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CHICAGO (2002)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 17, 2015 by cdascher

chicagoI was in for an awesome surprise with this film! One of the actors featured in a fabulous musical scene was Mya Harrison – who I went to high school with. I didn’t realize Chicago was a musical when we first chose it as our next film to watch – but I was definitely pleased. The songs were numbers I had heard before, and the choreography and showmanship was fantastic. Having a familiar face pop up on the screen was just the icing on the cake!

 But I am getting a little ahead of myself. Chicago is the story of Roxie Hart, a young woman bored in her marriage who wants more than anything to be a performer on the stage. She gets wrapped up in a torrid love affair, thinking that the man she is involved with might be able to get her an in in show business. When he announces he is leaving her and that he never had any real connections to help her with her career, she loses it. They have a confrontation and he tosses her against the wall. She gets a gun from the drawer and shoots him, killing him. It is against this backdrop that our story begins.

Let’s see if I remember this right: this film is adapted from the Broadway musical that was in turn based on the play, itself inspired by real events and the basis for a contemporary silent film. Taking place in a stylized version of Jazz Age Chicago, it aspires to historical accuracy about as much as a typical Halloween costume. Thematically, though, the film nails a few things perfectly. The decade of the 1920s saw the birth of modern mass media and popular culture as we know them. It is the perfect setting to explore themes like trial by news media and the pursuit of fame as its own end, by whatever dubious means. Bear in mind that in the real Chicago of this time, crime boss Al Capone was actively courting media attention, contriving a public image. It was also a time of tremendous change for women in society, coming right after the first generation of the Women’s Movement.

It’s been pointed out that Chicago is the first musical to win Best Picture in 34 years. But I think it’s really more of a danceacal. The elements of the film are, in descending importance: dance, music, character, plot. In fact, the music I found a Continue reading

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ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2014 by cdascher

It’s no secret that I am not a huge fan of A. black and white films, B. old films, and C. films about war. I wasn’t thrilled going into the viewing of this feature. At one point, though, I made a comment to Mouse that summarizes how I feel about this film and it’s significance. I was looking at Paul, the protagonist, who we follow as he goes from a young German man in school to a soldier on the frontlines in World War I. He enlists at the urging of his esteemed professor and classmates in an effort to valiantly serve his country – but a few years in, he learns all too well the futility and brutality of war. In one scene, I looked at his countenance and said, “He could be a young man today – as he was cast, he could be a modern soldier.

That is why this film, based on the renown book with the same title, is relevant. It depicts the relationships formed between the enlisted with heart and sensitivity. While the frontlines as they once were don’t exist in the modern theater of war in the same way much of the time, the violence of artillery and bombs and grenades is as shocking and jarring now as it was then. We remain engaged in a war in Afghanistan that has needlessly claimed lives and is, for all intents and purposes, going nowhere. So while this film is old, and in black and white, and set in another country, it hardly feels dated.

This is indeed an old one, only the second Best Picture with sound and third winner overall. As such, I was particularly keen on seeing how the technical aspects of the film were handled. I find the transition to sound an interesting phenomenon. As I’ve understood the story, the introduction of sound necessitated a whole new batch of technology, the handling of which had a deleterious effect on other aspects of filmmaking, particularly cinematography. I’ve tended to imagine sound films of this era as primitive curiosities, more like stage plays with a camera rolling, with the settings in interiors or soundstages clearly recognizable as such. In this, All Quiet On The Western Front exceeded my expectations. Yes, it had the uneven, noisy sound and Continue reading

ON THE WATERFRONT (1954)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 25, 2013 by cdascher

On_the_Waterfront_posterIn 1999, I’d gotten around to seeing some of the movies nominated, so for once I actually watched the Academy Awards. That was the year, Elia Kazan received an honorary Oscar for his life’s work, presented by Martin Scorcese and Robert Deniro. But when the cameras cut to the audience during the ovation, they caught a few members not applauding, sitting with their arms folded.

