Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Only Angels Have Wings (1939) - Directed by Howard Hawks

Howard Hawks’s films always seem to have a way of making me feel at home when watching them. He was often able to capture a camaraderie among actors that makes me want to spend time with them and get to know them. I’ve seen talk of films that are referred to as “Hang-Out Films”-----films that you watch to hang out with the characters in the film, meaning you like the characters so much that you want to spend time with them. I would also extend this to films in which the characters themselves do a lot of hanging out, or in which the plot of said film is centered around people talking a great deal and you just want to watch them and listen to them. Tarantino certainly has incorporated this vibe into many of his films, as has Richard Linklater among others. What is absolutely essential in this type of film is the dialogue. It has to snap and it has to ring true. Hawks was a terrific capturer and nurturer of cinematic dialogue, that which the viewer could watch and enjoy just listening to the actors and be entertained and moved by their interaction.

Only Angels Have Wings is a terrific example of Hawks’s abilities as a director. He’s able to take a basic plot and fill in the colorful characters that make us care. The story is set in Barranca in South America in the Andes. Jean Arthur plays Bonnie Lee who gets off a boat and meanders her way into meeting a few Americans. They all end up at the Bar. She finds out that some of these folks are pilots, who fly dangerous routes through the Andes to deliver and pick up mail. Cary Grant plays Geoff Carter, who is the manager of the group of pilots and a rather ace pilot himself. Bonnie and Geoff have a mutual attraction and she decides to hang around the post for awhile. Geoff and his friend Kid (Thomas Mitchell) have several wonderful scenes together talking piloting and life. A strange pilot arrives later in the film with some personal baggage and a wife (Rita Hayworth) who is Geoff’s ex-flame. It’s all a swirl of personal demons and triumphs, love affairs and misunderstandings, and some rather suspenseful events regarding flights over the Andes. What matters here, though, is the camaraderie and the dialogue.

There is terrific chemistry in the film from the ensemble cast. Everyone plays their part and each contributes essential pieces to the whole. Jean Arthur plays the plucky and resilient blonde, who sees right through Cary Grant’s character and challenges him to be a better person. Cary Grant plays the smart pilot, who’s been burned one too many times by flying and by women. Thomas Mitchell gives one of the finest performances of his career as Kid, an aging pilot with bad eyes. There’s a fantastic moment where he realizes he can’t see well enough to fly anymore. He stands facing away from Cary Grant, rubbing his cigarette on the edge of a cigarette tray for about 10 seconds, as he admits he can no longer fly. It’s a fantastically played scene by this veteran character actor. Richard Bartelmess strikes just the right note of mystery regarding his past. Rita Hayworth strains a bit in the emotional scenes, but does better in a moment where she’s drunk and Grant pours water over her head.

Hawks and Jules Furthman’s script is rich throughout. Each scene sparkles as you watch it and it’s a scene-to-scene kind of film. Every scene is whole and complete unto itself. You’re not necessarily waiting for some kind of pay-off or some big conclusion, but you simply revel in the joys of the moment throughout the running time. I think the best thing about the film is just watching the actors and listening to them. I could listen to these people talk all day and Hawks allows the actors time to interact. He doesn't rush anything and there is a relaxed vibe to the film, much like another great "hang-out" film of his, Rio Bravo (1959). Only Angels Have Wings is filled with plenty of chatting---moments where you really get to understand these people and that’s why this film works so well---because these characters are so well drawn. It’s hard to find any real flaws with the film. It’s one of Hawks’s best works and gets better with each viewing.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Way Down East (1920) - Directed by D.W. Griffith

If Griffith’s films come across as nearly perversely melodramatic, it’s because they are meant to be. Take Way Down East for example. The entire plot revolves around a woman who is taken through the wringer in an exploitative way. This is almost tortuous melodrama, stuff that quivers and vibrates with fragile broken-heartedness, deep melancholy, a bit of camp, and replete with the expectation that only through proper penitence and insult, can one rise above the fray. Griffith is clearly interested in deriving as much sympathy for his lead character as can possibly be garnered and then some. This film pleads for a deluge of pathos, and in fact earns it. Why? Two words......Lillian Gish. Griffith’s film works so well due to the ever present miraculousness of the luminescent Lillian Gish, who elevates what could be contrivance into a passion-play. With Gish at the forefront, she makes this film into an epic, near-biblical examination of persecution and saintliness. She makes this film essential viewing.

Based on a 1890’s Victorian stage melodrama, Griffith’s film is about a young woman named Anna (Gish), who is a rather poor country girl. She comes into contact with a rich playboy named Lennox (Lowell Sherman), who is attracted to Anna and who convinces her to enter into a secret tryst, convincing her to marry. But actually tricks her into a fake marriage. If that wasn’t ridiculous enough, she becomes pregnant and Lennox subsequently leaves her with nothing to her name. Even her young child dies and she’s left with only her bag as she walks a dirt road in the country. She manages to get hired by a man named Squire Bartlett, who lets her help out at his farmhouse, while she tries to keep her past a secret.

