Friday, September 28, 2012

Friday, September 21, 2012

One Hundred Years Of Chuck Jones

The great Chuck Jones was born one hundred years ago today.

My favorite of his cartoons:

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Cinemaniac Reviews Twenty Questions (Part Two)

A continuation of yesterday's quiz from Cinemaniac Reviews. Again, leave your answers or a link to your answers in the comment section.

11. What film gets your vote for the worst or most pointless remake?
As Katie-Bar-The-Door said when I mentioned this question, the most pointless remake of all time was Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot recreation of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. That's just an objective fact.

Worst? Perhaps Barbara Streisand's version of A Star is Born? Although come to think of it, Barbara Streisand's version of anything is the worst.

12. Is there any film you think is actually desperate for a remake?
I'd think you'd want to go with a near miss, right? Something with a good cast, but a fatally-flawed script, or vice versa, or it-began-so-well-but-what-an-end (to quote Sinatra).

You know, I thought somewhere in Laws of Attraction was the germ of a really good romantic comedy. Pierce Brosnan and Julianne Moore had great chemistry together and some scenes worked really well, but it went off the rails when they shifted the action to Ireland forty minutes in, and then the writers' apparent lack of familiarity with the way lawyers make a living left them flailing for a way to end what could have been a nice updating of Adam's Rib.

Let's let Brosnan and Moore try it again. But let me fix the screenplay first.

13. Name your three favorite film heroes.
Humphrey Bogart's Richard Blaine (Casablanca)
John Wayne's John T. Chance (Rio Bravo)
William Powell's Nick Charles (The Thin Man)

14. Name your three favorite film villains.
Hal 9000 (2001: A Space Odyssey)
Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Terminator)
Jane Greer's Kathie Moffat (Out of the Past)

15. Best sequel?
Aliens, maybe. Toy Story 2, maybe. The Godfather Part II, maybe.

16. Worst sequel?
Not counting (to my mind) obvious crap knockoffs like The Sting 2 which didn't feature the original stars, I'm going with Alien 3, which wasn't just a bad movie, but ruined the previous two retroactively. I like to pretend it doesn't exist.

That Katie-Bar-The-Door and I both came up with this one independently should tell you something.

17. Best trilogy?
The Toy Story trilogy, probably, although I read that Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy just wrapped Before Midnight, the sequel to Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. So possibly that one, depending on how it turns out.

18. Worst trilogy?
I'm sure Meet the Parents or some such thing or the other is the worst, but I only saw part of the first one.

Indeed, therein lies the rub
—because unless you're getting paid to review them, why would you seek out a trio of movies bad enough to qualify as the "worst trilogy of all time"?

So, with that in mind, I'll say the most disappointing trilogy for me that was at least good enough for me to see all three films, was the Star Wars prequel
—because the story of a whinging teenager who destroys the Republic because he's cock-blocked by the some obscure provision of the Jedi code of conduct just didn't resonate with me.

Picture instead, if you will, a story that opens on a swaggering young pilot out of the Harrison Ford/Han Solo mold who is taken under Obi Wan Kenobi's wing during the Clone Wars, taught the ways of the Force, but who turns to the dark side—ala the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib—because he feels that sometimes you have to do what you have to do to save the ideals you love (in this case, the Republic), and in a twist of classical irony, destroys the very thing he is protecting.

19. What’s your favorite word to use in a movie review (if your film blog does not feature reviews, substitute “review” with “-related post”?)
In the past month or so, the word has been "Chaplin."

20. Anything else?
Julie Andrews. What about Julie Andrews, you ask? I don't know. She just popped into my head and I've always dug her and she's still alive. So there.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Happy Birthday, Greta Garbo

My review of Garbo's Queen Christina, reposted in honor of her birthday

The most elusive and enigmatic superstar in movie history, Greta Garbo is also one of the most recognizable, familiar even to those who have never seen one of her movies. Because the beautiful and talented Swedish import rarely granted interviews, retired early and lived the rest of her days in jealously-guarded seclusion, nearly everything we know about her, or think we know, comes down to us in the form of the perfectly-rendered, never-aging images she made iconic on the silver screen. To the extent that acting is a matter of invention, Garbo surely ranks as one of the greatest, since in a very real sense, she is purely a product of her own self-creation.

