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 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: 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.

Monday, March 21, 2011

I Love Michael Biehn and You Should Too

Hello, all.

So yesterday, as many of you probably do, I decided to hunker down and make some delicious French salmon en papillote (which turned out splendidly, thanks for asking) and, just to keep the nice cultured ambiance alive while I cooked, watched The Terminator. About halfway through the film my roommate appeared and inquired what I was watching, to which I answered, "Terminator" (and we high-fived, because it's the kind of movie where you sort of have to high-five after saying its name). I then added, "Yeah, I like this one better than Terminator 2--'cause Michael Biehn's in this one."

To which he replied, "Who's Michael Biehn?"

Well, folks, I would be lying if I said this wasn't the first time I'd received this reaction and as always it had me stumped. Though he's starred in some of the biggest movies of all time, for some reason Michael Biehn has always managed to fly under the radar for many viewers (a lot of my friends will realize who he is after I've rattled off a couple of films that he's starred in--namely the ones directed by James Cameron). And yet personally I always find that when he's in a movie he elevates it to another degree, and always gives a more subtle, intelligent performance than almost anyone else in the role could. He's got the standard film star appearance--blond, blue eyed, ruggedly handsome, but there's always an undercurrent of more going on beneath the surface; a sharpness and an intellect that belie his looks.

So in celebration of my longstanding love of Michael Biehn, I offer forth the following three roles, which I consider to be his best:

3. Lt. Hiram Coffey, The Abyss

Okay, so maybe The Abyss wasn't the greatest movie ever made. I loved it until the lumpy, preachy third act. That scene where Ed Harris plummets down...and down...and down...I swear to God, my fists were clenched so hard my knuckles were turning white. It built up a fantastic amount of pressure (pun intended), then threw it away on a bunch of moralizing Play-Doh colored aliens. But I digress.

What's worse than being stuck really deep underwater where some extremely strange occurrences are happening in/around your overwhelmingly claustrophobic sub? Having batshit crazy Navy SEAL Michael Biehn running around going batshit crazy in your already batshiteddly crazy sub, that's what! The first warning sign we should recognize here is the mustache: the primary indicator of evil Michael Biehn is the 'stache (see also: Johnny Ringo, Tombstone). But we all must admit how well Biehn sports a 'stache. That's not some wimpy hair growth there, people. Those follicles mean business.

Right off the bat you can tell that Biehn's Coffey is a couple aces short of a full deck, but his growing paranoia and the confined areas of the sub, as well as his access to a fairly extensive store of deadly machinery (not to mention his training as a SEAL) rack up most of the tension in the first half of the film. It's very disconcerting to see someone who looks like Michael Biehn going all twitchy and broodingly paranoic in scene after scene until finally we realize those eyes are completely bugging out and everyone else had better beware because some nuclear shit is about to go down. There's not a lot that could threaten Ed Harris, but in their brutal, violent showdown you start to actually wonder whether Ed will come out on top. Plus, Coffey (spoiler alert) gets one of the best deaths in the film: imploding to death in a pressurized plummeting pod! What an alliterative way to go.

2. Kyle Reese, The Terminator

And just where would the The Terminator franchise be without Kyle Reese? Nowhere, that's where! It wouldn't even have a y chromosome! It's Linda Hamilton who often gets remembered as the most badass parent of John Connor (due in part to her incredible physical transformation for Terminator 2), but Biehn's portrayal of Sarah Connor's lonely protector in the first film gives the film an emotional resonance that elevated it above mere cheesy B sci-fi shoot-'em-up. Consider the two opposing sides: on one hand we have Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator, all beef and muscle, never feeling pain, always marching onward. On the other hand we have Biehn's Kyle Reese, comparatively small, painfully skinny (not a lot of vegetables or protein in the post-apocalyptic future, apparently), easily bruised but positively dogged in his determination to keep Sarah Connor alive. Look at the way the two sides are introduced--the Terminator appears in a crash of lighting, curled in a sprinter's crouch, absolutely unfazed. When Reese appears a scene or two later, he is unceremoniously dumped on the cement naked and vulnerable, struggling to his feet and wincing through the visible pain (not to mention the time-traveling induced jet lag, which can really be a killer). What he lacks in outright physical strength against the machine he makes up for in cunning; he is the fox to the Terminator's brutal hunter. And dammit, if Sarah had just listened to him and not called her mother at the motel things might have turned out differently...

