Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Monday, December 29, 2008


you delicious snob
please don't ever fix me up
not with anyone

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Lessons Learned: Edward Scissorhands

Written by Caroline Thompson; Story by Tim Burton and Caroline Thompson; Directed by Tim Burton; Cinematography by Stefan Czapsky; Edited by Colleen Halsey and Richard Halsey; Complete Credits. 105 min. 1990.

It sounds absurd: you take a gothic fairy tale and juxtapose it with a picture-postcard community. The fairy tale is dark – all cobwebs and decay vs. the colorful and clean suburban community. Though the fairy tale castle is crumbling and the man who lives in it has scissors for hands, it's not where you'll find the evil in this story. Rather, it's in the unsettlingly perfect 1980s-channeling-the-1960s homes of the community. Not subtle, but effective. Edward Scissorhands is so blissfully unaware of how over-the-top it is that the film seems far less bizarre than it would if it were purposely self-conscious. A man with scissor-hands is certainly weird, but it doesn't exactly shock anyone in the neighborhood.

When sunny door-to-door cosmetics saleswoman Peg (Dianne Wiest) first shows up at the castle looking to make a sale, she's not deterred by the fact that it looks like a caricature of a haunted castle. Instead of turning around and bolting – like a real person would do – she makes casual chitchat as she climbs the mammoth staircase looking for the owners. Though she's initially startled by the eerie Edward (Johnny Depp) and his razor-sharp scissor-hands, in about three seconds she's already offering him astringent for the little cuts on his face. In another five seconds, after finding out that poor Edward is all alone, Peg decides that he should just come home with her. Cut to Edward riding in the car with Peg, marveling at the cheerful neighborhood.

If you were expecting realism, you won't find it here, and thank the powers that be, because a realistic Edward Scissorhands, if at all possible, would probably be too horrific to watch. If Edward were some dark, tortured being trying to contain his rage, like you might expect an unfinished creature with weapons for hands to be, we'd probably be dealing with a serial killer. Instead, Edward has all the innocence, curiosity, and benevolence of a small child. The littlest things make him happy; he's oblivious to sarcasm and hostility – at least at first. In keeping with his innocent character, Edward's dialogue is kept simple and straightforward. He doesn't suddenly become eloquent when he wants to – or when it would be convenient for the story. When Peg asks him about his hands, he explains them in three words: "I'm not finished." When she asks what happened to his father, he answers, "He didn't wake up." No anguished monologues, no poetic voice-over. What he can't say in less than four words he says with facial expressions. His love for Peg's daughter Kim (Winona Ryder) is all in his eyes. He never says "I love you" because he doesn't have to.

My favorite scene is when Kim asks Edward to hold her. He lifts his arms, gazing at her with intense longing, but is unable to put them around her for fear he'll accidentally hurt her. He lowers his arms and says "I can't" with such heartbreaking disappointment that something catches in my throat every single time I see it. Edward goes to the window and stares off into the distance, supposedly barred from close human contact, but Kim comes to him, simply lifts his dangerous hand over her shoulder, and embraces him. (Right about now that thing caught in my throat usually causes my eyes to tear up.) Though after this scene there's a violent confrontation with Kim's repulsive ex-boyfriend Jim (Anthony Michael Hall) which marks the movie's end, Kim's embracing Edward is actually the emotional climax. It's what Edward wanted all along in his child-like innocence, but now that living in the "real" world has matured him in some ways, he knows he can't really be with Kim, even if she loves him.

To avoid becoming nauseatingly lyrical about Edward and Kim's pure love, let me say a few words about the supporting characters. While Jim is the main extremely unlikable and unsympathetic antagonist, the film sports a whole gallery of them: Peg's husband Bill (Alan Arkin) who lectures Edward on moral and social values but is lazy, even oblivious in his responses to real dilemmas; Peg's neighbor Joyce (Kathy Baker), a would-be seductress who thinks she's Scarlet O'Hara but is really Blanche Dubois; and even Peg is a kind of inadvertent antagonist since her good intentions pave Edward's road to hell. It's excellent that the filmmakers made these characters entertaining rather than wholly repellant like Jim. (Although he does make one wisecrack – look for it.) I’m beginning to think that a film’s sense of humor is one of its most important features. Undiluted misery, however artistic, is hard to sit through.