Of the two dozen Hollywood movies she made in a career that began with great fanfare in the waning days of the silent age and lasted until her sudden retirement in 1941, many movie fans and historians count her performance in Queen Christina as the best of her career. I count it as the best by a dramatic actress in 1932-33.

As Queen Christina opens, Sweden is embroiled in midst of the Thirty Years' War, a destructive 17th century conflict that had its origins in the ongoing battle between Protestants and Catholics for control of central Europe. The country's beloved King Gustavus Adolphus has just fallen on the field of battle leaving his seven year old daughter to ascend to the throne. Raised as a boy and schooled in the arts of war (well, to the extent that a child can be), Christina tosses aside her regent's carefully-worded speech about "wag[ing] war with courage" and instead vows "to win it!"

In the next scene, it's years later and we see the grown up Christina (Garbo) in trousers and a man's hat riding astride a galloping horse through the forests on the palace grounds. To a modern audience, this scene might mean nothing, but in 1933 a woman in trousers riding astride rather than sidesaddle, these are signals that Christina has taken to heart the notion that to rule the country means ruling as a man. And indeed, by the standards of the day's cinema, she dresses like a man, argues like a man, and, it is implied when she kisses her lady-in-waiting on the lips, loves like a man.

Despite Christina's skill and devotion as a leader, all is not well at home. The people clamor for more war, clamor for a royal marriage, clamor for an heir.

"In short," she says, "they clamor."

At the heart of the unrest is the desire that the queen should settle the question of the royal succession by producing an heir of Swedish blood, which of necessity requires her to settle on a mate, be it the handsome schemer Magnus or the aging war hero, cousin Charles. Christina sees marriage as a loss of her hard-earned freedom, a prospect that drives her to distraction.

"But majesty, you cannot die an old maid!"
"I have no intention to, Chancellor. I shall die a bachelor!"

Fed up with demands of power, Christina disguises herself (as a man, always as a man) and spends a few days riding alone in the wintery countryside to clear her head. There, she stumbles across the Spanish ambassador (John Gilbert) and his entourage stranded in the snow. The ambassador, Antonio, mistakes her for an impudent boy—a conceit the filmmakers expect you to roll with since Garbo looks no more like a boy than Jean Harlow looks like Abe Vigoda—and the two wind up sharing a room in a nearby inn.

Not until Christina slips off her outer garments does Antonio finally tumble to the fact that he's in the presence of a beautiful woman.

(To read about Garbo's real-life romance with Gilbert, click here.)

It's the goofiest sequence in the entire movie, one that always has me itching to turn off the player, but it's followed by what is not only the best scene in the movie, but to me, the best scene in Garbo's illustrious career.

Christina and Antonio have fallen into bed, no great surprise, but they've also fallen in love, an event so unexpected and new to both of them, they barely know how to express their joy and wonder. They recline sated before the fire, sharing a bowl of grapes and talking, but their spirits are soaring, and unable to contain herself, Christina finally gets up to wander around the room, as if first love were an out-of-body experience and she is following her soul around the bedchamber.

The scene works because it pays such close attention to the emotion, particularly the melancholy that colors Christina's happiness. She wanders around the room, touching everything that Antonio has touched—a dresser, a candle, a spinning wheel—memorizing by touch and smell and sight every inch of the only room in which she has ever known complete happiness.

"In the future in my memory," she says, "I shall live a great deal in this room."

You don't have to be a monarch to appreciate just how fleeting time is or how rare moments of pure happiness are.

It's telling that, as she tours the room, she watches Antonio's image in the mirror, and his image in turn watches her, as if she is already viewing the moment in her memory, and feeling already the exquisite pain associated with an ideal past we can never revisit.

It seems wholly appropriate to me that Garbo spends so much of the scene in front of both the mirror and, on the other side of the room, a religious triptych. Garbo was as much about images as she was about acting, holding poses that represent emotions rather than embody them from within, a style more akin to kabuki theater or the pantomime of the silent era than the Method approach actors have held to for more than fifty years. In that sense, Garbo's performance, like the triptych on the wall, is literally iconic—a pictorial representation whose form suggests its meaning. It's not "modern," but then when did we buy into the notion that "modern" and "better" were synonymous. In any event, I wouldn't want to throw out Garbo just because I also like Brando, any more than I'd throw out Rembrandt just because I also like Picasso.