But watch the way Kyle interacts with Sarah; forcibly when he has to, tenderly and encouragingly when it's needed. Biehn frequently gets typecast as some sort of official member of the law enforcement, and like I said it's the look that gets him those roles--the sort of blond all-American do-gooder look, but it's the man beneath that elevates it up another notch in action films like these. Reese is really a tragic romantic figure, first and foremost a soldier with his duty to keep in mind, but at the same time he's a man who is deeply in love with a woman he's never even met, whose picture he keeps tenderly folded up beneath his armor. Part of it is James Cameron's ability (unlike some blockbuster directors, cough Michael Bay cough cough) to write characters that delve deeper than their surface would imply, but much of it is Biehn's ability to convincingly portray a balls-out action hero that segues seamlessly into a sensitive, intelligent, quiet romantic lead. And if you think about the fact that it's his son who sort of plays matchmaker between the two (by giving his father Sarah's picture), it's really rather cute. Sort of like an Olsen twins movie. With homicidal death machines.

1. Corporal Dwayne Hicks, Aliens

This is the one that really did it for me. First of all, I just have to say that I love Aliens. I love Aliens more than most things. You'd have an extremely difficult time trying to convince me that a) this isn't one of the best movies ever made or b) that this isn't the single greatest action movie ever made. I had probably one of the best first impressions of this film that anyone could ever have--I watched it for the first time on the night after I got my wisdom teeth out and I was jacked up to the eyeballs on codeine and I swear that this was one of the most awesome movie experiences you could possibly imagine (mostly because I could wave and shout at the screen and drool all I wanted and the rest of my family just sort of chalked it up to the medication and let it slide. Later attempts at this sort of behavior did not go over as well.) Luckily, I soon discovered that the film was just as incredible without being in a drugged stupor.

So here, once again, you have Biehn + a classic James Cameron action movie. I begin to detect a trend. (*Note: when I talk about this film, I'll be referring to the director's special edition, which I prefer to the theatrical release, not least of all because it contains a good deal of content relating to Michael Biehn's character that was cut in the original). All through it, there are wonderful moments that would be absent in another director's film--Cameron is patient enough to wait and build the suspense and let the terror grow and grow until he finally lets it rip and sustains the climactic adrenalin rush for an exhilarating, exhausting forty minutes. This skill is extended to Cameron's deft handing of the characters, from Sigourney Weaver's Ripley (the seminal example of the intelligent, tough, yet undeniably feminine action hero) to Biehn's Corporal Dwayne Hicks, who slowly emerges from the sea of Marines as Ripley's ally and shy, tentative love interest.

The first time I watched Aliens I was mostly involved in the essential plot, worrying about Ripley and Newt, cheering them on as they blasted away from the diseased planet, yelling and pumping my fist and enthusiastically drooling at the screen (codeine) at the "Get away from her, you bitch!" line. But then I watched it again, and another time, and I started to focus instead on Hicks. At the beginning it's hard to pick him out. He's in the same Marine uniform as the others and he's blond like Bill Paxton, who admittedly gets some of the film's best lines (say "Game over, man, game over!" in your best Paxton whine at any film kid gathering and immediately you shall be welcomed into the fold with open arms). But watch his performance and you'll see the little grace notes he adds that shine throughout the whole movie--if you're paying close enough attention to catch them.

