Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Not the Hud I Imagined

There are certain films that loom so large that I feel I know what they're about before I've even seen them. They're films that are classics. Enthusiastically talked about by cinephiles to the point that I overconfidently think I could have a discussion about them, sight unseen. Then I actually see them and they are not how I imagined them. At all.

This happened to me a couple months ago with Elia Kazan's Baby Doll. Being familiar with the nature of Tennessee Williams' work, the iconic image of Carroll Baker sucking her thumb in a crib, and the fact that the film was condemned by the Catholic League of Decency (which, come to think of it, probably isn't all that hard), I was expecting a kinky, sexually perverse tale of a girl who wanted it bad and drove the men wild because she was just. too. young. But, the actual film is nothing like the one I had created in my head. In fact it concerns the exciting world of cotton ginning, wives that won't give it up, and repossessed furniture (steamy).

Another film I created a different story in my head for is the subject of this week's Hit Me With Your Best Shot from Nathaniel at The Film Experience. It's the 1963 Oscar-winning film that did a good deal to build the star persona of everyone's favorite blue-eyed, salad dressing maker: Paul Newman in Hud. My version was a star vehicle where the camera lovingly lingers over the chiseled features of our hero--who may be a a bit of a rakish cad, but has a heart of gold. He's a womanizer in the suave way which the women just can't help themselves. He's just looking for the love of a good woman to change his ways. Enter Patricia Neal (Breakfast at Tiffany's 2E!), who I did already know gets raped in the film (she did win an Oscar for the role after all), but surely by some hooligan. Hud saves her and even though they love each other, the trauma makes her unable to get close to him–just when he let his walls come down! The real film is far different.

The first thing that struck me is how much of an ensemble piece the film actually is. The story actually belongs to Hud's nephew, Lonnie (Brandon deWilde), a young boy coming of age that looks up to the cool, devil-may-care persona of Hud and is devoted to his unyieldingly upright grandfather, Homer (Melvyn Douglas in his Oscar-winning role). For a film so closely associated with Newman (that image of him in a cowboy hat is pretty indelible), he's far from the star and his character is well, frankly, an asshole. A drunkard that sleeps with other men's wives just because he can, he is actually the one that rapes Neal's Alma! Lonnie is the one who saves her from Hud's forceful advances. He's an antihero to the point of villainy.

The plot of the film hardly has time for the romance I had imagined either (there are brief scenes in which Alma and Hud flirt and even Alma and Lonnie flirt), but the main concern is the Hoof and Mouth Disease that overtakes the cattle on Homer's farm. Their source of income is gone and their way of life will have to change. In a particularly gruesome scene, all the cattle are herded into a ditch and shot dead. Sick, dead cows aren't exactly what I had in mind for a dreamy Paul Newman-as-cowboy fantasy.

Which is not to say that the film is bad. It isn't. It's actually great. It's just not the film I thought it would be. I imagined falling in love with Newman, nodding my head, saying, 'now that's a star'. I fact, I was so sure that I would use an image of him for my best shot, that I'm surprised at the one I decided on.

It's of the real main character and unsung hero of the film, Lonnie. Brandon deWilde was the only one of the four main leads not to be nominated for an Oscar. He previously received an Oscar nomination for another Western in which he admired a cowboy. Although, the films' cowboys are as far from each other as you can get. At the end of Shane, a young Brandon deWilde watches as the cowboy, who sacrificed himself for the greater good, rides off into the sunset a hero: Come back, Shane! The shot I've chosen from Hud is a reverse of that. Now, deWilde is the one leaving. His grandfather has died, he has seen the man Hud truly is and has no wish to be anything like him. He knows that he was to become his own man and with a look back at Hud--of pity and disdain--he sets off to be the cowboy hero more along the lines of Shane than Hud.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


I'm sick as a dog and don't have the energy to write anything, but here are my best shots from Fantasia from least to favorite segment:

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Two Become One

The very first shot in Anthony Minghella's 1999 film version of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley–Tom Ripley (played by a baby-faced Matt Damon), in profile, as dagger-like segments cut into his face, fragmenting him and then ultimately uniting to form a complete picture–sets up a motif that will be prevalent throughout the entire film. It is a story of a man divided of himself. One at odds with whom he has become, through the identities he has undertaken to maintain the facade of who he wants to be, and the man he actually is. Using an assortment of mirrors and reflections to illustrate the duplicitous nature of Mr. Ripley, Minghella elegantly employs the symbolism against a sumptuous Italian backdrop. The film, and these images illustrating the nature of Tom, are the subject for this week's Hit Me With Your Best Shot from The Film Experience.

