26 July 2008

The Thief of Bagdad (1924) ** That is how they spelled the title **

This one finally landed on the top of my Netflix list and I had a chance to watch it last night. Made during the height of the "Orientalist" craze, this must have been the Lawrence of Arabia of its time.
It begins like most silent films of the era - a downtrodden fellow looking for luck and finding love. There is great gesturing, a little comedy and some archaic phrases on the quaint title cards. But after about the first 15 minutes, the story really got rolling and the hero (Douglass Fairbanks) shows off some great athletic skill. He is like watching a cartoon character. His demonstrative gestures and bouncy demeanor seem unreal. Yet he is strangely captivating. Somehow his aggrandized characterization does not seem over-the-top or out of place.
The story follows very closely the tale of Al-addin in 1001 Arabian Nights. He is a likable scoundrel who contrives Wile E. Coyote-like pulleys and traps to climbs walls and pick pockets. Using the rope trick one night, he gains entrance to the palace and is about to make off with a great deal of treasure, when he sees the innocent and lovely princess sleeping and falls in love. When the princess announces that she will choose a suitor to marry from the princes of the East, Fairbanks must disguise himself as a royal to gain admittance. Choosing him from the lineup of stuffy rajahs and khans makes the others jealous. They expose him as a fraud and break the princess's heart. Wishing to buy time for her rescue she sends the suitors off on a quest to find her the more rare of all treasures. When they return, she will marry the one whom she finds to be the best. Fairbanks sets off on his own magical quest to beat them all.
What makes this film so special are the sets and camera tricks. The movies are still so young at this point in history that seeing this as a member of the audience must have been stunning. The sets were enormous - probably 70-80 feet tall, using the scale of a person standing at the bottom and estimating. Everything is decorated with scroll work and carved in minarets. And although it doesn't approach a sense of realism, it is one purpose. It favors a stylized version of things, making it all the more a moving picture of a storybook illustration.
The magical special effects are surprisingly good as well. They convincingly pull off the rope trick, a cloak of invisibility, underwater sea monsters, and a flying carpet. All of these are shot beautifully.
The final scene on the flying carpet is so well done that it is not immediately obvious how it was shot. Remember, there are no green screens and CGI at this time. As they leave over the palace walls and across the city, a shadow of the carpet is visible over each individual minaret - meaning that something really was suspended over the set, and each tower was separate and three-dimensional.
In addition, even though this was shot in black and white, each scene was hand-tinted - so, at night the palace has a blue hue, the princess's bedroom is rose, the garden is green, the streets are yellow.
Clocking in at about 2 hours and 15 minutes, this was truly an epic production. I highly recommend the film, especially if you want something a little different. Maybe by watching this you will see where all the fancy blockbusters of today got their ideas.

22 July 2008

The Dark Knight as Neo-Noir **Spoiler Alert**


Of all the styles in film history, film noir is one of the most far-reaching and and hard to pin down.  A few of the things critics and historians have agreed on are these:
1. Abject social degeneration which forces those who still believe in "the good" to grapple with their own alienation.
2. A tragic protagonist who must delve into the dark side to bring light back to the world - to the detriment of his own happiness.
3. Low-key lighting, and droll dialogue rife with double-entendre and life philosophies.
4. Gangster/criminal/seedy character (with a troubled past, perhaps even sympathetic) who corrupts a dark, claustrophobic cityscape.
5. Femme fatale character, with varying degrees of self-reliance and/or sexual magnetism.

Christopher Nolan's latest installment of the Batman saga, The Dark Knight, employs all of these with a new, modern layer.  Since we left him standing in the embers of Wayne Manor  at the end of Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) has had relative success cleaning up the streets of Gotham.  He now has the backing of hard-nosed D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and the under-the-table trust of Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman).  The criminal element is finding it harder to do business and they are forced to take bigger risks and seek the help of others.  Gotham's most heavyweight cri
me bosses find themselves in cahoots with The Joker (Heath Ledger), someone just crazy enough to get the job done.  
So, Points #1 & 2.  This gets moved forward to the 21st century by the fact that the social degeneration has been contained, albeit concentrated, into Batman's arch-nemesis.  And it seems that that Joker is targeting Batman alone, by threatening those he cares about.  Batman is forced to see himself as apart from the public (and apart from Bruce Wayne) and try to determine whether he should hang up his bat-cape and let Dent continue the work above-board.  In the end, Batman/Wayne gives up reputation and happiness for the betterment of Gotham.
#3. It is nearly always nighttime wen the characters are outside.  The only daytime exterior scene is an overcast afternoon.  Otherwise, it is inside with few windows or outside at night, lit by street lamps, apartment windows, and the bat signal.  Characters make witty remarks and deep observations.  The Joker's entrance scene features such a line ("Would you like to see a magic trick?") - ironic and disingenuous.  Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Alfred (Michael Caine) are ever the voices of reason, levity and wisdom.
#4. In this episode, The Joker is the villain of the hour but he is complimented by a crew 
of unsavory characters - both in henchmen and cohorts.  They are like-minded ne'er-do-wells that are inspired by the Joker's ability to get things done.  And Joker's stories of mutilation are tragic.  Even if they cannot be believed, for moment, the hearer feels sorry - horrifies that a human could go so low. After all, that is the heart and soul of Gotham's struggle.  Gotham City itself is represented by Chicago, used for its Art Deco architecture - angular, linear, chrome, glass, steel.  Cold. There is no softness, or comfort here.
#5.  This femme fatale would normally be someone like Catwoman but she is not present in The Dark Knight.  It might seem then that the task is left to A.D.A Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), as the only major female character in the film.  She does display a few of the traits.  She is quite beautiful.  She is sassy, with a mind of her own.  She is the object of affection for more than one man and her association with them puts her in harm's way.  But, unlike the femme fatale, she does not use her influence to affect the hero.  Not on purpose,  anyway.  
Instead, the Joker picks up many of the negative characteristics of the femme fatale.  He goads Batman, forces his hand and gets under his skin.  He manipulates people by finding their weaknesses, by poking and twisting.  He hides behind makeup and costuming.  He does it all in style, with something that keeps you from looking away.  Nolan pushes this fatale type even further by putting The Joker in woman's clothing for the scene in which he pushes the pure, chaste hero to the other side.  Exactly the job for the femme fatale.
This telling of the Batman tale is extraordinary.  All these fantastical themes, characters and situations are made entirely plausible.  It is taken seriously, and from there the filmmakers stitch it into a flashing reality that resembles our own.  
The very object of film noir.

