Sunday, March 22, 2009

Repeat Viewing: Modern Times (1936, Charles Chaplin)

TSPDT placing: #48

Directed by: Charles Chaplin
Written by: Charles Chaplin

By 1936, Charles Chaplin was already an anachronism – albeit, an anachronism who was also treasured as an artistic genius. The arrival of The Jazz Singer (1927) did little to curb the director's enthusiasm for silent cinema, and, though he considered at length the commercial implications of converting to synchronised sound, his first film in the "talkie" age was almost completely silent (Chaplin compromised by composing a musical score). Nevertheless, the critical and commercial response to City Lights (1931) was strong, reaffirming Chaplin's status as a cinematic master, and vindicating his decision to linger with an otherwise extinct medium. Thus, Modern Times (1936) was to follow in the same mould, despite a synchronised soundtrack which includes a musical score, sound effects and several lines of spoken dialogue (always spoken through a mechanical "barrier," such as a record-player, radio or loudspeaker). The film is historically significant in that it was Chaplin's first overtly political work, raising concerns inspired both by the economic hardship of the Great Depression, and Chaplin's growing interest in socialism.

The title "Modern Times" is used to deliberate ironic effect. Traditionally, to be modern was to be at the forefront of human progress, a step forwards in Man's noble attempt to assert his dominance over his environment; in short, to further distinguish our species from the lower animals. Yet Chaplin believed that such widespread industrialisation was a step backwards for society. Even from the opening shot, he draws comparisons between the hustling crowds of factory workers travelling to work, and a flock of sheep being herded through a corral. The dehumanisation caused by the workers' monotonous factory work is played for maximum comedic effect, with Chaplin's Tramp eventually driven to a nervous breakdown by Frederick Taylor's apathetic brand of scientific management. In these conditions, direct human interaction is minimal, and almost always channelled through an mechanical mediator. In a scene predating Orwell's "Nineteen-Eighty Four (1949)," Chaplin is reprimanded by a telescreen in the bathroom, the image of his boss looming overhead like the spectre of Big Brother.

Chaplin may also have been remarking upon the rise of the Hollywood studio system, which by then employed a comparable assembly-line approach to film-making. Chaplin, who was given full artistic control through his co-ownership of United Artists, worked in complete opposition to these practices, though it could be argued that his perfectionism and often improvisational style was so inefficient that only an artist as wealthy as he could have gotten away with it. Truth be told, there's nothing particularly distinguished about Chaplin's direction – despite his strong reliance upon actions over words, his silent films were never as visually accomplished as that of Murnau or Lang, for example. However, his greatest talents as a filmmaker were concerned with the plight of people, and, however much sentimentality he liked to dish out, there can be no doubt that, in Chaplin's characters, one found individuals with whom they shared a very real human bond, of empathy and compassion. For all the director's criticism of modern society, he possessed a genuine belief in the value of human spirit.

When Chaplin came under fire for alleged "communist sympathies" in the late 1940s, the content of Modern Times was scrutinised for evidence to support the allegations. Certainly, within the director's distaste for industrialisation one may discern an underlying dissatisfaction with capitalism, but Chaplin was definitely not a communist; after all, a prime motivation in his choosing to continue producing silent films was to retain his commercial popularity in foreign-language markets – that's the capitalist spirit! Nevertheless, Chaplin was eerily prescient when he included a scene in which his Tramp is falsely accused of being a communist, mirroring his own intense political troubles, which concluded in 1952 with the retraction of his US re-entry visa. Though he was initially hesitant about breaking his screen silence, as Chaplin's political convictions grew, so too did his desire to have himself heard. For that, he would, however reluctantly, have to embrace the technology of sound, and, for a mouthpiece, he would choose the most hated man in Europe.