The seeds for this reaction from the Hollywood community- a reaction not so much mixed, but downright polarized- were sown six decades prior, before most of that night’s attendees were even born. The nation was living through the Great Depression. A quarter of the workforce was out of a job and desperate poverty was becoming a new norm. Naturally, quite a few Americans searched for a solution, and many looked to the Soviet Union. With its emphasis on workers’ rights and an economy that was centrally planned rather than subject to the vagaries of the business cycle, it must have looked like an appealing alternative to the capitalist system that had failed so many. By the 1950’s, when the USSR and United States were direct antagonists and the cruelty and hypocrisy of the Soviet system were more well known, all but the most loyal comrades had long since moved on from the Communist Party. But then came the second red scare, when opportunistic politicians conducted investigations into supposed subversives. When they targeted the film industry, people were compelled to cooperate, including informing on others who had been involved in the Communist Party all those years ago. Some refused and had their careers destroyed. Kazan, on the other hand, was one of those who saved his career by “naming names”, an act some of his colleagues couldn’t forgive. And it was this rancor that ran so deeply that when Kazan stood onstage as an old man accepting his award, his esteemed body of work notwithstanding, some  of the people in the room sat silent rather than acknowledge him.

On The Waterfront is the second Best Picture we’ve seen directed by Kazan. Like Gentleman’s Agreement, it’s a socially conscious film, this time focussing on the lives of working class dockworkers. Terry Malloy is a longshoreman and washed up pro boxer whose  older brother is in the inner circle Johnny Friendly,  a union boss as ruthless as he is corrupt. The movie begins with Terry luring a fellow dockworker to be killed by Friendly’s goons, to prevent him from testifying to authorities. Terry, though, believed the man was merely going to be strongarmed into silence, not murdered in cold blood. His unease grows into guilt when he meets the dead man’s sister and takes an interest in her. Meanwhile, a sympathetic Catholic priest rallies the rank and file of the union, encouraging them to break the unwritten rule of silence that permeates their culture and allows their leadership to exploit them.

It’s shameful that this was the first Marlon Brando movie I have ever seen, especially because I consider myself a fan. A fan of what, then? The myth, the legend. Mouse and I had a conversation after watching this film about method acting, and I have to wonder where the line between Terry and Marlon should be drawn. Continue reading

OLIVER! (1968)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2013 by cdascher

Oliver!_(1968_movie_poster)England in the early Victorian Era! Crushing urban poverty! Child abuse! Crime! Singing! Dancing! Oliver! A musical about 1830s England, or as Ted Cruz calls it, “Utopia”.

I like musicals. Well, not every one, but there definitely is something about the form that intrigues me. Maybe I’m just a sucker for a catchy song. But more than that, there’s just something about the uniquely stylized way of telling the story. How curious, when one stops to think, is a situation where individuals and groups burst into song to express their circumstances and conflicts, how divorced from the real world. Musical theater is one thing- when I watch someone on stage acting out a story, it’s expected that real life is on hold and my imagination will have to carry some of the weight. But then there is the movie musical. This is a funny thing. When so much of classical cinema has been about obscuring the artifice of film, here is a movie that takes a paradoxical approach. One on hand, it creates a fictional world that resembles the real world as much as possible. Then it has the characters take the utterly bizarre action of spontaneously singing, with each other and to each other. And so it becomes a case study of how convention defines perception. Movie musicals are incredibly weird when you stop to think about it- which no one does because stories have been put to film this way for as long as there has been sound, and for long before that on the stage.

One of the really weird things about a lot of musicals is you sometimes know the songs without having the slightest idea HOW you know the songs. The second we turned this film on, I realized that was the case for me. I’d not seen it before – I hadn’t even read the book – and yet I knew these tunes, somehow. And now, a few days after seeing the film, I find myself singing them still. I’m not sure if that is a good thing – I know if we had watched CATS, Mouse probably would not think it was a good thing (I would though – I love that Rum Tum Tugger).

The biggest takeaway I had from this film was how much I preferred the Artful Dodger, our pickpocketing youngster cameo, to our purported hero Oliver. Oliver seemed unabashedly pitiful Continue reading

GANDHI (1982)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 23, 2013 by cdascher

Gandhi-posterOur timing for watching this film was really perfect for me. We wrapped the viewing up at the same time as I was going to Washington, DC for the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, an event commemorating Martin Luther King, Junior’s historic civil rights speech. This was also my nephew’s first march. On the way down in the metro my mom, my nephew and I all talked about non-violence – and it was impossible not to bring up the man on whose life this film is based.

The film is ambitious, spanning from 1893 when Gandhi is thrown off a whites-only train in South Africa to his assassination and funeral in 1948. Ben Kingsley, fantastic in the role of Gandhi, exudes calm, conviction and fortitude – you can’t imagine the film with anyone else. Clocking in at over three hours, it definitely took us several slogs to get through and if the miniseries format had been an available delivery mechanism at the time, that might have been preferable.