At dinner, he stares at Ripley while the others are dismissing her; she catches his gaze and blushes (and it takes one hell of a man to make Ellen Ripley blush). In the debriefing seminar he sits in the back of the group, but when Vasquez says "I only wanna know one thing, man...where they are," you can see him mouth the words along with her--for those that see it we immediately know that this is a group who has been living and fighting together for a long while and he, like the others, has his place within the pack. As they drop down to the infested planet LV-426, Paxton whoops and yells, "We're on an express elevator to Hell--going DOWN!" (another greatest line, and one that my younger sister repeated to me as we teetered at the summit of Texas's tallest rollercoaster--I half-screamed, half-laughed all the way down). Ellen closes her eyes as they plummet to the surface, gritting her teeth, clearly wishing that it was all over. And Hicks? In a brilliant cutaway, we see that he's fallen fast asleep, mouth slightly open as the ship hurtles down to the planet. Who doesn't love a guy like that? It takes an inventive mind to use falling asleep as a way to illustrate the bad-assity of a character, but Cameron and Biehn succeed brilliantly--not to mention the scene is played out for a great laugh. Once they land, they're called out to assemble. "Somebody wake up Hicks," the Sergeant orders disgustedly. Apparently, this is a frequent occurrence.

And all through the film you catch Hicks stealing glances at Ripley and is consistently the only one who listens to her or backs her up on anything. He's tender and patient with little Newt, and when most of the other soldiers have been killed and it's brought up that he now has seniority over the operation, he accepts the responsibility with a reluctant "Yeah..." He's both respectful of Ripley ("I can take care of myself," she tells him flirtatiously. "Yeah, I noticed," he mutters, hiding a grin) and equal to her--his idea of courtship is showing her how to use a pump-action plasma rifle and on more than one occasion proves that he can more than handle himself in a fight. The only thing that takes this man down is when he gets squirted with alien acid blood that eats through his armor. This is, it must be noted, after he literally shoves his rifle down the throat of the alien as it claws its way into the elevator with him and Ripley, grunts "Eat this," and blasts its head off. This from the same guy who gently chides, "Don't touch that honey, it's dangerous," when he catches Newt playing with one of the soldiers' weapons. He is the ultimate thinking woman's space Marine.

So there you have the thoughtful, stoic, badass glory that is Michael Biehn as Corporal Hicks. Action heroes like this are few and far between nowadays--men who are willing to work alongside their female allies as equals instead of trying to best them or get them into bed, who do instead of boast, who can be quiet and almost sweet, yet utterly fearless in battle. Maybe it's because those nuances are decidedly subtle for an action film, perhaps because audiences are primed for shows of bravado to tell them who they should be rooting for that Biehn's work in this film has gone under the radar. But watch the film again and see how he slowly separates himself from the pack of Marines to stand side by side with Ripley all the way to the end. And see how, in the last shots of the film, you have this wonderful image of a futuristic nuclear family emerging from the horror and bloodshed of their experiences on the planet: a man, a woman, a child...and their chewed-up, half obliterated android.

Honorable mention: The Sheriff, Thanksgiving Trailer

Little needs to be said about this except that Biehn's ten seconds (starting around 2:04) are among the best in this entire trailer. NSFW. 

And that, dear reader, is why I love Michael Biehn and why you should too.

For further watching, check out Tombstone, The Rock, Grindhouse (Planet Terror), The Magnificent Seven (TV series). Spread the love.


Monday, February 7, 2011

5 Great Endings

While rewatching the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men this evening, I was inspired to make a little list of great movie endings. Now, please note that this list is not titled "the 5 best endings in film" because that's stupid. My goal here is not to inspire inter film-geek shankings, it's just to point out a few films whose endings really just...*clenches fists*...Ahhh. 

So, one may ask, according to Baz, what makes a great ending? I will admit that I am a sucker for two things in particular: dramatic uncertainty and helicopter shots (which go hand in hand more often than not).  Give me a good helicopter shot of a guy wandering off into the distance and I'm like a cat getting its tummy rubbed (see: Proof of Life, The Electric Horseman). I am aware of this prejudice, so I've nixed all helicopter shots from this list because the commentary would be identical ("Look how lonely he looks! And uncertain! You can tell because he's getting smaller and smaller in the distance! It's just like LIFE!!!") I love endings that tie things up but still leave room for a bit of mixed emotion or thought at the end. In some cases, I think a fairly reasonable policy is the more neat and tidy the ending, the less you'll think about it afterward. Because really, where are endings neat and tidy except in fiction? In life, things never really end. A plot may be resolved but the story goes on.

And on that overwhelmingly poetic note, I present you with:

(in no particular order)
p.s. it should be obvious, but if you haven't seen these movies and don't want to know how they end, DON'T READ THESE. Thank you.