Next week… Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. It's a fitting follow-up to Edward and I've been neglecting the book-side of this series.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Monday, December 22, 2008

Barbara Stanwyck Marathon

The Lady Eve
whatever you do
don't get in any card games
if you can't cold deck

Ball of Fire
I jive you sugar
but this setup is screwy
a real bowl of buts

Double Indemnity
Femme fatale; meaning:
Hot dame. No heart. Cold blood.
(blonde wig optional)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Lessons Learned: Charade

Written by Peter Stone; Story by Peter Stone and Mark Behm; Directed by Stanley Donen; Cinematography by Charles Lang; Edited by James Clark; Complete Credits. 113 min. 1963.

Today, an extra warning before I begin: if you haven't seen Charade yet and plan to, just know that I am about to spoil the hell out of it. If you care, proceed no farther.

Despite the multiple murders, Charade is about as fluffy as a thriller can get without becoming a parody of a thriller. Last week's post about Notorious illustrated how edgy a thriller can be without most of the typical devices, and Charade operates on similar principles. Not a lot of pyrotechnics – good story, good characters, good dialogue. Ironically, as dark as Notorious is, there's no onscreen violence to speak of (that slap Devlin gives Alicia hardly counts), whereas in Charade, though a sugary delight it may be, we have a couple of guns, a chase scene on foot, a brief rooftop fight, and we do see a few dead bodies. Nothing particularly graphic or frightening by today's standards, but in 1963 it wasn't considered entirely tame. Obviously not on a par with Hitchcock's Psycho, but not altogether undisturbing.

Oh I'm not complaining – really I'm not. General fluffiness notwithstanding, I still flinch when Tex corners Reggie in a phone booth and starts dropping lit matches into her lap. And Tex is just one of a number of bad guys in this film who, surprising as it may sound, manages to be menacing and amusing. On the whole, it's the film's dry sense of humor which keeps it from being a deadly serious affair. The steady stream of wisecracks keeps flowing; they don't find it necessary to stop for every punch line as in, "This is a gag, get it? We're being funny now!" (Except for that shower scene, but let's face it, Cary Grant is clowning around - in the shower – you wouldn't notice a parade marching by your window.)

You can still turn back, if you haven't already. Honestly, this is your last chance. Here comes the plot… Like Notorious, Charade has a fairly simple setup. Regina (“Reggie”) Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) comes back to Paris from her ski holiday to find her husband Charles has been murdered for unknown reasons. She was going to divorce the guy anyway on account of his shady past and general dishonesty, but it’s still quite a shock. To make matters worse, he auctioned off everything in their apartment, amounting to the sum of $250,000, but no one has any idea where the money is. All Charles had on him were his four (yes, four) passports, a steamer ticket to South America, his toothbrush, and an unmailed letter to Reggie telling her that he loves her, misses her, and oh yes, her dentist called to change her appointment. So she’s widowed, broke, homeless, and naturally the police suspect she’s the murderer.

There is one thing to cheer her up: on her holiday she met Peter Joshua (Cary Grant), who’s handsome, suave, and can match her wisecrack for wisecrack. But then three sinister men show up at Charles’ funeral and what they want she can’t get guess. A note from Hamilton Bartholemew (Walter Matthau) of the American Embassy invites her for an enlightening meeting. The three men, Tex Panthollow (James Coburn), Leopold W. Gideon (Ned Glass), and Herman Scobie (George Kennedy) were her late husband’s buddies during the war. Together they stole $250,000 dollars worth of U.S. gold meant for the French resistance, only Charles found a way to stiff them all and disappear. It’s twenty years later and they still want the money. So does the U.S. government. Everyone thinks Reggie has it. Except she doesn’t. Then it turns out Peter gave her a phony name, and somehow he already knows Tex, Gideon, and Scobie. And the road keeps twisting and turning until the very end. It’s not crazy or complicated – just good old-fashioned trickery.

