Tuesday, May 05, 2015

"But Marx wasn't a German, Marx was a Jew." - Professor Charles Rankin in "The Stranger"

Orson Welles' "The Stranger"  reminded me of Hitchcock's "Shadow of a doubt". But do not mistake them for being alike. They use very different formats to enthrall the audience. While "Shadow of a doubt" revels in oscillating between the truth and doubt, The Stranger focuses on nothing but the truth. There in lies the beauty of this film.

How can a movie still hold any intrigue and aura if the secret is revealed in the first half of the film? How can you hold your breath in anticipation when you know what you are looking for? But you do. Orson Welles creates that sense of suspense right from the opening scene where a Nazi prisoner,Meinike, is set free. The hope is that Meinike would lead Mr.Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) ,of the United Nations War Crimes Commission, to a dangerous mastermind Nazi criminal,Franz Kindler. 

Meinike leads Mr.Wilson to a small town in Connecticut, Harper. But before Mr.Wilson can find out Franz, Meinike is killed. Mr.Wilson stays back in Harper to reveal the true identity of the hidden criminal. 

Professor Charles Rankin is a local school teacher who marries the supreme court justice's daughter Mary (Loretta Young). There is an interesting conversation between Mr.Wilson and the professor. The professor believes that " people cannot be reformed except from within. The basic principles of equality and freedom never have and never will take root in Germany. The will to freedom has been voiced in every other tongue. "All men are created equal", liberte, egalite, fraternite - but in German..."
Mary's brother remarks " There's Marx. "Proletarians, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains." to which the professor replies "But Marx wasn't a German, Marx was a Jew." 

This confirms his identity to Mr.Wilson but he has no proof. Only if Mary confesses that she had seen Meinike the morning of their wedding, the professor can be persecuted. In spite of being shown the atrocities of the genocide, Mary refuses to believe that her husband is a criminal. She is torn between her love and her belief that she cannot fall in love with a criminal. 

Every step of the way, we are shown the truth, the truth is shouted from roof tops but what would Mary do? Would she turn her husband in or live in the hope of reforming him? Would Franz Kindler win this battle between the innocent and the conniving?  Would Mary's family and the Harper town people know the true identity of an innocent teacher? 

Watch another of Orson Welles' great movies where you get a good dose of closeups, play with shadows and light as well a slickly edited action-packed climax that makes you wonder why modern day film-makers do not learn such techniques.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

"I still have a mind of my own. Elsewhere being gracious is acceptable. "- Leslie Benedict in Giant

 I would count "Giant" in the same category of David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia". It is a saga but the big difference is that Texas forms the background of Giant instead of Arabia and the story is a family epic. 

There is a scene in "Giant" where Leslie Benedict (an excellent Elizabeth Taylor) walks into a group of men and wants to participate in a political discussion. Her patriarchal husband , Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson), asks her to join the women in their siesta and "behave like everybody else" and boy! she fights tooth and nail to make her point. Her feisty yet caring nature is the backbone of their marriage. This saga spans a few decades starting with Leslie's move from Maryland to her husband's home in Texas and ending with their grown-up, married children. Adopting both the Texas land as well as the people, Leslie is a strong support to her rancher husband, Bick Benedict. Bigotry forms an interesting thread inside the story without being glaring about it. Leslie helps the Mexican-Americans with medicine and help, which is frowned upon both by her husband and other locals. Although Leslie is not the ideal wife that Bick expected and their marriage has the ups and downs over the years, their bonding shines through. 
I cannot help but mention, the role of Jett Rink (James Dean's last movie role) , who starts off as their help and later strikes oil and makes it rich. Jett Rink is someone whom we have come across in our lives. He is apathetic, loathes others just because they have money and finally becomes a wealthy alcoholic.

 The movie is a concoction of strong performances by both Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson but it Liz Taylor that shines through. Her feminist and spunky Leslie shows the real Elizabeth Taylor, who could not be bridled by anything. I was not impressed by James Deans' acting - as a young and unruly help, he was being himself and as an older drunkard, he seems too melodramatic.He is remembered for 'Giant' as the last movie before his untimely demise. The surprise for me was Rock Hudson, who  represents a rancher in the '50s,  caught between his feudal upbringing and his wife's attitude against sexism and bigotry. The director, George Stevens' Texas is no Arabia but he showcases the brown and rugged terrain and the ranger home Reata equally beautifully. He is worthy of the Oscar he won. 

