain -- while Oldman brings nuance and complexity to his more sympathetic role of the Dr. Frankenstein to Robo's "monster." Jennifer Ehle, Jackie Earl Haley, Marianne Jean Baptiste and Samuel L. Jackson (a bit more restrained than I would like to have seen him) are also highlights. The weakest link, alas, is the actor playing Murphy/Robocop. When he's in the suit with the visor down, he works just fine, but since this version has him spending far more time with his face visible and his "humanity" present, it becomes painfully clear how welcome an actor with the charisma and eccentricity of Peter Weller would've been.

In the end, Robocop is a decent enough remake. I would buy it for a dollar, but I'd still buy the original at any price.

Friday, November 22, 2013

From the Archives: Faith & Suffering in Shadowlands



"Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery's shadow or reflection: the fact that you don't merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief."

Suffering is a part of life. At some point in our time spent on this Earth we are all confronted with this truth. Charles Grodin begins his autobiography It Would Be So Nice If You Weren't Here with the anecdote: "I remember crying once as a little boy (I forgot why) and thinking that if this was the best life had to offer, I wasn't so sure about going on." I mention this passage because it eerily reflects one of my own experiences. I also remember crying once when I was younger (like Chuck, I don't recall the reason or even the exact circumstances) and disliking it to the point that I wasn't so crazy about continuing on with this life if it was going to involve this. It's not that I was contemplating suicide or anything like that. I was just desperately searching for a way to "bargain" with life such that I wouldn't have to endure any more pain.

For some individuals this is where the dealing with the reality of pain begins and ends. My college professor once said that there are two kinds of people in this world: philosophers and drug addicts. The drug addict merely goes through life looking for the next distraction to keep himself occupied. The philosopher actually faces into the tough issues that life has to offer. He asks questions and seeks answers. Even as a youngster (though I was beginning to display "drug addict" tendencies in my desire to sidestep as much pain as possible) I was also already launching my tenure as a lifelong philosopher because in the midst of my tears I was asking a simple but vital question: "Why?"

"Why?" is a very important question. In fact, "Why?" may be the most important question a person can ever ask in his lifetime. The question of "Why?" particularly seems to surface in the face of extreme hardship. As the aforementioned college professor wrote once in a book: "Our questioning is not really from a desire to know the particular meaning of the particular event. More importantly, it is from a desire to be assured that it has any meaning at all." In other words, does my suffering serve some purpose? Is there meaning behind it? Or rather is it pointless and arbitrary? Is it simply another random occurrence in a cold, unfeeling and ultimately absurd universe? Well, as a Christian, quite obviously I believe that there is meaning to suffering (and consequently to life) and some of my favorite stories deal with this very theme. That's why, when I heard a while back about RC's "Film + Faith Blog-a-thon" over at Strange Culture, I knew exactly which film I was going to write about... well, it was this one or The Mission.

Some of my real-life heroes have been extraordinary individuals who stood up against incredible odds to fight for some form of liberty for themselves and their fellow man (Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Oskar Schindler, etc), but some of my other heroes happen to be a more mundane, less "romantic" historical figures. One in particular holds a special place in my heart. This fellow didn't start any great revolutions. He didn't free or save millions of people. He was just an ordinary guy who dealt with what life threw at him in a very real and very forthright way. It is precisely the "ordinary-ness" of author C.S. Lewis that makes him, in my mind, heroic and noble. Ironically, when it comes to Lewis' writing, I am not necessarily his biggest fan. His fiction (primarily the Chronicles of Narnia series) is pleasant enough but a little too allegorical for my taste (I actually prefer the books of his friend and fellow "Inkling" J.R.R. Tolkien), but I love his more "philosophical" efforts (such as Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, etc). Although I admit I haven't read as much of his work as I would like to, the reason I respect and admire Lewis has less to do with his achievements as a writer and more to do with his experiences as a human being.

Though raised in a religious family, Lewis became an atheist in his teen years. It was actually Tolkien who helped convert him back to theism and Lewis ended up becoming one of the great Christian apologists. Certainly no stranger to suffering (having fought in the trenches of WWI), Lewis wrote some thought-provoking meditations on reconciling the existence of evil and the reality of human suffering with the concept of a righteous, loving and omnipotent God in such works as The Problem of Pain. Lewis' theodicy was well-developed, intelligent and rational.

"God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world."

Then something significant happened. Lewis met and fell in love with an American woman named Joy Gresham. Joy moved to England with her two sons (David and Douglas) and she and Lewis were married in 1956 and lived relatively happily together for four years. In 1960, Joy died of Bone cancer and a short time later, in 1963, Lewis himself followed. During the intervening three years, Lewis struggled quite a bit with the loss of Joy. Though it was not Lewis' first occasion doing so (his mother also died of a cancer when Lewis was very young), for some reason Joy's death seems to have affected him deeper than anythings else he had ever endured up to that point. This challenged Lewis' faith to an incredible extent and in his book A Grief Observed, Lewis lays out very honestly and openly not only the bereavement felt over the death of his beloved wife but the anger, the fear and the general questioning felt in the face of a possibility that God is not real or, perhaps worse, that He is not good. The text is such an outpouring of a person's emotions, doubts and vulnerabilities. To read A Grief Observed is to see a man lay his innermost being completely bare, to gain insight into a soul in turmoil.

"No one ever told me grief felt so much like fear."

