Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: February 2009

Friday, February 27, 2009

Seventies Cinema Revival: The French Connection

by Tony Dayoub

One of the great, iconic films of the 1970s, The French Connection (1971), finally makes it debut on Blu-ray this week with a little bit of controversy. But this does not change the impact the film still has today. A gritty, realistic look at all angles of a huge heroin deal by its then young film director William Friedkin, it also made a star out of its lead actor, Gene Hackman. It also went a long way towards romanticizing the seamy underbelly of New York City.

New York crime films became a staple of seventies cinema due in no small part to films like Gordon Parks' Shaft (1971) and The French Connection. Movies like Across 110th Street (1972), Serpico (1973), The Seven-Ups (1973), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), and Dog Day Afternoon (1975) were all subsequently inspired to employ the washed out color and grainy look of fast film stock that was so often utilized by documentarians for its flexibility in shooting in low-light situations. The jittery hand-held camera in such films signalled a "spontaneous" stolen shot and an immediacy that was rare before Friedkin's film. And the littered streets of New York's backalleys were often spotlighted, rather than glossed over, in an effort to heighten the raw intensity of the docu-inspired dramas.

New York City cops Eddie Egan (pictured, above) and Sonny Grosso had participated in just such a takedown of a heroin smuggling ring a decade earlier, with much the same outcome; the alleged kingpin got away with the crime. But it was still the largest drug arrest of its time. And Egan and Grosso were exciting personalities to base a film on. Egan was a bigoted hothead with a cagey way of throwing his perps off by interrogating them about an incident unrelated to their arrest, "Ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?" Grosso was a methodical cynic who helped rein his partner in. Egan harbored the ambition that actor Rod Taylor would play him in the cinematic adaptation of their story. So, as Grosso recounts in a documentary on the Blu-ray, he was very surprised when he was introduced to the mild-mannered man who would ultimately win the role of Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (based on Egan), Gene Hackman.

As Hackman tells it, even he wasn't sure he could sell the crude facets of Egan's personality. Doyle is a cop with no personal life, save for a predilection for women that might be too young for him. He's an alcoholic, frequently waking up from a bender; in one scene, cuffed to his own bed by a young woman he picked up off the street. In a warning to his partner, Buddy "Cloudy" Russo (Roy Scheider), his deep-seated racism is more than evident:
Doyle: You dumb guinea. 
Russo: How the hell was I supposed to know he had a knife? 
Doyle: Never trust a n****r. 
Russo: He could have been white. 
Doyle: Never trust anyone!

But he does have an instinct and drive that suits the case that falls on his lap, a drug deal involving a supplier from Marseilles, Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey). Together with his partner, he relentlessly tracks all angles of the case, even on his off-hours, to the point of obsession and exhaustion. This obsession ultimately endangers anyone - cops, innocents - that get between him and his quarry.

Hackman gives us a nuanced take on what, according to Grosso, was the emotionally one-note Egan. Rather than play the constant intensity of the type-A cop, the actor instead leavens it with a world-weariness that humanizes the driven supercop. The dynamism in his performance makes it even more chilling when Doyle is able to spring into action after an exhausting night, as a sniper tries assassinating him on his way home. This leads to a nerve-wracking chase in which Doyle drives a car recklessly in pursuit of an elevated train.

Credit Friedkin for that inspired setpiece, which he hyperbolically insists that he shot from inside the car himself, an assertion disputed by the film's cinematographer, Owen Roizman, in a recent interview with Aaron Aradillas on Back by Midnight. He also admits to daring his stunt driver, Bill Hickman, to drive the car (with only a siren on top to warn oncoming traffic) as fast as possible even though no permits were secured to close off the street for the shoot. The driven Friedkin obviously saw a kindred spirit in Egan (and the character of Doyle). The manipulative director, by his own admission, was prone to yelling at Hackman in order to keep him in a constant state of stress. The results are on the screen, though. The French Connection wound up winning Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