We start the movie with a train going by and a body being thrown from it. The body rolls down the hill until its bloody, shocked face tumbles into the frame. Cue the jazzy titles sequence. We fade in on a European ski resort. The camera pans to the left and pulls back to reveal Reggie eating lunch. A gloved hand holding a gun comes into the frame and points straight at her. Hold your breath. The finger squeezes the trigger… and water squirts all over Reggie’s lovely face. She sighs at impish little Jean-Louis (Thomas Chelimsky) before screaming for Sylvie (Dominique Minot), her friend and his mother. “Can’t he do something constructive like start an avalanche or something?” Reggie says with mild annoyance.

In a minute and a half, you have the whole movie right in front of you: you’re in for mischievous deception, not cold-blooded thrills. And, though we don’t know it yet, a major plot device just squirted the heroine with his water gun. There he is, innocent as a cherub from the very first scene – Jean-Louis the stamp collector, as inconspicuous as the precious stamps on Charles’ letter. Notice how economical the script is: Peter’s excuse for meeting Reggie is hauling Jean-Louis away from throwing snowballs at Baron Rothschild, on the supposed assumption that she’s Jean-Louis’s mother. Later, Tex, Gideon, and Scobie kidnap Jean-Louis to try to intimidate Reggie. The script keeps bringing him and Sylvie back so when the resolution comes around all the pieces fit together nicely.

Even better camouflaged than Jean-Louis is Mr. Bartholemew, the movie’s real villain. From the first scene he’s in, except for the last when he reveals his true identity, we take him to be a regular American guy, not sophisticated or clever, and totally not threatening. Whether he’s offering Reggie a liverwurst sandwich, complaining about the cost of dry-cleaning and cigarettes, or doing knee-bends while he speaks to Reggie on the phone, he’s the last person you’d suspect to be the murderer. (First scene with Bartholemew starts here at 6:32 and continues here; scene at the restaurant starts here at 5:04 and continues here.) Heck, there’s even a moment in the movie where they almost, almost convince you that Peter(-Alex-Adam) is the real murderer because who else is left at that point beside him? It simply can’t be Reggie. (I think the movie was made much too early for the trend of the-supposedly-innocent-investigator-being-the-real-perpetrator-except-they-don’t-remember-because-they-have-a-personality-disorder-or-some-odd-form-of-amnesia.)

The way they keep reinventing Peter’s identity is also a neat little job: from random stranger Peter Joshua, to Carson Dyle’s brother Alexander, to professional thief Adam Canfield, to American agent Brian Cruikshank. Each identity seems plausible – right until you find out that it isn’t, of course. Like each plot twist, it works backwards, so you’re not slapping your forehead over Reggie’s inability to see the obvious, a.k.a. Superman + glasses = Clark Kent, and poor Lois Lane never gets it. We’re rarely a step ahead of Reggie. When we find out that Peter Joshua seems to be in cahoots with the trio, Reggie finds out as well just a moment later. Even after we find out that Bartholemew is not who he claims and we watch Reggie unknowingly walk into a trap, we still don’t know everything. That revelation is saved to the very end, just as we think there’s nothing left to discover.

Next week… Edward Scissorhands, a post I was saving for next Halloween but since that's a long way off, since I've been discussing the juxtaposition of lighter and darker elements anyway, and since next week is Christmas and the movie actually has a holiday theme to it, Edward Scissorhands it will be. (I don’t even pretend to think that was an actual sentence.)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Monday, December 15, 2008

Orson Welles Marathon

nice shots, but really -
you HAD to play Othello?
why not Iago?

The Magnificent Ambersons
*cough* miserable
I think was the adjective
you were looking for

Citizen Kane
damn you, Mr. Welles
you set the bar so damn high
now what do I do?

