Thursday, December 19, 2013

Five Film Favorites: Boxing Movies

by F.T. Rea
Jeff Bridges and Stacy Keach in "Fat City"
Following up on Todd Starkweather’s piece about his five favorite sports movies, I‘m going to narrow the focus onto the sport some folks used to call the “sweet science.” And, right from the start, I’m going to say boxing was a sport at one time in history. In 2013, I’m not so sure what to call the spectacle of a boxing match.

If you go back 100 years boxing and horse racing were probably America’s most important spectator sports. People had been watching versions of both for hundreds of years. Then came newsreels and radio in the 1920s, which facilitated America’s love affairs with team sports, primarily pro baseball and college football.

Boxing was important in television’s early days. Over the last 50 years America’s best athletes have found better ways to earn a living with other sports, so the pugilism hasn’t had nearly the talented practitioners it once did. Besides, over the last decade cage fighting has become more popular than boxing with young fans of blood sports.

Since professional boxing has long been directed by the worst elements of society -- what’s the upside to it? -- to me, it’s a wonder prizefighting is still legal. But there are probably more good movies that revolve around boxing than any other so-called "sport."

My five favorite boxing movies are:
  • “Fat City” (1972): Color. 100 minutes. Directed by John Huston. Cast: Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges, Susan Tyrrell, Candy Clark. Note: In his teens Huston was an amateur boxer. This gritty tale presents two boxers in Stockton, CA. Down on his luck, Keach is past his prime. Of course, he decides to make a comeback. Bridges is the young boxer he meets who has much to learn. Tyrrell is a friend who drinks a lot of sherry. The film plods along, developing its offbeat characters without sentimentality. In a few words it’s hard to say why this film is so good, but it is.
  • “The Hurricane” (1999): Color. 146 minutes. Directed by Norman Jewison. Cast: Denzel Washington, Vicellous Reon Shannon, Deborah Kara Unger, Liev Schreiber. Note: Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was a highly regarded middleweight contender in 1966 when he was convicted for murder and went to prison. Eventually, the battle for his release made him into a celebrity. Bob Dylan’s 1975 song “Hurricane” helped to focus attention on Carter’s plight to be exonerated. Although this compelling biopic bends the truth on some peripheral details, Washington’s spot-on performance is so strong it matters little.
  • “Raging Bull” (1980): B&W. 129 minutes. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Cast: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci, Frank Vincent. Note: Jack La Motta, was a middleweight champion in the laste-40/early-50s. He wasn’t known as a stylish fighter or smooth athlete. He was seen as a fearless brawler who always charged his opponents. He was also seen by those who knew him personally as a cruel, self-absorbed jerk. After his boxing career ended La Motta turned to acting. He appeared in several bit movie roles and on television. This is the movie that De Niro gained 60 pounds to play the role convincingly. 
  •  “Requiem for Heavyweight” (1962): B&W. 95 minutes. Directed by Ralph Nelson. Cast: Anthony Quinn (pictured right), Jackie Gleason, Mickey Rooney, Julie Harris. Note: Rod Serling wrote the award-winning teleplay for a live Playhouse 90 broadcast in 1956. When it was adapted to the big screen Jack Palance, who played the boxer, was replaced by Quinn. In the opening scene, in which the viewer is looking through the protagonist’s tortured eyes, his opponent in the ring is Cassius Clay (before he became champ and changed his name to Muhammad Ali). Several other real boxers also appear in the film.
  • “The Set-Up” (1949): B&W. 73 minutes. Directed by Robert Wise. Cast: Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, George Tobias. Note: The plot isn’t so unusual. The boxer, Stoker Thompson, is past him prime. His wife wants him to quit. His manager has lost faith in him. The gangsters bet on him to lose and try to fix the fight. Made by RKO in film noir’s heyday, this feature is lean and stylish. Ryan, who was a boxer in college (Dartmouth), is convincing as a prize fighter and as the very kind of guy who might defy gangsters. 
Yes, I liked "The Boxer" (1997), "Cinderella Man" (2005) and "The Great White Hope" (1970) a whole lot. But this time they didn’t make the cut. When “Rocky” (1976) came out, before all the sequels, I liked it, too. Now I can’t separate the original from all those awful follow-ups.

Why professional boxing remains legal in Virginia isn’t clear. It shouldn’t be. Other forms of dueling have been outlawed for a long time. Still, if somebody makes another decent boxing flick, I’ll watch it.

Ed. Note: If you’d like to submit a Five Film Favorites piece to the Bijou Backlight, please do. Take a look at a few of the previous posts in the series and then get in touch with James or me.

Monday, December 16, 2013

High Plains Drifting

Pub. Note: One day several weeks ago when I was noodlin' on some ideas for the Bijou Backlight, I ran into Rob Bullington (Hackensaw Boys, Flight of Salt) at the Richmond Waldorf School, where our kids go to school, and I off-handedly asked him if he had any songs about movies. As it turns it out he did -- or does -- and so, today, we present to you a new type of feature on Bijou Backlight: a fresh take on film from an art form other than the traditional written film reviews, essays and criticism. Let us know what you think of this idea and if you -- or any of your artist friends -- have poems, songs, paintings, photographs, sculptures, etc. that are inspired by the movies. Now, without further ado, enjoy Rob's song, "High Plains Drifting," and the story behind it. -- JP 


“High Plains Drifting”
by Rob Bullington
Performed by Flight of Salt

I’ve been trying to write songs since I was 14 years old and master of three chords on the guitar. Since then, I’ve been in several bands, written lots of songs, learned how to play an assortment of instruments, toured all over the place, met and played with a bunch of rock stars, recorded albums for major labels and participated (somewhat reluctantly) in making videos. Along the way, I’ve learned that sitting down with the goal of writing a song usually guarantees that nothing worthwhile will be written; much better to let songs come along on their own accord.

If this seems like a lazy approach to the craft of songwriting, so be it. I’m not saying it’s the best approach, but it works for me.

Even more importantly, I’ve found that it’s usually best to avoid trying to impose a specific message to a song-in-progress at the outset. Instead, I try to let the words fall into the melody naturally and then later arrange and edit them for meaning.

For instance, I would never set out to write a song about a movie. While songs written for (and used in) movies can be rich and vital (even more so than the movie itself), songs about movies are somewhat more suspect.

Before I go further, however, I should clarify what I mean by “songs about movies.”

I don’t mean simply name-checking a movie in a song (which can be effective if used sparingly) or writing a song about a particular actor or actress (one of the few things that Don Henley and Kurt Cobain have in common) or even writing a song about the movie industry generally (The Kinks and Cracker, among others, have gotten away with this very well).

What I mean is to say to oneself: “Today I will write a song about Gone with the Wind and I will start by describing the outward appearance of Tara.” The results can be so bad as to be cool (look no farther than “Die Hard” by Guyz Nite) or so cool as to be badass (check out Tom Waits’ cover of Daniel Johnston’s “King Kong”). But whether cool, bad, or badass, rarely do these types of songs bear repeat listening.

But then there are those songs inspired by a movie that remain true to the spirit of the movie without being true to the movie itself. These songwriters brandish the same artistic license that permits movie makers to translate novels into film. Or, to put it another way: the license to create something that can stand on its own. Examples of this type of song include “The Union Forever” by the White Stripes (inspired by Citizen Kane) and “Debaser” by the Pixies (inspired by Un chien andalou).

