August 24, 2006

Planes, Trains and Automobiles - revisited

This is another one of those movies that I've lost track of the number of times I've watched. But over the years, yes, I've watch Planes, Trains and Automobiles a lot. The performances are great, the pacing is bang on and it never, ever, loses its focus. Yes, it's a pretty simple story but that's where a lot of its power comes from.

Anyway ... I watched it again last night. So I decided to post this, a review I threw together a few years ago:

What a joy it is to watch a movie you had forgotten about and weren't expecting a lot from, to discover it is nothing less than wonderful. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is an absolute gem of a movie. Perhaps one of the reasons it succeeds so well is because it is so simple and maintains its focus.

Steve Martin (Neal) is heading home to Chicago for Thanksgiving. So is John Candy (Del). They are travellers with personalities at opposite ends: Neal is a prim and proper, an anal businessman, while Del is a talkative, somewhat crass low-rent guy who sells shower curtain rings. Circumstances, increasingly ludicrous yet believable, keep throwing them together. Martin's character feels nothing but irritation about his situation and Candy's character while Candy's Del is oblivious - he just goes with the flow. Together, they take planes, trains, cars, trucks and so on as they try to get home.

It's a variation of the buddy, road-movie type of film. But I think it shows why these kinds of movies are so popular when they're well done. It is all about the characters and their relationship. In this case, Steve Martin and John Candy are a perfect pairing. I've always liked Martin best when he plays more of a straight character. In this film, he plays straight though this doesn't mean he's not comedic. On the contrary, he is more comedic because of this. Everything happens to him and his reactions are priceless.

Candy, on the other hand, has never been more loveably obnoxious. He's the boob, the stooge. Always well-intentioned, almost everything he does causes disaster for Martin's Neal. It's very much a Laurel and Hardy or Martin and Lewis kind of combination that they play. A lot of the humour is slapstick - visual - and it works well. While many comedies are amusing, I find I don't often laugh as I watch them, though I may smile. In this movie, I laughed. And that is the litmus test for comedy.

The film, however, doesn't work just because of its comedy. And the comedy doesn't work in a vacuum. The characters created by writer-director John Hughes' script, and brought to life by Martin and Candy, are what allow everything to play out successfully. It's in the developing relationship, and the degree of depth the actors give their characters, that guides the movie forward.

The movie isn't just about getting laughs; it has a theme which is the value of home and relationships. Thematically, it's similar to It's A Wonderful Life. It's not particularly profound; it's rather simple. But again, this simplicity is part of what allows the film to work and also part of its appeal. It's accessible and understandable to pretty much everyone. The key in making a movie such as this is avoiding a saccharine quality. This movie, while it may have a wisp of that, doesn't succumb and this gives it credibility. The humour, too, takes the edge off any hint of sappiness.

I think, too, there's something worth an essay or two in the fact that movies like Planes, Trains and Automobiles (and many Capra films like It's A Wonderful Life) can be and are watched over and over again. Why is something so simple so compelling? Why do other, more apparently profound films, hard to view more than once without becoming bored, while films like this can be seen again and again? As with children when they want to hear the same story over and over, certain stories, certain themes, address something we need to have repeated for one reason or another. I think it probably has something to do with truth - not the truth of tangible reality, but some truth or truths about us, people, and our relationships with one another.

This reads a bit lofty for a review of a good, simple film that makes us laugh, so let me quickly move on to the DVD ...

If you haven't seen Planes, Trains and Automobiles, or if it has been a while since you've seen it, this one is highly recommended. It's what a comedy should be - funny. In fact the only reservation I have about the movie, the only thing I could find fault with, is the music. It sets the film far too firmly in the 1980's. If the music were removed, the film is timeless. But don't worry - the music isn't bad. Just anachronistic. And it doesn't interfere with the enjoyment of the film. (But let me add - I loved the carousel sounding rendition of the Red River Valley song.)

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August 22, 2006

12 movies I watch over and over

I decided, for whatever it's worth, to make a list of movies I watched over and over. These aren't necessarily my favourites, though some are, and it doesn't mean I think they are necessarily the greatest films ever made. But these definitely are movies I watch repeatedly.

Not sure what it says about me, but here they are:

1. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
2. The Night of the Iguana (1964)
3. My Man Godfrey (1936)
4. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
5. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
6. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
7. The Awful Truth (1937)
8. The Terminal (2004)
9. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
10. Ikiru (1950)
11. A Love Song for Bobby Long (2004)
12. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

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August 20, 2006

Separate Tables - an acquired taste?

