Friday, March 26, 2010

Seeing The Great Escape (1963)

(The Steve McQueen Blogathon continues at Jason Bellamy's The Cooler.)

This is the power of cinema:

I was 11 years old, living in San Mateo, California, in a suburban home that had a small backyard with a lawn and a wooden shack used as a garden shed. The shack had a door, windows with glass, and a concrete floor with a hole in it. My two brothers and I, along with a couple of neighbor kids, pulled away more pieces of concrete and started digging straight down. Then we tunneled out under the foundation and the front wall. Surreptitiously, we dispersed the dirt in the backyard garden beds, sometimes holding handfuls in our hands, walking through the garden, and dropping them as we walked. A neighbor friend made a wooden tray that we filled with dirt and placed over the mouth of the tunnel to conceal it. Our secrecy fooled the German “guard” who sometimes looked over us from the kitchen window over the sink. (Well, she was my mother – but she really was German.) The concealing dirt tray hid the tunnel successfully on Saturday when my father entered the shack for a shovel or hoe. When the tunnel was done – it was no longer than half the length of an eleven-year-old’s body – we breached the surface of the garden bed outside the shack and finally revealed our secret to the “Germans.” Tunnel done, we went on to stage motorcycle chases on our bicycles. We didn't get in trouble for the tunnel. We only got in trouble for tying a string across the street and nearly giving an old lady a heart attack. All this - because of a movie.

It was 1963. I was 11, in the 6th grade that fall, and with movies like Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, and To Kill a Mockingbird as some of my early cinematic experiences, I was already, irretrievably, a passionate movie nut. I boned up on older movies by scouring T.V. Guide for classics playing on television, and compared notes with my avid moviegoer mother who had seen them all. My father and older brother were more into sports, but they went along with most of the family expeditions to the movies – and dinnertime conversation often involved one of my two brothers or me recounting the plot of a movie we had seen on our own. That year, my older brother had gone to a newly released movie with some friends, and one dinnertime, he excitedly reported the basic plot of this great movie: The Great Escape. We had to see it!

We went as a family to the Belmont Theater in Belmont, California. My parents were very invested in the viewing. My native British father had been in the R.A.F. during World War II – fortunately not flying a Spitfire in the Battle of Britain – spending most of his time organizing physical training for soldiers in India. My native German mother had immigrated to Canada in the 1920s, and we had moved to California when I was two, but most of her relatives endured World War II in Germany. One of her uncles was wounded at Stalingrad but escaped internment in a gulag. Nevertheless, watching the film she had much sympathy for the young British officers who had flown into harm’s way and ended up in a German prison camp. (Her father had been incarcerated in an internment camp in Canada during the war.)

You follow the trucks winding through green German farmland to the accompaniment of Elmer Bernstein’s highly hummable march, and the film immediately takes you into its little world. The German prison camp where the irrepressible British flyers plot their Great Escape is an unforgettable microcosm filled with a variety of interesting characters engaged in gripping schemes. It’s just kids playing imaginary games in the backyard – fooling the “goons” with clever warning systems, inventing ingenious contraptions with scrounged materials, digging elaborate tunnels – and keeping it all secret from the Germans.

But it’s not only the suspense that builds as the escape tunnel is being dug, it’s the variety of likable characters that hooks you as well. My brothers and I picked our favorites: the tortured “Big X” Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), obsessed with escape; the claustrophobic “Tunnel King” Danny (Charles Bronson); the clever “Manufacturer” Sedgwick (James Coburn with a dreadful Aussie accent), escaping with a big trunk; the charmingly devious “Scrounger” Hendley (James Garner); the tea-loving Blythe (Donald Pleasance), the bird-watcher turned forger; or the upper-class Ashley-Pitt (David McCallum), dispersing soil down his baggy trousers, sacrificing himself to save Roger from the Gestapo. And breezing through it all – Steve McQueen as “The Cooler King” Captain Virgil Hilts – bouncing his baseball in solitary confinement, making hooch out of potatoes to cheer up the Brits on July 4th (as if the Brits didn’t know how to have fun and had to be introduced to hard liquor!), digging his way under the wire like a mole, stealing a motorcycle and speeding toward freedom in Switzerland.

I was captivated by this movie, and so was the large audience at the Belmont. And even without a motorcycle chase, there is enough to grip you. The series of escape and capture sequences is a masterpiece of parallel editing: the pursuit of Bartlett and MacDonald has always been one of my favorite running chases; and Ashley-Pitt's sacrifice at the train station is a wonderful example of the drama of looking. But then there is the motorcycle chase – so engaging because that’s Steve McQueen there on the motorcycle – for the most of the shots – and the whole sequence is enhanced by the ironic beauty of the green countryside and the quaint Bavarian villages.

