Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Overwhelming Charm of Zoe Bell

The first thing that popped into my head when I watched Quentin Taratino's Death Proof for the first time was that I wished more than anything I had gone to go see it on the big screen. It's like Lawrence of Arabia in that sense (probably the first and last time those two films will ever be compared). I know many people knocked it for its long stretches of arguably pointless dialogue, but that didn't really bother me. For one thing it's Tarantino, for God's sake, you get what you signed up for, and also I am an individual who doesn't need explosions going off every other second to stay interested (adjusts top hat and snootily takes a pinch of snuff).

But though the car chase was as mind-blowingly thrilling and white-knuckle inducing as it promised to be, my interest was riveted by the girl on the hood of the car, the bouncy, cheery, intensely badass Kiwi stuntwoman Zoe Bell.

Yes, folks, I found myself deep in the grip of a massive girl crush. This was exacerbated when I discovered that she was not only Uma Thurman's stunt double in Kill Bill, and was therefore actually as awesome as she appeared onscreen but had been the subject of a 2004 documentary entitled Double Dare, which followed Bell's climb into Hollywood parallel to veteran stuntwoman Jeannie Epper's gradual decline. Not only is this an absolutely fascinating documentary (about a subject that quite honestly doesn't get as much attention as it should) but Bell's charisma fairly leaps off the screen and drop-kicks you in the face. In the cold open of the documentary she stands around, is lit on fire and then sent spinning into a bunch of guys wielding swords. That was pretty much enough to hook me in for the next hour and a half.

In the film's best scene, we are actually able to watch Bell get the call that changes her life--she is told that she will double Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. This comes relatively late in the documentary, so we're already familiar with her struggles to break into the industry. Her reaction is so disarmingly honest in its elation, it's nearly impossible not to be laughing and dancing around with her.

And there you have it. An attractive, funny, cheery girl with an awesome accent who also happens to be compelled to repeatedly throw herself off of extremely high places, get lit on fire and attack a bunch of dudes with swords. Who doesn't love that? And take my advice--rent Double Dare and give it a watch. You won't be sorry you did.


Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Cinematic Thanksgiving

Ah, winter. 'Tis the season for wearing hats, buying cough syrup and lapsing into extended turkey comas. It's also the time to reflect on things that make us happy. In my case, it's movies in which Gary Cooper is in some way connected to Quakerism or where all of the film's conflicts can be tied up neatly in a catchy dance number. To celebrate the oncoming festivities, I decided to make a list (in no particular order) of things and scenes and people and body parts in movies that bring me joy. I hope you enjoy this list and I would like you all to appreciate how hard it was to narrow it down to just these. I'm sure tonight I will wake up at three in the morning and remember something I missed.

So, without further ado:

1. Janus Films
For helping me get that question right in trivia the other night.
2. "Nevertheless," The African Queen
Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart are at their crusty best in this film, about an odd couple who chug down a river in Africa to blow up a Nazi cruiser. Their mission (spoilers), against incredible odds, sort-of-almost-succeeds and Hepburn finds herself washed up and taken into custody on the cruiser. "But you can't just come down here and blow up the Louisa!" splutters the German captain. Hepburn raises her head, juts out her chin , sticks up her nose and snips in that most Hepburn-y of ways, "Nevah-the-less." It always reminds me of my mum.

3. Cecil B. DeMille's Introduction to the Ten Commandments
 Nothing could have set the tone better for DeMille's epic of all epics than the director himself emerging from an epic fringed curtain, clinging to an epic standup microphone and explaining why the story of Moses is so epic. Also, a fun drinking game to try with this film is take a drink every time they say "Moses." Caution: It's three hours long. 

4. Lauren Bacall's Little Dance at the end of To Have and Have Not
Her little impromptu shimmy at the end of this number always makes me smile. No one can smolder like Bacall. Dance is at 0:33.

5. Paul Newman's Look
 Paul Newman frequently gives this look when women are attempting to resist his advances. 
Often (Suddenly Last Summer, Hud, for example) the look does not succeed. It's the artifice of movies, people. When he pulls this one out I'm just about ready to climb in through the TV.

6. The Dance Scene in The King and I
 Movie magic. 

7. The Jump in The Man From Snowy River
 Another reason why horse chases should count alongside some of the great car scenes. A group of men go after a herd of brumbies, and for it moment it looks like they've gotten away by leaping over the edge of a cliff, but there's one man brave enough to follow. (By the way, this jump is for real; if you look at the trees while the horse is going down the hill you can see that they're growing straight up.) Jump is around 2:10.

8. Your Father's Passing, To Kill a Mockingbird
 To Kill A Mockingbird is one of my favorite books and easily one of my favorite movies. This scene, in which Atticus Finch leaves the courtroom after fighting a losing battle against hatred, ignorance and prejudice in the old South, is still one of the most moving I have ever seen.

9. How Much Francois Truffaut Loved Film
  A big reason why I love Truffaut is because every time I watch his movies I can sense the man who made them. Day for Night was one of his most personal, and is basically a love letter to the movies. In this scene, a film director (Truffaut) completes a recurring dream that has been gradually filled out throughout the film. Did I cry when I watched this? Does Jean-Paul Belmondo have a great nose? Please.

10. Cary Grant's Acrobatics in Holiday
I knew that Cary Grant worked in a traveling circus, but when I saw this scene from Holiday it took me completely by surprise. This is what I love about Cary Grant: you can be dapper, you can be in full evening attire, but no situation is too formal for a back vault. (4:20)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Ring-a-ding ding!