Currently my #1 film of 1936:
1) Modern Times (Charles Chaplin)
2) After the Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke)
3) Swing Time (George Stevens)
4) Partie de campagne {A Day in the Country} (Jean Renoir)
5) Follow the Fleet (Mark Sandrich)
6) Sabotage (Alfred Hitchcock)
7) Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Frank Capra)
8) Secret Agent (Alfred Hitchcock)
9) Intermezzo (Gustaf Molander)
10) My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava)


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Target #263: The Godfather: Part III (1990, Francis Ford Coppola)

TSPDT placing: #616
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Written by: Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Andy Garcia, Eli Wallach, Joe Mantegna, George Hamilton, Bridget Fonda, Sofia Coppola, Raf Vallone, Franc D'Ambrosio, Donal Donnelly, Richard Bright

My three-week engagement with Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather trilogy came to a close this week, and, contrary to the prevailing public opinion, I find myself satisfied. The Godfather: Part III (1990) has always been the Fredo of the Godfather family – frequently disparaged, resented or otherwise ignored. Certainly, there was considerable risk in returning to the Corleone family after a sixteen-year absence, especially given the mixed critical and commercial reception towards much of Coppola's 1980s output {indeed, the director only accepted the studio offer to recoup his past financial losses}. Nevertheless, that a second sequel wasn't produced sooner demonstrates Coppola's dedication towards getting everything right, and the result is a picture that successfully expands upon the two previous instalments, respectfully and solemnly drawing the saga to a close. Any film is liable to suffer in comparison with two of the great gangster pictures of our time, but, despite a few issues – which I'll get to shortly – The Godfather: Part III is a more than worthy addition to the family.

Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has spent the last two decades trying to legitimise his operations, perhaps a last futile attempt at reconstructing his shattered family. However, still tormented by the memory of brother Fredo, Michael knows that he can never truly wash his hands of organised crime ("just when I think I'm out, they pull me back in!"). Sonny's illegitimate son Vincent (Andy Garcia) offers his services to Michael, proving his dedication towards the family, even if he shares his father's recklessness. Michael's two children have since grown up. Anthony (Franc D'Ambrosio) has defied his father's wishing by becoming an opera singer, and Mary (Sofia Coppola) begins a worrying incestuous relationship with Vincent. Meanwhile, in a further bid to improve his reputation and importance, Michael moves to purchase the Vatican's shares in real-estate company Immobiliare, a bid that ultimately reveals corruption and treachery in the highest echelons of the Catholic Church, a group traditionally regarded as pure and virtuous. Here, Coppola shows that policemen, judges, and even priests, can readily be bought.

For the most part, The Godfather: Part III is a wonderful film. Gordon Willis' return as cinematographer ensured that the film remained aesthetically consistent with its predecessors, and Coppola's film-making is, for the most part, handsome and professional. The screenplay, co-written by Coppola and Mario Puzo, is just as convoluted as the original film, but I'm confident that a second viewing will substantially improve my understanding of each character and their motives. Though the first few dialogue scenes seem strained, as though the actors are easing into their roles, the performances are generally excellent. Only Sofia Coppola – and I don't want to labour the point, since she's been lambasted enough – fails to construct a well-defined screen persona. She wears a peculiar scowl for most of the film, and her role in the story is vague and superficial. Nevertheless, any of the picture's weaknesses are quickly forgotten in lieu of an unforgettable climax, set amid an operatic performance of "Cavalleria Rusticana," perhaps the finest instance of prolonged suspense since the Albert Hall sequence in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

Currently my #2 film of 1990:
1) Miller’s Crossing (Joel Coen, Ethan Coen)
2) The Godfather: Part III (Francis Ford Coppola)
3) Misery (Rob Reiner)
4) Back To The Future Part III (Robert Zemeckis)
5) Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven)


Friday, March 13, 2009

Repeat Viewing: The Godfather: Part II (1974, Francis Ford Coppola)

TSPDT placing: #20
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Written by: Mario Puzo (novel & screenplay), Francis Ford Coppola (screenplay)
Starring: Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, John Cazale, Talia Shire, Lee Strasberg, Michael V. Gazzo

To call The Godfather: Part II (1974) a sequel doesn't quite do it justice. It is more of a companion piece to the original film, serving as both a prequel and a sequel, both expanding and enriching the characters and story presented in The Godfather (1972). This week I was fortunate enough to attend a cinema screening of the second film {each instalment of the trilogy played over three consecutive weeks}, and needless to say it was well worth the late night. When we last left Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), he'd just been "baptised" into the world of organised crime. Now, years on, he must accept that his position of corrupt power can only lead to the disintegration of his family, and the loss of everybody he's ever cared about. Michael's plateau of despair, following the impressive rise we witnessed in The Godfather, is here juxtaposed with the historical ascent of his father Vito Corleone (now played by Robert De Niro) from a humble but traumatic childhood in Corleone, Sicily. The comparison delicately suggests the downside of the so-called "American Dream" in which Vito believes so passionately.As with The Godfather, Coppola's film could only have succeeded with interesting and authentic acting performances, and the cast doesn't disappoint. Al Pacino has rarely been better, playing Michael Corleone with a violent intensity that suggests the lasting influence of brother Sonny (James Cann), who was assassinated in the previous film. Pacino's scene with Diane Keaton, in which we learn that she received an abortion for her unborn son, is one of the most traumatic moments of spousal interaction I've ever seen, with Pacino exhibiting a barely-suppressed rage through his severe, almost fearful, eyes, and a quiver in the jaw. An under-appreciated John Cazale brings depth and pathos to weaker brother Fredo, and Robert Duvall is excellent as Tom Hagen. New to the Godfather cast are Lee Strasberg (President of the Actors Studio) and Michael V. Gazzo, as business associates who may be plotting against the Corleone family. De Niro won an Oscar for his portrayal of a younger Don Vito, understatedly evoking the essence of the character without parodying Marlon Brando.

The Godfather: Part II is certainly an impressive achievement, but it doesn't quite manage to equal its predecessor. Whereas the original film achieved the bulk of its emotional power through the transformation of its central character, Part II leaves Michael hopelessly stranded in his despair, portraying neither his rise nor his downfall. Having effectively sold his soul for the family in the previous film, Michael must now come to terms with his desolation, alone in his misery, and having long forsaken any opportunity for salvation. He concludes the film still at the height of organised crime in America, and yet receives no reassurance from his position of power. Michael is alone, a dejected and self-loathing soul, without comfort from the family he helped destroy. It's a haunting ending that will remain with you for hours afterwards, but nevertheless doesn't seem like a conclusive ending to the entire Corleone saga. Fortunately, Coppola returned sixteen years later to direct The Godfather: Part III (1990), which charts, I believe, Michael Corleone's inevitable downfall. Hopefully I won't be disappointed.

Currently my #1 film of 1974:
1) The Godfather: Part II (Francis Ford Coppola)
2) Chinatown (Roman Polanski)
3) Vérités et mensonges {F for Fake} (Orson Welles)
4) Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks)
5) The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Joseph Sargent)
6) The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola)
7) That’s Entertainment! (Jack Haley Jr.)
8) The Front Page (Billy Wilder)


Saturday, March 7, 2009

Target #262: The Band Wagon (1953, Vincente Minnelli)

TSPDT placing: #157

Directed by: Vincente Minnelli
Written by: Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Alan Jay Lerner (uncredited)

In the 1950s, nobody could beat M-G-M when it came to producing musicals, and The Band Wagon (1953) is certainly among their best. A musical comedy based around the staging of a musical comedy, Vincente Minnelli's joyously entertaining picture does for stage shows what Singin' in the Rain (1952) did for making movies. Fred Astaire, who retired in 1946 only to discover that he couldn't stop tapping, here successfully lampoons his aging public image (he was 54 years old), and yet somehow manages to make a romantic relationship with the stunning Cyd Charisse (32 years old) seem entirely plausible. Bing Crosby attempted to tackle a similar age discrepancy with Grace Kelly in High Society (1956), and, I'm afraid to say, didn't quite pull it off {though that film is still worthwhile viewing for all musical fans}. Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray provide light musical and comedic support, while Jack Buchanan is a veritable laugh riot as Jeffrey Cordova, a pretentious Orson Welles-like theatre director who manages to transform a light musical comedy into a desolate modern incarnation of "Faust."

Tony Hunter (Astaire) is a has-been, a washed-up musical comedy star who's all but faded from the public memory. Anonymity is a fate he's since accepted. When offered the starring role in a stage show written by his friends (and two remaining fans), Tony is at first reluctant, and even more so when he finds out that he'll have to stand his own alongside a beautiful and popular ballet dancer, Gabrielle Gerard (Charisse). It doesn't help that the director (Buchanan) seems oblivious to the show's intended genre, cramming in so much doom and gloom that the premiere audience leaves the theatre in a hushed despair, no doubt contemplating suicide. Can "The Band Wagon" be spruced up with comedy before it leaves them all bankrupt? Will Tony and Gabrielle overcome their differences and learn to like, or even love, each other? A happy ending is, of course, never in doubt, and the musical numbers are all completely enjoyable, even if songs like "Louisiana Hayride" and "Triplets" felt somewhat poorly integrated into the plot.

Certainly the most memorable of the film's musical numbers is "That's Entertainment," written by by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, an infectious little ode to the joyfulness of the musical comedy genre. MGM musical fans would note that the song also featured prominently in the nostalgic documentary That's Entertainment: Part II (1976), in which Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire dance together, for only the second time in their careers. Cyd Charisse, whom we lost just last year, is absolutely gorgeous as ballet dancer Gabrielle Gerard, and her wordless pas de deux with Astaire in the park ("Dancing in the Dark") is one of the latter's all-time most most touching duets (equal, perhaps, with the "Never Gonna Dance" number in Swing Time (1936)). Also worth mentioning is a film noir-inspired stage musical sequence, its surrealism recalling the climax of An American in Paris (1951), with Astaire as a weary detective who is entranced by a shifty femme fatale – Cyd Charisse resurrecting her vampiric dancer from Singin' in the Rain (1952).

Currently my #8 film of 1953:
1) From Here To Eternity (Fred Zinnemann)
2) Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder)
3) I Confess (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) The Titfield Thunderbolt (Charles Crichton)
5) Le salaire de la peur {The Wages of Fear} (Henri-Georges Clouzot)
6) Roman Holiday (William Wyler)
7) Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller)
8) The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli)
9) The War Of The Worlds (Byron Haskin)
10) The Million Pound Note (Ronald Neame)


Repeat Viewing: The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola)

TSPDT placing: #6
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Written by: Mario Puzo (novel & screenplay), Francis Ford Coppola (screenplay)
Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, John Cazale

The Godfather (1972) doesn't need an introduction, nor does it necessarily require a review. Nevertheless, I'm going to go on telling you what you already know: this is one of the great American films of the twentieth century. The 1970s was a landmark decade for Hollywood film-making, and Francis Ford Coppola was particularly productive, releasing the first two Godfather films (1972 - 1974), The Conversation (1974) and, perhaps his magnum opus, Apocalypse Now (1979). This week I was fortunate enough to experience a cinema screening of The Godfather, and this second viewing only inflated my respect for Coppola's achievement. On my initial viewing in 2006, I had been very impressed with the film, but also hopelessly lost for the most part. With literally dozens of speaking roles, and frequent allusions to otherwise unseen characters, the plot had left me stranded, just as The Big Sleep (1946) always manages to do. Suddenly, however, much of it became clear to me; the characters' motivations, deceptions and emotions gently drifted into focus. This was stunning, complex cinema, the sort of bold film-making that puts most modern movies to shame.

A notable artistic observation regarding The Godfather is that Coppola's film-making style is strictly traditional. Whereas a new generation of filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and William Friedkin were introducing a gritty new cinema aesthetic, Gordon Willis' cinematography is graceful, understated and handsome, predating his excellent work for Woody Allen {the most notable example being Manhattan (1979)}. A sprawling family saga, The Godfather boasts a staggering ensemble cast of emerging and established actors, as well as many unknowns who nevertheless give letter-perfect performances. The scenes of violence are typically abrupt and effective, but much of the film's running-time is more closely concerned with dialogue and human interaction, particularly among family members. Needless to say, the quality of talent is more than enough to make these scenes, not only watchable, but astonishingly compelling. Every character down to the smallest speaking part – and there are a lot of them – has such a richly fleshed-out personality, making their actions and development throughout the film both authentic and interesting.