You know those moments in the history of film that elicit an audible response from the audience – the kind of moment that makes you blurt out an “Oh, yes!” Of all moments like this, I don’t remember a more enthusiastic one as when, during my first viewing of The Great Escape, Hilts heads for the wire and jumps it. Your heart pounded. It looked like he was going to make it! Nowadays, vehicular jumps elicit yawns. But this jump was a judiciously employed surprise, set in a stunning location, moved along by a thrilling musical score, involving a likable hero played by a charismatic actor, and all these ingredients made the whole thing magically exciting.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Sand Pebbles (1966) - Starring Steve McQueen

(Part of the Steve McQueen Blog-a-thon over at Jason Bellamy's The Cooler.)

As a big fan of historical epics, I love Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles, starring Steve McQueen in his Oscar-nominated role as Jake Holman. (At the age of 15, and a big fan of McQueen in The Great Escape, I remember how excited I was to watch the Oscars for that year.) Set in China in the 1920s as Communists and Nationalists vie for control of the vast country, this 1966 film explores the issue of imperialism and pointedly draws parallels to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Thrown into this confusing turmoil are the crew of the U.S. gunship San Pablo. Called “the Sand Pebbles, the American sailors conduct drills aboard the ship, deliver mail to the embassy, and visit a local brothel where they drink and brawl and think nothing of their presence in a foreign nation that does not want them. Jake Holman is the newest crew member and somewhat of an outcast. Forced into the Navy after an incident in his youth when he impulsively beat up a teacher, Holman just wants to spend time with the engine he is signed on to run. But his unwillingness to accept the use of Chinese coolies as assistants causes friction with his fellow crew members.

McQueen well deserved his nomination for his portrayal of Holman. He creates a simple soul who just wants to be left alone. In one scene straight from the wonderful novel by Richard McKenna, Holman actually talks to the ship’s engine he loves to work with. When he first arrives on the boat, he lovingly adjusts valves, wipes pipes, and declares. “Hello, engine. I’m Jake Holman.” This might be the type of language that works in a novel but should probably be left out of the film version, but McQueen puts touching believability into his delivery and it works.

McQueen’s natural taciturnity also works well as he portrays Jake’s relationship with a demure American missionary named Shirley Eckert, played by the beautiful Candice Bergen, whose acting ranges from stilted to naturalistically sincere. Jake's shyness and his attempts to smooth over his rough ways in the presence of a straight-laced Christian missionary provide endearing moments. In a two scenes in which Jake shows Shirley aspects of Chinese culture, McQueen reveals his very touching side. His speech is awkward but warm. In the scene in which Jake attempts to win a wish by tossing stones onto the back of an elephant sculpture, we see that charming sense of playfulness that always shines through McQueen's acting. In the film clip below, watch Steve turn and look at the Chinese street urchin who has bested him. Even from afar, the whole stance of his body is unmistakable, inimitable McQueen.

McQueen also clearly portrays Jake’s moral dilemma, a conflict reminiscent of A Farewell to Arms: continue participating in his country’s imperialistic monitoring of China’s politics or jump ship and join Shirley at the missionary. As Jake waffles, we see inner conflict in his eyes, though if you had Bergen’s tear-filled blue eyes beckoning you, you’d jump ship right away.

At times The Sand Pebbles is weighed down by subplots: Jake must train a new Chinese mechanic named Po-han (Mako) who is later cruelly tortured by the Communists to provoke an incident; and Jake’s buddy Frenchy Burgoyne (Richard Attenborough) falls in love with a brothel “hostess” who needs rescuing. But the film is kept dramatic by means of detailed art direction showing crowded Chinese ports; picturesque river locations captured by cinematographer Joseph MacDonald (Taras Bulba, Viva Zapata!); and tightly cut action sequences edited by William Reynolds (The Sting, The Godfather). Additional texture is provided by Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score with themes ranging from brooding to romantic to heart-thumpingly thrilling.

Location, cinematography, and editing work together especially nicely to produce a battle sequence that is one of my favorites of all time. After a shameful loss of face and a near-mutiny during a threatening political crisis, the officers and crew attempt to win back their pride by steaming up river, breaking through a boom blocking their way, and rescuing American missionaries. (Ironically, the missionaries don’t want to be rescued and the whole episode emphasizes the futility of the conflict Jake Holman contemplates deserting.) This wonderfully filmed, dramatically edited fight at the boom will be examined more closely in a later contribution to the Steve McQeen Blog-a-thon presented to you by Jason Bellamy at the Cooler.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Remember Me - But not that way!

It’s really too bad that Salinger wouldn’t sell the film rights for The Catcher in the Rye. If he had, Robert Pattinson could play Holden Caulfield and most likely earn an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Coming from two Twilight movies, Pattinson has certainly perfected the Holden Caulfield-as-played-by-James Dean act. It’s all there – the downcast, pain-filled eyes, the unshaven cheeks, the neck and head sticking out perpendicularly from the rest of his slouched body clad in rumpled clothing.

Without Salinger’s novel as an option, Pattinson can at least explore his inner Holden in films that borrow from the classic story. In Remember Me Pattinson plays Tyler Hawkins, wastrel son of a Wall Street wheeler-dealer (Pierce Brosnan) who is estranged from his son and little daughter after the suicide of his elder son, Michael. Auditing courses at NYU and leading a shiftless existence out of a grungy Manhattan apartment, Tyler feels loads of pain – just like Holden Caulfield, and, just like Holden, he smokes a lot, hangs out in Central Park with his little sister, and is fixated on the memory of his deceased brother. Tyler spends a lot of time “writing” to his dead brother in the coffee shop where he last saw him alive. At the same time, Tyler may be shiftless, but he is devoted to his little sister, a talented artist, ignored by her father.

Although aimless and depressed, Tyler is luckier than Holden. He falls in love with Ally Craig (Emilie de Ravin), a young woman also suffering from pain. When she was eleven, she witnessed the shooting death of her mother in a Brooklyn subway station. Conflict arises here when it turns out Ally’s father, a tough Brooklyn cop tormented by his wife’s death, arrested Tyler one night. Ally feels lied to and Daddy wants to kill the good-for-nothing, but true love shines through, and Tyler and Craig are destined for each other.

Their relationship touchingly portrayed, Tyler and Ally both suffer from life’s unfairness. Ally’s mother was shot by a mugger. Tyler lost his brother to suicide, and he spends his life lashing out at those injustices in life noboby can stop: macho punks beating up innocent guys; school girls ostracizing his sister; his father’s neglect. But Tyler keeps trying in his own sometimes self-destructive way, and that gives Pattinson’s character something to admire, saving him from being just a handsome, moping, self-absorbed wastrel with bedroom eyes, even though once in a while you feel like shouting, “Stand up straight and get a life, why don’t you!”

But Tyler’s and Ally’s dedication to helping each other through life’s pain wins through. A mother or a brother can matter so much that it may well be unreasonable to expect anyone to get over the senseless loss of such a loved one – though in the end Tyler and Ally learn that they can “remember” without feeling all that debilitating pain.

On second thought, perhaps we should thank our lucky stars that Salinger withheld his film rights. Pattinson as Holden Caulfield might be too much to bear. He’s too good at that woe-is-me routine. Better to play Holden-like characters in movies like Remember Me which give him a chance to take action and rise out of that morose Holden mode that can get kind of tiresome.

For its Catcher parallels, the performances of Pattinson and de Ravin, its touching and contemplative musical score, and even for its melodramatic ending, I enjoyed this little film.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2008)

One of my favorite movies of the past decade, Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2008) examines the turmoil within two parallel minds – that of Jesse James, a notorious outlaw who knows his days are numbered, and that of gang-member-wannabe Robert Ford, a twenty-year-old who worships Jesse and feels an obsessive affinity toward him that borders on the sexual. The twisted workings of these parallel minds are memorably portrayed by two tremendous performances – Brad Pitt as outlaw Jesse James and Casey Affleck as the “coward” Robert Ford. These inner stories of complex conflict, as performed by Pitt and Affleck, are supported by a hauntingly contemplative musical score; achingly lucid cinematography that makes objects like a spoon clinking in a coffee cup, a nickel-plated Smith and Wesson revolver, or water splashing in someone’s face feel almost palpable; and voiceover narration that poignantly catalogues historical detail.

Brad Pitt as Jesse James convinces us of the charisma of this coldly brutal man. He has been an outlaw for fifteen years, has been in hiding for five years after a disastrous bank robbery, and now he’s putting together a ragtag band of bandits for a final train robbery. He looks worn out, worried, regretful. He is estranged from brother Frank (Sam Shepard). He distrusts everyone. His last robbery turns sour and he beats a guard out of rage and frustration. His emotions strained, he puts his head in his saddle and weeps after bullying a young boy. When things seem absurd, he emits a strained, hyperbolic laugh. He does weird things like cutting the heads off garter snakes or shooting at a catfish swimming under a shield of ice. He doesn’t trust Robert Ford in the beginning, but then he risks having him around him when he starts to enjoy the boy’s adulation for him. He seems to invite his death at the hands of Robert Ford.

Casey Affleck is Robert Ford who, as a young boy, turned fascination with Jesse James into an obsession that led him to collect Jesse James mementos in a box: dime novels; newspaper clippings; a bandit’s mask. He not only wants to be near Jesse James; he wants to be Jesse James. He too does weird things. He smells Jesse’s sheets; he sips from Jesse’s water glass. He is clearly an insecure and unhinged psychopath – the perfect young nobody to be an assassin – and we see this in his shifty, half-closed eyes and thin lips that ripple over halting, reticent words. Robert Ford wants to be Jesse James because he wants to be famous like Jesse James – he wants to be somebody – so much so that he will allow himself to kill the man he worships.

Although Robert is the one destined to murder Jesse, he is the runt of a gang of wanton ruffians. Sam Rockwell plays Robert's older brother Charley Ford as a jocular opportunist who submits passively to his brother's monomania and is later eaten up by his popularity as one of the killers of the famous outlaw. Adding to the very strong supporting cast, Paul Schneider as Dick Liddil and Jeremy Renner as Jesse's cousin Wood Hite do a great job of fleshing out the kind of thinly courageous tough guys who wait around aimlessly for outlaw glory and end up shot or pressured by the Pinkertons to betray Jesse.

Creating the kind of cinematic world you can almost feel and smell, startlingly beautiful cinematography joins with lyrical voiceover narration that takes on the tone of a classic novel and, at the same time, of a detailed historical documentary about Missouri in 1882. Cinematography and voiceover create a tangible world and build suspense as we are taken into troubled minds that draw two individuals toward a fateful, lethal convergence. This film creates images we remember: Jesse’s dead body strapped to a table for a photograph; Jesse sitting in a chair in his backyard, holding up a handful of writhing garter snakes; Jesse standing in the middle of the Missouri prairie, brooding, seeing his end in an approaching wildfire.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The 82nd Academy Awards in an Alternate Dimension

Last night I found myself transported to an alternate dimension where things happen differently, especially when I don't like how they happen in our dimension.



Inglourious Basterds


Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds


Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds


Inglourious Basterds

Which awards happened differently in your alternate dimension?

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Alice in Oz, I mean Narnia, No, I Mean Wonderland

Tim Burton's re-imagining of (or sequel to) the classic Alice in Wonderland takes us on a journey to a land that sometimes resembles Oz, and sometimes looks like a dark, wasted world typical of Burton's imagination, by means of a story that is less like Lewis Carroll's picaresque encounters with bizarre and inscrutable characters and more like a chronicle of Narnia in which the sword-wielding Alice, an armor-clad Joan of Arc, must fulfill a prophecy by slaying the Jabberwocky and deliver Underland from evil.

The film starts slowly. Alice has been taken to a garden party that turns out to be her own engagement party to an English nerd she has no intention of marrying. Although I was immediately captivated by the presence of Mia Wasikowska as Alice, the story bogs down in England until the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen) appears around a hedge and taps his watch, as though reminding Tim Burton to pick up the pace. Yes, indeed, time to get to Wonderland.

Down under we encounter some delightful allusions to Carroll's book: the drink that says, "Drink me," the cake that says, 'Eat me," and the caterpillar (wonderfully voiced by Alan Rickman) that says, "Who are you?" as it blows a cloud of smoke from its hookah pipe. But at first we find ourselves in a world that looks like Oz (see below). Throughout, the film mixes parts Ozian (evil sister versus good sister; Dorothy's sentimental relationship with the Scarecrow/ Alice's relationship with the Mad Hatter) with parts Narnian (good versus evil; the battle scene) and the result is any old fantasy adventure with swords, castles, and dragons.

Still, the film's art direction - always Burton's strength - is a pleasure to watch, as we are treated to images that range from the whimsical to the bleak.