Depending on one’s musical tastes, other songs in this genre include Neil Diamond’s “Heartlight” (inspired by ET: The Extra-Terrestrial) and Iron Maiden’s “Man on the Edge” (inspired by Falling Down). All of which is to say: I never intended to write a song inspired by High Plains Drifter. As soon as I realized, however, that I was writing a song inspired by High Plains Drifter, I did a bit of quick research and learned the following things:

    • It was filmed in a complete town (the buildings had interiors) built on location specifically for the movie.
    • Though inspired by Eastwood’s time in Spain acting in Leone’s Westerns, HPD was filmed in California and the production was ruthlessly more efficient than Leone’s lacksidasical approach to filmmaking: HPD was filmed in sequence, completed 2 days ahead of schedule and under budget.
    •  It was a financial success, but some critics called it “derivative” and “shallow” even though they appreciated the cinematography.
    • It was denounced by John Wayne as a betrayal of the Western genre.

    So, my song wound up being inspired by the movie as well as the circumstances surrounding its creation and release. Soon after the song was finished, I was invited to submit it for the Bijou Backlight blog. After rehearsing it with my band – Flight of Salt - recording a demo version and putting together a video, I am finally able to oblige.

    A word about the video: I am not a videographer, but since this is a movie blog I felt it was important for you have the option to look at something while you listen to the song. Please look elsewhere while you listen if you prefer.

    If you like “High Plains Drifting,” you may download it for free here – and please visit Flight of Salt’s Facebook Page to hear more of our songs and find out where we’re playing around town.

    "High Plains Drifting"

    From a high and windswept plain
    Drifts a man we never know his name
    He takes his guns into that town
    That’s what he does
    He’s the one

    See there’s no need to rehearse
    Just act the best at doing worse
    Until the whole damn town goes down
    Then we cut
    And it’s done

    I’ll take you away and we’ll start a family
    In the middle of nowhere we can build a city
    And when it goes bad
    We’ll do what I said
    We’ll paint the town red.

    Now there’s drugs all over the set
    Cause time is not infinite
    Too much gold and not enough rest
    This ain’t Spain
    It’s the West
    Now the reviews are mixed at best
    They say the lead seems too depressed
    But they love the final shot
    Out of the sun
    It’s the one

    I’ll take you away and we’ll start a family
    In the middle of nowhere we can build a city
    And when it goes bad
    We’ll do what I said
    We’ll paint the town red. 

    Pub. Note: Flight of Salt is playing at the Camel this Thurs., Dec. 19, at 9 p.m., on a bill with The Northerners and Starlighter.

    Thursday, November 21, 2013

    Five Film Favorites: Jailhouse Flicks

    by F.T. Rea

    Last time this space was devoted to courtroom dramas, films about trials. What should follow?

    Jailhouse flicks, naturally.

    Movies about people confined against their will have always appealed to me. Liking such movies goes all the way back to when I was a little kid. In those days I felt like a prisoner a lot of the time, especially in school. In one way, or another, films with detainees as protagonists are usually about escape, real or imagined, which may have been the original lure of jailhouse flicks for me.

    This week’s Five Film Favorites list is devoted to movies set in civilian jailhouses/penitentiaries. So if the plot unfolds in a stockade or a brig it’s not included. For my purpose, this time, I’m saying they are military movies. Which means marvelous films like “The Hill” (1965) or “Stalag 17” (1953) must be left for another column’s consideration. The same goes for movies about captives who are hostages. 

    The films on this week’s five are all pictures in which most of the action takes place in a penitentiary. They tell us about the pure tedium of life in the big house, as well as the horrors. As all five are about men in confinement, they also tell us about how mean and bleak a world without women can be.
    • “Birdman of Alcatraz” (1962): B&W. 147 minutes. Directed by John Frankenheimer. Cast: Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden, Thelma Ritter, Neville Brand, Telly Savalas, Betty Field. Note: A young recalcitrant prisoner kills a prison guard and winds up in solitary confinement for life. Years later he adopts a sparrow as a pet. Eventually, that leads to the lonely prisoner keeping other birds and he becomes an expert on treating avian diseases. Of course, there’s a cruel warden who tries to put the kibosh on the Birdman’s work and a test of wills ensues.
    The Man With No Eyes in "Cool Hand Luke."
    • “Cool Hand Luke” (1967): Color. 126 minutes. Directed by Stuart Rosenberg. Cast: Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Strother Martin, J.D. Cannon, Jo Van Fleet, Dennis Hopper. Note: Luke Jackson (Newman) is a decorated WWII veteran who gets drunk, goes on a parking meter sabotaging spree and ends up in a Florida prison camp run by sadistic guards. This is the movie that put the catch phrase, “What we’ve got here is … failure to communicate,” into the lexicon of popular culture.
    • “Dead Man Walking” (1995): Color. 122 minutes. Directed by Tim Robbins. Cast: Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Robert Prosky, Raymond J. Barry. Note: A prisoner awaiting his execution for a double murder asks a nun to assist him with an appeal; he claims his accomplice actually did the killing. As the condemned man and the nun get to know one another, and his days dwindle, his need to be honest with the only person who cares about him grows.
    • “Papillon” (1973): Color. 151 minutes. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. Cast: Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Victor Jory, Anthony Zerbe. Note: On his way to a French penal colony in the Caribbean Henri “Papillon” Charierre, a thief wrongly convicted of murder, befriends and protects Louis Degas, a forger. The story is about their grueling exploits to survive and escape. Papillon’s over-the-top will to resist his captors and be free are unforgettable.
    • “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994): Color. 142 minutes. Directed by Frank Darabont. Cast: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, James Whitmore. Note: Adapted from a Stephen King short story, this is an inspiring yarn about the power of courage, decency and patience in the face of daunting circumstances. Lots of patience, but all 142 minutes of watching this picture are well spent. Rita Hayworth isn’t actually in this one, but she still plays a pivotal role. It received seven nominations for Academy Awards.  
    In each of the five movies on this week’s list, the prisoners strive to gather and hold onto some shred of their dignity, while facing extremely tough odds. Which is a pretty good plot device for any story, behind bars or not.

    Consequently, the best jailhouse flicks aren’t just about dreams of escape from confinement. They are also about thwarting a timeless villainy that is only too happy to imprison the hapless and the resisters.

    Thursday, November 14, 2013

    Five Film Favorites: Courtroom Dramas

    The courtroom in "To Kill a Mockingbird"
    by F.T. Rea

    After the crime has been committed and the cops have investigated it and the handcuffs have been slapped on the culprit some movies end there. The viewer assumes the bad guy will pay for having broken the law.

    In a general sense, the characters in such films are usually developed by what they do -- action. If the story is more about the legal ordeal after arrest, the trial, then it’s usually dialogue that drives the story. Typically, the characters are developed by what they say … and of course, how they say it. 

    This week’s installment of five favorites is on courtroom dramas. Legitimate courtrooms, please, not kangaroo courts. So trials that take place outside of a real courthouse, such as in "M" (1931) or in "The Ox-Bow Incident" (1943), belong on another day’s list of favorites.

    To further narrow the field, military trials aren’t being considered this time, either. So that means great war films with pivotal trials in them, such as "Breaker Morant" (1980), "The Caine Mutiny" (1954) and "Paths of Glory" (1957) can’t be included on this particular list.

