Film Gems, Part Deux

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in a romant...

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

(The title of this blog is a very bad pun from a very bad movie, please ignore.)

In my previous blog about wonderful small films, I left out some of my favorites.  So here’s a few new ones for your delectation and delight.  I recommend them on rainy or snowy Sunday nights when they haven’t started the new Downtown Abbey season (let alone the new Sherlock season) and your significant other (should you be so fortunate as to have one) is snoring or screaming that his team (her team) should have so won that game and the score (45-3) does not at all reflect the team’s talents.  Put some popcorn in the microwave, pour yourself a favorite libation, and settle down on the sofa (or better still, in bed) and watch one or more of these (NOTE:  this essay is filled with spoilers, so if you haven’t seen any one of these (and why haven’t you by this time?), you may want to watch first and read later):

Dirty Dancing

Dirty Dancing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First, and because I just watched it again, is Dirty Dancing.  I can’t imagine how I came to forget this one in my previous blog about my favorite small films, because this one is just perfect.  Set in the sixties at a time when the old-fashioned summer resorts in the Adirondacks were beginning to disappear (the last of them left is the Mohonk Mountain House and if you haven’t gone there, turn out the sofa cushions for all your spare change and GO, it’s fabulous, even if real expensive), this is a film about coming of age and about figuring out what’s really important in making your life your own life.  It stars Patrick Swayze, perfectly cast as the pro dancer hired for the summer, Jennifer Grey (who really should not have had that nose job she later had and which she admits wasn’t her smartest career move), and Jerry Orbach, an actor/singer/dancer who never did a bad show.  The story is simple, a young girl goes on vacation (under protest) with her parents to a summer resort in the Catskills (North Carolina subbed in the actual filming, which you don’t really need to know) and discovers that the staff is having a great deal more fun than the guests, dirty dancing to the fantastic rock music of the era.  She discovers that Johnny Castle’s (the Patrick Swayze character) dancing partner has gotten “in trouble”.  Yes, that kind of in trouble.  So Baby (the character’s  nickname) borrows money from her dad so that the girl can get an abortion.  Unfortunately, the only time the abortion can happen is during a dance contest at a competing hotel that Castle has to take part in.  So Baby has to learn the mambo really fast.  They do the contest, but she can’t do the lift.  Just too scared.  Complications arise because the abortion was botched, Baby’s father (who is a doctor) helps the girl recover, but believes that Castle is the cause of the abortion being necessary (which he is not, it’s a nasty little weasel who’s working at the resort), and then Castle gets fired for robbery, at which point Baby has to admit right out loud that Castle could not have done that because they were together all night and nobody thinks they were dancing.  The final scene is what we’re all waiting for, the one where Castle says “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” and they dance to “I Had the Time of My Life” and she does the lift and everything works out perfectly, including the weasel getting what’s coming to him.  All that would be fine, it’s a great story, but what really fills your heart is the wonderful dance numbers, the montage sequence of Baby learning how to dance which is funny and charming, and the love story between the rootless man and the too rooted young woman.  If you don’t cry at the end of this one, you may want to check your pulse.

The other Patrick Swayze movie to watch is, of course, Ghost.  With Demi Moore being a dewily lovely and sad young widow and Whoopi Goldberg being a hysterically funny fake psychic who suddenly starts (to her considerable chagrin) channeling a real ghost– the ghost of Patrick Swayze, it’s about how hard it is to actually say I love you and how important it is.  Among other delights, this small movie has probably the only genuinely sexy scene in the movies in which the conceit is that she’s throwing a pot on a potter’s wheel at the time, all to the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody”.  Patrick Swayze died far too soon (as if there’s a good time for a person, whether or not he or she is a brilliant performer, to die), but these two movies show him at the top of his form as a tough man who could be and was incredibly tender.  And man, could he dance.

Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, in one of the m...

Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, in one of the most famous scenes from the movie “‘Ghost’ getting musical treatment”. Variety . . Retrieved 2010-11-08 . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While we’re on the subject of romantic movies, I didn’t include Casablanca in my earlier blog because it isn’t considered to be a “small” film, but instead plops itself in the top ten of any best movie list anybody cares to put together.  But Casablanca is simply my favorite film.  For others who love it, I would recommend getting the Aljean Harmetz book “The Usual Suspects” which details the making of the film while using those details to talk about wider implications of politics, filmmaking, refugees and the themes and memes of World War II.  Casablanca is a film based on an unproduced play called “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” in which the themes of refugees, of a man who  “sticks his neck out for nobody” and a woman who broke his heart long ago were central.  In the film, they form the rock upon which is built an edifice of the self-sacrifice necessary to win the war (Casablanca was released in 1942, just in time for the Allied invasion of North Africa, a nice little marketing tie-in, I have to admit).  The triangle of Bogart-Bergman-Henreid is echoed by the huge triangle of war-love-sacrifice that a lot of people were wrestling with whether they, like the Americans at home to watch the film, were in the background and simply worrying about loved ones, or if they were on the front lines.  The film is filled with great lines that are still funny, poignant and fresh today:  “I’m shocked, shocked, I tell you, to discover that gambling is going on here.  Your winnings, sir.”  “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”  “Here’s looking at you kid.”  “I’m a drunkard.  And that makes Rick a citizen of the world.”  “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”  “Round up the usual suspects.”  And so many, many more.  I watch this once a year (more often would be too self-indulgent, and this is, after all, a movie about not giving in to self-indulgence) and I cry every time.  People need, I think, something larger than themselves to believe in and to work for, and this movie is, if it is anything, about those things that are worth fighting for and worth giving up something just as precious for.  Watch it and love it.

Cover of "3:10 to Yuma (Widescreen Editio...

Cover of 3:10 to Yuma (Widescreen Edition)

There always has to be a Russell Crowe film in any of my listings of favorite films.  This time I’m going out on a limb, just a bit, and suggesting 3:10 to Yuma in which he portrays with his usual genius a Very Bad Man (this is also this blog entry’s nod to the Western).  It’s a remake of a Glenn Ford film and the plot is that the Pinkertons finally capture Ben Wade, who is the Very Bad Man, and they have to get him to the train (the 3:10 to Yuma) to get him to prison and out of the way of his gang, who are bent on freeing him.  Into all this comes a young rancher, Dan Evans, veteran of the Civil War, who lost a leg in that war.  He is being forced out by the big bugs around his neighborhood and his elder son despises him for cowardice.  As played by Christian Bale, he is a man of conviction, morality, and desperation.  He HAS to come up with the money it will take to pay for water until the rains come.  The rest of the movie is the journey to Yuma.  Ben Wade is indeed a Very Bad Man, and yet he comes across as the least vengeful, spiteful and nasty person in the film, except for Dan Evans, whose nobility gets frayed as time goes forward.  By the end, the two actors provide a master acting class during several scenes in which they’re just talking about their lives and their beliefs (in Ben’s case, his more or less lack of any kind of belief).  The last scene has Evans’ son realizing what his father meant all along and he decides NOT to kill Ben Wade.  You can watch what this does to Ben Wade simply by looking at Russell Crowe’s remarkable eyes.  The movie is about morality, yes, but it makes its point obliquely.  The unswervingly moral man dies, but because of Dan Evans’ principles and his willingness to die for them, the Very Bad Man goes through a kind of redemption that is personal, that may not last, but that is completely real.  The only problem I had with the film is that at the end, Wade, in his jail cell on the 3:10 to Yuma, whistles for his horse and you know he’s going to get away.  This was, to me, superfluous — the point was already made earlier when Wade told Evans that he’d been jailed in Yuma before and gotten out with no trouble.  That quibble having been quibbled, it’s a wonderful Western with terrific acting (including the secondary characters, a panoply of great character actors which features Peter Fonda in a deliciously evil turn as the chief  Pinkerton man).

Cover of "1776  (Restored Director's Cut)...

Cover of 1776 (Restored Director’s Cut)