This feels like a very British film although, as director Delbert Mann points out in his commentary, Separate Tables (1958) is directed by an American (Delbert Mann), has stars like Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth and Rod Taylor, was shot entirely on a set – probably in Calfornia, though I don’t recall now.

Be that as it may, it feels very British because it also stars Deborah Kerr, David Niven, and Wendy Hiller, not to mention numerous other British actors in supporting roles. The set is also extremely well done as the Beauregard Hotel, a seaside hotel in Bournemouth, England.

Having a look online at the few scant reviews of this movie that are out there it’s fascinating to see their polarization. People either love this movie or really hate it. Personally, having seen the film three or four times now, I’d be with the former group.

It’s a bit discouraging seeing the comments by those who hate the film. The complaint is essentially that it’s boring and the reason for that is the characters aren’t interesting. They’re dull losers.

Losers may be a bit strong, but I do understand where that comment is coming from. Yet that’s exactly why I like this film. This is a story about lonely people. As one character mentions at one point, the people in the hotel have removed themselves from the world. They are isolates – it’s in their nature. (That last is the character’s view – I’m not sure I’d agree with that.)

There are two essential storylines in the film (based on two one-act plays by screenwriter Terrence Rattigan, who also wrote the play, and John Gay). One has to do with the stormy relationship between Hayworth and Lancaster – he’s hidden himself at the hotel, one of their oldest permanent guests, from his previous life, which was as the husband of Hayworth’s character, Ann Shankland. (That role was originally going to be played by Vivien Leigh but apparently she dropped out when her then husband Laurence Olivier decided not to direct the movie.)

The other storyline, and the one that bookends the film, concerns David Niven’s character, Major Angus Pollock, and Deborah Kerr’s character, Sibyl.

Niven is a blowhard of sorts, though not an obnoxious one – just a bit pathetic. As it turns out, almost everything he says is a lie about himself and his position in the world. He puffs himself up with tales of his days in the army.

Sibyl is a meek, frightened girl dominated by her mother. She’s repressed in almost every way a person can be repressed. And she’s credulous. She believes everything the Major says.

Their crisis occurs when the Major’s lies are revealed in, for the time and place, a shocking way. Although he tries to cover it up, the hotel’s guests discover he’s been arrested and has pleaded guilty to charges of indecent behavior. In our current day terms, he’s revealed as a kind of sexual pervert, although his actions are incredibly tame by today’s standards. He’s simply a sad, pathetic man – which is how he is revealed.

There is a wonderful scene where Niven as the Major explains to Sibyl (Kerr) that in many ways they are two of a kind – both are afraid of life, relationships, sex. Sibyl is appalled at the idea but you can see how she recognizes the truth in what he says.

It’s this aspect of the film I find compelling. It’s a study of loneliness, and a kind of exploration of it. Although the Major’s “indecency” is extremely tame for today, by 1958 standards I suppose you could call it shocking. This aspect is not really important, however. What’s important is how it illustrates how human need, not addressed, comes out in other ways, in this case the Major’s behavior which he says he doesn’t understand himself. But it’s clear that, to a large extent, it’s because, as he puts it, he’s “afraid of women.” He’s lonely, unable to interact in terms of the usual ways of people so, again as he puts it, he can only approach women “in the dark.”

He and Sibyl, however, have connected not in any sexual kind of way but in the sense they each recognize a kindred spirit. Both are afraid. Each finds a kind of solace in the other and a kind of freedom from their debilitating limitation.

However, this makes for a movie that is character study with lots of dialogue and no fight sequences, car chases or explosions. You have to find people interesting to find this movie interesting. But if you do, this is a wonderful film. In fact, I kind of like its quieter, gentler pace.

The title, Separate Tables, is also interesting in that it suggests, pretty clearly, that all of these people are separated, isolated. Yet, as we see (especially in the closing scene), the appearance of separation is, to some extent, just that - appearance. As one character (Lancaster's, I think) mentions, they communicate across the distance between them, between the tables, because, though separated, they are close enough for that. As isolated as we may think we are, we're never completely alone.

It may be an acquired taste, but if it’s to yours I think, like me, you’ll find Separate Tables an extremely rewarding movie.

Stars? I give it 3 1/2 out of 4.