Interestingly, A Grief Observed was initially published under a pseudonym and never mentioned his wife by name. Thus, a number of Lewis' friends recommended the book to him thinking it might be of some help to him. I find this scenario not only ironic but also extremely revealing because it suggests that Lewis' own friends didn't recognize him in his writing. This indicates to me that his musings in A Grief Observed were unlike any writing he had ever done before. Indeed, I first read it during somewhat of a dark period in my own life and found that it "felt" completely different from, say, Mere Christianity (which I had also recently read at the time). The Lewis who wrote before Joy's death and the Lewis who wrote after it seemed to me like two completely different men. It's as if the first Lewis had it all figured out and the second Lewis wasn't quite so sure anymore. The Lewis who wrote A Grief Observed is the Lewis whose perspective on pain was really put to the test, who was given more of an intense taste of the kind of acute, almost crippling, anguish and heartache that life has offer. Thus, he gained a deeper understanding and more profound appreciation of what pain truly is, what it does to us and, of course, whether or not it has purpose.

"Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn."


Being that C.S. Lewis is one of my heroes and his story is an extremely moving one to me, it should come as no shock to people that one of my favorite films is Richard Attenborough's Shadowlands as it dramatizes the period in Lewis' life I have described above. Shadowlands actually began as a 1985 BBC-TV movie written by William Nicholson starring Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom (of which I've only seen bits and pieces a long time ago) and was then adapted by Nicholson into a stageplay. It was this stageplay that served as the basis for the 1993 film which features the great Anthony Hopkins as Lewis and the effervescent Debra Winger as Joy. While I've been told that the earlier version is far more subtle, less "Hollywood" in its style and sensibilities and contains fewer liberties taken with Lewis' story (the two Gresham sons, for example, are combined into one child for the '93 version) it would be a mistake, I think, to dismiss the later version's "gloss" for lack of substance. Certainly the film is handsomely shot and exceptionally well acted but, in fact, there is quite a bit about it that is very "un-Hollywood." First off, while some might find it emotionally manipulative I find it to be very restrained and low-key. Also, while many films are content to simply use tragedy as a means for injecting "drama" into a love story (cancer almost always serves quite effectively in that capacity) without unpacking its deep and lasting effects on real flesh-and-blood human beings, Shadowlands faces directly into the provocative complexities of dealing with suffering and death... especially in the context of spiritual faith.

Sometimes it seems to me that faith is perceived nowadays as a kind of unflinching optimism; a delusional reassurance in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that "all will be well;" it amounts to little more than closing one's ears, covering one's eyes and singing "LA! LA! LA!" in the face of any and all adversity. In this sense, the idea of faith is almost always associated with blindness or ignorance, a phenomenon with which I must admit I don't necessarily see a lot of virtue. In essence, that kind of faith is really just another way of distracting one's self, another drug for the addict to take to deaden the pain rather than actually deal with it. I'm not so sure that God wants us to be a bunch of "Pollyannas," only seeing good everywhere and not admitting that oftentimes things just plain suck, taking pleasure in our pain as if we were masochists. I think He wants us to look squarely into the darkness that exists and acknowledge it for what it is (this includes seeing the darkness in ourselves as well). A lot of the time this involves anger, sadness and a whole other range of sensations that really don't feel very good. If one can emerge from the other end of this tunnel of misery and still have hope, then I think one can be more assured of his faith.

This is where pain and suffering can serve a purpose. A faith that has actually learned to confront the harsh reality of pain seems to me to be a deeper and stronger faith. It's a faith that, as the book of James says, is "tested by fire." Naturally that doesn't make the testing process itself any easier. Lewis understood that but he didn't really come to grips with it until Joy was taken from him. He did not abandon his faith before his passing, but he did have great difficulty holding onto it. In the end, Lewis' faith was a well-earned one. He held his beliefs not because he simply refused to confront reality, but rather because he confronted reality. He did not have blind faith. On the contrary, he had eyes to see.

Just as I would recommend Lewis' book A Grief Observed to anyone going through a rough period in their life, I feel I can recommend Shadowlands to anyone who has ever asked "Why?" in the midst of a tough time. It may not make anybody's list of great films (although it did make the "100 Most Spiritually Significant Films" over at Arts & Faith) but on the subject of faith, I happen to think it is one of the greatest out there. It doesn't provide any huge, enlightening answers, but it does ask some hard questions and poses some thought-provoking ideas. Like C.S. Lewis himself, the film is humble but passionate, warm but melancholy, terribly sad and yet simultaneously full of immense joy. As Jack (Lewis' nickname) and his wife discuss in a scene set in the beauty of a picturesque countryside (but with rain serving as an almost symbolic counterpoint):

JOY: It’s not going to last.
JACK: We don’t need to think of that now. Let’s not spoil the time we have together.
JOY: It doesn’t spoil it. It makes it real.... What I’m trying to say is that the pain then is part of the happiness now.


In closing, I want to briefly mention something that I think is interesting. As it does to all men, death finally came C.S. Lewis on November 22, 1963. If that date looks at all familiar to you it's because it was the same day that JFK was assassinated and from a global socio-political perspective that was naturally the more significant event. Thus, every newspaper the world over splashed across their front pages headlines of Kennedy's untimely demise. So, while everyone was in shock and mourning the passing of one of America's most handsome, most charming, most charismatic and, consequently, most popular presidents ever, an old, but great, man was quietly leaving this planet in a manner very befitting the time that he spent on it.

"You play the hand you're dealt. I think the game's worthwhile.”

