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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Posse

As I close my Kirk Douglas retrospective, it's interesting to look at his post-Spartacus career. Following that film, which I think he is most identified with, his role as a major film star began to wane. He made some good films, notably Lonely Are the Brave and Seven Days in May, but many of them are long forgotten. He did contribute one major thing to American culture--he purchased the rights to Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, had it adapted into a play, and took it on stage. By the time he could get the film made he was too old to play the part of McMurphy, and his son Michael produced it with Jack Nicholson.

I think his last very good film was Posse, which he directed (he also directed a forgettable pirate film called Scalawag). Released in 1975, it's a revisionist Western that has a lot of the tropes of the genre--a really great shootout that has some great stunts, and a lot of action on a train--but is really the tale of political ambition and how it can blind someone.

Douglas plays a U.S. Marshall who always gets his man. He is also running for U.S. Senate. As the film begins he is chasing after notorious train robber Bruce Dern. He pays off an informant and finds Dern's gang, killing them all, including burning some alive. Dern escapes, but is finally captured, and Douglas makes political hay out of it. But Dern still has some tricks up his sleeve.

The film is a nice allegory about the political process. Douglas is clearly corrupt--he's bought and paid for by the railroad, but his posse start to wonder about his loyalty. There is also the aspect of the press--James Stacy (who just died last week) is the local journalist who questions Douglas' motives.

If there's anything I can say about Douglas as I move on to other centenarians, it's that he never played it safe. He, like many stars of after the studio system, made his own films with his production company, Bryna (named after this mother) that weren't safe and were provocative. Some were successful, some not. He is largely responsible for the end of the blacklist and launching Stanley Kubrick's career. He never won a competitive Oscar, but was under-rated as an actor. In Posse, we don't get that moment of intense anger until the very end of the film, but it's worth the wait.

Douglas turns 100 in December. Long may he live.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Ralph Stanley

When Ralph Stanley died this past summer, I had sort of heard the name but couldn't tell you much about him. I've rectified that somewhat by listening to some of his best work, and I must say it's a kick.

Stanley was mostly called a bluegrass performer, but he resisted that label, calling it instead "mountain music." The less politically-correct term might be "hillbilly" music, as it's the stuff that most people have heard at the beginning and end of The Beverly Hillbillies. This coincided with the use of Flatt and Scruggs "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" on the Bonnie and Clyde soundtrack.

Mainly the music is based on the sounds of Appalachia. Some of these songs were far older than Stanley himself, such as "Man of Constant Sorrow," which was used in the soundtrack of O Brother Where Art Thou, as was the old, old dirge "O Death," which won Stanley a Grammy Award (I must admit I prefer the Camper Van Beethoven version).

This music is real grandma and grandpa stuff, but also enormously entertaining and toe-tapping. I especially like a song called Katie Daley, and I wonder if this is where Pepsi got a name of a certain drink:

"Oh Come on down the mountain Katy Daley
Come on down the mountain Katy do
Can't you hear us calling Katy Daley
We want to drink your good old mountain dew"

Stanley's voice is a high nasal tenor, and can really hold a note when he wants to. But there are also some good harmonies, such as on "Will You Miss Me?" Of course the common instrumentation is banjo and fiddle, and there a few instrumentals here, notably "Clinch Mountain Backstep."

This music may be niche--I can't imagine there's too many people listening to it in urban areas--but it's fun and taps into my ancestral lineage that goes back to the hills of Kentucky. I certainly couldn't listen to it every day, but I'm glad I had a chance to check it out.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Man in the High Castle

As we head into fall it's time to start thinking (at least for me) about all things scary and spooky. But I don't know of anything supernatural that's as scary as the proposition that the Nazis won World War II. That's been the premise of many alternate histories, but Philip K. Dick's book The Man in the High Castle is probably the best known, and it was into a series by Amazon. I've just seen the first season (another is coming soon) and at times it was so unnerving I had to take breaks from it.

Dick's book, which I haven't read, was set in a 1962 where the Germans and Japanese had won the war. Roosevelt had been assassinated, and isolationism stymied the military build-up and thus the Axis powers won. In the series, the Germans hold the Eastern United States, while Japan has the West Coast. The Rockies are the "neutral zone," a kind of Wild West where anything goes.

