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Monthly Archives: February 2019

Movie Crash Course: Citizen Kane

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I found myself pondering an interesting question while watching this – what is Citizen Kane about?

I don’t mean the plot.  That’s an easy answer – after the death of publishing tycoon Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), reporters discover that his last word was the enigmatic utterance “Rosebud”, and set out on a quest to examine his life and discover what that might mean.  ….Heck, everyone knows that.  Plenty of people even know the answer to “What does ‘Rosebud’ mean” without having seen the film; it’s the ultimate in movie spoilers.  I actually knew the answer ten years before ever seeing the film, for the most ridiculous of reasons – in a Peanuts strip, Lucy spoils the ending for Linus as he’s settling in to watch for the first time.

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Maybe the film is “about” William Randolph Hearst.  Welles clearly based the movie on Hearst’s life – Hearst was the head of a media empire founded on yellow journalism, he mocked up events to convince the U.S. government to declare war on Spain during the Gilded Age, he made an unsuccessful bid for a governorship, he was an early decrier of political corruption who became seduced by success, and he ultimately holed up in an elaborately ornate mansion decorated with art booty seized – er, purchased – from around the world, and retreated there with a mediocre actress he was wooing after unsuccessfully trying to promote her as a star.  (Some claim that the inclusion of “rosebud” in the film was a uniquely pointed callout – rumors are that this was Hearst’s special nickname for a very intimate part of his paramour Marion Davies’ anatomy.)

But those are just the plot and the inspiration.  Neither of those points address what the film is about, and I found myself returning to that question again and again.

Is it about how Kane’s formerly-simple life as a child was the last time he was truly happy, and how the more wealth and power he had and the richer he got, the unhappier he was?  The events of the story suggest so, with Kane building more and bigger and flashier emblems of wealth and privilege and power around him, building out walls around him like a nautilus shell and ultimately pushing real things of value – spouses, lovers, children, friends – away until his death alone.

Is it about the worldly trappings preventing Kane from even getting to know himself and others in the first place?  A couple of recurring motifs suggest this – a handwritten mission statement Kane drafts for his first paper is treated as a holy document at the beginning of the film, but diminishes in importance as Kane rises in fame, and by the end as he is rattling around alone in his mansion that paper is long gone.

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Is it about the seduction of power warping Kane’s own image of himself? Welles uses a lot of camera angles that suggest this; the more the film goes on, the more Welles plays with shooting from low camera angles and using forced perspective, making Kane loom over us as his power ascends; then throwing him against oversized backgrounds towards the end to show how small he actually is.

Is it about how a person’s friends each only know their one small piece of the story of their life? The reporter visiting each of Kane’s associates in turn – and each relating just their one bit of Kane’s story at a time – fits this.  There’s also a neat echo motif in the jigsaw puzzles Kane’s second wife Susan endlessly fiddles with out of boredom; the reporter even finds one such puzzle during his beat and compares “rosebud” to the one missing piece he despairs of ever finding.

…These theories are probably nothing new to film scholars.  What is knew for me is that this is the first time I’m actually coming away from a film thinking about it on this level; I went into this as a rewatch, after having seen the film once before sheerly because of its notoriety.  I’ve also looking at the film through the perspective of kitsch; how its techniques have been copied, how its lore has spread and become trivia fodder. I even visited Hearst Castle once and found myself having a full-on giggle fit in the gift shop when I saw that they sold a biography of Marion Davies with a foreword by Oscar Welles.  By all rights I should have just skated over this as a giant game of spot-the-reference and been on my way.

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But I didn’t. I got caught up in the question of what story Welles was trying to actually tell; and ultimately coming to the same conclusion our reporter does, which is that maybe there are some corners of every story that we may not ever know, and the questions themselves may be the point after all.

Preview For The Next Review

So I’ve been doing more than a few Oscar-related posts but not as many films for the regular Crash Course format.  That is because (pick one):

