Sunday, June 30, 2019

Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road): A Review (Review #1225)

Image result for pather panchali criterionPATHER PANCHALI

Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) is the debut film of both director Satyajit Ray and the main character, Apu. This first part of what would become The Apu Trilogy is one of the most beautiful films I have seen, perhaps not visually stunning but emotionally impactful that it stays with you long after you see it.

Pather Panchali covers the early years of little Apu (Subir Bandopadhyay, now Subir Banerjee). He is the second child of Harihar (Kanu Bannerjee) and Sarbojaya Ray (Karuna Bannerjee) and he lives with his older sister Durga (Uma Das Gupta) and his elderly 'Auntie' Indir (Chunibala Devi), whom both are devoted to, especially Durga.

As a side note, despite their shared surnames none of the actors were related.

The family is quite poor, leading to much stress on Sarbojaya's part. She is frustrated by Auntie's habit of taking food without asking, which Sarbojaya in turn blames for Durga taking fruit that has fallen from a wealthier family's orchard (said orchard she maintains her more dreamer husband should have held onto). Harihar is a poor priest and keeps plugging away at being a writer and poet, but money is hard to come by.

As we see Apu and Durga grow up, they experience the joys of simple things like sweets and the train passing by, but also see the hardness of life. The neighbor insists Durga stole a necklace from her daughter, causing Sarbojaya to briefly throw her out of the house. She also throws Auntie out a couple of times, though the wily old lady manages to come back with little protest from Sarbojaya.

Harihar goes to find work and money away from their ancestral land, and in his absence Sarbojaya becomes more desperate and concerned. Apu and Durga experience the tragedy of loss and death, and then death comes for the innocent. Harihar finally returns but what joy he has is lost when he learns of Durga. With nothing to hold them to the only home they have known for at least three generations, the Rays go to the big city of Benares to seek out a new start.

Image result for pather panchaliPather Panchali has as its major drawback its length at a little over two hours. Such a long film may try viewers' patience, especially as Pather Panchali has a very small, simple plot. It's a very quiet film: there are no major twists apart from the discovery of the necklace and its focus is on simple people living out their lives in rural India. There is no talk of politics or the outside world, in fact no mention of anything remotely connected to the outside save for the train that so fascinates Apu and Durga.

Yet my question would be what exactly should be removed? Director and screenwriter Satyajit Ray in his directorial debut takes this slow and methodical method to allow us to know these characters, and as such those with patience are richly rewarded. We are slowly woven into their lives, their struggles, hopes, joys, simplicity and heartbreak to where we can see either ourselves or our own families.

One of the great beauties of Pather Panchali is that despite the difference in time and culture the viewer can identify with the characters and their various situations: the inquisitive and playful Apu, the protective yet flawed Durga, the wily and slightly mischievous but wise Auntie, the harried and haunted Sarbojaya and the optimistic and hopeful dreamer Harihar. Pather Panchali is a story that is familiar to the human condition, centering on a family and situations both distinctly Indian and deeply universal.

It's a major credit to Ray as a director that his cast featured non-professional actors. Out of his main cast, Bandopadhyay had no acting experience and only Kanu Bannerjee had film experience. Karuna Bannerjee, Das Gupta and Devi had theatrical acting experience but no film work. They all give such wonderful performances, making the characters so relateable. We see Apu's discovery of the world, his innocence and joy in simple things. We can smile as Auntie delights in the secret deliveries of fruit Durga 'finds' for her. We can share Sarbojaya's anxieties about how to feed her family while her husband is away.

"I had dreams too...", she tells her husband softly, and here I think we see the genius of both Ray and Pather Panchali. Sarbojaya was once Durga, a generally happy child with her life ahead of her. She is also perhaps fated to become Auntie, an old hunched-over woman living off the kindness of extended family. In fact near the end a child sent by family to provide food for Sarbojaya in her grief calls her 'Auntie', suggesting that the wheel of time spins in a certain direction too.

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We can also mourn the two deaths in Pather Panchali, one not surprising, one unexpected but both sad and tragic. It is no surprise that the elderly Auntie dies, though her death seems very harsh given the circumstances that led to it. It is the other death that hits you much harder, much deeper. Ray does not make it a big moment, drenching it with music or having hysterics. It is the softness, the stillness of both the death and Sarbojaya's pained, frozen reaction that hits us harder.

I confess that when she finally broke down after Harihar gives her Durga's new sari, I had to pause the film for a few moments to collect myself. You would simply have to have a heart of stone not to find yourself shedding tears at this moment. I admit I cried at this moment, and I have no shame in that revelation.

Pather Panchali perhaps has a subtle way of informing the viewer about its theme of life moving forward both with happiness and sadness. We see this with Sarbojaya, but there's another part that caught my attention. Near the end of the film Apu is sent to find someone. He dresses before leaving, and then pauses to take one more item: an umbrella. Here, he echoes his father's similar pause to collect his umbrella earlier in the film when he set out on his journey. Perhaps I am reading too much into this, but I think Ray was suggesting that Apu was now becoming a man, leaving the boy behind.

This is a film that makes one go find his or her family and express their love for them. After seeing it, I went and hugged my mother tightly and lovingly. Granted, she was suspicious as to why I was suddenly so affectionate and thought I was up to something, but such is life.

Lest I forget, the film is blessed with a beautiful score from legendary sitar master Ravi Shankar, whose music brings delight and pain that matches the story.

The pain and loss the family endures is heartbreaking, yet Pather Panchali is not a tragedy. We have moments of lightness and joy, in short, about life and the human condition every person lives out. A beautiful portrait of humanity, albeit perhaps a bit slow for some, Pather Panchali is a portrait of how we all travel down on our own Little Road.

DECISION: A+

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Silence of the Lambs (1991): A Review

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)

The Silence of the Lambs is technically a sequel in that it follows characters introduced in 1986's Manhunter, the adaptation of Robert Harris' first Hannibal Lecter novel Red Dragon. As much as The Silence of the Lambs is seen as a horror film or psychological thriller, after revisiting it I think the film is really a much deeper and richer commentary on women as both victims and heroines.

Novice FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is tasked by her superior Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) to try to convince or con a brilliant but dangerous psychologist/psychopath to help the FBI in profiling a serial killer known as "Buffalo Bill", who skins his victims.

Said psycho is Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), known as 'Hannibal the Cannibal' for having killed and eaten his victims. Currently imprisoned and controlled by inept prison psychiatrist Dr. Fredrick Chilton (Anthony Heald), Lecter is so dangerous he is kept behind glass to avoid him touching anyone.

The ambitious Starling and the brilliant Lecter soon begin an intellectual pas de deux, one attempting to outwit the other to get what they want. For Lecter, it is to get away from Chilton, whom he detests. For Starling, it is a chance to get ahead in her career.

Things take on a greater urgency when "Buffalo Bill" (Ted Devine) has taken a new victim: Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith). She fits Bill's targeted victims: female, overweight, young. She is also the daughter of Senator Ruth Martin (Diane Baker), bringing greater attention to the case. As Lecter continues to toy with everyone, Starling continues the investigation despite Lecter's false clues and wild goose chases, driven by her own haunted past to save Catherine.

