Monday, June 29, 2009

Mad Men Marathon, Part II

Roger Sterling
you're so damn funny
it's easy to forget you're
such a damn bastard

Joan Holloway
ruby Magdalene
when will ye repent, woman?
when it's much too late?

Salvatore Romano
stuck in secret hell
poor Sal, you're such a nice guy
the marriage won't help

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Lessons Learned: Stagecoach

Screenplay by Dudley Nichols (and Ben Hecht, uncredited); from the story "Stage to Lordsburg" by Ernest Haycox; Directed by John Ford; Cinematography by Bert Glennon; Edited by Otho Lovering and Dorothy Spencer (and Walter Reynolds, uncredited); Complete Credits. 96 min. 1939.

Today, for your enjoyment, we present Stagecoach and its gallery of stock characters: Dallas (Claire Trevor), the prostitute with a heart of gold; Ringo (John Wayne), the young hero; Buck (Andy Devine), the comic relief; Hatfield (John Carradine), the gentleman gambler; Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), the (drunken) voice of reason; Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), the prim officer’s wife; Curley (George Bancroft), the tough marshal; Peacock (Donald Meek), the wimpy salesman; and Gatewood (Berton Churchill), the corrupt banker.

All of these characters are riding in a stagecoach from one of those frontier towns that has just grown civilized enough to crackdown on drinking and prostitution (and is so small that it can actually do something about them) to get to Lordsburg – one of those frontier towns that has gotten so big it has a whole street worth of saloons and brothels. Each character has his or her own reason for making the trip and braving the threat of Geronimo and his Apaches. (If you are looking for a - relatively - politically correct western, then go watch The Magnificent Seven.)

There are a lot of reasons why Stagecoach is interesting. Though from the outset it looks like it’ll be more of an action film, it really turns out to be a character piece. The final showdown and all the traveling around in the stagecoach notwithstanding, the driving tension is the interaction of the characters. Are Dallas and Ringo falling in love? Will Ringo still love her when he finds out about her profession? Is Mrs. Mallory flirting with Hatfield even though she’s supposed to be on the way to meet her husband? And who is Hatfield, anyway? Will someone discover Gatewood’s emptying out the town safe? Will Curley really take Ringo back to prison - he was wrongly convicted of murder – or will he let the kid stay out long enough to get revenge and maybe even get across the border to Mexico? And so on and so on.

If all that wasn’t there, we wouldn’t care whether these characters got to Lordsburg or not. The Native American threat is a superficial device to create a sense of urgency – and then a device to weed out a character or two, plus make you think they’ll all die when Geronimo finally attacks. Which he does, incidentally, about a mile or two outside of Lordsburg, because that whole time when the little pathetic stagecoach was isolated in the middle of nowhere without any help from the cavalry wasn’t a better opportunity.

Marvel at the Apaches’ incredible marksmanship – they can shoot an arrow through the coach window while it’s speeding along and hit a guy bang in the chest, but they can’t hit anyone else, no matter how many bullets they riddle the thing with. Except for Hatfield, but again, only when he’s way on the inside of the thing and not when he’s huddled near the window taking aim. They can’t manage to kill Buck driving on the top and Curley riding shotgun either. The people on the stagecoach must have fifty bullets between the four guns doing the shooting and yet the hundred or so Apaches that surround them can’t finish the job. This is pure movie logic: the good guys have to survive no matter what the odds are. You have to ask yourself – why are the Apaches going to all this trouble anyway? A big wagon train, alright, but what could they possibly gain from risking over a hundred precious warriors for one little stagecoach? One that’s not too far from its final destination? If you ask me, they could have thrown out Geronimo and the Apaches and used bandits instead.