  1. I wanted to get the Oscar posts done before the Oscars.
  2. I’ve been coping with paperwork processing for onboarding for a new job.
  3. I’ve been wrapping things up with the old job.
  4. I’ve been taking advantage of Alex being away by doing some spring cleaning of the house and Kondo-izing the hey out of a couple closets.
  5. The movie I have to review is Citizen Kane and that’s intimidating.
  6. I’ve been trying to get all the movie reviews copied over to the new site so I can start rolling it out to bloglists and such.  I have only fifty more to copy over and I’ll be done.
  7. It’s my birthday (today) and I feel idleness on one’s birthday is a…birthright.
  8. My procrastination has been taking the form of crafty things (I’ve made five container candles and upcycled a Pringles tub into a tea canister, gave some wall art a makeover and have actually done tablescapes with candles and trays from thrift stores and the like). These are things that do occupy time somewhat, and make other messes so then you need to clean them up, especially after you’d just spent a half hour scrubbing the sink…
  9. I discovered that Netflix has streaming rights to a British TV series with British comedienne Jo Brand where she follows around various RSPCA staff and vets trying to rescue and re-home tiny adorable homeless kittens and to be perfectly frank that kind of television can’t watch itself.
  10. All of the above.

But I’m determined to get the next review done tonight, so I can watch the next film tonight- and get that reviewed in time to watch the next two films after Alex returns.  He’s on his own personal movie challenge – a rewatch of classic horror films – and wanted to piggyback on The Wolf Man, coming up in the next couple days for me.

Right.  Citizen Kane. Here we go.

The Movie Crash Course Oscar Special: Live Blogging Oscars 2019

Greetings!  I am at my local bar with my two cohorts, “The Librarian” and “The Jazz Man,” where I will be attempting to liveblog the Oscars tonight.  Our first toast of the evening was “To NOT The Green Book“, so I think we are in agreement.

It’s 8 pm and the show is about to get underway.  Let’s do this.

8:02 pm, Thus spake The Librarian: “If we’re going to have someone singing with Queen who isn’t Freddie Mercury, I’ll take Adam Lambert.”

8:02:30: “Also, remind people that Brian May is both a rock guitarist and an astrophysicist.”

8:11 pm: Best Supporting Actress goes to Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk. I was wrong, but I am very pleased to have been wrong.

8:12: Someone at the bar is cheering every single thing that Regina King is saying in her speech and it is adorable.  Particularly her shout-out to the other women nominated.

8:14: The Librarian and I want to know what Helen Mirren and Jason Momoa were talking about backstage.  The Librarian also thinks people have shipped that pairing.

8:16: Free Solo claims to have won Best Documentary, but we all know that it really went to Won’t You Be My Neighbor, right?

8:26 pm: The Librarian: “Who was the lead in Vice?”

The Jazz Man: “Christian Bale.”

The Librarian: “….Really?  Dang.”

Me: “And I think that this explains how Vice got Best Makeup just now.”

8:28: I am telling The Jazz Man who else was in Vice and I mention that Tyler Perry played Colin Powell.  The Jazz Man observed: “Now I’m imagining Colin Powell as Medea.”

8:29:  …..It took me nearly the entirety of Melissa McCarthy’s speech to get that her dress was a riff on The Favourite.

8:38 pm: we’re fairly certain that Black Panther is going to sweep all the technical awards, right?  Just checking.

8:43 pm: I was not expecting Tyler Perry to be the one to throw shade about the awarding of Oscars during the commercials.

8:47 pm: I’ve only heard a couple of the Best Song nominees.  The mention of RBG made The Librarian raise a toast “to her very long health”.   ….Personally, I’m a bit ‘Meh” on the song, though, hearing it for the first time.

8:54 pm: They were just very public about handing James McAvoy the envelope for Best Sound Editing.  I guess the Academy is still a little spooked about the Moonlight thing.

9:00 pm: I am not surprised that both sound awards went to Bohemian Rhapsody; the best bit of that whole film was the music.

9:06 pm: It hit me right before they announced it – giving Roma Best Foreign Language Film as a consolation prize for losing Best Picture is totally a thing they’d do.

9:08 pm: Leave it to Keenan Michael Key to throw a presidential dig sight gag into a Mary Poppins entrance.  ….Also all of us wish that Lin-Manuel Miranda should have written the music for Mary Poppins Returns as well.

9:17 pm: Okay, Trevor Noah introducing Black Panther was probably an obvious choice but he clearly had fun with it. [Addendum from the future: At one point Trevor Noah recited a “Xhosa proverb” which he translated on-air as a quote from the film; but I’ve just learned that the real translation was “White people don’t know that I’m lying right now”. He had more fun than I thought.]

9:22 pm: Someone at the bar just scoffed that Sam Elliot has a “porn ‘stache” and we are trying not to laugh audibly.

9:24 pm: Mahershala Ali for Best Supporting Actor.  Okay, I’ll take it.

