Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: Memphis Belle: A Story Of A Flying Fortress (1943)

A favorite movegoing memory came in the winter of 1990 when a friend wanted to go see the box office bonanza "Home Alone" and enlisted me to go along. Honestly, I wasn't all that excited to see "Home Alone", but I loved going to the movie theater, and so why not? Yet I was delighted, even though I was forced to hide that delight, when we arrived to find "Home Alone" sold out. With limited alternatives, we chose "Memphis Belle", which I actually was excited to see. I loved the whole damn thing to pieces, right down to the gloriously cornball moment when Eric Stoltz stands up in front of his B-17 brothers and recites Yeats. "I know that I shall meet my fate / Somewhere among the clouds above." Sigh.

Of course, that "Memphis Belle" took its story (and stretched the heck out of it) from the real Memphis Belle, and the real Memphis Belle was chronicled in William Wyler's in-the-midst-of-WWII American propaganda documentary "Memphis Belle: A Story Of A Flying Fortress." Reading Mark Harris's wonderful "Five Came Back", which tells the story of American film directors who enlisted in the glorious cause to make movies in the name of the war effort, it shamed me to realize I had never watched Wyler's version. As Harris so thrillingly weaves it, Wyler went right up in the Belle with all the boys, even if daylight bombing was an incredibly risky concept, to garner his footage.

The footage is gripping and the stylistic touches only enhance the footage, so much that the 41 minutes (don't do it, Nick!!!) fly by. The film opens with idyllic shots of the English countryside before quickly pivoting to show that countryside overrun with ginormous B-17 bombers as the narrator, Eugene Kern, his voice reminiscent of a more schoolmasterish Orson Welles, making the word "bombers" as melifluous as it is portentous, intones about how England has become an "aircraft carrier", and how this is a new kind of war front. "THIS," and he truly bits with a deep baritone befitting all-caps, "is an air front," and this phrase is repeated at least twice more throughout.

Though Wyler incorporated footage of several different air runs, not that my novice eyes could ever tell, he has a convenient device around which he can sculpt a narrative - that is, the Memphis Belle is making its 25th bombing run into enemy territory. If it survives, its entire crew gets to go home. And so the film, in a wonderful bit of exposition madness imposed over a massive map, lays out the mission to Wilhelmshafen, Germany in precise detail. We meet the men of the Memphis Belle, though barely, and it really doesn't matter, because even the briefest detail when the real-life stakes are clearly so high resonates with thundering grandeur. "Tail gunner," Kern recites, "Sgt. John Quinlan of Yonkers, New York. Clerked for a carpet company but he quit December 8, 1941."

Can you follow all that?
The sequences set aboard the Belle are pulverizing, both in their moments of peace, such as the vapor trails streaking the sky like ones I'd see in my Iowa backyard on crisp fall nights, and in their moments of terror, like a fellow bomber that falls away as we watch parachutes of the crew members deploy. What becomes of these men we never know, and I thought of Harry Lime referring to the humans below as "dots", and how these nameless soldiers falling through the sky looked like anything but dots. Machine guns shake on screen and flak dots the skies, and at one point a burst of flak even drifts directly toward the camera, as if it might swallow us whole.

In "Five Came Back" Harris documents how Wyler had originally intended an ending decidedly grave in tone, only to be overrided by The War Department since, after all, the film's primary motive was to be used as propaganda wrapped in the Stars & Stripes. And so, the Memphis Belle makes it back safe, everyone smiles, and they get to meet the Queen. Every war is well that ends well. These concluding passages, however, stand in stark contrast to the preceding material, to the somber voice modulation of Kern who, I swear, is trying his damndest to scare us off from ever wanting to bomb anyone.