While much of the controversy concerning Blu-rays of older films has to do with the elimination of grain in the film, the debate over this one is over the opposite. As Friedkin illustrates in a documentary on the disc, he has color-timed this new addition by starting with a sharper, grainier black and white base element and slowly bled in a little color. As Glenn Kenny observes in a recent posting, ironically titled What hath Friedkin wrought? , "...considerations of cinematic ethics aside, Friedkin's re-visioning of the picture really is a radical one." While I agree with him that a copy of the original iteration should have been included in the Blu-ray, especially for archival purposes in what is probably an "ultimate" edition, I am not averse to the film's new look. Essentially, the blacks are darker, the film grainier, and the color less intense, all qualities that enhance the look he was aiming for in his movie originally. And the change is nowhere near as eviscerating as what he did to The Exorcist(1973) in his "Version You've Never Seen" (2000). Great new documentaries shot with Friedkin at the original locations make this Blu-ray worth purchasing (one dedicated to Scheider, who died last year, is sorely missed), and for those wedded to the film's original look, make sure you don't throw away the original DVD.
Update 3/3: Among other things, director William Friedkin responds to Roizman's opinion on the new Blu-ray, and critic Glenn Kenny gives his take on the debate, on this week's Back by Midnight.

The French Connection and French Connection II are both available this week on Blu-ray disc. Stills provided courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Blu-ray Review: Nights in Rodanthe

Watching Nights in Rodanthe a few nights ago with my wife, Denise, made me think. What is the attraction of Nicholas Sparks' stories? There is obviously a gender gap. The same way I bristle at the thought of having to see a Bride Wars (or other so-called "chick flick," which I still diligently invite Denise to on occasion), I quake a little at the thought of having to see a movie based on a Sparks' book. I am a romantic, and love movies with a healthy dose of schmaltz, like Casablanca (1942), or to cite a more recent example, Two Lovers (2009). So I'm speaking to something beyond just the whole "guy thing." I was willing to sample Nights in Rodanthe because it represented the reunion of one of my favorite screen couples, Richard Gere and Diane Lane. I loved them together in The Cotton Club (1984) and Unfaithful (2002). I like them separately, too. Gere is often accused of a certain type of blankness in his performances. While not an incorrect assessment, he seems conscious of this (see the classic performances he's attracted to, and how he misreads the actors' intent in each, next time they run his interview with Elvis Mitchell on TCM), and often works with directors that harness this in such a way that the viewer is able to project a lot onto his "tabula rasa". Lane, on the other hand is a dynamic actress who I've always found fascinating for her slow career transition from ethereal to down-to-earth. She seems even more beautiful today than ever, despite seemingly avoiding some of the surgical enhancements that have strait-jacketed some of her contemporaries (Meg Ryan, Jessica Lange). Here, the two actors do their best to rekindle the natural chemistry they share. But do I need to even tell you the plot? Isn't it as plain as the film's poster and promotional photos? For those interested, Gere and Lane play two divorcees who have a brief affair in Rodanthe, a charming island town located in North Carolina's Outer Banks. The story is so slight and predictable that one starts to expect the moments that jeopardy looms to complicate matters between the two paramours. You've got the nosy best friend, usually played by a good character actress (Doubt's Viola Davis, in this case) to hide the fact that she is simply a sounding board; a means of delivering exposition; or comic relief. Davis fulfills all three roles. Unfortunately, none of these elements elevate the film. I'm at a disadvantage because I haven't read a Sparks book and don't plan to. But I will go out on a limb and guess that part of the attraction to his stories is the regional aspect of his novels. Based in North Carolina, he frequently uses the region as a backdrop in much the same way Stephen King relies on Maine for his novels. The village of Rodanthe is used sparingly to spice up the film. It's a missed opportunity, in my opinion. A strong sense of place frequently translates into the difference between a mediocre film and a good one. Casablanca had that, and so did Two Lovers. While we get a few touches of local flavor with the film's depiction of a crab-bake, and an instance when the town fortifies itself for an approaching hurricane, the town so prominent in the novel's title is given short shrift in Night in Rodanthe. Still provided courtesy of Warner Home Entertainment.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Not That Anyone Cares, But Why I'm Not Writing About the Oscars This Year

