February 22, 2012

No Eyeballs Were Harmed in Buñuel's 'Crusoe'

In fact, the eyeballs of yours truly were very grateful.

Luis Buñuel has always been one of my favorite directors, and I was very happy to see a movie of his that I hadn't seen, 1954's The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, on TV the other day. I was curious about his treatment of the classic Daniel Defoe tale, as the other Buñuel films I've enjoyed all have featured the director's famous surrealist visuals and anticlerical dialogue.

I wasn't too surprised to find that I enjoyed Crusoe just as much. The reason: Buñuel was a great director. And most great directors can work with a broad range of subjects.

Not that surrealism was entirely absent from the film. A bizarre dream sequence involving the the titular marooned character (played poignantly by Dan O'Herlihy) and some startling imagery--including a scene in which the famished Crusoe cracks open an egg to find a live bird inside--peppered the movie, which otherwise flowed much like a well-made Hollywood treatment. Buñuel has always been great at telling a story, a trait that I feel is often overlooked, and his adaptation is typically involving...even exciting and moving.

I'm now interested in seeing his version of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, a book I've always loved. It's another film of Buñuel's that I haven't yet seen; I somehow think I'm about to open a treasure chest like one of those found in Crusoe's ship.

February 19, 2012

The Glibness of the Long-Distance 'Road'

I forgot just how smug Stanley Donen's Two for the Road is.

The Albert Finney/Audrey Hepburn vehicle is not one of my favorite films, though I remember appreciating its modish banter back when I originally saw it.

Now, upon seeing it again, I believe I've lost that appreciating feeling.

It's still slick and well-crafted, but it feels artificial, with "witty" (read: grating) repartee that has seemingly been manufactured for the married FinBurn characters. The leads are, as always, reliable, but the film to me is just a shell--the frosting on an old cake.

For wit+soul, I prefer films such as Kind Hearts and Coronets. Or Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious. Or Donen's Singin' in the Rain. Intelligence without self-satisfaction--that usually makes for a good movie.

With apologies to The Hollies, this Road is long...with too many a winding turn.

I should've taken the last exit.

February 15, 2012

I'm a Celebrity--Get Me a Publisher!

At some point, the Oscars will have to create a category honoring the worst books "written" by a star of the silver screen.

Before we come to that dreadful day, however, we can enjoy the splendors of Celebrity Autobiography, an ongoing theatrical series dedicated to poking fun at some of the most agonizing literary twaddle known to man. Last night's installment, which Trudi and I attended at a venue on Manhattan's Upper East Side, featured a cast that included Carol Kane, Dick Cavett, Judy Gold, Alan Zweibel and host/co-creator Eugene Pack, with selections read (in character) from the autobiographies of luminaries such as Hedy Lamarr, Burt Reynolds and Mötley Crüe's Tommy Lee.

Taste may be subjective, but I think it's safe to say that Lamarr's musings on what it means to be a "star" were among the most ludicrous I've ever heard.

Fortunately, the talented cast read these selections with aplomb--especially Kane, whose languid Lamarr basically stole the show. It was quite an evening, and I have to say that I'm now even more reluctant to pick up a celebrity autobiography than before...which is, I suspect, a positive.

Now I wonder when we'll have a production skewering celebrities' attempts at classical music. Or...do we really need that?

February 12, 2012

Soylent Green Is...Related?

Some things are easy to identify as coincidences. Some aren't.

In watching Richard Fleischer's 1973 eco-policier Soylent Green today, I got the chance to reacquaint myself with Edward G. Robinson's lovely performance as the wistful but pessimistic Sol, who both rooms with and helps Charlton Heston's heat-weary detective, Thorn.

My grandfather had actually met Robinson many years ago, and their amiable exchange has become part of family lore.

My grandfather's name: Sol.

I thought about this today while watching Soylent Green and wondering whether the similarity was a coincidence. Possibly. I'd like to think it wasn't.

But I can appreciate the film--and Edward G.--all the same.

February 10, 2012

Guess 'Cahiers du Cinéma' Got It Wrong, Huh?

Next time I see another TV spot touting a film as coming "from the producer of" such-and-such a movie, I'm going to light another mental candle to honor François Truffaut.