    My five favorite courtroom dramas are as follows:
    • "12 Angry Men" (1957): B&W. 96 minutes. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Cast: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Klugman, Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall, Ed Begley. Note: An 18-year-old boy/man is charged with murdering his father. Adapted from a teleplay, the story follows the jury’s deliberations to determine a verdict. On the first vote just one juror says he isn’t convinced of the defendant’s guilt. Then the perspectives and prejudices of each juror are examined as they argue their points.   
    • "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959): B&W. 160 minutes. Directed by Otto Preminger. Cast: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, George C. Scott, Eve Arden. Note: In the late-50s this story about a violent killing and some sex-related issues was a bodice ripper. Stewart is the easy-going defense attorney. Gazzara, the defendant, claims to have amnesia. Remick, a fun-loving temptress, is his wife. The judge is played by Joseph Welch, a lawyer made famous by the live telecasts of the Army-McCarthy Hearings.
    • "Inherit the Wind" (1960): B&W. 128 minutes. Directed by Stanley Kramer. Cast: Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Gene Kelly, Harry Morgan. Note: Adapted from the play with the same title, which was a fictionalized version of the famous Scopes “Monkey” Trial (in 1925), the movie offers Matthew Harrison Brady (March) as a William Jennings Bryan-like figure. Henry Drummond (Tracy) as a Clarence Darrow-like figure and E. K. Hornbeck (Kelly) as a H. L. Mencken-like figure. To avoid a spoiler, I can't reveal here who plays the role of the monkey.
    • "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962): B&W. 129 minutes. Directed by Robert Mulligan. Cast: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Brock Peters, Robert Duvall, Phillip Alford. Note: Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, via Horton Foote’s screenplay, was smoothly interpreted to the big screen in this compelling story set in a small town in Alabama during the Depression. A respected white lawyer, who is the father of two precocious kids, is appointed to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman.
    • "The Verdict" (1982): Color. 129 minutes. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Cast: Paul Newman, Charlotte Rampling, Jack Warden, James Mason, Lindsay Crouse. Note: Newman’s character was a hot shot attorney at a big law firm before he let alcoholism unravel his life. A friend and former colleague tosses him what seems to be an easy medical malpractice case, as a favor. Of course, it turns out to be a much more complicated situation and some tough choices must be made. 
    The courtroom in "The Verdict"
    Maybe one reason so many courtroom dramas have been produced is that if most of the scenes are in the courthouse, it saves money on sets. Another reason is that a trial provides a readymade and organized context in which to present a story. The testimony of witnesses can tell the whole tale. The disclosure of the verdict is a natural way to wrap up a story.

    Once the suspense is over the viewers see The End appearing over footage of attorneys gathering up their papers. Whether righteous justice has been wrought, or not, one table of lawyers is usually happier than the other.

    Friday, November 1, 2013

    Short Subject: 'Betty Boop for President'

    Ed. Note: “Betty Boop for President” (1932): B&W. 7 minutes. Directed by Dave Fleischer. Note: This cartoon was released on the Friday before Election Day in 1932. In their day the Fleischer brothers, Max and Dave, were responsible for putting animated shorts featuring Koko the Clown, Betty Boop, Popeye and Superman on the big screen. 

    Thursday, October 31, 2013

    Five Film Favorites: Scary Movies

    Audrey Hepburn as Susy Hendrix in "Wait Until Dark."

    by F.T. Rea

    For Halloween I thought about making a list of my favorite science fiction movies, or a list of favorite monster movies. Also gave some thought to movies about people wearing disguises. That last one might be fun. But those three angles could be exploited anytime. Instead, this week's episode of five film favorites is about scary movies.

    Not gross, but scary. Not merely suspenseful. Not necessarily monsters, human or otherwise. Movies that made me jump out of my seat, or that thoroughly creeped me out. Movies that made me jittery for hours, if not days, after watching them. Movies that made going to sleep difficult.


    Although surprise is an important element in scariness, to make the list this time the movie has to sustain its fright factor beyond just one or two spectacular jolts of sudden horror or mayhem. So, overall creepiness is just as important as shock. The movie has to have scared me originally, haunted me afterward, and upon subsequent viewings allowed me to still enjoy it. Generally, I won’t put a title on one of these favorites lists if I’ve only seen it once.

    It might seem corny now; maybe some folks prefer the 1978 remake. For me, as a kid, the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” was more scary than any movie I can remember from all the low budget '50s features I saw that were designed to frighten an audience. And, there were plenty of them.
    • “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956): B&W. 80 minutes. Directed by Don Siegel. Cast: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Carolyn Jones, King Donovan. Note: A small town doctor hears complaints about some of the town-folk. They seem to have changed, not in appearance but in the way they act. With the Cold War raging, this story was seen by some as warning against a communist takeover. Others connected it to McCarthyism and witch hunts.
    • “Psycho” (1960): B&W. 109 minutes. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Cast: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, Martin Balsam. Note: Marion, the secretary-turned-thief-on-the-lam, is tired. She checks into the Bates Motel. Norman manages the motel. He's painfully shy and tries to be good, but his demanding mother is awfully hard on him. Marion decides to take a relaxing shower before turning in.   
    • "Repulsion" (1965): B&W. 105 minutes. Directed by Roman Polanski. Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, John Fraser. Note: A beautiful but depressed young woman wallows in paranoia and detaches from her connections in life. With a dead rabbit in her purse, she descends into madness. You won’t always know what is real in this early Polanski flick, but you won’t forget Deneuve's quite convincing dangerous crazy-girl character.
    • “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991): Color. 118 minutes. Directed by Jonathan Demme. Cast: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine. Note: The success of this film launched so many forgettable movies about serial killers, there have probably been more films about serial killers than there have been real serial killers. Still, the spell this one casts over viewers is unique. Oscars? This scary movie won Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay).
    • “Wait Until Dark” (1967): Color. 108 minutes. Directed by Terrence Young. Cast: Audrey Hepburn, Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. Note: This taut thriller was adapted from a play. The story pits brave and recently blinded Susy against some truly nasty criminals. The bad guys are sure she inadvertently got a valuable package meant for them. But where is it? Most of the action takes place in Susy's English basement apartment. Basements can be dark and scary places. 
    Spoiler alert reminder: Don’t let any mischief-makers who like to diminish surprises for others tell you much about what happens in these films. If you don't like to be spooked by a movie, then skip watching any of the five on the list.

    The last scary movie to be cut from the list was “Jaws” (1975). In my book that fish is the best movie monster ever. Next week we’ll see if we can publish a more lighthearted list of five film favorites. 

    Friday, October 25, 2013

    Short Subject: 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'

    Ed. Note: “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1962): B&W. 25 minutes. Directed by Robert Enrico. Cast: Roger Jacquet, Anne Cornaly. Note: This adaptation of an Ambrose Bierce short story set in the American Civil War was produced in France. It won the prize for best short film at Cannes in 1962 and an Oscar in 1963. American audiences saw it as an episode of Twilight Zone in 1964. If you haven’t seen it before avoid reading spoilers. 

    Thursday, October 24, 2013

    Five Film Favorites: Screwball Comedies

    by F.T. Rea

    Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake in "Sullivan's Travels"
    Like lots of other film buffs I enjoy making up lists of good movies. Comparing lists and discussing the choices with friends is fun. But I try to avoid getting sucked into coming up with a list of the greatest films of all-time, or the most influential, etc. That sort of game can get to be about the credentials of the list-makers. Instead, I go for favorites. My favorites in a specific category.

    To keep it moving, just five favorites. And, of course, such lists are always subject to change, depending on the mood of the moment. Which means my favorite Jack Nicholson movies list might not be the same this week as it was a couple of years ago. Today I’m in the mood for writing about my five favorite screwball comedies.