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Not Quite Dredd-ful


Maybe I'm a little late to the party on this one but it really is becoming more and more apparent to me what an enormous influence Chris Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy is having on current comic book adaptations.

Like its 1995 counterpart starring Sylvester Stallone, last year's Dredd is based on a 1970's British comic book series (unread by me) about a dystopian future society where the "cops" are in fact judges with the power to try, convict and execute criminals on the spot (this sounds like a premise with potential but unfortunately neither film really does much with it). From a technical perspective, there is little to complain about in Dredd. The film has a gritty, grainy look that makes its sprawling polluted metropolis seem like an actual place. The majority of it takes place in a massive residence building which gives the film a suspenseful, claustrophobic atmosphere (sort of like a futuristic Die Hard) and the digital effects are most convincing when used to make the oppressive environment more believable. They are somewhat less convincing when trying to make gun shot wounds seem real. The film also has a number of gorgeously stylized sequences that are almost hypnotic in their visual beauty (the plot centers around a drug called "slow-mo" that makes everything seem slowed down; imagine the cinematic possibilities). Karl Urban, despite having half of his face hidden through the entire film, provides menace and charisma (and can grimace just as good as Stallone can) to a character with very little personality and Lena Headly gives a fantastic, eccentric performance as a truly terrifying and evil villain named Ma-Ma.

What's missing from the whole enterprise, frankly, is just good old-fashioned fun. When compared with the cheesy, colorful big screen comic incarnations of the late 80's-90's (Batman, The Shadow, The Phantom, Darkman, etc), I am starting to be of the opinion that contemporary comic book movies just take themselves way too damn seriously. At a certain point in the story I found myself thinking, "This movie is holding my attention, but I am not really enjoying it." For all of its misfires, the '95 film at least realized the absurdities of its central conceit and made no bones about it. I saw the original in the theater with my father and a mutual friend and while none of us would have praised Judge Dredd as being a fine film by any means, we all enjoyed it and laughed heartily as we talked about it afterward. Dredd is so dark, so grim and so humorless that there is virtually nothing in it to laugh at or even really smile about. I think I watched the entire film with a "Dredd-like" unamused expression on my face. Furthermore, its stone-cold soberness throws the sillier aspects into even sharper contrast. In that regard Stallone's rendition might have the upper hand. It was incoherent but it was not inconsistent. This Dredd is both.

Also, the film is EXTREMELY violent, with a body count that must number in the hundreds (most of them innocent civilians). I am not at all squeamish when it comes to onscreen violence, but it is so relentless and unflinching here that it becomes sort of numbing after a while. A couple times I was reminded of Paul Verhoeven's Robocop, a comic book movie (though it has no "direct" inspiration) that also had shocking violence but delivered it with such panache that it still managed to be an enjoyable experience. Robocop was both serious and fun, gory but also witty and satirical, cynical but not nihilistic. It demonstrates that it is possible to make a dark, stylish and grown-up "superhero" movie that doesn't collapse under the weight of its own solemnity. I have little hope that its upcoming remake will strike the same delicate balance and will instead probably err more on the side of the bleak ugliness that Dredd wallows in.

Unlike its predecessor, which did not charm the critics, Dredd received generally positive reviews. This did not, however, prevent it from following in the footsteps of its predecessor financially as it flopped at the box office. This is probably unfair since it is not really a bad movie. In many ways it is superior to the '95 version. It's just so joyless, so ugly, so utterly devoid of any modicum of self-awareness that if, for some inconceivable reason, I were to suddenly feel the urge to watch a "Judge Dredd" movie, Stallone's is probably the one I'd reach for.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

From the Archives: They Don't Make Superheroes Like They Used To

Note: This Friday Man of Steel, the Chris Nolan-produced/Zack Snyder-directed reboot of the Superman franchise, opens in theaters and in tribute, I have dug up a piece I wrote on my old blog shortly before the release of the previous failed attempt at a reboot: Bryan Singer's flawed but somewhat underrated Superman Returns. I'd like to believe my writing has vastly improved since then, but while I may have slightly changed my thinking on one or two points, I still agree wholeheartedly with the essential core of my thesis. Thus, I reprint it here with no changes whatsoever.


In a few weeks Bryan Singer's Superman Returns opens worldwide and it is a movie that has been a long time in coming (at one point the film was to be directed by Tim Burton, written by Kevin Smith and starring Nicolas Cage; I think I can safely speak for everyone when I say: "Thank God that didn't happen!"). Needless to say, I'm very excited about this event. I realize I'm advertising my hopeless "geekiness" with this blog, but I've long been a "Superfan." He's always been among my top three favorite comic book heroes (the other two being Batman and Spider-man; whoever occupied the number "1" spot depended on what phase of my life I was going through at the time).

In response to the upcoming release, the IMDB used its "daily poll" feature to ask its members to vote on which superhero was better: Superman or Batman. The results were interesting if, admittedly, not that surprising. Batman got a whopping 67% while Superman only got 15%. 10% said, "I like both equally" and 8% said," I don't like either." I have actually observed, in recent years, that Superman's "approval ratings" have dropped significantly and I couldn't help but wonder why that is. Superman used to be considered the greatest of the superheroes. In fact, Superman was essentially the first superhero, the "Adam" if you will. Without Superman there would be no Batman, Spider-man or anyone else. Superman used to be looked upon with awe. He was admired. He was a symbol for "truth" and "justice" and all that stuff! Why has the Man of Steele fallen into such disfavor in recent years? Why has his popularity waned so drastically and his cultural status declined so monumentally?