But no one is asking me, so back to what works. Granted, the romantic subplot between Dallas and Ringo is sentimental but it makes sense. In the first place, it's astonishing that the story doesn't "punish" her for her profession either by killing her or sending her to a nunnery. (If James Fenimore Cooper were involved – she'd probably end up dead.) Actually, the script enlists sympathy for Dallas right from the beginning – whether by showing the evil biddies that run her out of town in the name of reform or showing a "lady" like Mrs. Mallory and the "upright" banker Gatewood snubbing her – we feel they're being disgusting. Naturally we root for Dallas to end up with an adorable guy like Ringo, especially after we watch him treat her with so much courtesy. Later, when they make it to Lordsburg, watching Ringo walk Dallas through the street with all the saloons, immediately realizing that she's a prostitute and still wanting her all the same – ups the ante just in time for Ringo to have his showdown with the Millers. That way, more is at stake than Ringo surviving the shootout – we don't want Dallas to be heartbroken after finally finding a good man that doesn't care about her past.

Next week… High Noon, and this here wagon is movin’ along to see another showdown.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Monday, June 22, 2009

Celery

calorie killer
I crunch you collectedly
despite my dislike

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Lessons Learned: The Lord of the Rings

When I finally sat down to write this post, I ended up making a list of gripes instead of all the good things, and I'm not a fan of the book. So that whole list got thrown out. Not that you can't learn from someone else's mistakes, but I've tried to make it a point of this series to highlight all of the things that work in a good film rather than rip it to shreds. (Maybe there'll be a special shredding edition later on.)

Fantasy is a difficult genre to tackle. On the one hand, you create an alternate universe with old school male heroes, unapologetically-strong-sans-teenage-angst-plus-aristocratic-background; exhibits A and B: Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean). You can revamp the traditionally delicate and decorative damsels-in-distress to powerful players; exhibits C and D: Arwen (Liv Tyler) and Eowyn (Miranda Otto). On the other hand, you have the various unique creatures and characters which help define your alternate universe as, well, alternate; exhibits E through L: wizards, hobbits, elves, goblins, orcs, trolls, a raspy-voiced slithering creature who will stop at nothing to get his bling back, an ultra evil lord of all wickedness (disembodied but personified by a huge eye), and one balrog.

And I think you can see how any of that would be a liability. Heroes, heroines? No problem. Hobbits? You're in trouble. The potential for camp is dangerously high and the tension is thankfully reduced through several methods:

Humor. If there is a type of movie that cannot dare take itself too seriously, I'd say it's fantasy. It’s hard enough in a film with a “realistic” setting, now add to that the strange-sounding names and the lines of dialogue that tend toward the lyrical. I’m not saying there need to be standup routines, but some wisecracks are a decent counterweight to all the inevitable earnestness. Examples: Gandalf (Ian McKellen) telling Pippin (Billy Boyd) to knock himself into the well next time and rid the fellowship of his stupidity. Legolas (Orlando Bloom) asking Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) on the wall of Helm’s Deep if he’d like to stand on a box so he can actually see the army of orcs about to attack. Pippin marveling that you can get a whole pint of beer to drink, etc.

Sympathy. Given that fantasy is usually so other-worldly, it's easy to make the characters too other-worldly as well. Can you imagine how boring the trilogy would have been from Galadriel's (Cate Blanchett) ethereal perspective? She's the perfect narrator – authoritative yet detached - but she already knows everything and so she'd make a boring protagonist. Now take the two central protagonists: We watch Frodo (Elijah Wood) slowly deteriorate as ring-bearer while Aragorn gradually grows into his role as king. It’s not exactly light-handed in the sense that Frodo is this poor little guy who has to be more heroic than a hundred men combined in order to complete his task – or that he couldn’t do it without the love and support of his allies; or that Aragorn has to sacrifice his personal happiness with Arwen to become the rightful leader of men. Besides, all that is thrown away at the end since Frodo lives and Aragorn marries Arwen just the same.