Hovering over the film is a rather heavyhanded but ultimately effective tone, which comes from several intertitles placed throughout. These reflect an Old Testament-like rigidity regarding the perspective of men and women, and an attempt to portray “Woman” as being the more highly evolved being. It’s all rather cloying when taken out of context. In this film though, it works to further the feeling the film is trying to invoke, which is a heightened emotional turmoil, and the fact this woman is up against all odds. Not only is Anna challenged by  the predatory sexual nature of “Man”, but she is also contrived against by all manner of self-righteousness……that of the film’s overarching narrative point of view, but also that of characters like Squire Bartlett, who throws Anna out in the snow once her past “sins” are revealed. For Anna, where is the forgiveness that can be provided her? Where is her shelter? Where is her comfort? I’m not saying that Griffith means anything harmful toward women in general or this Anna character. What I am saying, is that the film achieves a saintly transcendence through the perseverance that Anna must go through, almost in the way that Dreyer would convey spiritual purity in the face of evil in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).

Rising above the fray is Lillian Gish in one of her greatest roles. Somehow she manages to elevate what could be trite material into something magnetic and riveting. Here she is cast, perhaps even typecast, as a put-upon woman whom the audience must sympathize with. She reaches an angelic moment when she attempts to baptize her son as he is struggling for life. Her visual expression during this scene is quite something. What I love about Gish is her passion. She desperately sells herself to the camera in the most giving way. When the camera is in close-up on her face, she lets you in, without pretense or self-consciousness. She doesn’t play up for dramatic effect. She doesn’t give you falsity. She is absolute truth. Of course the climactic ice-floe sequence is justifiably famous and still plays well today. Through the use of editing, Griffith is able to give us the impression that Gish is flowing down the river on a chunk of ice toward her impending doom over the edge of the falls. It’s a brilliantly conceived and memorable finish to this silent masterpiece, which is a testament to effective melodrama and the lovely Lillian Gish.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom (2012) - Directed by Wes Anderson

If Wes Anderson's last couple films (The Darjeeling Limited (2007) and The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)) seemed to me to show a decline is both quality and focus, it was with great anticipation that I went to see Moonrise Kingdom, hoping for a return to top form. I’ve been a follower and fan of Wes Anderson and his films since the late 90’s. What I love about his films, when he's at his best, is the juxtaposition of comedy and melancholy. Yes there is hilarity, but there is also truthful human nature. Rushmore (1998), and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) are my two favorite Anderson works and probably straddle that line between comedy and melancholy the best. But it has been over a decade since those films and I was hoping for a return to that form with Moonrise Kingdom. I was not disappointed. 

Written by Anderson and Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom is the story of Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), two 12-year olds who have fallen in love. Sam is a Khaki scout at a camp on an island off of New England and Suzy lives on the far end of the island and the year is 1965. They met one year prior at a performance of Noye’s Fludde, an opera based upon the story of Noah’s ark. They planned all year long to run away and spend time camping together in their own “Eden”. Sam runs away from his camp and Suzy runs away from home to meet up together. We follow Sam and Suzy as they innocently go through the rites and rituals of love and friendship. Meanwhile,  everyone else is on a hunt for the two lovers on the lam---Sam’s camp counselor (Ed Norton), the local sheriff (Bruce Willis), Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), among others.

There are times in this film where the sheer density and weight of the content onscreen is so thoroughly overwhelming that you literally struggle to absorb everything being shown to you. This is not a knock on Anderson, but a tribute to his abilities as a director in being able to so thoroughly control his design. Wes Anderson is a director who tells a story through several mediums, often at the same time. His symmetrical compositions and framing seem to speak to some need to find order within the everyday, and Robert Yeoman's cinematography captures Anderson's vision perfectly. His characters speak without inflection…but instead reflect archetypes in their uniform, accessories and manner that convey affectation, motivation, and emotion. Anderson parallels music (and the music is an entire discussion unto itself in this film and rather dense with significance) and related performances (the Noye’s Fludde), or narration that furthers character development or our understanding of the characters, rather than strict dialogue progression. Thus in watching this film, one must be cognizant of the fact that Anderson’s mode of storytelling often comes from oblique angles, rather than straight ahead, and often from several directions at once. Trying to think back upon this fast-paced film is rather daunting and would likely reward multiple viewings as does Anderson’s best work.

The performances of the two young leads...Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are unpolished and rather touching. They capture the feeling of being 12 in all its confusion and embarrassment. Bruce Willis may give the best performance in the film as the sheriff, a rather resigned and weary man with some past hurts and regrets. He surprised me here with how effective he was. Bill Murray, Frances McDormand and Edward Norton are uniformly perfect, as is Jason Schwartzmann who has a hilarious cameo as the camp parson. Robert Yeoman's camerawork is magnificent. Shot in 16mm, the compositions are faded and slightly less crisp, providing a hazy, distanced quality to the whole film. Additionally, some hand held shots in the woods are a welcome addition to Anderson’s normally non-improvisational visual storytelling.