Is it the suit? Are the bright blue tights with the red cape, boots and the large red-and-gold "S" not only unimpressive anymore but downright corny? Perhaps its the sheer implausibility of his disguise. While Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne protect their secret identities by wearing masks that cover at least half their faces, all Superman does to become Clark Kent is put on a pair of glasses. Is it just too much anymore to accept that sharp-eyed journalist Lois Lane can't tell the difference between the guy she loves and the guy she works with? Is it the pantheon of powers that Superman possesses? Super-speed, super-strength, x-ray vision, heat vision, flight, super-breath... Do people just think it's too much? Maybe it's the invulnerability in particular. Maybe folks are just tired of Superman not being affected by anything (besides kryptonite of course). Maybe they expect that their heroes be subject to some harm or else there's no suspense. Then again, it might be the villains. Perhaps people prefer a whole rogues gallery of baddies for a hero to combat. I mean, Batman has a colorful array of nasty characters hes constantly fighting (Joker, Penguin, Catwoman, Riddler, Scarecrow, etc), as does Spider-man (Green Goblin, Dr. Octopus, Venom, Sandman, Vulture, etc), while all Superman really has is Lex Luthor (and to a lesser extent Brainiac).

Any one these things could have contributed to Superman's fall from grace, but I think it's something else that has caused him to lose his appeal, something that makes him, in the eyes of today's youth, not quite as "cool" as Batman, Spider-man or Wolverine, something that has actually caused my own personal respect for the character to increase: namely, his righteousness. This is a theory I've been formulating for a while now and I'd like to lay it out now.

Of all the comic book heroes out there, Superman is the only who is naturally good. He has no ulterior motives for fighting crime. Batman's is revenge (he saw his parents murdered when he was a child) and Spider-man's is guilt (he feels responsible for the death of his uncle), but Superman does good for its own sake. He is a truly virtuous, god-like individual, his physical and moral perfection, his extreme strength and incorruptible nature, used to be the very characteristics that made him worthy of respect and emulation. However, the fact that Superman is now referred to as an overgrown "boy scout" (both in and out of the comics) demonstrates that these characteristics have lost their luster. Superman is now considered "dull" or "two-dimensional." Heroes who are darker and more angst-ridden are called "cool" or "a badass." At the very least, they are more complex and therefore more "believable," i.e. there's a greater chance that these characters could actually exist in our own reality.

Understand that I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with these other heroes. On the contrary, I am just as much a product of my culture as anybody else. I love these other heroes. I am very drawn to the inherent drama of the ongoing struggle that Bruce Wayne he has with his own dark self. I also love the realistic, and oftentimes humiliating, problems that Peter Parker has to contend with. I find these multi-layered universes are, in fact, sometimes more interesting than the fantasy world of Superman, but what saddens me is that these worlds and their heroes are now being embraced to the exclusion of Superman. It is understandable that we want our heroes to be more like us (fallible, prone to temptation, at times selfish and weak, etc) but what we are losing in the process is an ideal and that is exactly what Superman is: an ideal. He represents not who we are, and not even who we could be, but who we should be. Superman personifies the type of end goal we ought to strive for, even if we never actually get there.

When Superman does indeed return to the big screen later this month, how the film is received should be an indicator of what we as a culture think of him. Does society still care about exploits of a person who acts completely selflessly, who helps weaker individuals without any sort of desire for personal gain? Is such a superhero still worth our time? Well, here's hoping.

Monday, August 20, 2012

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Damian Arlyn's Top 10 Films of All Time


Before proceeding with this post, a quick mea culpa is in order. In spite of declaring my desire to write more for this blog, it has been almost half a year since I last posted anything and I can offer no excuse other than to admit that I've had difficulty finding the motivation. When I was contributing pieces to the blog of my friend Ed Copeland (who, for health reasons, recently decided to take a more solely hands-on approach to managing his site), I had deadlines to help compel me to write something. Anything. When that went away, much of the drive to write went with it. At any rate, for those few individuals who may follow this blog, I apologize. Fortunately, a recent event has incited my passion and enthusiasm for discussing film once more and has provoked me to compose the following piece. Hopefully I can be disciplined enough to maintain a real presence online once again.

Now, to the task at hand. Although there are innumerable top 10 lists out there, any real film-lover knows that the one published every ten years by the British Film Institute's Sight & Sound magazine is considered THE top 10 list. Over a thousand prominent critics and filmmakers are asked to submit their picks for the "greatest films ever made" and the results are always interesting. The most recent list, however, incited some debate and has even sparked a series of articles at The House Next Door wherein writers who did not participate in the official poll have submitted their own personal top 10 lists. Several of my film-blogging friends have contributed and I have enjoyed their lists immensely, although I have also been somewhat envious because, to put it in childish terms, I wanted to "play" too. Then I remembered that I had a blog. So, I have decided to publish my own list here at CINEMEMORIES.

The following titles are arranged chronologically and they come, of course, with the usual disclaimers: it is not necessarily a list of "favorites" (as there are many films I truly love but did not include) nor even a definitive "best" list (as there are some films that I would consider in many senses superior to a few of these, yet I chose not to include those either) and it could change tomorrow blah blah blah. What I can say unashamedly is that each of these films is not only of great significance to me personally, but is also worthwhile for anyone to see... for each title deserves, if nothing else, to at least be part of the dialogue as to what the "greatest films of all time" are.



