Monday, March 29, 2010

Leaving so soon? Central Florida's 2 film fests

After a month here I will be leaving Florida in two days. The question is: should I return in just under two weeks?....Because, it just so happens that central Florida has two film festivals, and over the exact same time period, Apr. 9 – 18.....The Sarasota Film Festival (12th annual, this year will have appearances and readings by the likes of Kevin Kline, Patricia Clarkson, Steve Buscemi along with a tribute to John Landis (Blues Brothers, Spies Like Us, Into the Night).....A cursory look at the schedule shows some doc-heavy material such as 11/4/08 (where were you when Barack Obama was historically elected?), The Adults in the Room (about adult-teen male love), And Everything Is Going Fine (Steven Soderbergh’s tribute to the late (apparent suicide) monologist Spalding Gray)......A film that was at the Windsor International Film Festival, Quebec’s I Killed My Mother (Xavier Dolan as director and actor) is also showing up.....Meanwhile a couple of hours or so upstate is the Florida Film Festival (19th annual, in Orlando.....Two films scheduled for that fest that caught my eye are Paper Man (Richard Dunn) starring one of my faves, Jeff Daniels, in a perfect role for him as an author with writer’s block. There’s also the film Harry Brown (Daniel Barber) with Michael Caine as an aging man who stands alone meting out some vigilante justice...Gee, that trip back down I-75 isn’t so long, is it?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The long goodbye, Italian-style

Rome’s central railroad station (Roma Termini) has a special place in my heart. Not only is it absolutely cavernous - and, unlike many other European stations, doesn't occupy a building likely to be a century or more old (because it replaced one that age) – and is distinctive because of its post-war modernist design......It was there in 1988 where I 1) went to a police station to fill out a complaint that I had been robbed, 2) bought a new piece of luggage (from one of the outdoor Piazza dei Cinquecento hucksters), and 3) waited to catch a bus to the Canadian Embassy where I could claim a new passport.....The station is impressive. With 29 gates it is one of the largest in Europe.....What took me back to this monolith was the 1954 film Indiscretion of an American Wife starring Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift....The film goes under the title Stazione Termini released in 1953 (the ‘54 date was the American premier). It’s directed by Vittorio De Sica (Marriage Italian-Style 1964, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis 1970) with dialogue by Truman Capote.....The film is very short (63 minutes U.S. version vs. 90 Italian – okay, Americans have less attention span (joke)) – and takes place entirely within the amazing Roma Termini....The story is about American Mary Forbes's (Jones) attempts to break off her affair with the Italian Giovanni Doria played by Clift.....When the movie begins he breathlessly finds her waiting for her train to Paris and is able to convince her to have a talk to reconsider leaving him. They get kicked-out of a dining room because it hasn't opened yet, are relegated to a crowded cafe, and later to a waiting room. Finally, they get up close and personal inside a first class carriage parked on the track. There is even a scene in the building's police station (which I obviously can identify with!) ....Clift of course has those furrowed brows that represent his tormented character (as Clift was in life).....The film is wonderful because it takes place amidst the teeming crowds of the Termini. And unlike other European films such as those of the French New Wave – shot openly on Paris streets – average people in the background aren't turning around and looking at the camera. The Italians, after all, are discreet, or know good filmmaking when they see it.....

Sunday, March 21, 2010

James Wong Howe's pioneering shots

In The Outrage, Martin Ritt’s 1964 interpretation of Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 Rashomon - with another terrific performance by Paul Newman along with the magnificent Claire Bloom - one of the first things that strikes you as Howard Da Silva confronts a despondent young William Shatner along the railroad platform, is that magnificent desert landscape beyond the teeming rain. My eyes wanted to focus on those stark silhouetted mountains almost more so than the conversation starter which leads us to what will be four interpretations of a remote crime.... As the movie proceeds the camera shots continue to stand out – from ground angles of Newman chained to a post during his town square trial to the close-ups of horses galloping through the desert – it all begged the question: just who was the cinematographer?.....The director of photography was none other than James Wong Howe, of whom, I confess, I had never heard.....Howe was born in China in 1899 and started directing in the silent era. He was among the first to use deep-focus photography where both the background and foreground are in focus, which subliminally was probably what also caught my eye during those opening shots.....Howe would eventually work on more than 130 films. Among those were Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957), Picnic (Joshua Logan, 1955), Seconds (John Frankenheimer, 1966) and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Robert Ellis Miller, 1968)......Howe pioneered in lighting, camera angles, and use of hand-held cameras.....He was known for bringing out the best features of actresses without resorting to tricks such as shooting through gauze. He strapped cameras on to actors’ waists in an action sequence to capture a whole new exciting perspective......He was one of the few Asians to rise to the heights of Hollywood and, yes, one of the great cinematographers of the 20th Century.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

