Sunday, March 11, 2012

Public Enemy is Fantastic, Dark

These days, when a "gangster" film comes out, it seems to be more about the blood, guts and sex and not so much about the story, and if there is a story, it seems to be incredibly complicated and frustrating. This film, from 1931, and starring James Cagney (in the film that launched his career) has a story. It's a simple story, yet it contains enough detail to keep the watcher riveted.

We begin in the very early years of the 20th century. Two Chicago thugs, Tom Powers (Cagney) and Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) start off as kids who simply play pranks on girls. As they age, so does their taste in crime. Flash forward a few years to the beginning of prohibition. Tom and Matt join up with a known thug named Puddy Nose. He may seem harmless. We're introduced to him as he's performing a song for children, like a clown at a child's birthday party. But soon, the boys realize that they can make more than just money off of pilfered wallets and watches. They soon join up with Paddy Ryan, a local bar owner who offers to bring them in on a lucrative enterprise known as "boot-legging". As the crimes grow, so does their willingness to do increasingly awful things. But Tom especially, fueled by his straight-laced brother and sister's disdain for his chosen profession, becomes increasingly violent. When a young colleague dies in a freak accident, Paddy tells his young proteges to lay low. Sensing the boys' weakness, their old gang begins to invade their territory, and a gang war ensues. Whereas Matt decides to take Paddy's advice, Tom, true to his aggressive nature, decides to take matters into his own hands. From the beginning of the film to the end, the story flows from one scene to the next.

The characters, even the minor actors (which include Jean Harlow in a small role), are well developed. But naturally what drew me to this film was my admiration for Cagney and his style of acting. His cadence, his rhythms, and his natural on-screen magnetism that draws the viewer to him, even if he's not the only one in the scene, are all part of what made him successful. By all accounts, Cagney's most famous persona was the complete opposite of the man himself. This character, and his other gangster roles were vile and ruthless men, like ones who would smash a grapefruit into a woman's face, or let loose a bone chilling cackle in the face of certain death. Cagney himself was a very mild mannered man, which is all the more reason why I have come to call him one of my favorite actors.

The so called gangster genre these days have become more about violence and sexuality than about the story it was originally supposed to tell. That's not to say that this film wasn't violent or sexual. It absolutely was. Whereas the violence in 2009s "Public Enemies", starring Johnny Depp (a story about John Dillinger...not to be confused with this one) is at times very blatant and in your face, I would say that the violence in this film is more or less inferred. That's not to say that there isn't blatant violence in this film. You'll see someone get shot, but you won't see him spurting blood. The sexuality in this film is less about the "sex scenes" depicted in today's cinema and more about (as it was with most films in the 1930s) the "double entendre". For example, there's a scene between Cagney and Mae Clark, who plays Kitty (who was the recipient of the grapefruit in the famous scene in the movie). When they first meet, their conversation is full of sly sexual phrasing, of which both Cagney and Clark were masters. So while there is violence and sexuality, it comes with an understanding that this is how these people lived. The viewer is not inundated with it to the point of the story being completely halted because of it.

This film is one of the reasons why James Cagney has become one of my favorite actors. The writing is very fluent, and at no point during the movie does the viewer feel that the movie has stopped. Each scene provides background and continuity to the next. And, as I said earlier, each actor or actress in the film is where they should be. This is an excellently made film from the bottom up, and highly recommended!!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

This Film is an Epitome of Classic

As far as classic musical films are concerned, or film in general for that matter, this one is very high up on most movie critics' lists, including mine. From 1952, and starring Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor, the classic "Singin' in the Rain."

