Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Taxi Driver (1976)

1976 was a rich year for the movies. All the President's Men. Rocky.  Network.  Bound For Glory.  Marathon Man. Heck, even The Bad News Bears. All of these are rich and vastly different films worthy of acclaim even if they fall into genre categories. Yet there's one other 1976 film that most critics put among this group if not above it, and that is Taxi Driver.  Until last night, I had never seen it.

Why? I ask myself. To be honest, the subject matter never appealed to me despite the rather eclectic cast (Robert De Niro, Cybill Shepherd, Jodie Foster, Peter Boyle, Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel). When it was originally released, I was beginning my lifelong love affair with the movies, and was too immature to appreciate some of the complex, adult films that I saw in that period. Network -- a movie I regard as a great and prescient masterpiece -- needed to be reevaluated with a second viewing later in my life. And while director Martin Scorsese is among my Top 5 all-time favorite directors (with Steven Spielberg, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, and Robert Altman), I was a relative latecomer to his fan club. I just never had the drive to see the movie. In fact, I was pretty sure I knew what I would think of the movie: well-acted and dull between the violent bits.

Boy, was I ever wrong about that dull part.

I also tend to like movies with heroes and heart, and have trouble with anti-heroes. Well, maybe that's not so true anymore but I still tell myself that.  How could a taxi driver loner bent on assassinating a presidential candidate ever be worthy of my attention? Yet De Niro delivers one of his greatest performances, and he does so with such subtlety and charisma that it's almost breathtaking. As he pursues Shepherd's classy political worker, we understand why he gets rebuffed. Then the horror starts mounting because we know that this Travis Bickle, the taxi driver, the ex-Marine, is a ticking time bomb. We see his generosity and concern towards the pre-teen prostitute Iris (searingly played by Foster), and our opinions of Bickle are hopelessly turned inside out. We develop hope and a respect (of sorts) for Bickle. But is that hope a futile one?

Bickle just can't connect with the people he encounters in life. He's sexually frustrated, yet he is sickened by the sex and drug lifestyles around him. Nothing ever goes his way until life finally throws him the curve ball which would redeem most people. Then Bickle seems to see his life trajectory reboot  and finds himself on the same path to destruction that he was on.

I can't speak highly enough of Scorsese's direction.  It is one of the most self-assured and wise jobs behind the camera that I've ever seen. The cinematography is spot-on; Bernard Herrmann's score couldn't be more appropriate, and Paul Schrader's script borders on brilliance.  Add the acting to that: Shepherd was rarely ever cast to better effect in the film, Brooks and Keitel are barely recognized at first, and Foster uses her childlike precocious ness to superb effect. In fact, I've never seen her type of character better portrayed anywhere. And De Niro is simply masterful. I'm talking wickedly good.

I find most movies that are set in the time in which they are made tend to get dated.  The opposite is true with Taxi Driver.  Rarely has a movie made 40 years ago ever felt so timely and fresh.  Taxi Driver is a masterpiece, one that any film buff should never miss.  Grade: A.

I watched this film on Netflix's streaming service.

Quartet (2012)

Quartet is a fine film based on the stage play by Ronald Harwood and directed with subtlety and restraint by Hollywood superstar Dustin Hoffman. The story is set in a beautiful English mansion that has been turned into a retirement home for musicians. Three of the residents are formerly three-fourths of an operatic quartet: Wilford, the good-humored aging lothario;  Reggie, the earnest teacher who finds the similarities between opera and rap; and the kind-hearted Cissy, whose hold on sanity is more fragile than many of the other residents.

Enter Jean, the fourth member of the quartet. Jean reluctantly moves into the retirement home and initially tries to isolate herself from the other residents.  Her former partners are unaware that she was coming to their home. Wilford and Cissy try to draw Jean into a more social lifestyle. They are partially hindered by the stormy past of Jean and Reggie, who had been briefly married.

Then the quartet is offered a closing performance of the annual Verdi celebration. Jean adamantly refuses to perform, apparently due to a deteriorating aging voice. When Cissy tries to talk Jean
into performing, Jean reacts badly and the resulting effect is to push Cissy into a mental break.