The point is there’s something very personal at stake for them in this heroic quest. We all know perfectly well that Sauron and his army are not going to beat the good guys. The question is what will the price be? If nothing is at stake on a personal level, there’s no need to feel much sympathy. Legolas is a character who exists purely for the additional swashbuckling (and eye-candy) factor. He’s a good elf fighting the good fight but that’s all there is. Obviously, he’s fighting for the protection of Middle Earth as much as the next guy, but we don’t have specifics. We don’t know what he’ll be losing if he fails. That’s fine – Legolas is a supporting character after all and there’s already plenty to juggle – but imagine if he was a central focal point. There isn’t enough there for his character to carry the film, so they leave it to other characters to provide the emotional connection.

Scariness and Speechless Evil. The orcs are a bunch of bad-ass monsters. True, they can't fight a battle to save their lives as you can see by their being defeated despite outnumbering the good guys ten to one, but at least they look terrifying. Note that Sauron hardly has any lines – he whispers a taunt now and again – but he’s more of an off-screen menace. How utterly fabulous not to be subjected to any monologues about why he’s so evil and why he loves destroying everything and everyone. He doesn’t need to talk, the fact that he exists is enough.

Generally speaking, the trilogy is cliché-ridden – heroes unlikely and natural-born, warrior maidens, elf queens, wizards benevolent and wicked, beautiful good guys vs. ugly bad guys, magic, good finally triumphing over evil and ushering in a golden age of existence, sweeping vistas, and epic battles - but it’s a well executed cliché-fest, coherent and entertaining.

Next week… Stagecoach, leaving Middle Earth for the American Frontier.


The Fellowship of the Ring. Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson; from the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien; Directed by Peter Jackson; Cinematography by Andrew Lesnie; Edited by John Gilbert; Complete Credits. 178 min. 2001.

The Two Towers. Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair, and Peter Jackson; from the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien; Directed by Peter Jackson; Cinematography by Andrew Lesnie; Edited by Michael Horton and Jabez Olssen; Complete Credits. 179 min. 2002.

The Return of the King. Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson; from the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien; Directed by Peter Jackson; Cinematography by Andrew Lesnie; Edited by Jamie Selkirk; Complete Credits. 201 min. 2003.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Monday, June 15, 2009

Mad Men Marathon, Part I

Don Draper
who wouldn't love a
charming (somewhat sexist) guy
with a steady job?

Peggy Olson
Dear sweet Miss Olson,
Stay away from Pete Campbell.
You could do better.

Betty Draper
like the daughter of
Donna Reed and Grace Kelly
having a breakdown

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Lessons Learned: Star Wars

This week, for a change, movie credits are at the bottom, since I'm discussing three films instead of one. Thankfully no plot summaries will be necessary.

It's probably unfair to compare Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) to Robin Hood and Zorro, but I'm going to anyway. Robin and Zorro have everything: charm, poise, skill, bravery. No character development necessary – throw them into the fray and they'll put everything right. But what if you split them apart and divided their qualities unevenly?

I've mentioned the villain being split in two and even three characters, but Star Wars splits the hero in two: Luke and Han, the boy next door and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks, respectively. Luke plays by the rules – he studies, he trains. Han ignores the rules – he steals, he lies. Luke will always do the right thing and Han will always act like he won’t until the very last minute. If this were a high school movie, Luke would be wearing glasses, building a robot while studying for finals, and Han would be wearing a leather jacket, cruising on his motorcycle looking for fights. Luke would end up class president, and Han would end up with the prom queen. They’re two different heroic flavors: Teen Angst sprinkled with Identity Issues and Smart Ass with Selfish Tendencies.

Han’s character development pretty much ends in the second film. Once he falls in love with Leia (Carrie Fisher) - Prom Queen to his Juvenile Delinquent – that’s it. He can’t go back to being a selfish scoundrel. Thankfully, though, permanently switching over to the good guys doesn’t neutralize his ability to wisecrack. But let’s not overdo it – it’s not like he was a shady character to begin with. Although, when you think about it, we really don’t know a thing about him. (Judging only by the movies, that is, I’m sure there are plenty of novels that explore his background.) We don’t know where he was born or why he got into smuggling. And who cares, really? It would probably spoil things to find out what his childhood was like or if he got along with his parents. The tortured/haunted/angsty bit wouldn’t become him.