Lecter has a few tricks up his sleeve, putting everyone at risk. As Starling's investigation comes to its shocking conclusion, she finds that Hannibal Lecter, now a fugitive, will keep away from her out of courtesy, but as for his nemesis Chilton...

Going back to The Silence of the Lambs, I think that I have found a new interpretation for this story above the surface story of two madmen tied together by one investigator. Rather, and again this is my own interpretation, I think The Silence of the Lambs is about Clarice Starling more than about the horrifying crimes.

I got from Jonathan Demme's film that Clarice was the 'lamb' and that her 'silence' was that of many a competent woman forced to watch herself among the various 'wolves' that surround them. Over and over through Demme's various close-ups and Ted Tally's screenplay we see how Clarice, this small woman, has to endure that nefarious male gaze.

That male gaze takes two forms. There's the gaze of desire which comes from the revolting, arrogant Chilton but also from some of her colleagues like FBI scientists Roden (Dan Butler) and Pilcher (Paul Lazar) and perhaps Crawford himself. As Pilcher talks to Starling, he clumsy asks her out.

"Are you hitting on me?", Clarice almost jokingly asks. Without missing a beat Pilcher says, "Yes". This metaphorical lamb, however, stays silent.

The other gaze is that of contempt, best shown when Crawford and Starling go to examine the body of another victim. Crawford tells the police chief that they cannot talk about certain aspects because essentially 'there's a lady present', and later on the various officers seem irritated when Clarice asks them to leave the autopsy room.

Image result for the silence of the lambsThe Silence of the Lambs, in my view, is a strong allegory about how women are victimized by men in ways large (murder, torture) and small (dismissed, harassed, ogled). I think we can see this at the very beginning of the film, where we see her running out of the very spooky, almost haunted woods. It's almost an archetype: the damsel in distress fleeing from the deep, dark forest. However, in this Gothic horror take on Little Red (or in her case, Grey) Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, the girl is seen overcoming all the obstacles.

Clarice is in her own way a lamb though a strong one, surrounded by wolves who would devour her with their eyes and with their bodies if they could; these hungry wolves range from the mentally ill prisoner Miggs (Stuart Rudin) who literally flings his cum at her, to 'Buffalo Bill' himself who would slaughter her. Chilton is the worst in that he has both desire and contempt for Starling, seeing her as both a sex object and an incessant irritant and intellectual inferior despite the evidence to the contrary.

Even Jack Crawford, who would appear to be a mentor, can be seen as both contemptuous of Starling and perhaps harboring some sexual desires.

It is never really overtly spoken, though Demme shows us how Clarice is often mistreated by the men she is around in various ways save perhaps one: Hannibal Lecter himself. Unlike just about every other man, he sees Clarice for her mind. He is rather courtly and polite, who sees in Clarice not as a thing but as a person.

Lecter is manipulative and in his own way tortures Clarice by having her delve into her traumas, but he would do this with anyone regardless of gender. There is a very brief shot of him caressing Starling's hand with one finger, which suggests sexual desire, but I am not convinced Lecter ever wanted Clarice sexually.

The lion's share of fame in terms of performances has gone to Anthony Hopkins as Lecter. What makes him a truly frightening figure is in how Hopkins plays him: as a man fully in control, brilliant, contemptuous of everyone save perhaps Clarice. Even as he literally devours people he does not seem to lose control. I think that is what makes Hopkins' performance so brilliant. He plays Lecter as someone who is always five steps ahead, taking every opportunity presented and whose very calmness masks his murderous and evil ways.

His charming, courtly manner allows for us almost to cheer when he bids Clarice farewell via telephone. As we see a frightened Dr. Chilton arrive in the Bahamas, Lecter coolly informs her, "I do wish we could stay and chat longer, but I'm having an old friend for dinner," the double meaning a mixture of menace and mirth.

Hannibal Lecter, thanks to Hopkins' performance, has become a cult figure, the center of a cinematic universe with television shows and film sequels/prequels. Poor Brian Cox: whatever the qualities of his version of Lecter in Manhunter, is all for forgotten. However, it is to me a terrible disservice to focus so much on Hopkins and Lecter when The Silence of the Lambs has an equally brilliant performance.

Image result for the silence of the lambsJodie Foster, I think, has gone not fully appreciated for her performance in the way Anthony Hopkins has. Her performance is absolutely pitch-perfect. Foster's Clarice Starling is an authentic character. She is strong and competent but she is also vulnerable. She does not hide that she is a woman by attempting to be 'masculine' and she certainly would never think of being coquettish. Her gender is part of who she is.

However, she is someone who is capable of being hurt. A brief scene of her crying after leaving her first interview with Lecter, where she has endured having cum flung at her and crazed men screaming at her, shows that she is not above having emotions. She also has something that the male investigators do not have: empathy for the victims. Starling does not see these women as mere corpses or subjects in an investigation but instead she sees them as real people. 

The Silence of the Lambs does not have a bad performance in it, a credit to Demme as a director and the various actors in the film. Levine for good or ill is now seen as 'Buffalo Bill', his crazed 'drag act' never slipping into camp but a genuinely creepy being. Even small roles, such as Baker's fearful mother, Kasi Lemmons as Starling's fellow trainee Ardelia Mapp or Chris Isaak as the SWAT commander and even independent film legend Roger Corman in a cameo as the FBI director all have strong moments.

There are also other elements that contribute to the film's great success. Howard Shore, inexplicably not nominated for his score, creates music that is eerie and melancholy. Of particular note is when Clarice is remembering the trauma of her childhood. One can hear what sounds like the wind echoing that dark morning when her young life came apart. I think it was actually music, but it was so well-crafted that one senses the score elevated the scene. The use of the song Goodbye Horses also makes for frightening effect.

Craig McKay's editing is excellent, particularly when balancing the tension between a wrong raid, Catherine striking back against her captor and Clarice's imminent danger. Tak Fujimoto's cinematography works well in setting the eerie nature of the story, though I did question the set-up for when the police storm where Lecter is housed. It did strike me as slightly illogical that Lecter would take so much time with such an elaborate piece but that's being a bit nitpicky.

The Silence of the Lambs is a magnificent film: horror mixed with intelligent yet subtle commentary on gender roles and standout performances particularly from Foster and Hopkins. An extraordinary yet terrifying film, The Silence of the Lambs continues to hold a macabre fascination to this day.

DECISION: A+

1992 Best Picture Winner: Unforgiven

Saturday, June 22, 2019

The Intruder (2019): A Review

THE INTRUDER

I am someone who judges a film based on what it aims for and not on some lofty sliding scale. As such, I can look on The Intruder was bemused pleasure, accepting that it is trash. Granted, it's poor trash, so much so that it would have benefited tremendously if it had embraced its trashiness rather than even try to be serious. However, as almost idiotic pieces of useless entertainment go I cannot find it in my heart to beat up on The Intruder much.

Successful entrepreneur Scott Russell (Michael Ealy) and his wife Annie (Meagan Good) are looking for a country home to escape San Francisco. They think they have found the perfect place in Napa Valley: a large home currently owned by Charlie Peck (Dennis Quaid). Both Charlie and his home have fallen on hard times ever since the death of his wife two years before.