The four actors who play the quartet are perfectly cast.  Maggie Smith plays Jean, wounded, egocentric, wistful, regretful. She captures all the character's nuances exquisitely.  Billy Connolly, an actor best known for his stand-up comedy routines, brings a good-natured humor and sexual potency to Wilford. He's so good that it's hard to imagine that Peter O'Toole was originally cast in the role. (O'Toole dropped out because he realized that he no longer had the stamina for a movie shoot.) Tom Courtenay is fine as the contemplative and still love-struck Reggie. Pauline Collins beautifully walks the tightrope between sanity and lunacy, and gives Cissy a golden soul.

I'm a little surprised at director Hoffman's choice of material for his first directorial feature. His results are laudable, though. He allows the actors to expertly ply their trade. He was wise enough to cast the supporting roles with actual aging musicians.  The look of the film seems right and the movie didn't strike me as having originally been a play at all. The choice of music in the play and the score itself was cannily selected.

All in all, Quartet is a beautiful look at the artistic soul as it ages. It was a far better film than I anticipated, well-written and tightly directed. It's a feast for anyone who loves full-blooded acting by thespians who know how to deliver the goods. Grade: B+.

I watched this film on Netflix's streaming service on April 25, 2016.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Touch of Evil (1958)

Touch of Evil has a backstory nearly as interesting as its pulpy plot. The story goes that the Universal Studios wanted Charlton Heston to star in the film, and Orson Welles had been hired to act in the film's major male supporting role.  Heston agreed to do the film if Welles would direct.  Welles had been out of favor with American movies studios for about a decade and had been living abroad. He wanted a foot back in the door of American movies, and agreed to direct Touch of Evil while receiving only his acting fee. Welles was aware that he had a reputation for being difficult to work with as well as finishing a film way over budget. He promptly re-wrote the screenplay and began casting his film.

Surprisingly, Welles delivered the film under budget and on time. He delivered his initial cut of the film to the studio executives who did not like what they saw as they felt the film was too confusing. Welles was fired from the film and banned from the editing room. Universal hired another director to finish the editing and to film reshoots they the executives deemed necessary. A revised edit of Touch of Evil was screened for Welles.

Welles didn't hate the edited film. Instead, he sat down and promptly wrote a 58 page memo to Universal executives that urged a number of changes to the film. Most of these were minor and only involved tweaking the sound and score of the film. However, Welles's memo was largely ignored and the film was released as the bottom half of a double feature. It failed miserably in the United States, though it was hailed in Europe.

I can't comment on the version of Touch of Evil that was released in 1958 because that isn't the version that I watched.  I watched the most recent re-edit of the film.  In the mid-1990s, Touch of Evil was re-edited to closely approximate the suggestions that Welles wanted in the 58 page memo.  The result is simply a masterpiece.

Welles's achievement as a director is no less remarkable than his groundbreaking work on Citizen Kane.  He shoots from odd angles and uses creative jumps and cuts to propel the narrative along. His opening 3-minute-plus shot is an astounding creation, truly beautiful to behold as it sets up the movie's plot beautifully.  It definitely influenced later film opening shots such as those in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, Robert Altman's The Player, and Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights.

I've never been one to think that genre films couldn't make great movies.  Night of the Hunter, The Silence of the Lambs, Pulp Fiction, and a score of gangster films spring immediately to mind. Touch of Evil arrived near the end of Hollywood's film noir heyday.  It tells a juicy plot. American Janet Leigh marries Mexican Heston, a drug enforcement border agent. When a car bomb that was set in mexico explodes in a border town on U. S. soil, the authorities begin their investigation with Heston's character observing.  Heston's character observes the planting of evidence to secure a conviction, so the corrupt American prosecutor frames Leigh for the car bomb muder and suggests that Heston has a drug problem. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Laramie Project (2002)

Original movies produced by and for HBO are, generally speaking, fine quality productions these days -- often to the point that they could be theatrical films. Generally, they have a degree of importance to them. Often they are about real people or real events.  The Laramie Project has all of these qualities.

Writer-director Moises Kaufman created a play made up of the actual words spoken by actual Laramie, Wyoming residents following the brutal murder of young gay Matthew Shepard by two Laramie residents. Kaufman then adapted his play into this affecting telefilm. The result is a glimpse of a town thrust into the national spotlight in the aftermath of Shepard's tragic murder.