Meh. Not since 1995's ceremony - where, after winning 5 other awards, Forrest Gump won the Best Picture award competing against both Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption - have I been so unexcited about an Oscars show. I mean, somehow Gump is back again... er, wait... I mean Benjamin Button... competing against some equally slight films. And it seems like it's a foregone conclusion that one of my least favorite movies of the year, the extremely overrated Slumdog Millionaire, will win a slew of awards (probably even the Best Picture award). So what's in it for me this year? Why bother picking any of the races, if I can't even muster the interest in the proceedings this year? Like I said... meh! So I'll skip the races I'm bored with and just bring up a couple of points of interest, so to speak. Best Actor looks like the most interesting one with Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke being the front-runners. While personally, my heart's with fellow Miami boy, Mickey Rourke, I fear that his overexposure this awards season may have worked against this man of mystique. So Sean Penn may run out with this one, which wouldn't be all bad since he gave a hell of a performance in Milk. And karmically speaking, maybe this is a reward for being one of the few directors to keep Rourke working during his low period in 2001's The Pledge. Kate Winslet should win for The Reader, only who knows why she was even nominated for that. Penelope Cruz and Viola Davis are another interesting race to look at for Best Supporting Actress (Taraji P. Henson, I loved you in Hustle and Flow, but I don't see what merited the nomination this year). Wall·E is a shoo-in for Best Animated feature. But honestly, it should have competed in the Best Picture category where it could have, and should have, easily won. The only upset of the night would occur if for some mysterious Academy-related reason, Heath Ledger would lose the Supporting Actor award. Posthumous nominations have a bad record at the Oscars. The technical awards this year? This one gets a "Who REALLY cares?" from me. When you have The Dark Knight - a movie that has a near-unintelligible third act - up for Film Editing, and Benjamin Button up for Best Makeup - when in fact, most of its makeup achievements are perked up by CGI - then what really comes to mind is how much the nomination process, and even the categories, are in need of an overhaul. With Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) named executive producer this year, the actual Oscar ceremony might prove to be the most interesting aspect of the evening. Hugh Jackman (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), a pretty talented showman when performing live, is the evening's host. Michael Giacchino (Lost) is conducting the orchestra. And they've even tried to spice things up a bit by keeping its roster of presenters secret. I'm hoping this all adds up to a surprisingly exciting evening. I usually make a day of this. Despite disagreeing with most of what is usually awarded, as a movie lover it still excites me to see a day in which my passion for movies is shared in celebration by others. But expect Slumdog Millionaire to sweep most of its nominations, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - though slight, still a bit of an underrated film - to lose most of its noms. If this happens, then predictability will still reign on another stale awards night. The 81st Academy Awards airs Sunday night on ABC at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