It would be very disappointing to have an Alice in Wonderland re-imagining without a mad tea party. So we get a mad tea party - at its best when the March Hare (Paul Whitehouse) and the Mad Hatter sling cups and cakes at each other - straining its welcome when it gets over-talkie, especially, I'm afraid, when it's the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) doing the talking. I think Johnny Depp's bizarre get up is spot on. But as soon as he opens his mouth, his voice is a strained attempt at sounding different that comes off like a Scottish Jack Sparrow. Sometimes his voice wanders into other realms of inflection; there's nothing consistent about it. He is sometimes funny, but more often his repetitive inanities about ravens and writing desks fall rather flat.

Meanwhile, Helena Bonham Carter is consistently brilliant as the Red Queen. Her eyes a glaze of soulless indolence, her voice tersely clipped out of the corner of her mouth, Bonham Carter makes us look forward to her every utterance. My favorite moment comes when she calls for a pig. "I need a pig here. I love a warm pig belly for my aching feet." In reference to the weird Tweedledee and Tweedledum twins she has captured, she says, "I love my fat boys." That was my second favorite moment in the film.

Bonham Carter, Wasikowska's Alice, and the beautiful art direction do their best to make up for a storyline that plops down lifelessly like the Jabberwocky's severed head.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Sand Pebbles (1966)- Part 2 - The River Battle Sequence

(This is a follow-up to my review of The Sand Pebbles and a contribution to the Steve McQueen Blog-a-thon over at Jason Bellamy's The Cooler.)

Especially during the 1960s, the heyday of the widescreen historical epic, battle scenes were everywhere. But this one stands out. I like how it uses extreme long shots to establish the setting and the situation the San Pablo is in, and when it comes to the battle, close-ups are used sparingly for dramatic effect, and loosely framed medium to long shots capture the hand-to-hand combat, making the action clearer, unlike the claustrophobic, in-your-face framing of much of the battle action in films these days.

Let’s take a look –

The opening shot for this sequence is tremendous. The ship's bow slicing through the water suggests speed and purpose. The snags in the water suggest danger ahead.

I need to know where I am at all times in a movie. This long shot clearly presents the situation: an American gunboat alone in a vast country.

Here is a beautifully composed shot: river, hills, sky.

The camera moves with the boat as the barrier blocking the river is revealed.

The iris through the binoculars clearly sets up the conflict. The boat has to break through this barricade.

Now that the situation has been established, the camera takes us in closer to the men preparing for battle. They uncover the gun. They place axes, fire buckets, and weapons where they can be reached easily. I like the establishing of props used later in the action.

Again, this beautiful long shot clearly locates the action.

Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) mans the Browning automatic. Of course he does! I love the cool way McQueen picks up the gun and cocks it. This macho handling of the weapon is juxtaposed with his ambivalence about his part in this battle. Snapping down the sight suggests his turmoil over his place here. He wants to do the Farewell to Arms thing.

Pointing out the enemy by sighting down a cannon barrel - a classic battle scene technique.

Another extreme long shot! Love it! The action is never claustrophobic. The filmmakers make the most of this wonderful exterior location.

Opening shots are exchanged, and the battle begins.

A good shot - in more ways than one!

A little patriotism - or the suggestion that our flag is going where it shouldn't necessarily be going.

Long shot establishes the proximity of the enemy.

The first boarding party gets ready.

Jake Holman, in the second boarding party, looks on.

First boarding party away! And a very nice stunt as the first American is killed and falls into the water.

And here's what I love so much about the hand-to-hand combat shots in this sequence: they are medium to long and loose, never cluttered. The action is clear and always watchable - never a mere impression of noise and motion.

Second boarding party away! Jake Holman leading. SPOILERS AHEAD!

Close shots of the effects of war ...

... fill Jake with turmoil. He doesn't want this!

Jake takes the axe, determined to end the carnage by cutting through the boom as quickly as possible.

An adversary creeps up behind him - and what a beautifully composed shot with the flames on the right and the smoke on the left.

Then comes one of those little surprises that make cinema such a thrilling experience. The Chinese soldier swings his sword ...

... but Jake ducks, and the sword glances off his helmet.

Then, as the soldier cocks back his sword again, Jake swings.

Jake is devastated by the killing of this young man.

God's lonely man, Jake walks back to the gunboat, a solitary figure damned by war.

The gunboat breaks through the boom ...

... at a huge cost.

In the last image in the battle sequence, McQueen as Jake Holman shows his remorse for his actions and his resolve to "make no war no more." When he makes his decision to stay with Shirley and the missionaries and not go back to the ship, we do not take this as an act of cowardice. His decision is a judgment of the futility of war and the injustice of imperialism. We have no doubt that Jake is a hero.