I remember when "Memphis Belle" rousingly wrapped up that I was filled with a rush of wartime evangelism, because I was 13 and I was naive and I assumed that going to war must be just like this movie. It must mean I'll pack up my lucky charm and my notebook of poetry and Harry Connick Jr. will sing "Danny Boy" and whimsy will fill the airfield. That seems so much more propagandistic than watching the B-17's launch in Wyler's documentary and listening to Kern declare "in a few hours when they come back...(pause)...IF they come back." Imagine going to enlist with that rattling around in your head.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Bill Murray Sings (More) Bob Dylan

In the latest Bill Murray cinematic venture, "St. Vincent", review to come (eventually), in which he stars as your traditional drunken lout who finds redemption and so on and so forth, Murray simply sits in a lawn char over the closing credits while listening to Bob Dylan's "Shelter From The Storm" on an old-school Walkman, singing along. It's wonderful. And it, as it had to, got me to thinking about what other Bill Murray movie characters could sing along to Bob Dylan songs.

7 More Bob Dylan Songs Bill Murray Could Sing

The Royal Tenenbaums - Dignity. Well, if there is one thing for which poor Raleigh St. Clair is searching... "Chilly wind sharp as a razor blade / House on fire, debts unpaid / Gonna stand at the window, gonna ask the maid / Have you seen dignity?"

Rushmore - One Too Many Mornings. Imagine Herman Blume by the pool in his Budweiser boxer shorts drinking coffee with bourbon and smoking a cigarette and singing along. "And I'm one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind."

Ghostbusters - I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Have Never Met). The mere mental image of Peter Venkman crooning this to a mortified Dana Barrett..... "I can't understand, she let go of my hand / And left me here facing the wall / I'd sure like to know, why she did go / But I can't get close to her at all."

Lost In Translation - From A Buick 6. An alternative karaoke moment in which Bob Harris sings the blues. "Well if I go down dyin' you know she's bound to put a blanket on my bed."

Wild Things - A Simple Twist Of Fate. Here's what I'm thinking - during the closing credits when the movie keeps flashing back to show us what REALLY happened, we see Ken Bowden putting on the neck brace, getting ready for court, singing this song. "He woke up, the room was bare, he didn't see her anywhere."

Broken Flowers - Not Dark Yet. Here I'm picturing a sort of "Magnolia"-ish moment in which Murray's Don Johnston forlornly sits on his sofa and sings this to the camera. "There's not even room enough to be anywhere / It's not dark yet but it's gettin' there."

What About Bob? - Subterranean Homesick Blues. This one is because I love the thought of Bob Wiley re-creating Bob Dylan's video. "Ah, get born, keep warm, short pants, romance, learn to dance / Get dressed, get blessed, try to be a success."

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

CIFF Review: 1001 Grams

"1001 Grams" centers around the Norwegian national kilo which is kept under scrupulous security at the nation's institute for weights and measures, a premise that blatantly belies its thematic intention to explore the balance a person tries to maintain in his or her life. Of course, as "Michael Clayton's" Karen Crowder once so ominously noted, that balance is "a shifting balance", one that is not so much a struggle to maintain as to find.

A film treating a kilogram with the reverency of "original, not rereleased - underlined - Frank Zappa albums" is clearly intended as an affair of the quirky, and director Bent Hamer gleefully obliges. He layers his films with smart cars and bird songs and cutesy shots like a gaggle of scientists walking single-file in the rain with matching umbrellas. Counteracting this quiet if insistent vibe of cutsiness, however, is matter-of-fact Marie (Ane Dahl Torp). An early shot finds her in a queen-sized bed but all wrapped up in a comforter and blanket straddling only one side, leaving the other empty. This is because, as we learn, her husband has left her. Yet more than that this bit of evidential characterization reveals her as someone so rigidly precise that if a portion of her mattress is rendered unoccupied, she will take painstaking care to ensure it remains spotless.

Her Nordic blonde hair often pulled back in tight ponytails, her demeanor rarely betraying emotion, Marie easily could have devolved into a brittle ice queen. But Dahl's performance matches the character's precision, her general air in tune with a home of sleek living room furniture that she ignores to sit on a bench along the wall, as if the arrangement is so faultless she cannot dare disturb its symmetry. Of course, her life balance, as it must be, is shifted when her father passes away. And seeing as how he was the institute's representative to squire Norway's kilo to the annual conference in Paris where it is inspected to ensure it has retained its official condition, the job is passed from father to daughter.