City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931). There's a scene in Richard Attenborough's serviceable 1992 biopic Chaplin where a frustrated Charlie (flawlessly played by Robert Downey, Jr.) is agonizing over how to communicate visually to an audience that a blind flower girl has mistaken his kindly Tramp character for a wealthy man. Charlie's brother pleads with him to make the film a talkie and have the Tramp simply TELL her that he's rich, but Charlie adamantly refuses knowing that it would "ruin the magic." The solution, arrived at by Charlie as he watches someone get into a vehicle to drive away, is to have the girl hear a car door slam and assume that is the Tramp's automobile thus allowing him to quietly sneak away without her ever knowing the truth. Though the exchange in Attenborough's film was most likely imagined, the filmmaking obstacle it dramatized, as well as Charlie's brilliantly graceful solution, illustrates why Chaplin was such a genius and why City Lights is considered his masterpiece. Chaplin did indeed resist the transition to sound for over a decade (City Lights would be one of his last "silent" pictures) although it meant that he had to work even harder than his colleagues to make audiences laugh and/or cry... and does he ever do both here. Not only is the film delightfully funny but the final scene is one of the most touching ever committed to celluloid, with or without talking.



Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). "The remarkable thing about Shakespeare," English poet Robert Graves once wrote about the man considered to be the greatest writer in the English language, "is that he is really very good - in spite of all the people who say he is very good." There is no quote I think that better articulates the phenomenon of Citizen Kane. Since 1962 Orson Welles' magnum opus occupied the #1 spot on Sight & Sound's list (until it was controversially replaced by Hitchcock's Vertigo this year, but more on that later) and was blessed/cursed with the moniker of "greatest film ever made." This characterization kept the film simultaneously revered and reviled for over 50 years, but whether or not it truly deserves its alleged place in film history -- whether it truly is the greatest film ever made, one of the greatest or merely the product of a half a century of propaganda-- is ultimately irrelevant. Citizen Kane is a great film and as long as the conversation about the artistic merits of cinema continues, Kane will always have its place.



La Strada (Federico Fellini, 1954). Man, did Giuiletta Marsina have quite a face. So expressive. So beautiful. Her sweet and innocent, though at times sad and lonely, waif of a character is the heart of La Strada (which translates "The Road"), the fourth film made by her husband Federico Fellini. La Strada won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1954 and made Fellini an internationally acclaimed filmmaker. Though it built upon the foundation laid by the Italian neo-realists (of which Fellini was a part) it was also, conversely, a reaction against it. La Strada is essentially a "realistic fable" that relates the melancholy but whimsical tale of a quirky young woman named Gelsomina who is bought by a strong man named Zampano (Anthony Quinn) to assist in his traveling act. Along the way they encounter another circus entertainer (known simply as the "fool") who imparts words of wisdom to Gelsomina but who antagonizes Zampano. This triangle results in a series of tragic events which culminate in one of the most powerful and heartbreaking final scenes in any movie. As the obnoxious guy from Annie Hall, who complains about how indulgent a filmmaker Fellini could be, is forced to admit: "Granted, La Strada is a great film." Indeed it is, sir. You may have been wrong about Marshall McLuhan but you were right about that.



Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960). A friend asked me what I thought of Vertigo taking the top spot in the latest Sight & Sound poll. Honestly, I have no problem with it. Just because I didn't place Vertigo in my own personal top 10, does not mean I take issue with its being considered "the greatest film ever made" (at least no more than I do with any other film being called such... well, except perhaps The Waterboy). Vertigo is a masterpiece and I do love it. Nevertheless, I always have been and probably always will be a Psycho guy. From a technical standpoint, Psycho is just as clever, manipulative and cinematic as Vertigo. From a storytelling standpoint, it's just as dark, provocative and emotional as Vertigo and from a thematic standpoint, it's just as deep, rich and tragic as Vertigo. What probably makes the latter seem more sophisticated than the former (and what causes many to select it over Psycho) is pedigree. Being a horror film, Psycho's subject matter is far more lurid, seedy and vulgar than Vertigo. There are no elegant blonde beauties waltzing around in stylishly colorful outfits to the gorgeously delicate strains of Bernard Hermann's bittersweet love theme. What we get instead is a slutty blond girl who steals thousands of dollars and then gets brutally stabbed to death in black-and-white while Hermann's violins shriek at us crudely. Vertigo, like its protagonist Scottie Ferguson, may be disturbed, but there's no denying that Psycho, also like its main character Norman Bates, is sick. That sickness doesn't mean it can't also be high art, but its perversity spawned a whole host of trashy imitators who, quite frankly, aren't even worthy to clean Psycho's shower. Maybe it will always be somewhat devalued by its association with a fairly ignoble genre, but even if we punish the film for the company it keeps forever, Mother still gets the last laugh.