I was talking to my father on the phone last night and in between our commiserations about school (we're both elementary school-age art teachers), thoughts on the weather, reflections about how it's really great my younger sister Piper found such a good group of friends because boy, she is weird sometimes, he told me about how he "scrubbed the kitchen counters and bleached them to the point where even Mom was impressed and had nothing critical to say," which spurred him to "do the other side of the sink, too." It was rather adorable (and the guy on the bus who was listening in on my conversation thought so, too).

"She likes you," I told my dad.
"Yeah," he agreed, with the resignation of a man facing many more years of footrub-giving.

Truth be told I lucked out in the parental department in all the normal areas, but also where films are concerned. Dad saw to it that I was able to quote Eddie Murphy from Saturday Night Live verbatim before the age of twelve. Dad's fairly generous in his film tastes. My sister and I joke that his genre of choice is inspirational black teacher movies, which by this point isn't really a joke (it can't be when you have Remember the Titans, The Great Debaters, Coach Carter and Lean on Me snuggled cozily together on one shelf). Dad's the sort to go to the grocery store and just buy a movie because it's there and has a recognizable face or a "Thumbs Up" printed on the cover. Which is why we now own Little Children. Ooog.

To listen to her talk, you'd assume that my mother despises media in all forms besides the printed and the aural (my sister and I even once played her Lil' Wayne's immortal "Lollipop", bleeping out all the naughty bits, and my mother actually said "Yeah, I can sort of understand it.") Really, though, my mom has fantastic taste in movies and brings an epicurean sensibility to her film selections, which weeds out all the crap and includes all the awesome, like Independence Day and Galaxy Quest. If you really want to get technical about it, she's pretty much responsible for setting me on my life's path. She refused to let me watch TV (except for PBS) when I was younger, so instead I watched old Cary Grant and Errol Flynn movies and, well, there you go. It really brings perspective to one's life when one realizes that a form of rebellion against one's parents is to go and get a PhD in Cinema Studies.

My mother's birthday is on Sunday, so as a bit of a tribute to her (largely because it was she who introduced me to many of the movies on this list) and also to my dad, and to their joint marital greatness, I present the following list:

Because the story doesn't stop once you say, "I do." Take note, chick flicks.

1. Chuck and Glennis Yeager, The Right Stuff (Sam Shepard and Barbara Hershey) 

This was really the first time it occurred to me that marriage could be sexy. The film introduces these two by showing Shepard drinking in a bar and hitting on Hershey before she coyly takes off on horseback. He leaves to follow her and another woman in the bar tries to hone in on him. "Forget it," the bartender says dryly. "She's his wife." Thus follows a breathless horseback chase and some rib-breakage, which isn't quite as sexy as anyone (especially Yeager, I imagine) hoped, but that's sometimes how it goes. As with many of the best cinematic marriages, you get the sense that these two are equals in every sense of the word. Glennis Yeager is portrayed as tough and strong, the only sort of woman with whom it would make sense for Chuck Yeager to be in love, and though neither says very much their mutual adoration and respect is obvious to see. "I'm a fearless man but I'm scared to death of you," Yeager tells her at one point, and for the man that broke the sound barrier that's saying something. 

Below, you can watch the chase scene. Starts at around 6:30:

2. TIE: Nick and Nora Charles, The Thin Man (Myrna Loy and William Powell)/ Mr. and Mrs. Blandings, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (Myrna Loy and Cary Grant)

 It was really difficult for me to choose my favorite Myrna Loy wife role, and I was almost going to go with The Thin Man, but I could already hear my mother's shrill screaming in the back of my head. Nick and Nora Charles, the sleuthing duo behind The Thin Man series are a master's course in classy, alcoholic, witty marital repartee. Both are dry (humor-wise), intelligent, and when it comes down to brass tacks, deeply in love with one another (not that they'd ever admit it). They've also got more than their fair share of awesome lines:

In Mr. Blandings, on the other hand, Myrna Loy works her magic alongside Cary Grant, often providing the sole voice of reason amid all the chaos of building a house. But though she adopts a holier-than-thou, I've-got-this-under-control-completely-what-are-you-looking-at attitude, this is not to say she herself is not a tad bit batty. I personally love this role because I feel that this character, more than almost any other, embodies my mother. Observe the following clip. My mother in a nutshell:

Also hilarious is the scene where she realizes that removing a few stones to make her greenhouse has inadvertently cost them about $2,000. Her rapport with Cary Grant, their all-too-accurate marital bickering, the shifting dynamics and their ultimate coexistence are the heart of one of my favorite movies, and a must-see for any prospective home-builder.

3. Percival and Marguerite Blakeney, The Scarlet Pimpernel (Merle Oberon and Leslie Howard)

Unlike the rest of the couples on this list, Lord and Lady Blakeney spend most of their film in marital discord, but rightfully deserve a place here because (largely thanks to the chemistry between the two actors) you can totally tell that they're still completely infatuated with one another. He believes she heartlessly betrayed her friends to the guillotine, she thinks he's a lazy fop, but they still cannot find a way not to be in love. In reality the elegant, wealthy Percy moonlights as "The Scarlet Pimpernel", a mysterious hero who ferrets the doomed nobility out of France to the safety of England and puts on the useless, idiotic act to cover up his real identity--even from his wife. Marguerite, unbeknownst to Percy, was betrayed herself by those she sent to the guillotine. And so the fun ensues: Leslie Howard is absolutely hilarious in his spot-on imitation of an impotent upper-class fop:

and Marguerite barely conceals her disgust for what he has become. "I shall love her till the day I die," Percy ruminates ruefully at one point. "That's the tragedy." 