Touch of Evil
forgive me, Orson
but I just can't sit through it
I've tried, honestly

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Lessons Learned: Notorious

Written by Ben Hecht. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Cinematography by Ted Tetzlaff. Edited by Theron Warth. Complete Credits. 101 min. 1946.

A challenge: you have to write a thriller, but you're not allowed to do fight scenes, chase scenes or any other type of “big action” sequence. No explosions either. You're not allowed to have nudity, sex scenes, or rough language that's stronger than, say, "bastard" – and even that word you're only allowed to use like once. Your cast of characters must be small: a hero, a heroine, two villains, two additional supporting characters, maybe a third. You're not allowed to do any insane globetrotting – no cramming together six sophisticated European cities and three exotic eastern locales. No deserts, no rainforests, no frozen landscapes. Oh, and before I forget – no weapons like guns or blades - and I mean not so much as a shaving razor. No fancy gadgets either.

What do you say? Doesn't sound like much of a thriller to you? I agree. If I were given that challenge by anyone, I would say that he or she were crazy. Except, they happen to have Notorious as their sanity certificate. Seriously, reread that previous paragraph to take it all in and marvel at what a clever piece of work Notorious is.

Have you marveled? Okay then. One reason they can dispense with most of the typical thriller pyrotechnics is because the story is rock solid. And it’s not particularly complicated – it doesn’t twist and turn until your brain is tied up in knots. It’s all rather straightforward. They don’t throw in some big surprise ending or complication from out of nowhere. They don’t rewind to show you the same sequence of events, this time highlighting the oh-so-important details that you missed the first time, and which would have clued you in on the sting. Actually, more often than not, you know more than the individual characters do.

We start in Miami: A Nazi living in the U.S. is convicted of treason. He's part of an espionage ring trying to keep "the cause" alive. This man has a daughter named Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) who, despising "the cause" and its followers, breaks off all contact with him. But she's no sanctimonious angel - she likes to drink and play around - which is why she's tapped by Devlin (Cary Grant), an American Intelligence agent, to infiltrate the Nazi espionage ring in South America. She's German, she's her father's daughter, and she's a lying tramp: she's perfect. Fifteen minutes of screen time later, we're in Rio de Janeiro, waiting for Alicia and Devlin to get their assignment.

Naturally the sparks fly, but there's a problem: Devlin is no cuddly carebear. He has quite an edge and he doesn't like it when Alicia acts like a drunken floozy. For her part, she doesn't appreciate his sarcastic, judgmental tone. (Scene starts here at 8:54 and continues here.) The assignment they get doesn't help: infiltrate the house of Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), an old friend of Alicia's father and one of the espionage ring’s chief masterminds. He once had a crush on Alicia and never really got over it. Basically, our German minx has to get him to fall in love with her so she can get invited to his house, find out who's part of the team and what they're working on. Sources say something big. That pretty much covers it. Oh, and Alex has a scary, controlling mother who doesn’t like any woman getting close to her darling boy, but I’ll get back to her in a minute.

As opposed to Devlin, Alex is charming, sensitive, and openly adores Alicia. Watching him with her, you can almost forget he's trying to bring around the downfall of America and resurrect the Nazi party. You feel sorry for the guy when Alicia lies so sweetly about "feeling at home with him" and he drinks it right up. (Scene starts here at 5:34.) When he catches Alicia and Devlin kissing, his jealous, anguished facial expression is heartbreaking. Only when he discovers that she's a mole and decides to kill her to save his own skin do we see the monster lurking beneath that urbane, vulnerable façade.

Meanwhile, Devlin acts like a jerk toward Alicia - though behind her back he's quick to defend her (starts here at 2:31) - while she, resentful that he didn’t stop her from taking the assignment in the first place, rubs his nose in her conquest of Alex. The love-hate dynamic makes them keep pushing to see how much they can hurt each other and the ensuing tension is as much a driving force in the story as the tension over whether Alicia will be caught. This dual tension is perfectly captured when they fight at the racetrack, knowing Alex can see them through his binoculars thus forcing them to keep the smiles on their faces. (Starts here at 8:12 and continues here.)