    The golden age of Hollywood’s “screwball comedies” was during the 10-year run-up to World War II. Since that time many popular features have imitated the style of the screwballs -- a few quite effectively -- but the best, or perhaps the most authentic, screwball comedies drew upon the humor to be found in the distinctions of class that became so obvious in the midst of the Depression.

    Then, too, the women in screwball comedies were quite independent-minded for the times and deliciously sarcastic. 

    Screwball comedies were farces. Frequently, the plots were stretched across a battle-of-the-sexes bed. The screenplays depended on well written dialogue. Mostly, the formula used static cameras focused on witty, attractive stars delivering their wiseacre lines. With their roots in stage plays these wordy flicks thrived on mocking conventions. The dignity of the common man was often lauded.

    No doubt, Depression era movie audiences enjoyed seeing fat cats portrayed on the big screen as fops and phonies who were clumsy in dealing with problems everyday folks coped with all the time.

    Then WWII’s brutal realities suddenly jolted popular culture. It isn’t that Hollywood stopped making comedies, it’s that fashion shifted abruptly and styles changed. Laughing at class warfare was put on hold. Maybe society's old fashioned restrictions on females weren’t viewed as being as laugh-worthy as they had been before the war.

    Movies after WWII moved toward depicting a more harsh reality. Postwar audiences liked action more than witty dialogue. Comedies became more physical, more predictable.  

    Into the 1950s and 1960s the American comedies that borrowed from the template of the screwballs tended to be over-the-top with cuteness and more explicit in their sexual tension. Generally, they lacked the subtleties and timing of the classics. Therefore, no movies produced after the USA’s entrance into WWII are on this week’s list of five favorite screwball comedies:
    • "Libeled Lady" (1936): B&W. 98 minutes. Directed by Jack Conway. Cast: Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy. Note: The principle members of the cast were all at their best for this one. While the silly story about duping a spoiled socialite meanders hither and yon, it still works beautifully. Primarily known for the roles he played later in his career than this one, Tracy's youthful energy is striking.
    • "My Man Godfrey" (1936): B&W. 94 minutes. Directed by Gregory La Cava. Cast: William Powell, Carole Lombard, Eugene Pallette, Gail Patrick. Note: As usual, the suave Powell charms the pants off every female in the story. This feature is chock-full of belly laughs at class warfare absurdities. It’s also a nice variation on the old the-butler-did-it theme. Last but not least: Lombard is perfect in her role.
    • "Philadelphia Story" (1940): B&W. 112 minutes. Directed by George Cukor. Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Ruth Hussey, Roland Young. Note: Adapted from a play written for her, this picture provided Hepburn with a perfect vehicle for what seemed at the time to be a comeback for her. Although the typical screwball plot that pokes fun at the filthy rich isn’t all that unusual, the sparkling performances of the stars won high praise from critics.
    • "Sullivan’s Travels" (1941): B&W. 90 minutes. Directed by Preston Sturges. Cast: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick, William Damarest. Note: A movie director known for his light comedies wants to make a different kind of picture. So he poses as a hobo to see how the downtrodden live. Naturally, he gets into scary trouble and hooks up with a beautiful blonde along the way.
      Lionel Barrymore and Jean Arthur in "You Can't Take It With You"

    • "You Can’t Take It With You" (1938): B&W. 126 minutes. Directed by Frank Capra. Cast: Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold. Note: Adapted from the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. A rich and well-connected guy falls for a middle class gal who lives in a house full of lovable but crazy characters. When the guy and his parents show up for dinner and meet the gal's eccentric family -- uh-oh!
    “His Girl Friday” (1940), which was on my list the last time I wrote about screwball comedies, didn’t make the cut this time. Neither did “The Lady Eve” (1941). Couldn‘t put “The Devil in Miss Jones” (1941) on the list, because that might trigger a digression that would make me miss my deadline.

    Next week a new list of Five Film Favorites will be published.

    Friday, October 18, 2013

    Short Subject: 'Blaze Glory'

    Ed. Note: "Blaze Glory" (1969): Color. 11 minutes: Directed by Len Janson, Chuck Menville. Cast: Len Janson, Chuck Menville, Genedee Cook. Note: A silly spoof of Westerns done in pixilation -- an animation style that uses real actors and props, rather than drawings. This little film surely had an influence on pixilation wizards Steve Segal and Phil Trumbo, the then-Richmond-based duo that created "Futuropolis" (1984). 

    Thursday, October 17, 2013

    Five Film Favorites: Overwhelming First Viewings

    Vanessa Redgrave and David Hemmings in "Blow-Up"
    This week’s list of favorites is made up of movies that absolutely bowled me over when I saw them for the first time. Upon those viewings each of them prompted me to rethink what I expected from a movie. Each, in its way, was so powerful it changed me.

    In the vernacular of the day, these great films expanded my mind.
    • “8½” (1963): B&W. 138 minutes. Directed by Federico Fellini. Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée. Note: A film about making a film, but fret not about making sense of it. Just watch as Fellini dazzles you with unforgettable characters and images.
    • “Blow-Up” (1966): Color. 111 minutes. Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. Cast: David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles, Jane Birkin. Note: With England’s cool mod scene in the background, a detached, cocky fashion photographer stumbles onto a murder mystery … or does he?
    • “Chinatown” (1974): Color. 130 minutes. Directed by Roman Polanski. Cast: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston. Note: This is a dark story about a dogged detective who won’t let go of a murder mystery. The evolving truth keeps getting worse. Ironically, this noirish tale unfolds in soft pastel colors. Maybe as close to a perfect movie as it gets.
    • “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972): Color. 102 minutes. Directed by Luis Buñuel. Cast: Fernando Rey, Paul Frankeur, Delphine Seyrig. Note: This is probably the prankster director's most accessible film. This dream within a joke, within a dream, sparkles like a jewel with its dry wit.
    •  “Napoleon” (1927): B&W (a few scenes are tinted). 240 minutes. Directed by Abel Gance. Cast: Albert Dieudonné, Vladimir Roudenko, Edmond Van Daële. Note: The tale of resurrecting Abel Gance’s masterpiece from the ash heap is almost as fascinating as this ancient film is eye-popping.
    It was in the summer of 1964 that I first saw “8½” in Virginia Beach. I was 16 years old when I watched it to kill some time. I’m pretty sure it was at the Beach Theater. As I hadn’t seen many foreign films, it was utterly fascinating, but I hardly knew what to think of it. It didn’t seem to have a plot. The ending seemed to mock all of what had preceded it.

    So, I went back the next day and saw “8½” again.

    “Blow-Up” played its first run engagement in Richmond at the Loews (now the Carpenter Theatre at Richmond CenterStage) in 1966. After seeing it, I remember arguing about the movie with a group of friends on the sidewalk under the theater‘s marquee. Some of them thought it was overly artsy and made no sense. The mysterious ending of it was criticized. 

    While I loved “Blow-Up,” ending included, I was hard pressed to make a convincing case of why. The process made me want to see more foreign films.

    In the summer of 1974 “Chinatown” made its Richmond premiere at the Biograph Theatre, which I then managed. First watched it before it opened with a small audience; it was a critics’ screening which included a few friends and members of the theater’s staff. As it ended I was sure we had just seen the greatest movie ever made. I couldn’t wait to tell the whole town.

    Now I’ve seen “Chinatown” countless times.

    My first viewing of “Discreet Charm” was at the old Cerberus in DeeCee in late-1972. After it ended I stayed and watched it all the way through a second time. I can still laugh out loud upon remembering certain scenes.