Watch the following scene, where Percy confronts Marguerite about her love for the Pimpernel. It's sexy, funny and tragic all at once. The fun starts around 4:12:
But those crazy kids just have to stick it out and work out their differences--all of which culminate in the terrific scene (above) where Marguerite, alone in her house, works out her husband's true identity and then realizes that he's gone to France and is therefore in terrible danger. "Percy!" she cries and rushes off to save him. Gorgeous, intelligent, brave wife and heroic, dashing husband? A rekindling of feelings? A marriage pitted against terrible danger? Yes, please. I'll take this over Mr. and Mrs. Smith any day.

4. Mr. and Mrs. Penderghast, Easy A (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson)
One of the most common things I hear when I mention Easy A is that people found that it was, "A lot better than I thought it would be." This is due greatly to the presence of the genuinely hilarious and refreshingly un-nauseating Emma Stone but also because of her parents, played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson. While they aren't the central part of the story by any means, every scene that features them elevates the entire movie a bit higher. These characters are everything that parents usually aren't in this kind of movie: loving, devoted, irreverent, who (gasp!) actually trust their kid and are arguably weirder than their teenager. Clarkson and Tucci have a wonderful easygoing chemistry and look as though they're having a fantastic time playing the roles. This is also about as close as the movies have come to portraying my parents.


 Cinematic gold. Would that there were more of this kind of thing in movies today.

5. Mr. and Mrs. Birdwell, Friendly Persuasion (Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire)
Friendly Persuasion holds a number of special distinctions in my estimation: it's one of the few movies I've seen about Quakers (represent! Woo!), one of the best films I've seen that deals with the complex issue of pacifism during wartime and the movie that made me be not afraid of Anthony Perkins in Psycho. Cooper and McGuire play the heads of a family of Quakers at the onset of the Civil War. The war is held on the fringes of the story for the majority of the film, then the last act shows how each member of the family deals with the issue of whether or not to join the fight. The mother, Mrs. Birdwell, is a Quaker minister and is clearly the boss of the operation. She is no-nonsense and is a pious woman of deeply held beliefs (who also happens to have an extreme soft spot for her pet goose, Samantha). Mr. Birdwell is tall and quiet in the classic Cooper fashion, and whose adherence to the Quaker set of morals is slightly more loose. The little headbutts he has with his wife on these issues are funny and read as deeply true to life. When finally he puts his foot down and asserts his right to have an organ in the house (something which goes against the Quaker rule of no music), Mrs. Birdwell goes out to sleep in the barn and eventually Jess goes out to do a little offscreen coaxing. Their walk back to the house from the barn the next morning is sweet and tender and played with youthful earnestness by both the actors. The relationship the two establish in the first half of the movie makes the second half, when those bonds are tested almost to the breaking point, all the more poignant.

That's all she wrote! (She being me). If you have any other thoughts or suggestions, I'd love to read them in the comments below.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Living Color

I've recently moved into a house where my tendencies towards non-drinking, non-drugging and baking enjoyment sort of place me in the "quaint and/or odd" category as far as my roommates are concerned. Think of an Amish person moving into a frat house and you've sort of got some idea of what we're working with here. Case in point: the house was empty and I was reasonably certain that I would be alone for a while so I snuck downstairs with my newly rented Pierrot Le Fou and popped it in. About five minutes later my roommate Dave wandered in the front door. Let me tell you about Dave. He's about six foot three or something ridiculous and has decorated our refrigerator with a carefully curated gallery of him and his friends squinting blearily at the camera, alcoholic beverages artistically littering the frame. Their hands are invariably held up in various "bro" or "frat" "signs" and he always comes home right when I'm attempting to be embarassingly cultural. Once he came in about midway through Jane Eyre and when it got to the part where St. John asks Jane to come to India and be a missionary as his wife, Dave yelled, "Don't do it, Jane! There's hella monkeys in the city."

So anyway, he came in and plopped down on the couch and proceeded to try to engage me in a conversation about College Sport. When I failed to adequately respond as far as College Sport was concerned, he folded his arms and watched about a minute of Pierrot Le Fou. Then the following conversation took place.

Dave: What are you watching?
Me: Pierrot le Fou. It's an...um...French New Wave film. (Gropes for something to make self sound less like a pretentious ass) Yeah, I've always thought Jean-Paul Belmondo was really hot. Definitely one of my favorite actors in the Godard canon. (Realizes that last part sort of killed it.)
(A minute passes).
Dave: Why do all those girls have their shirts off?
Me: Well, Godard had a big problem with sort of the shallow, scene-y culture he found in parties and society, so that's just sort of an, um, representation of, um, his...feelings...towards...
Dave: Oh.
(Another minute passes. Dave, by this point, is looking mildly concerned.)
Me: Wow, that color transfer is fantastic! I love the Criterion Collection.
(Dave leaves.)

But, friends, the color transfer was fantastic and as a sort of displacement activity I started daydreaming about all my favorite images from various color films. There are some movies that are in color and there are others that take the color and bounce it off the walls. So, to celebrate the awkwardness that was my attempt at watching Pierrot le Fou, I present the following:

(Note: these are nonmusical because you could easily just have a list with My Fair Lady, Singin' in the Rain, Gigi and Can-Can all up in here).