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August 15, 2006

The Searchers looking better than good

I’ve been making my way through all those John Ford-John Wayne movies that finally came (see posts below). I’ve also received my copy of Stagecoach – Special Edition (and watched it last night). So my head’s pretty full of Ford imagery and Wayne’s voice.

But let’s start with The Searchers, possibly the best of the lot. In this set, I have Ultimate Edition. Let’s just say there are a lot of features, all pretty good (some much better than good), and of course the film.

I wrote about the previous DVD a few years ago and, while I don’t usually comment on the video qualities (not my strong suit), in that case I did, saying, “For such a great film, it's unforunate the DVD is less than spectacular. While not poor, it falls far short. There are scratches etc. throughout. The sound is also a bit lame, though not unbearably so.”

Well, this new edition corrects all that. It looks and sounds great. I loved it.

Below, I’m putting in my review from a few years ago. I find it interesting because I don’t necessarily agree with all I have to say in it now. Perhaps it has more to do with emphasis. I’d like to watch the movie again and, one day soon I hope, write a new review, if only to collect a few new observations and update some of my previous thoughts.

For now, however, here’s the old one, flaws and all:

The Searchers – earlier review

In the list of great westerns, The Searchers ranks very high. It's one of the great movies, period. But it's a troubling one, too. While cinematically brilliant with its stunning photography of Monument Valley and now famous shots, it's the story of a racist, a man filled with hate.

John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, an ex-Confederate soldier who returns home several years after the war has ended and who, while no longer fighting, stubbornly asserts that while others may have surrendered, he never did.

Where he has been or what he has been doing for the past few years is never explained. He is left mysterious to us and in a dark way. We see he's a man with a grudge. There's an anger in him that he contains, though just barely. We also see traces of his racism and innate hate in his attitude toward the informally adopted son of his brother's family, Martin played by Jeffrey Hunter. Martin is one-eighth Indian, and this is the reason Ethan treats him poorly.

There is then a Comanche raid on his brother's home. The family is killed except the two daughters, who are taken. Later, one of the daughters is killed and there is only the youngest daughter, Debbie, left alive. She is still with the Indian raiding party. (The older Debbie is played by Natalie Wood; the younger Debbie by her sister Lana Wood.)

Ethan is now consumed with his hate for Indians as he and Martin set off to find Debbie. Martin's reasons for going are twofold: he wants to get Debbie back but also wants to protect her from Ethan, whom he senses is a threat to her.

Ethan is. His plan is to find Debbie and kill her since, in his mind, she is now Comanche. As the film progresses we see the pair on their quest. We see more and more of Ethan's racist hate as their journey goes on.

Director John Ford tries to balance the darkness of this with lighter moments and storylines, such as Martin's relationship with the young woman Laurie (Vera Miles), an unspoken romance that is failing for want of articulation.

However, the lighter elements seem a bit forced. It's Ethan's story that is the heart of the movie.

But what is that story, and what is Ford attempting? An audience of today is likely to be appalled by Ethan's overt hate and racist attitude. Roger Ebert suggests that a contemporary audience (roughly 1956-57) would probably identitfy with his attitudes and this is likely true - perhaps not with the overt hate but certainly with the racist attitude toward native North Americans.

I think a clue to what Ford is attempting lies in the character of Scar (Henry Brandon), the Comanche chief responsible for the raiding party and the taking of Debbie. His character isn't deeply drawn but we do get one scene where he explains himself, at least to an extent. He tells of how his two sons were killed by white people and how, because of that, he is taking revenge.

This is essentially what Ethan is doing. Scar is the native mirror of Ethan, ruled by hate and revenge. Both men are racists and it is their hate than informs it. It is revenge that Ethan seeks but revenge is also the reason for the tragedy that sends him on his hateful quest.

If this is what Ford's movie is about, and I think it is, then what we have in The Searchers is flawed masterpiece. It's a great film that doesn't quite achieve what it attempts.

The failing is in the character of Scar, Chief Cicatrice. The film needs a much deeper exploration of the man. An audience needs to get to know and understand him better. He simply doesn't have enough screen time.

There aren't enough scenes that allow him to be humanized (as there are in a film like Dances With Wolves where we can connect and relate to the native North Americans).

This failing is reflective of the period the film was made. Not only were full characterizations of Indians unheard of, where they do have a presence that goes beyond being extras, the characters are played by white people.

This makes The Searchers something of a conundrum. It is a film about racism and its evils that fails because of an innate social racism that conditioned the making of it. This is not to say the film is racist. I don't think that is either a conscious or unconscious intent. But to some degree we're defined and thus limited by our place in social and cultural history, and so was Ford. The flaws in The Searchers are due these kinds of limitations.