After some negotiating the Russells buy the house, but Charlie seems never to actually leave. He keeps telling them he'll soon move in with his daughter in Florida but he keeps showing up. Charlie sometimes helps around the house: cutting the grass and setting up the Christmas lights. Scott is growing more alarmed at Charlie's intrusive nature but Annie keeps insisting he's just a nice man who is a little lonely and means well.

Charlie, however, does not mean well at all. Pathologically possessive about the house he soon becomes more fixated on Annie. Charlie's growing derangement puts the Russells and their friends in danger until reaching a brutal climax where not everyone will come out alive.

Image result for the intruder 2019As I said, The Intruder could have benefited tremendously from a little more camp given David Loughery's cliched screenplay. It is one of those films that depend on the characters being amazingly stupid, particularly poor Annie who is stubbornly foolish when it comes to Charlie's behavior.

No matter how often Charlie shows up unannounced or how often Scott's concerned are justified, Annie continues to insist that the very odd old white guy running around their home and popping up at all hours is harmless.

Bless Good for not breaking out into fits of laughter at Annie's inanity. One has to give her credit for trying to make her into even a remotely rational human being given the character as written is really, really dumb.

The Intruder loves to delve into standard thriller bits: the evil figure popping out of the shadow unseen by the others, random strangers offering important information that furthers the plot, the 'wacky' best friends who you know are there to be killed. The film to its credit makes said 'wacky' best friend Mike (Joseph Sikora) so unlikable that at least I was rooting for Charlie to get rid of him. Never was the term 'token white guy' so apropos to something as silly as The Intruder.

We even get suggestions that The Intruder borrows from other films: I could see bits that were reminiscent of Straw Dogs and The Shining, though why they went this route is unexplained.

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The film almost delights in throwing things in that not only have little if anything to do with whatever the actual plot is but just as quickly forgets about them. There is a vague subplot about a tryst Scott had when he and Annie were engaged potentially repeating itself that just came and went. There is another about Charlie's daughter that similarly came and went. We are told that Scott has an aversion to guns, so we know what will happen in the end. Said 'wacky' best friend Mike, who no surprise is killed off (much to my delight) has a girlfriend we've seen, but no reason is given why she is apparently unconcerned that Mike has disappeared.

Perhaps she was just happy to be rid of Mike. It would have made things more interesting if Charlie had seduced Mike's girlfriend Rachel (Alvina August) or vice versa.

I really do think the cast and director Deon Taylor would have done better to have made The Intruder almost a spoof rather than even bother trying to make this serious. It appears Dennis Quaid opted to try and make Charlie into a camp figure with his obvious "I'm CREEPY!" performance. Ealy appears to underplay his role as almost a counterweight to Quaid's all-in bonkers manner.

Again, as I look at The Intruder, I could almost find myself enjoying it for its desperate efforts to try and be good. It isn't: the cliches and idiocy of just about everyone in the film pushes it down. The Intruder is mindless, hokey silliness but not quite fun enough for me to recommend unless it is to actively ridicule it.

DECISION: C-

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Lawrence of Arabia (1962): A Review



LAWRENCE OF ARABIA

In a time when live-action cartoons and the third remake of a Hollywood story are declared among 'the greatest films ever made', it may be hard to remember when such a term meant more than fanboy hyperbole cranked up to 11. For me, it takes more than squeeing to rank a particular film in that pantheon of true masterpieces.

Lawrence of Arabia, the biopic of Colonel T.E. Lawrence, is one such film. An epic film about one man's soul, with vast vistas and standout performances directed by a titan of cinema, Lawrence of Arabia mixes the sweeping and the intimate in this extraordinary portrait of this most conflicted and contradictory of historic figures.

British soldier and intellectual T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) is sent by the Arab Bureau to find Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) and 'find out what his intentions are'. Lawrence, who loves the land and its people but feels himself also a British officer, encounters the formidable Sherif Ali ibn el Karish (Omar Sharif) who has murdered Lawrence's friend and guide for drinking out of his well despite being a member of a different clan.

Image result for lawrence of arabiaUpon reporting to Faisal's British adviser Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle), Lawrence is his usual contrarian self, insisting the Arab uprising should remain independent of British interests in Arabia. He comes up with an audacious plan to aid Faisal's plans: attacking the heavily-defended port city of Aqaba by land. With a very dubious Ali and fifty men going with him, they make a dangerous trek across unforgiving desert before attacking, receiving aid from the bombastic chieftain Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn).

The British now find themselves facing off against one of their own who in the words of General Allenby (Jack Hawkins) has 'gone native'. Where Lawrence's heart truly are perhaps even he does not know, as he begins to become enveloped by the myth of 'Lawrence of Arabia', helped by ambitious American journalist Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy).

As the Arabs continue their uprising against the Turks and the British continue their machinations on Arabia under the shady dealings of British Arab Bureau head Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains), Lawrence seems two men in one body. It isn't until his torture and perhaps rape at the hands of the Turkish Bey (Jose Ferrer) that Lawrence becomes a whole new man, filled with an almost uncontrollable bloodlust. Eventually, despite Lawrence's efforts he cannot give the Arabs a state or be completely absolved of the duplicity.

Now Colonel Lawrence, he quits Arabia to return to his own native land, a stranger among his own people, destined to 'back into the limelight'.

Image result for lawrence of arabiaI have often thought that Lawrence of Arabia is less about war and Lawrence's exploits in the desert than it is about the man himself: where he began and ended versus where his myth began and ended, whether even he knew who or what he was. The key to the ultimate theme in Lawrence of Arabia is when he and one of his two servants finally cross the Suez to arrive at the canal. As this British officer, dressed in once-beautiful but now dirty Arab dress stares out, a motorcyclist comes upon them.

"WHO ARE YOU?" he shouts, and the double meaning packed into that one statement from Robert Bolt and a-then uncredited Michael Wilson's screenplay hits the viewer. Director David Lean (whose voice was the one calling out) moves in on O'Toole's blank expression as he keeps shouting "WHO ARE YOU?" Lawrence does not know who he is and can provide no answer.

Over and over this theme of the man who has no roots, no people, ill-fitting no matter what garb he wears, keeps returning in subtle ways. It may have begun at his birth, when he tells Ali that his father was not married to his mother. Despite Ali's statement that as such he is free to take whatever name he wants and create his own destiny, something in Lawrence always keeps him separate from the people of his birth and the people he has integrated to.

At one point, when forced to kill, he declares to the disparate Arab tribes, "I HAVE NO TRIBE!". While on the surface he means that he can take a life without creating a blood feud, I think it also means that Lawrence is rootless, that he is neither authentically British or authentically Arab in the way his opposites Brighton and Ali are. Both those men fight for what they believe while keeping to their honor without reservation. Lawrence, who flows turbulently between them, cannot fully commit to one or the other.

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Lawrence of Arabia is helped by some of the best performances captured for film, starting with a man so breathtakingly beautiful the playwright Noel Coward remarked that if he'd been any prettier the film would have been called Florence of Arabia. While technically not Peter O'Toole's screen debut, I do not think anyone has had a larger or more brilliant opening performance than his. O'Toole, it has been noted, was in a sense wrong for the part in that he was well over half a foot taller than the real Lawrence. I don't think it matters, as O'Toole so brilliantly captured this version of Lawrence, a man forever a bit off-center, brilliant, passionate but also arrogant to the point of reckless.