 This is a film where the use of color is as integral as plot, casting or dialogue. It's filled with images as haunting as its story in which a young, precocious ballerina is recruited by a controlling, tyrannical company director to dance the ballet of the Red Shoes. In the ballet, a girl wears a pair of magical shoes and dances herself to death. Pretty soon, life and art start to imitate each other.

The movie plays like a surreal dream, with flame-haired, porcelain-skinned lead Moira Shearer lending her snippy, vivacious presence to the heart of the film. It is justly famous for the extended ballet sequence in the center of the film in which the girl slowly dances her life away, surrounded by images of clouds turning into dancers, newspapers coming to life and sheets of paper slowly falling off walls and swirling around her feet. And the shoes themselves, such a startling red that they seem to leap off the screen, serve as both a motif and a foreshadowing of the young dancer's doom.

It was difficult to restrain myself from listing at least three Hitchcock films to be on this list, but there was never any question that Vertigo is supposed to be here. Hitch's deeply personal, disturbing tale of all-consuming love and obsession follows a retired detective who is hired to tail his friend's wife. He falls in love with the wife, goes half-crazy when she commits suicide, then turns into a Pygmalion-like monster when he meets her doppleganger. It's constructed as a murder mystery but is really a journey into the dark depths of the human heart.
And, more than in any of his other works, Hitchcock amps up the use of color. Take the above image, of Madeline (the suicidal wife) in her first scene. Her green shawl, black gown, white-blond hair are all framed against a background of startling red. Madeline's iconic gray suits were crafted to look as if she had "stepped out of the San Francisco fog" and the recurring images of flowers and bouquets fill every frame. The Master was known for some of the most iconic images in cinema, but this film alone contains some of the most beautiful, breathtaking compositions of all. 

3. RAN
 First: if at all possible, you must see this film on the big screen. I only sort-of liked it when I watched it at home, then fell completely in love with it when I saw it at Film Forum. Kurosawa's epic adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear finds a new setting in feudal Japan, in which an aging warlord finds himself trapped amid the power struggles of his sons. 

You know you're in for a treat when the credits take your breath away. The film opens in an emerald sea of grass in which the warlord and his sons are conducting a boar hunt. The motion and the vivid detail and color are some of the best you'll ever see. Kurosawa outfits each son in a different color scheme, and when two armies fight the sea of soldiers (each bearing the flag of their leader) is something to behold. Incorporated into it all are the traditions of Japanese theater; the white, decaying age makeup applied to the warlord and the cadaver-like face of the demonic Lady Kaede (above) create a deliciously flamboyant, theatrical bent to this stunning epic. 

Really, you only have to look at the above image to know why this movie is on the list. Kubrick, ever the stickler for perfection in the cinematic image, truly outdoes himself with the marvelous cinematography of this film, which charts the (mis)adventures of a young man named Redmond Barry as he seeks (and loses) his fortune in 1700's Ireland and England.

As incredible as the images are the stories of how they were created. Kubrick referenced paintings from the era and brought them startlingly to life, to the point where I found myself jumping out of my seat a bit when the image actually moved. This film was also quite famous due to the fact that Kubrick used only source lighting--meaning that the scenes taking place by candlelight were actually shot by candlelight. It wasn't an easy task by any means, but Kubrick was never one to do things halfway and in this case it truly pays off. The film itself is slow-paced but in my opinion it barely matters; the entire thing is a gorgeous feast for the eyes.

This one is a very personal addition to the list. I first watched the Adventures of Robin Hood on a VHS copy that my dad had taped a long while ago when the film was playing on television. Needless to say, everything was intensely dark and muddled but it didn't even register because everything else about the film was so great. Starring Errol Flynn in his iconic role, Robin Hood is a swashbuckling adaptation of the adventures of the titular outlaw and his merry men. 

About five years ago when I was leaving for college, I went on an Amazon market spree just to ensure that I had all the comfort movies I needed for my transition. Naturally, Robin Hood was one of the first ones I purchased and when I saw it for the first time on DVD, with all the colors remastered to their full brilliance...I'm not going to lie, I sort of cried a little (definitely one of those "You know you're a film nerd when..." moments). But I mean, there were scenes I didn't even know were happening. Like when that guard is messing with that girl and all of a sudden there's an arrow in his back? There's a little puff of something that goes off right when that happens and when I was little I always reasoned that it was because the guard's uniform was really dusty. But it's actually because Robin shoots an arrow through a candle and into the guard's back and snuffs out the candle. How cool is that? And then there's Errol cavorting around in his Lincoln green jerkin and tights, Olivia de Havilland's rosy cheeks blushing daintily at Errol's roguish ways ("Why, you speak treason!" "Fluently.") and Basil Rathbone's polished black coiffure unsettling ever so slightly as he and Robin battle down through the belly of Nottingham castle. One of the best, certainly not to be missed. 