On the other hand, this movie is epic – perhaps a miniseries would have robbed it of some of its cinematic breadth. It had been Director Richard Attenborough’s dream project, and he had failed twice before trying to make a film about the life of the lauded historical figure and civil rights luminary. In the end, Gandhi won 8 Academy Awards, was nominated for 3 more, and received wide critical acclaim. It’s also of note that according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the funeral scene in this film used the most extras of any film in history – 300,000.

Long, yes, but a beautiful film about the life of a fascinating man. Gandhi reminded me a bit of Lawrence of Arabia. Both are historical epics about single individuals, opening with the subject’s death, then flashing back to a pivotal moment in his life to begin the story. Both movies tell the tale of a figure who played a role in the story of British colonialism, each in his own way. But whereas T. E. Lawrence is known for leading a brutal guerrilla war, Continue reading

THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (1952)

Posted in Reviews, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2013 by cdascher

ImageThe Greatest Show On Earth? That’s a pretty bold move, giving your movie a name like that. Can it deliver? I know everyone has been waiting expectantly. Thanks for hanging in there. We started the movie, but had to take an intermission that lasted a month while both Katy and I moved to a new house.

The titular show is the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the story’s setting. Brad Braden is the business-minded circus manager who brings hires trapeze artist The Great Sebastian as the star performer. This doesn’t sit well with his girlfriend Holly, also a trapeze artist. Sebastian is a good natured narcissist and womanizer and a love triangle develops between the three. Although Holly and Sebastian are developing feelings for each other, the clash of their egos generates an intense rivalry in the circus rings. Meanwhile, Jimmy Stewart is hanging around as Buttons, a clown who never takes off his makeup and darts his eyes around when asked about his past. And there are some hoods running crooked games on the midway and they try to destroy the circus. And someone falls off their trapeze. And other disasters happen. And the lions get out of their cage. A lot of things happen, the movie was two and a half hours long.

First off, I have to acknowledge that we’ve had our own plot giveaway here – it is true that Mouse and I have entered into cohabitation. Perhaps you have not known until now that your bloggers were romantically entangled – but the story arc is now in Red Carpet Roulette for all Continue reading

GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT (1947)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 19, 2013 by cdascher

Gentleman's_Agreement_(1947_movie_poster)

I had no preconceived notions about this particular film, except the day before we watched it my mother told me it was her all-time favorite movie. That did pique my interest. My mom is a pretty amazing woman. She was heavily involved in civil rights organizing from age 12 on, and in Little Rock, Arkansas she sat in at a segregated cafe at the counter, insisted she was one eighth black and demanded service. She was also heavily involved in anti-war organizing during Vietnam. I was very influenced politically by this woman, who also was part of the historic Milgram experiment, and was in the small minority of brave people who did not inflict any harm on others despite orders to do so. Needless to say, I wanted to see her favorite movie. And I can understand why this was it.

The premise of the film is that widower journalist Philip Schuyler Greene, new at a New York City magazine, is assigned to write an exposé on anti-semitism in America. To do so, he assumes the identity of a Jewish man. The only people wise to his true identity are his immediate family, his editor, and his editor’s divorced niece Kathy, with whom he begins a serious romantic relationship. The people around Phil are supportive of him, or at least profess to be. Not surprisingly, he encounters some instances of outright bigotry. Even more infuriating, he finds prejudiced attitudes internalized in otherwise decent people. He finds himself in conflict with Kathy repeatedly. While she abhors anti-semitism, she finds herself unable to defy the bigotry of her peers. This conflict reaches an acute stage after Phil’s lifelong friend Dave Goldman enters the story. Dave is an Army officer and engineer, preparing to return to civilian life. His search for employment is complicated by difficulty finding housing for himself and his family, a problem seemingly easy to solve since Kathy has an unused cottage upstate she could rent to Dave. Yet she does not, as it is in an “exclusive” community where the people observe unwritten rules against allowing in Jews. She has no hatred of Dave or his ethnicity. She just can’t bring herself to step outside the standards of her community.

This isn’t the first film to deal one way or another with prejudice or anti-semitism, but there is something forward looking in how the theme is presented here. The conflict isn’t centered around ranting bigots or violent mobs. It focuses instead on the unwritten rules and assumptions of society that allow one person to advance in life but quietly turn another away based on something as arbitrary as one surname or another. It is about the people who are sincere when they say they hate prejudice. Just not as much as they hate being the one who is rocking the boat. It’s a point worth making, but an uncomfortable one as well, because we’ve all been this person at some point in our lives.

As much as I appreciate this nuanced manner in which the film discusses the topic, the quality of dialogue doesn’t match. It seems like in exploring this controversial Continue reading