Kelly (who also shares directing credit with Stanley Donen) stars as Don Lockwood, a silent era film star. Along with his childhood friend and fellow musician Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor)Don is thrust into the movies after a film set stunt knocks out the lead actor. There, he meets the films' actress, Lina Lamont. His star quickly rises, and he goes from silent film musician, to stunt man, and finally, to major star. It's 1927, and films are quickly beginning to talk on their own. As they are known, Lamont and Lockwood (the Pitt and Jolie of the time) are approached to turn their latest film into a "talkie". While Don makes the transition easily, Lina's natural voice (quite comically) does not make the transition into sound very smoothly. Enter Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds, in one of her first films), a young aspiring actress. Don and Kathy meet, quite auspiciously, as he is running from his adoring fans, and seemingly falls right into her lap. Much to Lina's dismay, and a plan is hatched to dub Lina's nasally, whining voice with Kathy's smooth and beautiful singing and speaking voice. Very quickly, a romance between Kathy and Don begins to bloom. This, in a nutshell, is an excellent example of musical film at it's finest.

To me, this film will never get old. Every aspect of it is fantastic. Much like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly was notorious for his perfectionist tendencies. Every step of every musical number had to be just so before he was satisfied. Of course, watching the film, everything looks flawless, except the things that aren't meant to look flawless, which is part of its genius. For example, the scene in which the actors are being wired for sound for the first time is great. We take sound in films for granted in this day and age, but at some point, somebody had to work out the kinks so that we may enjoy not only the look of the picture, but the sound that goes with it. Much like we would learn a new game, or new software, plenty of mistakes and kinks to iron out were made. It's one of my favorite parts of the film. As in any musical film, the music is essential. Aside from the title number, which Gene Kelly famously performed while he was very sick, one of my favorite numbers is "Make 'em Laugh". It shows off the talent of Donald O'Connor. It makes me smile every time. He did not use a stunt double, amazingly enough. That's him doing back flips off of the walls. According to his IMDB profile, O'Connor went on bed rest after performing this number, which is understandable. Nonetheless, it's certainly one of the more entertaining parts of the film. Of course, there is a love story here as well. It's more of a love triangle. Lina loves Don (almost as much as she loves herself) and once young Kathy enters the picture, Don falls for Kathy.

If a film is strictly a love story, that's one thing. That SHOULD be the film's focus. But if the film is anything other than that, the love story within the film can be its downfall. It can potentially overshadow everything else in the film, leaving the viewer to wonder what exactly happened to the other actors or stories in the film. Fortunately, this film is not such an offender. While a love story certainly becomes a very integral part of the film towards the latter half, it doesn't distract from the music or the comedy.

Films about the film industry are always interesting to me, because you get the feeling that you're getting the inside scoop on what really happens during the making of a film. On one hand, a film about the industry can be entertaining, funny and perhaps insightful. But on the other, it has the potential of becoming one dimensional and only focusing on one aspect of the process, or how the process affects just one person in the film. When this happens, the film becomes dry and boring. Finally the film could try and focus on too many issues and ways in which to solve those issues, thereby making the film muddled and confusing. This film is only guilty of the former. It's highly entertaining.

A good musical film does several things. First and foremost, it's entertaining, and you don't feel like you'd rather get a root canal than finish watching it. Secondly, it tells a story, be it one based in history (such as this one), or completely fictionalized. Finally, it integrates the music into the film in such a way so you don't feel like the film has completely stopped just for a song. As many times as I've seen this film, I have yet to catch any major flaws in it that would deter me from watching it again. It's one of my absolute favorite films, and it was a great one to include for my blog's big number 5-0 entry.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

"One Two Three" an Excellent Satire

It's no secret to those of you who read this blog, but James Cagney has recently shot up my list of favorite actors. His roles and different personas were often very complex. He was most famous for his "gangster" roles, but he often played gangsters who (although his character would NEVER admit it) may have a tough exterior, but his vulnerable side would often come through, albeit often in somewhat twisted ways. This film, written by Billy Wilder and released in 1961, was a departure for Cagney, but nonetheless, his portrayal was as brilliant as that of the other actors, and the script which they were given.