(The young) Brando, Newman, Travolta

Marlon Brando was 26 years old when he starred as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951). Do they make bodies as lithe and chests as tight now? (Probably not, too many slurpees in the world.) To me, Streetcar was an overrated film, stemming from probably being an overrated play by the – yup, overrated – playwright Tennessee Williams. Nevertheless, Brando’s performance in this picture with Kim Hunter and Vivien Leigh burns white hot. As an angry working class everyman, rough around the edges and suspicious of anyone “uppity” or putting on airs, Brando is not a man acting but an incandescent soul, tearing through scenes with a primitive hunger......Then there’s Newman in Somebody Up There Likes Me (Robert Wise, 1956). Wow, what a performance. I had never known Newman capable of so completely adapting another persona – in this case, that of Italian Stallion Rocky Barbella, the street thug from the Lower East Side who rises to become the great middleweight champ Rocky Graziano. He’s a savage beast, alright, literally beating anyone who gets in his way - all with a fine Italian accent – until, ironically, he’s contained by the world of boxing and the love of a woman (the exquisite Pier Angeli)......And then there’s John Travolta at his early apex in Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977) as the baby-faced Tony Manero walking along 86th St. in Brooklyn with a paint can in his hand, itching to be through his Friday hardware shift and out on the dance floor at the neighbourhood club. This disco hero’s looks and manner of devilish innocence are counterbalanced by his sophisticated choreographed night moves. Hemmed in by job and family during the day he’s liberated in polyester at night.....

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Luxuriating in Turner Classic Movies

As I’ve mentioned before, upon landing in the great US of A we Canucks sometimes feel like refugees from, well, Canuckistan. We flock to American stores to buy goods with variety and prices undreamed of north of the border. And then there’s the media. I’m spending all this month south of the Great White North. Among other things I’ve been indulging in Turner Classic Movies (TCM).....TCM was created by Ted Turner, a movie freak, in 1994 as part of his broadcasting system. The beauty of the network is many-fold. It’s entirely commercial-free, except for its own sparse – and really not irritable – promos. Movies come uncut and mostly uncolourized. They’re presented in the original formats. TCM even has an advertorial explaining why Letterbox format is superior to Pan and Scan (is it ever!).....In 2008 the network won a Peabody for broadcasting excellence. It’s easy to see why. Watching TCM is luxuriating in classic film. Its round-the-clock programming from the vaults of MGM, United Artists, RKO and Warner, as well as under license to studios like 20th Century Fox and Universal, is plentiful and sumptuous.....But what’s wonderful about TCM is that it presents film (it chooses the word “movies” because let’s face it “movies” is what generations have always called them) in a loving and highly respectful context that does them justice - for example, in sepia-toned introductions showing movie crowds gathering in a big city environment before the silver screen.....Prior to the Oscars TCM ran its 31 Days of Oscar, devoted to Academy Award-winning and nominated films over the decades. It also showcases the movies of directors and stars based on their birthday months. On Tuesday this month TCM is showing 26 films of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, on Wednesdays the films of Ginger Rogers.....Saturday night at 8 pm it’s The Essentials, iconic films of their times (the last two Saturdays had A Streetcar Named Desire and Saturday Night Fever) co-hosted by film historian Robert Osborne (who’s been with the network from the start) and guest Alec Baldwin....The channel is constantly exploring themes. Tomorrow night it has an armload of “mutant” horror pictures such as Them! and It Came from Beneath the Sea. Or the films of Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia, The Ruling Class, Lord Jim – wow!) on March 20.....You can get lost in TCM, the kind of network for which going to bed seems like a crime.....