9:30 pm I forgot to predict: I’ve been hearing Into The Spiderverse as best Animated Feature, putting that out there now.

9:31 pm: Yep.  I also predict that Alex is fist-pumping at his parents’ place in Raleigh right now.  ….The Librarian also remarked at the line in the acceptance speech about “Spiderman looks like me!” because she has seen that after recommending a Miles Morales novel to a Spiderman fan at her library.

9:33 pm: We want to know how many tutus died to make Kacey Musgreave’s dress.

9:40 pm: Wayne’s World lines sound so weird coming out of much-older Dana Carvey and Mike Myer’s mouths.

9:47 pm: Line of the night, in Best Documentary Short Subject’s speech: “I can’t believe a film about menstruation won an Oscar!”

9:59 pm: Did the best visual effects guy just shout out a Harry Potter curse at the end of his speech?

10:00 pm: The Jazz Man: “That may be the least out-there thing I’ve ever seen Lady Gaga wear.”   ….Also – there is something very Once about the way they staged the performance of “Shallow”.

10:11 pm: Oh, right, Screenplay – I avoided making guesses for this.  But I was kind of hoping Best Original was going to go to First Reformed, a film that I saw early in 2018 and thought was thought-provoking. ….Instead we got Green Book – and I’m amusing myself listening to three people at the bar talk about Peter Farrelly, talking about “….And this was the guy who did Dumb and Dumber, can you believe it?”

10:15 pm: The Librarian has just shared the fact that every copy of If Beale Street Could Talk is checked out of the library.

10:16 pm: Watching Spike jump into Samuel L. Jackson’s arms in celebration after winning Best Adapted Screenplay made my night.  (Also: my bar is four blocks from Spike’s studio and there is much rejoicing.)

10:24 pm: ….Okay, is the composer for Black Panther old enough to drink his celebratory champagne?

10:26 pm:  Yep, not really a surprise that Lady Gaga won for Best Song.  And honestly, the performance was quite lovely.

10:33 pm: The “In Memoriam” montage is getting some damn passionate invocations from our bar, including a cry of “Excelsior!” at Stan Lee.  The Librarian concluded things by raising a toast “to all the names we didn’t recognize.”

10:40 pm: There is someone here at the bar that is cheering whenever a Brooklyn native is on screen.  And I am very surprised that Barbara Streisand is introducing BlacKkKlansman instead of A Star Is Born. 

10:43 pm: Okay, here we go: Best Actor award.  Here we go.

10:45 pm: Okay, I am honestly surprised that Rami Malek took this.  He absolutely earned it, but I was expecting Christian-Bale-and-his-prosthetics to take it.

10:54 pm: Sen. John Lewis is introducing Green Book and speaking about the 1960s and someone at the bar is shouting “CHURCH!” at everything he says.  I still have my reservations about the film itself, but that was a class act.

10:56: pm: The Librarian asks: “What is up with all of the random red dresses the women are wearing?”

10:57 pm: Jazz Man wants it known he predicts Glenn Close for Best Actress as a quasi-lifetime-achievement thing.

10:59 pm: Olivia Colman got it?  Wow.  ….Okay, I am very surprised by the way that this is going down.

11:03 pm: The Librarian and the Jazz Man are planning out how they are going to save all the stuff on the table if I rageflip it.

11:07 pm: Best Director: Here we go.

11:08 pm:

11:12 pm: The Jazz Man: “So I guess Spike Lee needs to make a film with Glenn Close so they can get snubbed together.”

11:14 pm: Yep, Green Book got Best Picture.  Others are angry but I was resigned; I suspected it would go this way.

….And thank you and good night!

The Movie Crash Course Makes An Oscar Prediction And Opinions Post

So while I’ve attempted liveblogging the Oscar ceremony in the past once or twice, I’ve never done a prediction post.  Possibly because this is the first time in years that I’ve actually successfully kept my promise to see all of the Best Picture nominees in time. (Them raising the number from “five” to “as many as ten” really made that tricky.)