Kaufman populates his film with many acclaimed character actors, all with relatively small roles. The cast includes Christina Ricci, Margo Martindale, Dylan Baker, Frances Sternhagen, Janeane Garofalo, Amy Madigan,  Ben Foster, Laura Linney, Camryn Manheim, Peter Fonda, Jeremy Davies, Steve Buscemi, Joshua Jackson, Lois Smith, Clancy Brown, Bill Irwin, and Tom Bower, among others. The most moving was Terry Kinney as Dennis Shepard, Matthew's father, who gives an eloquent speech at the sentencing hearing of one of the murderers.

The film is so well-constructed and well-edited with different threads of the fabric of Laramie that I didn't notice its dramatic holes until after the film was over. It seems to me that the filmmakers want to indict the people of Laramie, to hold them responsible in part for the culture that led to Shepard's horrific beating and murder.  I don't want to lessen the cruelty of the crimes against Shepard, but the crime could have happened in New York City just as easily as it did in Wyoming (and in my opinion, justice may not have been so sufficiently served in a more liberal state.) The people of Laramie were outraged, shocked, dismayed, and horrified by what happened to Shepard, no less than people anywhere else in the country would have been had it occurred in their back yards.  I don't mind movies that stack the cards to illustrate their points of view so much as I get bothered by the constant attitude that good, moral people who believe that the homosexual lifestyle is wrong are complete idiots. Most people that I know who have this attitude are tolerant and respectful of gays -- they would just prefer to not have gay culture in their faces all the time. I'm sure that if a television drama actually tried to be sympathetic to such Americans that a publicity nightmare would ensue. My point is that the savage beating of Shepard in Laramie is no more or less abhorrent than gay-bashing anywhere. But the majority of people who oppose special rights for homosexuals are not gay-bashers and in fact are just as repulsed by such behavior as people supportive of gay causes.  The Laramie Project does not make this distinction.

Ultimately, The Laramie Project is a consistently fascinating, complex, important piece of filmmaking that errs by villanizing  the people of a good city in a good state when the only villains here were the two perpetrators of the murder of Shepard.  For that reason, I have to give The Laramie Project a B+.

I watched The Laramie Project on DVD on May 17, 2014.

Monday, May 5, 2014

All About Eve (1950)

Incredibly, I had never seen 1950's All About Eve before this weekend.

Yes, I know that the film is legendary. I'm aware of its position in Hollywood history.  I'm aware that it is tied with 1997's Titanic as the movies with the most Oscar nominations (14).  I understand that by being cast in this film, Bette Davis felt that director Joseph L. Mankiewicz had rescued her film career.  And I can quote several lines from this movie that I had never seen, including the famous "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night."

I'm not sure why it has taken me so long to seek out All About Eve. Friends who are fellow film buffs have consistently urged me to watch the film. This  weekend finally seemed like the right time to do that.

The story is relatively well-known.  Eve Harrington, a seemingly na├»ve young woman from the
Midwest, attaches herself to Broadway diva Margo Channing and her circle of theatrical friends. Margo becomes aware that Eve may be trying to gain stardom at Margo's expense, but the people around her seem seduced by Eve's charms.  Eventually Eve makes calculated moves that thrust her into the limelight, though there are hints that her fame may not be long-lasting.

The first two-thirds of the movie showcase Davis's tour-de-force performance as Margo Channing.  Channing has created a persona for the public that masks her personal insecurities as she feels threatened by her middle-age in a youth-oriented career. She also longs for passionate love. Davis nails the role perfectly. Her Margo Channing is such a force of nature that the film misses her when she isn't onscreen.

Less successful -- though still effective -- is Anne Baxter as Eve Harrington.  Eve's adopted persona is demure and kindly; a perfect contrast to the in-your-face Margo. Unfortunately, Baxter isn't nearly as strong an actor as Davis, and in my mind, the film suffers a little because Baxter isn't as natural a fit in the film as Davis. 