Luke is another story. His conflict stems from not knowing who he is and from being stuck in the middle of nowhere. His character development runs along the entire trilogy, beginning with the discovery of his potential powers and ending when he tells the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid), “I am a Jedi.” Speaking of the Emperor, after watching Darth Vader (James Earl Jones) be totally evil throughout the first movie, it’s necessary to up the ante in the second one by hinting that there’s someone even more powerful. It’s kind of cheap to hide him with a black cowl and a holographic projection – but it’s also effective. Just like it’s effective to hide Vader behind that mask.

But let’s get back to Luke. He’s a hero without a love interest. Han, his more dashing counterpart, gets that storyline all to himself. Though it was pretty obvious that Leia wouldn’t be able to fight him off forever, Empire manages to drag out the tension very nicely. The tension with Luke, though it’s hardly there, is artificially resolved in making them siblings. That’s the part where it looks like they couldn’t decide whether this was a trilogy for children or adults, and that probably the kids won out because they’d buy the toys. Not that the trilogy needed Luke and Han to get into a fist fight over Leia - there was more than enough material to fill out three movies - but a little ambiguity would have been interesting. The various plot threads did not have to be tied up in a bow. Although, to be fair, it's not like we see Han and Leia get married after Luke gives her away or something.

Next week… The Lord of the Rings, moving from a galaxy far, far away to Middle Earth. Again, I'll be talking about the whole trilogy.


Episode IV: A New Hope. Written and Directed by George Lucas; Cinematography by Gilbert Taylor; Edited by Richard Chew, T.M. Christopher, Paul Hirsch, Marcia Lucas (and George Lucas, uncredited); Complete Credits. 121 min. 1977.

Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. Screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan; Story by George Lucas; Directed by Irvin Kershner; Cinematography by Peter Suschitzky; Edited by T.M. Christopher and Paul Hirsch (Marcia Lucas and George Lucas, uncredited); Complete Credits. 124 min. 1980.

Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas; Story by George Lucas; Directed by Richard Marquand; Cinematography by Alan Hume (and Alec Mills, uncredited); Edited by Sean Barton, T.M. Christopher, Duwayne Dunham, Marcia Lucas (and George Lucas, uncredited); Complete Credits. 134 min. 1983.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Monday, June 8, 2009

Joy, a Definition

a task accomplished
before its final deadline
the sun shines, birds chirp

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Lessons Learned: The Mark of Zorro

Screenplay by John Taintor Foote; Adaptation by Garrett Fort and Bess Meredyth; from the story "The Curse of Capistrano" by Johnston McCulley Directed by Rouben Mamoulian; Cinematography by Arthur C. Miller; Edited by Robert Bischoff; Complete Credits. 94 min. 1940.

It's difficult not to discuss The Mark of Zorro in relation to The Adventures of Robin Hood, (especially since I was talking about it last week). The idea is similar: dashing hero robs from the rich to feed the poor, restores political stability to the region, and gets the girl of his dreams. Except this time we're in sunny mid-nineteenth century California – which still belongs to Spain – instead of foggy medieval England. Besides the change in time and location, there are a number of other little twists and turns to the tried and true formula. Cue the flamenco guitar and maracas.

Diego Vega (Tyrone Power) has been called home to California by his father Don Alejandro Vega (Montagu Love), the Alcalde (or local governor, if you will), from his commission in the Spanish army. Having enjoyed the splendor and bustle of Madrid for a number of years, simple and rustic Los Angeles promises to be hot and boring. Times being what they are and travel being by ship, when Diego finally arrives in Los Angeles, he discovers that there’s been a little hitch: his father was forced to resign by the villainous and greedy duo, Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg) and Capitan Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone).