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August 12, 2006

Wayne and Ford arrive – not without incident

I’m currently absorbed by movies made by John Ford and of course they all star John Wayne. Yes, my John Wayne - John Ford Film Collection finally arrived. Not without incident, however (though quickly and easily resolved, thanks to

For reasons I do not understand, this set from Warner is one of the few where what you get in the U.S. is not what you get in Canada. The American set has 8 films; the Canadian 7. In Canada, the DVD you do not get is Stagecoach – Two Disc Special Edition.

This is a huge omission. One of the main reasons I ordered the set was Stagecoach (the other was The Searchers).

As mentioned, I don’t know why this is difference between the U.S. and Canada editions exists, but I do understand there are sometimes copyright, distribution, legal etc. differences between the two countries. The problem I had was that initially, and up to the time the actual set began showing up in stores (as far as I can tell), the U.S. information on the set’s details was the same. So someone like me, ordering the set, thought he or she was getting one thing when in fact they were getting something else. And let’s be honest, anyone ordering a fairly big set like this is probably into John Ford-John Wayne films and the absence of Stagecoach is a very big deal.

However ... Thankfully, Amazon can teach other companies a few things about customer service. Granted, it took me a while to find a place to actually send them an e-mail, but once I did and pointed out the problem they immediately acknowledged the problem, apologized for it, and offered me some options. I chose to order Stagecoach separately – at no charge. (Actually, it is charged to my credit card but Amazon processed a refund for it that will appear on my credit card billing.)

You’ll also notice that if you look for John Wayne - John Ford Film Collection on now, there is no reference to Stagecoach. The information has been corrected to reflect what the Canadian set contains.

It would be nice if Warner acted a bit more like Amazon. I could find no contact link for Warner Home Video in Canada. I finally found a contact thing on the U.S. site, sent them an e-mail, but have heard nothing from them. I love Warner DVDs. They are easily the best for classic film – the movies themselves and the quality of the discs. But like most film companies, certainly the big Hollywood companies, beyond taking customers' money they have absolutely no interest in having anything to do with us. This, more than anything to do with technology, is the biggest threat to the commercial film business.

In the meantime ... If you live in Canada, here’s what you get in the Canadian edition of the John Wayne - John Ford Film Collection:

- The Long Voyage Home (1940)
- They Were Expendable (1945)
- 3 Godfathers (1948)
- Fort Apache (1948)
- She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
- The Searchers - Ultimate Collector's Edition (1956)
- The Wings of Eagles (1957)

Of these, I’ve so far watched The Searchers, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and They Were Expendable. I don’t know if it’s because they were westerns, but I loved the first three – They Were Expendable, not so much.

If I get time, I’ll scribble a few thoughts on these movies. I’ll say this, though ... Having seen the first two of Ford’s cavalry trilogy (Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon), I’ve dug out Rio Grande so I can rewatch that one too (haven’t seen it for a while). I also dug out The Quiet Man, which I haven’t seen for a while either. It’s one of my favourite of all the Ford-Wayne movies – and who in their right mind doesn’t love Maureen O’Hara?

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August 7, 2006

The little tramp and the flower girl

I have had Charlie Chaplin's City Lights sitting on my shelf for probably a year or more. Believe it or not, I had never seen it before. So why did it take so long for me to finally get around to watching it?

Because the idiots who put the DVD together have, at the bottom of the cardboard cover, this: B&W/186 Mins.

I suppose I could have checked IMDB to see that the runtime was 87 minutes. And I should have known it was nowhere close to 186 minutes. But that would have required thought - not always my strong suit.

Everytime I'd take a look at this thing, thinking I'd watch it, I kept thinking, "Wow. A three hour silent movie ..." And I'd put it off to another time. (And no, it's not silent - it's just sans dialogue.)

Anyway ... I finally watched it last night (it's actually about an hour and a half long) and it is, as others have asserted many times, brilliant. I absolutely loved it.

I'll tell you what amazes me: this silent (dialogue free) film that, at the time of this watching, is 75 years old, in black and white, had me laughing out loud. I can't think of a single contemporary film, certainly nothing in the last few years, that has prompted me to laugh out loud. Yes, I've enjoyed and been amused by a number - but laugh out loud? Particularly when I'm home, alone, watching it on DVD? Nope.

But City Lights had me laughing.