The main character is Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos). Her step-sister gives her a film canister before she is murdered by the Japanese police, or Kempeitai. Davalos gets involved in the resistance, and takes the film to the neutral zone. She meets a young truck driver (Luke Kleintank), who is a Nazi agent, but we're never quite sure of his loyalties. He is working for John Smith (a brilliant Rufus Sewell), who is American born but works for the SS and is completely loyal to the Reich.

Meanwhile, Davalos' boyfriend (Rupert Evans) is captured and pressed for Davalos' whereabouts. He won't talk, and Inspector Kido (the fantastic Joel de la Fuente) discovers he is part Jewish. Evans' sister and her children end up gassed, and he is bereft. He decides he is going to assassinate the Japanese Crown Prince (who I guess today is Akihito) but before he can someone else does, but he's been spotted in the crowd with a gun.

There are many other subplots, such as the Japanese Trade Minister (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) attempting to forestall war with Germany by helping a high-ranking Nazi to give Japan the secret of the A-bomb (which in this alternative universe, was developed by Heisenberg for the Germans). But the key element is that everyone is chasing after newsreel films, supposedly showing images of the Allies winning the war, and that are made by someone known as the Man in the High Castle.

What makes this series, created by Frank Spotnitz, work is that it creates a general paranoia that must be felt under repressive regimes. And still, seventy years later, and generations beyond those who experienced it, the sight of men in Nazi uniforms and flags with Swastikas flying over American buildings gives chills. What's really amazing is that by the end of the film, when some things are sorted out (but not all, we do need another season) is that you may find yourself sympathizing with Adolph Hitler.

The acting, writing,and directing in The Man in the High Castle is uniformly excellent. I would also like to mention Burn Gorman, known as the Marshal, who keeps the law in the neutral zone; Brennan Brown, as a snooty American antiques dealer who will play a huge part in the assassination attempt; and Carsten Norgaard as the Nazi who becomes disgusted with the movement and tries to ensure peace.

The final image of the series, which I will not reveal here, calls into question everything we have seen in the series up to that point, therefore I will be there when Season 2 arrives.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Producers

To end my tribute to Gene Wilder, I turn to his first major role, one that made him a star--Leo Bloom in The Producers. He was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and it is one of the funniest performances I've ever seen.The film, too, is one of my favorites, and I've seen it several times.

In retrospect, one might think the The Producers was an immediate sensation, given its legacy and the success of the Broadway adaptation. But Mel Brooks, who harbored the idea for years, struggled to get it made. He eventually had to change the title from Springtime to Hitler, the name of the show within the film, to the eventual title. "Bad taste" was the most common complaint, and though Brooks won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, the reviews were mixed.

Zero Mostel, the great Broadway ham, stars as Max Bialystock, once the "king of Broadway," but now a struggling producer who seduces little old ladies as investors. When Wilder, a meek accountant, comes to check the books, he realizes that one could raise an infinite amount of money for a play, but if it is a flop, the investors would not expect a payoff and the extra money, kept off the books, could be kept. Mostel is immediately for it, but Wilder, who has never broken a law, is aghast. Here Brooks introduces the central idea of the film--Bloom's awakening, so to speak, with friendship.

They conspire to make a flop, picking a play by a Nazi which is "a love letter to Hitler" choosing a director with no taste, and casting a hippie burnt out on drugs as their lead. After the opening number, a vulgar musical number that salutes Hitler, the boys think they've succeeded. But the play is so bad that it's funny, and the audience mistakes it for comedy. "No way out," Wilder chants.

There is so much funny in here it's hard to know where to start. Brooks must be commended for pushing the envelope and going places that shouldn't work but do. For example, the gay stereotypes of Roger De Bris,  (which means circumcision) and his assistant, Carmen Ghia, should be offensive, but are played so joyfully that they're not. Also, Dick Shawn as L.S.D., the hippie, is a dated stereotype, and was removed from the Broadway production, but I still laugh at his "Power of Love" number, just because he sells it so completely. And Kenneth Mars, as Liebkin, the author, does the same--a man who is still a Nazi, and brags that Hitler was a better dancer than Churchill, also goes way over the top, but is still kind of sweet.