Without producers, we wouldn't have movies, and the existence of many masterpieces, such as Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha, can be chalked up to the faith of those who supported these films, financially and otherwise.

But is the image of the producer really greater than the image of the director?

I'm not suggesting the application of a loftier ideal to marketing materials for high-concept cinematic dross. This kind of practice often seems to be the province of ads touting spectacle or thrills derived from a source known for similar content.

The director, however, should still be the one credited for such work...or, perhaps, deemed responsible for it. I don't think we've come to a point--even in the age of CGI--where everything is all laid out like a connect-the-dots book, requiring just a pen to link everything together.

An outlook is essential--it's the voice of a great film. And that's what a good director provides.

Wouldn't you be drawn to a film "from the director of Ivan the Terrible, Part I"?


February 07, 2012

What the Dickens? Where Are the Film Classics?

The festivities celebrating Charles Dickens' 200th birthday have led me to wonder why the cinema hasn't seen more great adaptations of his works.

The standards, in my opinion, are David Lean's Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. No other adaptation on the silver (or Technicolor) screen approaches the quality of these works, which, though streamlined, are masterpieces of acting, directing, editing and cinematography.

I know the much-vaunted Hollywood versions of A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield are held in high regard, and Carol Reed's Oliver! won a Best Picture Oscar. But when I think of films of Dickens novels, I think of the Leans, not the Reed, which I believe lacks the impact of the 1948 Twist.

Scrooge is fun, but its impact has waned on multiple viewings. I'm not going to put Little Dorrit in Lean's company, either; I found the film rather static and uninvolving. And to date, no one has made even a serviceable film of Nicholas Nickleby, despite a definitive stage adaptation from the Royal Shakespeare Company.

So why aren't we seeing any more masterpieces that can compete with Lean's behemoths? It's not that we don't have directors talented enough to put his works appropriately on screen or that his novels are too labyrinthine to translate to film.

My feeling is, Dickens' characters are so vividly cut that only expertly cast actors and actresses can fit the bill. I can't think of his books without picturing in my mind what the players are like. And if a performer doesn't live up to those images, I consider the movie a failure.

It may well be that I am the issue here, not the filmmaker--that my expectations are too rigid. But why not expect something along the lines of Lean's adaptations? Why settle for the mundane or the ridiculous?

Viewers shouldn't need to take Nurse Ratched's pill when it comes to movies. We deserve top-notch quality, especially from top-notch sources. I don't believe we'll never get another great Dickens movie, but to do so, we need a commitment from the creators that the material--as well as the audience--will be trusted.

And when that happens, of course...what larks!

February 05, 2012

Punting on Pigskin Pictures

Sorry, but Knute Rockne All American isn't exactly Breaking Away.

Earlier this evening, I charged myself with thinking of great football-themed films that, if viewed prior to tonight's Super Bowl, would provide an excellent context to the Big Game while encapsulating the beauty of the sport itself.

Strangely, the only movie I could think of that best represents the gridiron was a Marx Brothers send-up, the hoary but still hilarious Horse Feathers.

Something's wrong with this motion picture, right?

Perhaps not. Football, for some reason, doesn't translate to the big screen like baseball does--in part, I believe, because the Heroes of Winter haven't dug their cleats into the lexicon of American lore as much as the Boys of Summer. Yet I think there's another factor: a strange inability of the game itself to register as much with viewers in terms of suspense as other sports.

Football fans, please feel free to swear at me in protest. I realize movies like North Dallas Forty and The Longest Yard, to a certain extent, inform our perspective of the game. But I don't think they're an inextricable part of our cinematic fabric the way The Pride of the Yankees is. Heck, I was a lot more concerned about the results of the tennis match in Strangers on a Train than I was during any scene in Robert Aldrich's Yard.

It may be just a coincidence that football hasn't spurred a cinematic masterpiece the way baseball has. I'm wondering, though, whether there's something on the green diamond that trumps the snowy gridiron innately on the silver screen. Or maybe it's the idea of "outs" rather than a clock that makes things more cinematic--that a limited number of lives is somehow more critical than a limited amount of time.

I don't think they're the same thing. On film, there's a difference. It's odd in a way, because to many a casual viewer, baseball can be static, while football is almost constantly in motion. One would think football would leave baseball in cinematic stardust.