There were a few contenders for my best shot: the shot of Tom hiding behind a mirror as his head pokes out the top and Dickie's body is reflected in his place. Another of Tom, after he decides that it's too dangerous to impersonate Dickie anymore, and his reflection in the top of the piano begins to morph and pull apart to become two separate entities again. But, I knew what shot I was gonna pick even before I rewatched the film. As Tom and Dickie (Jude Law in his star-making performance) make their final trip together (and Dickie's final trip ever) on the train to San Remo, Tom senses that the end is near for his new way of life and the relationship he has formed with Dickie. As Dickie sleeps, Tom lightly paws at the man's expensive suit jacket, breathes in his scent, and then adjusts his head so that the two men's reflections conjoin:

Unlike the other images mentioned, I chose this one because it captures the sexual nature of Tom's infatuation with Dickie. This is the closest that Tom will get to becoming one with the flesh and blood Dickie. Dickie's charisma gives off an omnisexual power. It's not that he intentionally leads Tom on (especially in that bathtub chess scene) in a way that promises sex to the confused Tom. It's that he wields his sexuality as a power over people. Dickie likes being lusted after and Tom is very much susceptible to it. And it plays with Tom's mind. He's not sure if he wants to be Dickie or be with Dickie. As he looks at their reflection–leaning in with his mouth slightly opened as if going for a kiss–his lust is caught up with the image of them together. The reflection capturing his mix of desire and envy. 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The One That Started It All

Some 20 years ago (long before it was in the public eye thanks to Dancing With the Stars), a young Australian director made his feature film debut with a comedy set within the world of competitive ballroom dancing. Baz Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom actually began life as a stage show when he was a student at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Australia and is, perhaps, his most personal. Baz's mother was a ballroom dancing instructor and Baz himself took lessons as a child. The lead character of Scott Hastings, the rebellious dancer that is tired of dancing by the rules and just wants to do his own brand of "flashy" moves, is very much a stand-in for Baz as a filmmaker. His own "flashy" style has since become his trademark. But the groundwork for all his future films can be found in that first film.

The Red Curtain Opening

It's fitting that the first film in his Red Curtain Trilogy would also begin with the shot of a red curtain rising. The theatricality of the films is presented right off the bat to make the audience aware that things are heightened–this isn't a kitchen sink drama. R+J, which has more of an MTV style starts off with its own version of a curtain rising: a television set being turned on.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Spinster Cinderella Story

What is about vacationing in another country that makes you feel that anything could happen? There's an air of mysterious possibility and uncertainty. Perhaps the idea that you are far away from home, far  from anyone who knows who you are, gives you the opportunity to start anew. You can shed your past,  take advantage of the present, and become the person you've always wanted to be. This promise of escape and spirit of unknown adventure is perfectly captured in David Lean's 1955 film, Summertime. Set in Venice and filmed entirely on location (the Venetian authorities worried that filming during its peak tourist season would cut into revenue, so Lean and the studio donated a large sum of money toward the restoration of St. Mark's Basilica), the film stars four-time Best Actress Oscar winner (one of her 12 nominations came from this movie), Katharine Hepburn, as American Jane Hudson. An unmarried, middle-aged, elementary school secretary from Ohio, she has saved up for years to come to Venice to experience a dream vacation. Her Summer Holiday in the romantic Italian city is the subject of this week's Hit Me With Your Best Shot from Nathaniel at The Film Experience.

Jane arrives in the city, with her camera in hand, eager for excitement. Her life back home in America, while not unpleasant, is certainly not the one she envisioned. She is determined to make the most of Venice ("Like it? I've got to! I've come such a long way..."). And the way Lean's camera lingers over shots of the city– letting us soak it all in, willing us to fall in love with it–we, like Jane, can't help but see the beauty of the place. Tourism in the city doubled after the film was released. Lean himself was so enchanted with the city that he made it his second home. I mean, just look at the view from Jane's window in the hotel she's staying:

She is so moved by it, that she tells the hotel proprietress, "Grazie...For THIS" as she extends her hand over the whole of the city. So much of the film is sunlit shots of gorgeous Venetian sites that the city becomes a character unto itself. Any one of them a picture postcard for best shot. But the shot I've chosen isn't one of the city itself, but one that represents all that the city promised for Jane–a wish come true. Just maybe not the way she imagined.