But it's Mostel and Wilder's show. They make a winning twosome. The film opens with about a twenty-five minute set piece in which Wilder walks in on Mostel with a very funny Estelle Winwood and their sexual role playing (the milk maid and the stable boy) and then engage in a tussle over the plan. Wilder, whom Brooks thought resembled Harpo Marx, gave him some great silent moments, such as when Mostel asks him, "Did I hurt your feelings?" and Wilder hilariously pouts and nods. But this scene is so rich in dialogue I wish I could quote it all. My favorites are when Mostel proclaims, "I'm wearing a cardboard belt!" or Wilder falls on his keys, or the great Wilder moment, "I'm in pain, I'm wet, and I'm still hysterical."

Brooks knew his comedy, from slapstick to double-take, Much of The Producers' humor is Brooks cutting to reaction shots, especially the slack-jawed reactions of the first part of "Springtime for Hitler." Some criticized him for this, because using reaction shots is basically telling the audience how they should feel, but I laugh at them every time. One thing that doesn't work, but we have to let it go, is that the play is not that funny that it would induce hysterical laughter from an audience. In real life, they would have walked out and stayed out.

A few other great lines: When Mostel tells Mars to kill the actors, and Wilder says, "You can't kill the actors, they're human beings, not animals!" and Mostel replies, "Oh yeah, you ever eat with one?" Or when Mostel hires a Swedish sexpot (Lee Meredith) to be a receptionist, and Wilder asks, "What will people say when they see her?" and Mostel replies with a Tex Avery-like wolf whistle. For literary types, there's the gag when Mostel is reading bad plays and reads the first line of Kafka's Metamorphosis: "Gregor Samsa awoke to find himself transformed into a giant cockroach." He tosses it aside and says, "Too good."

A few interesting notes from Wikipedia: Brooks originally wanted Peter Sellers as Leo Bloom (the name, of course, comes from Joyce's Ulysses) but he never returned the call. Dustin Hoffman was to play Liebkin, but begged Brooks to let him audition for a little thing called The Graduate, and Brooks, thinking he wouldn't get it, let him.

Brooks still, for a laugh, will pull out a comb and do a Hitler impression. His theory is that if you make fun of something, it will lessen it's power. We can only hope that works with Donald Trump, or one day someone will be performing "Springtime for Trump."

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Oscar 2016, Best Actor: Who Wants Thirds?

The putative front-runners for the Oscar for Best Actor this year are both two-time winners, and both have already cemented their status as Hollywood legends. One of them seems a sure thing for a nomination, the other is in a movie that no has seen yet, but seems to have Oscar written all over it. But could a first-time winner sneak in?

Right now, barring Fences being an absolute disaster, four of the Best Acting nominees feel fairly certain, in films that have already been seen and pleased audiences. The fifth spot could go any number of places.

In alphabetical order, here's my take:

Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea: This movie was a Sundance hit and is eagerly anticipated. Affleck, who has one nomination under his belt (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) seems likely here, if his recent legal problems don't hamper him (he was sued for sexual harassment; there was an out-of-court settlement).

Ryan Gosling, La La Land: As of today, La La Land may be the favorite for Best Picture. Emma Stone is getting most of the accolades, and just may be the favorite for Best Actress (that's coming up right here next month) but Gosling may be along for the ride for his role in a musical. When actors do something different from their usual pesonas voters take notice. Gosling has one nomination also, for Half-Nelson.

Tom Hanks, Sully: Believe it or not, but Hanks has not been nominated for 16 years, not since Cast Away. He only has five nominations total, and has been passed over for what were thought sure-fire nominations in recent years. But Sully is a hit, and Hanks is the major part of it. Could he be the second man to win three Best Actor Oscars (after Daniel Day-Lewis)? I wouldn't be shocked.

Nate Parker, Birth of a Nation: This is my going out on a limb pick, and it wasn't so until recently. But revelations about Parker being charged with rape (but acquitted) have cast a pall all over the film. However, there seems to have been a backlash against the backlash, with Parker appearing at screenings and receiving ovations. Time may cool things down. But don't put any money on it.