In any event, as Christina feared, the moment is all too soon over. Antonio continues his journey to Stockholm, and she leaves by a different route to the same destination. Imagine Antonio's surprise when he discovers the woman he loves is a queen. Imagine the royal court's surprise when it discovers that their queen is in love with envoy of their enemy.

The latter conflict sets in motion the final act of the movie. For the Protestant Christina to pursue a relationship with the Catholic Antonio after thirty years of war between those two faiths would be like Nixon bedding down with Brezhnev at the height of the Cold War. It's not simply xenophobia or self-interest that drives the opposition to the romance, it's a genuine horror at the idea of having to refight, both at home and abroad, an issue that was settled at the price of so much blood and treasure. Christina must choose between love and responsibilities. The way she chooses, and the consequences of her choice, lead to the most famous scene of Garbo's career, that final enigmatic shot that I won't describe except to say every film buff must see it.

Now, I'm going to be up front with you: Queen Christina is one of the more problematic entrants in the Hollywood film canon. Even TV Guide in its glowing 5 (out of 5) star review describes the script as "great clumps of unleavened bread," which is a charitable way of saying that parts of the movie are preposterous—can anybody, for example, accept on the film's own terms the notion that John Gilbert could mistake Greta Garbo for a man? I don't care how dark that inn is or how mannish Garbo's clothes, unless Gilbert's character has an affinity for Swedish lads with rouged lips and plucked eyebrows, there's no way to watch that scene without thinking that either director Rouben Mamoulian set out deliberately to undermine his own movie or that the makeup man and cinematographer made some pretty grievous errors in professional judgment.

Then again, many critics have suggested that that is the point. Historically, Christina was thought to be bisexual, Garbo was almost certainly bisexual, and Mamoulian was gay; perhaps without being able to say it explicitly during a time when even pre-Code permissiveness didn't permit a frank exploration of such things, Garbo and Mamoulian set out to investigate the limits of sexual orientation and wound up suggesting that, rather than being distinctly straight or gay, we reside on a sliding continuum between the two. And that, thus, in the right moment with the right person, even John Gilbert's Antonio could find himself attracted to a young Swedish lad on a cold, cold night.

Well, maybe.

Or maybe Garbo should have scrubbed off her makeup and cut her hair, ala Katharine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett, and really played the part instead of pretending to play it. But given the degree to which Garbo hid behind the mask of her perfect face and her professional mannerisms, asking her to strip all of that away and hang herself out there emotionally naked might have been as impossible as asking her grow wings and fly to the moon.

Besides, did anybody ever argue that Tony Curtis, Milton Berle, Dustin Hoffman or Bugs Bunny should have made greater efforts to look like women when they played such in their movies? God forbid—the lack of illusion was half the joke.

Anyway, I suspect that I'm bringing 21st century expectations of "realism" to a 1933 movie and that an audience of the time, with the conceits of the silent era's cross-dressing comedies still fresh in their minds, wouldn't have expected Garbo to look like a man, but would simply have accepted the comic set-up and moved on.

I don't know.

What I do know is that when Queen Christina works, it works as well as any movie Garbo ever made.

"They usually ask me if it was easy or difficult to direct Garbo," Rouben Mamoulian said years later, "and the answer is that it was either easy or impossible. If she respected you as an artist, and if you gave her something that was better than what she had in mind, she was the easiest, most professional person to work with. In the case of Queen Christina she was simply marvelous."

Queen Christina premiered in New York the day after Christmas, 1933, with a nationwide release on February 9, 1934. Reviews were mixed. Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times wrote that Queen Christina was "a skillful blend of history and fiction" and that Garbo, "alluring as ever, gives a performance which merits nothing but the highest praise." Variety on the other hand, called the movie "slow and ofttimes stilted" and criticized Garbo's performance as "too often apace of the script's lethargy."

It turned out Variety knew American audiences better than Hall did. The film didn't perform well in the U.S. Garbo's sensibilities had always been foreign to American audiences, and while during the silent era that may have suggested a "desirable metropolitan European sophistication" (to quote Marcia Landy and Amy Villarejo writing in the BFI Film Classic study of the movie), by the time of the Great Depression, American audiences had become increasingly hostile to Garbo (and to her German counterpart, Marlene Dietrich).

These same sensibilities, however, be they uniquely European or simply a product of Garbo's own matchless talents, helped make Queen Christina a big hit overseas where it made back twice its budget in Britain alone, establishing a pattern that would hold true for the remainder of Garbo's career. From Queen Christina forward through the end of her career, Garbo's movies made far more money overseas than in America, and more than any particular desire on Garbo's part, it was the outbreak of World War II, which closed off the foreign market, that hastened her early retirement from pictures. (After the war, Garbo sent out tentative feelers, thinking to make a comeback, but found no interest.)

Ironically, despite her waning domestic box-office appeal, with Queen Christina Garbo had hit her stride as an actress and would soon produce the best movies of her career, including Camille and Ninotchka. But we'll talk about those in their own good time.

[For a post on the production of Queen Christina, click here. And click here for my most popular post ever, photos of Garbo as she aged, from 9 to 85.]

Cinemaniac Reviews Twenty Questions (Part One)

In case you haven't noticed, I'm mostly marking time in the month of September. Here was a 20-question quiz that showed up a while back at Cinemaniac Reviews.

You get the first ten questions today, the next ten tomorrow. If you answer them on your blog, leave a link in the comment section. Or just answer them in the comment section.

I live for this kind of stuff.

1. What’s your favorite movie?
Ostensibly, Casablanca, but in the past few years, Katie-Bar-The-Door and I are much more likely to watch The Thin Man, The Thing From Another World and Rio Bravo.

2. Least favorite movie?
Endless Love, starring a young Brooks Shields. Worst. Movie. Ever. Or at least the worst I ever paid to see. I don't blame her though—I blame Franco Zeffirelli who despite helming this fiasco is somehow still allowed to direct.

3. Name one movie you loved upon initial viewing but eventually grew to hate (or vice-versa).
From love to hate? The Big Chill. On repeat viewings, I realized I loved the soundtrack, hated the story and characters.

From hate to love? Apocalypse Now. When I first saw it, I thought it a sprawling, self-indulgent mess with no ending. Maybe because I read and fell in love with the source novel, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (or maybe because I got smarter or maybe because I grew out of my teens), I came to love it (love it, I tells ya) as a commentary on just how thin the veneer of civilization really is.

4. Name your biggest “guilty pleasure” film.
I guess some would feel guilty about loving Used Cars, but
I never feel guilty about my film pleasure. Why should I?

5. Favorite quote from a favorite actor/actress (must be a line from a movie)?
I could literally, I think, spend an entire day relying on nothing but movie quotes to communicate meaningfully with my fellow human beings, but back in the day I always got the biggest laugh for my imitation of an S.Z. Sakall line in Casablanca—falling spectacles included—"Honest?! As honest as the day is long!" (Pardon the colorization.)

This, by the way, is the line Katie-Bar-The-Door mentioned at dinner:

6. Favorite quote from a favorite actor/actress (must NOT be a line from a movie)?
"Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant."—by who else, Cary Grant

7. Three favorite movie scenes?
What, just three?
Off the top of my head:
The airport sequence at the end of Casablanca
The end of City Lights
The conclusion of the filibuster scene at the end of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington
But ask me tomorrow and I'll tell you something different.

8. Four films that should NOT have won Best Picture?
What, just four?
Here are four of the earliest that I wouldn't have even nominated for best picture, in chronological order:
a. The Broadway Melody (1928-29), which won over The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Wind and Steamboat Bill Jr..
b. Cimarron (1930-31), which won over City Lights, Dracula and The Public Enemy.
c. Cavalcade (1932-33), which won over Duck Soup, King Kong, Trouble in Paradise, Dinner at Eight, The Bitter Tea of General Yen and M.
d. The Great Ziegfeld (1936), which won over My Man Godfrey, Dodsworth and Modern Times.

9. Top five of the year (currently)?
Well, I've only seen three movies released in 2012: Ted, Hit and Run and John Carter (of Mars). So Ted, Hit and Run and John Carter (of Mars).

10. Bottom three of the year (currently)?
Ted, Hit and Run and John Carter (of Mars).