Lawrence's evolution from a mere officer to a myth partially of his own creation as 'Al Aurence' and back to Lawrence is an extraordinary piece of acting. O'Toole makes Lawrence human in his uneasiness, his oddness and then his shifts to almost mythic status and then to monstrous and ultimately conflicted and tortured physically and emotionally. He starts out as intelligent but a bit clumsy, filled with the arrogance of youth and then slowly becomes a frightening figure, particularly when he leads a massacre of fleeing Turks. His cry of "NO PRISONERS! NO PRISONERS!" is terrifying, filled with fury and emotional turmoil.

Omar Sharif, making his English-language debut after being a star of Arab cinema, is more than O'Toole's equal as Ali, the Arab nobleman in every sense of the word. He too evolves from being a 'little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous and cruel' into Lawrence's only true friend and conscience. Sharif is the heart of the film: a man with a strong sense of honor, who fights for his people while struggling with a man he has grown to respect, perhaps even love as a brother but who also will take no nonsense from anyone.

Image result for lawrence of arabia matchI don't think there is a bad performance in Lawrence of Arabia. While perhaps Quinn's bombastic and almost loony Auda may come across as over-the-top, it fits the character of this larger-than-life figure. Quayle's Brighton is a man wholly dedicated to the British manner and perhaps the only honest British officer, a contrast from the wily Allenby as portrayed by Hawkins.

In his all too few scenes, Rains excels as the ever-calm Dryden, forever plotting to further British interests while doing his best to not leave any fingerprints.

Guinness too is excellent as Prince Faisal, even if today his casting would be highly criticized. He makes Faisal into an elegant, sophisticated, calm man, one who dreams of freedom for his people and his own way wily and shrewd, forever attempting to avoid exchanging one master for another. Kennedy's cynical American reporter Bentley (obviously modeled on real-life Lawrence chronicler Lowell Thomas) adds a touch of humor but is also a prism to observe Lawrence. We see this in two scenes where he takes Lawrence's picture.

In the first we see Lawrence at his zenith, almost a sun-god, with Bentley as his proclaimer. In the second we see Lawrence at his nadir, drenched in blood and death, with Bentley angry at the massacre his former sun-god has led.

While relegated to one scene, Jose Ferrer is masterful and chilling as the Turkish Bey, the menace and as open as possible suggestion of homosexual desire so well-captured.

If anything, Lawrence of Arabia is filled with masterful subtlety.

It also has some amazing technical feats, in particular Anne V. Coates' editing. The cut from Lawrence blowing out the match to the sunrise is still breathtakingly brilliant, as is the sequence where we see Lawrence lost in thought until he comes up with one word: Aqaba. It's a credit to both Coates and Lean that despite its massive length Lawrence of Arabia ever feels like it is dragging or padded.

Freddie Young's cinematography is equally brilliant, capturing the wide variety of desert and placing us within that harsh world. Maurice Jarre's score is also a masterful work, blending Western and Arab themes for a memorable soundtrack.

Lawrence of Arabia may not be accurate history but it is brilliant filmmaking. This epic film of one man's conflicted, complex and contradictory soul will stand the test of time long after all the sands of the desert are carried off by the whirlwinds.

1888-1935

DECISION: A+

1963 Best Picture: Tom Jones

Monday, June 17, 2019

Personal Reflections on 'The Public'


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PERSONAL REFLECTIONS ON 
THE PUBLIC

Having seen The Public and reviewed it as a film, I think it might be interesting to look at The Public with different eyes, that of a professional librarian. Perhaps my views on The Public differ from those not in this profession. I think every person who sees his/her job portrayed on film can spot things that would not be right or conversely be accurate. I now take a look over The Public, its plot and its portrayal of a profession I am very proud to be in.

Before I proceed any further, the following views and observations are strictly and wholly my own. They do not necessarily represent the views and observations of my employer or any colleague nor are they intended in suggest or imply that the views and observations are supported or endorsed by my employer or any colleague.

First, a brief overview of the plot. A group of homeless men, facing a lack of shelters during a cold snap in Cincinnati, decide to essentially take over the Central Library branch and use it as an emergency shelter. They are helped by the librarian Stuart Goodson (Emilio Estevez) and together they face off against opposing forces who want to force them out.

One aspect of The Public that the film got absolutely right was in the montages of patrons asking for information. In the film, a patron asks for help finding a specific book, but does not know the title or author but only that it was at a certain location and its color. I too had a similar question from a patron who did not know the name or author of the book, only that is was blue. Others have helpfully described the cover but not the subject/plot, author or title.

I gave my coworker a knowing look when another patron in that montage asked why so many Civil War battles were fought in state parks. As tempting as it is to laugh at these curious questions, a trained librarian knows these questions are sincere.

It would have been nice if The Public had included in these montages telephone calls, as many people appear to think libraries have literally all stored knowledge. Some patrons call for all sorts of information: telephone numbers of local and international businesses, how to remove acid from water, whether to place fruit in refrigerators or freezers, what bus routes take them home, scores for various teams and/or for their horoscopes. Perhaps the most curious question I have had came from an 80-year-old woman who calls almost daily.

She asked whether the HIV virus was so small that it could slip through a condom. It isn't up to us to ask why a senior who by her own admission has been celibate for decades would need or want to know such things, but there it is.

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Now, I think it would be good to touch on the gist of the story. The Public makes its case that as libraries are de facto day shelters for the homeless population, they can and perhaps should be de facto or even de jure night homeless shelters. Granted the circumstances were extraordinary: a fierce winter that had already taken two lives and with all other shelters full.  I've read a few comments and reviews that to my mind imply such a step would be good.

I imagine those who think as such have a good heart. Simultaneously, those who think as such rarely offer their own homes for the homeless to sleep at, but I digress.

While the idea of using public libraries as emergency/backup homeless shelters in extreme circumstances is not at heart a bad idea, there are legal and logistical issues to contend with.

All the material at a public library belongs to the government as it is usually tax dollars that pay for all the material. Otherwise, you wouldn't have people shout "I PAY YOUR SALARY!" to the staff, which has happened to me twice in twelve years. People do damage materials which have to be replaced. Having the homeless or any population stay without authorization opens up the possibility for damage or theft.

Perhaps here one could say this group of sheltered individuals would not be left alone to run amok but would be watched. Here, I would ask who would do the watching? Is it fair to ask a library staff member, already coming off an eight-hour day, to stay another eight hours to monitor a group of adults? Would it be fair to make another staff member come in for 'an overnight shift'?

Even so, should an issue come up said library staff member is in no position to stop anything. He or she cannot physically handle or restraint someone, they are not trained to respond to emergency situations or mental health issues and would be severely outnumbered in case someone or a group pose a physical threat.

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Despite the almost cuddly portrayal of the homeless in The Public, some of the homeless population in libraries can be dangerous and mentally unstable. The Public touched only briefly on mental illness with the character of Big George (Rhymefest), who thought he could shoot lasers out of his eyes that would kill someone. I think the idea of Big George again makes mental health issues among the homeless almost cutesy.

From my vantage point, the homeless who do come into the library can be aggressive and delusional. These delusions at times can be almost funny to an outsider: a patron in a perfectly even tone can tell you how the CIA finally stopped sending UFOs over to their house or how their 'cousin Michelle Obama' keeps hounding them for money.