After about two minutes in the company of the Capitan – formerly a fencing master in Barcelona – Diego, though a fine swordsman himself, thinks it’s a good idea to keep still and play dandy. He charms Quintero – and Quintero’s vain wife Inez (Gale Sondergaard) – disgusts Esteban with his faux-foppery, provokes Esteban into a jealous snit over Inez’s enthusiastic attention, and gets a nice glimpse through a window of Luis’s adorable and virtuous niece Lolita (Linda Darnell). That takes about five minutes, maybe six. Then he’s off to his family’s hacienda to be greeted with much joy by his mother Isabella (Janet Beecher), his father Alejandro, and his old cantankerous mentor Fray Felipe (Eugene Pallette).

Alejandro shoos his wife away and the men start to talk politics. Fray Felipe wants Don Alejandro to lead a revolt against Quintero, who’s bleeding the district, but Alejandro doesn’t want violence – two wrongs don’t make a right. Besides, Quintero has a garrison of trained soldiers, and how can even a whole district of gentlemen and peasants beat that? Diego drinks in every word and then starts playing the spoiled dandy with them as well. They are not happy. Santa Maria, that promising boy was spoiled at the Spanish court! No need to worry, however, as soon a masked man all dressed in black is harassing Quintero’s soldiers and threatening Quintero to resign and return to Spain – or else. And the man’s name is… Zorro! (That’s all accomplished in the first twenty minutes, by the way.)

Zorro is especially interesting because, though Quintero and Esteban are unquestionably the villains, Diego goes on the offensive and antagonizes them instead of the other way around. Zorro hampers their every step and foils their every plan, while Diego cozies up to Quintero and Inez plus arranges his marriage to Lolita. Also, contrary to the adventure/superhero formula, we don’t see Diego becoming Zorro. Diego, with his training in strategy and fighting, not to mention his gentlemanly ideals, he’s a ready-made hero - he just needed to put on the mask. Like Sir Robin of Locksley, there’s anger but no angst. The people need help and he’s ready to help them – there’s no quest for vengeance, a need to develop his identity, or a need to develop an alter-ego to deal with his issues on a nightly basis. Once he restores peace and justice the territory, he can live happily ever after with the woman he loves.

That might seem unsophisticated compared to today’s familiar hero/superhero formula, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing either. Actually, the relatively recent remake, The Mask of Zorro, is a very entertaining fusion of both formulas. The original Zorro (Anthony Hopkins) is the privileged instant-hero who jumps in the fray out of his sense of chivalry, but as opposed to the old formula, his life is destroyed by his enemy. He is left with only one wish: vengeance. (And then death, supposedly.) Then he meets Alejandro (Antonio Banderas), the new brand of hero – the unskilled underdog - who needs an extended training montage to get whipped into shape. Naturally, he’s also angst-ridden over the death of a loved one and is driven by vengeance, though also by the sheer coolness (that’s right) of becoming a hero.

There’s more, but I should be talking about Tyrone and co. Another thing that’s unique about this Zorro is that both his parents are alive and well and he has no issues with them whatsoever. Most heroes either have dysfunctional families or no families at all. Or if they start out with a healthy relationship with a loved one, chances are they’re about to lose them. Even Robin Hood, who’s un-neurotic for a regular human, to say nothing of a hero, doesn’t have so much as a third cousin. Again, you can fault the story for lack of sophistication or complexity, but it’s kind of refreshing to have the hero be untroubled in his domestic life.

On the other hand, poor Lolita doesn’t have it so good. She’s an orphan with a wicked aunt who keeps threatening to send her to a convent and an uncle who’s happy to use her as a bargaining chip. Fortunately for her, Diego is smitten at first sight and he quickly goes about organizing their marriage – though she doesn’t quite know it at first. Also contrary to the current formula, the hero clues his beloved into his secret identity pretty early on, so there’s really no tension between them. The relationship is purely gratuitous romance, but it’s Tyrone Power so I don’t intend to complain.

Next week… Star Wars, continuing this adventure thing. Though the link is for The Empire Strikes Back, I'll be talking about the trilogy in general (the original trilogy, not the prequel circus from a few years ago).

Monday, June 1, 2009

Library

Oh magical realm
of knowledge and trivia
I bask in your glow!