February 24, 2012

#3: Casablanca

Michael Curtiz's 1942 wartime romance Casablanca ranks highly on any "best of all time" list I can find, and yet it didn't enchant nearly anyone in my living room the other night... until the last scene at the airport hangar. What is it about this Best Picture winner that keeps people devoted as time goes by? (Sorry, I had to... no, that's a lie. I didn't have to. But I did.)

Company: Kecia, impatient moviegoer but dedicated friend; Ali, bride-to-be and film maven; Cuellar, newbie to my apartment and fellow bridal-party-bridesperson come fall; Adam, Gabe, Paul and Ryan, tribunal of homo moviephiles, lined up in a row on the couch

Cuisine: it was a feast! Paul brought white chocolate puffcorn (right? I didn't get any!), Cuellar and Ali brought homemade guac (with peas in it!?), peanut butter M&Ms and a plate of smelly cheeses and weird crackers (amen), and I created a fantastical new themed creation. Popcorn with olive oil, cumin, turmeric and Hungarian sweet paprika. Moroccan popcorn. I call it... Moroccorn. It could have been a flavortastrophe but it was actually delicious.

All right. It's December, 1941. Never mind that this for me immediately conjures up Pearl Harbor: we're on the other side of the planet, lambies. But the politics of the time are very important: Morocco at the time was a protectorate of France, basically meaning it was an autonomous collective being diplomatically and militarily provided for by France. This rule didn't end until 1956, and in the early 40s, when France was under German occupation, Casablanca became a hotspot for Vichy, Italian and Nazi military officials as well as a refugee haven for those wishing to escape the Third Reich and flee to America. 

One of those refugees is Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a fugitive leader of the Czech resistance against German rule. He has escaped from a unspecified concentration camp, which may not have struck too much of a chord with American audiences at the time, as reliable accounts of mass murder by the Nazis did not even make its way to the U.S. government until late 1941. To a contemporary audience, knowing what concentration camps did to people, Victor doesn't look like he's spent much time in a camp, but that's neither here nor there.

Victor and his wife, Ilsa (the stunning Ingrid Bergman), enter Rick's Cafe Americain, hoping to obtain letters of transit that would allow them safe passage to America from the bar's owner (and, incidentally, Ilsa's former lover), Rick Blaine (Oscar nominee Humphrey Bogart). It's very convenient that he happened upon some after being entrusted them by a crime lord. But if I was him, with that girl and that past, I maybe wouldn't want to help her out either, especially suspecting that she's still in love with Rick.

See, Rick and Ilsa had a love affair in Paris a while back, when she had believed Victor to be dead after attempting to escape the camp, but when she learned he was alive and in hiding, she left without explanation to go find Victor. Cold-hearted snake. At least she left a note!

So the whole story hinges on Rick's life-changing decision between love and virtue: does he keep Ilsa for his own, knowing she still loves him, or does he surrender the papers to her and Victor, guaranteeing them asylum at the cost of his own happiness? The fact that the entire plot hinges on this one moment gives the film a slow albeit steady pace until the very last scene when the decision is famously made, but by that time, the slow-moving story and Bogart's borderline-unlikable Rick had annoyed my whole crowd. Rick is overly sensitive (although, as Ryan pointed out, Bogie's "not sensitive enough to make me think he'd cry"), depressed and kind of a drag to be around. Watching him push everyone away, including sweet Sam the pianist and any other friend brave enough to approach him, is hard on an audience. I get that he's heartbroken, but Bogart's stoic style doesn't grab me, and I think it hampers his attempt at a character arc.

Plus, as Adam so astutely pointed out, the fact that Rick's biggest problem in his life is that he lost the girl makes him less sympathetic when the threat of real global violence, fascism and genocide loom around every corner. Shouldn't this tale seem more universal? (I keep coming back to The Best Years of Our Lives (#37 on this list) as an example of a wartime romance that works. Watching this made me want to rewatch that.) To be fair, though, like that film, Casablanca also chronicles a current conflict, and so maybe audiences really just wanted to be taken out of their lives and away from their troubles and watch an impossible and heart-wrenching romance when they went to the cinema.