Among the most gorgeous cities in the world, she soon finds herself feeling alone. Even the most beautiful of places can become lonely without someone to share in your happiness. Hepburn does a wonderful job of conveying Jane's loneliness. Depression can come across as dull on screen or worse, self-pitying (I'm looking at you Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love), but we never feel that Jane feels sorry for herself. Hepburn still gives her a spark that hope is not lost, it's just tinged with a bit of disappointment. 

She soon meets a handsome Italian shopkeeper who starts to take an interest in her. Reluctant at first (you can sense that Jane has been hurt by love before), she resists his advances. But soon finds herself thinking of him and the two begin to spend time together. It rejuvenates Jane who finds herself wandering the city without her camera and getting make-overs! (I do love in the make-over scene that we see her getting her hair done, but it ends up looking exactly as it did before. A part of her still can't let go...) She soon faces reality when she discovers that the man is married with children. He tells her that he is separated and after a verbal brawl, she discovers that the connection is too strong to give him up completely. She knows it can't last, but is willing to live for the moment and give into a passion she might not normally have surrendered to. As she gives in to his advances, fireworks light up the sky and she drops a single shoe on the balcony. It becomes a symbol of her fairy tale. Like Cinderella, the magic might all end at midnight, but right now she is apart of it. It won't end in happily ever after, but the memory of the moment will last her a lifetime:

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A Wardrobe Fit for a Courtesan

Much of the success of Baz Luhrmann's career as a director is greatly helped by the worlds he creates with his longtime collaborator (and wife), Catherine Martin or CM. CM has been there since the beginning for every film (even before she got married to him). She worked as Production Designer on Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet (receiving an Oscar nom for R + J), Costume Designer and Production Designer on Australia (the film's sole Oscar nomination was for her costumes), and of the 8 Oscar Nominations given to Moulin Rouge!, CM's work on the film brought it both of its wins (Art Direction, shared with Brigitte Broch and Costume Design, shared with Angus Strathie). Whatever the reception awaiting Gatsby, it's almost assured nominations for CM's costumes and production design. Baz's films are known for their glitz and decadence and CM never fails to provide it.

In honor of the Oscar winning designs for Moulin Rouge! (and to continue along with Baz Luhrmann week here at the blog), I'm taking a look at the iconic costumes of Nicole Kidman's courtesan, Satine. The team looked to past screen legends (such as Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Rita Hayworth) as inspiration for Satine's look. Remembering that the clothes had to work as costumes and not authentic representations of 1899 Parisian Couture, they decided to use materials and fabrics available at the time but to use them in unconventional ways. It's no wonder that Movie Stars of yesteryears influenced the character of Satine because Nicole's star turn (helped in large part by her extraordinary wardrobe) has already taken its place alongside those Hollywood greats.

Screen Test

Before anything even gets finalized for the final film, screen tests are made of how the character will look. The second image actually found it's way into the movie. It's the first shot we see of Satine when Christian (Ewan McGregor) tells us in the prologue about the woman he loved. Corsets and top hats made it into other designs, but the cigarette holder didn't. It'll just have to remain synonymous with Audrey Hepburn's Holly Golightly.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Epically Epic: Australia

G'day, mates! Last year, I did a live blog of Titanic which was to be the start of a monthly series called Epically Epic in which I explored those sweeping films in which a 2 hour story just can't be contained! Well, yada yada yada, I'm actually starting it again! And tonight's film, in honor of Baz Luhrmann week here at the blog, is the Aussie director's 4th feature film starring a sheila named Nicole Kidman and handsome bloke by the name of Hugh Jackman. Tie your kangaroos down, sports, cause this is Australia. 

After the success of Luhrmann's 3 previous films, known as The Red Curtain Trilogy, his next plan of action was to be what he referred to as his Epic Trilogy. Which, after the lack-luster box office of this film, kinda put an end to those plans. (Although, according to Wikipedia, it's the 2nd highest grossing Australian movie, ever! What's number one, you ask: Crocodile Dundee.) It was kinda cursed from the beginning. The trilogy was to start with an epic telling of real-life world-conquerer (and ancient-times homosexual) Alexander the Great. Baz had cast Leonardo DiCaprio as Alexander and Nicole Kidman was set to play his mother, Olympias. While working on the script and scouting locations, another Alexander the great film was already moving ahead. Oliver Stone released his own version, Alexander (creative title. That could be anyone) in 2004 with Colin Farrell in a really bad blonde-dye job. The film was a bomb and Baz decided not to move forward with his intended film. The other two films planned in The Epic Trilogy were a Russian set film and one set in his homeland of Australia. Guess which one got made! But, not without it's difficulties.

This will only be my second time watching the film after seeing it in the theater the day it came out in November of 2008. I did a double feature that evening because Milk had also come out on the same day–it was a long night at the movies. I'm curious to see it again. Last year when I did Titanic, I knew the film so well already. We'll see how this goes when I'm not as familiar with the film. But enough chit-chat–let's head Down Under...

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Shakespeare On Screen: Romeo + Juliet

Guys, I am just beyond excited for Baz Luhrmann's take on The Great Gatsby hitting theatres (in 3D?–oh, I mean, in 3D!!!!!!!! But still, a little bit of a question mark) this Friday! It even made my list of most anticipated films of the summer. So, in honor of Baz's latest, I'm taking a look back at his previous films all this week. That's right everyone. It's Baz Luhrmann week here at The Film's the Thing! Tonight is a look at his second film, the modern day retelling of Shakespeare's tale of star-crossed lovers played by Gatsby himself, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Homeland's Claire Danes (The world's best chin-quivering crier!) This is also the start of a monthly series I hope to do called Shakespeare on Screen. So, let's dive right in–literally–as we take a closer look at Baz's version of the most famous scene from one of Shakespeare's most produced works: The Balcony Pool Scene.

I have to admit, I was not the biggest fan of this movie when it was released back in 1996. I was a precocious teenager (some may say pretentious) when it came to theatre, film, and Shakespeare in general. Growing up in Omaha, my parents used to take us to see the free Shakespeare on the Green every summer. We were studying his work in high school, I felt like it was a subject that I was beginning to have some understanding of. And after seeing a production of Taming of the Shrew set in the Wild West, I had decided I was a purest in regard to the Bard's work and the context in which it was presented. The fact that Baz Luhrmann had set Romeo and Juliet in the present day, with guns and hawaiian shirts was too much for me. But, the thing that did me in at the time was that instead of Juliet wondering where for art her Romeo was from her balcony window, she was flailing a swimming pool! Blasphemous!

As the years have passed, I definitely become more lenient in my Shakespeare adaptions. After all, what would be the point of the same interpretation? The works of Shakespeare have endured for hundreds of years for a reason. They are still being performed because they still have something to say and each new generations finds a new way to present it. What Baz did with his take was to make it relevant to a younger audience that wouldn't be interested in Shakespeare otherwise. With his trademark quick cuts and CM's neon-tinged art direction, he made it seem fresh and new and not some museum piece that would put people to sleep.

But, getting back to the pool scene, it does still feel a little bit like a gimmick. So much about the way he changed the play to fit the world of his film–the prologue being read by a newscaster on the nightly news, the guns having the brand name Sword–works for me. But, putting the two of them in a pool feels like he was trying to do something different just for the sake of doing it. After all, balconies still exist in the modern world.

At the start of the scene, after Romeo has climbed the garden wall, he sees a silhouette at the window of a, yep, balcony. But instead of giving us the traditional setting, Baz winkingly plays with our expectations by making the silhouette at the balcony not belong to Juliet, but to her Nurse (played by British actress, Miriam Margolyes. I didn't even realize it was her until this recent viewing! I thought it was actually a Latina actress. Range!). This bit of comedy, while funny, doesn't set the right tone for the rest of the scene. It's a little like Baz is biting his thumb at us, saying I know what you want and you're not gonna get it.

The reason the balcony exists is to give a barrier between our two lovers otherwise they would just have at each other and there would be no tension, no drama, and nowhere for the story to go. On the commentary of the film, Baz said that the water in the pool, was supposed to create that barrier. But, there's little resistance in a pool and after he said that I noticed that the two made-out and clung to each other for an awfully long time. That water didn't seem to be bothering them at all. Also, how would a pool prevent them from having sex? If reality dating shows have taught us anything, it's that once two people get into a body of water, all beats are off!

Once they're in the pool, the sound of the water and the actors' breathlessness at trying to keep afloat hinders what should always be the essential of any Shakespeare production, regardless of the setting: the text. In casting two young Americans who had virtually no prior experience with Shakespeare, they already had their work cut out for them. But he seems to be doing them a disservice by putting extra obstacles in their way. Although both game, sometimes the text does get away from the actors and the words sound a little jarring coming from such flat, nasally voices. Danes fairs better than DiCaprio in this scene and I love the flirtatious way she delivers the line, "Nor any other part belonging to a man."
Of the few scenes that Romeo and Juliet actually share together, this is the only one in the film that relies heavily on the text. Most of the others are more visual and I find their initial meeting at the Ball to be more romantic then this scene. But the two have chemistry and their youthful energy makes up for a lot. And to an entire generation, the balcony scene will always be associated with the two floating about in a pool.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Dame of Noir

There's a lingo in film noir that's distinctly all its own. But, if someone asked you the definition of femme fatale, the answer is quite simple: Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. She's a doll, a dame (and I'm not talkin' Judi Dench or that Downton broad–that's the straight skinny!), a regular tomato. She's the sort of babe that will make a man kill for her. At the time of its release, Stanwyck was the highest paid actress in Hollywood and she received her third (out of a career total of four) Best Actress Oscar nomination for the film. Her performance and the film as a whole –one the greatest in the film noir genre – is the subject of this week's edition of Hit Me With Your Best Shot courtesy of Nathaniel at The Film Experience.