    When the famously restored version of Gance’s “Napoleon” played at Radio City Music Hall in 1981, it was an event unlike any other in the history of movies. Francis Ford Coppola’s father, Carmine Coppola, conducted an orchestra to accompany the silent film as it played out on three large screens. That I was paid by my bosses to go to Manhattan to see it just put the frosting on the cake ... but that’s another story.

    All five of the movies on this list played at the Biograph Theatre while I managed it (1972-83). So I had a chance to not only see them again, but I could study them. It may also suggest that some of us were more likely to be bowled over by anything when we were young. Whatever the reasons, these five movies tattooed my brain and deepened my understanding of film.

    Two first-run highlights:

    On April 11, 1973, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” opened at the Biograph for its Richmond premiere. It had just won the Oscar for Best Foreign Movie. That I wasn’t able to persuade enough Richmonders to see it to keep from losing money on its two-week run was a huge disappointment at the time.

    On June 28, 1974, “Chinatown” opened at the Biograph. It did good business and ran for five weeks. As a movie theater manager, I was never happier with a first-run engagement than I was during those five weeks. Watching it over and over and drinking in all those details changed me … hopefully for the better.

    Friday, October 4, 2013

    Documentary: 'Point of Order'

    Ed. Note: "Point of Order" (1964): B&W. 97 minutes. Directed by Emile de Antonio. Note: The footage in this influential documentary was edited down from 188 hours of kinescopes of the live-television broadcasts (CBS) of the famous Army/McCarthy hearings in 1954, which was the zenith of the blacklisting era. Sen. Joseph McCarthy and Joseph N. Welch gradually emerged as the stars of the film. McCarthy's subcommittee was investigating the U.S. Army, seeking to find hidden communists. Welch was the head counsel for the Army. 

    Movie Review: 'Gravity'

    Things Fall Apart, It’s Scientific
    by Peter Schilling

    Gravity, 2013, directed by Alfonso Cuarón. With Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.

    “At 372 miles above the earth
    There is nothing to carry sound
    No air pressure
    No oxygen
    Life in space is impossible”

    So reads the opening title cards in Alfonso Cuarón’s new space epic, Gravity. And like a proverbial red sky in the morning, we can take warning that Cuarón, the storyteller, is going to be a bit obvious and ham handed here. It’s a shame, because this is a movie that could be as nearly as perfect as the director’s last brilliant effort, Children of Men. But alas, Gravity is beautiful, it is thrilling, it is incredible science, even… until it isn’t.

    I’ll start off by saying that under no circumstances should you miss this film -- Gravity is not only startling, but terrifically thrilling, perhaps the first movie I could call pulse-pounding and really mean it.

    While I hate it when reviewers say things like “this is what movies are all about” (for movies are just as much about spectacles like this as they are as delicate as anything by Roberto Rossellini or Yasujiro Ozu), I would however say that Gravity is definitely what seeing movies in theaters is all about. In Gravity, Cuarón shoves you into an outer space that is arresting in its most literal sense -- there are so many moments where I found myself simply awed by its beauty, and its horror. The 3-D, and being in the dark, the planet earth and space debris crashing around you, makes you feel that uneasy tingle that you get when standing on the edge of an observation deck of a towering skyscraper.

    The facts: Gravity concerns the efforts of the Space Shuttle Explorer to update or repair the Hubble telescope. After only a few moments, in which we learn that Clooney’s astronaut Matt Kowalski is a high-living, country music listening raconteur (he is in an extended dialogue with Houston over his wild times at the Mardi Gras), and that Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone is nauseous and scared, space debris from a destroyed Russian satellite comes crashing into their shuttle, killing all but Stone and Kowalski.

    From there, Gravity becomes the white-knuckle ride you might hope for, but even your wildest imagination cannot expect. Cuarón is a master at not only making us feel as though we’ve donned a space suit and are in peril 300+ miles above earth, but he manages, even as we spin around and around and shuttle arms and panels and debris go sailing by, to make the audience feel somehow grounded -- it is easy to film chaos, and make people confused, but it’s another thing altogether to keep us involved in the chaos while connected to the two characters we know we should care about. The visual and sound effects are seamless and rich with detail, as is the use of the score, which booms loudly and then, suddenly, falls into disturbing silence. (For some reason, Cuarón has the soundtrack blast insanely loud in spots—I’m not sure why this is necessary, but earplugs are recommended. I’m not joking.) What Cuarón achieves here is, even though virtually none of us can know of this firsthand, a feeling of the majesty and the danger of outer space.

    Watching Gravity, I was reminded of an apocryphal story that I hope I didn’t just make up (I do that sometimes.) One of the space shuttle astronauts remarked in an interview how, when engaging in out-of-the-shuttle work (like repairs, installation, spacewalking), there is always something for the astronaut in question to be doing -- they can never once be without someone talking to them and instructing them on a task, no matter if it is simply going over a checklist. This is to keep said astronaut from going into a state of awe, of realizing exactly what is going on, of noticing that you’re floating over the earth, for Christ’s sake. Supposedly, a person can go into a state of mental arrest, and need rescue.

    I mention this because Cuarón successfully shows you exactly how this could happen (if this is indeed true.) There are moments throughout Gravity where you almost cease to become scared or tense, and just marvel at the sheer beauty of earth from this high up. At no point in Gravity does Cuarón’s camera hover in a way that is meant to make you notice this beauty -- it’s always there, a wonderful distraction, and it makes you marvel.

    Dr. Stone and Kowalski manage to break free of their own shuttle’s wreckage, and set sail, using the latter’s jet packs, to get to the Russian space station Soyuz. Cuarón has some fun communicating, ever so slightly (in what I realize is one of the few subtle points of his movie) that the debris circles the earth every ninety minutes -- meaning we can expect to see a shitstorm coming every half hour of cinema time. Perfect! Of course, the Russian station, abandoned, is itself torn to shreds. And, my God, are those shreds deadly, and gorgeous. Like the tendrils of a box jellyfish, long ribbons of… something dangle about the Russian station, a life preserver at one moment, a hangman’s noose in the next. This station provides the first step to salvation, the Chinese space station the next.

    Let’s pause to nitpick scientifically, shall we? Though Gravity has a ton of scientifically wonderful moments -- the silence in space, the incredible details of the insides of the space stations -- there’s a bunch of weird stuff, some of which is forgivable, some not. For myself, I can ignore the glaring mistake that has astronauts grumpy, namely, that the Hubble, Russian satellites (which created the debris), the Russian and Chinese space stations are all on the same orbital plane (they're not). There’s also a moment where one of the characters is reaching out and grabs another, who is drifting away. “You have to let go,” the one says, or he’ll end up pulling the other to doom… which actually makes no sense because in space once you’ve come to a stop there’s no momentum to keep you going. The one could let go of the other they’d just hang there.

    But those are truly nitpicks, because, well, who cares? This is fiction. More troubling is the fact that Cuarón and company go through so much work to create a scientifically accurate (to a degree) film, and then have Bullock’s Dr. Stone literally make one escape by saying “eenie, meenie, miney, moe” and then pressing a button, which works perfectly for some reason, and which really denies all the work of training she is supposed to have undergone.

