Monday, May 24, 2010

Harold and Maude

Other than Roger Ebert and the New York Times, this movie is a beloved cult classic. Last night, a Sunday, I finally had little else to do but torture my little teenage sister as she attempted some last-minute homework for her least-beloved teacher. I decided a little nostalgia was in order.

I had forgotten how often this film made me laugh. The expressions Bud Cort (as Harold) makes to the camera sent me into paroxysms. The anti-war jokes, the auto theft, the priest's marital advice. . . riotous.

This time around, I noticed a peculiar visual balance, and not just when Harold imitated his psychiatrist. The scenes, when not asymmetrical head-shots and close-ups, were often balanced symmetrically between either opposing symbols (order and chaos, death and life, horror and humor, etc), or contained a symmetrical object that symbolized some kind of bridge between two oppositions. This fits brilliantly with the films odd-couple themes and extreme images.

I used to hesitate to recommend this movie because of the suicide themes and the January/December romance ick factor, but I'm withdrawing my reservations. See this movie.
Harold and Maude

Cactus Flower

Cactus FlowerEverybody loves this movie. I found it a little slow the second time around, but the language and themes were all very refreshing. The script was obviously written back in the era when it was acceptable to be witty, even if it didn't sound completely natural. Think anything by Neil Simon. Personally, I like a little unnatural dialogue, as long as it's unnatural for a good reason. It's dialogue that sounds stilted for no apparent reason that bothers me, and this movie didn't have much of that, so I approve.

I could see this movie being quite risque back in the day. As a matter of fact, my mother refuses to watch it, stating that if it she hadn't seen it in 1969 when it came out, she probably had a darn good reason. And she did. Speaking moralistically, this movie is quite troubling, although no standards of decency (with the exception of some truly alarming mini-skirts) seem much crossed. The swearing is at a minimum, extra- and pre-marital sex is alluded to only, and of course the closest the film comes to violence is a half-humorous attempted suicide and some frustrated (and amusing) hand gestures.

The more mature couple (eventually) in the film seems to reflect an older style of acting. I noticed the old expressions, and a different relationship with the camera than the younger actors, who seemed to fit more easily into the cramped frames and close-cut camera movement of the younger-style film.

Knowing that this film remade a broadway play also changes the interpretation somewhat. We realize that the director really has broken loose from the restrictive confines of the proscenium and has jumped into a much more active real world of the late sixties.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Glass Menagerie

Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie (Broadway Theatre Archive)This television adaptation of Tennessee Williams's classic play suffered from all the unfortunate side effects of theater productions. That is to say, I suffer from all the side effects of my impatient age.

I got bored. Or I would have, if I hadn't been playing tetris the whole time. I really don't blame the movie, though. Visually, the camera angles changed regularly, the colors had subtle fluxuations, and the themes and characterization were complex and engaging.

I admire the acting very much. Poor Kathryn Hepburn had to play a seriously grating character, but she did it brilliantly. Sam Waterston fully realized the depth of his role. Joanna Miles, who didn't have much to work with in the way of dialogue, seemed to do just fine, too. It seemed, though, a role designed for the over-actor. Even so, Miles did well enough.

I had never seen or read the play before I saw this production, but I wasn't disappointed. Although I found the ending unpleasantly ambiguous, I love the depth and sensitivity with which Williams inflated his characters. They didn't feel overblown, like so many other stage roles.

I'm afraid theater productions so often just bore me. The language so often isn't enough to keep me awake, or the character interactions varied enough to help me escape my own misery, the way we abuse media now. I think I should get points for trying.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Trouble With Harry

The Trouble with HarryWhen Alfred Hitchcock set out to direct a comedy, I'm not sure how much success he was expecting, but The Trouble With Harry has some undeniably hilarious moments. The script has some very clever moments, although quite a few of the jokes would fall flat for current, jaded audiences. For instance, a punchline about a double-bed just doesn't have the punch it once did.

The movie overall revolves around a corpse, making for a somewhat morbid experience, although all of the characters involved with said corpse seem unusually jaded, leaving only the villain, the deputy Calvin Wiggs, to express sincere shock at the presence of death.

This juxtaposition of truth from the villain appears in several movies I've seen lately, and I'm beginning to wonder if there's a name for it, or if it serves some kind of purpose. During the movie, one doesn't identify with the villain. One fears him for the sake of the heroes. But to look back and realize that one identified more with the perspective of the "bad guy" seems to say something.

I don't imagine the director was attempting to alienate the audience, as we, I, clearly identified with the couple falling in love in the foreground. I feel anxious for their success, and anxious that they neither appear to be the murderer, nor actually are. What I do imagine, is that the director intended the audience to temporarily identify with an unusual perspective. We are meant to root for the lovers, possibly never realizing that we're basically rooting for an entire group of sociopaths for the sake of humor.

