Thursday, June 30, 2011

"Creepyness" pervades "Cabaret", but timelessness does not

As my son and I watched the beginning of Cabaret (1972), number 63 on AFI's top 100, he got his first look at Joel Gray as the Master of Ceremonies.

Joel Grey as the Master of Ceremonies
"He's creepy looking." he said.

From the mouths of babes (well, at 12 he's  not exactly a babe). As I continued to watch (he wandered off to his PS3 shortly after the first scene), his words crept (pun intended) back into my mind. There is a "creepy" nature to this film. Some of it was intended, some of it not.

It's creepy to watch as the decadent, amoral, disaffected Berliners stumble through life which almost makes one understand how the Nazis were able to rise to power so quickly.

It's creepy to watch Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli) delude herself into thinking that her father or her German sugar daddy will ever REALLY care for her.

Cabaret (film)Image via WikipediaIt's creepy to watch Brian Roberts (Michael York) battle his internal conflict between his love for Sally and his lust for Max, Sally's sugar daddy.

I did like the directing and editing. Most musicals work the numbers into the plot, which always seems unrealistic to me. Cabaret, however, uses the frame of the cabaret show to tell the story and connects the musical numbers with the plot instead of integrating them. The Master of Ceremonies dances with a gorilla while singing "If You Could See Her", a song seemingly about looking for the inner beauty in a person. It's a wonderful song until the end when he mentions that she's "a Jew." Suddenly, the racist tones of the song connect with the rising antisemitism in Germany and the developing relationship between Fritz and Natalia. One scene consists of quick cuts between the laughing decadence of the Kit Kat Club and the brutal beating of the club's owner by a pack of Nazis. The juxtaposition of those images sends a strong message.

I suppose some of the material in the film (pre-marital sex, bisexuality) may have been a bit shocking for the time it was made, but that part doesn't hold up well over time. The look into the rise of the Nazis and the frivolity of love between insecure characters holds up better.

I suppose for sheer shock value at the time, it would warrant #63, but I judge a classic by its timeless nature. Cabaret doesn't quite meet that standard.
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Saturday, June 25, 2011

"The Apartment" belongs in the high-rent district

Cover of "The Apartment (Collector's Edit...Cover of The Apartment (Collector's Edition)Number 80 on AFI's top 100 list is The Apartment (1960). I think it should be higher. It's a great romantic comedy in the old school tradition (i.e. no gratuitous nudity or language - in fact none at all). It features great writing (Academy Award for Best Screenplay) and acting, with excellent performances by Jack Lemmon and a young Shirley MacLaine.

For me, McLaine is the revelation here. I had never seen any of her earlier films and was only familiar with her later work and her zany reincarnation beliefs. As the crux of the love triangle with C.C. Baxter (Lemmon) and Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), MacLaine's Fran plays an elevator operator in a large insurance firm. She trades quips with the horny male workers and fends off the gropes of older management types. She balances a self-confident exterior with an inner vulnerability which makes the character very interesting.

Baxter moons over her, but he has a problem - he loans out his nearby apartment to the management at his company for illicit trysts in order to advance up the corporate ladder. He spends so much time juggling the "schedule" for his apartment that he can't work up the nerve to tell Fran how he really feels. The big boss (MacMurray) finds out about the apartment and offers Baxter a promotion for exclusive access. Guess who he wants to bring there?

With the current nostalgia for the early 60's (see Mad Men), I'm surprised there hasn't been a remake of this film. The writing would stand out in today's rom-com fluff. Steve Carrell would do the Baxter role justice, and Alec Baldwin would devour the Sheldrake role.

As one of the few comedies to win Best Picture (1961), The Apartment should upgraded to a higher rent district by the AFI.

Next up on the list, we continue with the Billy Wilder-Fred MacMurray duo and investigate Double Indemnity (1944).

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Monday, June 20, 2011

Enjoyable voyage on "The African Queen"

Cover of "The African Queen (Commemorativ...Cover via AmazonThe African Queen -- John Huston's take on the "river journey" film, still holds up today, as both an adventure and a romance.