The Dark Knight is well-done all around.  The acting is superb - from everyone.  It was great to see the drab Katie Holmes replaced with the extremely talented Maggie Gyllenhaal, although she is not really given a chance to show her acting chops.  As expected Heath Ledger is brilliant as the Joker.  He absolutely created a unique character that will be impossible to replace.  Any attempt will only seem to be an impression.  No complaints here.  A thoroughly enjoyable and finely crafted film.

18 July 2008

WALL-E and Pixar

Toy Story, Bug's Life, Monster's Inc., Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo, Cars, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and now WALL-E. The folks at Pixar have figured something out. They have managed to recapture an audience that was starving for the simplicity and humanity found in the cartoons of 40 years ago. Cartoons had devolved into flashing whizbang, bubblegum storylines, and whining characters all aimed at selling cereal and figurines. Not that you can't buy a Mike and Sully doll at Disney World, but the story is first. Pixar has succeeded in mirroring the Warner Brother and Hanna-Barbara toons that had something for children and adults. There were always two (or three) levels one could watch Wile E. Coyote on -- sly jokes that no six year old could get. Pixar became the modern home of this wit and added technical know-how to
slicken the deal for those who are accustomed a polished product.
With WALL-E, Pixar returns to its roots by animating a mechanical, inanimate object. (Their first output was a short called Luxo, Jr., which featured a rambunctious swivel lamp.)
WALL-E is the last of a group of robots left on an abandoned earth. Hi job is to consolidate the massive heaps of trash into cubes and stacked into skyscrapers of junk. There's just one thing -- this robot has developed a personality, and he's lonely in the vastness of space. Then another robot (Eve) lands and his life changes.
It is amazing how many subtleties are entirely understandable from a little box and few squawks and chirrups. WALL-E proves to be a nice a being as there could be. He is incredibly sweet to others, generous, curious and heartfelt. He is not perfect and sometimes his remarkable sincerity gets him into trouble. But it is these pitfalls of the naive that make him all the more sympathetic. And lovable.
WALL-E manages to steer away from overt sentimentality, for the most part, and focus on the characters. The only slight weak point of the film is a somewhat overly simple plot. After WALL-E boards the Axiom spaceship in search of his love, Eve, and we learn that Earth has been abandoned there is a lag in the storytelling. The good guys run from the bad guys, then get caught, then escape and try again -- one too many times. There were a few minutes where plot movement seemed suspended before it picked up again for the adventurous ending.
They did a fine job, however, balancing the clear environmental message / warning with humor and innocence.
Pixar has also resurrected the tradition of showing animated shorts before their features. The one accompanying WALL-E, "Presto" is their best since "Birds on A Wire." It's frantic, energetic and very funny.

11 July 2008

The Power of Audrey Hepburn and "Sabrina" (1954)

I haven't made it to the theatres for a couple of weeks so I decided to review a classic - one that I found deserved revisiting.
It's true that every time we show an Audrey Hepburn film at the theatre, we get at least 100 more people to show up. It's such a drastic increase that we have considered (and only half-jokingly) making it the Audrey Hepburn Film Society instead. As it is, we are determined to include at least one of her films in each series. Not that I mind. As a girl who spent her teen years awkwardly skinny and aloof, I clung to people like her. Billy Wilder himself said, "Audrey Hepburn will single-handedly make bosoms a thing of the past." She gave us gangly things hope - an ounce to possibility that someone would find us gamine and irresistible too. All was not lost.
Though I enjoyed Sabrina (1954), it was never my favorite of her films. I detest Humphrey Bogart's acting. I think he is dry, completely non-captivating, and not enjoyable to look at or watch. His voice is grating and you have to translate his horrible speech patterns. So it was always difficult for me to understand how he got the girl, especially Hepburn. I understand they needed someone less dashing than William Holden, but I still find Bogart an irritant to watch.
I think this dynamic was my main problem with Sabrina. I loved her "ugly duckling" transformation and her dress when she enters the party is stunning (I still want to find one like it to get married in someday). John Williams, (not the composer) who plays her father, and the rest of the staff are very funny but I still didn't rank it as high as other classic films.
Then we booked it for our summer film series, and as predicted, it was the best selling film of the series so far. I didn't get to watch all of it but slipped in for a few minutes and Hepburn's magic was unmistakable. She made the film breathe. Suddenly, Bogart wasn't as annoying. Watching her, 25 feet tall, in a room with more than 300 others just as captivated, made me realize the true power of stardom. And she had it. Yes, she was beautiful, but it a way, she was a bit funny looking. Unusual. No one watched, or watches her, for her beauty. It's for something else. Something much more ethereal. It's because she's not curvaceous that we like her. We want to see her because she's kinda funny, a little self-conscious, and a bit naive.
Cary Grant said, "All I want for Christmas is another movie with Audrey Hepburn."
Me too.