Moon

With his debut film, Duncan Jones take the science fiction film right back to the era when he was born, in the early ’70s, that is when the genre still had some ideas and social commentary to offer. Moon, about man on a three-year solitary mission to harvest helium3 from the dark side of the moon to be used as an energy back on earth, is homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and more obviously Silent Running. But these earlier films were infused with the hippie ethos of the day, especially Silent Running, with Bruce Dern outwitting some robot assistants in order to save an enormous outer space green house, to like, free the trees, man, to the background of a Joan Baez soundtrack. The science fiction aspect just seemed to isolate and underscore the back-to-nature idea.

Moon, about a man and his robot in space, looks a lot like Silent Running, but deals with things on a deeper level. It is not much of a spoiler to reveal this as it is shown in the trailer, but Moon is a cloning, as the worker manning the moon station finds a clone of himself. Sam Rockwell maintains subtle differences to help the viewer keep separate the two clones, one of which is disturbed by the duplicity and the other who takes it in stride. But the film does not dwell long on the ethics of whether cloning is right or wrong. It is not really a sci-fi film about the ethics of science, but is more about emotion. One of the clones is emotionally shattered by the revelation that he is nothing but a clone, and that emotion is reflected in the desolate scale models (no CGI, thank you) of the moon’s surface, and Clint Mansell’s beautiful, melancholic piano score.

Murders in the Rue Morgue

Murders in the Rue Morgue, which I’ve seen for the first time, despite being something of a Bela Lugosi fan, came as a bit of a surprise. It is a Universal film, shot one year after Lugosi’s career-defining performance in Dracula, and supposedly came together when Lugosi and director Robert Florey dropped out of Universal’s Frankenstein, shot the same year. But while Dracula and Frankenstein largely through out their source novels, keeping only the basic plots, Universal keeps more of the literary tone of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, making the film seem more like something from MGM.

But there are a lot of diversions from Poe. The short story was really the world’s first detective novel, written at a time when the word “detective” even exist. But the detective character, Dupin, is here played by the lackluster Leon Ames (who would later play Judy Garland’s father in Meet me in St. Louis, a role which actually suited him). Dupin is eclipsed by a sideshow performer named Dr Mirakle (Lugosi) who is not in the Poe story. A 25-year-old John Huston is credited as writing additional dialogue, one of his first film jobs. I can only assume that he wrote the few comedic interludes between the detective and his roommate and their girlfriends, jokes which don’t work very well.

On the other hand, there are some wonderful shots by legendary cinematographer Karl Freund, especially one sequence in which the young detective has a conversation with his girl about the mysterious doctor, while she all the while is sailing back and forth on a swing, as the camera moves back and forth with her, a shot that is hard to figure out how it was done even now. But Freund’s camera work and the usual horror sets from the Universal back lot don’t save this from being an uneven adaptation which some dialogue that is painful to listen to.

Singin’ in the Rain

In his own Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen appears as a struggling documentary film maker who is pursuing a relationship (with limited success) with a journalist played by Mia Farrow. They hear that a philosophy professor who he has been film, has committed suicide, news that puts them both into shock. Later, he invites her to watch a 16mm print of Singin’ in the Rain in his editing room, and he explains that whenever he is depressed, he puts the same film on.  In the next scene, they are enjoying the film together.

This is indeed a film that has the power to cheer us up when we need it. Yesterday Japan, the country where I have lived for years, was hit by an enormous earthquake and tsunami. I of course knew about the earthquake, but didn’t know the extent of the damage or anything about the tsunami as I watched RKO 281 last night. Now that more is coming out about the disaster, I turned to Singin’ in the Rain for a bit of soothing. While it can be dangerous to ignore the problems around us, I am so thankful for movies and their power to take us away from our problems even for a short while.

RKO 281

After watching Citizen Kane again for the 50th time or so yesterday, I thought it was time to finally get around to seeing RKO 281, the dramatization of the creation of Kane, especially the battle over the film between its creator, 24-year-old Orson Welles, and its thinly veiled subject, 78-year-old William Randolph Hearst. I have known about this made-for-cable movie for a while, but was avoiding it since I thought Liev Schreiber had no business playing Orson Welles, lacking the director’s charisma, presence, raw power, and last but not least his height and weight. But the audience is eased into excepting Schreiber as Welles, as his first appearance is in a faked newsreel chronicling the boy wonders rise to fame with Schreiber lipcynching to Welles voice as he apologizes for pandemonium caused by his “War of the Worlds.” After that, it is just Shreiber. I soon got use to him as a young Orson Welles, as he is appropriately intimidating as he throws drinks and overturns nightclub tables toward his closest collaborators, and his performance became one of my favorite things about this dramatization.