Cagney stars as C.R. "Mac" MacNamara, a Coca-Cola executive in charge of operations in West Berlin. Mac feels that he should be in London, as head of the entire European operation, whereas his wife Phyllis (Arlene Francis) feels he should take a nice executive position back at the home base in Atlanta. The back and forth between Cagney and Francis creates the first of the many hilarious conflicts of the film. His staff is very loyal. Perhaps too much so. With the exception of his beautiful secretary, his staff treats him as the dictator for whom they had previously worked. That would be a man named Adolf Hitler. This creates another hilarious wrinkle, one in which Mac makes no secret of his disdain for heel clicking, something that his assistant Schlemmer (Hans Lothar) doesn't seem to understand. Enter the largest (and prettiest) wrinkle of all. Her name is Scarlett Hazeltine (Pamela Tiffin), and she is the spoiled, somewhat dimwitted teenage daughter of Mac's boss, Wendell Hazeltine. Despite Mac's strict rules, Scarlett proceeds to do anything and everything she desires. When she disappears for days, Mac panics, fearing he may lose his job, and his hopes of advancement. When she returns, she's not alone. It turns out that during her outing, she has met and has intentions to marry a communist sympathizer named Otto (Horst Buchholz). Hilarity ensues and Mac and his staff attempt to stop the marriage before the arrival of the Hazeltines in Berlin.

This is one of my absolute favorite new films (new to me, that is). Billy Wilder was a master at very sophisticated, dry and sharp humor. This film has plenty of that. And this was an excellent vehicle for Cagney because, even in his gangster films, he had a very dry and sarcastic wit that translated beautifully into doing a straight comedic film. And while Scarlett may APPEAR to be dimwitted, well, as they say, appearances can be deceiving. The fast pace of the writing in this film, going from joke to joke so fast, your head will spin, was pulled off by every single actor in the film with great aplomb. It's almost absurd that a teenager would have such a large vocabulary when she's trying to convince a parental figure that marrying a man, and a communist at that, is the right thing to do. But it's the absurdity of the film's subject matter, not to mention the ability of each actor in the film to deliver their lines as if they were ordering a cup of coffee, that makes the film so brilliant.

As you may be able to tell, I LOVED this film. It's humor was dry, witty and sarcastic, which is right up my alley. Don't get me wrong. I absolutely love a film full of fart jokes and potty humor as much as the next guy. But every once and awhile, I need a break from all the gas and pratfalls to actually expand my mind and be entertained at the same time. This film is fantastic and HIGHLY recommended.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

It Doesn't Get Much More Epic, or Influential, Than This Classic

If you were to compile a list of quintessential films of the last one hundred years, which films would be on it? My list would include "Singin' In The Rain", "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", and the original three "Star Wars" films, to name a few. This film would certainly be near the top of my list. It's epic in scope, and influenced generations upon generations of filmmakers. The film I'm speaking of is a classic, made in 1933 by RKO pictures. It's none other than "King Kong".

The story begins with a New York filmmaker named Carl Denham, played by Robert Armstrong. He's found a remote island (under mysterious circumstances), and has decided that he must find a female lead for his film. During a scouting mission, of sorts, in Manhatten, he walks by a fruit stand. There, he finds his leading lady, in the form of a beautiful, but nearly destitute woman named Ann Darrow, played by Fay Wray. They board a ship set to sail for the mysterious Skull Island. With them is a full crew, led by Captain Englehorn, and a man soon to become young Ann's love interest, Jack Driscoll. When they reach the island, which they believe to be uninhabited, they hear the mysterious sound of drums in the distance. With Denham in the lead, determined to finish his film, he and his crew, with his young actress, venture deep into the jungle, and discover that they are not alone. They soon encounter a tribe, native to the island. While their language is foreign and their rituals bizarre, one thing becomes clear. The tribe has come to worship one singular being on their mysterious piece of earth. This creature is only known to them as "Kong". Ann soon falls into the clutches of Kong, and it's up to the crew to save her. After a fatal trip deep into Kong's territory, only Denham and Jack survive. While he's deadly to everybody else, Kong is protective of his new love. Ultimately, Ann is saved, and the beast captured. What happens next, as they say, is history. This film is truly cinematic history at its zenith.