Naturally transporation of the kilo goes awry, further symbolizing an already symbolic descent into weightlessness of the soul, and it will all be rectified by The Frenchman In The Jaunty Hat, the male counterpart to The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (er, strike that!). She takes down her hair, literally, in his presence, as his birdsong-listening and tree-planting ways cause her to embrace the vitality of life. And all of this, to be honest, might be a tad unbearable if Torp didn't sell it by not really selling it at all - by which I mean she convincingly crafts a closed-off individual, one who isn't lurching so much as listing. If the quirky pieces of plot threaten to throw the scale out of whack, it is Torp who keeps it properly weighted.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

CIFF Review: August Winds

Prior to my showing of "August Winds" at the Chicago Film Festival, its lead actress, Dandara de Morais, was introduced and made mention of it being not only her first film but the first non-documentary film of its director, Gabriel Mascaro. Even if she had not offered this informative tidbit, it would have been easy to surmise as the film is clearly less concerned with narrative than National Geographic-ism. Set in the Alagoas of Brazil, Mascaro effortlessly captures the sensation of a specific place on camera, of thunderstorms gathering on the precipice of the Pacific, occasionally allowing for cascades of rain to blot out the camera, as if we're watching in a poncho under a useless awning, and reveling repeatedly in towering palm fronds that its characters sometimes scale.

But then, it's not merely a travel brochure on celluloid. Those palm fronds are routinely the backdrop for hard labor, busting up coconuts and then hauling them on a tractor trailor, and with those rains come the tide and the wind, and with the wind comes a kindly mystery man (Mascaro) recording the wind for reasons that don't much exist beyond "Need More Story Here". He conveniently swoops in simply to wash up onshore not along after, dead. This is where the story, as it were, finds its (miniature trickle of coconut) juice in Jeison (Geova Manoel dos Santos) and Shirley (de Morais) attempting to care for the deceased when no one else appears much interested.

Many of Marasco's compositions evoke the haunting and beatific passages that open another Malick movie, "A Thin Red Line." But whereas that establishing passage documented Jim Caviezel's Pvt. Witt seeming to find a sort of mystical Eden, the prevalent air currents of "August Winds" would seem to find something more foreboding. At one point Jeison talks of how the rocks in the ocean have "lungs", suggesting they are ineffably alive, and which distinctly alludes to the overriding notion of nature reclaiming this rock.

Yet the film, in spite of its many shots showing the tide inching closer and closer, bit by bit, resists this notion. Its repeatedly decadent wide open frames of nature never come across terrifying, even when they are supposed to, only as reminders of its resplendence. And even if the wind recorder's dead body is shown without compromise, it is treated with a noticeable absence of pity, several local kids approaching it with whirling noisemakers as Jeison cleans it, their way of celebrating the life he must have led. We barely know him but we assume he must have gone out like Bodhi, dying doing what he loved, consumed by his meteorological environment.

Monday, October 20, 2014

CIFF Review: The Fool

In the frigid darkness of a Russian Night, Dima (Artem Bystrov), sort of a Eurasian version of Joe the Plumber, strikes out down the sidewalk while a pop anthem on the soundtrack rises, its rhythm matching the urgency of his every stride. He is not a man functioning on account of high-falutin' ideals but from a place of mere human decency, simply wanting to save the 800 souls unwittingly resting inside a decrepit tenement building tottering on the verge of collapse. It is a hero's moment but Dima, the film argues and betrays with its title, is not a hero. As the camera pans alongside him it eventually comes to a standstill with a red traffic light in the foreground of the frame. It's telling Dima to stop, of course. But he doesn't stop. He won't stop. He's a fool.