RKO 281 is built from a mixture of facts that are established by the various script drafts for Kane and studio memos as wells a generous helpings of conjecture and dramatization. There is no way to know, for example, exactly what Hearst said to his mistress Marion Davis after they arranged a private screening of Kane in his palatial estate. But the script is remarkably efficient at expressing in a few lines of dialogue the complicated figures of Hearst and Welles, and to a lesser extent Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, played by John Malkovich. The actual facts are simplified. For example, that “Mank” was made immobile during writing by a broken leg is left out, probably as it would have made scenes between Welles and Mankiewicz difficult to shoot. At times there may be a bit to much simplification. Specifically, the character of Kane was not based solely on Hearst, but a number of other men, including Welles himself, which is left out here.

Without reading more on the actual case, it is difficult for me know say how much this has be dramatized, but it is clear that the film widely considered the greatest ever made almost never saw the light of a projection room. It was threatened repeatedly, from the very moment when it first entered the conversations of Welles and Mankiewicz, until after the finishing touches were completed. I knew that Hearst banned all of the newspapers in his publishing empire from running ads for Kane or even mentioning the film.

What I didn’t know is (if this account is to be believed) that Mankiewicz was fascinated by Hearts but also so scared of him that he almost didn’t write the script for fear of reprisals.  Welles worked on a closed set to keep Hearst from finding out about the film, but after it was in the can the publisher exerted extreme pressure on all of the major Hollywood studios except RKO to purchase the negative and all prints of Kane in order to destroy them. The RKO board of directors were ready to take up the offer until Welles rushed to New York and made an impassioned speech comparing Hearst’s tyranny to that of Hitler. This seems like the most dramatized moment of RKO 281, but  future director Robert Wise, who cut his teeth editing Citizen Kane, later claimed to have been in the board room, and called the speech the best performance Welles ever gave.

Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane is one of the films I hold in the same group as Hitchcock’s Vertigo, George Cukor’s Gaslight, and to a lesser extent All About Eve, that I come back to every year and a half or so and view once more because it is comforting to return to something I know well, and also because I think it keeps me sharp as a movie viewer. The problem is, now that I have started this blog it is very difficult to know what to write about these films that have literally had volumes written about them. And Citizen Kane is the most written about of all.

Yes, it is all true. Everything every written or said about Citizen Kane in every book and every Film 101 class is true. It is the greatest American film ever made. It is the greatest film ever made.  It was the first to successfully bring together all of the elements of cinematic storytelling up to that point, and also invented scores of new techniques. But behind all of the expressionistic camera angles, bravado montages and clever editing transitions, there is a deeply sad and lonely story. It is impossible to watch some of the scenes, such as Kane destroying the bedroom of his second wife who has left him all alone, without feeling sad. The technical brilliance is still something that impresses me, and I find watching Citizen Kane a real emotional workout every time I come back to it. The same is not really true of All About Eve or Gaslight. Vertigo is another story altogether, and I consider it my favorite film of all time while at the same time agreeing with the claim that Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made.

Oh, God!

After watching Tootsie yesterday, I was thinking about how strange it must have been for both Teri Garr and Jessica Lange to both be nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for their performances in the same film, especially a film in which Dustin Hoffman plays both the lead male and female leads. It is surprising, though, that Lange took home the statuette. Although she looks great in the film, her character hardly does anything, whereas Garr’s performance is both endearing and heartbreaking, as she plays the acting student that didn’t pass the audition for the role that Hoffman’s character takes over to great acclaim. Anyway, Tootsie left me wanting to see a bit more Teri Garr, so I dug out Oh, God!, which I vaguely remember seeing on TV years and years ago, when it was still a relatively recent movie.

I have absolutely no religious beliefs or convictions, so I could only take a passive interest in this film which has god, played by George Burns, choose as his modern messenger a non-believing supermarket assistant manager (John Denver). But Oh, God! works as a good snapshot of suburban California in the ’70s, and there is some pretty biting satire of religion in America at the time, including a funny parody of Billy Graham played by Paul Sorvino. Teri Garr is good as the dismayed housewife who finds herself in the center of a media storm when her husband starts claiming to have talks with the almighty. Veteran actor Ralph Bellamy puts in an appearance as an attorney who cross examines god on the witness stand and director Carl Reiner, evidently a complete egomaniac, manages to makes not one but two cameos in his own film.