So here’s my hot take (such as it is) on each of the Best Picture nominees:

  • Black Panther:  One of the frontrunners for me; possibly even a runner-up to the film that I’d give the award to.  I was not expecting to find a thought-provoking statement on the responsibility inherent with privilege in a Marvel Comics film.
  • BlacKkKlansman:  If the Oscars were 100% up to me, this would win.  It’s got humor, it’s got tension, it’s got strong statements about race relations, it’s got fantastic performances, it’s got current-day relevance.
  • Bohemian Rhapsody:  Rami Malek does fantastic as Freddy Mercury, but the rest of the film is a bit…hero-worshippy.  Understandably so, since Brian May and Roger Taylor were two of the producers.  But still.  ….Best part was the recreation of Queen’s Live Aid gigi, so just watch that on Youtube again.
  • The Favourite:  Fantastic performances from all concerned, and darkly comic in its depiction of a bizarrely upper-class rivalry.  I enjoyed it, but I suspect that most of the Academy will consider it a bit too much of a dark horse.
  • Green Book:  …..Eunnnhhh.  I mean, it wasn’t terrible.  But – it’s one of an embarrassingly long list of films that deals with the history of a non-white person by throwing a white person lead in as an audience stand-in, like we need them as a prophylactic or something.  Mahershala Ali absolutely deserved his nomination for his performance, but….he was nominated as Best Supporting Actor, because the film made his character the supporting character to a white guy.  Yes, it’s all very nice that Dr. Don Shirley and Tony Vallelonga became friends during this road trip, but did we really need yet another film about A White Person Learning To Be Tolerant?  It’s not like the racists of the world have been watching things like Driving Miss Daisy and such and saying “you know, I’m still not convinced, maybe if I saw just one more movie….”  The hell of it is, this very well may win.  Not because of its quality, but because this is how the Academy always thinks about films like this.  Feh.
  • Roma: Lovely and affecting; if a tiny bit slow in one or two scenes.  But I was struck by how the film tells its story entirely through the main character Cleo’s perspective; we learn about the strain in her employer’s marriage solely through scenes where she happens to be passing through a room while they’re arguing, or serving breakfast while the family matriarch is telling her kids that they’re going to their cousins’ house for Christmas without their father or something.  I was strangely reminded of Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead with that technique.
  • A Star Is Born: ….Eh, it was fine.  I was entertained, and that’s actually all I can really think to say.  This may be damning with faint praise and I realize that.
  • Vice:  I am delighted that this fourth-wall-breaking comedic approach to Dick Cheney is the version we got.  It told a story that needed telling in a much more palatable way; and boy howdy did this story need telling.  It’s also got me looking forward to director Adam McKay’s inevitable take on this current administration.  ….Too much of a political football to win, sadly.

And as I can, some hot takes on some of the other awards:

  • Best Actor: Of the five performances, I’ve only seen four; I will hedge my bets and say that I’m predicting one of three (Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, or Rami Malek).
  • Best Actress: I’ve seen even less here; only three.  Olivia Colman was spectacular in The Favourite; I’d predict either her or Yalitza Aparicio for Roma.
  • Best Supporting Actor: On the one hand, Mahershala Ali was phenomenal in Green Book, but on the other hand he won this exact same award only two years ago.  I’ll still call it for either him or Adam Driver in BlacKkKlansman.
  • Best Actress: This is tough; two of the spots are taken up by Olivia Colman’s co-stars in The Favourite, despite all three of their roles deserving lead status.  But then we have Amy Adams in Vice, and I think ultimately I’m going to go with her.
  • Best Director: I’ve already warned my friends who will be watching the Oscars with me that if Spike Lee doesn’t win this I am going to rageflip our table.
  • Best Full-Length Documentary: I am personally awarding this to Won’t You Be My Neighbor.  It wasn’t in fact nominated, but you know in your heart it should have been and it would have won and this is my blog and so at least here what I say goes dammit.

 

Movie Crash Course: The Bank Dick

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Well, it’s…..it’s better than the last W. C. Fields film I saw, at least.

As with It’s A GiftFields is the henpecked and perpetually drunk patriarch of a family who are all disappointed in him.  He gets a job which he is staggeringly bad at, he has ideas for get-rich-quick plans that initially crash and burn, but due to some highly improbable turns of events things turn out alright in the end.  And on the way there is an assortment of slapstick, situational comedy and sight gags.

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With this film, though, there’s a bit more of a cohesive plot.  As “Egbert Sousé”, Fields’ greatest desire is to while away the day at the Black Pussy Cafe sipping a series of cocktails (served up by a bartender played by Shemp Howard, one of the future Three Stooges and perpetually glum-faced here).  But his family – wife, mother in law, and two daughters – are urging him to get work. After blundering into a stint at directing a movie (and blundering right back out after only a few disastrous minutes), he stumbles equally blindly into a bank robbery, accidentally apprehending one of the criminals as they escape.  He is offered a security job by the grateful bank president, impressing both his eldest daughter (whose fiancé is a teller there) and wife (the bank president also promises to give them a tiny break on their current mortgage).