Double Indemnity was based on a novella of the same name by James M. Cain (no stranger to this line of work as his previous novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, can attest. Apparently Hollywood liked him in the genre so much that they later turned his novel Mildred Pierce into noir as well–despite not being written that way in the book) and adapted for the screen by the director, Billy Wilder, and writer Raymond Chandler. Chandler created the Philip Marlowe detective (played by Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep) and, along with Cain and Dashiell Hammett, considered the founders of the detective/crime novel. It's thanks to these here wise heads that we got some of the most amazing dialogue to ever come out of an actor's trap. 

Take for instance this exchange at the first meeting between Stanwyck's Phyllis Dietrichson and Fred MacMurray (the guy that invented Flubber! I know! Who knew?) as the insurance salesman, Walter Neff. Neff has come to the Dietrichson house to have Mr. Dietrichson renew his insurance policy, but gets more than he bargained for...

Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by tomorrow evening about 8:30. He'll be in then.
Neff: Who?
Phyllis: My Husband. You were anxious to talk to him, weren't you?
Neff: Yeah, I was. But, I'm sorta getting over the idea, if you know what I mean. 
Phyllis: There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. 45 miles an hour.
Neff: How fast was I going, Officer?
Phyllis: I'd say around 90.
Neff: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Neff: Suppose it doesn't take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Neff: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.
Neff: That tears it...

Genius. It just comes so fast and furious. Their responses are right on top of each other, but at the same time you can tell they're still listening to each other. And even though it's full of smart little quips, the intelligence of the two actors and their characters still make the stylized exchange believable. But, it really was of its time and definitely a style. I'm sure Regular Joe's weren't able to come up with stuff this quickly in real life, but that's what elevates it. If only Hollywood screenwriters today would try to write dialogue this sharp. Although, I shudder to think what it would sound like coming out of the mouths of Justin Timberlake and Jessica Alba.

With such brilliant words and performances, the visuals have to fall flat than, right? Whatya talk! Didn't you hear that this here is Hit Me With Your Best Shot. And kablamo-here's mine.

 Phyllis, in an unhappy marriage, has convinced Neff to take out accident insurance on her husband without him knowing it. There's a double indemnity clause which gives the beneficiary twice the amount of insurance money if the death is accidental. Only, the two murder her husband and make it look like an accident so they can collect the money. But, the plot doesn't exactly go as smoothly as intended and is actually driving the two apart and the claim is being rejected. The two haven't seen each other in weeks (and Neff has been seeing her stepdaughter in the meantime), but finally meet at the grocery store where they first finalized the murder plot. Neff wants to give up, but Phyllis–Lady Macbeth in the canned food aisle–taking off her cat-eye sunglasses reveals her stone-cold stare, chillingly tells him how it's going down:

Phyllis: I loved you, Walter, and I hated him. But, I wasn't gonna do anything about it, not til I met
         you. You planned the whole thing. I only wanted him dead.
Neff: I'm the one who fixed it so we was dead. Is that what you're telling me?
Phyllis: And nobody's pulling out. We went into this together–We're coming out at the end together.
         It's straight down the line for both of us. Remember...

If only the other shoppers knew the messy bit of business going on in Aisle 3. 

The mundane setting is  wonderfully juxtaposed with the far-from-normal discussion they're having. As is Phyllis, herself, with her perfectly styled peroxide hair and designer glasses, amid the everyday food items. They go here to be inconspicuous, but who would ever buy that this woman has ever gone grocery shopping a day in her life? 

What I love about Stanwyck's performance in this shot is all the power she can convey with doing almost nothing. Typically the norm would have been for her to get melodramatic (one need only look to the actress playing her stepdaughter to see an example). But everything about her Phyllis is calculated, with an economy of movement . Every move she makes is for a purpose. She's not even going to blink (I actually don't think she blinks the whole film) because any good femme fatale knows that when you stare a man down, you can get him to do anything...