This is a film about depressed people. Although I wouldn't call it a dark film, these characters certainly have issues. Sam is an orphan whose foster parents no longer want him; Suzy has a violent streak and cannot connect with her parents; Suzy’s mom is having an affair; Suzy’s dad is apathetic; the camp counselor is caught between careers and his perfectionism does not allow for mistakes, but instead allows for eternal dissatisfaction. Yes Anderson wants us to laugh, but as in most of Anderson's films, there is always a desperate need to find solace. I always find his films to be far more emotionally involving than it appears that they should be, considering the somewhat whimsical visual approach and the comedy. 

There is a question one could pose about the film and that is whether we are supposed to take Sam’s and Suzy’s relationship seriously. Are we supposed to laugh at them? Or are we laughing with them? Or are we supposed to view them with fondness and sincerity? It is of my opinion that the film treats their relationship with a good deal of sincerity. This relationship they share is their world and that’s all they know. They know what is here and now and no one else can talk them out of it. Don’t get me wrong…their story is funny and amusing and rather sweet. But, when he wrote this story, Anderson was inspired by the time in his life when he fell in love at the age of 11.  Do we not hold our first crushes in some sort of reverential manner? Were the feelings at that age not intense and sincere? Yes we’re awkward at age 12….but do we ever become less awkward toward love? We might appear smoother as we get older, but falling in love can reduce people to being 12 years old all over again. This film captures that feeling……of discovery, of feelings previously unknown, and the joy of finding solace in the comfort of another. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Orphans of the Storm (1921) - Directed by D.W. Griffith

Orphans of the Storm is one of my favorite D.W. Griffith films. Sure, he made bigger/ more influential movies prior to this, but there’s something just so charming and beguiling about this magnificent and epic melodrama. Griffith was always at his best when he let the melodrama flow unheeded, like in Broken Blossoms (1919), another brilliant example from this era. Here the overt, unabashed emotion is propelled beyond self-consciousness into a near obsessive meditation on cliffhangers, impossibility and outrageousness. Perhaps also, it’s just the presence of Lillian and Dorothy Gish that makes this film sing for me. These two sisters are just so wonderful in this film and their star power makes this an essential example of talent sometimes being the reason for the lasting impact of a film. I’m not so sure this film is half as good without their presence.

Orphans of the Storm regards 2 orphans who are found and raised by a family in France around the time of the French revolution. They grow up together as caring and loving sisters. Louise (Dorothy Gish) goes blind at a young age and Henriette (Lillian Gish) decides to take great care of her. They are literally bound to each other. Louise doesn’t use a cane to get around and instead, in a deeply melodramatic touch, she uses her arms to feel about her, leading to some rather desperate moments later in the film. The two sisters are separated in Paris, when Henriette is kidnapped by some party-goers and Louise is left to fend for herself. Louise is picked up by a street gypsy who takes her back to her home and forces her into being a street beggar. Both sisters remain separated for some time. Henriette is thrown into the midst of French Revolution politics and scandal and winds up on the chopping block at the end of the film, through which comes an opportunity for the sisters to be reunited at the end in a great flourish of cliffhangers.

Griffith certainly could never be mistaken for an understated director. It’s quite clear that he has a keen eye for spectacle filmmaking and great setpieces. During the sequence in which Louise is kidnapped by the gypsy and thrown into the pit, we are not surprised by the fact that rats come crawling around her as she blindly feels about her surroundings, but it’s certainly a brilliantly devious dramatic effect. There’s a moment when Henriette in her house on the top floor above the street, hears someone singing on the street and thinks it’s Louise. She rushes to the balcony, and seeing her sister calls out to her and reaches her hands down below as they can almost taste the fact they will be reunited. But during the dramatic delay of calling out to each other, the gypsy woman appears and soldiers interrupt Henriette’s determination to get to the street. It’s purely agonizing to watch, but it’s a fantastically edited sequence which builds suspense. Of course the final third of the film contains many large battle and crowd sequences, something which Griffith was very adept at scaling to size. I also just love the way that Henriette, while being prepped for her beheading, is on the block for an interminable amount of time, suspense building while we’re most certainly anticipating the guillotine coming down.

What I love best about this film is Lillian and Dorothy Gish, whose chemistry and star power is absolutely what makes this film so watchable for me today. Dorothy Gish was a fine actress in her own right here with her long dark hair and rather childlike face. She's a bit unpolished when compared to Lillian, but she manages to pull-off her role. It’s Lillian Gish who is absolutely a knock-out here. She has a way of just BEING in front of the camera and giving you everything you need to know. There is a particular pose where she has this way of cocking her head to one side and looking so sad. In fact, when she cries on camera (which she does a lot in this film), she has a way of CRYING, as if it’s the primordial expression of feminine catharsis...... as if she is the beginning and the end of cinematic weeping. I don't even think Garbo was as good at crying on camera as Lillian Gish. Her expressive eyes, lips and angelic face keep me riveted to the screen. She is one of the essential silent film faces and her gift for acting is so glorious that it makes this film unforgettable.