1. The 400 Blows
This was one instance where the ending of a movie made me fall completely in love with the rest of the film itself. I vividly remember where I was and what I was doing the first time I saw The 400 Blows. I was in my freshman Language of Film class at NYU, a class cursed with the strange Film Kid Paradox--you find yourself (you being a dorky movie lover from way back) in a class where pretty much your only task is to stay awake and watch amazing classic film after amazing classic film, but quite often you find yourself being distracted by thinking about what you'll be doing once you get home and checking your watch to see how long it is until the movie is over so you can go In essence, many film school classes are forced viewership, and that sort of situation (where you're made to watch a movie you didn't elect to view) very rarely inspires appreciation. For this reason, I think a lot of great movies get a bit neglected by film students and sometimes it takes a rewatching on a comfy couch with a good bowl of popcorn to set things straight.

Now, up until the last bit of The 400 Blows, I was stuck squarely in the middle of the Film Kid Paradox. It was dark, I was tired, I wanted to go home. I liked the movie and I thought Jean-Pierre Leaud was fascinating and immensely watchable and there were definitely bits that made me laugh. However, the movie was turning out to be a bit of a downer--this poor kid gets caught in unfortunate circumstance after unfortunate circumstance. Parents don't understand him, teachers are cruel to him, the world seems to have it in for him. I was fairly certain how it was all going to turn out for little Antoine Doinel.

And then the boy winds up in juvi. It's horrible. His parents have given up on him completely. Everything seems to have come to a horrible, grim dead end for this boy. I'm checking my watch. And then...without warning, Antoine (who is out on a soccer field with the other boys) runs after a stray ball. He chucks it back to his compatriots, then, with only a second of consideration, bolts for the fence, slithers under, and breaks free. It's only a few seconds before the guards are after him. Well, this is going to be over shortly, I thought to myself.

But then he hides beside a bridge and the school officials go past over his head. And Antoine sneaks under the bridge and begins to run. And runs. And runs. And runs. 

It's the brilliance of Truffaut that he used a single tracking shot to follow Antoine on his escape. With each passing unbroken second of film, I swear I felt like the theme from Chariots of Fire was playing in my heart, I wanted to get up, shout at the screen, pump my fist and cheer Antoine to GO! Every second I thought they were going to catch up with him, that they'd find him, that the shout would go up and they'd wrestle him down and haul him back, never to let him out again because that's how these things always end. But he didn't and they don't. Then he reaches the sea (which he has never seen before). He runs as far up to it as he can, right to where the tide is breaking. He can't go forward anymore. He can't go back. So he turns and faces the camera. His face in that frozen last frame is the embodiment of all the confusion, complexity, promise and freedom of youth. It's a stunning sequence and to this day I cannot write about it without tearing up a bit. Watching this ending for the first time remains one of the seminal film experiences of my life.

2. No Country For Old Men

For some reason, this ending aroused a lot of controversy (and still does when it's brought up among my film-minded friends) who cannot ever agree whether the ending is brilliant or whether it sucks beyond belief. In my mind, it is a perfect, deceptively simple ending. No Country tells the story of a man who comes across millions in bloody drug money, takes it, and is pursued by an almost archetypal figure of evil and death as personified by Javier Bardem, who leaves nothing but senseless, emotionless death and destruction in his wake. After the plot has resolved and almost everyone but Bardem's hit man has been killed, the sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones), the quasi-archetypal "good guy"--outwardly simple, inwardly complex, fighting a losing battle on the side of good, discouraged by the harsh face of evil he has been forced to witness, retires from his job. The final scene finds him recounting two dreams he had about his father (who was also a lawman) to his wife:

"Alright then. Two of 'em. Both had my father in 'em. It's peculiar. I'm older now then he ever was by twenty years. So in a sense he's the younger man. Anyway, first one I don't remember too well but it was about meetin' him in town somewhere, he's gonna give me some money. I think I lost it. The second one, it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin' through the mountains of a night. Goin' through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin'. Never said nothin' goin' by. He just rode on past... and he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin' fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. 'Bout the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin' on ahead and he was fixin' to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold. And I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up."