The relentlessly romantic piano score provided by Sam underscores some amazing dialogue (and not just "Here's looking at you, kid" but a lot of great lines that people often forget, like "How extravagant you are, throwing away women like that. One day they may be scarce.") The film has a lot going for it, but for whatever reason it didn't strike a chord with my collected audience that night. I'm sure I'll give it several more chances in my lifetime, but just now it didn't rip at the heart strings the way I'd expected it to. Do I have higher expectations for it, given its untouchable status in the pantheons of great American cinema? Sure. Am I quicker to judge it? Maybe. Bloggy blog about it, why don'tcha.

Only two left, and the next one was recently voted by TIME Magazine readers as the greatest Best Picture winner of all time. With the Oscars on Sunday, my mind is certainly on Oscar history. The Corleones make an offer you can't refuse in The Godfather.

February 10, 2012

#4: Raging Bull

Martin Scorsese was hooked on cocaine after his success in the 1970s, but luckily was convinced to kick the habit by friends like Robert De Niro. He believed that Raging Bull would be his last film, and so he poured all his violent, drug-addled energy into making it. The result is a bloody chamber piece, telling the story of one man's fall from fame into obscurity and despair. Pretty heavy for a bright, sunny afternoon, but I'll take it. After the last one (Singin' in the Rain) it's pretty bleak up to the top of the list.

Company: Katie, spin classmate and beach-body-breakfast sous chef

Cuisine: poached eggs on a bed of kale, onion and Canadian bacon, with dill toast from Lucia's and coffee. Mmm. A champion breakfast.

Raging Bull is based on the novel of the same name, an autobiography of the middleweight boxing champion Jake La Motta (portrayed famously by Oscar winner Robert De Niro). The film, shot in stark black-and-white, begins with a epilogue in 1964, when the aging and overweight La Motta practices a comedy routine. No sooner have we recognized De Niro under sixty pounds of added weight than we flash back to 1941, when La Motta loses his first match and begins his long, slow slide out of control. He and his brother, Joey (an unknown-turned-Oscar-nominee Joe Pesci), plot some involvement with local Mafia lords to get him his championship.

It's around this time that he falls for the beautiful and barely legal Vicki (another unknown and Oscar nominee Cathy Moriarty). He sees her every day at the pool, and in one of the film's most beautiful and understated sequences, he spends the day with her and finally gets her into bed. Never mind his steak-toting wife at home. After one table-smashing shouting match, she's out of the picture.

Just as he's about to ride the Vicki train, however, he has a change of heart, runs into the bathroom and pours a pitcher of ice water down his shorts. What's with the sudden change of heart? We don't really get a chance to find out before Cathy balls up and makes a move. "What are you doing? What are you doing?" he asks her, knowing full well what she's doing. He must also know why he reconsidered, but we aren't let in on this rare moment of weakness.

I guess that example underlines one problem I have with the story here: we're never really made aware of the larger relevance of Jake's story. What's the larger social significance of his pride, all his tragic flaws that make up one badly flawed human being, where's the redemption? And if the point is that there is no redemption, what are we meant to take away from the story that makes us better people for having seen it?

There are few flaws that Jake La Motta doesn't have: he's quick to anger, full of all-encompassing pride and jealousy, desperately needy but eternally suspicious of everyone around him. There's very little to like, really, which might account for the initial mixed reviews when this film hit theaters in 1980. It's gained respect and notoriety since then, especially as Scorsese proved himself to be one of the most respected and quintessentially American film directors of the last century (his Taxi Driver and Goodfellas also made this list; very few directors in the last quarter of the 20th century have three cited films), and is now regarded as one of the very best if not the best film of the 1980s. But I always hear that and think: but the 80s had only just begun! My point is, we love our central characters to have at least a shred of humanity, and it's maybe not until the epilogue portion of the film, where De Niro's La Motta is virtually unrecognizable, when we see through the cracks.

Okay well, that's just an amazing shot: a perfect metaphor for the end of La Motta's boxing career.

I know it's all autobiographical but all the Mafia tie-ins feel tacked on somehow. Maybe I just wanted this whole film to function like the middle section, where we see La Motta in the ring alternately contrasted with his rocky personal life. Do I want more joy, more redemption, more self-sacrifice? I suppose I do in real life, so maybe I want it in my movies too. Is that wrong?

