Anomalisa (2015)


Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has completed only a small handful of features since his 1999 debut (“Being John Malkovich”), yet despite his relatively sparse output, his name and reputation loom large, particularly among those cinephiles whose tastes run toward the edgy and intellectual.  His narratives, which seem to flow from dream logic rather than dramatic structure, are more like psychological case studies disguised as heavily symbolic brain-teasers, inhabited by figures that feel less like individual characters and more like shattered fragments of a single personality.  His latest effort takes the form of an animated film, but though “Anomalisa” is markedly different in its execution, it is cut from the same unmistakable cloth.

Kaufman’s screenplay is adapted from his own “sound play” of the same title, and, for the second time (the first was for 2008’s “Synecdoche, New York”), he steps into the director’s chair, as well- though he shares it with co-producer Duke Johnson.  It focuses on Michael Stone, a successful self-help author who travels to a Cincinnati hotel in order to speak at a conference.  Though he is an expert on interpersonal relations, Michael is unable to distinguish people as individuals.  Everyone with whom he interacts possesses the same male face and voice- even the women- until he encounters Lisa, a young woman attending his seminar.  She is distinctively herself within the sea of homogeneous banality that surrounds him, and he begins to hope she can at last release him from the boredom and isolation he has felt for so long.

The above description may not read like the synopsis to an animated film, but “Anomalisa” is no ordinary animated film.  Shot in stop motion style, it utilizes puppets partly manufactured by 3-D printing, resulting in a somewhat unsettling effect that is simultaneously stylized and naturalistic.  It’s an effective style for the story being told; the world of the movie seems concrete enough to anchor it in reality, allowing us to forget the animated format as we are gradually drawn into the premise.  Much of the credit for this aspect of “Anomalisa” belongs to co-director Johnson, who supervised the creation of its technically stunning, intricately detailed animation.

The content of “Anomalisa,” while equally as creative as its visuals, is perhaps less innovative- at least to those familiar with Kaufman.  As with most of his work, it’s an observational fable that takes place within a Kafkaesque landscape of psychological dysfunction.  It challenges our ideas about the nature of identity and explores the effects of perception on our experience of the world around us.  It presents characters unable to make the emotional connections they desperately desire, who live in private bubbles of perspective and fumble blindly in their interactions with others.  And then there are the puppets; puppets have always figured prominently in Kaufman’s imagination, and here, they even take the place of live actors.  To say the film revisits Kaufman’s recurring themes is by no means a negative criticism, however.  On the contrary, those themes strike deep and resonant chords; they always yield new insights into our shared human experience, and the writer’s quirky imagination ensures that his work is always full of surprises.

Though the provocative ideas and visuals are the real stars here, credit also goes to the fine work of the voice cast.  David Thewlis (as Michael), Jennifer Jason Leigh (as Lisa), and Tom Noonan (as everyone else) eschew the usual exaggerated vocal styling of animation in favor of a nuanced, naturalistic approach.  Their effectiveness is likely due in large part to the fact that all three performed their roles in the original play, as well.  Composer Carter Burwell also carries over from the stage version (he actually produced it), contributing a delicate, moody score which perfectly serves the melancholy tone of the overall piece.

“Anomalisa” is certainly melancholy, even dark.  In addition to its complex and mature themes, it features profanity, full-frontal nudity, and even a somewhat explicit sex scene.  Needless to say, it is not for children, despite being an animated film.  Many adults might also have a hard time with it; its intellectualism, coupled with its stylistic conceit, creates an emotional distance that may leave some viewers cold.  This is a frequent issue with Kaufman’s introspective creations, but as always, those willing to stick with it will find that it has a lot of heart hiding under all its conceptual constructs.  There’s also a lot of humor in the mix.  Despite the philosophical weightiness of his material, Kaufman never takes himself too seriously; he somehow always manages to be both thought-provoking and entertaining, and it is this that makes him one of the most original voices in American film.  “Anomalisa” is a worthy entry to his canon, and like most of his work, it fully deserves to be called essential viewing.


Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Beasts of the Southern Wild (poster)


Today’s cinema adventure: Beasts of the Southern Wild, the 2012 first feature from director Benh Zeitlin, a movie which rose from acclaim in the festival circuit to become hailed as one of the best films of the year.  The story of a little girl and her father who face the destruction of their way of life as rising sea levels threaten to submerge their Louisiana fishing community, it not only took top awards at the Sundance, Los Angeles, and Cannes film festivals (among many others), it also surprised many industry insiders by earning nominations for several Academy Awards- including Best Picture, Best Actress (for Quvenzhané Wallis, at 9 years old the youngest person nominated to date for this award), and Best Director, with newcomer Zeitlin edging out several favored contenders to gain his slot in the latter category.

Adapted by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar from the latter’s one-act play, Juicy and Delicious, the film unfolds through the perspective of Hushpuppy, a 5-year-old black girl who is part of an isolated community on the Isle de Charles Doucet, known to its residents as “the Bathtub,” an island in the mouth of the Mississippi River delta at the southernmost edge of Louisiana.  Following a generations-long tradition, the people of the Bathtub eke out their simple existence by harvesting the riches of the sea; they are separated from the wider world by geography- and the levee which protects the population of the north from the fluctuations of the tides and the weather- but they are fiercely proud of their heritage and their independence, despite the precarious nature of their existence at the mercy of the ever-rising sea levels.  Little Hushpuppy- though she lives by herself in a separate house- is under the care of Wink, her short-tempered but loving father; she is also, like all the children of the community, under the watchful eye of Miss Bathsheba, the island’s schoolteacher, who tells them how the melting ice caps will cause the ocean to eventually submerge the Bathtub.  Her lessons also include stories about their prehistoric ancestors and the fierce wild beasts- the aurochs- which preyed upon them.  These things have a deep impact upon Hushpuppy’s inner life- she imagines the great aurochs slowly being released from their frozen sleep by the melting ice, and slowly making their way towards the Bathtub.  She also maintains an imaginary relationship with her long-absent mother, as well as making drawings which she intends to be found by “scientists of the future.”  As for Wink, his health is clearly deteriorating; he disappears for days, eventually returning in a hospital gown, and he sometimes collapses into a near-catatonic state, but he refuses to acknowledge this weakness to his daughter.  An approaching storm soon supersedes all other concerns, and though some islanders opt to abandon their homes for higher ground, many stubbornly refuse to leave.  Wink and Hushpuppy weather the violent storm, but when it subsides, the Bathtub is flooded underneath several feet of water.  The two form a camp with fellow survivors to wait for the flood to recede, but their hardships are only beginning; the salt water lingers, slowly killing the land beneath it, until Wink develops a desperate plan to solve the problem by sabotaging the levee.  The resulting consequences could lead to the islanders’ forced evacuation from the land they love, as well as the separation of father and daughter.  As the aurochs grow nearer in Hushpuppy’s imagination, she resolves to undertake a journey which might help her to flee the troubles which have enveloped her world- or to find the answers and the strength she needs to face them.