 I suppose people's opinions of this scene depend greatly on what they believe the film to be about. If you thought the movie was about a guy who finds $2 million, who plays a deadly cat-and-mouse game with a psychopath who eventually catches up to him and kills him and then gets away with everything, sure, you're going to find this ending unsatisfying. But if you instead realize that the entire "plot" of the film merely serves as a MacGuffin for a deep meditation on violence and evil, then the ending is absolutely perfect. No Country observes the way in which those horrible things seem to grow and grow and grow through every generation, unstoppable by all those who oppose it (look no further than the car accident near the film's end if you want proof of the film's overarching metaphor--Bardem's hitman is struck by what should be a fatal blow, but gets up, merely grits his teeth and marches on). But it's the intelligence of the film and the filmmakers that allow it to end not on a cynical note (and it's a pretty cynical film), but on a note of hope. Tommy Lee Jones's weathered face is the picture of world-weary struggle as he reflects on the men who came before him, wistfully recalling the days when such violence, such evil was yet unheard of. The telling of his dream is an assurance to the audience that men like him and his father before him will always be out there in "all that dark and all that cold" to light a fire for us to follow.
3. Roman Holiday

This is a classic example of an ending that could not possibly have been filmed in Hollywood today. Today's rules dictate that everything must end prettily and happily, tied up with a large (preferably matrimonial) bow, scored by a Katy Perry song over the end credits. Roman Holiday is fantastic proof that all it takes is a pair of balls to actually make a romantic comedy that has deep emotional resonance and an ending that feels right instead of forced.

After spending a day together in Rome, Princess Ann (who has been masquerading as a commoner named Anya on her stolen day off of princessing duties) and Joe (a reporter who is well aware of her true identity, but decides to forget his exclusive scoop when he realizes that he's fallen in love with her) come face to face when she gives a press conference. Up until this scene, I was rolling my eyes and gritting my teeth, just knowing how it would all turn  out--Joe would cave in and sell his story, betraying Anya's trust and making her furious at him, and then he would realize the error of his ways, stage an extremely public apology just in time for her to confess her love as one of her cabinet members provides a convenient clause in the laws of her kingdom for them to be able to marry, they embrace, all of Rome applauds, credits roll and I have already been asleep for fifteen minutes.

But then I realize why I love old Hollywood eighty thousand times more than mainstream films today. It does the exact opposite--it shows the reality instead of the fantasy, and in doing so finds more cinematic magic and emotional resonance than an overdramatic conclusion ever could produce. It's a brilliantly acted scene on both parts. Joe is smiling to himself, watching Ann in all her grace and poise and public decorum (after having seen her smash a guitar over someone's head mere hours before). Ann scans the line of reporters, her gaze focuses on Joe, and her eyes flash with recognition, shock and then panic. He's a reporter. He's sure to reveal her secret. But then, during her question and answer section with the reporters, she goes off script (to the visible chagrin of her secretary), throwing in a subtle bit aimed directly at Joe about "faith in the goodness of people" to which he replies that her faith will not be misplaced. Her sigh of visible relief is heartwrenching.

She then stands and goes down to shake the hands of the men and women of the press. In an unbroken shot we follow her all the way down the line, person after person until finally she reaches Joe. She shakes his hand politely, gives a courteous smile, then continues on to the next person. Only the audience, Joe and Ann know the inner turmoil brimming beneath the surface. Finally, she turns back, smiles (a tear glistening brilliantly in one eye), waves and is gone. Joe stands alone until the room clears out, then slowly begins to walk out of the now deserted room, hands in his pockets. Finally, he smiles a bit to himself, and along with him we find a sort of resolution--the day they spent together was something to be treasured and cherished and we get the feeling that Joe will do just that until the end of his life.

4. The Graduate

This is certainly one of the most celebrated endings in film, and rightfully so. Its off-balance uncertainty perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the whole film which, in itself, was the spirit of an entire disillusioned generation of youth at the time the film was released.

Benjamin Braddock, a recent college graduate has embarked on, among other things, floating aimlessly in a pool, conducting an affair with his parents' married friend, falling in love with her daughter, stalking said daughter all the way to Berkeley, acting like a nut until she finds out he slept with her mother at which point she high-tails it off to marry some zero her parents like. Benjamin must finally rouse himself out of his stupor in time to save the woman he loves from a fate worse than death (mediocrity: the same one that consumes his parents and the Robinsons). He does just that--in high style.