I'm always hesitant with films of such an epic scope. Films such as this have no doubt been held with such high regard, with such esteem, that it's hard not to go into a film like this for the first time with very high expectations. I've often found that if I enter into something with high expectations, I often end up disappointed, or even angry that what I've just seen didn't live up to the hype. So I went into seeing this film with trepidation. From the very beginning of the film, I knew that I would not be let down. The suspense builds, literally, from the opening overture. The film's score adds a aura of suspense, even though the first few minutes of the film are simply a gray screen with the word "Overture" written across it. And then the actors appear. Armstrong plays Carl Denham as somewhat of a cliche by Hollywood standards (or what we have come to know as standard). Carl is a famous (in his own mind) filmmaker that can do no wrong. Now, he's making a film that will make him millions. He believes he knows how to make this film, but those employing him want something that he's not sure if he can work with; a woman. Enter Ann Darrow. What can I say about Fay Wray? She was a stunning woman. She had large, gorgeous eyes, and flowing blond hair. Her acting wasn't campy and over the top like some actresses of the same era were guilty of. She was quiet and reserved, but when it was called for, she could be robust and dramatic. And perhaps, most famously, she was dubbed "The original Scream Queen". And rightfully so. She had a scream that could curdle milk and shatter crystal.

Of course, we can't forget to mention the star of the film, the big ape known as "King Kong". He begins as a mysterious figure, one whose very name conjures up the deepest of all goosebumps. This is a complex film. With the exception of Jack and Ann, all other characters act as both good and evil. For instance, Carl is a very strongly opinionated man. His opinion of using a woman in his film is, to say the least, unfavorable to the opposite sex. However, when Ann is kidnapped, and Jack ventures into the jungle to rescue her, Carl quickly turns from curmudgeonly filmmaker to a concerned friend. He tells his crew, "If we don't get Jack's signal by sunrise, we'll go ashore anyway." Another example is, of course, Kong. On one hand, he's a terror to the film's crew, and later, to the native villagers on Skull Island. However, he's willing to fight for Ann, fighting members of the "dinosaur family" as they're ignorantly called by Denham, and keep her safe by any means necessary, even at the cost of his own life.

I'd be remiss if I didn't briefly acknowledge the special effects in the film, which are spectacular, especially for a film made in the 1930s. The scenes in which Kong is fighting various predators, such as vicious dinosaurs and large snakes are stunning. The final scene (and one of the most famous in cinematic history)in which he sits atop the Empire State building to fight off the planes, and to protect a cowering Ann, is absolutely amazing. Not to mention it's the first time in the film that you feel a substantial shift in the film. No longer is Kong feared, but as he falls from the building to the street below, you can almost feel the emotion begin to build. The film then culminates with the shift from evil to good complete.

I LOVED this movie. Everything about it was stunning, all the way down to the sets, extras and lighting. And the final scene, in which Carl is standing, with the policemen in the street among a throng of onlookers as Kong plummets to earth, is spine tingling. And then there's the final line spoken in the film. The policeman leans in and says, "The planes got him." Carl returns with, " was beauty that killed the beast." It's powerful and deep. It's truly a beautiful culmination to a spectacular film.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Story of Prohibition Bootleggers is Fantastic

The 1920s is and was a very famous part of American history. It was an innovative decade in which music became more liberating, films began to talk, and a movement to ban the sale and consumption of alcohol, known as prohibition, began. Prohibition, in turn, gave rise to people known as bootleggers, who transported alcohol for profit, and the underground tavern, called the speakeasy. This also introduced much violence and competition, not only from the battle between the police and the bootleggers, but among regular citizens as well. "The Roaring Twenties" made in 1939, tells the story of warring factions of bootleggers.