Zeitlin’s movie is a remarkably unique accomplishment, to be sure.  He takes us into a world most of us have never seen or even known about, revealing its conditions with a documentarian’s style while using it as the basis for a multi-layered metaphor infused with humor, drama, and fantasy, one that addresses human concerns from the most basic and primal to the most pressing and contemporary.  With a restless, hyper-mobile camera, mostly utilized for extreme close-ups and wide establishing shots, he pieces together a clear, compelling narrative that grabs us from the beginning and keeps us riveted throughout.  He tells his story through impressions, a whirlwind of fleeting images that somehow conveys all the pertinent information we need to follow the plot and connect with the emotional reality of its people, while also suggesting the perspective of its tiny lead character on the constantly-fluctuating reality that surrounds her.  This is all the more remarkable in light of the fact that he never looked at any of the raw footage from the shooting process until it was time to edit the film into completed form.  Any of these feats alone would be enough to mark Zeitlin as a gifted young director; taken all together, they herald him as a prodigy.

All of his prowess behind the camera would be for naught, however, if not for the casting of young Wallis in the film’s central role.  At 6, she possesses more screen charisma than that shown by any number of established starlets in their entire careers, and the sheer power of her diminutive presence is enough to make Beasts of the Southern Wild an unforgettable film.  It’s one of the most impressive film debuts in recent memory, and certainly one of the strongest juvenile performances in cinematic history; Zeitlin builds his movie around it, and it never comes up short.  Of course, considering the young lady’s age- and the certain fact that film is a director’s medium- it is possible that Wallis’ formidable performance may be at least partly the result of careful editing, pieced together by Zeitlin himself to achieve maximum effect; even if this were the case, however, the little girl’s presence, personality, and raw honesty are undeniably on display, and these qualities cannot be faked even by the most gifted film technician.  She is well-deserving of all the kudos she has received.  She is ably supported by Dwight Henry, as her father; a non-professional, like the rest of the film’s cast, he is a New Orleans’ bakery owner whose life experience as a survivor of two real-life hurricanes- Betsy in his childhood, and Katrina as an adult- helps to infuse his performance with an innate understanding of the precariousness of his character’s situation, and he is equally capable of capturing the volatile psychological chemistry that makes Wink both charismatic and intimidating.  The rest of the cast is as authentic a collection of local faces and personalities as ever seen in a fictional film, underscoring the documentary feel and helping to transport us completely into the unfamiliar world it depicts.

There are any number of reasons why Beasts of the Southern Wild is an excellent and exciting piece of filmmaking, the aforementioned performances and direction among the foremost.  For many viewers, it will doubtless be considered great; for me, however, despite its many strengths, it falls just short of that mark.  For all its imagination, its blend of harsh social realism and youthful fantasy is held together by a plot that is ultimately as typically “Hollywood” as any mainstream studio family picture you might think of.  Zeitlin and Alibar’s screenplay undertakes from the very beginning to tug at our heartstrings in a manner which would seem insultingly blatant if not for the film’s edgy style, and despite the seemingly detached empiricism of the director’s approach, Beasts of the Southern Wild has a calculated feel in the way it manipulates our sympathies throughout.  We never really get the chance to make up our own minds about how we feel towards Hushpuppy, Wink, or the Bathtub itself and its way of life; we are guided to our conclusions by Zeitlin’s steamroller approach to the story.  Of course, it is a work of fiction, so there are no aesthetic or ethical reasons why the writing and direction should not be designed to elicit a desired response from the viewer; and it’s not as if the movie lacks any sincerity- on the contrary, it’s clear throughout that it is a work of deeply heartfelt passion.  Nevertheless, there is a heavy-handed quality to the narrative that ultimately leaves us feeling less satisfied than wheedled into submission.

This is not to say that Zeitlin’s film is a failure, by any means; Beasts of the Southern Wild is a refreshing example of the kind of cinematic magic that can be created outside of the numbers-driven system of mainstream movie-making, and it leaves an indelible impression upon any viewer.  Audiences whose tastes run towards sentimentality will undoubtedly find it an exceptionally rich experience, and even those who prefer a less “precious” approach will be moved by it, if not overwhelmed.  It may not be the masterpiece that some have hailed it to be, but it’s still an impressive work of art by a promising young director.  To be truthful, Quvenzhané Wallis alone provides a good enough reason to see it; but beyond her remarkable performance, there is also a thought-provoking and resonant meditation on the nature of human existence in the universe, both as individuals and as a whole, which contemplates everything from parental bonds to global warming and manages to leave us with a thrilling sense of hope and possibility despite a story which dwells in desperation and dysfunction.  It’s a rare film that can pull off a trick like that, and even if some of the trickery might be a little obvious, it’s still an accomplishment that deserves to be lauded.



Les Miserables (2012)

Les Miserables (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Les Misérables, the 2012 film adaptation of the hit stage musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, based in turn on the classic 1862 Victor Hugo novel of the same name.  Affectionately referred to as “Les Miz” by many of its legion of fans, the show had one of the longest runs in both London and Broadway history, as well as hundreds of international and touring productions, and continues to be a major draw in theaters around the world to this day; needless to say, the blockbuster film version, in development (off-and-on) for nearly 25 years, had a sizable built-in audience awaiting its debut on Christmas Day.  Directed by Tom Hooper, who was at the helm of 2010’s Oscar-winner, The King’s Speech, and produced with heavy involvement from the show’s original creators, including producer Cameron Mackintosh, it has opened to mostly positive reviews, already scored multiple nominations and wins among the various year-end film awards, and been greeted -if the crowded audience I saw it with was any clear indication- with wildly enthusiastic response from the public.

Adapted for the screen by William Nicholson, the floridly romantic score by Boublil and Schönberg (with English lyrics translated by Herbert Kretzmer) makes it to the screen remarkably intact, a rarity in Hollywood transpositions of stage musicals, with very few passages removed and a minimum of strategic re-ordering; consequently, as with the original production, almost the entire story is told through singing, with only a smattering of spoken dialogue.  The epic tale begins, as does the novel, in 1815 France, a country that has reverted to despotic monarchy only a few short years after its bloody revolution deposed the reigning aristocracy.  We are introduced to two men: Jean Valjean, a hardened convict who is being paroled after spending 19 years on a chain gang for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family; and Javert, the strict and stalwart policeman who oversees their labor.  Upon Valjean’s release, his status as a paroled felon prevents him from finding work or shelter, and the cruelty and humiliation he suffers reinforce his hatred and mistrust of humanity, until an act of kindness by an elderly bishop inspires him to transform his life and dedicate himself to God.  He knows he cannot live under the draconian terms of his parole, however, and so he tears up his papers, vowing to begin a new life.  The story then shifts 8 years into the future, when Valjean has established himself under a new identity as a successful factory owner and is now the mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, a small seaport city.  One of his workers, a young woman named Fantine, is dismissed by the foreman when it is discovered that she is an unwed mother; with no job, she is unable to send support for her child- a little girl named Cosette who is in the care of a tavern-keeper and his wife in a nearby town- and she soon discovers her only avenue is to join the ranks of the town’s prostitutes.  Meanwhile, Valjean is made uneasy by the arrival of the town’s new police inspector- none other than Javert himself, whose suspicions are aroused by the mayor’s familiar appearance.  When Fantine, now gravely ill, is arrested in an altercation with an abusive “customer,” Valjean intervenes, and promises his dying former employee that he will take care of the child she leaves behind; but when he learns that another man has been mistaken for him and arrested in his name, he knows he cannot secure his own freedom at the expense of an innocent soul.  He reveals his identity to the court, then evades Javert in order to rescue little Cosette from her cruel guardians and flee with her to Paris, where he disappears into yet another life- this time as a loving and protective father.  Another 9 years go by; Valjean and the now-grown Cosette live in comfortable but secluded anonymity, and Javert now patrols the streets of Paris, where poverty and social injustice have bred a new generation of revolutionaries- a band of students under the leadership of the charismatic Enjolras.  One of their number, Marius, becomes smitten with Cosette when they see each other in the street; but their budding romance is interrupted by fate, as her former foster parents, the scheming Thénardiers (now also living in Paris, with their real daughter, Eponine), have recognized Valjean, prompting the longtime fugitive to plan an escape to England with his beloved ward.  On the eve of their departure, the student rebellion begins, throwing Paris into turmoil and bringing the destinies of the characters together for a climactic confrontation that will determine all of their fates forever.

In the original stage version of the musical, numerous liberties were taken with Hugo’s original novel, in the interest of simplifying the complex narrative and restructuring it for the needs of theatrical presentation; even so, through clever staging and production design, the epic sweep of the original was captured and maintained in a way that helped to redefine and reassert the musical theater art form for a new generation.  In re-expanding the story from the confines of the stage to the endless possibilities of the cinematic format, screenwriter Nicholson and director Hooper have returned to the source material for inspiration in filling in the background details, which successfully fleshes out the saga with the epic stature it deserves, but they have faithfully maintained the plot structure of Boublil and Schönberg’s version.  Part of this may be because of the involvement of Mackintosh, whose insistence on keeping the integrity of the show has been a factor throughout its history, and also because any significant changes would doubtless awaken the wrath of the musical’s sizable army of devoted followers, thereby alienating the lion’s share of their target audience.  Whatever the reason behind it, the decision to present the musical largely as written has resulted, perhaps ironically, in a brave and groundbreaking piece of filmmaking; since the decline of the film musical as a viable box office draw in the late 1960s, and particularly since the undeniably brilliant screen version of Cabaret directed by Bob Fosse in 1972, Hollywood has had a fear of allowing the conceits of the genre to be manifested onscreen.  To put it simply, the idea of characters breaking out into song and dance in order to express themselves fell from fashion with the rise of a jaded generation raised on contemporary realism; the “hokiness” of musicals was rejected by an audience that associated it with the values of their parents’ era, and filmmakers have since been reluctant to put them on the big screen without justifying the song-and-dance elements by the use of some stylized approach- usually separating them from the narrative by treating them as fantasy or by presenting them as staged performances within the world of the film.  There have been few movie musicals over the course of the last two or three decades, and with few exceptions they have largely been lackluster efforts which have failed to score with either critics or audiences.  In recent years, however, the popularity of the Broadway musical has undergone a sort of revival in the popular imagination, and the comparative success of such stage-to-film transitions as Hairspray and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has given tentative indication that audience acceptance for such fare is growing in movie houses, as well.  With Les Misérables, Hollywood takes the bold step of returning to the traditional approach, at last permitting the musical score to be performed, without qualification or apology, as the primary medium through which the story is told.  Unlike Hairspray, with its kitshy camp sensibilty, or Sweeney Todd, with its dark, cartoonish stylization, Les Misérables is grounded in a gritty period realism, and yet its characters express not only their inner monologues through song, they converse, confront and comfort each other through it as well.  In today’s cinema, such a basic, play-as-written approach to such material seems a novel concept, and it is precisely for this reason that it breaks free of its theatrical roots and comes to life as pure cinema.

To be sure, it takes a little adjusting for audiences unused to the genre, and even for those familiar with it.  The spectacular opening sequence, in which scores of rough-edged prisoners drag the enormous wrecked hull of a sunken ship while they sing of the cruelty and hopelessness of their existence, thrusts us immediately into the film’s operatic milieu, without fanfare or warning; it’s a jarring, alien experience, at first, but the utter conviction with which it is performed and presented soon carry us into acceptance, and by the time the story comes to its final fruition 150-odd minutes later the cumulative power of the score rewards us with an emotional catharsis rarely achieved by standard, non-musical methods.  That is, it rewards those who are able to surrender to it; there are undeniably viewers who simply don’t like musicals, and no amount of discussion about the aesthetics or traditions of the genre is likely to persuade them to open their minds to Les Misérables.  Make no mistake, this is a hardcore musical, and anyone who has trouble suspending their disbelief in a world where thieves, prostitutes and soldiers sing in unison would be well-advised to steer clear.  At the risk of seeming confrontational, I might also say they would be well-advised not to try and spoil it for the rest of us.

Of course, there are also those who, as die-hard fans of the musical, will be coming into the theater with their own high standards and expectations about the piece; “Les Miz” aficionados generally have their favorite recordings of the show, with every vocal and instrumental nuance memorized by heart, or perhaps envision a “dream cast” in which their favorite performers from the various productions might somehow be united into one perfect rendition if the show.  These viewers are likely to be disappointed in what they see (and hear) here, as, indeed, they would be bound to be with any version of the piece short of the one they have in their imagination.  In fact, it’s probably fair to say that anyone who is a stickler for “legit” singing will probably have difficulty accepting the vocal performances in Les Misérables; though its cast is composed primarily of actors who are trained and experienced singers, the film’s highly unusual approach to capturing their vocals has yielded a different sound than might be anticipated.  In order to focus on the immediacy and spontaneity of the scenes- particularly since virtually the entire film is sung- the decision was made to forego the usual technique of pre-recording all the songs and lip-syncing to a playback on the set during filming.  Instead, the actors sang everything live on camera, with a piano providing accompaniment through concealed earpieces and the full orchestral underscore being added in post-production.  The result of this approach is a raw, improvisational quality- decidedly different from the meticulously phrased, measured delivery found on most musical theater recordings- that gives the songs an unpredictable, electric vitality; it is not the first time such a tactic has been employed, but it is certainly the most extensive use of it to date, and though it may not satisfy the ears of purists, it creates a hitherto unseen level of honesty in the performances, with each actor given the opportunity to fully express emotional reality in the moment without being hindered by a forced layer of artificiality.  This is not to say that the vocals are in any way inadequate- on the contrary, the cast of Les Misérables is more than capable of the meeting the demands of the material- but rather that they do not adhere to expectations; there is understatement where there is usually bombast and vice versa, and tempos are stretched or tightened according to interpretive need (all dictated, incidentally, by the actors themselves), giving the familiar score a freshness and an urgency that would have been impossible had the performers merely attempted to recreate the sound of those who have gone before.

To execute these performances, Hooper has assembled an ensemble of prestigious actors that, though they may not constitute a typical “Les Miz dream cast,” certainly lay claim to their iconic roles and bring them to life with a clear and infectious relish.  Heading this gallery of versatile “A-listers” is Hugh Jackman as Valjean, finally given the chance to bring to the screen the skills that made him a star on the musical stage before his days as an action-adventure star.  Those who know him only as Wolverine may well be surprised by his magnificent performance here; his renditions of Valjean’s signature songs display his prodigious musical talent and his clear, soaring tenor voice while bringing a depth and emotional immediacy that make them completely his own, and he charts this archetypal character’s journey from hardened thug to selfless benefactor with a brave and powerful range, finding surprising nuances of strength and vulnerability that continually remind us of his humanity.  As Javert, Russell Crowe is perhaps less noticeably effective, due to his stoic, seemingly emotionless presence as this ultimate champion of the letter of the law; his singing is metered and free of all but the sparsest of ornamentation, and he avoids playing into potentially passionate moments with the rigorous restraint of an ascetic.  For some, this approach to the character may seem like a missed opportunity, but in fact it is a remarkably honest interpretation, faithful to Hugo’s original portrayal, of a character whose life is devoted to a code which permits no room for personal choice; Javert does his duty, nothing more, and Crowe is to be commended for resisting the temptation to add showy flourishes.  Anne Hathaway, as the tragic Fantine, delivers the film’s standout performance, a heartbreaking portrait of a young woman driven to desperation by the cruel oppression of her time, and her stunning performance of the musical’s best-known song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” is destined to go down in cinema history as one of those great, unforgettable scenes that shows up in montages paying tribute to classic moments from the movies.  As the Thénardiers, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter provide double-edged comic relief in roles that could probably be described as the “Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter” characters- which may sound like a bit of a dig, but in fact it is a testament to their skill at portraying these kinds of audaciously unpleasant types.  They seem absolutely right as this pair of opportunistic reprobates, and it is hard to imagine anyone else playing them.  As Marius, the immensely gifted Eddie Redmayne truly shines, taking this crucial character and making him a likable, genuine young man with a passionate soul, and not just another handsome romantic juvenile; his own belief in his “love at first sight” is so sincere, we are swept up in it easily- and not just because we accept the convention as a necessary part of the story-, and later in the film, his rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, a mournful elegy to his fallen companions and an expression of his own post-traumatic-shock demons, is riveting and heart-rendingly real.  As Cosette, Amanda Seyfried is likewise believably dimensional, rising above the level of mere ingénue, and though her character gives her less chance to stand out, she invests it with so much charm and life that it seems she has a much bigger role than she really does.  Samantha Barks, one of the two principal cast members to have previously played their role onstage, gives a sweet and sad performance as Eponine, capturing the simultaneous joy and despair of her own signature number, “On My Own,” without the affectation that its heart-tugging mixture of despair and joy might inspire in a lesser performer.  Broadway actor Aaron Tveit makes a compelling Enjolras, brandishing a powerfully eloquent singing voice and a piercing intensity that perfectly embodies the enigmatic young revolutionary and makes him utterly convincing as a figure that might inspire other young men to follow him to their deaths; young Daniel Huttlestone (the other “Les Miz” stage veteran) easily wins our affections as the scrappy Gavroche, giving us just enough of the “precocious urchin” persona to make him familiar without adding the sentimentality that would turn him into a cliche; similarly, Isabelle Allen plays the young Cosette without cloying cuteness, delivering her song, “Castle on a Cloud,” with endearing honesty and refreshing simplicity.  Indeed, every member of the cast, from the cadre of student rebels to the gaggle of gossipy factory women, does stellar work and provides a memorable contribution to the whole, making Les Misérables feel like a true ensemble effort. Lastly, in a fitting touch that adds a certain intangible resonance to the proceedings, Colm Wilkinson, the Irish folk-singer-turned-actor who became an international star when he originated the role of Valjean in both the London and Broadway productions, makes a cameo appearance, giving an all-too-brief, transcendent performance as the Bishop of Digne, whose act of kindness sets Valjean on the path to redemption.  It’s also worth a mention that many of the film’s extras and “chorus” members are also alumni of stage productions of the show, including original Eponine Frances Ruffelle, who plays a fairly sizable role as a prostitute.  Their involvement is a testament to the powerful spell of the show, which engenders a lasting bond and loyalty among those who have participated in it and consider themselves all to be part of a family- a family which has every reason to be proud of its newest members, who have joined their ranks through this film.

With such a collection of fine performances on display, it is only right that the film should deliver an equally impressive production to showcase them; thanks to the efforts of Tom Hooper and his creative staff, it does better than that.  Les Misérables goes beyond the perfunctory spectacle provided by its painstaking recreation of 19th Century France and endeavors to re-invent the classic film musical in terms of contemporary cinematic approach.  Hooper does not rely on traditional methods of capturing the show for the screen, but utilizes the language of modern filmmaking to bring the experience into the 21st Century, complete with CG enhancements, rapid editing, and extensive use of steadi-cam photography.  To be sure, there are times when the constant visual motion of the film threatens to overwhelm, and one can’t help but feel that certain moments- particularly in the numerous “arias,” mostly shot in tight close-up to capture the intimacy of the experience- might have been better served with the occasional use of a wider angle lens; certainly, in some of the bigger musical sequences, for example the musical montage, “One Day More,” a more expansive perspective feels needed in order to give full reign to the magnitude of the forces in play.  There is a trade-off to be made here, though; after all, film is an entirely different medium than theater, and it is fitting that a movie should provide an experience impossible to receive from a stage performance.  There is little point to constructing a motion picture that endeavors only to recreate what has already been seen on stage, beyond preserving it for archival purposes, though this is precisely the approach that has been taken with many stage-to-screen transfers; the best cinematic transpositions of theatrical pieces come when a director re-imagines the material without attempting to make the camera lens a mere substitute for a proscenium arch.  Hooper has made his epic with this clearly in mind, and his eye for exploring the visual possibilities of the art form, from the repeated use of overhead perspective to the vastness of the crowded streets of Paris to the closer-than-close revelation of every subtle shift of expression in the performers’ faces.  In particular, he exploits the advantage of realism in the depiction of the crushing conditions of 19th Century poverty, an important factor of the story that can, on stage, only be suggested (or worse, glossed over), as well the contrasting Empire-era opulence of the salons and gardens of the wealthy. Set against the impressive splendor of the production design by Eve Stewart, clothed in the sumptuous authenticity of Paco Delgado’s costumes, and captured with the larger-than-life digital graininess of Danny Cohen’s pseudo-cinema-verité photography, Les Misérables meets and exceeds any reasonable standard for visual style, and- from a technical standpoint, at least, regardless of how picky audiences may respond to the interpretation of the content- provides a total movie-going experience worthy of its beloved source material.

Once again, it seems, I am in the position of having to make full disclosure of the fact that I am, in fact, a fan.  Though I have personally had an ambivalent relationship with the musical theater genre (as opposed to outright film musicals, of which I am an unrepentant enthusiast), Les Misérables is a piece which captured me from the very first time I heard it, and I have seen several stage productions over the years (including the original Broadway run);though its pop-opera format might seem, for some, to cheapen the translucent sincerity of Hugo’s masterful novel, its message of humanism and social awareness shines through in a way that never fails to leave me deeply moved and inspired.  Though this long-awaited film version is not, nor could it ever have been, a perfect rendition, and though I will admit to finding myself overly critical of details and choices throughout as I watched it (on opening day, of course), in the final analysis I have only praise to give it.  The deciding factor for me lies in the simple fact that, at the end, not only was I personally affected by the emotional upheaval to which it carried me- despite my every-lyric-by-heart familiarity with the show- but my companion, a skeptical died-in-the-wool disparager of musicals, was also moved to a prodigious outpouring of tears, as was, indeed, every member of the packed audience.  Make no mistake about it, Les Misérables is a tear-jerker of the highest order, and the enormity of its scope only serves to intensify its effectiveness as such.  If such fare is normally unappealing to you, or if you are one of those aforementioned musical non-lovers, you might want to skip this one, no matter how many awards it may end up getting.  You might want to, but my advice is: don’t.  Go and see it.  Give it a chance.  Like my companion, you may find yourself unexpectedly opened up and transported to a new level of appreciation for the possibilities of the genre.  It’s not a guarantee, but Les Misérables has the power to affect such a softening of the heart, and this movie largely succeeds in capturing the qualities that give it that power.  Those qualities, ultimately, rest in the soul of the story, and not in its spectacle; Les Misérables is not about revolution, nor romance, nor social injustice, nor even the desire for a better life- an oft-repeated theme within its narrative, and one from which it admittedly derives a great deal of its humanistic appeal.  It’s about the redemption which comes from the simple Christian ethic of self-sacrifice, of caring more for another than for oneself; this principal is embodied in the story of Jean Valjean, which remains the central focus throughout the interwoven subplots and ultimately yields the final epiphany towards which the entire saga builds.  When it comes, the catharsis which results from our sharing of it is powerful and cleansing, and no matter what quibbles you may or may not have about this or that detail of the film’s interpretation of the musical, they seem inconsequential in the face of that experience.  In that sense, Les Misérables completely succeeds in its purpose, and at the end of the day (if you’ll pardon the expression) you can’t expect more than that.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Today’s cinema adventure: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the auspicious 1966 debut feature from director Mike Nichols, based on the much-lauded Pulitzer-winning play by Edward Albee and starring the superstar husband-and-wife team of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.  Filmed during a fiercely guarded, top-secret nocturnal shoot, it was an eagerly awaited production which became an instant classic upon its release, and the intensity of its subject matter- particularly its then-shocking language- dealt a death blow to the antiquated Hollywood “decency” standards that dated back to the Hays Code of the thirties, leading instead- along with Antonioni’s Blowup– to the development of the MPAA rating system still utilized in the U.S. today.  In essence a powerhouse four-character showcase for tour-de-force acting, it depicts a single night of alcohol-soaked socializing between an older and a younger couple which becomes a vicious, no-holds-barred battle over the pent-up secrets, frustration, shame, and resentments that plague both marriages.  It garnered several major acting awards, including a second Oscar for Taylor, whose reputation as an actress was considerably bolstered by her remarkable, career-changing performance.

Faithfully adapted from Albee’s play by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, the story focuses on George, a middle-aged history professor, and his wife Martha, the daughter of the president of the small New England college at which he teaches.  As they are returning home at 2 AM from a faculty mixer thrown by Martha’s father, George is startled to learn she has invited a new, younger professor and his mousy wife to join them for nightcaps; though he resigns himself to their visit, he admonishes Martha against broaching any taboo subjects in conversation- particularly the impending homecoming of the pair’s teenaged son from boarding school.  When the younger couple, Nick and Honey, arrive, Martha belligerently defies her husband’s stricture, goading him into an ugly game of one-upmanship in which they both exploit every possible weakness to humiliate and hurt each other, even using their hapless guests as pawns in a dysfunctional war of wits that- it becomes clear- has escalated throughout their long marriage.  As the night progresses, their own secrets are laid bare, as well as a few of Nick and Honey’s, revealing the depth of their misery, the lengths to which they have retreated into fantasy, the extent of their verbal and emotional abuse of each other, and- perhaps most surprisingly- the intensity of the love that still endures beneath all the anger, lies, and recriminations.  By the time the sun begins to rise, both of the weary couples have undergone a purging of pretense and illusion that will leave them irrevocably changed- at least, presumably, until the next drunken faculty party.

When Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway in 1962, its frank and explicit dialogue, coupled with its overt sexual implications and it’s harrowing emotional intensity, led many audiences and critics to believe it was an unfilmable play.  Though it was hailed as a masterpiece, and won both the Tony and Critics’ Circle awards for Best Play, such was the controversy surrounding its content that though it was chosen by the Pulitzer judges as the winner of the prize for drama, the advisory board for the awards refused to present it, instead choosing to withhold that years’ prize in the category.   Nevertheless, Warner Brothers studio pursued the rights from playwright Albee, and despite protests and warnings from the Catholic Advisory Board and the MPAA, went ahead with plans to produce a film version that preserved the majority of the play in its original, undiluted form.  In the end, a few minor concessions were made (“Screw you” was changed to “God damn you,” at least in the American edit) and the script was abridged slightly for length, but, for the most part, the film version was released with its profanity and sexual content intact- and, perhaps unsurprisingly, became a major hit.

Although the publicity over its controversial content no doubt played a role in its box office success, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has sustained its iconic status because it was never meant to be just a sensationalistic shock piece; the brilliance of Albee’s play crackles through every frame, with his dialogue virtually intact and his over-arcing vision maintained with an emphatic zeal for faithfulness.  Director Nichols, though already known as a wunderkind for his stage work, was making his film debut here; nevertheless he was given an unprecedented amount of freedom and control over the project, and his determination to translate the cathartic experience of the original work resulted in a film which brings the full, terrible power of the play to life.  Underneath the bombastic psychological warfare of its action, the saga of George and Martha’s walpurgisnacht is about the line between truth and illusion- more specifically, the dangers of living a life based on comforting lies and fantasy instead of frankly facing an unpleasant reality.  In mid-century America, it was a theme that hit very close to home; a generation after WWII, the cracks were beginning to show in the idyllic façade of the “American Dream,” and the growing discontent and disillusionment with its hollow ideals, which had long been voiced by the counterculture and its underground artists, had begun to find its way into the mainstream.  Virginia Woolf, with its portrait of a couple trapped in their nightmare of elaborate fictions and suppressed truth, provided a perfect catalyst for a nation afraid to face its own reality; and though its characters and setting are not overtly subversive, it is nevertheless a film which heralded the rise of anti-establishment sentiment in American cinema.  It’s telling that Nichols’ next movie, The Graduate, would be Hollywood’s first bona fide “youth culture” film to express criticism of the social status quo; Virginia Woolf is unmistakably cut from the same radical cloth.

As apt as this film was in capturing the zeitgeist of its era, the significance and power of its themes are undiminished by the passage of time; Albee’s magnificent play retains its relevance today, and this remarkable transcription of it seems as fresh and vital as if it were brand new.  Though its then-shocking profanity and its sexual frankness are now milder than much of our prime-time TV fare, the emotional intensity behind them makes for a fierceness that still leaves us reeling; it is not merely the saltier dialogue of Virginia Woolf that packs a punch, but the totality of its language- Albee’s dazzling symphony of words elicits responses on every level from the esoteric and intellectual to the visceral and primal, evoking laughter, horror, sorrow, fear, and every other conceivable reaction, in rapid succession and sometimes simultaneously.  By the end of this grueling evening of “fun and games” we are as stunned and exhausted as the film’s four characters, and like them, we are left facing the cold, unfriendly dawn in a world without illusions.  Of course, it’s not all dire depression and angst; Albee’s absurdist sensibilities are evident throughout, ensuring the continual interjection of ironic, dry, and dark humor, not to mention the considerable intelligence and wit he bestows upon his antagonistic protagonists.  Part of the great power of Virginia Woolf comes from its ability to elicit our laughter even as it is pummeling us with its existential themes and its social commentary.  Like the greatest of tragedies, it’s a play (and a film) that is full of out-and-out comedy, providing a much-needed release of tension and underscoring the ridiculousness of the human situation at the center of the drama.

Needless to say, the linguistic alchemy of Albee’s script would never work without the ability of a superb cast to bring it to life.  When Nichols chose Hollywood’s hottest power couple for the demanding roles of George and Martha, there was considerable skepticism over whether they would be up to the challenge.  Burton, of course, was well-established as a consummate actor, with copious legitimate training and a host of theatrical successes under his belt in addition to his film experience; his bride, however, was a different story.  Taylor had been a major star for two decades, and had previously proven herself as a superb actress (having already won an Oscar for her work in Butterfield 8, though many felt it was a sympathy prize); but she was primarily known for her remarkable beauty rather than her acting chops, and the role of Martha- a middle-aged, overweight, alcoholic harridan whose looks were meant to be faded, at best- was thought by most of the cognoscenti to be beyond her grasp.  Undeterred by preconceived doubts, the actress committed herself whole-heartedly to the part; she gained 30 lbs. in order to present the necessary voluptuous figure, and sank her teeth into Martha’s ugliness- both physical and spiritual- in order to do justice to the character.  Her embrace of these attributes does not result in a stereotyped, surface portrayal, however; her Martha is a monster, yes, but she is also every bit a woman- vulnerable, warm, loving, spiteful, frightened, jovial, capricious, calculating, and fully realized.  Taylor’s performance here is the crowning achievement of her career; far from being merely a star turn, it is an example of an actress claiming a role and making it so much her own that it is impossible to imagine another star playing it.  It probably goes without saying that her ferocity is matched at every step by her on- and off-screen husband; Burton, also giving a career-defining performance, gives us an unforgettable portrait of George, a character that has been described as an “angel with a devil’s tongue.”  Breathtakingly intelligent, unmistakably virile despite his crushing mantle of failure and disappointment, and compassionate behind the hostile irony of his icy mask, he takes us along on every step of George’s difficult journey, helping us to understand and to sympathize with a man who could easily come off as an impotent, disaffected snob, and making it clear that his task, like that of his sainted namesake, is to slay a dragon.  Together, Burton and Taylor become a force of nature, making George and Martha appear both as titanic archetypes of marital conflict and painfully real, fragile human beings, and convincingly conveying the familiarity and intimacy of a couple who have been through so much together they seem to think as one despite their embattled dynamic.

Though their roles are less showy, George Segal and Sandy Dennis, as Nick and Honey, respectively, are equally superb; as representatives of the younger generation, they enter the scene wearing the freshness and confidence of a new wave, seeming to embody the perfect picture of up-and-coming success that stands in stark contrast to the appalling discord of their hosts’ dilapidated lives.  It doesn’t take long for the shine to wear off, however; confronted with the harsh reality of their probable future reflected back at them in the grotesque form of their elders, their practiced poise begins to disintegrate, and their true natures begin to show through.  Segal’s Nick, hiding his own fears of inadequacy behind a smug golden-boy demeanor, lashes out with defensive hostility; while Dennis, a ball of barely-concealed insecurity as Honey, rapidly descends into a drunken spiral of infantile banality.  They provide the perfect foils for Burton and Taylor, helping to reveal the repeating pattern of self-deception at the core of the drama by giving us an example of a couple at the beginning of the cycle.  Dennis, like Taylor, won an Oscar, and both the men were deservedly nominated, as well, making this one of only three films ever to have gained Academy Award nominations for its entire credited cast (the others being Sleuth– the 1972 version, of course- and Give ‘Em Hell, Harry).

There are so many reasons to love Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Haskell Wexler’s magnificently stark black-and-white cinematography, which captures beauty and blemishes in equally loving detail; Alex North’s haunting and evocative chamber-music score; the completely authentic setting which moves you part and parcel into George and Martha’s cluttered, musty world of booze and bric-a-brac, revealing them both as members of the intelligentsia and as the world’s worst housekeepers; and of course, overseeing it all, the sure and steady direction of Mike Nichols, who appropriately drives the piece like a master conductor presiding over a fine piece of music, finding new ways to position and move his camera, alternating between long, slow takes and short, bursting flurries, building the tension unbearably and giving the impression of heart-stopping action even though most of the film consists only of four people talking.  It earned him a place as one of Hollywood’s most respected filmmakers, and deservedly so.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of those all-too-rare instances when Hollywood has managed to transfer a brilliant stage play to the screen more-or-less intact and done it full justice; though producer Ernest Lehman takes screenplay credit, his work mostly consisted of editing Albee’s original down to a shorter running time and making a few minor adjustments to compensate for the marginally-reduced ages of its lead characters- virtually every word is Albee’s, and apart from moving a few scenes outdoors and taking the characters on an excursion to an all-night roadhouse for one key sequence, the setting remains the same, as well.  Ultimately, of course, the play is one of those masterworks, like Hamlet, which can probably never be given a definitive treatment; it continues to be mounted in theaters around the world and performed brilliantly by actors who bring their own unique individual interpretations to its iconic characters.  Even so, this important and influential film remains the version which, in the collective imagination of our pop culture, is identified as the ultimate representation of the piece.  Though other actresses may give us a deeper Martha, or other directors may find a more visionary approach to the material, this group of artists have left their indelible mark on Albee’s play, and if you only see one version of it in your lifetime, you couldn’t do better than this one.  If you have never seen it, you owe it to yourself to do so, as soon as possible; apart from the fact that it is one of the most important pieces of dramatic literature written in the last hundred years, it is also still one of the most searing, surprising and thought-provoking dramas you are likely to see, a far cry from most of the sterile, whitewashed, politically correct fodder that passes for adult entertainment today.

Casablanca (1942)

Today’s cinema adventure: Casablanca, the 1942 classic starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as a pair of former lovers who are reunited amidst the turmoil and intrigue of the title city during the early years of World War II.  Frequently classified as film noir, this iconic gem is really more of a romance, though it shares many features- the cynical tone, the shadowy lighting, the focus on corruption and betrayal-  with the then-still-developing noir genre; but classification aside, the fact remains that Casablanca is one of the handful of films that can be indisputably called an iconic classic, an example of Hollywood’s golden era at its finest, and one of those cultural touchstones that never seems to lose relevance, despite the passage of years and the changing attitudes of society.  The reasons why are intangible; examining its elements individually, there seems no reason why it should have more power than any other relatively well-made pot-boiler of its time, and its production history was famously messy, with continual changes and second-guessing by its writers and producers that should logically have resulted in a complete muddle.  Instead it was, well, Casablanca.  It’s an example of one of those fortuitous combinations of people and circumstance that can only be ascribed to fate.

Though it may not be possible to fully explain the mystique of Casablanca, it is certainly easy to understand its initial success within a historical context.  It depicts a place where justice and decorum are merely a façade, creating the illusion of a level field in the deadly game of manipulation being played underneath; where sentiment and desperation are weaknesses to be exploited in the pursuit of shameless self-interest; and where law and diplomacy exist only to serve the powerful in the enforcement of their will.   In this cutthroat arena, Rick- a worldly-wise American expatriate- is the champion player, a representative of the “lost generation” who has transformed his disillusionment into a badge of honor, and who thrives in the niche he has carved for himself because he maintains a strict policy of isolationism- as he puts it, “I stick my neck out for nobody.”  It’s a strategy that works- at least until a romantic shadow from his past re-enters his life and forces him to choose between his self-protective shroud of indifference and a chance to use his position in the service of a greater good.  It was a perfect metaphor for an America that was hesitant about entering WWII after becoming jaded by the long and painful hardship of the Great Depression, and to make the allegory crystal clear, the story is populated by an assortment of international characters in various states of uneasy alliance with an ever-more-insistent Nazi presence.