Honorable Mention: Romeo and Juliet
I could have also added Zeffirelli's Brother Sun, Sister Moon to this list but refuse to do it on the moral grounds that I found myself snickering rather unkindly through most of that film. Instead, our honorable mention goes to Romeo and Juliet. I mean, just look at Olivia Hussey. Did you look like that when you were fourteen? I sure as hell didn't! The hot dusty, streets of Verona are teeming with life and color and blood in this faithful adaptation of Shakespeare's classic. Zeffirelli puts ebony-haired Hussey in that red dress and it's no wonder Leonard Whiting's Romeo falls for her like a ton of bricks. Rich color, sumptuous costume design and a painterly eye make this version easily the most beautiful Romeo and Juliet yet made.
Coming soon: Black and white and musical versions of the above list!


Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Great Face, Great Performance: Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront

Edie Doyle and Terry Malloy take a slow stroll through a park. He is affable and a bit common; she is painfully shy around him and continually fiddles with her glove. They make small talk and finally she makes an excuse to leave.

Terry: You...you don't remember me, do ya?
Edie (stops and turns back to him): I remembered you the first moment I saw you.
Terry grins, leans back and pushes his nose to one side in profile.
Terry: By the nose, huh?
She laughs.
Terry: Well there's some people...just got faces that stick in your mind.

Hoo boy, ain't that the truth.

I am a prime specimen of that most dangerous breed of all: the Impatient Film Snob. To put it briefly, this means that I will frequently get myself into situations where I find myself adamantly defending "bad" films to my peers, usually finding myself citing reasons like, "Film is an entertaining medium and if a film doesn't entertain me, I don't want to watch it! I don't care how many people have wanted to kill themselves after watching The Decalogue! Besides, have you seen Channing Tatum's abs in She's the Man?!?" Dignified it's not.

So when I read a plot summary like, "An inspirational story of crime and corruption on New Jersey's gritty waterfront," mentally I'm already close to peacing out. But something nevertheless drove me to watch On the Waterfront (perhaps the photograph I saw of Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint embracing in a doorway in my Entertainment Weekly's 100 Greatest Films of All Time). It is extremely rare that I am so moved by a single film. Everything...the casting, the dialogue, the story, the look of the film...everything came together in such a way that for me the movie was elevated to something nearer to poetry than just two hours of film. And at the core of it all, like a beating heart, is Marlon Brando's astounding performance as Terry Malloy, a dockworker who works as a stooge for the corrupt boss Johnny Friendly, until his conscience (and a sweet girl named Edie Doyle) take a hold of him and gradually turn him around.

Brando as Terry Malloy is one of those performances that is cited so often by actors and directors and film nerds as their favorite screen role that neophytes may overlook this film, feeling that they already know everything there is to know--who can't quote at least part of the "contendah" speech? But to those who haven't already done so: you must see this film. It is a great story and a truly beautiful performance. You haven't heard the Contender speech until you've seen it in the context of everything else that Terry Malloy has been through during the course of the film. My younger sister has been able to do a uncannily dead-on-balls-accurate "Nazi Marlon Brando" impression for about three or four years now and even she, during her first viewing of On the Waterfront, was in tears for a large portion of the second half.

Much of the beauty of this film is owed to the character of Terry Malloy. He is tough, coarse, and is well aware that he's not terribly bright (there is a world of difference between that and someone who is stupid and unaware of it). Physically, he's as beautiful as...well...Marlon Brando at his most beautiful. He's an ex-boxer who has a deep inner tenderness, which he tries to mask by being every bit as rough and as rude as those who surround him. But there is a gentleness about him that is instantly apparent to the viewer. Watch Brando's face in the moments when he finds out about Joey being thrown off the roof. His expression crumples into a look of genuine concern--not for himself, but for the young man. "Hey, he wasn't a bad kid, that Joey," he says softly. Watch the almost tender way he lifts his brother's (spoiler) dead body off of the wall and lowers him to the ground, wrapping his arms around his neck so that they seem to embrace one final time. Terry keeps a flock of pigeons on the roof and looks after them (and some local kids) with incredible care and then begins to tend to Joey's flock after his death. His is a soul completely incongruous with its surroundings. Everything around him is rough and dirty and unkind, but Terry is simple; someone who loves without wanting or getting anything out of it himself.

And, of course, there's the catalyst for his spiritual awakening, which comes in the form of the innocent, virginal Edie Doyle, who also happens to be the sister of Joey, the boy who Terry inadvertently sent to his death. There is such genuine chemistry between the two actors and an incredibly touching way in how Edie and Terry relate to one another. Terry looks at her wonderingly, as if he can't quite figure out which planet she hails from, and Edie sees through all of Terry's posturing in an instant. There is mutual protectiveness and tenderness, and when Terry asks Edie to come have a beer with him ("At a saloon?" she asks anxiously) we worry for her until we realize that he looks at her with the same gentleness with which he regards his birds. "She's the first nice thing that's ever happened to me," he explains to Father Barry, and we have good reason to suspect that he's telling the truth. Edie is far removed from the corrupted world in which Terry finds himself, so through her eyes he begins to see the darkness and evil that pervades the individuals on the waterfront. The most wonderful thing about their interactions are that they never seem forced; Edie says things that are realistic for her character to say, never overtly preachy or trying to force a message to the audience. Simply because of her innate (never saccharine) goodness and what we understand Terry's background to be, we can see the impact that her outlook has on him. Plus--there's sparks, there. The two of them share a smoldering kiss in which Brando quite literally beats down her door and corners her, and all she can get out is a bit of a whimper.