Denzel Washington, Fences: Again, Fences has not been seen by any press, and Washington's previous two directorial efforts garnered zero Oscar nominations. But there's a lot of hope for this, as it has a black cast and given the cultural climate would ease a lot of wounds if it here a hit. Washington has won two Oscars, one for Supporting Actor (Glory) and one for Best Actor (Training Day).

Also possible: Joe Alwyn, Billy Lynn's Long Half-Time Walk; Joel Edgerton, Loving; Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Snowden; Michael Keaton, The Founder; and Miles Teller, Bleed for This.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Snowden

It's a funny thing about Snowden--it's a competent thriller with, of course, political overtones (Oliver Stone made it, after all) and I have no beef with it, but a day after seeing it it doesn't stick with me. I can still remember shots from Nixon and Natural Born Killers and even W., but Snowden may be the most conventional film Stone has ever made.

There has already been a film about Edward Snowden, and that was the Oscar-winning Citizenfour, which had three journalists and Snowden in a hotel room in Hong Kong as he gave them information and they published it. Some of those scenes are re-enacted, which is strange given we've seen the real thing. So Stone has expanded the story, telling us about Snowden's earlier days, when he was a gung-ho Bush supporter, how he grew disenchanted with the methods of government intelligence, and how he was influenced by his girlfriend.

This is all well and good. Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes an excellent Snowden, down to the almost perpetual fringe of beard on his chin and the at times infuriating earnestness, and I am once again impressed by Shailene Woodley, who takes the part of "the girlfriend" and makes it something much more. Having seen Woodley take part at the Dakota Access protests recently crossed into my thinking, and it helped me buy her as a liberal.

But something is missing. We get a little of it--the most memorable scene is when Gordon-Levitt is called into a video conference with his mentor, Rhys Ifans, whose image is projected on a wall, about twelve feet tall, looming like a Big Brother. I think the entire film is summed up in that scene, as what Snowden revealed, that the U.S. government was listening and reading private conversations, emails, and texts, is the very definition of Big Brother.

I was also interested in some of the nuts and bolts of working for the CIA and NSA. There's a mountain in Hawaii where you really get x-rayed before you come in, and spies these days are computer jockeys, likely to wear cargo pants and bowling shirts instead of black trench coats.

Stone clearly admires Snowden, who gets a cameo at the end. While others called for harsh punishment (Trump called for his execution, Clinton demanded his arrest, and Obama was not a fan) it's interesting to see how time changes things--it's possible that Obama may pardon him. The film comes then, at an interesting time then, but it doesn't really make a statement. Oh, you may want to put a Band-Aid over your Web-cam, and don't email or text anything that you don't want Uncle Sam to read, but we knew that already, didn't we?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf (1966)

I had planned to write about the film adaptation of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf toward the end of the year, when I annually discuss the nominees for the Best Picture Oscar from fifty years ago. But then Edward Albee, who wrote the play it is based on, up an died, and I realized I'm the only one who sets the rules for this blog, so I'm moving up the date.

As I mentioned in my review of the revival on Broadway a few years ago, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is my favorite play. Albee, following the death of Eugene O'Neill and the kind of petering out of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, assumed the mantle of America's playwright. Ben Brantley in the Times think he held it until Tony Kushner's Angels in America,  but I might stick up for Sam Shepard. In any event, Albee was a giant of American dramatists, and Virginia Woolf was his masterpiece.

It was a sensation on Broadway, both hated and worshiped, and was made into a film by Mike Nichols. It was Nichols' first film, after an amazing run on Broadway that saw five of his plays running at the same time. But mostly he did Neil Simon and other light fare. Virginia Woolf was as dark as a moonless night. He was also working with, at the time, the most famous people in the world, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

The film version is very, very good, but shows the pitfalls of taking a play that is perfect as it is and trying to adapt it for cinema. The play takes one in one living room in almost real time. Some films that are adapted for films that don't "break out" are often called "stagey," because cinema is supposed to be expansive. Who decided this, I don't know. So what Nichols did is very daring. He did break out, but the script, written by producer Ernest Lehman, adds almost nothing. Albee joked that he added one line and was paid a million dollars. What Lehman and Nichols did was try to turn it into a movie.