Marlon Brando – in what, along with Last Tango in Paris (1972), was deemed a grand comeback – gives a towering, Oscar-winning portrayal as Don Vito Corleone, the aging head of an Italian organised-crime family. Having endured decades of corruption and inter-family conflict, and seeing his household disintegrate in the futile pursuit of family honour, Vito finally understands in his final moments the folly of his wasted life, and the fateful mistakes that led to this undesirable lifestyle {these precursor years would be explored in greater depth, with Robert DeNiro in the role, in The Godfather: Part II (1974)}. Most central to the story, however, is the transformation of youngest son Michael (Al Pacino), who, in the course of the film, effectively sells his soul to retain that elusive "family honour." The climactic sequence, utilising Eisenstein's style of montage to its fullest extent, intercuts the baptism of Michael's nephew with the simultaneous assassination of the Corleone family's enemies. This scene also serves as a baptism of sorts for Michael, symbolising his irreversible initiation into a life of crime, and the final transaction of his soul.

Currently my #1 film of 1972:
1) The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola)
2) Sleuth (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
3) Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes {Aguirre: The Wrath of God} (Werner Herzog)
4) A Warning to the Curious (Lawrence Gordon Clark) (TV)
5) Frenzy (Alfred Hitchcock)
6) Avanti! (Billy Wilder)
7) Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull)
8) Jeremiah Johnson (Sydney Pollack)
9) Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (Woody Allen)


Target #261: Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961, Blake Edwards)

TSPDT placing: #401

Directed by: Blake Edwards
Written by: Truman Capote (novel), George Axelrod (screenplay)

Even beforehand, I got the feeling that Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) wasn't really my sort of film. Adapted from Truman Capote's controversial novel of the same name, it tells the story of Holly Golightly, a free-wheeling call girl (in the novel, at least) who attempts to dissolve herself into upper-class society by attending lavish parties and courting wealthy men whom she denies her honest affection. There's plenty to like about the film, and it's certainly the most polished and elegant effort I've seen so far from director Blake Edwards {The Pink Panther (1964) and The Party (1968) seem somehow irretrievably trapped in the 1960s}. However, in what is probably a simple case of personal preference, it never quite clicked, at least not in the same way as Casablanca (1942) or An Affair to Remember (1957). I did, in any case, understand to some degree why many viewers, particularly women, could connect with the main protagonist on a more intimate level. Maybe they can see a little of themselves in Holly Golightly.

Of course, any mention of Breakfast at Tiffany's immediately calls to mind the image of Audrey Hepburn, and it's certainly among her most iconic performances, which is interesting given how it strayed somewhat from her typical screen persona. Unlike the shy and girlish "Cinderella" of Roman Holiday (1953) or Sabrina (1954), Holly Golightly is slightly arrogant, intrusive and fiercely extroverted. So determined is she to remain a free-spirited personality that she has barred herself from any meaningful human relationships, despite having accumulated a social circle that extends into the hundreds. Truman Capote had originally envisioned Marilyn Monroe in the main role, but Hepburn brings to Holly a certain delicacy and keen-eyed intelligence that is unique to her. Behind the character's breezy and outgoing personality is a sense of vulnerability and loneliness, of a drifting soul who idly attaches to thirty lovers a month without making any sort of emotional connection. Blake Edwards poignantly ties up the climax with an embrace in the rain, demonstrating a tenderness and sophistication that I hadn't expected of him.

Among the supporting performers, Martin Balsam is most certainly worth a mention, playing Holly's womanising, to-the-point agent, who publicly holds the opinion that his client is a "real phony" – that is, she herself genuinely believes in her own spurious lifestyle. Finally, I like Mickey Rooney as much as the next man, but what's going on here? When Richard Barthelmess donned ridiculous Oriental make-up in Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919), at least the portrayal was respectful and sympathetic. Racial stereotypes can work adequately enough in comedies (see Peter Sellers in The Party (1968) or Murder by Death (1976)), and Breakfast at Tiffany's certainly has comedic elements, but the rest of the film also has an impeccable elegance that clashes horribly with the dim-witted slapstick of Mr. Yunioshi. If, indeed, the character had to exist, it would have been far less distracting had an Asian actor been cast in the role; some would certainly have existed in Hollywood at the time. Blake Edwards really needed to give that one a second thought.

Currently my #3 film of 1961:
1) The Innocents (Jack Clayton)
2) One, Two, Three (Billy Wilder)
3) Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Blake Edwards)
4) Judgement at Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer)
5) Murder She Said (George Pollock)