Speaking of Very Bad Men, let’s turn to a film about Very Good Men.  The story of the men (and a few of the women) who fought for or against the Declaration of Independence was made into a nifty Broadway musical before Warner Brothers made it into a movie called 1776.  The musical numbers fit the show so closely that there isn’t one that could be called a break-out, they’re just too specific to the plot.  But the lines, the wit, the sense you get of men who are fighting for philosophical principles at the same time they’re fighting for politics, economics and personal liberty, and the acting and singing, all are simply topnotch.  I cannot imagine this film being remade now because the actors that were hired for it fit their roles like their own skin.  In fact, most of the people who were in the Broadway show were hired to play the same roles in the movie and that does not happen very often.  William Daniels is of course superb as John Adams (“you’re obnoxious and disliked, you know that sir”), Ken Howard is dignified and tall as Thomas Jefferson, red-haired, calm and more interested in his new wife (Blythe Danner in a small role but oh so winsome) than in all of Congress’ shenanigans, Howard De Silva proves once again that sometimes one simply IS the role one plays with Franklin’s mellow wit and enjoyment of life’s pleasures (“not everybody’s from Boston, John”).  So many more.  And the moments:  the dispatches from George Washington with, always, a drum roll before the Congressional clerk reads his signatures, the song “Mama, Look Sharp” sung by a very young boy acting as a courier about his horrific experiences at Concord, and the brilliant and searing  “Molasses to Rum to Slaves” number by John Cullum which is a history lesson in brief about the slave trade:  “hail, Charleston, hail Boston, who stinketh the most?”.  There’s love, there’s mutual respect and affection (the scenes between John Adams and his wife Abigail (played by Virginia Vestoff who, sadly, died shortly after the film was finished) are taken almost without modification from the couple’s letters to each other over their long and loving marriage), there’s the tribute to the combatant who has lost his battle to remain with the mother country but whose respect for the men he fought is such that he promises to fight on the rebel side, there’s the huge and fateful compromise that allows the Declaration to be passed unanimously and there’s Franklin’s words, passed down to us from the time, that “if we do not hang together, we will most assuredly hang separately.”  A super film you’ll get lost in, and the factual changes to make it more dramatic are mere nitpicks — the great sense of this grand thing that had never been tried before comes through and one is awestricken that the United States actually got started and even more awestricken that it’s still stumbling along as well as it is.

And, finally, for this iteration of favorite films, another small gem from Britain:  Truly, Madly, Deeply, which is Alan Rickman at his wonderful best.  Another ghost story, this one of a woman, played by Juliet Stevenson, who simply cannot get her life back on track after the death of her lover.  In this film, Rickman portrays the dead lover who haunts her in a funny, charming and poignant manner, all for the express purpose of getting his love to start living again.  It truly is funny and you truly will cry.  And it is all about truly living and making the most of what you have left and using it to find what is coming up next for you.

Reproduction movie poster for Truly, Madly, De...

Reproduction movie poster for Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So here’s a loverly weekend for you, filled with some of the sexiest men and best actors you could possibly want (and quite a few really good actresses if you, dear reader, are more inclined in that direction), with stories about love, sacrifice and redemption, great, lasting and sometimes funny lines and with themes that actually matter.  Leave the strange new comedies that seem to be mostly about boys not growing up for another time.  Go ahead, get lost in love and adventure with a really good movie, of which the above are merely suggestions.

Romantic Movie Stories (June 1936)  Carole Lom...

Romantic Movie Stories (June 1936) Carole Lombard – UNGUARDED HOUR … Superwoman is Dead (June 16, 2011 / 14 Sivan 5771) … (Photo credit: marsmet541)

Little Niggling Things About the Movies

Last night, I saw “The Help” for the first time.  I could wax lyrical about the performances, the story, the many ways they got it right, but this is going to be a blog about the little niggling things that movies get wrong, at least for me.  So here’s one little niggling thing in all that wonderful rightness in “The Help”: Skeeter’s hair.  I don’t mean to brag about my longevity, but I was alive during that era and I remember hair.  Skeeter’s hair was, I think, supposed to be a mass of undisciplined curls, designed to show that she wasn’t caught in the feminine mystique of that era.  And they got her hair right, too, in the scenes where it was straightened and smooth and in the wonderful scene of her first date when she arrives after driving in an open truck in all that Mississippi humidity — her hair suddenly looking as if it was filled with static electricity, frizzing up beautifully.  But the perfect cork screw curls trailing down her face, well, they’re just impossible.  Not just for the styles of the era, but for curly hair in high humidity.  Without tons of what hairdressers call “product,” there are no such things as perfect corkscrew curls, there is only frizz, wild curls that don’t drape lovingly down the side of a pretty face.  The whole point was that she didn’t do all the stuff women did then to make their hair smooth and perfect (well, perfect for the time).  And the other point is that the movie stylists got the costumes, the makeup, the way women looked so right otherwise, but Skeeter’s hairstyle would never have been a style and it was too pretty, symmetrical and cared for to be the non-style the character really required.  It didn’t spoil my enjoyment of a truly good movie, but it’s one of the things I remember about it.

And that got me to thinking about other movies where one niggling little thing (or a few) ends up being more memorable than all the things the cast and crew got right.  I don’t mean to make of this an “ah ha, I’ve got you” kind of thing.  Movie websites are filled with those, after all.  And I don’t mean to denigrate the work and care and artistry that go into making a movie.  I have worked on them myself, mostly in film school, and the quality achieved is often amazing, considering the constraints of time and money everybody works with.  And it is impossible to get everything right, anyway.  Even Steven Spielberg is human (although his level of artistic creation sometimes make me wonder about that).  I also am not talking about deliberate stuff, where one of the artistic points happening may be pastiche, or parody or a stylized version of some kind of reality.  But some of these niggling little things do make me wonder.