To those who are too young or too isolated to know the story, it is about four people who are like scorpions in a bottle. George and Martha, probably not coincidently named for the father and mother of our country, are Burton and Taylor. He's an ineffectual, intellectual history professor, she's the blousy daughter of the president of the college (in the play she's older than George, but I suppose no one would believe Taylor was older than Burton). They have returned from a faculty party, and bicker as if it were second nature (she wants to know where the line "What a dump!" comes from. It is never answered, but for trivia buffs it is Bette Davis in Beyond the Forest). It is two in the morning, but Taylor has invited a young faculty member, George Segal, and his wife, Sandy Dennis, over for a nightcap. Thus begin the games.

What follows is some of the most bilious dialogue ever written for the American stage, or for the American screen. Burton and Taylor have something of an understanding in their marriage--they constantly fight--"If you existed I'd divorce you," Taylor tells him, but Segal and Dennis don't quite understand it. Segal, whom Taylor pointedly seduces, is a biologist, whom Burton mistrusts--he's convinced biology will make everyone the same, and end all creativity--ooks askance at the sideshow he's watching. Dennis quickly gets drunk on brandy, and is mocked for her "slim hips" and being a "simp." When she later twirls herself around in a road house, shouting "I dance like the wind," or claps shouting "Violence! Violence!" you both feel sorry for her and hate her.

There's a point you hate everyone in this play, but also feel the deepest empathy. Albee, during his whole career, peeled back the facade, especially of academic and upper-middle-class types. In this play, the skeleteons in the closet are practically dancing--at the center of the play is the supposed son of Burton and Taylor. Though this story is over fifty years old, I choose not to reveal it here.

Nichols and Lehman kept Albee's vitriolic language. It often has the sound of percussion, with the repetition of words like "flop," and "snap!" The insults are often laugh out-loud funny, even when the cut to the bone. Burton says to Taylor: "And please keep your clothes on, too. There aren't many more sickening sights in this world than you with a few drinks in you and your skirt up over your head." They keep the three act structure, with each being a game--"Humiliate the Host," "Get the Guests," ("Hump the Hostess" happens off screen) and then "Bringing Up Baby."

But where the film goes a little off the rails is the scene at the roadhouse. This is where "Get the Guests" is played, where Burton reveals what Segal told him--that he married Dennis because she had a hysterical pregnancy. The rest of the play stays at the house, even if it includes the kitchen or the backyard, but the trip to the road house, complete with a pair of workers there, strains credulity. This play is set in the early '60s but putting a jukebox and a woody station wagon in it doesn't help, it just limits it. Burton, in his sweater and daddy glasses, just looks out of place. It was a mistake.

The film was nominated for thirteen Oscars. Taylor and Dennis won, Burton and Segal were nominated. Taylor was certainly not everyone's first choice--she was a glamorous movie star, and the role had been played by older, less photogenic women like Uta Hagen and Elaine Stritch. But she was game, braying like a jackass when called for. Burton was more tailor-made for the part, keeping his Royal Academy accent, sounding just like an ineffectual history professor. When the play is done right, it's the character of George who "wins" the evening, and I'm not sure Burton does that here.Taylor was the bigger star and she gets the lion's share of attention.

Nichols does film the interiors in the house masterfully. There are many, many close-ups, two-shots, and intriguing three-shots--I can't imagine how many set-ups there were. Often the actors are photographed from below, making them look like monsters. especially George and Martha. It was shot in black and white, by Haskell Wexler (he won an Oscar, the last for Black-and-White Cinematography, by then it was old hat) and has the proper boozy, smoke-filled feeling. The opening shot is of a full moon, as if it were a Universal Wolf Man picture, and then we see that moon again, just before the last act, which Albee called "Walpurgisnacht."

While the film version is not up to the stage version, it is still a monumental achievement, and Albee, who was kind of embarrassed by the attention he got for it, certainly probably appreciated the money it generated, still captures the essence of the play, as described by Martha: "George, my husband... George, who is out somewhere there in the dark, who is good to me - whom I revile, who can keep learning the games we play as quickly as I can change them. Who can make me happy and I do not wish to be happy. Yes, I do wish to be happy. George and Martha: Sad, sad, sad. Whom I will not forgive for having come to rest; for having seen me and having said: yes, this will do."