An argument could be made that Baxter's role is supporting, although the movie allows her to take front and center in the last half hour. Yet both Davis and Baxter were nominated as Best Actress for All About Eve, both losing to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday.  Other nominees were Eleanor Parker in Caged and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd.  I haven't seen either Holliday's or Swanson's performances but both are probably deserved, and Parker gave a fine performance in a gutsy role. I suspect that Davis or Swanson should have won the Oscar, but I feel that Baxter's nod was undeserved.  (There's also a theory that the vote was split between Davis and Baxter, allowing for Holliday's win.  I don't subscribe to the split-vote theory as the math doesn't work out.)

(But MovieRAM, my readers ask.  If Baxter wasn't nominated in 1950, or if she was nominated in the supporting category instead, who should have gotten the 5th nomination? Easy answer, my friends.  I'd have given the fifth slot to the incandescent Betty Hutton for Annie Get Your Gun.)

All About Eve crowded the supporting actress category too.  Celeste Holm played Karen, the playwright's wife, who wields a surprising of influence in her inner circle before she sees that she never should have been supportive of Eve. It's a great, multi-layered  performance, and I probably would have been happy had she won. Surprisingly, the great character actress Thelma Ritter got the first of her six Oscar nominations as Birdie, Margo's loyal assistant. It's a small role, and while Ritter excels in it, it is not an award-worthy role. Both Holm and Ritter lost the award to stage actress Josephine Hull in Harvey, another movie that I need to see. (Other nominees were Hope Emerson, who was excellent as a brutal prison matron in Caged, and Nancy Olson in Sunset Blvd.)

While Davis, Baxter, Holm, and Ritter all lost the Oscar for All About Eve, supporting actor George Sanders won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing Addison DeWitt, the acerbic theater critic with the poison pen who can make or break careers.  While I haven't seen any of his fellow nominees, it is hard to see how any of them could be better than Sanders, who inhabits his role perfectly. It's a magnificent performance in a great role.

All About Eve won Best Picture, Best Director for Mankiewicz, and a Best Screenplay Oscar for Mankiewicz's excellent screenplay.  Edith Head won the Best Costumes award, and the film won an award for Best Sound Recording.

A few more thoughts on the film. Marilyn Monroe has an early supporting role in in this movie, and she acquits herself nicely.  I thought Gary Merrill as the play's director and Hugh Marlowe as the playwright were too similar in type to share so many scenes together. Mankiewicz's screenplay and direction are extremely first-rate.

Is this Davis's best screen work? It could well be -- though I'm terribly fond of her roles in The Letter and The Little Foxes. I don't think I've ever seen Holm or Sanders quite as good as they are in All About Eve.

All About Eve perfectly depicts the theater world with colorful characters and insightful dialogue. I wish Baxter's portrayal of Eve didn't pale when viewed next to Davis's Margo. Baxter's casting weakened the film for me (I think Donna Reed could have pulled it off.) Therefore, instead of a perfect classic, I have to deem it a very good one instead.  Grade: B+.

I watched All About Eve on Netflix Streaming on Sunday, May 4, 2014.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Noah (2014)

It's only fair that a critic of a movie acknowledge his biases if he is commenting on a film where those biases will color his perspective. In order to speak about Darren Aronofsky's Noah, I need to first assert that I am a Christian, I believe that the Bible is inerrant in its original form, and I hold the Bible to be sacred truth.  Generally, I find movies based on the Bible or those to designed for Christian audiences to be artistically inferior productions regardless of how good their intent might be.  There are exceptions. I am an ardent supporter of The Passion of the Christ.  I enjoy the grandeur of Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments. I appreciate the earnestness of The Greatest Story Ever Told, even if my eyes roll when John Wayne appears as the Roman centurion.  I find interest in some movies that are set with Biblical events in the background, such as The Robe, Ben-Hur, or Quo Vadis (these tales were apparently popular in the 1950s).  There is a lot of mediocrity in Bible adaptations like King David or King of Kings or Samson and Delilah.  John Huston's The Bible is excruciatingly dull, and Martin Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ is blasphemous.

Initially, I had no interest in seeing Noah. Upon its release, the slight preponderance of positive critical reviews swayed me and I then wanted to see it for myself. I'm not a big fan of director Aronofsky.  Requiem for a Dream is too abstract in a world that doesn't interest me. Black Swan had some great strengths but the fantasy elements were distracting to me.  I'm a big fan of The Wrestler, however. I knew that some things were in the movie that were not a part of the Genesis record of the event, and I attempted to keep an open mind about that.  Obviously, I know that any filmed Bible story is going to be interpretive on some level but I doubted that Aronofsky was the man to present the story of Noah.

The best thing I can say about the movie is that it never bored me -- and that's a major plus since this is a Biblical epic running over two hours. Russell Crowe was a fine choice to play Noah. Jennifer Connelly, playing Noah's wife, elevates most movies when she's in them and she doesn't disappoint here.  Aronofsky keeps the film moving, and I liked his view of the Ark itself. He also uses CGI to good advantage with the storm , the flood, and the arrival of the animals.

But I can't deny that the major deviations from the Biblical record troubled me greatly.

Much of the film was a lot more Lord of the Rings rather than Lord of All Creation.  I'm specifically referring to the angels that are consigned to Earth. They seemed to have a lot of inspiration from Middle-Earth with a touch of reference to Transformers.

I don't know what kind of a toll it would take on a man to be one of the last 8 survivors of humanity, and there may have well been emotional turmoil with the real Noah. But he is presented in the Bible as being resolute in his faith, and his depiction in the film Noah as an irrational, nearly crazed man after the Ark closes is disturbing and the most distasteful thing about the film.

I could accept the fiction involving Tubal-cain (well-played by Ray Winstone) as the power hungry leader of the community closest to the Ark until he stowed away on the Ark.  I wanted to laugh at the absurdity then.

The soap opera elements such as Ham's betrayal of his family to assist Tubal-cain and having Shem's wife (demurely played by Emma Watson) deliver twin daughters out-of-wedlock with Noah threatening to slay them were not only complete poppycock but they also diluted the powerful story of salvation and redemption which is what the actual life of the Biblical Noah illustrates.

If I could separate MovieRAM the moviegoer from MovieRAM the Christian, Noah as a work of fiction and as a cinematic experience is a better film than a lot of modern fantasy films (such as the bloated The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey). But the film Noah is too far outside my comfort level for of a telling of the sacred Biblical story of Noah, and I still fell dirty for not only seeing the film, but for enjoying it in the limited amounts that I did.  I wish I could shake the film, but it bothers me to my core.

It saddens me that this is the only exposure to the Bible that some people will see, or that some people will perceive this presentation as truth.

I remember several years ago when I refused out of principle to see Michael Moore's hit documentary
Fahrenheit 9/11. I knew that the views expressed in that film would offend my moral sensibilities and I wisely chose to ignore it for the drivel that it was. I wish that I had followed the same principles for Noah, but I can't unwatch the film. Watching it certainly wasn't worth troubling my soul this extensively though.  Grade: C-.

I watched Noah at the Pullman Square Marquee Cinemas on Friday evening April 25, 2014 with my friend Brian.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Carnal Knowledge (1971)

Admittedly, I knew very little about Carnal Knowledge before I saw it.  While I thought it had a good cast, it never seemed like a movie that held much interest for me.  Since I've made it a mission to see every movie that has been nominated for a major Oscar (Best Picture, Director, or an acting award), Carnal Knowledge fell on the list of films to see because Ann-Margret garnered one of her two nominations for Best Supporting Actress (her other nomination was for 1975's Tommy, the cinematic adaptation of The Who's rock opera!).

I should know by now to never discount movies from the incredibly fertile 1970s. Carnal Knowledge looks as if it could have been a period piece made in 2014 -- it hasn't aged a bit other than we know the primary actors are now senior  citizens. It looks terrific, and even though it is a talkie movie, the script is very well-written.

One of the big reasons why 1970s drama was so successful is that so many of the characters in those movies are textured and deeply flawed. I'm not even sure that I would call any of the characters in Carnal Knowledge likeable -- but they are constantly fascinating. Kudos for Jules Feiffer's incisive script.  The story goes that Pfeiffer brought the idea to director Mike Nichols with the hopes of mounting a play. Nichols said he saw the story as a movie. To be honest, it feels like a well-done adaptation of a play to me. There are three defined acts, each building on what has transpired before. Nichols has been such an uncommonly successful Broadway director that it is easy to forget about his strong cinematic successes that include Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Silkwood, and Working GirlCarnal Knowledge can comfortably sit amongst the best of Nichols's film accomplishments. It is an intelligent and daring film that is every bit as timely today as it was in 1971.