As evidenced by films such as The Natural, however, there are a lot more sparks in the ninth inning than the fourth quarter.


February 03, 2012

The Power of Throwaways Compels You

To borrow (and then wreck) a line from Wallace Stevens, I don't know which to prefer, the beauty of a primary plot device or a throwaway line.

I've started to mull this minor musing after revisiting John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre last night, which I watched specifically for a few scenes in which Humphrey Bogart's no-goodnik bum asks a well-to-do gentleman on no less than three separate occasions for money. For some reason, I find these exchanges hilarious, as it points to the knee-jerk freeloader quality of Bogie's character...but it also doesn't seem to drive the narrative. Instead, it's just an aside--a bit of texture that helps make the film.

I guess I'm in love with these little throwaway moments.

Oftentimes, I mark the finesse of a movie by the inclusion of such character development. Some other examples:

  • North by Northwest: Cary Grant's Roger O. Thornhill has an incredibly natural exchange with his mother over the phone after his arrest by a policeman. When Thornhill tells his mother the sergeant's name, Emile, there's a slight pause, and then the amused ad executive says, "No, I don't believe it, either." No further explanation...but none needed. Just funny.
  • WarGames: Two techies in a computer lab are reviewing some information Matthew Broderick's hacker character, David Lightman, passes along for opinions. One of the techies, played by expert character actor Maury Chaykin, chastises the other with these immortal words when the fellow gets out of line: "Remember you told me to tell you when you were acting rudely and insensitively? Remember that? You're doing it right now." Where did this come from? It doesn't matter; it adds tang to the script...and suggests a history that these two have. Brilliant.
  • The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: Ken Murray's usually intoxicated Doc Willoughby is summoned to determine whether Lee Marvin's cruel Liberty Valance is really dead. "Whiskey, quick," the good doctor says, receiving it. But instead of giving it to Liberty, he takes a swig. Then he kicks Valance. "Dead," he says casually. Just wonderful--a bit of comedy that suggests the morality of the doctor's character...as well as the disdain he has for Valance.
  • Time Bandits: "Mm?" queries the musician, as he is given unfamiliar sheet music by Charles McKeown's beleaguered theater manager, who is being pressured to provide adequate entertainment for Napoleon. The musician then proceeds to play--dreadfully--"Me and My Shadow." Probably the tersest throwaway moment in this list, but one of the most hilarious.
  • Kagemusha: After witnessing the massacre of his clan's army, commanded by the rash Takeda family heir Katsuyori, Nobukado Takeda, portrayed superbly by Tsutomu Yamazaki, observes his defeat in a quick, short frame. The dismay and waste are conveyed so totally in this snapshot that we don't need any words. Yet another great moment from a great director, Akira Kurosawa.

February 01, 2012

Hobbit 'Journey' Bound to Be Good as Expected

Thank goodness we don't have to call Ralph Bakshi's 1978 Lord of the Rings "definitive" anymore.

We live in a golden age. We've got Peter Jackson to give us endless LOTR installments. And now, this December, we're getting Part I of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

I saw the trailer. Holy Gollum, this looks good.

Too bad we can't get the entire adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's book in one fell swoop. I'd like to see how Jackson & Co. bring the dragon Smaug to life.

But I'll have to wait. With this kind of quality forthcoming, I don't mind at all.

January 30, 2012

Please! Just Stay in Front of the Camera!

I wouldn't mind looking like George Clooney. But I'd mind directing like him.

Take The Ides of March. Well, actually, don't take it, because I wouldn't.

I'm not sure why so many actors insist on helming movies. It's like they want to reinvent themselves, when their own, well-honed personas are good enough. Clint Eastwood's another I'd mention. Laurence Olivier, too.

At least "Larry" had a vision for his interpretations of the Bard. In reviewing Eastwood's work, I'm not sure his is so defined.

I know all professionals want to do what interests them, and many don't want to be pigeonholed into certain roles. But we know Eastwood's capable of turning in a good performance. Same with Clooney.

Is being recognized as a good actor not enough? Or does one have to be an auteur to be respectable?

I think you can be respected for what you do well and, to paraphrase Robert Frost, that can make all the difference.