M.I.A. on Region 1 DVD Tribute Month: The World, the Flesh and the Devil

A black man, the last man on Earth, fends for himself in Manhattan after a global plague wipes out the rest of humanity. His loneliness overwhelms him. He slowly slips into insanity, speaking to mannequins he's set up throughout the city to approximate some form of normalcy. Every day at noon, he pleads into a short-wave radio, announcing his location, and his intention to broadcast indefinitely, hoping to get a response. Then he finds out he's not alone. That's the premise behind I Am Legend (2007), right? Wrong, but who could blame one for seeing the similarities? While Richard Matheson's novel, I Am Legend, has been adapted into a movie 3 times, none of those films has exactly captured the book's story. The most recent movie, starring Will Smith, probably comes closest. So imagine my surprise when watching Ranald MacDougall's The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959) on TCM one afternoon, and finding that its premise, described in the first paragraph, is undoubtedly the real inspiration for the recent blockbuster. In World, Ralph Burton (Harry Belafonte), some sort of civil engineer, becomes trapped in a mine shaft. Finding a way out after 5 days of waiting for help, he discovers that something has eradicated the rest of humanity during his ordeal underground. Cars are abandoned on the street. Cities have been turned into ghost towns. He decides to search for any signs of life by driving to Manhattan, the area with the highest concentration of people he can think of. Arriving to the George Washington Bridge, he is greeted by a haunting sight - a bridge backed up with deserted automobiles - and must walk from there. Director MacDougall establishes a disquieting sense of isolation as Ralph walks through a city we are all very familiar with, even if we've never been there. Locations such as Times Square, always teeming with people, are presented here with nary a sign of activity. Like any engineer, Ralph starts the process of working through his situation by building a home, forging a small electrical grid for lighting, and gathering supplies. He collects works of art with the idea of preserving the remnants of humanity for posterity. He sets up a short-wave radio and announces his existence to anyone that may be listening. Slowly he slips into talking to himself, then holding conversations with mannequins he's surrounded himself with, finally lashing out at one in particular for always smiling. As he throws it over his balcony and it crashes to the ground, he hears a scream. Enter the lovely Sarah Crandall (Inger Stevens). Sarah has been following Ralph for some time, trying to deduce whether he is safe. Some of his behavior has made her nervous, but she soon realizes it is attributable to his solitude. And besides, wouldn't an engineer be the best person to have around during this kind of crisis. The two survivors grow close, and she becomes very fond of him. But Ralph's reticence to grow any closer is revealed when he is coerced into cutting her hair. He admits that, as a black man, he still can't get over the fact that if things were different, she would never even talk to him. Even though she implies she is in love with him, he can't get over that in this specific situation, he has gone from being a man of ingenuity to a subservient hair stylist grooming a white woman. After a time, she convinces them that with society gone, society's archaic rules should be done away with as well. She wants to move in with Ralph, even if it's simply in the same apartment building. But Ralph can't let go of his mindset right away. And just as it looks he might be starting to, another variable is thrown into the dynamic. Enter Benson Thacker (Mel Ferrer). Thacker was sailing around the world when the plague was loosed on the rest of humanity. He is starving and feverish, but Ralph and Sarah nurse him back to health, all the while conscious that the introduction of this white man means that society has been reestablished. Ralph believes that the unspoken rules concerning class and race have also returned. Sarah does not. Thacker for his part, admits that he's become attracted to Sarah, and does see Ralph as a threat. But it isn't because of his race, it is because of his youth. At this point The World, the Flesh and the Devil is derailed by a silly action setpiece that involves a confrontation between the two men in the deserted city. But the movie's first two acts are fascinating, not only because its premise has obviously been plagiarized by the recent Will Smith blockbuster, but because it avoids that film's zombie plotline to give us a rather realistic sociological examination of the intricacies of being the last people on Earth. Utterly magnetic in one of her earliest appearances is the beautiful Inger Stevens (Hang'em High). She is better known for her TV guest work in the sixties, the most remembered of which are her two appearances on The Twilight Zone. In "The Hitch-Hiker," she plays a woman who keeps encountering the same hitchhiker, before she realizes she's dead and he is the Grim Reaper. In "The Lateness of the Hour," she also discovers she is not alive, when she finds out that in a home where her father has invented perfect robotic servants, she is the most perfect robot of all. Stevens would go on to great acclaim as the award-winning star of TV's The Farmer's Daughter. But her stormy private life, with the actress' propensity for affairs with her leading men (including this film's Belafonte), led to various suicide attempts before she successfully took her own life at the age of 35. Belafonte (Island in the Sun) produced The World, the Flesh and the Devil, and has been an important civil rights activist throughout his long career in music and film, even refusing roles that promoted racial stereotypes. Ferrer (Lili), also an actor-producer, produced Wait Until Dark (1967) for his then-wife Audrey Hepburn. Coincidentally, he directed Stevens in some episodes of The Farmer's Daughter. He died last year at the age of 90. This post is a contribution to Jeremy Richey's month-long tribute to films that are M.I.A. on Region 1 DVD at Moon in the Gutter.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Friday, February 13, 2009