Others can be from merely talking to people who are not there (sometimes in their own language) to people who are literally ranting and raving. Unilaterally declaring a public library an emergency homeless shelter with no notice runs the risk of putting staff members' lives at risk, not to mention other homeless. Who can be so sure that a homeless patron finds him/herself in the grips of a mania that leads to someone's death?

It would be, in my view, highly irresponsible to dangerous to place any person's life at risk, and this is not even taking into account health issues. What if a homeless man had a contagious disease? What if another has a physical disability?

If the answer is having security and/or EMT staff at the ready we still have issues.Said security would have to be paid, would have to be well-trained in physical and mental health emergency management and would need time to prepare and organize. Some libraries simply cannot afford security, sad but true. In these cases the staff might have to rely on the police to come, which could also result in escalation whether or not they actually arrive. Same for EMT.

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We also face a curious issue: that of actual rest. If The Public is to be believed, the homeless men there didn't actually take shelter from the storm. They instead were there to have a slumber party. In the film, the homeless are not seen sleeping but instead playing games, eating pizza and going online. I imagine most homeless would not be essentially partying at 1:30 in the morning if this scenario were actually taking place.

I think The Public erred greatly in making the library into this place of endless frolic. I think it also is disingenuous to never show where they would sleep if they actually did. Floors can be rough and there would not be enough couches, chairs and tables to accommodate everyone. I've seen people argue over specific chairs. Can one imagine what would happen if a group of people decided they would have 'their usual' chair overnight?

There are a wide variety of issues as to why a public library would be a poor homeless shelter without proper preparation. It is one thing if the local government decided to allow people to stay overnight on an emergency basis, but there is a wide difference between a teen lock-in and a shelter. In the former there is planning, there is staff (perhaps with security) and there is a group that is within reason that has also prepared to spend the night at a library. In the latter there is none of the above.

The Public suggests that the whole group are similarly within reason or at the most have mildly amusing delusions and who are there purely due to financial downturns. In reality, this group would have had people who were alcoholic or drug addicted, some not of sound mind and some that could be a danger to themselves or others. Some could be a mixture.

I would not feel comfortable putting anyone's life on the line under those circumstances.

In retrospect the idea of having a library as an emergency homeless shelter is not a terrible one. It would again depend on what the local government decided. However, there would need to be planning and coordination. One can empathize with their plight but The Public did offer its own suggestion: the Church. Near the end a preacher who was also running for Mayor came to the Central Library to offer supplies. He was more than able to have done so prior to this crisis.

I find myself intrigued by The Public, and as a side note I offer that no one I know refers to the library as 'the public'. Most if not all of my colleagues refer to it as 'the system' (which would not have been a bad title either). It raises important issues, and I have so long hoped and advocated that more libraries have homeless and/or veteran services available at their locations. It would be very good to see libraries be places where these populations can find help.

That again would require public and/or private contributions. If we are to minimize homelessness the answer is not to let them have a pizza party in the library after hours. However, at least in one sense The Public does mirror my job: it allows for a wide space where all sides of an issue can be studied. Granted the film was more advocacy than even-sided, but I for one welcome the conversation.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Gotham: The Conclusions

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GOTHAM: THE CONCLUSIONS

Gotham was a good series with a bad start. Sometimes it was an endurance to sit through, sometimes it was thrilling

The premise, as I understand it, was around not Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) but rookie Detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie). That isn't a bad idea in and of itself, but the problem is that we start with the Wayne murders and poor Bruce surviving it. It is hard to divorce yourself into being a Batman-less prequel when you start your first episode with the future Batman.

I wonder now if perhaps the Bruce-Gordon meeting, a central part of the Batman mythos, could instead have been a season finale. If you think on it, this would have allowed for Gordon to run up against issues he would inevitably face: corruption, a shady partner in Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), and even a future villain or two. We know that Gordon and Bruce are fated to meet, but in retrospect I think Gotham made a terrible mistake in tying itself to the beginning of the Batman story rather than marking that for a latter event.

I think Gotham Season One had a bit of an identity crisis. While I did enjoy the episodes and marveled at how Gordon's girlfriend Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) went from an insufferably boring figure to this delightfully wicked woman, at times it felt it should have been titled Law & Order: Gotham. It was on occasion more about the case-of-the-week than the evolution of the rookie to eventual Commissioner Gordon.

Starting this way also made things a bit cumbersome for the future Rogues Gallery. Apart from Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) who had to be around Bruce's age the rest of the cast was essentially old enough to be Bruce's father. I had a coworker dead-set against Gotham who persistently ridiculed the show by saying that Batman would be fighting a group of senior citizens. While it never got to that level, the age discrepancy was an issue.

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A good or bad example is Harvey Dent (Nicholas D'Agosto). He is a contemporary again not of Bruce Wayne but of Jim Gordon. I think his character was poorly, poorly used where we got good shades of what he could be or become but then doing nothing with them. This I think was when Gotham was unsure of what it wanted to be or where it wanted to go.

I think D'Agosto was pretty good in the role of the optimistic and idealistic assistant District Attorney. I just think Gotham never did anything with the character. Moreover, D'Agosto was born in 1980 and Mazouz in 2001. This makes the former old enough to be the latter's father, a very strange situation when you think that if Batman is say 30 the eventual Two-Face would be 51!

Moreover, he appeared in a total of six episodes spread out over two seasons and disappeared after Season Two. The whole thing was bungled.

The age gap among other characters made things more cumbersome. The gap between the future Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) and the future Batman is minimum twenty-two years; Taylor is the same age as McKenzie, making both old enough to be Mazouz's father! That works for Gordon who is meant to be something of a father-figure along with Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee).


However, would it work for Pengy?

The future Riddler (Cory Michael Smith) has a mere fifteen year gap with Mazouz, still a bit of a stretch. Guest star Cameron Monaghan, who maybe played The Joker, at least was only eight years older, making their battles more sensible.

More on that later.
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It's not a slam on Taylor or Smith, whom I think created absolutely brilliant portrayals of their characters. I think Taylor's version of Penguin is perhaps the best of all the versions and Smith the second-best after Frank Gorshin's version on the Batman television show. Here is where I will praise Gotham: I thought it one of the best acted shows I saw.

Taylor's Penguin is thoroughly fascinating: a villain with a heart of brass but whom one has a modicum of respect. Perpetually written off, Penguin keeps coming back to thwart his enemies. In turns cold, murderous but eternally attached to his mother, Taylor's overall performance was one of of rage mixed with pathos.

As a side note, I am not sold on the idea that Pengy had to be gay. First, his attachment to his mother Gertrude Kapelput (Carole Kane) played into stereotypes of gay men as essentially 'mama's boys'. To be fair, Kane was also brilliant as this very loving but possessive immigrant mother. Second, it seemed like a way to create antagonism between Penguin and Riddler when the latter rebuffs his advances. Again, is that not a bit cliched: the gay man rejected by a straight character. Third, despite introducing this element Gotham never did anything more than just use it as a way to create enmity between Oswald Cobblepot and Edward Nygma. Penguin was never given a boyfriend or lover or husband. For all intents and purposes, Penguin was asexual throughout Gotham. Finally, I cannot help but think that Taylor's own homosexuality was at least a motivation to create a more 'inclusionary' character.