The Wild Child (François Truffaut, 1970). While many cinephiles would probably choose 400 Blows (a film I love by the way) as Truffaut's greatest work, I happen to be irresistibly drawn to The Wild Child. Based on the true account of Victor of Aveyron, a feral boy who was captured and then re-introduced to 17th century French society, Wild Child benefits greatly from the onscreen presence of Truffaut himself. Playing Dr. Itard, the teacher who patiently educates, socializes and ultimately civilizes young Victor, Truffaut's natural warmth and compassion comes through as clearly on camera as it does from behind it. It also presents some of the most powerful and hopeful scenes of a person rediscovering their innate dignity and humanity I've ever seen. There's an incredibly moving sequence where Itard, concerned that he has simply trained a pet rather than awoken the boy's inner sense of morality, makes the difficult decision to punish Victor for actually obeying him and Victor briefly rebels (biting Itard's arm in the process) which the doctor considers a great success. Jean-Pierre Cargol, the young actor who plays the titular child, does a phenomenal job of seeming genuinely savage and animal-like. Similar to Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker (a story Truffaut wanted to adapt before learning Arthur Penn was already doing so), his gradual overcoming of his natural "handicaps" seems authentic. It's a superb performance, one of the best ever given by a child actor, and it is no surprise given that he was directed by one of the greatest child directors ever. In many ways, Wild Child is just as personal and autobiographical a story for Truffaut as 400 Blows is. Whereas the latter is about Truffaut's youth and falling in love with film, the former is about his adulthood as a filmmaker and the "coaching" he ends up doing of so many little children as a result. It's no coincidence that the film was dedicated to Jean-Pierre Léaud, the boy who worked with Truffaut on 400 Blows and four other films over a period of 20 years.



Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979). I find that great art often transcends its subject matter and in the case of great films, that includes its genre. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam epic based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness) is ostensibly a war movie but in the hands of director Coppola, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and editor Walter Murch, it becomes much more. The story begins relatively straightforwardly (Martin Sheen's special ops captain Ben Willard is ordered to proceed downriver and assassinate Marlon Brando's Col. Kurtz who has apparently lost his mind and is running his own rogue military command, composed primarily of natives, in the heart of Cambodia) but as the film goes on and Sheen gets deeper and deeper into the heart of the jungle, it becomes more of an abstract experience: imagery becomes symbolic, colors become impressionistic and dialogue becomes philosophical. The finale is a like a hallucinogenic nightmare from which Willard, though he completes his assignment, can never wake up. The mission is essentially a journey into the darker recesses of his own soul and what he finds shocks and horrifies him. Many consider Apocalypse Now pretentious and indulgent but most films that plumb the depths of human nature tend to be. It is also criticized for having very little connection to historical reality, but again I think this misses the point (the film is basically an allegory). For me, it is a quintessential example of what I call "meditative" cinema and it is, quite honestly, astonishing it turned out as well as it did given the immense obstacles Coppola was forced to overcome to create it (and which were chronicled in the documentary Hearts of Darkness: a Filmmaker's Apocalypse). Years later, Coppola revisited his film with the extended Apocalypse Now Redux and although it does have one or two interesting additional sequences, I prefer the original. You can have too much of a good thing.



Crimes and Misdemeanors (Woody Allen, 1989). In his novel The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky wrote that if God doesn't exist, "everything is permissable." Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (an obvious variation on the title of another Dostoyevsky tome Crime and Punishment, only notice that Allen does away with the "punishment") is an exploration of that very idea. It tells two parallel stories (one of a man, played by Martin Landau, who has his former mistress murdered and the other of an unlucky filmmaker, Allen himself, whose marriage is falling apart and who is becoming attracted to another woman). In the film's final scene, the two stories converge in a conversation where the difference between fantasy (as it's usually depicted in movies) and reality (as Allen perceives it) is articulated. In the vein of Allen's idol Ingmar Bergman, Crimes and Misdemeanors is about the absurdity of guilt, the indifference of the cold and unfeeling universe and the ways in which we human beings cope in the face of such hard, bleak concepts (Allen would later revisit some of these themes in Matchpoint). Much of the imagery throughout powerfully illustrates this (Landau's character is an opthamologist and his rabbi friend Sam Waterston is going blind, which indicating he doesn't "see" the truth about God's non-existence). Woody Allen, a known atheist and pessimist, is one of my favorite filmmakers (my most beloved of his films being Manhattan and Purple Rose of Cairo, both of which it was very hard to exclude from this list) and it seems strange to me sometimes that his work should resonate so much with me given that I am neither an atheist nor a pessimist. Nonetheless, there is a lot of insight in his work (Allen is particularly good, for example, at dramatizing the sentiments of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes: "Vanity, vanity, all is vanity") and it keeps me coming back to them. In many ways he has, if you'll pardon the expression, "eyes to see."



Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993). Whenever someone decides to make a "top 10," "top 20," "top 50" or "top 100 greatest films ever" list, my first tendency is to scan the entire thing looking for this title. If I don't find it, my respect for the list immediately drops a point (Note: I actually had just such an experience recently when I discovered that not a single person voted for Schindler's List in the most recent Sight & Sound poll). Acclaimed and criticized in its initial release, Steven Spielberg's three hour-plus docudrama is a landmark film in the history of cinema as well as a major turning point in the career of its director. A filmmaker known primarily for technically flawless and unapologetically juvenile escapist fare, Spielberg's restrained, dignified and honest treatment of the true story of a German industrialist who risked his reputation, fortune and life to save 1,100 Jews from extermination during WWII was as surprising as it was inspiring. It is also, if I can get a bit more personal for a moment, a seminal film in my own development (both as a cinephile and as a human being). It may not be the greatest "Holocaust film" ever made -- many seem to prefer Alan Resnais' harrowing 1955 documentary Night and Fog -- but I would argue that, due its immense recognition and the way it brought the topic into the mainstream cultural dialogue more than any other film had before or since, it is the most important. Furthermore, like Apocalypse Now, Schindler's List transcends its subject. It becomes a rumination on pure ideals: good, evil, courage, fear, love, hate, etc. Very few films reach as high and dig as deep. Very few films juxtapose humanity's frightening capacity for sheer wickedness with its incredible potential for goodness more clearly or more gracefully. It may very well be, as I have not infrequently called it, the best film I've ever seen or will see (although the final film on this list comes close) and should it ever occupy the #1 spot in Sight & Sound's poll, you will not hear me complaining.