For example, in “Titanic,” James Cameron‘s vision is not only remarkable, it’s quite specific.  And in one of his movies, apparently, truly it is his vision we’re experiencing when we watch and listen.  He did his research.  And yet, Rose wears makeup (and it’s made clear it is not simply the actress wearing it, but the character when, during a scene, her tears have made the mascara run), a VERY red and black evening gown, and is apparently living with her fiance.  I’m not suggesting those things didn’t happen, even during that era, but NOT with a supposedly virtuous unmarried girl of good family.  This is pre-WWI, after all, and not only was the whole function of virtuous girls of good family to get married, they achieved that ambition usually using the weapons of ignorance and innocence (imposed by that good family), even if they faked it.  (Old Hollywood joke, attributed to Sam Goldwyn and which I am going to mangle:  “Sincerity is the most important thing and once you learn to fake it, you’ve got it made.”)  Trust me, no Philadelphia debutante would have appeared, PRIOR to her wedding day, wearing visible makeup and a red and black evening gown.  And, even with her mother’s chaperonage, who would NOT have taken passage on even the richest ship in the same cabin/suite as her fiance.  Another bit I didn’t get.  At one point, Rose’s mother talks to her friends at tea and says, “The whole purpose of going to college is to find a fiance.  Rose has already done that.”  Rather than being pre-WWI, that attitude is post-WWII.  Prior to the fifties, most women did not go to college, and if they did, it was in defiance of the current mores and to get an education.  Rose would have gone to a boarding school, perhaps, or a “country day school,” and then possibly a finishing school, but if her mother’s only goal for her daughter was marriage, certainly she would not have taken the chance of having Rose be thought of as a bluestocking by going to college.

Cover of "Titanic (Three-Disc Special Col...

"Titanic" DVD Cover (Amazon)

Whew!  I’m glad I got that out.  I love the movie “Titanic,” but those bits of it always bothered me.  Because Cameron’s (and his crew’s) research was so otherwise impeccable, those must have been artistic choices, and I simply do not know why they were made as they were.

One minor item:  In the movie “Pride and Prejudice” (not the BBC miniseries starring Colin Firth which simply makes me drool and which was very well researched and designed indeed), Elizabeth’s father is played by Donald Sutherland.  He did a fine job of the part.  But for some reason, to me, his teeth looked like chiclets, big white chiclets, far too large for his mouth, and completely unlikely given the period and the dental care available.  I’m not suggesting that everybody in a period movie should go around with brown teeth (in fact, that is truly off-putting, because we watching the film would find that so disgusting), but Mr. Sutherland’s teeth outraged credibility.

So did Clive Owen‘s teeth in the otherwise good film (I loved it) “King Arthur”.  Not as badly, because Mr. Owen was portraying a great knight and future king and a member of the Roman Empire, which while it did not have modern dentistry, did have some dentistry.  But perfect, utterly perfect white teeth seem actually a bit wrong for even films set in the modern era.  I don’t know if the gentleman has caps, which have a tendency to appear to be too big for any mouth they’re in, or if he simply has really terrific teeth, but they bothered me in that film.  Especially since the other actors (while they had cared-for, attractive teeth) seemed to have, well, fewer of them than Mr. Owen.

Schindler's List

Schindler's List (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And, finally, another artistic choice I didn’t understand, and in one of the most superb films I think ever made:  “Schindler’s List.”  Mr. Spielberg had a running motif of a little girl in a red coat walking through the frame in an otherwise purely black and white picture.  For some reason I’d love to hear him explain, he chose to photograph those scenes in color film and de-colorize all but the little girl’s red coat.  But color film de-colorized looks blue, not the rich silvers and grays of the black-and-white stock he used for the rest of the film.  It jarred me.  And technically, it wasn’t necessary, because the little girl’s coat could be, or so I was told at film school, colorized on the black-and-white internegative.  In my view, that would have been the better choice.  But of course I’m not Steven Spielberg by several hundred decimal points, and I’m absolutely sure he had an extremely cogent reason for his choice.  I just wish I knew what it was.

And for today, that’s enough about niggling little things, especially teeth, which seemed to figure as prominently in this essay as they did (to me) in the actors’ mouths.  I think, since TV tonight is abysmal, I’ll pick out the BBC version of “Pride and Prejudice” and spend the evening with Mr. Darcy as exquisitely and perfectly played, without one niggling little thing, by Colin Firth.  Yum!