Note, by the way, that we never even see the race except when it's reflected from Alicia's binoculars. In fact, the whole movie is very intimate - aside from establishing shots of Miami and Rio, the scenes are mostly interiors. Even though we have scenes of Devlin and Alicia sitting outside on a park bench, they're filmed close-up, so the background remains blurry, as though it doesn't matter – which it doesn't, really. Yes, yes, I know it's also because they're not actually filming at a park bench in Rio but at a Hollywood studio. The point is the characters and their interaction matter – locations, sweeping vistas, etc., do not.

And kudos on the memorable supporting cast: Madame Sebastian (Leopoldine Konstantin), who takes maternal care and passive-aggression to subtly disturbing levels (here, starts 7:31); Devlin’s boss Capt. Prescott (Louis Calhern), who chuckles when Alicia informs him that not only does Alex know he’s an intelligence man but also thinks he’s handsome; the kindly Dr. Anderson (Reinhold Schünzel) who may be building an atomic bomb for the Nazi war cause but is still gravely concerned when Alicia suddenly becomes ill (here at 7:34); and a bonus mention for Eric Mathis (Ivan Triesault), who only appears in about two and a half scenes but sticks in your mind after he asks Alex to commend his mother on the delicious dessert – right before he leaves to “take care of” a bumbling colleague (here, starts at 5:14). Those little touches, whether they’re comic, ironic, or chilling, make a lot of difference - the difference between Stock Character #26B and a character you perceive as real.

(Sorry about the clips being so… unclipped. Most of what’s on Youtube is Grant and Bergman kissing.)

Next week… Charade (since I’m already on the subject of thrillers and Cary Grant.)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Monday, December 8, 2008

Tag Numbers

it was six last time
this time it's seven fun facts
will it be eight next?

I was tagged by the lovely Cowgirl Betty and challenged to list seven facts about myself:

1. I think this is about the fourth tag I've done.
2. As you can tell by fact #1, sometimes I give into the temptation to be a smart-ass.
3. I am not proud of fact #2.
4. I also have a weakness for candy like Gushers, Fruit Rollups and Starbursts.
5. I am not proud of fact #4, but then again I'm not ashamed of it either.
6. I have a tendency to say "ooh, puppy" whenever I see a dog or "ooh, kitty" when I see a cat.
7. I do my best to resist fact #6 when I'm around people, but I fear it's a losing battle.

I pass this tag on to seven fabulous bloggers on account of their fabulousness and also on account of not having tagged them the last time: Kathleen, Jeevy, Book Calendar, Bobbi, Jen, Jupiter, and Dave. Let the tagging fun continue...

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Lessons Learned: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman; Story by Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, and Pierre Bismuth; Directed by Michel Gondry; Cinematography by Ellen Kuras; Edited by Valdís Óskarsdóttir; full list of cast and crew. 108 min. 2003.

Last week, when I discussed Lost in Translation, I mentioned that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind makes excellent use of voice-over, whereas Translation prudently foregoes it. Translation is loosely structured and virtually plot-less therefore simple to follow. Sunshine, however, is tightly structured, has a complex storyline, and will confuse the hell out of you if you don't pay strict attention. In this case, the voice-over not only conveys the protagonist's POV, it also helps the viewer keep track of what's going on. Keeping track is crucial in a movie as intricate as Sunshine: Joel (Jim Carrey) wakes up to another dull, depressing day, and instead of taking his usual train to work, takes the train to Montauk on a whim. There he runs into Clementine (Kate Winslet), an intriguing and aggressive woman who also isn’t quite feeling herself that day. And so begins a typical romance of two off-beat people finding love.