M.I.A. on Region 1 DVD Tribute Month: Cul-de-Sac

The premise of Roman Polanski's Cul-de-Sac (1966) resembles that of an ethnic joke, "An effeminate Englishman, a French nymphomaniac, and an American gangster are stuck on an island..." And in many ways, Polanski approaches his moody character study with black comedy in mind. But the film is a non-sequitur with situations that illuminate the characters in question while never really taking the plot to any logical conclusion. As the credits roll, we see a car slowly approaching. It is being pushed down a coastal road by Dickie (Lionel Stander), a burly gangster nursing a wounded arm. His friend, Albie (Jack MacGowran), lays in the car, apparently paralyzed and bleeding to death. When Dickie sees a castle in the horizon, he leaves Albie and the car to get help. He sneaks around surveying the castle and its surroundings, still alert after the presumed gunfight he just survived. He is unaware that the tide has started coming in, and Albie is helplessly fretting as water starts seeping into the car. Soon Dickie will find out that the castle's grounds sometimes become an island, occasionally cut off from civilization by the rising tide. Dickie finds an odd couple living at the castle, a young French woman in her 20s, Teresa (Françoise Dorléac), and her mannered British husband, the significantly older George (Donald Pleasence). The arrangement between husband and wife is understood from the beginning, as we spy Teresa laying topless on the beach with a friend while they are suppose to be "shrimping." George is otherwise occupied with the friend's parents, showing them around the castle, oblivious to his wife's shenanigans. Teresa takes every opportunity to emasculate George, even in private. They play games in which she coerces George to cross-dress. But their relationship seems to work at some level, Polanski seems to be telling us. As we later find out, George is not ignorant of his wife's indiscretions with the young man. And Teresa seems to accept her husband's softness, maybe even enjoy it, as is evident in the picture above. It is only when Dickie intrudes on George and Teresa that the dynamic between the couple is disrupted, and a three-way battle for dominance begins. Teresa loses respect for George because he won't stand up to Dickie, and will often side with the gangster to denigrate her husband further. George starts resenting Teresa for continuing to use her feminine wiles so openly around the gun-wielding thug, and enlists Dickie in ostracizing her from any competitive gamesmanship being played out by the two men. The upper-class George and Teresa are infuriated by Dickie's transgression into their exclusive domain, and take the opportunity to force him into the role of servant when some unexpected visitors stop by. And all the while Dickie waits for his boss, the never-seen Katelbach, to rescue him from the grating obnoxiousness of the couple and their petty worries. The pivotal role here is Dorléac's, as the ebb and flow of the film's energy depends on Teresa's mercurial nature as much as it does on the Northumberland location's rise and fall of the surrounding tide. The older sister of Catherine Deneuve (star of Polanski's previous film, Repulsion), Dorléac is riveting as Teresa, at times seductive, crafty, and immature. And the actress bears more than a passing resemblance to Polanski's future wife, Sharon Tate, who would star in his next film, The Fearless Vampire Killers, or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck (1967). Dorléac seemed to be headed for a significant career until tragedy struck a year later, and she died in a car accident at the age of 25. Everyone else involved would go on to greater acclaim in the future. Stander, an American living in Europe after being a victim of the Hollywood Blacklist would become better known as Max, the chauffeur on TV's Hart to Hart (1979-84). Donald Pleasence would gain great cult fame as Dr. Loomis in Halloween (1978) and four sequels. Polanski's tumultuous life would also encounter tragedy and controversy, with his wife, Sharon Tate, brutally murdered by the Manson Family, and his fleeing the country after allegedly having sex with a minor. But he would go on to direct such classics as Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974), while revisiting some of the themes of Cul-de-Sac in such movies as Macbeth (1971), the underrated Bitter Moon (1992), and Death and the Maiden (1994). This post is a contribution to Jeremy Richey's month-long tribute to films that are M.I.A. on Region 1 DVD at Moon in the Gutter.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Movie Review: Two Lovers - Serious Romance Charms with Its Emotional Depth