There's nothing wrong with having an openly gay character, less so in having a now openly gay actor play said character. There is something wrong when said openly gay character never has essentially a follow-up. Yet I digress.

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Smith's performance too was excellent: a good man driven by his divided soul to slip into evil. His struggles to where he gave up and surrendered to the darkness was so well played.

Credit should also go to Mazouz, who grew metaphorically and literally in the role. Starting out as quite weak to where he was almost uninteresting, Mazouz's Bruce was eventually released to becomes more active and proactive, darker, searching for the person he was destined to become. Again, this is where I think Gotham might have benefited more in introducing Bruce Wayne later, as at least in Season One he was relegated to the sidelines, as if the show really did not know what to do with him.

Going on in the performances it is important to remember the ladies. Bicondova's Selina, our beloved future Catwoman, was really in the top levels of actresses playing the role. It's a pity they never got Michelle Pfeiffer to portray Selina's mother as they share a resemblance. What I enjoyed about Selina was that she was less villain and more antiheroine, someone who was a criminal but not evil. She cared about Bruce, she cared about Ivy Pepper her eventual frenemy and she knew what lines she could not cross. It was a remarkably deep performance.

I figure I got sidetracked by the performances to focus on the show, what I think worked and what didn't. Putting a lot on trying to solve the Wayne murders in the beginning was I think a mistake in retrospect. It didn't give Gordon the buildup he needed. The age issue is also a problem, but how to solve it? Make the villains younger or Bruce Wayne older? Doing either would rob us of some excellent performances.

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I think by the end Gotham had pretty much done a lot of course correction, keeping a balance between the Batman mythos and spinning its own stories. I though there was one thing that was off: The Joker.  Ever since the character of Jerome Valeska and later his twin Jeremiah were introduced in Season One and later sprinkled throughout the rest of the show's run, Gotham seemed to take perverse pleasure in doing a fan-dance about whether or not Jerome and later Jeremiah was this mythical iconic figure.

Again, not a slam on Monaghan, who was also excellent in the various roles save for being very much in the shadow of Heath Ledger's The Dark Knight version to where it was a mix of homage and rip-off. The show stubbornly refused to say 'Joker' or even use the name despite using all the Joker trappings. I am not one to be so enamored of the character to be outraged, but it does become rather irritating to keep getting winks and nods but never anything definitive. Whatever their reasons, one cannot help feeling just a touch cheated.

As I close out my look at Gotham, I think the first season was a jumble. Granted, I think well of that jumble and thought the episodes were good on the whole but the identity crisis set it off to a bad beginning. The show did improve and it did so by embracing Bruce Wayne versus pushing him to the side or completely off. Once we integrated the future Batman into the proceedings while still keeping such things as Bonkers Babs, Gotham sometimes hit it out of the park.

It's unfortunate that a lot of damage was done before things started getting better. On the whole though I liked Gotham and think well of it.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Gladiator (2000): A Review

GLADIATOR (2000)

Gladiator was a return to the sword-and-sandal films in vogue in the 1950's. It is a good homage in that respect, and while it is still entertaining in other respects it is vastly overrated.

In 180 A.D. Roman general Maximus (Russell Crowe) is about to finally vanquish the Germanic tribes and bring them into the Roman Empire of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). Maximus' greatest wish to see the end of war and return to his home in present-day Spain, where his wife and son await him.

Marcus Aurelius has other plans, however. He tells a shocked Maximus that the Emperor wants the general to succeed him on the throne and return Rome to a republic. As Maximus wavers, Marcus Aurelius' son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) learns of this from Dad and makes his move: he kills his father and orders the execution of Maximus and his family.

Maximus, however, escapes assassination but after finding his family slaughtered ends up a slave to Proximo (Oliver Reed). Proximo, a former gladiator himself, makes Maximus, now known as 'The Spaniard' into one of his gladiators. An unexpected benefit of Commodus' ascension is the lifting of a gladiatorial ban in Rome, allowing Proximo and his men to leave their backwater and return from exile. Maximus is told, 'win the crowd and you win your freedom', a maxim Maximus takes up for a chance at vengeance.

Maximus and Prospero have achieved the gladiatorial equivalent of a Minor League Baseball player being called up to The Show.

Commodus works against the Senate to gain total power, with his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) trying to play both sides to protect her son. Both are shocked to find Maximus alive, but his popularity with the Roman mob prevents Commodus from killing him outright. It becomes a battle for survival to see which of the two will ultimately triumph.

Image result for gladiator movieGladiator, I think, had as a major selling point its tagline, which a variation of is used in the film if memory serves correct. "A general who became a slave. A slave who became a gladiator. A gladiator who defied an Empire". Watching it after a distance of almost twenty years I can appreciate how heavily director Ridley Scott drew on past films like Spartacus, Triumph of the Will and The Searchers in his tale of vengeance and political machinations.

One can appreciate the technical skill in Gladiator, starting from the opening battle in Germania where one is thrust into war. John Mathiesen's cinematography here and throughout is strong as is the set design, which mirrors the darkness of Commodus' palace to his heart.

Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard (the latter from the seminal New Age group Dead Can Dance) create a mix of ethereal, otherworldly music with the appropriate Sturm und Drang pounding one can expect from a film set in the Roman Empire's descent.

There are, however, some elements in Gladiator now that looked dated or weak. In one of the film's weaknesses I think is in many of the performances. I found many but not all of the performances to be too theatrical for my tastes. Harris in particular seemed to be rather overblown and grand as Marcus Aurelius, milking things for something closer to camp than philosopher-king.

Nielsen seemed to be have a bit of a grand, theatrical manner at times, though other times she seemed more natural. Reed unfortunately died during filming, forcing the company to digitally insert him in some scenes. His performance wasn't as grand as some of the others, though looking at it now only once would I say you could tell where his face was added to a body-double.

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As a side note, in the ensuing decades technology has advanced to where older films using then-current technology can now look weak. While the work on Reed went well the tigers in a gladiatorial match now look quite fake. Other visual effects such as the recreation of the Roman Colosseum are still quite impressive.

Phoenix was excellent as Commodus, this mixture of weak man-child and ruthless tyrant. Even the faux-British accent he had didn't seem too outlandish. He embraced Commodus' blend of nuttiness and dangerous and went all-in. Djimon Hounsou as Juba, a fellow gladiator, was probably the best performance in his all-too-brief scenes.

Having revisited Gladiator, I am puzzled as to why Crowe's performance was singled out. His Maximus was essentially one-note: all growl and glum. To be fair David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson's screenplay allowed for very little levity, but Crowe never looked happy. Only once was there any hint of humor, when a fellow gladiator pretends to be poisoned from eating Maximus' soup only to break out laughing. I think that was the only time Crowe smiled.

It wasn't as if they didn't try: he has a nice interplay with Lucius (Spencer Treat Clark), Lucilla's son whom he playfully teases about being able to crush not a man's skull but perhaps a boy's. Apart from that Maximus was so dour even before his family was killed, as if laughing was more painful than getting beheaded.

One thing that did bother me was the violence. It was bloodier than I remember it. Granted, that is to be expected in a film about gladiators but somehow things seemed to be almost too gory. The film also is I think far too long for its story at two and a half hours. Perhaps all the political machinations and overt suggestions of incest could have been cut.