My main struggle with Raging Bull is that I don't know what I'm supposed to take away from it. It's a biography, yes, and it's a sports drama, sure. I'm not a huge sports guy but I think that of all sports, boxing is the most exciting, the most visceral, and the most easily cinematic, so I can get behind the world being created here. I just don't know what the larger relevance is.

This blog entry hasn't been so much a review as it has been a looming question I'm left with. Katie and I both wondered. Anyone care to chime in? There's certainly a lot to recommend -- the film is very artfully crafted, with some of Scorsese's best direction and a legendary central performance from De Niro -- but as a whole it left me cold. Should a film ranked #4 on a list like this make me feel that way?

Chime in, please! I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Next up: we'll always have Casablanca.

February 2, 2012

#5: Singin' in the Rain

"What a glorious feelin'!"

You get closer and closer to the top of this list and you have to assume that there's very few people who would vote against these top films, and without having screened the final four on the list (though I've seen them all), I think you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who can resist the charm of Gene Kelly's 1952 musical fantasy Singin' in the Rain. I'm sure those people exist somewhere, but I don't know that I ever want to meet them.

Company: Ryan and Paul, movie buffs; Sheena and Bob, epicures; Katie and Matt, sleepy latecomers; Alex, descant specialist; Adam, musical loyalist; Elizabeth, loves older men; Andi, can make do with older men; Bret, Donald O'Connor reincarnate; Hannah, blonde bombshell

Cuisine: Alex's genius theme idea was "breakfast for dinner" (good mornin', good MORNin'!) so we had a brunchy smorgasbord -- bacon, onion and cheddar frittata, hash browns, turkey bacon, yogurt parfaits, homemade donuts, coconut banana bread with lime glaze (thanks Elizabeth!) and mimosas upon mimosas.

1920s silent-film stars Don Lockwood (choreographer and co-director Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Oscar nominee Jean Hagen) are on the red carpet for their newest picture (I love that time when they'd call them 'pictures') when a journalist's questions propels us into a flashback.

It just so happens that Don Lockwood started out in vaudeville with his lifelong pal Cosmo Brown (the unbelievably talented Donald O'Connor), as they'll prove to you in a stand-out number in a movie full of stand-out numbers. Cosmo is mainly a musician, but somehow just as skilled a hoofer as Don but half as famous. He's got the weird, buggy-blue-eyes thing going for him, and Gene Kelly is just as handsome as possible, so I'll buy this for now. (Actually, Jean Dujardin in The Artist is 100% the French handsomeness reincarnation of Gene Kelly. Just saying.)

Lockwood escapes a mob of fans by jumping from a trolley car into the moving convertible driven by Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds, only 19 years old!!), a stage actress who pretends not to know Lockwood and scoffs at his silent cred. This tete-a-tete sets up a little argument about craft, stage vs. screen, chops vs. looks. Film is so much more about looking right, hitting your mark, giving the best performance at least once within the takes, but in Kathy's profession you've got to do all those things right the first time, and eight times a week! In what other films does this stage vs. screen conversation come up? I'm actually very curious because I can barely think of any. Probably a lot of older Hollywood musicals like this one.

Well, if there was ever a meet-cute in a movie, it might be this, but as a couple of my movie going friends mentioned, you're never really that invested in this relationship. Never mind that Gene Kelly is twice Debbie's age: it's just not that important in the grand scheme of the film, which is much more interesting as a study of old vs. new.

And that debate is never more deftly articulated in the scene in which the head of Don's studio screens a short demonstration of the Vitaphone talking picture, in which the audio and video components of the film are synchronized. It's a breakthrough in technology, but the guests at the party are unimpressed, calling it a trick. Do they genuinely believe this, or are they actually impressed and hiding it because it would eventually spell doom for their silent-film careers? The film follows the effects this new technology has on the industry, and how it eventually saves Lockwood's film The Duelling Cavalier from destroying his career.

Lina Lamont, however, is not so lucky in this transition. Her grating voice eventually dooms this film's villain, who is based at least roughly on Norma Talmadge, a silent-film star of the 1920s who fell out of fashion and into obscurity with the rise of talkies. So so interesting that Lina Lamont is a loving homage to Talmadge, while Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond is a malevolent tribute to the great film star. In reading about Talmadge, this quote alone makes me want to know more: supposedly after she fell out of favor with audiences and was accosted by fans, she said "Get away, dears. I don't need you anymore, and you don't need me." Wow.