I can't really discuss On the Waterfront without saying at least a little bit about the "Contender" scene, which is not because I'm legally obligated but because the first time I saw it this scene made me burst into tears. I love it because the speech doesn't feel like the screenwriter made up his mind to write an Oscar-winning speech. It's a genuine turning point for the character in the course of the movie, when he finally confronts head-on the realities that he's been denying about his brother and, more importantly, himself. As players in this scene, Brando and Rod Steiger as his brother, Charlie, are simply beautiful. We can see every moment that Charlie is deeply struggling with what he has been told to do (threaten his own brother to clam up or be shot) and we sense his deep shame when his brother looks from his face to the gun, slowly shakes his head, smiles ruefully, and pushes the gun away. Brando portrays the levels of his character so perfectly--the joking amity when he first comes into the car, the confusion and realization when he becomes aware of his situation, the disbelief when his brother threatens him, and finally the anger, lost hope and wistfulness as he delivers the famous line:

Terry: You don't understand, I could've had class! I could've been a contender! I could've been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it.

 Something inside Terry has snapped and from then on he's a changed man. His road isn't easy and, quite believably, he wavers from it every once in a while but ultimately he struggles to his feet to do the right thing.

The match made between Terry and Brando is fascinating from a technical standpoint. Brando was not a stranger to bringing his powerful raw physicality to the screen (i.e. I have yet to find a woman who, in the first shot of him in A Streetcar Named Desire in which he's starting a brawl in the bowling alley, fails to make some sort of "hrunh!" noise deep in her chest cavity), but Terry is miles away from Stanley Kowalski. In some ways they are similar: Terry isn't an intellectual and is valued primarily for his physical prowess, but Terry is far from the blunt instrument everyone takes him to be. It is nearly impossible for an unintelligent actor to convincingly play intelligent and almost as difficult for an intelligent actor to convincingly play honestly dumb--they tend to overact, to make the situations farcical to cover up their own failure to understand their character. But Terry Malloy is a revelation in the sense that Brando stays honest to the character and to himself--he doesn't try to sugarcoat Terry's lack of intellect, but ably portrays the positive sides of the man as well: his gentleness, his conscience, his protection towards Edie. We see him struggling with his emotions and his conflict, but it's never in the way he beats his head against the wall or throws a fit. It's as simple as the way Edie finds him lying on the roof by the pigeon coop alone, arms folded behind his head. We get a nuanced, realistic portrait of a conflicted man; his faults and his strengths, both of which ultimately lead to his triumph.

On the Waterfront isn't, as I first thought, a film about corruption and dockworkers and gang bosses at all. It's about a young man waking up, coming to his senses and realizing that injustice is something to be stood up to rather than tolerated. It's also a beautiful love story and, you know, one of the best screen performances of all time and everything, so go see it. Now.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Game's a Foot! (Self High-Five?)

I am an unabashed Sherlock Holmes geek. You may keep your Nietzsche, your Freud, your Nabokov, your tattered eighty-pound copies of War and Peace. I need none of your intense literary edification. Give me fog rolling through the London streets and Holmes scratching away at his violin before suddenly--Mrs. Hudson starts up the stairs with a mysterious client and an unsolvable problem. Give me those things and a comfy chair and I am as happy as a cat having its ears scratched.

Being that I am a film/TV geek as well, it goes without saying that I have also dabbled a bit in the various screen adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes character, though admittedly at arm's length. The Holmes canon lends itself splendidly to film adaptations; you've got the mysterious, brooding, brilliant antihero, the kind, likable sidekick to balance him out (and not make the audience feel quite as stupid), atmosphere by the bucketful, and an extremely well-written, broad variety of mysteries ready to go. It's amazing to me therefore that Hollywood would feel the need to completely fuck up a perfectly great series make the version with Robert Downey, Jr. (And don't give me any shit about the RDJr version inspiring kids to read. It will not inspire them to read. It will inspire them to go see Iron Man 3.) But I digress.

I've recently begun dipping my toes into the various incarnations of screen Holmses (Holmsi? Holmssz?) and it's pretty fascinating how the depictions differ. I should just say here and now that until about a year ago I was a die hard Basil Rathbone purist, largely because that is how I was raised and family religions are hard to shake. But I started watching the newer BBC production Sherlock, and when after watching five minutes I wasn't affected by a case of dry heaving, I decided to really go wild and try the Jeremy Brett version (which I had avoided after getting in a heated, acrimonious discussion about the merits of Rathbone v.s. Brett with a friend of mine five years ago). And so, because I am a Virgo and therefore love being organized and making lists and so forth, I offer the following:

*Note: Does not include Gregory House. We get it. He's Holmes. Holmes, House, clever. But still not technically Holmes.


The Holmes: The first thing we can say right off the bat is that Basil Rathbone has the look down pat, to the point where a number of illustrators for the Holmes book draw upon Rathbone as a likeness. The hawklike face, the tall, thin body, the perfectly clipped British tones are all as if he had stepped from the pages of the books. No one looks quite like Rathbone, and no one looks quite like Holmes either. The Holmes in these films (there were 14 of them, only one, The Hound of the Baskervilles, actually dealt with a plot and the time period taken straight from the books) is considerably warmer and more likable than in the stories. Rathbone's Holmes is cool and brilliant, to be sure, somewhat callous, but is never as antisocial or as ornery as his literary counterpart. Holmes's deep affection for Watson (an honest reflection of Rathbone's actual rapport with his costar, Nigel Bruce) does much to soften his character. Rathbone worked occasionally as a spy during the war, and his own actual ability to don disguises is extremely useful in the various characters he picks up here as Holmes (seeing him as a cockney song-and-dance man is especially entertaining). Special mention must go to Rathbone's interplay with the fairer sex, as is noted in the books he has a way with his female clients but at no point do we actually suspect him of harboring romantic feelings towards any of them.