I wish there were more movies made today that can juxtapose a romantic epic saga along with issues of women empowerment and color discrimination. Although it was made in 1956, "Giant" is worth viewing today to appreciate the amazing actors we miss.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

“What happens when a man stands up and says, ‘enough is enough?'" - Martin Luther King, Jr. in 'Selma'

What is the difference between a person who manipulates people for the good or for the bad ? The former  is called a salesperson and if it is for the good, he is called a "Leader". Martin Luther King is one of those leaders , who through sheer force of words led the movement of the African-American suffrage in early sixties in America. "Selma" showcases King's( ) campaign and struggle to win the rights they truly deserved. All politicians have agendas and it is no surprise when King meets President Lyndon B. Johnson and requests a bill eliminating restrictions on voting for the Black community, Johnson says it is not his priority. How King manages to ultimately convince the President of the Bill forms the rest of the story. 

The movie focuses on Martin Luther King and his strong belief in the cause, without being melodramatic or documentary. It shows that King is not only a great leader, he is also sympathetic, warm and compassionate to everyone. He influences people to participate in this fight of equal voting rights. The initial march between Selma to Montgomery is stopped midway by violent police attacks on the innocent African Americans. This incident is very similar to India's salt satyagraha march by Mahatma Gandhi and shows how much King was influenced by Gandhi and his non-violent methods. It opens this injustice to the rest of the world and soon King has followers from both Caucasians as well as African-Americans. Finally Johnson had to concede to the bill of rights , which posterity will remember Johnson for. It is a huge landmark in the history of African-American civil rights movement. 

Selma is excellent at  creating this '60s period drama. It provides a glimpse into America's history by focusing on the cause rather than people and creates a beautiful narrative flow because even though we all know how history turned out, we are still eager to find out what happened to one man's quest for voting rights in a non-violent manner. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

"People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit." - Riggan in "Birdman"

I remember reading Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” and moved by his simple yet powerful writing. In “Birdman”, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) directs and acts in a Raymond Carver play "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" to revive his long-forgotten acting career. Who is Riggan? He, like Keaton in real life, was once famous for his super-hero movies and this play is his only chance for revival. His co-star, Mike (Edward Norton) is a method actor but erratic during their previews. What stands between Riggan and a successful opening on Broadway? Is it Riggan’s voices-in-the-head, a spiteful critic or Mike?

Movies like “Birdman” reinforce my love for the silver screen. As the camera pans the claustrophobic labyrinths of the back-stage, I was excited to see what Riggan was upto next. He oscillates between a surrealistic world and the world of Broadway theater in New York City. Michael Keaton plays the role of his lifetime. He slips into the character of Riggan as if he is playing himself and the parts where he has to act in the play, he surpasses any Broadway actor I have watched. There is a scene where his alter ego persuades him to return to playing a super-hero and his response reminded me of Betty Davis refusing to return back to Broadway in “All About Eve”. He has my vote for the best actor Oscar this year.

What is Birdman really about? There are so many inferences you can draw. It is not just the personal quest of a great actor; it is also contempt for blockbuster movies versus theater. And maybe it is not about anything but an ode to the art of filmmaking. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

"When two people love each other and they can't make that work, that's the real tragedy." - Amy Dunne in "Gone Girl"

A marriage is a byproduct of the co-existence of two personalities. Sometimes you spend your entire life with the person yet you might not know them completely. "Gone Girl" is a dark tale of a marriage gone so awry that it is impossible to set it right again.

Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne(Rosamund Pike) are celebrating their fifth anniversary. Instead of a date night, Nick finds himself in an empty home with his wife missing. The police are brought in and it becomes a sensational news story. We see Nick through the eyes of Amy as we read her diary. Is Nick really a sociopath or a grieving husband? Is he capable of murder? Was Amy the devoted wife? The second half of the movie deals with a different side of Amy and catapults you in the opposite direction. The twists and turns come to an unexpected yet not totally plausible ending. 

The problem I see with Rosamund Pike is that she is wooden. Amy is a one-dimensional character but Pike does nothing to add depth or layers to her personality. She seems to play the extension of herself in "Die Another Day", which might be fine for a James Bond movie but does nothing to a thriller like "Gone Girl". 
Ben Affleck is convincing as the troubled husband who does not understand his complex wife. He also depicts a cool and level-headed spouse that can be easily mistaken as indifferent and apathetic, which forces the audience to suspect him as a murderer. 
David Fischer, well versed in his craft, showcases the beauty of not just the small town in Missouri but also moments during their dating period, which paints a picture of a potentially wonderful marriage.  

This is not a story of the American dream  of a young couple with two kids and a white picket-fence house. It is of two warped individuals who unable to deal with the realities of economic downtime, turn to their own means of amusement.