The chief of a maintenance crew in a bleak, unnamed Russian town, he is called to a housing complex on account of a burst bathroom pipe only to find the entire edifice fissuring from the ground to the top floor. Upon doing some quick calculations he reasons it has roughly 24 hours before it splits apart and crumbles - perhaps a narrative stretch but sometimes fierce allegories require a stretch - and so like the RMS Titanic functioning as a 46,000 ton metaphor for Victorian Society about to crack apart and go under, this building of mis-managed apathy and greed at the center of director Yuri Bykov's "The Fool" comes to resemble and, in turn, repudiate a society seemingly content to let anyone not on the top rung founder.

Dima's wife (Darya Moroz), and his mother and father who live with them, urge him to turn his back on the problem, arguing that to stir up shit will only effect a target on his back. He stirs up shit anyway - literally, in fact, by barging into the birthday celebration of the town's mayor and money-grubbing power-broker, Nina (Nataliya Surkova).

As Nina takes the stage to make a speech, Dima is glimpsed periodically in the background, appearing woefully out of place in his sweater and stocking cap, like he's time-traveling extra at an "Anna Karenina"-esque soiree. The contrast between these pompous, wine-swilling, back-patting chieftains and the poverty-stricken and hardscrabble addicts for whom Dima brazenly goes to bat would be crudely broad if it didn't ring with so much head-shaking truth.

Finally, upon being explained the situation, they adjourn to a conference room and debate what to do, only to realize their rampant mis-direction of funds that could have aided the dwelling's repair has left them with virtually no options. How do they evacuate 800 people when there is no place to put them? What happens when they are forced to explain themselves to higher-ups in the midst of the evacuation? This sequence, and ensuing ones like it, are filled with none-too-subtle, perhaps too much so, explaining and politicking to the point that one characer literally admonishes out loud their "beauracratic" bellyaching. It also betrays how the backstory and motivations of the rich get more face time than the those of the poor, but maybe that's intended. Who in Putin's Russia gets more face time than the rich and powerful? The poor's motivation is meaningless and hardly existent. The old man playing cards actively roots for a collapse.

In this elongated middle act, Dima also appropriately kind of becomes lost amidst the movers and shakers, as his attitude bears no significance to the choices being made by those who really run the show. He is at their mercy, as everyone is, and yet when he makes his inevitable choice in the impassioned conclusion to take a stand, Bykov takes care to illustrate his protagonist's ethics as being both righteous and irresponsible, clinging to humanity even as he surrenders his soul.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: Angels in the Outfield (1951)

Oh, I've done it. Sure, I've done it. My beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers are in a crucial spot and I will, often without even realizing it, fold my hands. And even if I'm not technically saying a prayer, well, I'm still praying. Yes, yes, yes. For the love of......obviously. I've heard it before. God, they'll tell you, doesn't have time to care about sports. That painfully played out sentiment, however, seems to miss the idea - that those same people will often spout off to you - of prayer not so much as communication with God (whomever you think God to be) as a means of comfort. I don't expect God to answer in the middle of a Nebraska game when I pray. That's insanity! If He did, Terrence Nunn would have caught that ball. Nebraska games arouse emotional agony within me, and so I pray to assuage that agony, and in that assaugement, God or no God, I find a sense

This lengthy wind-up then functions as a way to suggest the inherent danger in the premise of Clarence Brown's 1951's celestially-inclined baseball opus "Angels in the Outfield". Here's a film suggesting that if you do pray to God in regards to your favorite sports team that He might just assign a few angels as athletic emissaries to assist in the cause. Perhaps this is why it was, according to TCM, the favorite film of one President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Perhaps he sat in the Oval Office and conversed with charitable, if busy, attendants of God. Perhaps he imagined invisible angels - like the film - helping to manipulate the goings-on in the Sentate Chamber, helping to push through bills he supported. Do we have an interstate system because of angels?!