    But here’s where we see the larger trouble with Gravity: Bullock’s Dr. Stone is, really, a fucking idiot. Oh, she’s tough, make no mistake. From the opening moments where she’s sick, to the endless backstory that is totally irrelevant to the plot -- her child died and she’s a loner -- Dr. Stone makes no sense. You have to give some credence to the type of person NASA puts into outer space, and Dr. Stone’s motion sick, nervous, defeated, and depressed mother-of-a-dead-child is not that person. Stone panics throughout the movie, breathing heavily (Kowalski, the seasoned astronaut, councils her against this much too late, and besides she doesn’t stop, using up oxygen like a frat guy chugging a Foster’s.)

    And besides: why? Like the opening title credits, which give us filmgoers in 2013 information that we really already know (Life is impossible in space? You think?), so, too, do screenwriters Alfonso and his son, Jonás, gild the lily. This is crushingly disappointing, considering how adept Alfonso was (with his other screenwriters) in handling backstory in Children of Men. There, Clive Owen’s character also had a child that died -- it was mentioned once, then alluded to, and Owen wore his grief like the ratty grey overcoat he donned throughout that incredible film. In Children of Men, his grief matches that of society’s.

    Here, it is as though the Cuarón’s do not trust us to feel for Dr. Stone unless she has some tragedy in her past. This is the case throughout Gravity -- one of the astronauts at the very beginning is killed, and when Dr. Stone looks at him, a photo of the man with his family floats up, because apparently we wouldn’t care about him unless he had a wife and kid.

    Clooney’s Kowalski is also pretty ridiculous, his country music and endless yammering a cheap way of telling us what kind of a guy he is. This is a damn shame, because Cuarón, at first, seems to think the tragedy of this space walk is enough -- we don’t get the back story as to why they’re out in space, no sense of the mission itself or even the other astronauts (as opposed to the examination of the mission in Apollo 13), and that’s just fine -- well, then jettison Stone’s backstory, please, because it drags and makes no sense, besides.

    Cuarón also decides to step into spiritual territory, with a silly aside with Bullock’s Dr. Stone talking to herself, lamenting that “no one taught me to pray” (perhaps the silliest line I’ve heard all year), and making each space station escape pod have a little religious icon in full view. I won’t spoil the ending except to say that it’s a bit much.

    I might have preferred, too, concentrating on one station, and maybe seeing Stone work her way back to earth, rather than, well, you’ll figure it out. But moving from set piece to set piece, from space station to space station, Gravity starts to get routine, fatiguing, for every conceivable thing goes wrong the way things always go wrong in, say, a video game -- the circling of the debris every ninety minutes (coincidentally, just as she manages to land at each space station.)

    All this is a shame because Gravity is a startling motion picture, and one that I have to recommend. I’m not a fan of 2001 and its empty navel-gazing (nor its very limited imagination about the future), so I don’t miss the supposedly complex ending of that film, against which Gravity is going to be forever compared. I’ll take Cuarón’s brief (Gravity is just over 90 minutes) though profoundly stunning jaunt into the heavens any day. Would that the screenwriter of Children of Men had been as economical and respectful of his audience.

    Thursday, October 3, 2013

    Five Film Favorites: Insider Looks at American Politics

    by F.T. Rea

    It has always taken a certain type of personality to hear the call to run for political office. 

    Today is Day Three of the USA's first federal government shutdown since the record-setting 21-day shutdown of Dec. 16, 1995 to Jan. 6, 1996. Of course, how it got to this unhappy point in 2013 depends on who tells the story. But it’s safe to say the personalities of today’s wielders of power inside the beltway have played significant roles in this year’s impasse.

    While the particulars of such confrontations change over the years, the sort of people who absolutely must be in positions to decide what governments ought to/ought not to do doesn’t change all that much from one generation to the next.

    So, with the day for Virginia voters to chose a new governor less than five weeks away, this is a good time to look at how films have presented such office-seekers and the so-called "sausage factories" in which they do their jobs ... when they do their jobs. 

    Which means the movies on this week’s list aren’t so much about social causes or tides of history; no revolutions, no big wars. The films on the list below are about politicians and the people one generally finds surrounding them.

    These pictures are about campaigners and deal-makers and back-stabbers. What these flicks have in common is their behind-the-scenes looks at the machinery of politics and the strong personalities of the people pushing the buttons and pulling the levers.
    • “All the King’s Men” (1949): B&W. 110 minutes. Directed by Robert Rossen. Cast: Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Joanne Dru, John Derek. Mercedes McCambridge. Note: Adapted from the novel with the same title, the story follows the phenomenal rise of Willie Stark, a populist campaigner fashioned after a real Depression Era politician -- Louisiana’s Huey P. Long (1893-1935). It is seen through the eyes of a political reporter who goes to work for Stark and eventually cringes as unchecked power overcomes and corrupts his boss.
    • “Bob Roberts” (1992): Color. 102 minutes. Directed by Tim Robbins. Cast: Tim Robbins, Giancarlo Esposito, Alan Rickman, Gore Vidal. Note: Affecting the style of a documentary, the story is set in 1990. The character of Bob Roberts, played by Robbins, first appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1986. The movie’s story is focused on the take-no-prisoners, kick-in-the-door quest of Roberts, a wealthy folk-singer/conservative politician, to win a seat in the U.S. Senate.
    • “The Candidate” (1972): Color. 110 minutes. Directed by Michael Ritchie. Cast: Robert Redford, Peter Boyle, Melvin Douglas, Allen Garfield. Note: A spin doctor talks the son of a popular governor into running for the U.S. Senate, to unseat a Republican incumbent. The original idea is he can say whatever he likes, because he has no chance to win ... or was it? When events change the odds, the temptation to compromise and tone down his message starts to build on the idealistic candidate.

    • “House of Cards” (2013): Color. 13 60-minute episodes. Directors: James Foley, Allen Coulter,David Fincher, Carl Franklin, Charles McDougall, Joel Schumacher. Cast: Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Kristen Connolly, Kate Mara, Sakina Jaffrey, Corey Stoll. Note: Don’t like putting a mini-series on the list; especially one made-for-the-Internet. But this outrageously cynical 13-episode soap opera is just too damn good to leave it off.
    • “The Last Hurrah” (1958): B&W. 121 minutes. Directed by John Ford. Cast: Spencer Tracy, Jeffrey Hunter, Dianne Foster, Pat O‘Brien, Basil Rathbone. Note: With times a-changing, Democrat Frank Skeffington, a 72-year-old big city machine politician, runs for reelection as mayor. His opponent is an empty suit with a pleasant face who is an WWII vet. The effect of the new propaganda medium, television, is explored. In its time, this was seen as a story about a real Boston mayor -- James Michael Curley.  
    Yes, I left "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), a movie I love, off the list. Sorry, I just wasn't in the mood today to include it. Put it on your own list, if you like. And, comments are (almost) always welcomed.

    Friday, September 27, 2013

    Short Subject: 'Les Mistons'

    Ed. Note: “Les Mistons” (1957): B&W. 17 minutes. Directed by François Truffaut. Cast: Bernadette Lafont, Gérard Blain. Note: A group of five boys becomes obsessed with a beautiful young woman (Lafont in her first film) who rides her bicycle around the village and sometimes to meetings with her boyfriend. Out of a mixture of curiosity and jealousy the boys stalk the lovers and make mischief to annoy them. Liberated from the restrictions of the static camera and sound stage this delightful short film helped to set the French New Wave in motion.  

    Thursday, September 26, 2013

    Five Film Favorites: Film Noir

    by F.T. Rea

    The characters were often damaged goods; someone had deliberately done them wrong. The lighting was dramatic -- lots of shadows and chiaroscuro. Cigarettes and handguns were ubiquitous. Liquor was consumed without ice or mixers. Payback was a bitch and happy endings were hard to come by.

