Monday, June 25, 2007

Fight The Power

OK, so what if it's dated? And so what if it lurches from scene to scene, never really concentrating on one aspect of its story successfully? And so what if it has stilted dialogue and bizarre performances? The Public Enemy is the original gangster film. It laid the foundation for all the gangster movies to follow. Without The Public Enemy, Martin Scorsese wouldn't even have a career. (A fact he acknowledges in the making-of documentary on the DVD.)
Watching it again, I was struck by the direction of the film. There are long tracking shots, not really a common practice in 1931. The compositions are beautiful, and the way director William Wellman suggests violence is astounding. That picture above is the only time you see someone killed onscreen. The rest of the time you only hear what's going on, allowing your imagination to run wild.
The movie made a star of James Cagney. He turns in a great performance, one that's so good that people often thought he was this guy offscreen as well. Cagney, a trained Broadway singer and dancer, knew what his bread-and-butter was, and mainly played variations on this role for the rest of his career, save for a stop or two into musicals. (See Yankee Doodle Dandy. Or, better yet, don't. That film is dreadful.)
The film is best known for its grapefruit scene. Cagney, listening to his girlfriend nag him about not being around, gets fed up with her talk and smashes a grapefuit in her face. The bit comes out of nowhere and Wellman wisely doesn't linger on it. By the time you register what's happened, the movie's moved on to another scene.
The film has its problems, chief among them Beryl Mercer as Cagney's mother. She's so horrible that she nearly ruins the film. It's a strange train-wreck of a performance. She plays the character so naively and childlike that you wonder how the character even managed to have children, let alone raise them. I understand what the script was getting at - that single parents have a tough time keeping their kids out of trouble - but just because she was the only one raising them didn't mean she needed to be portrayed as slow and dim-witted. I kept wishing Cagney would off her mid-film.
My favorite part of the film is the horrific final shot. Can't say too much about it for fear of giving away the plot, but you can probably guess what it involves. It's one of the more realistic and gruesome ends to a gangster film I've ever seen.
And this is not the movie where Cagney says, "Top of the world, ma!" That's White Heat, which I've never seen.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Die Lichte Das Grosstadt*

This week, the American Film Institute revised their list of the top 100 movies of all-time. The list, first published in 1997, was updated to include any films released in the past ten years. And while there were some new films added, the most newsworthy event of this new compilation was how some titles changed their positions.

Take City Lights. On the original list, it was number 76. But in the past ten years, its stature must have grown, because on the new list it vaulted all the way to number 11.

I like the film, don't get me wrong. It's cute and it has extrememly funny moments. The boxing scene includes some of the funniest moments in film history. And the famous final scene is touching. But the eleventh best film of all time? I don't think so.

Look, it sounds like I hated City Lights. I didn't. When I watched it tonight, I was never bored and I never cringed at anything I saw. Chaplin's critics call him too maudlin, but I think that's what makes his movies timeless. The emotion is so basic that we can all relate. Also, his use of sound in this film was ingenious. Not wanting to give the Little Tramp a voice since the character had never spoken before, Chaplin used only sound effects and music to convey his story. He took a gamble that the film would alienate audiences at the time since all anyone wanted to see were talking pictures, but he didn't, and the movie's obviously gone on to become the eleventh best film of all-time.

(To be honest, I hate lists like these. They're just shallow attempts at nostalgia, and more often than not they fail miserably because everyone concentrates on the negative aspects - what was left off, what was kept on - than the positive ones. Still, if it inspires some kid who doesn't like black and white silent movies to give City Lights or The Gold Rush a look, they can't be all bad.)

*The title of this post is the official German title of City Lights. The DVD includes a German trailer, one of the most bizzare things I've ever seen. It's nothing but short clips of the movie underneath an announcer screaming gibberish like "Morgan! Heute! Gestern!" ("This Morning! Today! Yesterday!") What time periods have to do with City Lights, I have no idea.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Hooper's Pizzeria

Found this on Youtube today. It's a mash-up of Spike Lee's classic Do the Right Thing and the beloved children's program Sesame Street, using the old Fisher Price set I owned when I was a kid. (Although I must have had the basic version of the set, because there are a lot more Muppets in this skit than I ever had.) It gets a little lame towards the end, but the first half made me laugh hysterically.

Mr. Hooper must be spinning in his grave.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Elvis Was a Cajun

See Once. It's been dubbed an "art house musical" by its director, which is a pretty apt description of the film. A busker (street musician) meets a Czech woman on the streets of Dublin, they form a friendship and begin collaborating on music. It's a nice meditation on how music can bring people together and inspire their lives. It's nice to see two characters - a man and a woman - bond without the film trying to cram a romance between them down our throats. The movie is a romance, just not a typical one. It reminded me a lot of Lost in Translation, only with better music and without the self-importance that that film had. (And the characters are roughly the same age, which eliminated the creepiness factor of that film.)