Well, our three heroes are the lucky ones, with voices and personalities that make an easy transition for them into talking films. But we really pick up on that from the moment we meet them all, and there's no question that they'll win the day. Maybe that's why the plot doesn't really do anything for me. I hate to say that it's really just filler in between the legendary musical numbers (like Cosmo's astounding comedic showcase "Make Em Laugh," pictured above), but I'll take it if it means I get treated to these musical fantasies.

Each of these numbers, particularly "Make Em Laugh," "Good Mornin', Good Mornin'," "Moses Supposes" and the title number, all exist outside of the realm of reality in their own way. Don and Cosmo are trained vaudeville performers, used to mugging for crowds (even hostile ones), so it's no surprise that Cosmo would create a whole world for himself to dance, flip and catapult himself around a sound stage. Film, however, doesn't give the same immediate satisfaction that the stage does, putting one more check in the column for Kathy's earlier argument. They're just different media, and when a character starts to sing in a film this way, well... it means something different.

When Cosmo, Kathy and Don begin to dance "Good Mornin'," they're so elated that they've discovered how to save Don's career that they're taken away to a fantasy world where they express themselves through dance. It's an equal artistic representation of what they're feeling as a more naturalistic monologue or scene, but the skill they possess transcends the medium somehow. It's very difficult to explain -- I'm not even sure I'm making any sense. I guess what I mean to say is that these dance sequences, so vivid and exciting, lift the film that might otherwise be a drag to a height that cannot be disputed.

So it's so baffling to me to hear that Gene Kelly was not the first choice to play Don Lockwood. Supposedly he was cast once the role was more tailor-made for him. Originally Howard Keel, a major musical film star, was considered when Don Lockwood was more of a Western-film actor. But when you think about what the film ended up doing for musicals, for dance, and for Gene Kelly, it's hard to imagine anyone else ever taking his place. He's so at ease, and in all these dance sequences you can see him just a little more at ease than anyone else, simply because he choreographed it. Notice the freeze frame above. O'Connor and Reynolds are looking straight into the camera, professional, poised, spot-on, proving they can keep up. But Kelly's focus is upward, so care-free, so uninhibited. It's very telling.

You hear these amazing stories about the filming of these sequences: that O'Connor had to be hospitalized after throwing himself all over the place for "Make Em Laugh," that Reynolds' feet were bleeding after "Good Mornin'," that Kelly himself was running a 103-degree temperature when he performed the blissful title number. These factoids make watching these numbers all the more satisfying. I was just reading a review of a new book about the Obamas that said "we like our warriors happy," referring to alleged complaints by our current president about the stresses of his job (duh) and his eagerness to return to normalcy. That's different, of course, from these performers, but never once in these sequences to you see any of them break for even a micro-second. Watch Gene Kelly's face and forget his feet: he's doing what God put him on earth to do. And can you get more from a performer than watching that level of commitment and confidence? I don't imagine you can.

For me, you could strip everything away from this movie and leave me nothing but the musical sequences. Even the ending, with Lina disgraced and Kathy running up the aisles away from her fame, seems somehow false. Why would Kathy, a struggling chorus girl, not delight in her newfound fame? The holes are filled to excess with the colorful, imaginative dance and storytelling. I'd almost say that this film holds its place on the list for the same reason that Sophie's Choice does -- two movies that could not be more different except that they both glorify and revel in one legendary performer at their absolute peak. Anyone care to comment?

However, Kelly didn't receive acclaim for this performance at the time the same way Streep did for hers in 1982, maybe partially because he had just been awarded an honorary Oscar the year before, "in appreciation of his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film" for the far inferior Best Picture winner An American in Paris. History has been much kinder to this film that only managed two Oscar nominations (for Hagen and for its original score), proving to me once again that the Academy's place in history is more a social and cultural benchmark rather than an actual gauge of talent and skill. "I'm haaappy againnn..."

Only four more to go, and none nearly as cheery as this one. Hold on, folks, we're almost there! Next up is Scorsese with DeNiro as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull.