Monday, November 29, 2010

Friday Night Films: Singin' In The Rain (1952)

Singin' In the Rain always brings me back to the 6th grade. We were assigned to do a music project on a musician, singer or dancer and present it to the class. While most students were busy planning how best to brag about their good music taste by using Bob Marley or The Beatles--I was busy gluing pictures of Gene Kelly onto my poster board. I brought in Singin' In the Rain to show the class a clip, opting for the less well known dance number "Moses Supposes". The clip was a huge hit, and I found I won over all those "cool" kids who thought I was lame for picking a male singer and dancer. Still, it's been such a long time since I had seen Singin' In the Rain and after the film got some recent credit on an episode of Glee, I thought it the perfect opportunity to share it with my sister.

Singin' In the Rain is still as wonderful as it ever was. The bright tantalizing colors, the extravagant costumes and of course the dancing. The film is a time capsule of so many different things that it becomes hard to keep track of them all. There's the glimpse into the 20s when movies were transitioning from silent films to talkies.

A glimpse into the hey-day of musicals, when it was socially acceptable for big stars to waltz around a studio set singing and smiling.

And then there's also the ever changing glimpse into how quickly Hollywood trends can change. Here is something I had never really given thought to before, but in this most recent viewing I was floored by how poignant the idea was. With every passing decade new trends are made, new stars are born and ways of doing things become obsolete against the ever growing presence of technology. When silent films were transitioned into talkies there was an uproar, and today as people try to tell us that one day all films will be in 3-D---there is also an uproar.We find the idea of all movies switching to 3-D to be ludicrous just as folks in the 20s found the idea of talkies to be outrageous and silly. Sadly we really have no control over the ever changing trends of Hollywood. Singin' In the Rain's prevalent theme however gets even more sad and perhaps even a little bit ironic when you stop and think about how quickly Gene Kelly's career fell apart once musicals also became a declining trend.

Aside from the parallels between then and now, Singin' In the Rain continues to be a crowd pleaser because it is just too darn entertaining. It's a musical for people that hate musicals. It's a spectacle and a glimpse into a time when people could do amazing things without green screens, and wires. Gene Kelly glides effortlessly around the stage while Donald O'Connor walks up walls. Singing' In the Rain will never fail to make me smile and that's why I love it so much.

There is just so much to love. From the costumes, to the perfect comedic timing of Donald O'Connor, to the sets, to the songs, to the shrieking voice of Lina Lamont, to the behind the scenes look at Hollywood in the 1920s, to the impeccably adorable face of Debbie Reynolds,

to the dancing. Oh the dancing.

Singin' In the Rain has enough dancing to make your head seriously spin. It tricks you into thinking that you too can perform an effortless dance routine by just putting on a pair of tap shoes and a cute outfit. The dancing makes you float out of your body and puts you right smack dab in the action. For that hour and 39 minutes, we are a part of the 1920s and submersed in a land of happiness.

Of course not all is happiness in Singin' In the Rain land as the levels of irony run deep in this movie. Just as it was a movie largely about the behind the scenes area of film and about tricking the audience--Singin' In the Rain held a few secrets of its own. In what is perhaps the most disheartening, we find that ironically Debbie Reynolds did not sing her own songs in this--nor was that her voice dubbing over Lina's in the Dancing Cavalier. Additionally, Gene Kelly was what is commonly referred to today as an "asshole". He insulted Debbie Reynolds for not being able to dance, and Donald O'Connor hated working with him because he never felt like he was good enough. In fact, Fred Astaire found Debbie Reynolds crying underneath a piano on the set and then helped her improve her dancing himself.

Donald O'Connor was smoking 4 packs a day while filming this--4 packs! Debbie Reynolds feet were bleeding after the "Good Morning" scene. Gosh, it's like several bombs keep exploding in my perfect dream world of Singin' In the Rain. A word to the wise--if you find that you are in tickled pink by Gene Kelly, try to avoid reading anything about him, because it will probably cause you to cry somewhere alone and feel let down. Finding out that the real world of Singin' In the Rain isn't as happy as we thought--and further more realizing that it was just not any fun for the people doing it, is extremely upsetting.

Which is why we will not focus on that, because Singin' In the Rain teaches us to focus on the spectacle, on the finished product. We can still live in that happy rain cloud and no one has to know the truth right? What it really comes down to is that Singin' In the Rain is just one of those delightful movies that makes us smile right away and allows us to keep that smile on throughout the film's duration. It has all the necessary ingredients to do what any great film should do--entertain us. And for that, we love it.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Signals From Left Field: Neverwhere (1996 British TV)

"It's when you're safe at home that you wish you were having an adventure. When you're having an adventure you wish you were safe at home." ~ Thorton Wilder

Those words hold a significant truth about the basic theme of the 1996 British miniseries, Neverwhere, a story crafted by one of my favorite writers in Neil Gaiman. Upon watching the six roughly half-hour episodes, it sums up everything the protagonist experiences in quite the pretty little package. It's an adventure, pure and simple, underneath all of the fantastic and fairy-tale stylings in which Gaiman dresses the story. And some of the best adventures involve the fish-out-of-water, the inexperienced catalyst, the unaccounted-for fly in the antagonist's ointment. Neverwhere features one wonderful example of that type of character in an atypical hero named Richard Mayhew (Gary Blakewell).

Gary Blakewell as Richard Mayhew (above) and Laura Fraser as Door (right)

Neverwhere appeared first as the miniseries then as a book penned by Gaiman, a veteran of acclaimed comic book stories such as the tremendous Sandman series. The series aired on BBC Two and eventually became available on DVD through A & E in the United States (I first watched it on loan from Netflix). One of the most noticeable traits of the series, at least in the way it looks, is the "PBS video" appearance. Yes, Neverwhere is shot in video. It was meant to be edited later to give it more of a "film" appearance, yet that never happened, so it aired "as is." And you know what? It doesn't take away from the story's richness one bit.

Hywel Bennett as Mr. Croup and Clive Russell as Mr. Vandemar

The story is a modern odyssey, a retelling of The Wizard of Oz if Dorothy was a befuddled Scottish guy and the denizens of a reality right under our noses played for keeps. Richard Mayhew has a typical life with a bossy fiancée and a boring job, yet he's an optimist and has a notoriously kind heart. That heart gets him into trouble the minute he rescues a mysterious homeless woman named Door, a pretty little wisp of a girl who has the ability to open any door with the touch of her hand. She's pursued by hired assassins, the theatrical Mr. Croup and the Vinnie Jones-lookalike Mr. Vandemar, who wish to deliver her to an unseen benefactor. Richard's life takes a turn for the bizarre the minute he becomes involved with Door.

Door, Hunter (Tanya Moodie), and Richard

After nursing Door back to health and enlisting the help of the dandy scoundrel Marquis de Carabas (Paterson Joseph), Richard is left to find that no one remembers him. His brush with what's called London Below - where the homeless mingle with the fringes of time and reality - has drawn him into a world of political intrigue and high adventure against a backdrop of urban fantasy. Richard must now find Door and join her in her quest to reach The Angel Islington (Peter Capaldi) to find answers regarding the massacre of her family, royals set to unite the kingdoms of London Below. Like a dark reflection of Dorothy Gale's team of unusual beings, Richard finds himself teamed with Door, the legendary warrior Hunter, and the Marquis.

Paterson Joseph as the Marquis de Carabas

The journey is rife with the strange and unusual, and poor Richard is the key to the entire thing. There are "floating markets," street carnivals and trade shows that take place suddenly in abandoned buildings or closed-for-the-night tourist attractions. Souls can be bought and traded, or stored in inanimate objects for safekeeping. An ancient order of monks have been guarding an important key for centuries in a darkened corner under London. Every stop along the London tube lines has its own personality, a reason for its name. Through it all, Richard is the catalyst. He's the innocent, and that is perhaps his most powerful trait. He doesn't understand everything, but he wants to do the right thing every time. When his true trials come, you're never sure he's going to make it. He's not from London Below. It's not his world.

Peter Capaldi as The Angel Islington

Oh, and the ending. To me, the ending is one of the most satisfying conclusions I've ever seen. I will absolutely not spoil it here. I can tell you that when I read the book (which I did first instead of seeing the series), then watched it on the screen, I uttered an audible "yes." It's how I wanted it to end. Maybe it's an obvious ending, maybe you'll see it coming, but it really is satisfying.

I love Neil Gaiman's work. I enjoyed the Sandman series, his 17th century reimagining of Marvel superheroes in 1602, and the enormous imagination of Stardust, Coraline, and the book I just finished, American Gods. Gaiman is known for painstaking research and detail, digging up fairy tales and giving them a new wash for a new audience. Neverwhere demonstrates that word imagination very deftly. World creation in a fictional setting is never easy, yet here's London Below, as realistic and alive as if it actually existed. The characters, both good and evil, so endearing, you might wish you really knew them.

Neverwhere is pure adventure, pure storytelling from the mind of one of the great modern weavers of fantastic fiction. If you can get past the "PBS video" look of it - which really doesn't take much effort - you'll find a wonderful tale that should be listed among the great journeys that heroes have taken in literature.

But that's just me. Find out for yourself, and I hope you enjoy the adventure.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Flawed Classic: New York, New York

Mention Martin Scorsese to most and visions of Mean Streets, Taxi Drivers and pugilistic Raging Bulls come to mind. To be sure, Scorsese is a master of gritty, crime soaked cinema. So, it is very easy to forget that the man who gave us Goodfellas also directed Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (an incredibly feminist themed film that went on to inspire a dreadful sit-com), The Last Waltz (The Band’s swan song), and The Age of Innocence ( a lavish adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel).

One of Scorsese’s more obscure films is 1977’s New York, New York. Oddly enough, everyone probably knows the theme song thanks to a certain iconic crooner who recorded it several years after the film came out; but most have probably never seen the movie that bears its name.

Set in post-war Gotham, New York, New York is a hybrid beast that is tough to pin down. Physically, it looks like a grand MGM musical – most of the movie was filmed on a sound stage, the sets are gorgeous, the colors lush, and the atmosphere is dream like. That said, the story is a rather bleak tale of two star crossed lovers who fall in love, fight (a lot) and do not end up happily ever after. The dialogue is mostly improvised, which might make New York, New York the Granddaddy of mumble-core. Oh, and one more thing, it’s also a musical; but wait, it’s not one of those films where people just break out into song; the main characters are in show business so we get to see them singing on stages, in plays, night clubs, and eventually, in movies.

Jimmy Doyle (Robert DeNiro) is a selfish cad who can blow a mean saxophone. The start of the film finds him wandering a massive VJ Day party hitting on women. Oddly, Jimmy is one of the few men not in uniform – in fact he sticks out like a sore thumb in his Hawaiian shirt. Be that as it may, he eventually sets his sights on a WAC named Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli). Sitting down at her table, making small talk, we get our first taste of the odd dialogue in New York, New York. In a scene that seems to go on forever, Jimmy repeatedly hits on Francine, and she keeps turning him down and it goes something like this,

Jimmy: I guess a little small talks in order here now
Francine: Can it get any smaller?
Jimmy: Now look I can take a hint
Francine: Can you also take a walk
Jimmy: Do you want me to leave?
Francine: YES!
Jimmy: I'll leave right now
Francine: BYE
Jimmy: You expect me to leave after the way you just talked to me?
Francine: Will you go away
Jimmy: I don't want to, I want to stay here and annoy you.

…and that’s just the start of it. Honestly, this give and take, which is sort of cute at first, becomes irritating at the five minute mark – I worship Robert DeNiro, but he’s no Groucho Marx, and Minnelli is no Margaret Dumont.

But hold on, it does get better.

Eventually Jimmy and Francine hook up and it turns out that his saxophone playing, and her singing voice are a match made in heaven, and soon the musical duo throw a band together and take their show out on the road.

Once they start performing, it’s clear that the audiences have come to hear Francine warble, and Jimmy has problems with this. His ego is so fragile that he starts coming apart, and his relationship with Francine begins to fray. In one of New York, New York’s more powerful scenes, the couple are engaged in a screaming match in a car. Francine (now nine months pregnant with Jimmy’s child) is hysterical over Jimmy’s behavior, and the more hysterical she becomes, the more terrifying and enraged Jimmy acts. At one he point he lunges over the back seat, hands clawed as if he were set to strangle,  and screams in her face, “Did I tell you to have that baby?!?!” – and then suddenly Francine goes into labor and he rushes her to the hospital. This is where you’d think that Jimmy might come to his senses, instead, he visits Francine in the hospital, and when she tells him she had a boy, he tells her, “I can’t be a father”. And like that, he just walks out of her life.

After this New York, New York sets it’s eye on Francine and her bullet like rise to the top. Free of Jimmy’s hostile ways and hateful attitude, she becomes the star she always knew she would. Her songs become big hits, she is featured on the cover of dozens of showbiz magazines, and eventually she becomes a movie star.

The second half of New York, New York is Liza Minnelli’s film and she owns it. If her Francine is anything, it’s a white washed portrayal of her mother, the iconic, Judy Garland: a tragic love life, a brilliant career. But, unlike Judy, Francine is not self destructive, but like Garland, she can sing and preform like few before her.

Watching Minnelli belt out a song like “The World Goes Round” is nothing short of magic. And Scorsese’s camera loves her unique face…those huge eyes, that oddly formed mouth, those blindingly white teeth that form that famous overbite…for some reason, she looks beautiful in spite of everything – especially when she’s singing.

In one of New York, New York’s most imaginative moments, Jimmy goes into a movie theatre on Times Square to see Francine’s new film. Suddenly, we are watching a film that features Francine, as an usher in a movie theater, imagining herself as the star of the film on the screen (think about that for a second, it might make your head hurt). This fifteen minute section (which was cut from New York, New York when it was first released), is a gorgeous homage to the lost art of movie musicals, and makes up for the many less than stellar moments in the film before it.

In the final half hour , New York, New York is flawless. First up, Jimmy goes back to the club he first met Francine. She’s now headlining there. Then, we get to hear the title song of the movie and marvel over Liza Minnelli doing what she does best (at this point, it seems that she’s no longer playing Francine: this is Liza with a Fucking Z – from the clothes she’s wearing, to the cut of her hair, to the way she is performing …). After the show, Jimmy gets to meet his son, and then he asks Francine to meet him after the show so they can go out and get a cup of coffee.

Of course if this were a film from the 40’s or 50’s we know what would happen next. The lovelorn couple would have been reunited and walked off in a Technicolor sunset – Scorsese had something else in mind.

New York, New York is not for everyone, in fact it can be a real effort to get through – but that’s what makes it so incredible. If you do wade through the less than compelling scenes you are rewarded with some  moments of sheer cinematic genius, and as long as you did not expect a happy ending, you may even come away appreciating it for the flawed classic it is.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Friday Night Films: Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967)

I had a hankering to watch a Sidney Poitier film ever since learning about his groundbreaking Oscar win for Lillies of the Field in 1963. My allegiance to Poitier was strong, as I had loved him ever since I saw Sneakers at a young age--completely unaware of the history and legacy that had preceded him. This weekend while choosing between To Sir With Love and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, we settled on the latter after reading the extensive cinematic history behind the film.

The film was completed just 17 days before Spencer Tracy died. Katharine Hepburn ended up even using her salary as backing in order to make the movie, as the studio didn't think Tracy would make it to the end of filming. Hepburn's tears at the end of the film during Tracy's pivotal speech were in fact real tears, a relieved feeling of accomplishment, and a deep sadness evident in knowing that this would be his last film---and their last film as a pair.

These back stories remained fresh in my mind as I settled in to finally see what I had spent all day reading up on.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is an interesting film to watch now. On the one hand it's embarrassing to undergo the blatant racism exuding from almost all of the characters. On the other it provides an interesting commentary on why people get so uppity about marriage and further more--why they shouldn't. I kept wondering if the film was made today, would it take on the current problems surrounding the country involving gay marriage? Would the next generation sit down to watch it and exclaim in wonder at how they can't believe that at one point, gay marriage was illegal, the way that I couldn't believe interracial marriage was also? It's an interesting thing to think about, but perhaps most importantly, I think many of the themes are still relevant, especially Spencer Tracy's famous speech at the end.

When it comes down to it, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner really just makes me mad. It's a fine film, but the idea that someone can be prevented from marrying the person they love because of social implications, and the authority that people have over others is just ridiculous. A film like this is in many ways a time capsule, but it is also then a film that reminds us of how stupid we can be sometimes. A film that requires us to witness a transformation of our past view points.

Another aggravating point, is that several people have come out and said that making Sidney Poitier's character so respectful, well dressed, and intelligent is racist in itself. They believe that Poitier embodies in essence the character of a white man. One important thing to take note of however is that John Prentice should embody the character of a white man--because that in hindsight is exactly the kind of person the Drayton's want their daughter to marry. John is in many ways, the perfect man for their daughter, in fact he's almost too good for their daughter. Because of this, the idea that the only real thing standing in their way IS the color of his skin, and that is what makes things so infuriating. It's proof that racism is in many ways skin deep. It's for lack of a better word...dumb.

The film also does a fine job of pointing out how everyone has a prejudice of some kind.

The African-American cook has a boiling prejudice against men of her own skin color, accusing him of having something else up his sleeve. Her prejudice is an alarming one, as it concerns protecting the little girl she helped raise--but it's also just a surprising form of black on black racism. Tillie is perhaps the most angry at the newly introduced couple, and the look in her eyes is enough to send anyone running, while John merely laughs. Could it be that John himself is holding a prejudice against the fact that a house cook is telling him what to do?

Another form of prejudice is evident when Mr. Drayton gets in the car accident after his random search for ice cream. He backs up without looking, causing him to make quite a dent in a young man's car. A young man who just happens to be black. The young man yells at Mr. Drayton, pinpointing his old age as the cause of the accident.

He makes remarks about old people not being able to drive properly, when in all actuality Mr. Drayton just had something else on his mind. Being put in that position however upsets Mr. Drayton, and although he doesn't outwardly show it, we can notice a shift in his perceptions. Being the one that gets unfairly grouped in a stereotype based on his appearance is upsetting to Mr. Drayton, and slowly but surely he starts realizing that doing such a thing is absolutely ludicrous.

While the film is well done, I still find that the bulk of the praise around it revolves around how groundbreaking the themes are. While this was being filmed, interracial marriage was still illegal in a few states. Seeing Sidney Poitier's character try to talk some sense into his own father, and saying a line like,
"Dad, you're my father. I'm your son. I love you. I always have and I always will. But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man. "

was epic. I mean, moments like that where characters say something that is so dead on just make you want to shout from the highest peak....YES! The same goes for Spencer Tracy's final speech in which he ends with the idea that it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks. What matters is how John and Joanna feel about each other--is so simple yet something that people continue to ignore. It's something that will continue to baffle me and although the film was an enjoyable one to watch, laden with fantastic performances and the chronically weepy eyes of Katharine Hepburn--I will always be drawn to the revolutionary way that this film presents the idea of marriage. Call it dated if you want to, but I will continue to disagree. Especially in this day and age when a person's right to marry someone they love is still being challenged.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Friday Night Films: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

This week our movie night was switched to Sunday. I didn't mind so much as I had finally convinced my sister that we should watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I had watched the movie for the first time in a high school class entitled "Music in Movies" and became instantly infatuated with the witty and sarcastic quips of Paul Newman and Robert Redford's camaraderie. I had unsuccessfully tried a few times to convince my sister to watch this while it was being played on TV. She had expressed doubts that she was not a huge fan of Westerns. I can agree in a way, as Westerns are also one of my least favorite genres. However, I had pleaded with her to give it a chance--it wasn't really a Western after all, more of a buddy comedy disguised in Western clothing.

During this viewing I became aware of several things I had never given much thought to before. I was moved by the breathtakingly artistic shots at the beginning of the film. Paul Newman's face seemingly glowing thanks to the sepia tones.

I loved how both their reputations spoke for themselves so simply. It was a perfect way to open the film. Butch Cassidy makes a witty remark about the shame in getting rid of such a beautiful bank, and the Sundance Kid shows off his remarkable gun skills. Two men, two friends, two outlaws---that we love.

This time I was also sensitive to the unfortunate sadness that emerges around Butch and Sundance. Both men are stuck in a cycle--practically addicted to the fine art of bank robbing like a couple of junkies, their lives revolve in a constant circle. Like the lone shot of the bicycle wheel slowly rotating,

Butch and Cassidy go from one close call, to the next without ever realizing that it doesn't have to be that way. My sister was annoyed by this fact I think, and so was I in a way now that I think about it. Like all great tragic heroes however, there has to be something that prevents them from having it all.

Another discovery I had made this time around was another sad realization, that Etta was heartbroken. Without knowing whether or not her true heart resided within Sundance or Butch (I think in this case it's safe to assume she did love both of them) we can see that her real heartbreak involves the very same thing that aggravated us. After offering up suggestions of other things they could do besides bank robbing, Sundance and Butch seem to shoot down almost everything, claiming they didn't know how to do it, when really the two fearless outlaws are afraid of a world that does not revolve around robbing banks. They refuse to embrace the new-- the bicycle, and stick to their horses and criminal activity. In the moments that Etta tells the men she'll be going back alone, there is such a beautiful sadness that reads in her eyes.

Back in Wyoming, she had told them that there was only one thing she would not do, and that is see them die. In this moment, Etta understands that they will never change, and because of it they will sooner or later end up dead and she cannot bare to witness it. In some ways however, she already has, and perhaps that is where the true sadness forms.

In this viewing, I really felt for Etta. Not solely because I was now keen enough to realize that Katharine Ross was from both The Graduate and The Stepford Wives, but because she was such an interesting character I had never given much thought to before. In a very male driven story, Etta--the only female in the film not associated with a brothel, is surprisingly gutsy, smart and driven. She even becomes a vital part of their bank robbing plans in Bolivia, and demands that they learn their Spanish before trying anything stupid. Etta Place was something that Butch and Sundance truly valued but in they end they valued their outlaw status more.

Overall Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one entertaining piece of film. There's so much to feel good about, that it seems odd we are able to laugh and smile even in Butch and Sundance's lowest moments. Even in times where it looks like their luck has run out we can still feel happy because they make it so. Their camaraderie has inspired a wealth of buddy comedies, acting as a foundation for many of the best comedic duos we see today. They are the ultimate example of the complexities of relating to the bad guy. Our perceptions of who is good and who is bad is greatly altered in the film. We despise the lawmen, the civil righters, the people that obey the law--and we idolize, and cherish two bank robbers.

Even in their last moments we find that it's hard to hold back a smile. Bleeding, pale and just barely defeated (but not quite) Butch Cassidy still has his charms.

The two make plans about their next destination, all the while unaware of the Calvary's arrival outside. It's a genius moment of dramatic irony, and while it doesn't seem likely that the two will survive, we still hold onto that shred of hope. In that last freeze frame, we don't see them die, which in turn keeps them alive in our minds. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid--two criminals, two heroes, two men that stole our hearts, and everything that comes in between.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Obsessed with Doubt

I am obsessed with John Patrick Shanley’s film version of his play, Doubt.  Shanley wrote the piece, adapted it for film, and directed as well.  I suppose he is just as obsessed.

My fascination with this film began a little over a year ago when I first rented the DVD.  By the time the end credits were rolling, I was ready to restart the film and watch it again.  At first, my reason for another viewing was to see if maybe I had missed something; some plot point that cleared up the ambiguity of the story’s denouement.  At least that’s what I told myself.

The second viewing actually took place a day or two later.  It was a Saturday morning, very early.  I settled in on the sofa and sipped a mug of coffee and found myself again mesmerized by this strange and fascinating tale of an avenging Mother Superior who goes toe to toe with an alleged pedophile priest.

Set in the late fall / early winter of 1964, Doubt takes place at an inner-city Catholic grade  school where Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) rules the roost like some kind of Ninja in a black bonnet.  Sister Aloysius is not fond of ball point pens, candy, sugar, berets or long fingernails.  She strikes fear into the hearts of her students as well as the  rest of the nuns who teach at the school.  More that that, she’s also not afraid to physically discipline her charges.  Her only fear seems to be the winds of change that are blowing around her (both figuratively and literally), and she holds on with an iron grip to the past as she sees societal changes slowly creeping into her own cloistered existence.
Amongst the darkly clad nuns, and the solemn faced children at Saint Nicholas  is Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a smiling, seemingly gentle, obviously personable, and very popular priest who treats the children kindly and often offers them words of advice. When he witnesses Sister Aloysius calling a boy out of line for some transgression, he murmurs to a novitiate, “The dragon is hungry!”   Father is also not afraid to shake things up on the pulpit, as is witnessed in a very early scene where he gives a sermon on the topic of doubt which he concludes, “can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.”

A young nun, Sister James (Amy Adams) is also a teacher at the school, and while it is obvious that she wants to impress Sister Aloysius, she’s also more concerned with teaching her students than terrifying them.   Strangely enough, though Sister James appears the most innocent of the three main characters, her actions are what set in to motion the film’s story.

One afternoon, Sister James notices something that she finds suspicious concerning the school’s only African American student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), and Father Flynn.  Once she reports her suspicions to Sister Aloysius, Pandora’s box opens and no matter what she might try to do to close it up again, Sister James can not.

Doubt deals with very a delicate, but very timely, subject matter; the sexual abuse of a minor at the hands of a Catholic priest.  And while it might seem a simple leap  for the viewer to believe this accusation against Father Flynn…well, as Ringo Starr once said, “It don’t come easy”.  Indeed, my obsession with this film is partially based on my looking for clues as to the priest’s guilt or innocence. And that’s just it – there are no real clues, no witnesses, just a strong suspicion and whatever baggage the viewer brings to the table.  Personally, I find myself flipping back and forth every time I view this film.  One minute, every outrageous accusation that Sister Aloysius throws at Father Flynn makes perfect sense, then later, it just seems like she’s got some sort of hidden agenda, and maybe Sister James was right when she said to her, “You just don't like him! You don't like it that he uses a ballpoint pen. You don't like it that he takes 3 lumps of sugar in his tea. You don't like it that he likes Frosty the Snowman and you are letting that convince you of something that's terrible... Just terrible...”

Another thing about Doubt that I obsess over, are the performances.  There is not one flat acting note in this film – even the linear characters ring true.  Hell, even the school is a character – a Gothic sort of haunted house where light bulbs blow out over the heads of authority figures, and windows are found mysteriously open during wind and rain storms.  That said, it’s the three principal leads (and one brief but brilliant moment by a supporting actress) that make Doubt so damn compelling.
Meryl Streep inhabits Sister Aloysius and infuses her with such ferocity that it’s downright terrifying.  Our first introduction to her is as she’s silently gliding down a church aisle  during mass quietly but sternly reprimanding the children in the pews – and even slapping  one boy on the side of his head (and if you spent anytime in Catholic school during the 60’s or 70’s you know that sort of thing was the norm).  With her wire rim glasses and black bonnet habit, Streep is a pale, cold vision of anger and disgruntlement – a woman who could only find a way to voice her frustrations at life’s injustices to women  by hiding her femininity  behind an iron tunic (we discover at one point, that before she joined the order she was married  and her husband was killed in World War II).   What’s also fascinating about Streep’s characterization is the way she finds occasional moments to infuse some sarcastic humor into the role.  Indeed, some of – in fact all of – Doubt’s brief comic moments come courtesy of Sister Aloysius.  Finally, for all her bluster and bravado, Streep makes it quite clear that her Sister Aloysius is also a woman terrified of the changes coming .  She senses them all around her, and wants no part of them.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays Father Flynn as such a likable character, it’s almost impossible to believe he could do anything wrong, let alone molest a young boy.  And yet, maybe that’s the genius of his performance.  His monster , his wolf, is wrapped so tight in sheep's clothing, most can not see through it.  But watch the film more than once and maybe you see the mask slipping (why does that one boy flinch when ever Father comes near him – in fact keep an eye on the boy called William London (Mike Roukis), he seems to be the wild card in this tale, you have to watch the film several times to see what I mean-  why are Father’s fingernails long and almost claw-like, and, most importantly, why does he not go down without a fight?).   Hoffman’s Flynn is so beguiling, because he is so hard to pin down.

Amy Adams take on Sister James could easily be overlooked, but that’s because she plays the young teaching nun so effortlessly. Adams gives this character heart and a conscience.  She’s still feeling her way through the world of teaching and the convent life, she still seems to actually care for the children she teaches.  I think Adams really shines in the one scene where, disgusted at herself for the trouble she might be causing, she mimics Sister Aloysius and starts berating one of her students.   Later on you can see how heartbroken she is for her actions.
Of course there is not much that can be said about Viola Davis and her performance as Mrs. Miller.   How astounding it is, that this woman who is on screen for all of maybe fifteen minutes (acting against Streep), almost steals the movie and tucks it neatly under her arm.  Davis turns Mrs. Miller into a loving mother, desperate to make a better life for her son, and if that means sacrificing his innocence, so be it.  And while that may sound cold, all one has to do is watch her performance and it’s very clear that her motives are pure.

Another reason I am obsessed with Doubt is due to what I call “The Showdown Scene”.  This is the moment of the movie when Streep and Hoffman’s characters face off – it is a masters class in acting.  It’s also a brutal moment when it is hard to tell exactly who is really the bad guy.  This is when Sister Aloysius proclaims that she has no proof, but that she does have her “certainty” and then, looking both crazed and defiant, clutching her crucifix like it might be a dagger she screams at the priest,”I will step outside the church if that's what needs to be done, till the door should shut behind me! I will do what needs to be done, though I'm damned to Hell! You should understand that, or you will mistake me. “  Clearly this is woman with a rather large axe to grind.   So when Father Flynn looks defeated, I ask myself is it because he’s guilty, or is it because he’s up against such an angry, unbalanced adversary who is willing to go to the police.  Maybe it was just easier for him to walk away, than risk public humiliation.

But in the end, Father Flynn does leave – reassigned to another parish (with a promotion!) and by now the viewer might be willing to believe that he was up to no good, that Sister Aloysius did have the goods on him after all (she tells him at one point that she spoke to a nun at his last church).  But then we discover that was a lie.  And in the film's waning moments, we start to ask ourselves what went on.  If that’s not enough, in the final scene, Sister Aloysius is sitting with Sister Jane on a bench in the dead of winter and the Mother Superior breaks down in tears, once more clutching that crucifix like a dagger, but then hiding it under her tunic and sobs, “Oh sister, I have doubts.  I have such doubts!”  That’s when I usually scream, “About what? His guilt, your faith in God, the way your run the school, your life’s profession?”  And then I tell myself, I am going to have to watch this movie again, maybe then I’ll figure it out.

Who knows, maybe I never will.

Signals From Left Field: Big Trouble In Little China (1986)

From Left Field? Just like many of the films I'll discuss, many of the choices I make might come "from left field." I like quirky as much I as like cake, and that's a whole lot, so I hope you enjoy my look at cult, semi-cult, and whatever movie strikes my fancy at any given time. And away we go with my first choice...

When I first saw John Carpenter's underrated gem of an action-comedy-martial arts-fantasy flick, Big Trouble In Little China, I was a student majoring in Amateur Party-Attending and Alcohol Consumption at Central Michigan University, circa 1987. It was a Saturday night, and I stumbled into my dorm sometime after midnight. Merrill Hall was good about having movies to watch in the commons room on Saturdays, and as my eyes adjusted to the non-smoky, bright interior of the dorm lobby, this is the wondrous sight they saw:

The stunning alley fight that establishes the line between good and evil, and puts our hero Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) in the thick of the strangest adventure that involves magic, demi-gods, and modernized Chinese mythology - that was it...I was drawn in and would never leave this movie's warm and goofy embrace.

Big Trouble In Little China is director John Carpenter's true cult film. Halloween may be his incredible debut and a study in suspense that would make Alfred Hitchcock jealous, but this 1986 tribute to true adventure and Hong Kong action films didn't fare as well at the box office. You'd think it would've done better, as nearly everyone I know loves the movie. But, in reality, it's just that my closest friends and I tend to like the same movies, and so when I ask a "movie non-buff" if they like it, I usually get a shrug and/or a blank look. Halloween usually gets more of a response.

"Seinfeld, four!"

Haven't seen it? Here's a quick rundown: egotistical yet philosophical trucker Burton and his buddy, Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), run afoul of local bad guy David Lo Pan (James Hong) who turns out to be a cursed demi-god in search of a Chinese girl with green eyes so that he can become human again. As a result, Jack loses his truck and Wang loses his girlfriend to Lo Pan and his admittedly kick-ass henchmen, the Three Storms who possess the names and powers of rain, thunder, and lightning. Enlisting the help of a group of good-guy warriors and tour guide/sorcerer Egg Shen (the great Victor Wong - you've seen him in Tremors), Jack and Wang storm Lo Pan's vast underground world to rescue Wang's girlfriend and intrepid reporter Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall, thankfully pre-Sex In The City). What follows can be described as John Wayne meets the dark side of Oz in a crazy battle underneath Chinatown.

Big Trouble In Little China always reminds of me what it's like to have fun watching a movie. You could describe the film as "good dumb fun," but really, there's nothing dumb about it. The hero is immensely likable, the villain is appropriately over-the-top, and the pure fantasy facets of the movie tell you screw reality and sit back to enjoy the ride. It looks good; there's a rich palette of colors, enhanced by neon and bright but unobtrusive special effects. It sounds good; Carpenter's minimalist score - as usual - fits with the action on the screen, and the whooshes and crackles of the battle scenes cartwheel out of your speakers.

One of the little details I loved about the movie is the hint of a wider world than we actually see. Yes, there's the actual story, but there are strong clues that this battle of good (the Chang Sing gang) and evil (the Wing Kong gang) has been raging for centuries. And not only the battle itself, but the characters as well, especially Egg Shen and Lo Pan.

When discussing his search for a green-eyed woman, Lo Pan remarks "There have been others, to be sure. There are always others, are there not?" Maybe there have been other adventures, other heroes that have thwarted Lo Pan with Egg's help. Hmm. We definitely know Egg and Lo Pan have crossed paths before, and Egg isn't just a lovable, kooky local magician. When Lo Pan tells the Three Storms that Egg is leading the band of heroes, the Storms give each other a fearful look. Egg apparently already has either faced them, or has carved out a reputation for himself battling other demons. And there's a telling exchange between the two adversaries during the climactic battle scene, as they battle to a magical stalemate, and Lo Pan brags, "You never could beat me, Egg Shen."

When a movie, no matter how much in the "big dumb fun" niche it is, stirs the imagination of my childhood and causes me to dream up my own continuing stories (I always called mine More Trouble In Little China - don't judge)...then it will win my heart. Big Trouble In Little China won my heart in 1987 on that post-party, not-entirely-sober Saturday night in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, and has kept it for 23 years and counting. Although Carpenter has made a number of my favorite films, such as the aforementioned Halloween, They Live, Prince of Darkness, and The Thing, this movie - this true definition of a "romp" - remains my favorite of the bunch.


Enjoy, and remember to bring the popcorn.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Friday Night Films: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)

My sister and I have begun a new tradition in our apartment. Every Friday night we resist the temptation to visit some over crowded, smelly bar and instead we watch a Classic movie. I’m not exactly an expert on what classifies a Classic film so forgive me if our selections aren’t quite classic enough for you. Just know that these films are typically seen and adored by people who call themselves film fans and for one reason or another I have suspiciously avoided seeing them. Whether this is due to my non-stop horror movie watching or because I detest really long movies, remains to be seen. But know this, every week you’ll be getting a fancy review of the latest movie watched at the Dumas household and oh how lucky you are.

Last week we settled in to watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966). I admit to having avoided it simply because I had heard of its dark and depressing themes and how “heavy” it was. In fact we had plans to watch it the week before, only to switch it at the last minute for something more light hearted. When I was reminded by the synopsis on Netflix that our two main characters were George and Martha, I was immediately brought back to my childhood.

The George and Martha series by James Marshall was a staple of my literary repertoire growing up. Due to this, I could never listen to excerpts from the play or read anything about the film without picturing two very fat hippos trying to outdo one another. As it so happens, James Marshall came up with the idea for the series while his mother was watching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. This of course means that he based his lovable characters on the dastardly and at times disturbing duo. After seeing the film, I couldn’t imagine that Marshall would want to use these two as models for a children’s book largely based around teaching morality lessons. I emailed my Mom and asked her to send me one of the George and Martha books for research.

What I found was that I was continuously raising my eyebrows during any moments that suggested George was less of a man. One story in particular depicts George as boasting about diving off the high dive. Once at the top however, George starts to panic. Martha than proceeds to climb the high dive and jumps off, while George sneaks off the ladder while everyone is distracted by Martha’s giant splash. Despite the book obviously catering towards a more light hearted level of fun and games, I can’t help but be secretly put off by George and Martha. Were their constant games in the book just warm up for when they bashed each others faults relentlessly in front of strangers? Was Martha secretly an alcoholic who had a soft spot for younger men? I had so many concerns about the two lovable hippos now that I had been exposed to their inspiration.

Watching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is like renting Showgirls with your grandmother by accident. You just feel embarrassed, and you feel trapped--but also it’s very difficult to look away. It’s the very embodiment of watching a gruesome wreckage after a car accident. It’s a film that takes you on one of the wildest rides in emotional roller coaster history, causing laughter and fits of silliness one minute then plunging you down into a state of depression the next. What is that we can take away from a film as heavy as this? To be honest I’m not entirely sure. I had misgivings about even writing on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf because I wasn’t even sure that I did understand it.

I understood that much of it was beautifully shot, and that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were simply amazing in their roles. I understood the implications that Martha may have been barren, and how cruel George’s last game really was. But then I also understood how continuously cruel Martha was to George. Through all that she had done, the second that the “child” gets brought up, means that George is immediately seen as the bad guy? Or perhaps that’s just what I felt although that may not have been what it meant. Nevertheless, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is an extremely difficult film to watch. It stands miles apart from the likes of “torture porn” movies and causes you to understand what the term “disturbing” truly means.

I’m glad that I finally got to see it, but still find that I’m grappling with what it all really means. Does it have a larger meaning? Or are we meant to simply stare at its level of sheer horror while we unsuccessfully try to wipe its horror from our minds? I think I’ll stick to children’s books.