    That was film noir in its day, or maybe I should say night, since “film noir“ means black films.

    We’re told the term "film noir" was first applied to cynical American crime dramas in 1946. A French critic, Nino Frank, used it in an article about films made during World War II that he saw as having something in common. These motion pictures hadn’t been seen in occupied France, because of the war. But the term itself didn’t become popular until years later.

    If any of the major studios in Hollywood could be said to have specialized in making film noir movies it was probably RKO. In some part that was because RKO produced many of its well-crafted features of all types on B movie budgets. Clever art directors and cinematographers could hide a lot of money-saving compromises in frames filled with shadows. RKO was usually hurting for cash. 

    The protagonists of film noir pictures were usually men with specific reasons to be bitter. Life had taught them to put faith in taking direct action to solve problems, rather than calling for help. They tended to be spontaneous anti-heroes. Film noir females were more self sufficient than the women in most American movies in the ’40s and ‘50s. Such scheming femme fatales used lots of makeup and were just as focused on getting their way as the fedora-wearing men.    

    However, most Americans didn’t recognize these movies as being in a category with a special label until the film noir era was in the rearview mirror, style-wise. Thus, the titles on my list of favorites below weren’t promoted in their original release time as film noir, at least not in this country.

    To me, it now seems the film noir era was a post-WWII phenomenon. It was influenced not only by the spooky German Expressionism of the 1920s, but also the gritty Italian Neorealism of the 1940s. Film noir was both a look and a focus on subject matter.

    Timeline-wise that puts great movies like “M” (1931) and “The Maltese Falcon” (1941) in a category of movies that is a precursor to film noir. They are among the best dark-themed crime dramas that paved the way to film noir. But in a general sense, in my view both of them are too concerned with morality -- right and wrong -- to be seen in the same category with the best of the world-weary noirs.

    Once society began absorbing the troops coming home from the war with their own damage, movies changed. Which means to make the cut this time the movie must have been released between 1946 and 1959. Naturally, it has to have been shot in black and white. Then again, although I’d like to restrict the list to American films only, what’s probably the best movie on my list, “The Third Man” (1949) -- made in England -- won’t permit it.
    Without further ado, my five favorite film noir movies for today are:
    • "The Asphalt Jungle" (1950): B&W. 112 minutes. Directed by John Huston. Cast: Sterling Hayden, Jean Hagen, Louis Calhern, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe, Marilyn Monroe. Note: A criminal mastermind (Jaffe) assembles a team to steal a million dollars worth of jewelry. But as good at their jobs as each guy is, they all have flaws that could be fatal. Marilyn Monroe’s brief but pivotal role established her child-like, ditzy blonde character that she reprised in several subsequent movies. 
    • “The Big Heat” (1953): B&W. 90 minutes. Directed by Fritz Lang. Cast: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin, Jocelyn Brando. Note: Sgt. Dave Bannion (Ford) is an honest cop who is drawn into investigating the apparent suicide of a coworker. He eventually ends up battling the local crime syndicate. Marvin is at his evil best as the brutal enforcer for the big boss. Yes, this is the one with the scene that has Marvin -- just for grins -- slinging boiling coffee into his girlfriend’s (Grahame) pretty face. 
    • "The Killing" (1956): B&W. 85 minutes. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Jay C. Flippen, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook. Note: This lean story about a race track heist put Kubrick on the map (he was just 28 when it was released). Rather than the feel of a caper melodrama, the presentation feels sort of detached ... like a documentary with a narrator giving the viewer an inside look at the crime.  
    • "The Third Man" (1949): B&W. 104 minutes. Directed by Carol Reed. Cast: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard. Note: Screenplay by Graham Greene. This elegant murder mystery is set in crumbling post-WWII Vienna. Or, is it a murder mystery? All the characters are working an angle, so the truth isn’t easy to grasp. The movie’s distinctive theme music was also a hit in its time. Maybe a perfect movie.
    • "Touch of Evil" (1958): B&W. 95 minutes. Directed by Orson Welles. Cast: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Akim Tamiroff, Dennis Weaver. Note: This crime melodrama, set on both sides of the American/Mexican border, is so chock full of weird characters it feels like a cartoon. And, don’t be put off by Heston’s presence, the director uses his wooden, bad acting to a good purpose. For many critics this movie marked the end of the film noir era.
    Since some film buffs have formed strong opinions about film noir, as a subject, hopefully a few of them will have the nerve to leave off their well-informed comments about which films should not have been omitted.

    Next Thursday a fresh list of five film favorites will be published.

    Friday, September 20, 2013

    Short Subject: 'Our Summer Made Her Light Escape'

    Ed. Note: "Our Summer Made Her Light Escape" was directed by Sasha Waters Freyer, who is the Chair of the Department of Photography and Film at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her films have shown on PBS and the Sundance Channel, as well as at various film festivals, including Telluride, Tribeca and Rotterdam. 

    For more on Freyer click here to visit the Tin House Reels.

    Thursday, September 19, 2013

    Five Film Favorites: Sports Films

    by Todd Starkweather

    A few weeks back I wrote about Tom Hooper's The Damned United (2009) and commented about the often dreadful nature of sports films. Far too often, films about sport lazily rely on the built in drama of the sport or game to produce the drama and emotion. Unlike the actual drama that a sports match can produce, the cinematic sports drama comes across as more artificial than the flavorings in children's cereal. Beyond the all too hokey game re-creations, sports films lean on the character stereotypes: grizzled baseball manager, overly talented player who refuses to listen to the coach, gritty overachiever. Combine these elements with predictable plots (team/player overcomes all wins game/championship!), and lousy films are the inevitable result.

    Fortunately, The Damned United and a few other select films serve as outliers, sports films that succeed as cinema. Below are my five favorite sports films.

    Soccer Film: The Damned United (2009) -- directed by Tom Hooper

    Check out my previous review of this excellent chronicle about an amazing episode in the life of the legendary Brian Clough.

    Baseball Film: Sugar (2008) -- directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

    Easily the greatest baseball film I have ever watched, this Boden and Fleck flick reverses the logic of the sports film (and sports narratives in general). Sports films rest on the logic that the film will end in triumph; the protagonist (team or individual) will overcome all odds and emerge victorious because sport only rewards the victorious. In Sugar, Miguel Santos, a young Dominican pitcher played by Algenis Perez Soto, finds meaning not by overcoming the odds and winning, but by rejecting the logic of the sports narrative. He quits on his team and dream of making the major leagues, yet still finds meaning in his life. This is a beautiful film.

    Cricket Film: Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001) -- directed by Ashutosh Gowariker

    Out of all the films on my list, this, oddly, is the most stereotypical sports film. Sure, it was a Bollywood blockbuster, but all the stereotypical Hollywood sports film elements are present. A gritty underdog team defies the odds, defeats the villainous bullies, and gives hope to the community. Despite this predictable formula, the film still works quite well. Bollywood legend and star Amir Khan is amazing, the song and dance sequences are fantastic, and, above all, this is a fun film. We cheer for Khan and his band of underdogs and relish hating the evil Captain Andrew Russell (Paul Blackthorne). Even with a running time of 224 minutes, I wanted more. Finally, I should add that this film accomplishes that which is nearly impossible: it concisely explains the rules of cricket.   