I finally am puzzled by how dumb some of the characters are. Why would Lucius shout out when playing that he was "Maximus, the Savior of Rome?" to his uncle? That just seemed a bit too much for me to accept.

One of the famous lines in Gladiator is Russell Crowe almost taunting the crowd with "ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!" Yes, I was entertained, but not overwhelmed.

DECISION: B-

2001 Best Picture Winner: A Beautiful Mind

Friday, June 14, 2019

The Public: A Review (Review #1220)


THE PUBLIC

The Public is like some of the characters in the film: well-meaning with a vague idea of what to do but saddled with issues that get in the way.

Cincinnati Public Library manager Stuart Goodson (writer/director Emilio Estevez) knows the homeless population that takes up daily residence at the Central branch. Most are pleasant if a bit eccentric, though some have their quirks like singing I Can See Clearly Now while completely naked. His second in command, Myra (Jenna Malone) wants off their floor so she can be around better books and presumably better people despite being the ultimate in woke Millennial.

Stuart, a man who keeps to himself, is hesitant about starting a romance with his apartment repairwoman Angela (Taylor Schilling), but he has more important worries. A mentally ill homeless man has managed to sue the Library along with Goodson and Security head Ernesto Ramirez (Jacob Vargas) for violating his rights after once forcing him to leave due to his odor. This does not sit well with District Attorney Josh Davis (Christian Slater), who is a tight race for Mayor.

There's been a fierce cold snap in Cinci, and some of the homeless are freezing to death. With the shelters full and facing yet another powerful cold night, one of the homeless, Jackson (Michael K. Williams) decides to 'Occupy' the library along with a large group of homeless men (oddly, there are no women in the group). They unitarily declare the Library an emergency homeless shelter and will stay the night.

Goodson, perhaps reluctantly, sides with them. Myra is not pleased with this, and Library Director Anderson (Geoffrey Wright) is most certainly displeased. Davis is downright livid, so they call in negotiator Bill Ramstead (Alec Baldwin) to get the homeless out. Soon the news spreads, bringing ambitious reporter Rebecca Parks (Gabrielle Union), who spins this into a hostage situation. Goodson's past and secret pre-Library life emerge, and the various factions attempt to use this situation to their own ends good and bad.

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Another time, I will offer my own views on The Public not as a reviewer but as an actual Reference Librarian. For now, I will look at The Public as a film, and as such, I can see that Estevez's heart is in the right place. The Public touches on subjects that should get greater attention: the homeless, public libraries, the interconnection between them. Libraries, as a space open to everyone, inevitably draw in a population that has no employment and no domicile, providing a place for shelter and recreation.

That being said, I think The Public stumbles in Estevez's rather heavy-handed and simplistic manner. Subtlety is not his forte, and just about everything in The Public has an almost self-righteous tone. "Stuart Goodson": because he's a 'steward' and a 'good son' (I figure 'Goodman' was too much even for him). "Ramstead": because he will 'ram' into a tense situation. Giving Stuart a past that makes him sympathetic to Jackson and Company.

As if that was not bad enough, Estevez overloads The Public with a lot of almost laughable turns. We get a subplot of Detective Ramstead's son Mike (Nik Pajic), who has fallen into drugs and life on the streets. You know where this will end up and one is astonished that Estevez would think this is somehow original or even necessary. The Angela/Stuart romance seems too a bit of a distraction.

This sense of moral preening seeps into the performances, for the roles are more types than people. Union, an exceptionally talented actress, fares worst. Her reporter is so obviously uninterested in anything apart from the career boost this will give her that it comes through in her performance. Slater too is one-note: so overtly evil that it might have done him good to slap on a mustache to which to twirl.

Image result for the public movieThe 'good guys' such as Williams' Jackson, forever pleasant to "Mr. Goodson", are equally painted with a broad brush. Despite vague objections as to why occupying the library overnight is not a good idea, the film pretty much papers over them.

As a side note, the portrayal of the homeless in The Public seems almost cutesy. If we believe the film, at 1:30 in the morning the occupiers are not sleeping. Instead, they are eating pizza, playing games and going online. It makes it look like a big old slumber party. Somehow, there's an unreality to it all which makes it more absurd.

Again, The Public has a message and touches on issues that 'the public' should think more on. In that sense, it does well. However, with too many clich├ęs and refusal to consider any side other than its own, The Public stumbles a bit to where it's worth checking out but not keeping.

DECISION: C-

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Cry Danger: A Review


CRY DANGER

Cry Danger is a very simple story both in terms of budget and narrative. However, these two are pluses in that it keeps things simple. Cry Danger has all the elements of great noir: revenge, snappy, cynical dialogue and a group of low-class characters scraping out life in the shadows.

Rocky Malloy (Dick Powell) just got out of prison after serving five years of a life sentence for armed robbery and murder after a surprise witness collaborated his alibi. That witness, a wounded Marine named Delong (Richard Erdman) admits what Rocky knows: he wasn't one of the Marines with him that night. So why did he corroborate Rocky's story? Delong thinks Rocky knows where the holdup money is.

Rocky insists he doesn't because he didn't pull the job, neither did his best friend Danny, who got a lesser sentence. With Delong's help, he now sets out to track down those responsible for locking them both up.

He meets up with Nancy (Rhonda Fleming), his old flame who later married Danny. Rocky won't mess around with Nancy despite their past, keeping to his own code of honor. Delong quickly falls for Darlene LaVonne (Jean Porter), part-time model, full-time pickpocket and fellow resident of the trailer park Nancy lives in while waiting for Danny to get out on parole.

Rocky's private investigation takes him back to Castro (William Conrad), a bookie whom Rocky thinks was the real criminal. Castro for his part tries to pull a fast one on Rocky, but no dice, with Rocky getting unlikely help from Lt. Cobb (Regis Toomey), who thinks Rocky's up to no good and keeps his eye on him. The twists and turns as Rocky gets to the truth involve attempted hits, innocents dying and dames turning out to be duplicitous for the dupes who fall or fell for them.

Image result for cry danger 1951Cry Danger has as its central point Dick Powell, whose film noir characteristic whichever side of the law he is in is of simple unflappability. Powell's screen image is one of two: the baby-faced crooner or the beaten-down cynic. It's a credit to him as an actor that he could do both with equal ease.

In Cry Danger, he does very little but he communicates so much in his staccato delivery and almost expressionless face. Only once does he seem genuinely albeit slightly surprised when he finds that his winnings from Castro on a 'hot racing tip' end up being 'hot money', part of a larger frame-up. Powell's Rocky can maintain that cool, calm and collected manner because his Rocky expects the world to be dark, ugly, cynical and heartless, so he behaves as such.

Powell as Rocky sees the world through a glass darkly, a world where the pretties of dames ain't nothing but a broad who will bring you down. His speaking manner is distinct: short, direct, low-key. It is so effective that one cannot help attempting to imitate it, though the imitation is more of his delivery than his voice, which he keeps in a slight monotone save for any sharp quips which can be slightly more overt.