 

 

Tootsie

Back a while ago when I got together with friends to Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Nine to Five, we all agreed that the perfect way to end the movie would have been to watch Tootsie. But the night was getting late and people had trains to catch, so we gave it a miss. But talking about it moved it higher on my “to watch” list, and I finally got around to watching it again today.

Most people of course remember Tootsie as the film that has Dustin Hoffman in drag more than half the time. I remember seeing a “making of” segment on TV that included an interview with Hoffman talking about the various wardrobe tests they did with bras, including one stuffed with birdseed that inspired birds to fly down and peck at his chest. Hoffman’s character, a struggling actor who auditions for a role as a woman for the paycheck but sees the role become a hit, enjoys taking the role, and Hoffman as the actor playing the actor also enjoys it.  Watching the film again after so many years, I realize that there really is a lot more to the film and why it was nominated for so many Oscars.

Hoffman has often said in interviews that he never viewed the film as a comedy, and his personal reason for wanting to take the role was because he realized that there were so many interesting women that he never got to know in life because he had been brainwashed into thinking that women should look a certain way. The film really does have some serious points to make about gender equality. Some of them are still relevant today, but many of which are probably tied to the early ’80s. As Jessica Lange asks Tootsie, “don’t you find being a woman in the ’80s terribly complicated?”

There is a lot going on as well on the sidelines. Bill Murray is very funny as he improvises lines  Hoffman’s equally struggling playwright roommate. Quintessential ’80s actor Dabney Coleman is suitably smarmy as the director of the soap opera Tootsie lands a role on, and Teri Garr is both funny and touching as his frustrated friend and acting student. Garr and Lange were both nominated for Best Supporting Actress Oscars for the film. Although Lange looks great, I’ll never understand why she won over Garr. Lange’s character is emotionally dead throughout the film, but it is impossible to watch Garr’s performance and not be heartbroken, and also smile.

Amadeus

Even though I was just a kid when Amadeus was first released, I still remember the enormous buzz surrounding the film at the time. I even remember a one-panel comic which had an office working complaining to a colleague: “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, all I ever hear about is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.” The hype was such that theatrical posters for the film included the tagline “Everything you have head is true.” There was so much talk not just because of the greatness of the subject, but also the greatness of the film.

Amadeus is so “dramatized” that it can really be viewed as nothing other than complete fantasy. The rivalry between Salieri and Mozart which is the main theme of the film is reflected in letters between Mozart and his father, but it certainly wasn’t deadly.

But who cares about historical accuracy when you have the performances of Tom Hulce and especially F. Murray Abraham. Director Milos Forman was wise enough to know that he already had the big names of Mozart and Salieri so didn’t need any big names for the roles, and was able to turn down David Bowie, Mick Jagger and a long list of other would-be actors who were vying to play Mozart. He hired two lesser-known actors, but what actors! Abraham won an Oscar and deserved it. They had a lot to work with, as Peter Shaffer’s dialogue contains some of the most beautiful descriptions of music ever written, and transforms the music of Mozart into the third character in the film.

Amadeus is one of the handful of films that I watch at least once a year and it is always a real emotional workout, no matter how many times I have seen it.

The Exorcist

It is hard for me to explain why I like this movie so much. The supposed “true life” case that inspired the novel partially took home in my hometown, actually in a house a short walk from my university. So from junior high school onward, I was always hearing people talk about The Exorcist, but I never actually saw the film until long after I moved away, and so have only ever seen the expanded version that came out in 2000. But since then I have seen it many times, and will probably go on watching it at least once a year.

I don’t believe in forces of good and evil, be they gods or demons, and certainly do not believe in demonic possession. When a saw video clip of a conversation between screenwriter William Peter Blatty and director William Friedkin which appeared on one of the 50 or so different DVD editions of The Exorcist that have been released so far, I was surprised and disappointed to hear that these two apparently intelligent men  actually believe in possession and exorcism.

I have no belief in any of the idea presented in the movie, and think there is probably a good explanation for everything that was experienced in the real-life case that inspired the novel and film. I also don’t buy the common explanation that this film is so scary that it tap into all of our basic fears. At least that is not the case with me. I think it is just because Friedkin is such a master of pacing and tone that I love this film so much. It is not a case of his storytelling skills making possible a suspension of disbelief for me, but rather that the film is so obviously well made that I can revel in an example of what Hitchcock called “pure cinema.”

Frost/Nixon

I probably would have gotten around to seeing this sooner or later anyway, but when I saw Sayonara the other day, there were door prizes including a DVD of Frost/Nixon, which I won. It was a pleasant little cap to nice movie night, and encouraged me to finally get around to seeing this. I’ve never been much of a  fan of Ron Howard as a director, and had zero interest in his recent films like Angels & Demons, but I had heard again and again how good this was.