If you, like me, came of age in the 90's, chances are you remember the 1994 remake more than the original, even if you haven't seen either one. That "Angels in the Outfield", however, updated the baseball team in question from the Pittsburgh Pirates to the then California Angels (because subtlety) and made it so the audience could actually see the angels (because subtlety) and then turned those angels into comical plot devices. It also chose tell its story primarily from the viewpoint of a young foster child (a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who prays for his favorite father's team to win the pennant because he naively sees it as his one hope to be re-united with his pops.

The original focuses on the viewpoint of Pirates' manager Guffy McGovern (Paul Douglas), whose team is almost as bad as it was in the Aughts. This immense awfulness causes him to be a mean old son of a bitch, sort of a Leo Durocher, a man whose own opinion on the Supreme Being boiled down to His watching over drunks and third basemen. Ol' Guffy seems about the same - until, that is, an angel (voiced by James Whitmore) from on high begins speaking to him, explaining that his spectacularly terrible team has been receiving an inordinate number of prayers to get better and now he's been ordered by You-Know-Who to aid the cause.

These prayers, it turns out, are being offered by a precocious orphan, Bridget (Donna Corcoran), who simply feels bad for the Pirates. And as it turns out she can actually see the angels on the field of play, which renders her as one heck of a story for burgeoning sportswriter Jennifer Paige (Janet Leigh). That's a nifty little subplot in "Angels in the Outfield", the typically tempestuous relationship between coaches and sportswriters. Yet here the coach and sportswriter eventually becomes allies, and Jennifer helps Guffy to find inner peace as much as the fellas with harps and wings. Together they form the obligatory ersatz family with Bridget as she and Guffy bond over their similarly unbelievable experience.

That experience leads to an improbable if wonderful "Miracle on 34th St."-ish subplot in which Guffy is essentially put on trial before the commissioner of baseball (Lewis Stone) since he might be off his rocker and unfit for duty by claiming to be in contact with celestial beings. (I couldn't stop imagining the extravagant PR travesty that would unfold should Roger Goddell attempt to chair the same inquisition.) In the end, however, "Angels in the Outfield" is not particularly interested in making others believe in God's messengers.

In the climactic winner-takes-the-pennant contest, the angels leave the Pirates and Guffy on their own because Guffy has broken the rules established by his heaven-sent guardians when he momentarily returns to his rubish ways. This puts the onus on the Pirates themselves, and on the washed-up pitcher Saul (Bruce Bennett). Initially, he does well. Then, he struggles. The fans boo, even the assistant coach begs his manager to take him out, but Guffy sticks with him. He's found faith, within himself and in those surrounding him.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Real Slugs of Pulp Fiction

"Pulp Fiction" was released twenty years ago this month. I think this means I'm supposed to post some sort of comprehensive retrospective breaking down, in order, its genesis, its violence, its structure, its influence and its legacy. I think I'm supposed to talk about how its existence as postmodern pastiche correlates directly to its moral emptiness and how that moral emptiness coorelates directly to the 666 briefcase which likely (?) contains Marsellus Wallace's soul and how Marsellus Wallace's soul correlates directly to the film's circular structure which correlates directly to the film's Vanilla Coke™-infused nostalgia trip which, I think, brings me back to it being a postmodern pastiche. But there is something each rehash of the rehash of the rehash of the rehash of the rehash, etc., doesn't mention. I'm talking, of course, about Sammy the Slug.

"The Banana Slug, a bright yellow, slimy, shell-less mollusk commonly found on the redwood forest floor," says the UC Santa Cruz web site, "was the unofficial mascot for UC Santa Cruz coed teams since the university's early years. The students' embrace of such a lowly creature was their response to the fierce athletic competition fostered at most American universities." Why Q.T. chose to give an onscreen shout-out to the Banana Slug seems to boil down to an ex-girlfriend, as Andrea Pyka of City On A Hill Press reported eight years ago. Or maybe Tarantino just likes slugs like he likes Uma Thurman's feet. 

Whatever the case may be, the UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs Women's Volleyball team, currently 11-5, takes on Redlands tonight, and we here at Cinema Romantico would like to wish them the best.

(What was this post about?)