I found myself comparing this, unfairly of course, to Casablanca because of Bogart and his battle with the Germans (different war, I know). His character is much different, though. Rick Blaine would have tossed Rosie (Katharine Hepburn's character) over the side of the boat within 10 minutes. Charlie submits to Rosie's will early and often and she dominates the pair for most of the film.

The scene where they "consummate" their relationship shows how much things have changed in Hollywood since the 50's. They kiss passionately (no tongue, of course) and the scene dissolves. Fade in to the morning with Charlie sleeping and Rose smiling down on him preparing to serve him breakfast in bed. I'm sure feminists would have a field day with that. If the film was remade today, we would have seen the boat rockin' on the river and perhaps some startled wildlife. Clothing would have been strewn all over the Queen.

The ending was a bit contrived for my taste, but that was the way of it during that time period. Shakespeare would have been proud of the extreme coincidence of the final scene. All's well that ends well, I suppose.

The African Queen is ranked number 65 by the AFI, and I think it's appropriate. It influenced many films which followed (Romancing the Stone for one). If you watch Raiders of the Lost Ark, you can see the relationship between Indy and Marion has Charlie and Rosie's fingerprints all over it.

My next film will be The Apartment (1960) -- #80 on the list.

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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Thoughts on "Raging Bull"

Raging BullImage via WikipediaIt wasn't next from the bottom of the AFI 100, but I happened to notice it at the library, and, having just watched The Fighter, I grabbed Raging Bull. I'm glad I did.

At number four on the list, it was the highest rated film I had yet to see. I love Scorcese anyway, and he didn't disappoint.

De Niro and Pesci were as advertised, but I thought Cathy Moriarty stole many of the scenes in the film. In a way, her character (LaMotta's second wife, Vikki) is the strongest in the film. She doesn't back down from LaMotta's verbal abuse and gives as good as she takes. The black and white of the film really highlights her blonde hair and fair skin and works as a great contrast with De Niro's dark hair.

Raging Bull fits all the qualities of the classic Greek tragedy. LaMotta reaches great heights but is brought down by his own tragic flaw. Some see his temper as the flaw, but it's his paranoia - constantly suspecting his wife of cheating and his brother and the local mafia of conspiring to swindle him. It eventually drives him to brutally attack his brother and destroy their relationship. He eventually goes on to win the title, but it seems hollow because his brother is not by his side.

Martin Scorcese highlights LaMotta's struggle against being controlled by the mafia, but later shows how he succumbs and throws a fight just to get a shot at the title. His tearful breakdown in the locker room after the Hill fight could almost be considered the climax of the film, even though he had yet to win the title. He takes great pride in not having been knocked down in the ring, but his integrity suffers a deadly blow. He doesn't realize he's already lost everything he fought for.

After that, it's downhill for the character even though his career has yet to peak. Everyone he's loved abandons him, and he's left, in the end, talking to himself in a mirror - a fitting narcissistic ending for the character.

As for number four on the top 100, I think that's a bit high, but it should certainly be in the discussion.
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Thoughts on "Ben-Hur"

Cropped screenshot of Charlton Heston from the...Image via WikipediaOne down, many to go. As epics go, it fit the bill, but even at 3+ hours, there were holes in the film that bothered me. He goes to Rome, and all of a sudden he's this expert chariot racer? Up to that point in the film, he hadn't even seen a horse! More back story on the friendship between Judah and Messala would have been nice as well. It seemed that William Wyler (the director) was obsessed with the "epic-ness" of the film and skimped on character development.

I have to say, Charlton Heston can overact with the best of them. Between Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments, I've seen enough of his overwrought grimaces to last me for a while. The similarities between the two films and the characters he plays (a Jew, treated like a prince, befriends an enemy of his people, exiled...etc.) make you scratch your head.

The cinematography was fantastic and, in today's CGI world, the live action chariot race was amazing. The score was what you would expect from this type of story.

As an epic, it doesn't rank with Lawrence of Arabia, but it kept me interested. I'd say it's rank in the AFI Top 100 is warranted, but just barely so.

Next up: Raging Bull (1980)

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