Monday, March 8, 2010

Oscar notes: My girl wins, clueless Clooney, classy Sandra and the new George Burns?

Whddaitellya? Kudos to Kathryn Bigelow for not only scoring Best Picture but Best Director. I had predicted Best Pic (Feb. 22 post) though with perhaps a trade off with ex-hubby James Cameron of Avatar fame for Directing. But why not make it an historic first for Kathryn as the first woman to win the directing award? And four more Oscars for The Hurt Locker – the most - to boot. I had been pulling for the picture all evening.....Other Oscar notes: The scenes of Avatar during the telecast made me want to see the movie less.....What was up with Clueless G. Clooney? A scowl on his face or weird facial movements all night. Good that co-host Alec Baldwin stared him down. And Clooney is perhaps more of a jerk than I thought, esp after classy Sandra Bullock (good for her on Best Actress win) started to publically deride him for a past embarrassing moment of throwing her in the pool. In a post-ceremony interview she said she didn’t release the full story because Clooney’s “little eyes” looked so tired.....Praise again for Bigelow for actually having the gumption to support American troops for their valour after receiving her Best Directing win. And then, minutes later, after picking up Best Film, acknowledging the role of anyone in uniform including police and emergency personnel – “they’re there for us and we’re there for them.” Her words seem so unselfishly indulgent Hollywood, don't they?.....And about that dance sequence during the run up to the award for Best Original Score? Bring back the June Taylor Dancers!.....Always love Steve Martin but better if he does the MC job solo. But, hey, he’s starting to look a little like George Burns.....Is Kathy Bates becoming the new Shelley Winters?.....Demi Moore’s skin blended into her dress.....Lauren Bacall brought the house down in winning the honorary Governors Award pointing to Oscar and saying, “the thought when I get home I’m going to have a two-legged man in my room”.....Jeff Bridges (Best Actor) seems like a good ol’ boy from way back, just a fun guy to be around.....Though she didn’t win an award (The Last Station), there are few as magnificent as the great Helen Mirren.....Two movies from the Oscars I now have to see: The Young Victoria and Il divo.....And, again, why is it that general movie audiences can’t see film shorts? How come distributors can’t ink deals for features along with short films or animations?.....And irony of ironies, in a year the Academy put up 10 films for Best Picture in an effort to have more popular movies included, a low-budget almost obscure film that has made comparatively little at the box office, won.....

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

TCM's 31 Days of Oscar - final countdown

Now that I’m ensconced in variously-sunny southern US I have the opportunity to greedily watch the kind of TV we Canucks simply don’t have (yes, a refugee from Canuckistan!). As in Turner Classic Movies (TCM). TCM has been running its 31 Days of Oscar leading to March 7: 360 Academy Award Winning/Nominated films. I’ve been catching the 8 pm screenings....Last night, West Side Story (Robert Wise, 1961). Hard to believe this won 10 Oscars. I guess it says something about early-1960s audiences who might have loved the still popular musical genre fused with contemporary urban and racial politics. I know, I know, this is one of the ultimate classics, so who am I?....The opening scene of the Jets clicking their fingers as they embark on a choreographed bullying romp through the asphalt jungle is almost laughable, as are most of the Jets and rival Sharks’ (even the names are funny) scenes....Richard Beymer as Tony (Shakespeare’s Romeo) went on to a long list of TV credits. Natalie Wood as Maria (Juliette) went on to film superstardom and tragedy (god bless her soul). The best things about this piece? The absolutely timeless music (Bernstein, Sondheim) such as Maria, America, Tonight, I Feel Pretty, Somewhere. And of course Natalie is never hard to look at.........Then on Monday there was Morituri (Bernhard Wicki, 1965) with Yul Brynner and Marlon Brando. German expat Brando is blackmailed by the Allies to capture a rubber-bearing ship destined for Nazi Germany’s war machine. Brynner is the captain. Nominated for best cinematography and costume design. I learned from TCM host Robert Osborne that Brando didn’t particularly respect Brynner’s acting. But viewing takes of the scenes changed his mind. And Brynner, who typically had lighting set for his performances, taught that trick to Brando. Brynner and Brando are good and play off each other well. But the play is about a half hour too long. Adrift at sea we feel adrift (sorry)....