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The whole thing gives Sousé a bit of a swelled head, and he boasts about his fortune at the Black Pussy – within earshot of a con man trying to offload some worthless stock shares in a failed mine.  Sousé is taken in by his sales pitch, and brings him to the bank, urging his future son-in-law, Og Oggilby (Grady Sutton) to invest in the mine.  Even worse – when Og protests that he’s between paychecks and will have to wait four days, Sousé tells him to just secretly borrow money from the bank.  Og is a simple and trusting sort, and agrees.  And that’s when the bank examiner J. Pinkerton Snoopington turns up to conduct a surprise audit.  Eeek!  Og panics – but not to worry, Sousé says, he has a plan…..

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Of course, comedic hijinks ensue – Mickey Finns, fainting bank tellers, drunk pratfalls, adorable children saying naively insulting things, and a slapstick car chase, with everything tying up neatly in a happy ending for all concerned.  Even the movie subplot suddenly comes back to give Sousé an additional reward.

Mind you, I’m not saying I was wholly won over. This is still solely a collection of gags strung onto a very slim plot thread. But at least there is a thread there.  Fields also just plainly does more – in It’s A Gift, he was just sort of reacting blandly to things that happened around him, but in The Bank Dick he takes more of an active role in the goings-on, and just that one change makes him much more interesting.  He’s still an absolute buffoon, but at least he’s a buffoon that is doing things instead of just sitting still.

It’s possible that Fields may have insisted on that himself.  He had a much greater degree of creative control on this film than he had in previous outings, even writing the entire screenplay (using the pseudonym “Mahatma Kane Jeeves”, a punning take on an aristocrat’s command to a servant: “My hat ‘n’ my cane, Jeeves!”).  The critical reaction was mostly positive, although there were still those who as dubious as I was about the stock characters and the meandering plot. On the other hand, this was apparently on Stanley Kubrick’s top-ten favorite film list, so go figure.

Important Announcement Concerning The Movie Crash Course

ATTENTION.

If you are following this blog because of The Movie Crash Course, be advised: I have officially set up their new home, here.  I am still in the process of moving all of the old entries over there, and hope to have that process done by the end of this month.

Throughout the month of March, I will post all my Movie Crash Course reviews in both places. But after the end of March, all subsequent movie reviews will then be available only on their new home, Moviecrashcourse.com.

I will keep this blog for other writing.  But if you are here because of the Crash Course, you have a month to switch over.

Amen.

Year of the Pig/Year Of The Challenges

Can I show you something a minute?

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Know what those are?

Those are fresh pork wontons.

But not just any fresh pork wontons.  Those are fresh pork wontons that were made by my own two reckless and foolhardy hands.

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I used a recipe from the cookbook I told myself I’d delve into more this year; there’s also a batch of sauce using the Sichuan chili oil I made the other week to go with them. I made only half the recipe but still have about 75 little nuggets of pork and ginger, most of which got sent to the freezer for longer-term storage and future use.  But one tray of them is waiting for Alex to get home from whereever he is, at which point I will probably jump up grinning at him wildly and say “oh hi great let me turn the water on sit down this will be ready in about ten minutes eat this.”  And best of all, I think out of the entire batch, there’s only one that might have a little bit of a structural integrity and leaking issue.

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Behold the rewards of overconfidence, spare time and a $2.99 pack of wonton skins.

Crash Course 2019 Oscar Extra Credit: A Star Is Born

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The story of A Star Is Born is so ubiquitous by now that I knew what was going to happen – one half of a couple sees their fame ascend, as the other fades into obscurity – despite never having seen any other version of this movie.  It’s also so ubiquitous that I was asking why we even had this remake, or whether I needed to see it in the first place.  And to be perfectly frank, the only reason I did see it is because of its Best Picture nomination status.

Being frank again, I’m still doubtful it deserves that status, but – as with Bohemian Rhapsody – I still didn’t hate it.  Bradley Cooper turns in a heck of a performance as Jackson Maine, the country-rock star who’s gradually disappearing into a haze of bourbon and drugs; and Lady Gaga is equally impressive as Ally, the aspiring singer and songwriter who flourishes under his promotion.