James Cagney stars as Eddie Bartlett. Eddie comes home from Europe after fighting in World War One. He arrives, expecting for his life to pick up where it left off. But what he finds is that his world has changed. His job as an auto mechanic has been given to somebody else, and now he is out of work and nearly destitute. His friend and roommate Danny (played by frequent Cagney collaborator Frank McHugh) is a down and out taxi driver. Eddie begins to pick up twelve hour shifts as a driver to help make ends meet. Suddenly, he's thrust into the underground world of bootlegging. As business picks up, he builds a fleet of taxis, for the purpose of delivering the illegal substance. With the help of a his partner, an ex-saloon keeper named George, played by Humphrey Bogart, and a lawyer he's retained as is own, Lloyd, played by Jeffrey Hart, Bartlett begins to manufacture his own product for the sole purpose of selling to the speakeasies. It soon gets complicated when Eddie falls for a beautiful young actress and singer, Jean, played by Priscilla Lane. But she has eyes for Bartlett's lawyer, Lloyd. Enter speakeasy owner Panama Smith, played by Gladys George, who only has eyes for Eddie. Where as Jean is sweet and innocent, and perhaps a little naive (which may be why Eddie falls for her) Panama is more like Eddie. She's rough around the edges and fully aware of what Eddie and his crew are involved in. What ensues is a story of violence, love and betrayal. It's a complicated and beautiful film.

The film was based on a story by Mark Hellinger. As it's explained at the onset of the film, Hellinger lived a similar story to the one depicted in the film. To me, this makes it more real than other films I've seen about the prohibition era. While parts of the film are likely dramatized, the film possesses an authenticity that may be lacking in other similar films. It would have been a much different film without it's director, Raoul Walsh. He and Cagney (as well as other actors in the film, namely McHugh), were frequent collaborators. Walsh had many filming signatures. He loved long panoramic shots, and his female characters were often as hard and tough as the male leads. This can be seen in the character of Panama Smith. She's a complete contradiction to the other female lead in the film, Jean. She's outspoken, and hard living. Walsh also used this method in another film (one of my absolute favorites) "White Heat". The difference is that there is definitely a contrast to the two female characters in this film. In "White Heat" both of the women are strong and independent. In "The Roaring Twenties" the contrast between the two female leads adds even more to the authenticity of the film. Finally, it goes without saying, but Cagney is most definitely the star of this film. He is absolutely in his element in the gangster persona. Eddie is not pure evil though. We can see his human side. We can see that Eddie loves Jean, and we feel for him when she falls for Lloyd instead. He becomes despondent and throws himself into his work. At the end of the film, when he picks up Jean in his taxi, he's a regular guy. While it may be hard for him to face the love of his life, he's very genuine and kind-hearted. The scene in which he is meeting Jean and Lloyd's young son (who is supposedly four years old, but seems to be more like ten), is very touching, and Cagney does an excellent job of playing this type of role, then, in the next scene, playing the part of the fearless antagonist. Cagney was one of the few actors of his, or any era for that matter, who could achieve playing the role of both protagonist and antagonist in one character. He and the rest of the cast are fantastic.

While other films of this era, and of this subject can often just become convoluted and frustrating, this film is not one of them. It's filmed and acted brilliantly, and it's one of the best films I've seen recently.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is Excellent, Entertaining

George M. Cohan was a very prolific song writer, dancer, actor and producer in the early part of the twentieth century. He wrote many famous songs, among them, the title song for this film, "Give my Regards to Broadway" and many others. This is the story of his life.

James Cagney, in his Oscar winning role, plays Cohan. The film begins in Cohan's childhood, performing (with mild success) with his parents (played by Walter Huston and Rosemary DeCamp) and younger sister. Eventually, the troupe moves onto vaudeville, where young George really becomes enamored with show business. As he gets older, he begins to act as the group's manager, and in the process, becomes a bit of an ego-maniac. He ventures out on his own, leaving his parents and sister behind, but never forgetting where he came from. The film is told through flashback. Cohan is an old man now, looking to retire. He's summoned by the president of the United States to be given the Congressional Medal of Honor, as a result of his influence over American songwriting, among other things. He sits down with the president and begins to tell his story. So, the film, literally, begins and ends with Cagney.