James Gray's Two Lovers begins with a man jumping off a Brighton Beach pier, hoping to drown, yet ultimately too fearful to go through with it. Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) is a nice-guy schlub who's moved back in with his Jewish parents (Isabella Rossellini, Moni Moshonov). Arriving home, drenched from head to toe, his worried mother doesn't seem too surprised at her son's condition. He's attempted suicide at least one other time, we'll learn later, and is on medication to combat his depression. His fiancee had left him after a genetic test indicated that any offspring of theirs would likely suffer a debilitating disease and die after one year. Soon, he meets two women. One is Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), daughter of a dry cleaner who plans on merging his company with that of Leonard's dad. She is a sensible woman from a good Jewish family that Leonard's parents hope will get him out of his funk. He also meets a neighbor, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a charmingly neurotic beauty that he finds himself instantly attracted to. The apartment she stays at is right across the courtyard from his window, and is provided to her by her married lover (Elias Koteas) who comes to see her when visiting his mother. The plot could easily form the basis for a typical romantic comedy were it not in the hands of Gray (We Own the Night), with Sandra playing the vanilla girl who stands in the way of Leonard's pursuit of his dream girl, Michelle. But Gray treats the proceedings with seriousness and sympathy for all of his characters, especially Leonard. In this, his third collaboration with Phoenix (The Yards), Gray seems to be maturing somewhat. Like in his previous films, Gray confounds expectations he has deliberately encouraged, leading us up to the predictable conclusion and then turning away with subtlety to provide a more realistic alternative. So when Leonard's mom is shown to be a nosy old biddy, for instance, it's not to imply that she is domineering and may be at the root of his problems with women. It is to demonstrate how fragile he is after his suicide attempts, the implication being that his mom feels she may have failed him once and is unwilling to do so again. Leaving behind the melodrama of his earlier crime pictures, Gray also hones in on another strength evident in his earlier films, the ability to elicit outstanding performances of great emotional depth. It's a real shame that Phoenix is leaving acting behind to pursue a rap career. Supposedly his "last" performance, this is perhaps the most touching performance of his career. As Leonard, Phoenix reveals the lonely soul of a man abandoned by love who still reaches out for someone to save him. Phoenix uses his best features, his hooded eyes, to great effect here, alternately lifting and lowering his gaze as if to unveil and shroud his wounded heart to at least the viewer, if to no one else. And strangely enough, a goofy rap on his first outing with Michelle instantly endears him to her and us, the viewers, as well. Gray underscores the allure that Michelle holds for Leonard in some interesting ways. When they trade cell numbers in order for her to be able to start texting him, it immediately characterizes their relationship with touches of modernity, secrecy and excitement, a way out for Leonard from the path of tradition he feels locked into in Brighton Beach. Gray usually frames Paltrow (Iron Man) in a blur, both figuratively and literally. The first time Michelle and Leonard go out, he euphorically gets caught up in her Ecstasy-induced haze as they party in a club, the whirl of dancing people and colored lights surrounding them. The picture above demonstrates how only Michelle is in focus when he is with her. But this shot is from early on in the film, and as he (and we) get to know her, the frame's background begins to sharpen. Sandra, on the other hand, represents his roots, and perhaps painfully reminds him of the woman who left him. Gray often depicts her within the context of family, i.e., her brother's bar mitzvah; cancelling a date because of her father's birthday; a New Year's party at Leonard's parents' home. She often prefers coming to see him in person, rather than calling him on the phone. Even her gift of winter gloves to Leonard is a sensible, though unexciting one. As seen in the picture above, Sandra is a natural beauty, dressing conservatively, and wearing little makeup. Gray often shoots Shaw (The Hills Have Eyes) with a wide-angle lens, tying her character into the background, rooting her in Leonard's world. The director, an aspiring painter in his youth, gives Leonard and Sandra's world his typical chiaroscuro lighting, accentuating the contrast between the safety and stability of Sandra's world in Brooklyn, and the glitzy wonder of Michelle's Manhattan life. This upcoming Valentine's Day, if you've had your fill of comedy, but still ache for romance in your cinema, Two Lovers is a great movie to watch. Two Lovers opens in limited release February 13, 2009.