The music and concert scenes, ironically, were the ones that left me cold.  Much has been said of how Cooper directed and filmed these scenes; many of them are live performances, actually staged at various concert venues during actual music festivals with actual concert goers willing to turn up for a half hour in between other bands’ sets.  Everyone sings just fine, the music is pretty and all.  But for me, it just comes across as “singers are singing” and that’s that.  There’s apparently some subtle conflict between Jackson and Ally about her abandoning the boho-ballad path and going all pop, but I did not pick up on that at all; maybe because I was chalking it up to my own personal taste mapping to Jackson’s music anyway, so whatever I was picking up I thought was coming from me in the first place.

The moments that resonated with me instead were a bunch of smaller things sprinkled throughout.  Ally has a handful of scenes with a close friend named Ramon, played by Anthony Ramos (who I admit I recognized as “hey, it’s Laurens from Hamilton!“).  His role is pretty damn small and is a bit of a one-note “sidekick”, but something about them is so endearing that I was charmed; in a very early scene Ally has brought Ramon along as a sort of chaperone when Jackson flies her to see one of his gigs, but the pair are flying there via Jackson’s private jet – and they are enjoying the hell out of being in a private jet for the first time, freaking out over the fact that “omigod there are actually couches on this jet can you believe it, here you lie down on one and I’ll lie down on the other just because we can because omigod this is a plane with couches on it and eeee there’s also champagne oh no we spilled it are we going to get in trouble but hang on there is champagne on a plane this is bonkers AAAAAAAA!” It’s a scene that lasts only seconds, but I was completely captivated.

There are some equally fun bits backstage at the drag bar where Jackson first discovers Ally – reportedly, Cooper asked Lady Gaga for some personal recommendations for who to cast in the scene, and when they were shooting the backstage scene Cooper left it unscripted, telling them “you all know what people say in the dressing room at a drag bar better than anyone, so just go for it.”  A couple of the performers had so much fun improv’ing that Cooper gave them an extra scene or two; there’s also a lovely callback to them all when Ally is struck with stage fright before an early gig, and Ramon takes her aside to call up the bar on Skype so the drag performers can give her a pep talk.

Dave Chappelle also has a surprising cameo as an old friend of Jackson’s who’s retired from performing, because he’s gotten caught up in a simpler way of life as a doting househusband.  Much has been made of the conversation his character “Noodles” has with Jackson, with Noodles talking about how stepping away from the spotlight ultimately was more fulfilling; it’s an eerie echo to Chappelle’s own path.  There may be cause for that; Chappelle is actually a good friend of Cooper’s, and he may have included the moment, or at least the casting, as a personal touch.  Cooper apparently sprinkled little bits of his own self and his life throughout the movie, most notably in casting his own dog Charlie as the dog Ally and Jackson adopt (also named “Charlie” in the film).

….Much has also been made of Cooper’s Best-Director-nomination “snub” from the Academy.  However, much as I was unconvinced that this was a Best-Picture nominee, I’m also not convinced that Cooper should have been a Best-Director nominee.  He did fine work, especially for a first-time director, but I’m not convinced it’s Oscar caliber yet.  Best Actor, absolutely.  Best Director, not so much.

Movie Crash Course: Casablanca

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Casablanca is another Mt. Parnassus of filmdom; one that arguably deserved to be seen in a proper theater.  At least, that’s what I told myself when I saw it was screening at a local cinema on Valentine’s Day.  (The signature cocktail they invented for the audience was probably not necessary, but I indulged anyway.)  I’ve actually seen the film before, but was very surprised to see that there were elements I totally didn’t remember – and what’s more, those were the elements I really liked.

For the two of you who are wholly unfamiliar – the story is set in the city of Casablanca (big surprise), which in 1941 was a major port of embarkation for refugees from occupied France hoping to escape to the still-neutral United States.  As with any host city for refugees, many of them often were stuck there for a while, waiting their turn (or seeking legal or not-so-legal ways to jump the line a little).  Plenty of bars have sprung up in the meantime to cater to them; among them is “Rick’s Place”, run by American expat Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) who had a reputation for anti-fascist activism during the late 1930s; lately, however, he’s determined to stay strictly neutral. When a member of the French underground turns up with two exit visas he’s stolen from Vichy authorities, Blaine doesn’t protect him; but he also doesn’t turn over the visas.  Not even to Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a Czech resistance leader who was hoping to buy those very exit visas.