It's pure irony that this role as a song and dance man earned Cagney the only Academy Award statue of his long career. He was probably most famous for his roles in gangster films. Nonetheless, at a certain level, Cagney brings that gangster mentality to this role as well. He plays Cohan as if he is very headstrong and stubborn. He knows what he wants, and he will stop at nothing to achieve his success. Also brought to the film was his unique dancing style. Cagney is graceful on his feet, but at times, his dancing looks like a newborn horse standing up for the first time. He's certainly not as elegant as Fred Astaire, but he brings his own elegance to his clipped style. It's as if he's galloping across the screen. His singing is in a similar style to that of Rex Harrison. He, more or less, speaks his way through a song, as if he's just telling a story. He does sing a few notes, but for the most part, he "sings" as if he's just delivering another one of his lines. The supporting cast is excellent and very complementary to Cagney. It's also worth noting that his adult sister in the film was played by Cagney's real-life sister, Jeanne Cagney. While actors can easily develop a rapport with one another, as you saw the Cagneys together, it was easy to see that their chemistry was something more than just two friends working together.

James Cagney's Oscar was very much deserved. The film was amazingly written, and the casting couldn't have been better. This film is very patriotic in it's general feeling and material. As a lover of the musical film, and of our country, I highly recommend this film.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Beatty and Benning, Rest of Cast Excellent in 'Bugsy'

Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel was one of the most notorious and ruthless killers of the 1940s. He killed and womanized. He was also a Las Vegas pioneer. He built what is now the multi-billion dollar Flamingo Hotel and Casino, one of the first of many that became the gambling mecca. Siegel, in essence, took a desert sand trap and turned it into what we know today as Las Vegas. Enter Warren Beatty. Beatty was, himself, a notorious Hollywood playboy. That is, until he met future wife Annette Bening (his co-star in this film, who played Virginia Hill, the love interest of Siegel). So in that sense, these two men, subject and actor, are similar. They couldn't have picked a better person to play Bugsy in Barry Levinson's violent 1991 bio-pic.

Beatty plays the titular role. He makes a splash upon arriving in Los Angeles from New York on "business". Along with his crisp suits and volitile temper, he soon purchases a home, and meets his match in Virginia Hill, a very glamorous (in her own mind) and perhaps, lascivious actress, played by Annette Bening. While his other life (a wife and two daughters) awaits him back in New York, Siegel becomes wrapped up in the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. He kills or hurts everyone who dares to cross him. When a trip to the Nevada desert and a run down casino with Hill gives him an idea, a worldwide phenomenon is soon born. With the help of fellow mobster Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel) he acquires funds from the so called mob "kingpin" Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley), and the other crime family bosses. Costs begin to spiral out of control. Siegel sells his share, plus most of his possessions, in order to pay for these costs. Then, it's discovered that somebody has embezzled millions of dollars. What happens next, as it's said, is history.

The entire cast in this film is what makes it great. This is, as they say, a "star-studded" film, in more ways than one. Along with Beatty and Bening, Harvey Kietel, Ben Kingsley, Joe Mantegna and Elliot Gould, among others, round out the supporting cast of the Hollywood elite and mobsters. Films about the film industry are always intriguing because they may shed light on the inner workings of the industry, or the actors in it. For example, George Raft (Mantegna's character) was an A-List Hollywood actor in the 1930s and 40s. He later became famous for his association with Siegel. Virgina Hill also became famous for her infatuation with the mobster.

Beatty captured the eccentricities of Siegel eeriely well. Whether or not this was a trait of Bugsy's, I don't know, but Beatty makes him very eloquent and well spoken. Over and over in the film, he repeats a chant, perhaps a mantra, that keeps his tongue quick and relaxed. It goes, "Twenty dwarfs took turns doing hand stands on the carpet." It may sound benign, but said over and over, with Beatty steely eyed intensity, it becomes spine tingling.

It's a dark, eerie and intense film. But it's very captivating. Both the subjects and actors are excellent.