The Red Violin (François Girard, 1998). In Jr. High I remember reading a short story about a coin which traveled all over the world, was owned by many different people, was used for both good and evil purposes and which "lived" far longer than any of individuals who possessed it. I remember being fascinated by that idea and the prospect of asking any object (assuming it could magically speak) about its adventures. What sort of stories would it tell? Well, The Red Violin dramatizes that very scenario. The object in question is a violin known for the eminence of its creator as well as for its distinctive red-colored varnish and the film chronicles, in five different stories which span four centuries and several continents, a remarkable journey from its origin in 17th century Italy to the hands of an appraiser (played by Samuel L. Jackson) in modern-day Montreal. The Red Violin is legendary because it is no ordinary instrument and the film The Red Violin is brilliant because it is no ordinary film. It is dark, mysterious, hypnotic, unsettling, lush, romantic, ambitious, soulful... it is everything that a movie can and should be. It also has, thanks to composer John Corigliano, one of the most hauntingly beautiful scores ever written for a motion picture.



The Tree of Life (Terence Malick, 2011). Once in a blue moon, we see a movie that reminds us of why we watch movies in the first place, what we are seeking when we venture into that dark room to gaze at light flickering on a screen. We see a film that produces the kind of effect in us (an intense emotional, spiritual, intellectual and existential experience) that only films can stimulate. It is awe-inspiring and ambitious while simultaneously personal and intimate. The Tree of Life was that movie for me. Though it may seem strange to include a film that was released just last year in a list of the ten greatest films ever made, I believe that Tree of Life deserves it. Praised and condemned in equal measure since its 2011 Cannes premiere, Terence Malick's glorious two-and-a-half-hour tone poem takes its audience on a grand odyssey from the beginning of the universe to the troubles of an ordinary family in 1950's Texas to the end of all creation and finally to an enigmatic "no man's land" where time, space and identity seem to merge into one. In terms of style, scope and themes, it has been aptly compared to Kubrick's 2001, but (and I realize this is probably cinematic heresy), I think Tree of Life is better. When I first saw it in the theater, I was dumbstruck. I wasn't exactly sure what I had seen, but I knew I had just seen something extraordinary. It took several more viewings, not to mention reading a whole host of pieces on it (both positive and negative), for me to clarify my thinking and form a precise opinion on the film... and it is this: though it may sound hyperbolic, Tree of Life is not only a pure manifestation of the power and potential of cinema, it is the universal human journey expressed beautifully in a stunning marriage of words, images and music. It is sublime. It is magnificent. It is virtually a religious experience and it is, quite simply, one of the best films I've ever been seen. If movies can do that, they can do anything.


Runners-Up: Singin' in the Rain, The Seventh Seal, Unforgiven, The Grapes of Wrath, E.T., The Exorcist, Taxi Driver, The Shawshank Redemption, Blade Runner, The Mission, The Bicycle Thief, Lawrence of Arabia, Double Indemnity, The Godfather, Amadeus, Die Hard, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dr. Strangelove, JFK, Aguirre: the Wrath of God

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Bringing Up Babs


The following is an article I wrote for the blog Edward Copeland on Film (for which I am a regular contributor) commemorating the 40th anniversary of the release of What's Up, Doc?


I remember working in the video store one day when a regular customer came in to check out a few titles. He glanced at the enormous flat screen we had behind the counter, saw Barbra Streisand belting out some catchy show tune and uttered a question I got asked a lot in those days. "What are you watching?" he said. "Hello, Dolly!" I answered. He smiled, shook his head and exclaimed, "See, now, here's where I break with the stereotype. I'm a gay guy who doesn't like Barbra Streisand." I just laughed and replied, "That's OK. I'm a straight guy who does."

And it's true. Although she is by no means my favorite actress (nor would I ever see a film simply because she's in it), I happen to enjoy watching her onscreen. Funny Girl, Meet the Fockers and the aforementioned Hello, Dolly! are all films I love, but my favorite movie of hers would have to be the hilarious What's Up, Doc? which celebrates its 40th anniversary today. Nowhere is Babs' gift for comedy and sheer charisma on display better than in this film. They even find an excuse to show off her incredible voice once or twice: namely, in the film's opening and ending credits where she sings Cole Porter's "You're The Top" as well as the scene at the piano when she croons a few lines of "As Time Goes By."