Enter the quirky element: Joel and Clementine are former lovers who underwent a special medical procedure that allows you to erase your memories of a specific person. Now, unknowingly, they're getting re-entangled with each other. Then somehow we've flashed back to before Joel got the procedure done or are we in his head witnessing the erasure of Clementine? And that's not all – there are two subplots involving the staff of the clinic that performs the procedure: Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), who invented it, his two technicians Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Elijah Wood), and his secretary Mary (Kirsten Dunst). It's one of the most brilliant aspects of the movie that these subplots don't seem to have any significant impact on the main Joel-Clementine plot until the final third reveals how deftly they're interwoven, down to the tiniest sound-effect. I'll say it right off – this movie isn't easy to sit through and you'll need to see it more than once to fully grasp how well it's constructed.

What kind of movie are we watching, anyway? Science-fiction or romantic drama? Romantic science-fiction, maybe? An anti-romantic-comedy? Beats me. Rather than giving it the familiar “eerie cleanliness” or “dystopian grunge” aesthetics of science-fiction, a lot of the movie has the handheld, casual look of a modestly budgeted Indie-flick. What’s more, the special effects never draw attention to themselves for their own sake, thereby drawing attention away from the story. The sci-fi, romantic, comic, and dramatic elements are so well-blended that the end result is a movie that can’t be placed in a generic category. (A typical sample.)

Now let's get back to the voice-over for a moment. I also mentioned in the previous post that Joel's voice-over works because a) he makes comments that add to what we're seeing rather than state the obvious; b) we spend a lot of the film inside his mind so voice-over fits the general concept; and c) Joel doesn't talk incessantly. Note that Joel is the only character who provides voice-over of his thoughts even though we get to witness events that he doesn't. On a practical level, this prevents the movie from being one long tiresome monologue. On a thematic level, it's significant since one of Clementine's chief complaints about Joel is that he never talks to her. He never really lets her into his world, while we the viewers become submerged in it, helping us feel more connected with him. And I think that essentially causes us to watch the entire film from Joel’s POV, even when we witness events that he doesn’t. We see Clementine as Joel sees her and we understand why he loves her, even if we think they’re both emotional time-bombs. (Perhaps the sole exception is the scene between Mary and Dr. Mierzwiak at Joel’s apartment, but even that’s mixed with a scene of Joel and Clementine.)

While we watch the highs and lows of their relationship, it becomes plain that Joel is his own worst enemy, ditto Clementine. They tread the fine line tread between unbelievable, self-consciously quirky caricature and unique, fully-rounded human character. The end of the movie brings us back to where we started: Joel and Clementine become involved again even though they can’t remember their previous history and even though they know they might very well repeat the same disastrous pattern.

Any growth or change Joel underwent in his emotional/psychological make-up while trying to resist the erasure process and keep his memories of Clementine, is reset to zero. That means his character’s development arc is also, essentially, erased. Yet we’d like to believe that this time it will be different for Joel and Clementine, that this time they won’t repeat the same mistakes. We’re given a relatively upbeat ending with the final shot of Joel and Clementine playing on the beach at Montauk, but we still don’t know for sure if things will turn out well. It’s a good realistic finish to an unrealistic story.

A few other thoughts:

Few explanations. The information for Dr. Mierzwiak’s procedure of surgically induced brain-damage seems plausible because they don’t get too specific. Granted, I don’t have medical training, so that’s probably why it doesn’t bug me on a scientific level. The point is they don’t trip themselves up by getting bogged down with explanations. You don’t have to think about it, so suspension of belief isn’t overly strained.

Not going overboard. They could’ve gone to town with the story’s dream/nightmare qualities, but they don’t overdo it. Rather than going ethereal or hardcore, they went for surreal, confusing, and occasionally disturbing images.

And, as a final bonus, my favorite scene. Watch how subtly the surroundings get erased until Clementine is deleted. The little beeping sound you hear repeats itself consistently throughout the movie and is a good indicator for when we’re watching the erasure process in Joel’s head as opposed to a scene happening in “real life.”

Next week… taking a sharp turn toward one of my favorite Hitchcock films, Notorious.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Monday, December 1, 2008

List of Horrible Books

One: Heart of Darkness
Two: Last of the Mohicans
Three: Jude the Obscure