Howard, and to no small extent his production and costume designers, do a good job of recreating the look of the ’70s. Michael Sheen and Frank Langella, while not especially looking like the title characters, do uncanny impersonations of them, especially Langella, who rose to the challenge of playing a man with such idiosyncratic mannerisms and mater of speaking. Howard and playwright/screenwriter Peter Morgan do a good job creating tension in what is basically a long series of conversations between two guys who are not standing up, while also (apparently) being fairly accurate historically.

The one qualm I had with the film was the dramatic recreation of events behind the Frost/Nixon interviews with a number of shots of members of two contenders’ support teams reminiscing about  the interview, apparently years later, such as Kevin Bacon as the Marine guard Congress allow Nixon to keep on his staff after leaving the White House. This struck me as a rather odd directorial decision, since the actors are not made up to look any older than they are in the rest of the film, but they are talking as if the interviews were in the distant past. It might have been interesting if Howard had gotten really comments from the actual people, who are all still alive (with the exception of Swifty Lazar, who was already ancient in 1977) and many of whom attended the premiere of the film. But as it is, these brief scenes, which are for narrative economy, just break up the flow of the movie and become really distracting.

A fun side note I noticed right off, though, was that First Lady Pat Nixon was played by Patty McCormack, who played the most evil girl in the world in The Bad Seed.

Hereafter

Clint Eastwood’s recent films just keep getting better and better. I was really impressed with The Changeling, made in 2007.  His restrained directorial style made me like the film despite the fact that it stars Angelina Jolie, who isn’t exactly a favorite actress of mine.  I thought Gran Torino was a nearly perfect film. At the time Eastwood announced that it would be his last film as actor, but he said the same thing when he starred in his own Million Dollar Baby in 2004. As he was pushing 80, I assumed he would probably not make another film, expect maybe a few jazz documentaries. But Eastwood went on to direct Invictus, which I have not got around to seeing yet, and Hereafter, which adds a great deal to his work as a director.

Eastwood achieves a lot with Hereafter.  He made a film about the afterlife which is not religious—not an easy feat—and he brought together a complicated story set in four countries, with big portions set in Paris and London, cities where he has never worked, and with actors with very different backgrounds, and from different worlds as Eastwood. The biggest name on the cast Matt Damon, who plays the psychic who ties together the various threads of the story. But the real stand out in the cast is British actress Lyndsey Marshal, whom I knew from the TV show “Being Human,” where she plays a doctor who falls for a coworker she doesn’t know is a vampire. In Hereafter she plays the heroin-addicted mother of twins who loses one of her boys, and then the other. She is only on the screen a few minutes, but she brings a huge amount of emotional intensity to the film. The fact that Eastwood was able to direct scenes of actors speaking in French, and British English, and in American English, and get performances such as Marshal’s just makes his achievement all the more obvious.

Sayonara

This is so obvious that it hardly seems worth mentioning, but it is something that can also easily be forgotten—the audience that you watch a movie with can really effect how much you enjoy it. Tonight I was reminded of this when I attended a movie night organized by a Tokyo-based American screen writer and music producer. This was my first time to join, but apparently he puts on the event around once a month, inviting people to enjoy wine at a cozy restaurant while watching a film. The selections are Japanese movie with English subtitles or English-language productions filmed in Japan, so there tends to be a crowd mostly of people like me—long-term foreign residents of Tokyo.

Tonight it was 1957 Marlon Brando film Sayonara. All I knew about the film was that Miyoshi Umeki became the first—at to date, only—Asian performer  to win a best supporting actress Oscar.  If I had watched this alone, I would have been mildly entertained. Although the film took place at locations around Japan, there is very little on the screen that could be recognized in the Tokyo that I live in. So I would have watched it as just another big-budget Technicolor ‘50s production. But watching it with a group of other foreign residents of Tokyo, it became lots of fun. We chuckled at the cheap jokes of Marlon Brando bumping his forehead on the low doorways of Japanese houses or struggles to sit at low Japanese dining tables, and every time Umeki came on the screen someone would let slip “oh, she is so adorable!” When Brando’s character goes backstage to have a word with the actress he is in love with and opens the door for an elderly stage dresser and says in his loveable Southern drawl the single Japanese word doozo (“go ahead”) we all roared with laughter.

Although there are a lot of naïve ideas and a few really bizarre ones in Sayonara, it is a well-made film. But this viewing experience for me was made more by the audience than what was on the screen.