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But then Blaine sees that Laszlo’s wife is Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), and that gets his attention.  For Ilsa is a woman with whom he shared a brief and intense romance in Paris right before its fall; they’d arranged to flee the city together, until Ilsa inexplicably backed out at the last minute.  But now here she was; of all the gin joints in all the world, she had to walk into Rick’s place, right when Rick was holding on to two exit visas.  This all puts Rick in an interesting position; does he give Ilsa and Laszlo the visas?  Does he try to sell them at a high price?  If so, does he even sell them to Ilsa and Laszlo, or to someone else?  Or does he use one to get himself out of Casablanca?  ….And if he does, then who gets the other one?  One of his friends?  A stranger?  Or, maybe even Ilsa?

You no doubt have noticed that I quoted the film already.  The script is spectacularly written, with plenty of quipable and quotable lines that have passed into the general public consciousness, from Blaine’s go-to toast “here’s looking at you, kid,” to the French police captain’s orders after a crime that his officers should “round up the usual suspects” to plenty of others you’re probably already saying to yourself.  (Although, for the record: “Play it again, Sam” is actually a famous mis-quotation.)  But a script is more than just witty lines; there also needs to be a well-drawn plot and characters that act honestly and genuinely.  And happily, this script delivers.  You learn exactly why Ilsa fell in love with Rick in Paris, and exactly why she left him there.  And why Rick has become so cynical.  And that maybe he isn’t quite so cynical after all.  Even the minor characters have genuine arcs; the police captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) sometimes seems to half-ass his job, but there’s a suggestion that may be on purpose.  …Or maybe it isn’t.  Hard to say.

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Of course, the performances add to the picture as well.  Long ago I read that Ronald Reagan was at one point considered for the role of Rick Blaine, and that feels so wrong; Bogart is perfect for this, delivering most of his lines with a world-weary cynicism of the sort that you suspect masks some deep hurt.  There are subtle moments throughout where the mask slips a bit and Rick does some subtle good deed, but mostly he’s a deadpan sideline snarker.  Bergman, for her part, is luminously lovely as Ilsa; but fortunately has more to do aside from just be lovely.  There are some daring risks she takes to secure her husband’s safety; but there are also moments when you can tell, just by watching her look at either Blaine or Laszlo, precisely what she thinks of each of them.  And that’s just Bogart and Bergman; everyone else in the film, even the extras, are bringing their A-game.

This is especially so in a scene that is probably the film’s most famous.  It’s also the film’s most blatantly political scene, one where even Blaine subtly but definitively takes a side.  As Laszlo is meeting with Blaine, urging him to give him the exit visas – and Blaine is stubbornly refusing – suddenly they hear a group of German soldiers start singing a German patriotic song, to the discomfort of many of the other patrons.  After a few seconds of listening in disgust, Laszlo impulsively stalks over to the house band and urges them to start playing “La Marseillaise,” hoping to inspire the crowd to outsing the German soldiers. At first they hesitate – but Rick subtly nods his approval, and the band strikes up.

You’ve seen this scene before.  I know you have.  Even independent of the film, it’s an amazing scene.

 

There’s an excellent analysis of the Marseillaise scene here, on the blog “Seven Inches Of Your Time”, delving into just what makes it so powerful; it’s a heady blend of character moments as well as a key point in the plot, and plus it also uses one of the most kick-ass national anthems around.  But one aspect of this scene deserves special attention; most of the extras in this scene are actual refugees from occupied France who’d escaped to the United States.  Many of them had barely been in the United States for a year, and many feared that they’d never be able to return – or worse, that France would never be liberated.  “La Marseillaise” was banned in occupied France, and here was a chance to sing it again – and in a scene where they got to out-sing a German anthem.  Reportedly many of the extras were openly weeping between takes.

Even German film scholars agree with the scene’s power.  I mentioned my visit to Berlin’s Museum of Film in an earlier review; while there, I noted that they had a room devoted to the myriad artists from Germany and other Axis-occupied countries who escaped to Hollywood during the Second World War, and how they took work in the Hollywood system and shaped it as a result.  But even though their focus was on German refugees, this clip featuring French refugees was the one they had in the room on a continuous loop.  Officially I’m sure curators would say that it was a good example of a Hollywood studio using refugees in a famous film; but a part of me definitely got the subtext that they were saying “….yeah, we know this makes us look bad, but dammit even we think this scene is amazing.”

Movie Crash Course: Dance, Girl, Dance!

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So Maureen O’Hara is technically the star of this film.  However – in an echo of the plot itself, in fact- my attention was captured more so by her co-star Lucille Ball.