    Boxing Film: Fat City (1972) -- directed by John Huston

    Boxing, more than any other sport, has been the center of critically acclaimed films. Among this subset of sports films, Huston's Fat City is the resident champion. Beautifully rendered in a grainy, washed out color scheme that fits its Stockton, CA setting, Fat City tells the tale of one over the hill pugilist (Stacy Keach) trying to work his way back into the game while a younger man (Jeff Bridges) discovers the troubles that come with trying to earn a living in boxing. Fat City exposes one of the hard truths about the sport it portrays. Boxing has little glamor and even less hope, but Fat City is an incredible film. 

    Rugby Film: This Sporting Life (1963) -- directed by Lindsay Anderson

    In many ways, This Sporting Life displays many of the same characteristics as an excellent boxing film. Instead of showcasing the glory and triumph, the film illuminates the grim underbelly of the sport and the toll the sport takes on bodies and lives. The brilliant and beautiful Richard Harris plays Frank Machin, a gifted rugby player who believes that his talent and the sport represent a way out of working class hardships in Northern England. Every time I read the character's name, "Machin," I initially want to pronounce it as "Machine." And maybe that is the intent. Machin, like the other rugby players and miners in the town, are treated as machines that can be easily discarded or replaced when they cease to operate properly.

    Director Lindsay Anderson's eye in this film is quite keen. The opening rugby sequences are terrifically rendered. Rather than try to capture an actual match, Anderson distills the match into small snapshots, all beautifully framed. Anderson's depiction of the rugby matches is reminiscent of (and a possible inspiration for) the boxing sequences in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980).

    Saturday, September 14, 2013

    Short Subject: John Hubley's Films

    by F.T. Rea

    As a filmmaker, John Hubley (1914-77) was an independent's independent. Influenced by modern art and social causes he took cartoons where they had never been.

    Hubley was hired as an apprentice to paint backgrounds for Walt Disney in 1935. The apprentice rapidly advanced but after a labor dispute with the union-despising Disney, Hubley left in 1941.

    In 1942 Hubley joined the Army and served in its First Motion Picture Unit, which produced training films. During this stint Hubley refined the lean drawing style he later used when he joined another former Disney animator, Ub Iwerks, at United Productions of America. While at UPA Hubley created the Mr. Magoo character.

    In the ‘50s Hubley’s refusal to name names for the House Un-American Activities Committee put him on the blacklist and eventually forced him to leave Southern California and become an independent producer/director.

    Hubley married his animation collaborator, Faith Elliot, and they established their Storyboard Studio in New York City. The Hubleys focused on producing offbeat short films and distinctive commercials. They worked together on many projects until John’s death at the age of 62, three of their short films won Oscars.

    The two Hubley films offered above should give the reader a bit of a feel for how he influenced a generation of filmmakers/animators. In looking at several of his films to prepare this post, it seemed to me he continued to get more experimental the older he got. Some of the little films he and Faith made at Storyboard still look avant-garde today. At times their work was inspired by their children and they occasionally used their kids' voices in their films.

    As a bonus, here are links to two more Hubley shorts, here and here. There are lots of others available on YouTube.

    Friday, September 13, 2013

    Short Subject: 'The Red Balloon'

    Ed. Note: “The Red Balloon” (1956): Color. 34 minutes. Directed by Albert Lamorisse. Cast: Pascal Lamorisse, Georges Sellier, Vladimir Popov, Sabine Lamorisse. Note: Set in Paris, the story follows the adventures of a boy and a balloon who become friends. The director’s son plays the boy. This famous short film won all sorts of awards in its day. 

    Thursday, September 12, 2013

    Five Film Favorites: Movies About Television

    by F.T. Rea

    In the early-1950s television’s ability to reach into America’s living rooms was taking the country by storm. The advertising industry that was building up around television was becoming hugely influential on the nation’s culture. Many observers saw TV as being in the process of killing off the movie-making industry in Hollywood and the movie-exhibiting business all over the country.

    Eventually, one by one, the major studios sold off the rights to their old features to television. To lure audiences into aging downtown movie palaces the most panicked producers in Hollywood reached out to eye candy like CinemaScope and 3-D. Soon the studios decided they had to stop making movies in black and white. Eventually, the businessmen of Hollywood saw they had to throw off the Hays Code, adopted in the early-’30s to keep the smut out of American movies.

    A national trend moved the movie theater business to multiplexes in the suburbs. Downtown single-auditorium movie houses fell onto hard times. So, Richmond is fortunate to have an authentic old movie palace still in operation as a cinema: The Byrd Theatre, which opened in 1928, is now owned and operated by a non-profit foundation.

    Yet, some 60 years after the doom of big-budget movie-making was being predicted, while the old studio system that thrived in the ‘30s and ‘40s is history, it seems no matter how much it costs to make feature films, determined producers will always figure out ways to keep doing it.

    Of course, one of the things that Hollywood has relished doing that television couldn’t do, or wouldn’t do, for a long time, was to tell unflattering, inside stories about how the people who rule the television industry operate ... to expose their real priorities. As a medium, TV was too uptight to pull back the curtain to reveal its inner works. In other words, "The Dick Van Dyke Show" wasn’t a realistic look at the job of producing a weekly sitcom.

    However circuitous, that introduction leads us to this week’s list of five film favorites -- movies about television. All of them were made in the 20th century, one of them, just barely: 

    • “Broadcast News” (1987): Color. 133 minutes. Directed by  James L. Brooks. Cast: William Hurt, Albert Brooks, Holly Hunter, Jack Nicholson. Note: The inevitable rivalries that color the relationships of the news producer, writer/reporter and presenter/anchorman are explored. Being overly self-absorbed is an industry requirement. Roger Ebert said: “[As] knowledgeable about the TV news-gathering process as any movie ever made.”
    • “The China Syndrome” (1979): Color. 122 minutes. Directed by James Bridges. Cast: Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas, Scott Brady. Note: A reporter discovers a cover-up of an accident at a nuclear power plant and all hell breaks loose. Her determination to tell the story becomes dangerous to her and anyone close by. Ironically, the infamous Three Mile Island partial meltdown incident in Pennsylvania happened 12 days after this film was released in 1979. 
    • “A Face in the Crowd” (1957): B&W. 126 minutes. Directed by Elia Kazan. Cast: Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Anthony Franciosa, Lee Remick. Note: An early warning about television’s potential to boost a charismatic personality into real power. As corny as this film is, in ways, most of it holds up well. Although Andy Griffith doesn’t play a heavy often, he sure knocks it out of the park in this one.
    • “Magnolia” (1999): Color. 188 minutes. Directed by  Paul Thomas Anderson. Cast: Jason Robards, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Tom Cruise, Philip Baker Hall. Note: A dark but whimsical story about fate and luck, told from several angles that overlap. The scene that unites all the characters, to sing the same Aimee Mann song is about as risky AND as satisfying as it gets on the big screen.
    • “Network” (1976): Color. 121 minutes. Directed by Sydney Lumet. Cast: Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Robert Duvall. Note: The future of cable television’s soon-to-be-seen excesses in bad taste is anticipated with chilling accuracy by writer Paddy Chayefsky. Finch’s unhinged anchorman character, Howard “I’m Mad as Hell” Beale, is unforgettable. It won him an Oscar.
    Close runners-up: Although I wanted to put “Medium Cool” (1969) on this list, it’s been so long since I’ve seen it that I couldn‘t do it. “Wag the Dog” (1997) almost made the list, too. If I’ve left off your favorite movie about television, please feel free to use the comments option this blogzine offers to give it its proper due.

    Next Thursday another Five Film Favorites episode with a different category will be offered.