It also doesn't hurt that What's Up, Doc? happens to be a really great movie. Hot off of his success with The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich originally conceived it as a remake of Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby, but wisely decided (much as Lawrence Kasdan would do later with his film noir tribute Body Heat) to use Hawks' film merely as an inspiration rather than a template and to give What's Up, Doc? its own identity. As a result, it comes off more as a love letter to screwball comedies in general as well as to iconic Warner Bros. feature films (such as Casablanca) and classic animated shorts. Hence, when Barbra's character, Judy Maxwell, is introduced first to Ryan O'Neal's nerdy Howard Bannister, she's seen munching on a carrot a la Bugs Bunny and/or Clark Gable from It Happened One Night. With her brash, fast-talking, trouble-making personality and his stiff, bespectacled, long-suffering demeanor, the two leads clearly are based on Baby's Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. (Interestingly, Streisand shared a best actress Oscar with Ms. Hepburn only four years earlier in one of the Academy's rare ties. Streisand won for her film debut in Funny Girl while Hepburn earned her third best actress trophy for The Lion in Winter. Hepburn's prize was her second consecutive win in the category having taken the 1967 Oscar for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.) Aside from Judy constantly getting Howard into trouble and a reminiscent coat-tearing gag, the similarities between Doc and Baby essentially end there.

Also, What's Up, Doc? lacks a leopard. Instead the chaos revolves around four identical carrying cases containing such varied items as clothes, rocks, jewels and classified government documents. When moviegoers first see the quartet of cases at the start of Doc, it's the filmmakers signaling audiences that much confusion and hilarity awaits. At this point I have to confess that, although I've seen the film at least a dozen times, I cannot to this day follow which case is which throughout the course of the film. Every time I sit down to watch, I swear I'm going to keep track of the cases, but I always give up about 20 minutes into it. I take some comfort, however, from the fact that even the great Buck Henry, in the process of re-writing the screenplay, reportedly phoned Bogdanovich to say, "I've lost one of the suitcases. It's in the hotel somewhere, but I don't know where I put it."

The gags come fast and furious in What's Up, Doc? More than a decade before Bruce Willis and Bogdanovich's ex-girlfriend Cybill Shepherd resurrected rapid-fire banter on TV's Moonlighting, Streisand and O'Neal fire a barrage of zingers at each other so quickly that you're almost afraid to laugh for fear you'll miss the next one. The behind-the-scenes team also populates the What's Up, Doc? universe with a whole host of kooky characters, each bringing his or her unique comic flair to those roles. There isn't a single boring person in What's Up, Doc? Everyone (right down to the painter who drops his cigar into the bucket) amuses. At the top of the heap resides the great Madeline Kahn in her feature film debut as Howard's frumpy fiancée Eunice Burns. Two years before she joined Mel Brooks' cinematic comedy troupe, she proved to the world her status as one of the funniest women ever to grace the silver screen. Another Mel Brooks' regular, Kenneth Mars, plays Hugh Simon, providing yet one more strangely accented flamboyant nutball to his immense repertoire. A very young Randy Quaid, a brief M. Emmett Walsh and a very annoyed John Hillerman also show up in hilarious bit parts.

All of this anarchy culminates in a spectacular car chase through the streets of San Francisco that actually rivals the one from Bullitt. Apparently it took four weeks to shoot, cost $1 million (¼ of the film's budget) and even managed to get the filmmakers in trouble with the city for destroying some of its property without permission. Nevertheless, Bogdanovich pulls out all the stops in creating this over-the-top action/slapstick set piece that overflows with both thrills and laughs. When watching it, one can't help but be reminded that physical comedy on this grand of a scale doesn't even get attempted anymore. One wishes another director would resurrect the kind of awesome stunt-comedy on display here and in The Pink Panther series.

The film's dénouement takes place in a courtroom where an embittered, elderly judge (the brilliant Liam Dunn) hears the arguments of everyone involved and tries to make sense of it all. Howard's attempt to explain only serves to frustrate and confuse the judge further and results in this gem of an exchange that owes more than a little bit to Abbott & Costello's "Who's on First?":

HOWARD: First, there was this trouble between me and Hugh.
JUDGE: You and me?
HOWARD: No, not you. Hugh.
HUGH: I am Hugh.
JUDGE: You are me?
HUGH: No, I am Hugh.
JUDGE: Stop saying that. (to bailiff) Make him stop saying that!
HUGH: Don't touch me, I'm a doctor.
JUDGE: Of what?
HUGH: Music.
JUDGE: Can you fix a hi-fi?
HUGH: No, sir.
JUDGE: Then shut up!

The tag line for What's Up, Doc? read: "A screwball comedy. Remember them?" Well, whether people remembered screwball comedy or simply discovered it for the first time, they certainly embraced the film as it was an enormous success upon its release. It took in $66 million in North America alone and became the third-highest grossing film of the year. Since The Last Picture Show was released in late '71 and Doc came out in early '72, Bogdanovich had two hugely successful films playing in theaters at the same time. Unfortunately, his career, which had just started to rise, also had neared its peak. Although he would follow Doc with Paper Moon his directing career would only see sporadic critical successes after that such as Saint Jack and Mask. He even filmed Texasville, the sequel to The Last Picture Show, but he'd never again see the kind of commercial or critical success he had achieved in the early 1970s. Bogdanovich would eventually end up working in television, often as an actor such as his long recurring role as Dr. Elliot Kupferberg, psychiatrist to Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) on The Sopranos. The most recent feature film he directed was 2001's fairly well-received The Cat's Meow starring Kirsten Dunst as Marion Davies and Edward Herrmann as William Randolph Hearst. Based on a play of the same name, The Cat's Meow concerned a real-life mystery in 1924 Hollywood involving the shooting death of writer/producer/director Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes) on Hearst's yacht.

When Bogdanovich was good, he was great and What's Up, Doc? is, in my opinion, the jewel in his crown. It made a once-forgotten genre popular again, it jump-started a lot of comic careers and it reminded us all that love meaning never having to say we're sorry is the dumbest thing we've ever heard.