I shall ponder.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Emperor's Club

The Emperor's Club (Widescreen Edition)The title of this film sounds unfortunately a bit too much like The Dead Poet's Society, and has a similar theme and setting. Ultimately, I think this similarity is a detriment to The Emperor's Club, because although there are certainly similarities, the major differences and highlighted themes tell their own story.

The featured teacher is classics professor Hundert who deals with a particularly unruly student with his own set of issues all during a time when he faces obscurity, administrative pressures, and forbidden love. Where professor Keating tried to push the boys out of their conservative shells with his liberalistic literature, Hundert rather attempts to instill in his boys a sense of morality, and values of honesty, integrity, and the rewards of hard work. Although he isn't always the best example of these things, I find most of his major life choices admirable, and that Hundert makes a plausible and acceptable role model.

Unfortunately, Hundert makes the intellectual mistake of accepting blame for his own student's academic and ethical failure, despite the obvious overriding influences of corrupt parents. The movie attempts to make that attitude sympathetic and sentimental, but by the end it seems only a logical flaw, especially after other characters have clearly articulated Hundert's lack of culpability.

Through Hundert's self-judgment, this film must pose the ethical question of whether teachers are responsible for more than academic instruction. I don't doubt that at that age especially teachers have a broader range of influence over their students, but I must agree with the ur-villain of this piece and say that the primary responsibility for moral education rests solely on the parents. If parents shirk this duty, then questions of morality must naturally be answered elsewhere, and teachers seem the next logical step. But if a parent declines such extra-familial influence, would it not be unethical to actively pursue such instruction? And would not the teachers then be absolved of all responsibility for the child's moral education, beyond what is reasonably due any fellow human?

Hundert, I say to you: stop the self-flagellation and get over yourself.

A Kiss in the Dark

This movie had few truly comic moments, but the mood remained light throughout. Jane Wyman plays a casual pin-up girl with some emotional intelligence (especially her theory on propinquity, which I have personally adopted as a literary theory), and David Niven plays a smothered concert pianist. The two hatch a plan to drive off a surly neighbor who tries to sleep during the day, and use the pianist's truly professional volume as a rather effective weapon.

Unfortunately, though the neighbor is undoubtedly over-the-top surly, he still has a legitimate complaint. Boiled down, they drive him away simply because he has a night job. I pity him, through his comically belligerent scenes, and am a little disappointed that the pianist and his crush don't do more by way of diplomacy to help him sleep. They could offer to sound-proof his rooms, or buy him ear-plugs, or shift the more noisy families to a different floor. They do nothing of the kind.

All-in-all, I enjoyed the film, but didn't find myself bettered or changed by it. It might make my top 100, but certainly not the top 50.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Other Tammys

Tammy, Tell Me True, and Tammy and the Doctor were both inferior films. Peter Fonda did well enough as the ultimate match, but I didn't appreciate Leslie Nielsen being displaced.

This is my big gripe against the movie. In Tammy and the Bachelor, Tammy beats the other girl for the guy because she knows what real love is. She knows about sacrifice, and forever, and believing in dreams. She shows all the hoity-toity aristocratic wannabes that they've forgotten everything real for their petty economic games. They've forgotten about the earth, and loving people, etc. In the two sequels, that strong, earthly love is replaced with a crush, and then hormonal attraction. It undoes the lesson of the first movie, replacing it with a cheap, plastic model - the cardboard cut-out version of Tammy.

In some ways, these sequels proved adequate, but if you value your time highly, give these a miss and move on to something a little more worthwhile.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Goodbye Girl

The Goodbye GirlNow, this one was an academy award winner, and an 80 on the tomatometer. It was also a re-watch. I have always adored this movie. Looking through a more critical lens, though, I still enjoyed the movie but noticed several moments where either the script or the actors seemed much too self-aware for current audiences.

I'm not certain that this self-awareness was a flaw, or just a quirk of the movie. It had a slight distancing effect, but even Shakespeare used the self-awareness of his actors, and the subsequent distancing, for humor or insight. The actor (Richard Dreyfuss) played an actor, so that meta-ness might explain it.

The humor in this film feels natural and good-natured. Dreyfuss keeps his character full of energy and humor, and the script overflows with the linguistic wit expected of Neil Simon. The love scenes especially endear the characters, and smell sweetly of cherry-pie. The emotional difficulties and fearful/hostile reactions displayed by the mother (Marsha Mason) and her daughter provide all the necessary conflict, but they don't inhibit the freedom of feeling that so accurately reflects the age which produced this wonderful movie.

Jeff Daniels starred in a remake of this film which I have not seen, but which I plan on seeing simply for comparison. I don't expect his performance to parallel Dreyfuss's, but I do believe he has the potential to capture the same energy, despite his much larger frame. We shall see. If the made-for-TV remake flops, I may just blame it on the director. I suppose it depends on my mood at the time.