But here's the best part: The lead actor was one of the musicians in The Commitments. He was one of the three members of And And And. Guitar player. Once has a lot in common with The Commitments, and not just its setting. No soul music in Once, though.

Sure, I could bitch about the mid-section of the film, especially a seriously cheesy moment when a character goes to a drug store and breaks into song on her way home. (It was the only moment in the film that didn't feel real.) Or I could complain about the music which, while good, still felt like leftover Damien Rice tracks. And there's a silly section with a motorbike that should have been rewritten. But those are minor problems. I highly recommend this movie. See it if you get a chance.

"Elvis was a cajun, he had a cajun heart..."

"That's fuckin' blasphomy!"

Monday, June 18, 2007

Brand New Key

Check out the new toy. Yep, my entry into the 21st century is now complete. A few years back I finally broke down and bought a cell phone and now, as of today, I own a laptop. I can now access the Interenet pretty much wherever and whenever I want to. Wires are for losers!

Of course, my PC had to die a miserable Unmountable Boot Error death in order for me to buy a new laptop, but those are just small details. Sure, I could have rebuilt the PC, but I'm about to assistant direct a show - as well as direct a show next spring - so my excuse was that I could use a new laptop for notes and stuff. This will be a good thing, since I lost what little writing ability I had around 1996 when I started using computers all the damn time.

This is my first experience with Windows Vista. It's pretty cool, a bit mac-y, but easy to use. It sure does love its pop-up windows telling me all sorts of info, that's for sure. Those will all be disabled soon.

And that picture above is the cleanest you'll ever see my desk. Take a note of it.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Old Man

Father's Day. Spent the day at Mom and Dad's doing Father's Day type stuff, like playing many games of Ping Pong, all of which my father easily won. (Or did I let him win, since it was his big day? I will never tell.) We also conned my mother into making homemade macaroni and cheese for dinner. My mother's secret ingredient for that dish? Cheese. Lots and lots of cheese. She put three pounds of the stuff into the mix, and even then she said she "didn't have enough." If I die of clogged arteries tomorrow, at least you will all know I died a happy man.

In other news, it is never going to rain again. I'd like to thank Mother Nature for helping me with my goal of keeping up the yardwork this summer. It's very easy when everything has died.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Beginning of a Long Project

After a steady diet of mostly modern garbage - seriously, how many pointless sequels can be released in one summer? - I've decided to go back into film history and watch some older titles. (Basically, I took my DVD owned list and my DVD wish list, mashed 'em together and sorted them by year. The plan is to watch them all chronologically, either renting or buying the ones I don't already have. We'll see how far I get.) First up was 1925's The Gold Rush, one of Charlie Chaplin's many masterpieces.

There is seriously very little wrong with this film. The narrative is pretty tight, the acting is hilarious, and nearly every scene is a classic. There's the rolls-as-shoes bit. The eating-a-shoe bit. The house-on-the-edge-of-the-cliff bit. But they all pale in comparison to my favorite moment of the movie, the starving-man-hallucinates-and-thinks-his-friend-is-a-chicken bit. Chaplin is easily the screen's best chicken. Funny stuff.

I have about three silent films on my list, because a) I haven't seen many and b) a lot of silent movies have long since been destroyed by film disintegration. I have seen some Buster Keaton stuff, which I enjoyed but not enough to watch again. Keaton's movies, while clever, have never been nothing more than technically funny films. They're executed brilliantly, but they're very cold. Chaplin's movies, on the other hand, are not only stuffed with physically impressive sequences, they also have a lot of heart. It's that emotional element that makes his films succesful.

More on this film journey as I take it. See, I told you I was going to blog more often.

I'm The Blog Who Loves You

Just got back from the Wilco concert. For all you Wilco fans, here's what they played:

Shot In The Arm
Side With The Seeds
You Are My Face
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
Handshake Drugs
War On War
Impossible Germany
Sky Blue Sky
Jesus, Etc.
Hate It Here
Shake It Off
I'm The Man Who Loves You

Sunken Treasure

Heavy Metal Drummer
Outta Sight (Outta Mind)
California Stars

We missed the first three songs due to a lack of parking spaces around the Murat. Which sucks, because "Shot in the Arm" is one of my favorites. Oh, well, maybe next time.

The band was at the top of their game. "Outta Sight (Outta Mind)" was a lot of fun, as was "I'm the Man Who Loves You". And seeing Jeff Tweedy run in place during the outro to "Hummingbird" was worth the price of admission alone. I was kind of hoping to hear "Misunderstood", since the live version on Kicking Television is phenomenal, but they opted not to play it. And no Uncle Tupelo stuff, which I didn't expect but was secretly hoping for. When are they going to reunite?

But don't take my word for it. The band has officially archived the concert on their website so you can listen and judge for yourself. Here you go. How cool is that?

Look, pictures on the blog! This thing just keeps evolving. Now I just need to update more often and we'll all be set...

Next concert: The Police in Minneapolis.