Wednesday, September 10, 2014
In 1997 there was no YouTube, no Facebook, no Twitter. There were message boards, email, websites, maybe some very early blogs, but the dissemination of information and access to reports, accounts, and testimonials, for all that we thought at the time was lightning fast, was nothing compared to today. This thought occurred to me while revisiting Wag the Dog, Barry Levinson’s seventeen-year old film about an invented war fed to the media to distract the public from a Presidential sex scandal two weeks before he hopes to be reelected. In it, Robert De Niro plays Conrad Brean, a kind of independently contracted fixer brought into the White House by Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) to help clean up the mess and potential fallout once the story breaks. So Conrad enlists the help of Stanly Motss (Dustin Hoffman), a big Hollywood producer, to put the pieces in place to sell not just a war, but a whole package and all the emotions and patriotic fervor that come with it, to the public.
Monday, September 1, 2014
The Academy has a great history of awarding the Best Picture Oscar to a generally lifeless, inoffensive work of mediocrity. I can hardly say that A Beautiful Mind is not a good movie (I regrettably put it on my top ten list for 2001), but it certainly isn’t great. It’s not even particularly memorable except in its simplistic depiction of mental illness.
I can’t say with any certainty to what degree John Nash suffered with schizophrenia or how it manifested itself, but I do know that the way Akiva Goldsman incorporates it into his screenplay, based on the biography by Sylvia Nasar, seems almost preposterous, designed specifically to aid the unsubtle viewer in understanding what Nash was going through. I guess I shouldn’t fault the movie for trying to reach a broader audience, but nor should we assume that it has anything new or interesting to say on the subject.
Good Will Hunting was the first in a series of roles Robin Williams took that became increasingly dark, subversive, and at times questioning the very nature of our existence. It’s easy to see patterns in retrospect and ascribe meaning to them, but I remember it being clear at the time that Williams seemed intent on making a serious mark as a dramatic actor in a range of parts in (often) independent films. The years following Good Will Hunting saw him chase his suicidal wife into limbo as his character negotiated his own afterlife in What Dreams May Come. Later he was the villain in both One Hour Photo and Insomnia. But a lot of that seems to point right back to Gus Van Sant’s 1997 film penned by the wunderkinds Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Of course the Oscar Williams finally won likely helped earn him more interesting offers and afforded him greater freedom to take risks. But without Sean Maguire, the widowed psychiatrist who helps the title character find himself, he might have continued making more of Hook and Mrs. Doubtfire.
Lauren Bacall wasn’t a great actress. This much I’ve learned from watching the four films she made with Humphrey Bogart. But she was a great movie star. She had tremendous screen presence and could practically make the tough Bogart roll over and beg. In Key Largo, their final film together, although I didn’t tally the minutes, I would venture to say they share more screen time than in any other of their previous three outings.
Key Largo was based on a now obscure stage play by Maxwell Anderson about a WWII veteran who runs afoul of a once-notorious mafia kingpin while passing through the Florida Keys and spending time with the family of a slain war buddy. The action is very dialogue heavy, a lot of it indoors in various settings around a hotel mostly closed for the off season. It’s not the most expressive film for a John Huston-directed picture, but he makes the most out of the cramped settings.
Friday, August 29, 2014
Warer Bros. struck gold with Casablanca in 1942 and their blatant attempt to recapitalize on that success came in the form of To Have and Have Not in 1944. It was very loosely based on the Hemingway novel of the same name and bears far more resemblance to the tale of a defiantly neutral anti-hero eking out a loving in Vichy Morocco during WWII than it does to Hemingway’s tale of a tough fisherman in Cuba running contraband to Key West. The Howard Hawks film transplants the story to Vichy Martinique and has Bogart’s Harry Morgan frequent a nightclub with a friendly piano player (played by Hoagy Carmichael) and then brings in a dame, Maria Browning, played by Lauren Bacall in her first screen appearance and first of four alongside her future husband.
Like Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca, Harry tries not to take sides for or against the Vichy government. He’s a man trying to make a living until he is pulled into a deal that has him actively aiding rebels fighting against Vichy. The parallels to Casablanca are so remarkable I can’t believe it’s considered an adaptation of Hemingway’s work rather than Curtiz’s film. There’s a Captain Renard, a police inspector played by Dan Seymour, whom you can almost hear announcing, “Round up the usual suspects.”
One significant, though unnecessary, addition is Harry’s fishing boat partner, a comically bumbling alcoholic played wonderfully by Walter Brennan. Were it not for the history-making pairing of two legendary movie stars who generate some fiery on screen chemistry with the aid of fantastic and sizzling line penned by William Faulkner and Jules Furthman, there wouldn’t be much left here to call classic. To Have and Have Not should have been relegated to Hollywood’s dustbin except that Bacall made such a huge impact on the film’s director and star. Together they impacted the world and became forever solidified in the public consciousness as one of the great Hollywood couples.
Did women’s voices mature earlier in the 40s? Why, when we watch actresses in their early twenties from that period, do they sound like grown women, but today’s young actresses sound like little girls? is there something in our culture today that values infantilizing girls so that they intuitively maintain their immature squeaky whiny tones? Perhaps the question answers itself. Or maybe it’s nothing so deep and dramatic. Maybe actresses then received formal theatrical training like singers to develop their voices. Whatever it is, Lauren Bacall had one of the great all-time sexy mature female voices, even at twenty-two, when she starred in only her fourth feature, and third with Humphrey Bogart, Dark Passage.
There’s a legend about the making of The Big Sleep that the filmmakers contacted author Raymond Chandler to ask who had killed the chauffeur in his Philip Marlowe detective tale. He replied that he had no idea. The story, true or not, illustrates the mind-bendingly complex plotting of this classic film noir that has enough plot twists, double crosses, and murders to fill three or four movies.
Humphrey Bogart is Marlowe, the private detective hired by the wealthy patriarch of the Sternwood family to deal with a blackmail scheme involving Carmen (Martha Vickers), the younger of his two daughters. Vivian Rutledge, the elder daughter played by Lauren Bacall, involves herself, setting off a tension-filled relationship between her and Marlow for the remainder of the film. To try to recount the plot or even the basic story would result in a senseless explanation. As directed by Howard Hawks, The Big Sleep is an exercise in style. This is one of the great classic noirs, though it does lack a number of the genres hallmarks.