O’Hara and Ball are both dancers, members of the same troupe managed by expat Russian ballerina Madame Basilova (Maria Ouspenskaya).  Mme. Basilova tries to get her struggling troupe bookings as a package deal, but the best she can do is things like night-cub gigs in Akron; not because the dancers are bad, but because most pale in comparison to her two leads, ballerina Judy (O’Hara) and saucy, flirty Bubbles (Ball). In fact, during that Akron gig, a drunk-but-maudlin businessman named Harris (Louis Hayward) flirts with both Bubbles and Judy, albeit for very different reasons; he dances with Judy, but Bubbles is the one that goes to a bar with him after.

When they’re back in New York, the disastrous run of luck causes everyone to rethink. Bubbles gets an offer to headline a burlesque show in Hoboken, effectively quitting the group. Mme. Basilova decides to cut her losses and back Judy’s career instead, getting her an exclusive audition with the city ballet company.  But Mme. Basilova gets hit by a car as they are en route to the audition and they have to postpone.  Then when an already shaken Judy turns up a few days later to try again, she sneaks a peek at one of the company’s rehearsals and is too intimidated, fleeing before producer Steve Adams (Ralph Bellamy) can see her dance; but not before he sees her, and sizes her up as a cutie.  Judy is oblivious – she just needs work – and finally takes an offer from Bubbles, who hires her as the “stooge” for her act; someone to dance in a deliberately non-sexy way while Bubbles changes her costume, so the crowd’s appetite is whetted for Bubbles’ next number.  It’s clearly exploitative, but Judy is desperate.

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Except Judy’s also good.  As is Bubbles – good enough that the whole show is soon moved to Broadway. Their show’s fame draws the attention of Harris, who flies in for another visit, and of Adams, who wants to offer Judy another crack at an audition. But the rivalry between Bubbles and Judy is strong and long-simmering, Judy finally snaps….

So, the plot’s kind of hokey.  There’s a whole love triangle drummed up with Harris and Judy – but Bubbles isn’t the third leg, but rather Harris’ soon-to-be-ex-wife is.  Bubbles is simply a distraction from his other problems.  But she’s well aware of that, and is manipulative enough to exploit that for all it’s worth. She doesn’t even want to dance all that much; she knows she can, though, and knows how to hustle to get her way with it, so she plans to dance to get by until something better comes along.  But the naïve Judy doesn’t figure that out for a long time.  Judy also genuinely wants to dance and is willing to work like mad for it; she’s kind of the Salieri to Bubbles’ Mozart, with all the professional jealousy that implies.

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The contrast between those two characters played over into my own reaction to the film.  Judy’s the purported star of the show, but I thought Lucille Ball was way more interesting to watch.  Partly because it was Lucille Ball as I hadn’t ever seen her. My only exposure prior to this was TV show reruns – and not even reruns of the show you’re thinking of, but reruns of her late-60s show Here’s Lucy.  That version of Lucy was a talent agent in Los Angeles with two teenage kids, in a boilerplate sitcom about “the generation gap”; this version of Lucy was a witty, bawdy, fleet-footed dancer who was an expert at working a crowd.  The movie shows us two of her burlesque pieces, and her comic timing and performance chops are spot-on.  I grant that director Dorothy Arzner may have set things up this way, but even from the very first scene, I instantly was drawn to Bubbles, even though she was one of a line of seven girls doing a tap number.  She just had much more of a fascinating presence; more personality, more style, more….something.  As Mme. Basilova explains to Judy early in the film:  “She has ‘oomph’.  You cannot teach someone ‘oomph’. It is something you’re born with.”  Judy lacks “oomph” – but I’m afraid to say, so does Maureen O’Hara.  Lucille Ball, meanwhile, has it in spades.

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But that could also be a director’s choice. Judy is presented as a virtuous goody-goody throughout; self-effacing, generous, and kind, but also very morally upright. She dismisses Adam’s flirtation because she feels he’s being too forward. She breaks a date with Harris when she learns about his ex-wife.  At some point she even lectures the crowd at the burlesque, chiding them for coming to see the show in the first place.  It makes sense for the character – and from what I’ve heard about O’Hara, it makes sense for her as well – but it doesn’t make the character anywhere near as interesting as Bubbles.  Just like Harris in the film, Judy is the one we want to waltz sweetly with to an orchestra, but Bubbles is the one we wanna hang with at the afterparty.