Friday, February 6, 2009

M.I.A. on Region 1 DVD Tribute Month: The African Queen

Jeremy at Moon in the Gutter is conducting a month-long tribute to films that are still unavailable on Region 1 DVD. Any of you are welcome to contribute, and as long as you give some kind of recognition to his site, he'll be happy to link to your post at Moon in the Gutter. Unlike some of the more obscure films missing from Region 1, my contribution to his retrospective is a tribute to a classic film that is quite well known and a perennial favorite on many all-time best lists, John Huston's The African Queen (1951). Some time back, I was tagged for a meme in which I had to list my 12 Holy Grail films, films that I had never seen, and were not available on DVD or Netflix. Since I made my list, I've made a concerted effort to track some of these down to view by some alternate method. At the top of my list was The African Queen. Coincidentally, it is also the first film from the list that I've had the opportunity to see. An adaptation of C.S. Forester's novel, the movie takes place in East Africa during the early days of World War I. Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn) and her brother, Samuel (Robert Morley), are missionaries who depend on deliveries from good-natured drunkard, Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), and his riverboat, the African Queen. But as Africa falls to the Germans, Samuel falls ill and dies, leaving Rose alone until Allnut's next visit. Allnut and Rose decide to take a treacherous voyage on the riverboat in hopes of escaping the encroaching Germans. But first, the patriotic Rose hopes to convince Allnut to use some of the blasting gelatin his boat carries to make torpedoes that will destroy a German ship upriver, the Louisa. The ensuing journey brings romance to the unlikely couple as they face the river's travails with courage. And what a refreshing film romance it is, between two powerhouse stars that engage both the viewer and themselves as equals. After a run through some white water rapids, the prissy Sayer is exhilarated:
Charlie Allnut: How'd you like it? Rose Sayer: Like it? Charlie Allnut: White water rapids! Rose Sayer: I never dreamed... Charlie Allnut: I don't blame you for being scared - not one bit. Nobody with good sense ain't scared of white water... Rose Sayer: I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating!
As a film buff who has seen a whole host of variations on this timeworn story played out in many more recent adventure films, like Romancing the Stone (1984), Medicine Man (1992), Six Days Seven Nights (1998), etc., it is exciting to see a film couple that doesn't banter unnecessarily in order for the director to keep the sexual tension ratcheted up. Allnut and Rose slowly find common ground and fall quite charmingly in love with each other. And their happiness is infectious to anyone who watches the film. Huston's film is important in some significant ways. Like their characters, Bogart (Casablanca) and Hepburn (The Philadelphia Story) made for an unusual but effective screen couple, their incongruous acting styles contributing to the romantic chemistry. Also, it was the rare movie in those days that got to shoot on location, and Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) travelled to Africa to add authenticity to its aesthetic, an account of this being the basis for Peter Viertel's novel, White Hunter, Black Heart, and its eventual Clint Eastwood-directed 1990 film adaptation. Marking the first time either star would appear in a color film, the Technicolor cinematography is executed by the renowned Jack Cardiff (Black Narcissus). Cardiff's photography enhances this enjoyable romp, as one can observe from even these less than stellar screen captures. Cardiff, who so effectively pushed the boundaries of color cinema in his collaborations with the Powell and Pressburger team (A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes), captured the inherent dichotomy of the dark continent in his mysterious yet alluring lighting and framing design. The African Queen is amongst his most visually attractive films in a career that spans the range of film history, from silent film to today. For Huston and Bogart, who had collaborated on some of their best films together starting with The Maltese Falcon (1941), this would be their last film together. The film would prove to be a vindication of sorts for Bogart, who was often underestimated as an actor. He would win his only Oscar for the role of Allnut, a role that had to be modified from its depiction as an Englishman, in the original novel, to a Canadian because Bogart had trouble pulling off the accent. While I'm not sure it was entirely deserved in a year where he competed against Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire), Montgomery Clift (A Place in the Sun) and Fredric March (Death of a Salesman), all arguably better performances, the role is easily Bogart's career best. Stealing the show throughout is no easy feat when acting opposite the actress with the most Oscar wins in history. As of 2003, according to the Home Theater Forum, The African Queen has yet to be released on DVD in Region 1 because of issues with the rights, even though Paramount seems to be the leading contender in regards to releasing it. Apparently restoration work is rumored to have begun, which hopefully means that a pristine version is forthcoming sooner rather than not.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Cinema Viewfinder Gets the Dardos Award