First-time director Robert Parrish not only has Powell deliver a strong performance, but he also does that with the whole cast. Porter's Darlene is not a cool femme fatale but almost a ditzy blonde who is pulling the wool over men's eyes. She is hardly evil but almost sweet in her own way, more a pretty criminal than a petty one. Fleming too is outstanding as Nancy, the woman who loves Rocky and seems to want the best for him. She is the complete opposite of the femme fatale, apparently the only genuine light in this cruel, cruel world.

Image result for cry danger 1951Erdman is if not the actual comic relief more the alcoholic who stumbles into situations. He has some of the wittiest lines in Cry Danger, which is some ways quite funny. When Rocky asks him why he lied about being the alibi, Delong almost sighs and says, "Occasionally, I always drink too much". After Darlene chides him for starting to drink in the morning, he retorts something along the lines of, "Listen, if you're an alcoholic you have to start early".

Other performances, even small ones, are excellent. While Conrad being cast as a Hispanic seems a wild stretch, he seems fit for the sleazy Castro, a man whose very name can strike fear in anyone save Rocky. When finally cornered and threatened with a little Russian roulette, Conrad demonstrates the fear of someone who has never been vulnerable.

While her role is relegated to one scene, Joan Banks as Alice, the widow of a potential clue rolls with a mix of cynicism and fear. "I'd like to see your husband," Rocky says. "That's not very flattering," she retorts. In their flirtation dance she and Powell do excellent work.

Cry Danger is filled with crackling film noir dialogue from every character, even the lawman. "You're alive on a rain check," Cobb tells Nancy after a case of mistaken identity. While the economy in Cry Danger is obvious in its small number of locations, the film has other pluses: fast pacing, excellent performances and some shots that are standouts. The POV in the Russian roulette sequence is highly effective and inventive.

Cry Danger is a sharp example of film noir: a story of desperate men and women with a central character that while cynical has his own code that he adheres to. He won't be a patsy or sucker for anyone either with a gun or with shapely legs.  Alluring and lurid, these suckers and potential suckers have to watch out for the guys who want to do them in or for those skirts up to no good.

DECISION: B+

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

King of Jazz: A Review

Image result for king of jazz criterionKING OF JAZZ

I think Paul Whiteman's reign as the actual 'King of Jazz' has been over for a long, long time, supplanted by Louis Armstrong. However, in his day Whiteman was held in high regard for his music. King of Jazz, the musical revue fronted by Whiteman and his orchestra, may be a bit dated in some respects. However, those flaws are more than made up by some extraordinary visual numbers that even now still astound.

Less a straightforward film or even musical and more a revue, King of Jazz has Charles Irwin as the Master of Ceremonies for this show. He introduces bandleader Paul Whiteman along with various musical numbers and comedy sketches in the guise of going through "Paul Whiteman's Scrapbook".

King of Jazz features an opening animation sequence where we find out how, in Darkest Africa, Whiteman was crowned 'King of Jazz'; after that we have a total of fourteen musical numbers with six very brief comedy bits, some not lasting more than a minute.

Among the highlights are early appearances by Walter Brennan in some of the comedy numbers and The Rhythm Boys featuring a very young Bing Crosby.

Image result for king of jazz (1930)The curious thing in King of Jazz, structurally, is that the musical numbers do not have a particular order save for the massive and lavish The Melting Pot of Music number, which given its almost massive scale and frenetic quality would have been impossible to top. It's a credit to director John Murray Anderson that the Rhapsody in Blue number, which in other films might have concluded a film, is merely the midpoint.

The visual innovations and quality in King of Jazz is simply astonishing, which its restoration only enhances. There are no 'standard' numbers where people just sing in front of a locked-in camera. Granted, we don't see many if any camera movements, though the fluidity comes from the angles chosen.

Instead, it is the sets that metaphorically dance around us, with some simply extraordinary sequences. One of those is right at the start in the Meet the Boys number. To bring them onto the set, it appears that Whiteman literally has them come out of a box as he towers over them. Obviously shot with trick photography, the inventiveness and believable of the Meet the Boys number is breathtaking. We see people pushing cinema to new levels, with all the special effects done in camera.

Another innovative number is the Bridal Veil, where we see the 'ghosts' of brides past interact with the contemporary bride contemplating all the women who have worn the veil she is about to don.

King of Jazz is more impressive when you consider that sound film was only three years old and that it was shot in early Technicolor. Granted at times the color seemed to give every man wildly rosy cheeks, but some of the sequences are absolutely amazing. The Rhapsody in Blue number for example has the orchestra rise from a massive blue (or at least teal) piano, and the concluding Melting Pot of Music number (where various nationalities take their traditional music to shape it into the all-American jazz under the master chef Whiteman) fills the screen.

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You can see King of Jazz essentially if not create the movie musical at least be a precursor to them. The A Bench in the Park number for example not only looks like a version of the Beautiful Girl sequence in Singin' in the Rain but also reminds one of the A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody number from The Great Ziegfeld in its massive quality. This number even seems to draw from a Busby Berkeley sequence despite predating the Berkeley musicals.

There is a great sense of joy in King of Jazz, and out of the musical numbers I would rank Meet the Boys, Bridal Veil, A Bench in the Park, Rhapsody in Blue, Happy Feet and The Melting Pot of Music as not just among the best in the film but in all film. Happy Feet in particular struck me as being this rich, big and joyful number, with a bevy of beauties, rubber-legged dancer Al Norman and even 'Paul Whiteman' himself cutting a little rug.

We find that it isn't really Paul Whiteman but a very convincing lookalike, but that's just part of the fun. Whiteman may be a faded figure, but here he comes across as almost cuddly.

I don't think there is a bad musical sequence in King of Jazz, though some are I would say better than others. Maybe Monterrey would be the weakest but that is due more to the Rudy Vallee-type singer. Even this number, however, is innovative in its camera work.

Image result for king of jazz (1930)In the comedy bits, they seem superfluous but some are quite funny. The longest one I think is All Noisy on the Eastern Front, an obvious spoof of All Quiet on the Western Front. In this bit, a randy French girl keeps getting more and more American doughboy suitors who bring her more and more elaborate gifts. To keep one from finding the others, she keeps hiding them all about the house until the house is bombed.

It's only then that we find out exactly how many men she's entertaining.

Another skit, In Conference, has a woman walking in to find a man passionately embracing another woman. In a huff, she says they are through. The man turns to the other woman and says, "Well wifey, there goes the best stenographer I ever had!"

We can see where some King of Jazz footage is lost in how photographs were used with the soundtrack. This is not a distraction though it does weaken another funny comedy bit, Keyhole. In this, a man comes home unexpectedly, forcing his wife to hide her lover. Their child nearly spills the beans when he tells Daddy that 'a boogeyman' is in the closet. Finding the man there, the father berates him.

"What kind of man are you, scaring little children like that?".

Sequences like Keyhole, In Conference and All Noisy on the Eastern Front were probably very risque at the time, which is why King of Jazz may be an unrecognized Pre-Code feature.

Despite the loss of some footage on the whole King of Jazz is an extraordinary film, one that should be listed alongside Citizen Kane in terms of cinematic innovation. Again, it is not an actual film or even a musical. It's a revue with songs and skits. However, while a few comedy bits fall flat or are dated, and The Melting Pot of Music number fails to recognize the African-American roots of jazz, King of Jazz is a breathtakingly arresting film that is massive and lavish.

DECISION: A+