He drives like a maniac all the way to the church where Elaine is being married, can't find a way in, so he pounds on the glass window above, screaming Elaine's name until she finally sees him. At first she is embarrassed and looks away...then she sees the angry, ugly faces of those silently cursing him around her and realizes the hole she's nearly fallen into. "Ben!" she cries, and that's all he needs. A few moments later, after grabbing Elaine, punching out a few people and fending angry relatives off with a crucifix, Ben and Elaine race out of the church and onto a nearby bus, where they plop down in the back seat laughing with exhilaration and giddiness (when I saw this scene for the first time I was literally laughing in tears on the floor). But, as the camera unflinchingly stares them down, their giggles gradually lessen to reflective smiles, then the smiles fade away and we are left with the image of two people together, being carried forward into an uncertain future. If that's not something legions of people can identify with, I don't know what is.

5. The Man Who Would Be King

Among other things, this is the most unforgivably unappreciated masterpiece in film. I just needed to get that out there and trust me, there will be at least one other post devoted to how great this movie is. In case you haven't seen it, let me spell it out for you: Sean Connery. Michael Caine. In their primes. Directed by John Huston. Based on a story by Rudyard Kipling. Two swashbuckling con men/British soldiers travel to Kafiristan to become kings and are just as surprised as we are when their plans actually work out (for a time). Adventure. Loyalty. Hot woman (Caine's wife). One of the greatest stories of friendship on film. Done. Go rent it. Now.

Read no further if you haven't seen it. The story has been told in flashback by Peachy (an almost unrecognizable Michael Caine) to Rudyard Kipling (Christopher Plummer). The Peachy in the present is a beggar dressed in rags and a turban, speaking in a hoarse whisper, horribly disfigured. We see the whole story--how Peachy and his best friend Danny (Connery) conquered Kafiristan, where through a blind coincidence Danny is mistaken for a God and crowned King. All is not well, however, when he falls in love with a mortal woman and refuses to leave with Peachy, who is eager to take their newfound riches and make an escape. Peachy reluctantly agrees to stay for Danny's wedding "for old times' sake." The girl Roxanne fears for her life (any mortal who makes love with a god is rumored to go up in smoke) and bites Danny as he kissses her at the end of their marriage vows. Seeing the blood on his cheek, the high priest of the country realizes that Danny is, "Not god, not devil, but man!" Danny and Peachy make a run for it but are cornered by the hoards of angry priests and, seeing that escape is hopeless, Danny apologizes to Peachy "for being so bleedin' high and bloody mighty", and his friedn forgives him. This being settled, they throw down their weapons and Danny is led to a bridge which is cut out from beneath him. Danny tumbles to his death, leaving Peachy behind singing his battle cry.

The final note of the film may strike some as odd. We are once again in Kipling's office and Peachy is the beggar. He tells of how he was crucified by the Kafiris, then, when he refused to die, was cut down and set free. He made it back to India on his own--or, as Peachy believes, with Danny "never letting go of his hand." "And Peachy," he continues, "Never let go of Daniel's head."

"His head?" Kipling asks in a hoarse whisper, clearly believing him mad--unsure of whether the outrageous story was true or whether it was the ravings of a lunatic.

With that, Peachy quietly sets down his mysterious parcel, mumbles something about urgent business in the south (a throwback to his introduction with Kipling at the beginning of the tale) and shuffles off into the darkness to be forgotten. Kipling steals forth, pulls the shroud from around the parcel, then shrinks back when he realizes that what is before him is Daniel's head--still wearing the crown of Kafiristan. His eyes narrow as he takes it in. It's a spooky, macabre sight until the triumphant battle hymn "The Minstrel Boy" (Danny's theme throughout the movie) kicks in on the soundtrack and we realize that this is exactly what he wanted--to die a king. And he did. We are left with a smile and the overwhelming conviction that films as great as this simply don't get made anymore.

Anyway, those are some of my favorites. Feel free to contribute your own in the comments below!