Carnal Knowledge tracks the changing sexual mores of mid-20th century America as it examines a pair of college roommates from the late 1940s through the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s.  The result isn't pretty and there are no happy endings here in this dark drama. While the film never judges the choices that the characters make, it certainly never endorses them either. If the viewer passes judgment on the film -- as any respectable viewer should -- it seems to me that the viewer would have to see traditional morality as a viable (and maybe preferable) option.

The story in a nutshell: College roommates Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel, here billed as Arthur Garfunkel) are virginal college roommates obsessed with getting laid. They both have ideals of the type of woman that interests them. At a mixer, Jonathan challenges Sandy to hit on attractive co-ed Susan (Candice Bergen). Susan is intelligent and possesses a detached demeanor. She and Sandy become friends, and she gives in to his feelings of love for her, though she isn't certain that she feels the same.  Jonathan, jealous that Sandy is making headway with Susan, begins to date her behind Sandy's back and eventually sleeps with her before she sleeps with Sandy.  Susan professes love for Jonathan but is unwilling to end things with her friend Sandy. Frustrated, Jonathan breaks things off with Susan.

The second act finds Jonathan meeting the sexy, voluptuous Bobbie (Ann-Margret), a woman who seems to epitomize Jonathan's fantasies.  Jonathan and Bobbie move in together, and Bobbie discovers that she wants marriage. Jonathan becomes impotent at the thought of that, and their relationship deteriorates as Bobbie succumbs to severe depression and Jonathan grows angry with his life.  The situation culminates badly when Sandy shows up with the lady he is having an affair with, and the envious Jonathan suggests that two men swap females for the evening.

Years pass. Middle-aged Sandy's latest conquest is a teenager (Carol Kane), and Jonathan can only get aroused by visiting the prostitute Louise (Rita Moreno) who must roleplay to a very specific script. It seems that Jonathan and Sandy may have won a few battles in the Sexual Revolution, but they certainly lost the war.

The four leads are remarkable.  Candice Bergen captures the angst of the brainy Susan as she is torn between the two men in her life who happen to be best friends.  It's the type of role in which she was practically typecast at the start of her career, but she handles the adult material beautifully. And Art Garfunkel -- well, who knew he could act? Why didn't he have a bigger screen career? He's perfect as the insecure Sandy and his performance never musters a false note. Nichols is a master of casting and his gutsy choice of Garfunkel pays off handsomely.  Ann-Margret is a revelation as Bobbie. Having spent the 1960s in mostly bad movies, she is given a chance to shine in this role of an aging sex kitten who wants a traditional marriage.  She succeeds admirably; her performance is complex and riveting.

The center of the film is Jack Nicholson's Jonathan. I could make an argument that Nicholson was the movies' greatest actor for 35 years. I've never seen Carnal Knowledge referred to as one of Nicholson's iconic roles, but it is. Jonathan is a beast of a man. and Nicholson doesn't shy from revealing the layers of ugliness within, all barely underneath the devilish grin and twinkling eyes. When I think of my very favorite Nicholson performances in films like Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Reds, Prizzi's Honor, Ironweed, and About Schmidt, I realize that his performance in Carnal Knowledge could easily stand up to his stellar work in these better-known films.  Nicholson truly is an actor of the highest order.

Intellectually, I know that great movies can be made about subjects in which I have little interest. (2001's The Piano Teacher springs to mind.) The more I think about Carnal Knowledge, with its cast of irritating characters making bad choice after bad choice -- well how can I recommend this film? Then my mind is drawn to the stylish filmmaking, the flawless dialogue, and the perfection of the performances, and I realize that Carnal Knowledge is a movie that will stay with me for a very long time.  Artistically, it flirts with greatness. Grade: A-.

I watched Carnal Knowledge on DVD on Saturday, April 26, 2014.