I loved the opening when the cover is pulled off the statue and there's the tramp, sleeping. I also loved how Chaplin uses sound in the film - though not dialogue. It begins with the opening and the trumpet or kazoo like sounds used to mock the speechifying at the statue's unveiling.

Later, there is the whistle scene ... Utterly silly but it had me laughing. (And scenes like these are so cleverly and finely constructed! The rhythms are perfect.)

And of course, there is the prizefight scene (and the scene in the dressing room leading up to it). This is so magnificantly choreographed. And again ... out loud laughs.

Finally, there is the love story that threads through the film, the tramp and the flower girl, that concludes in the brilliant final recognition scene. There's no pint in me going on about it - it's one of cinema's famous scenes, and others have extolled its virtues better than I will. Let's just say, it's a scene that should not be missed.

It's really quite astonishing how well and completely Chaplin tells his story without words. It's a great reminder of how film is a visual medium. It also demonstrates, as important as the camera is to film, it is performance that tells the story. Granted, the camera has to be positioned and framed well, and editing captures and underscores the rhythm, but without the essential performance (which is dependent on the script) you won't have much of a film - at least, nothing much more than some pretty pictures.

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August 6, 2006

Some regard for human frailty

I've been doing a bit of "re-watching" of some all-time favourites, such as The Philadelphia Story, which I ran in the DVD player last night. I've lost track of how many times I've seen this movie.

In re-watching films like this I usually find, as with The Philadelphia Story, that during the first few minutes, as great as they are, I have a sense of, "Gee, I've seen this so many times; do I really want to see it again?" Yet in a very short time I'm into the film's stream and fully engaged as if I'm seeing it for the first time.

Actually, this is something of a problem. Studying, reviewing, critiquing bad movies is relatively easy because you aren't very involved with the film. You can step back and see it objectively - or hopefully you can.

But with a really good film, it's sometimes difficult to identify why it is so good because, at least in part, it engages you so fully you forget you are watching a movie and, being caught up in the film's story, you neglect to note some of the technical aspects of the story-telling, such as structure.

For me, this is certainly the case with The Philadelphia Story. Moments after it starts I'm into the film and, no matter how strong my intent was to view it from a technical perspective, I can't. I'm too busy enjoying it.

I can, however, make a few guesses as to why this movie works so well. There are, of course, the performances. While we all note how good Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart are, and how well they work as an ensemble, it goes well beyond that to the greater ensemble. By this I mean the many wonderful supporting performances - one of the keys to many of the great old Hollywood films and a definite key here.

Another reason it works so well is because the various "acts" of the film fit so well together. You often hear of some films, "It was great till the third act, then it just turned into a car chase," or "It was okay but the second act dragged." In the case of The Philadelphia Story, there is a wonderful balance between the acts (perhaps because it began as a play). In fact, it's difficult to say where the transitions are because everything seems to unfold so naturally. The movie feels seamless.

It also seems to me that another reason the film works brilliantly is because it is so well focused on its essential theme which, I think, is articulated first by Cary Grant as C. K. Dexter Haven (and later repeated by Hepburn's Tracy Lord):

"... You'll never be a first-class human being or a first-class woman until you've learned to have regard for human frailty."

This is focused in Tracy, who is contemptuous of her ex-husband (Grant) and her father (John Halliday as Seth Lord).

The film is all about "human frailty" ... it's a kind of celebration of it, and it's reflected everywhere in the movie. (Such as Ruth Hussey as Liz when, questioned by Grant, she refers to Jimmy Stewart's character Macaulay Connor and suggests that, yes, she's in love with him but is willing to wait for him to ... well, grow up is essentially what she means.)

It all reminds me of a line at the end of Mark Helprin's novel Memoir from Antproof Case, which goes:

"Though the world is constructed to serve glory, success, and strength, one love's ones parents and one's children despite their failings and weaknesses - sometimes even more on account of them."

I'm surprised I've managed to write as much as I have about the movie. I had been scratching my noggin to think of what to say other than, "I really, really like it!" But I suppose I've discovered at least three of the reasons why it works so well for me: focus, balance and performance. And of course, it's theme of human failings goes over big with me.

To me, this is a perfect diamond of a film. It's easily one of the best romantic comedies ever made.

(On another note, for what it's worth ... I finally received the e-mail saying my Amazon order has shipped. That means my John Wayne-John Ford Film Collection is finally on the way. It should arrive Tuesday - at least, I hope it does.)

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