I am very excited to announce that Moon in the Gutter has awarded Cinema Viewfinder with the Dardos Award. Jeremy Richey at Moon in the Gutter has championed my site since soon after its inception. Jeremy has been a strong source of inspiration, not only because of our like-minded taste in films, but because he has always implicitly encouraged me to reach out to my community of fellow bloggers by setting a good example in that regard. So it is fitting that this award recognizes community outreach, as one can see here in the rules:
The Dardos Awards is given for recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing. These stamps were created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers, a way of showing affection and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web. The Rules are:
1) Accept the award by posting it on your blog along with the name of the person that has granted the award and a link to his/her blog.
2) Pass the award to another five blogs that are worthy of this acknowledgement, remembering to contact each of them to let them know they have been selected for this award.
While there are many I'd love to award (and in fact many have already received the Dardos), these are the five I have chosen. Jim Emerson at Scanners Ibetolis at Film for the Soul MovieMan0283 at The Dancing Image T.S. at Screen Savour Dean Treadway at Filmicability These folks give me new insight into the world of cinema on an almost daily basis, and all are great writers to boot. I look forward to their take on all things film in the future.

Monday, February 2, 2009

TCM's Robert Osborne Hosts 5th Annual Classic Film Festival in Athens

For the fifth straight year, locals and visiting cinephiles will be treated to Hollywood classics on the big screen when Robert Osborne’s Classic Film Festival comes to town. The event will be held March 19-22, 2009 at The Classic Center in downtown Athens, Georgia. Robert Osborne, the primetime host of Turner Classic Movies and a columnist for The Hollywood Reporter, has picked eight classic films that he says, "represent the breadth and variety of classic cinema from the 1930s to the 1980s." The 2009 festival selections are: Goldfinger (1964), King Kong (1933), Rear Window (1954), Funny Girl (1968), Sunset Boulevard (1950), For Your Consideration (2006), The Godfather (1972), and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Nate Kohn, festival executive producer and professor of telecommunications in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia, is thrilled by the list. "Robert is the world's foremost authority on the Academy Awards, and he worked hard to put together this dynamic program. His commitment to the success of our festival is something we're very proud of." This year Robert Osborne will share his hosting duties with acclaimed actor and former film festival guest, Fred Willard, who will host the Saturday and Sunday films. Willard's work includes a part in every movie directed by Christopher Guest, including 2009 festival selection For Your Consideration. Festival director Pamela Kohn is looking forward to this year’s format. "We are fortunate to have Fred Willard joining us this year,” she said. “He enjoyed the festival so much as a guest in 2007, and he is excited to come back in this expanded role.” Past festivals have brought guests such as Jane Powell, Louise Fletcher, Maximilian Schell, Pia Lindstrom, Patricia Neal, Parker Posey and Mickey Rooney to Athens to discuss their films with Osborne on stage after the screenings. Kohn hopes that the upcoming festival will feature guests of similar stature. For the three-and-a-half day festival, the 2,000-seat Classic Center theatre will be transformed into a world-class movie palace with the installation of a 60-foot motion picture screen and state-of-the-art 35 mm projection and sound systems. Most prints will be pristine archival 35 mm prints from many of the major studios. "It's an exciting adventure to see these films the way they were meant to be seen," explained Osborne. "The big screen gives a different dimension and vitality to them." In addition to the film showings, the festival will feature a panel discussion hosted by Osborne, which is free and open to the public. Panelists will include University of Georgia scholars, festival guests, artists, critics and others. The panel topic this year is “Film Festival Fare: Independent Filmmaking and its Influence on Hollywood.” All films, with the exception of the free Friday matinee showing of Rear Window, will require a paid ticket for admission. In celebration of the festival's 5th-year anniversary, children 12 and under will receive a special ticket price of $5 for E.T. Passes and tickets for individual films are available at The Classic Center box office, online, or by calling (800) 918-6393. Prices are $60 for a pass to all films and panel discussions or $45 with valid student identification. A limited number of passes that include the festival's Saturday brunch will be available for $90 to the general public and $75 with valid student or UGA Alumni Association identification. Individual film tickets are $10, or $8 for students and alumni association members. Robert Osborne's Classic Film Festival is an annual non-profit event of the University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. For more information, please visit Please note that films on the list are subject to change.