The Watson: Pretty much the ultimate example of "Bumbling Dr. Watson." Nigel Bruce's Watson is pleasant, doddering, fairly silly and does a lot of talking to himself. He seems to be underfoot for much of the time and does a great deal of "You amaze me, Holmes!"-ing. One gets the sense that Holmes really only keeps him around to make sure that he doesn't walk into the road and get run over by a carriage. That being said, Bruce's Watson embodies the ferocious loyalty of the book character, harboring a mother-hen attitude towards Holmes that is extremely endearing. Whenever Holmes appears to have died in any of the episodes, it is heartbreaking to see Watson numbly moving about, as if lost without his friend. Perhaps this Watson isn't the most capable, but the goodness of the man and the friendship that lies at the core of the series is best exemplified here.

Overall: You may ask, "Bailey, why do you hate the Robert Downey, Jr. version so much if these episodes didn't actually follow the plots of the stories and weren't even set in the correct time period?" The answer is, simply, because it was done with style and a spirit that honored the original. The stories were still intriguing, the adventure fast-paced and the core of the characters (especially Holmes) true to that of the books. The short films after the full-length Hound of the Baskervilles were made as wartime propaganda to bolster British morale (and were therefore set in the then present-day WWII) and usually conclude with Basil Rathbone folding his arms, furrowing his brow and spouting off a little speech about the greatness of England and the necessity of fighting evil. In conclusion, not as true to the books as some, but great fun, wonderful entertainment featuring many fine performances. 


The Holmes: Much as David Suchet did as Agatha Christie's little Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, Jeremy Brett created a performance as Holmes that has widely been regarded as the ultimate iteration of the character. After watching a few episodes of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes with him, I must agree that Brett's Holmes is closest to that of the book. He isn't nearly as likeable as Rathbone's Holmes, but embodies perfectly all the angular brilliance, the focus, the eccentricities and the showmanship that make Holmes such a fascinating character. He, like Rathbone, is blessed with an long face and thin body that pay homage to Conan Doyle's physical vision of the detective. He is unafraid to include the moments when Sherlock spouts off just to seem clever for cleverness's sake, and whereas it is easy to imagine Rathbone's Holmes being invited to a garden party and behaving himself very well, Brett's Holmes seems almost hyperfocused and a wee bit unhinged. It's unsurprising for us to find him living alone in relative isolation. Conan Doyle famously didn't actually like his creation, and attempted to kill him off before the public demanded that he return. In Brett we see Holmes's coldness but also his intrinsic fascination--like Doyle, we may not like him but we are always intrigued by him and keep watching just to see what happens next, how exactly he will solve the puzzle.

The Watson: David Burke and later Edward Hardwicke held the role, and for the most part Watson serves as a fairly effective foil for Brett, though don't be fooled--this is one hundred percent Sherlock's show. Watson is neither bumbling nor exactly on Holmes's level, but occasionally we are given a taste of the world-weariness and exasperation that comes with being Sherlock Holmes's roommate. Because the Holmes here is fairly cold, the friendship is more understood than blatantly stated. We never really see Holmes through Watson's eyes so therefore we never completely identify with him, but we see that he is kind and trustworthy and it is not hard to understand why Sherlock wants him around. The Watson in this series is much as he is in the book, stalwart, strong, intelligent and capable, an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances.

Overall: The series has a beautiful production and covers a considerable amount of the Holmes canon, though occasionally strays somewhat from the actual plot. Of all the Holmes adaptations, this is the most true to the source, and is always well-acted and well-crafted. Definitely required watching for anyone who loves Holmes, or, for that matter, a great mystery.


The Holmes: Let me just begin by saying how much we should all rejoice that in this crazy world of ours there are two people in Britain who decided to name their child as something as Dickensian as Benedict Cumberbatch. That he would later grow to become modestly famous is little surprise to me; a name like that must be shared with the world and this is something I believe God understands. Come on, let's all say it. Benedict Cumberbatch, Benedict Cumberbatch, Benedict Cumberbatch. It's like stepping in a puddle. It makes you smile. Cumberbatch.

Anyway, Benedict Cumberbatch is the star of Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, which is the modern adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries starring Benedict Cumberbatch. This Holmes is young, uses a cell phone and GPS with aplomb, and darts all around London solving crimes. With someone as young as Benedict Cumberbatch in the role, Holmes's eccentricities occasionally can come off as youthful snippiness or pleas for attention rather than the innate essence of the character, but Benedict Cumberbatch does an excellent job of jumping in with both feet and owning the character--we get the sense that this Holmes is a prodigy who is a bit too smart for his relative age and station, which makes it all the more funny when the more senior members of Scotland Yard find themselves stumped by his logic. Holmes here is slovenly, snobbish and opinionated, but strikes a fine balance between Rathbone's gentleman Holmes and Brett's cold, calculating analytical machine. You can feel affection for this Holmes but you certainly wouldn't want to be his flatmate.

The Watson: The Watson here is where I believe the show really shines--Martin Freeman in this role is sympathetic, intelligent, exasperated but also undeniably fond of Holmes (and vice versa). The series is brilliant enough to keep in one small detail in Watson's backstory consistent from the book to the screen--the fact that Watson has just returned from Afghanistan. The symmetry of it provides an excellent crossing point between source and product. Instead of writing his stories down in his record, Watson blogs. He hobbles around on a cane, until Holmes sharply points out that his "wound" is psychosomatic. Undoubtedly intelligent, he is fascinated and maddened by his friend in equal measure. As Freeman portrays him, we get none of the Nigel Bruce bumbling, but we also get more of a human being than the Watson in the Brett series--he is more of an actual character rather than a mere foil. Freeman is able to find the innate humor of the situations in which Watson finds himself, and the natural rapport between Benedict Cumberbatch and Freeman, sort of an odd-couple tough love with all the inherent bickering, is one of the many joys of the show. Watson is the character with which the audience is meant to identify and no one does this with more sharpness or believability than Freeman.

Overall: The show's many updates from Holmes's classical period to the modern day may seem a bit gimmicky, but the show's core--the relationship between Holmes and Watson is so effective here that it is definitely worth a watch. And Martin Freeman demonstrates that he has all the understated charisma to effectively anchor a series in a lead role (HOBBIT HOBBIT WOO WOO). There were only three episodes in the first season of Sherlock, featuring a fantastic appearance by Andrew Scott as Moriarty. It'll be interesting to see where the series progresses.



Warning: Review contains excessive amounts of profanity (which, I should note, were later censored because my own mother became offended even though really all the swearing was just a result of my passionate love for honoring classic literature which isn't too bad a reason if you think about it but I did it anyway because she told me she didn't spend eighteen arduous years raising her daughter just to be one of those angry people on the Internet)

The Holmes: Let me just say this. I love Robert Downey, Jr. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang? Fantastic. Love it. Iron Man? Fell asleep twice, but I laughed really hard at the parts when I was awake. He's a funny man. But my entire beef with these films are that they are NOT Sherlock Holmes. I do not understand why, if Hollywood decides to go f*ck up a book series to the point of unrecognition, they cannot just go and start a new f*****g franchise with a different name. Oh, wait! That would be original. I forgot. Unless something has a 3 or 4 or a Transformer tacked on its ass, no one's going to go pay to see it, right?

I'm sorry. Really, I should admit that I've only seen the trailers. Why have I only seen the trailers? Because the movie looked really bad. For one thing, if Downey, Jr. was to play anyone, I would rather see him as Watson because Downey, Jr.'s humor is best when it's subtly mocking either himself or someone else. Holmes would never mock himself, and only seems to be dimly aware about how he appears to other people. Downey has a self-conscious quality that would work fantastically well as Watson--and besides, Holmes's humor is sharp, rather than witty. Downey is all wit. That's another reason why this movie sucks. And I get it, it was really cool when they slowed everything down and showed how Sherlock worked out how he would punch a guy or whatever, but Sherlock Holmes is not an action hero. I repeat, he only springs into action whenever it is absolutely necessary, and even then it is so seldom that it actually has a dramatic effect. Perish the thought! I suppose it is too much to ask that we actually be given a hero who uses his brain more than he uses his right hook. Really f*****g great role-modeling, stupid f*****g studio system!

I'm really sorry about that one. How about having a climax on some dumb-ass f*****g crane thing with Professor Moriarty? Who the f**k cares? It's CGI and we've been over it since Return of the King. Also, Irene Adler. Know why she was effective in the book? BECAUSE SHE WAS IN LIKE THREE SCENES NOT THE ENTIRE F*****G THING. Everybody talked about her and whispered about her and the  reason why she was important to Holmes was because SHE GOT AWAY FROM HIM AND BESTED HIM. I think Rachel McAdams would be a great Irene Adler! Sure! But she doesn't need to be in the entire f*****g thing just because she has a pair of nice ****s! She was his adversary, not his f*****g sidekick! Less is more for cripe's sake! ****s! 

The Watson: is Jude Law.

Overall: Hey, let's blow some s**t up and f**k up one of the best intellectual literary characters of all time and make him a wisecracking action beefcake. Let's cast JUDE LAW as Doctor Watson! Then let's make a sequel! High-five! Now let's see what other parts of Bailey's favorite childhood stories we can bastardize.

Hey, wait! Why don't we cast JENNIFER MOTHERF*****G GARNER AS MISS MARPLE?!??  

I'm not kidding.

*(At this point, Bailey got up, walked around for ten minutes and got a glass of water, then came back and felt much better)*

Anyway, to conclude, there will always be good and bad with any literary adaptation. Holmes is such a classic character with so many unique traits and features that it is always fun to see where an actor chooses to go when they approach playing him. But (and I don't mean to sound like Wishbone* here),  the best thing I can recommend is to go, grab one of the books, plop in a chair and experience his world yourself. And then go check out one of the aforementioned screen adaptations and see what you like best. There's something for everyone! (Except the last one, for reasons I believe I have made clear. Or sort of clear, if you can read around all the expletives and actually make out a coherent sentence.)

For now, the game's afoot (and I'm a leg!)

*As a matter of fact, Wishbone made an extremely good Sherlock Holmes in his adaptations of Hound of the Baskervilles and A Scandal In Bohemia. My favorite line is when he's following Irene Adler and then is like, "Now may be my chance...but I do have this strange fascination for chasing cabs."
** I made a joke today. What filter does a depressive filmmaker use? Sadturation.