Of course, if Casablanca were only notable for its heavy-handed political parallels, it would never have stood the test of time and would be remembered only as a piece of pro-war propaganda.  It is so much more than that.  The backdrop of then-timely politics serves as a stage upon which a timeless and universal drama is played, in which a man, burned and haunted by the disappointment of his past, rediscovers his humanity; and the cornerstone which allows him to do so is also the primary reason for Casablanca‘s enduring popularity- the iconic romance at the heart of the action.  Rick and Ilsa are without question one of the most famous pairs of star-crossed lovers in the history of film, perhaps even more so than Rhett and Scarlett.  Their story tugs at the heart of anyone who has loved and lost- which means, of course, everyone- and the connection is all the stronger for those who have had the experience of losing it due to the intervention of larger forces beyond their control.  Seeing this tender couple, played so perfectly and with such exquisite chemistry by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, find their opportunity to be together in the middle of the momentous events swirling around them is both bittersweet and cathartic, and their famous, final exchange on the foggy nighttime runway is surely one of the most simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting scenes in the history of cinema.

The romance may be the centerpiece of Casablanca, but Rick and Ilsa are fully realized characters on their own, too.  Bogart, though he had been active for years as a second-string movie thug and had recently made a promising splash in The Maltese Falcon, here established once and for all the screen persona which made him one of Hollywood’s most durable stars.  His Rick is the ultimate smooth operator, classy but rough-edged, sophisticated but down-to-earth, confidant but unassuming; one look and you know he is not only the toughest and most dangerous guy in the room, he’s probably also the smartest.  To complete the picture, his wisecracking irony and his stoic demeanor do nothing to hide the noble and sensitive heart that beats inside him; it is clear from his very first moments onscreen that he is a man of honor, kindness, and charity, no matter how enmeshed he may seem in the dirty politics of Casablanca, and when he is revealed as a romantic and a champion of the underdog, it comes not as a surprise but rather as a triumphant confirmation of what we already know.  It’s a role that seems tailor-made for Bogart, in retrospect, and it is virtually impossible to see how anybody else could have pulled it off.  Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa, though not as defining a role for her as Rick was for Bogie, is nevertheless one of her most memorable creations; she is, of course, beautiful, but she also radiates sadness, nobility, compassion, and sophistication; at the same time, she wears her own shade of the resigned, hard-edged irony that colors Rick’s persona, and watching it melt away as their rekindled love transforms her into a passionate woman is one of the key elements of Casablanca.  Besides all that, she also deserves a lot of respect for being able to credibly deliver some of the most ridiculously corny lines ever written for an actress.

Of course, Rick and Ilsa are not the only memorable characters on the scene: the entire cast, comprised of several of the era’s most familiar stock players (many of whom were real refugees from the Nazi Reich), turns in superb and memorable performances, far too many to mention here.  It would be an unforgivable oversight, however, not to make special note of Claude Rains, as the charmingly corrupt police prefect, Renault, whose friendly rivalry and good-natured banter with Rick provides a grounding counterpoint to the love story, and whose heart of gold ultimately breaks through his cynical armor.  Also iconic are the delicious turns by film noir staples Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet; the former as Ugarte, an unlucky black marketeer who seeks assistance and refuge at Rick’s nightclub (though he knows Rick “despises” him), and the latter as Signor Ferari, a bold-facedly opportunistic rival club owner with whom Rick has a grudgingly mutual respect.  Dooley Wilson projects loyalty, patience and heart as Rick’s trusted piano player- and his warm rendition of the signature song, Herman Hupfield’s ”As Time Goes By,” is one of the most memorable aspects of the film.  Conrad Veidt serves as the primary villain of the piece, an arrogant and bullying Nazi colonel whose deference to the local status quo is abandoned whenever it stands in the way of his absolute authority; a remarkably subtle and nuanced performance in a caricature of a role, delivered by one of Germany’s greatest actors, who, sadly, passed away soon afterward. Finally Paul Henreid manages the seemingly impossible task of making the character of Victor Laszlo- the underground resistance leader seeking escape from the Nazis through Casablanca, and Ilsa’s secret husband- not only believable in his too-good-to-be-true nobility but likable in spite of his position as the man standing between the film’s beloved romantic leads.

The many other delights of Casablanca are obvious in every frame.  Most noticeable is its rich visual design, beautifully captured by Arthur Edeson’s lush black-and-white cinematography, which features a synthesis of exotic and stylish elements into a mythic landscape that contrasts modern utilitarianism with decorative antiquity, a continual and elaborate play of shadows, and fantasized notions of its mythic locale.  The Casablanca of this film bears little resemblance to the real-life city which shares its name; it is pure Hollywood fantasy, designed to evoke the danger and intrigue associated with it in our imaginations.  Rick’s café, a place where Western elegance is imposed upon the Moorish sensibilities of its architecture, provides the central base for the film- it feels familiar without being quite safe, an oasis in the harsh (but still irresistibly romanticized), foreign atmosphere which makes up the rest of the city.  It’s a triumph of artistic design, influenced by Hollywood glamour and German Expressionism, and executed by Art Director Carl Jules Weyl and Set Decorator George James Hopkins.  The costumes by Orry-Kelly similarly provide a distillation of the early forties visual milieu, giving us timeless styles flavored with fantasized exotica; in particular, the powerful simplicity of Bogart’s white-jacketed evening wear, which became an instant classic, still represents the epitome of elegance in male fashion.  The musical score, by the legendary Max Steiner, is perhaps his definitive work, with its interpolation of familiar European anthems and the romantic melody of “As Time Goes By” into his own highly flamboyant and evocative compositions, and goes a long way toward setting the heightened tone which has burned Casablanca into the collective consciousness of subsequent generations.

All this excellent artistry is in the service of the film’s now-revered screenplay, by brothers Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, based on an obscure play, called Everybody Goes to Rick’s, by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison.  It is now well-known that constant rewrites kept the actor and crew uncertain throughout production, with Bergman, for instance, never knowing during filming who she was supposed to be in love with, and nobody certain of how the film would end.  This no doubt contributed to the cast’s loathing for the project at the time, and their belief that they were almost certainly making a horrible dog of a movie; fortunately, they were wrong.  Loaded with now-familiar classic lines, marked by excessively melodramatic dialogue which nevertheless wins us over by its sheer audacity and the committed, straight-faced delivery of the cast, it’s a screenplay that transforms its time-specific scenario into a tale of eternal significance, an exciting and emotionally resonant portrayal of love and idealism blossoming in a hostile environment.  The full power of these themes, however, might still have been lost or obscured without the contribution of Michael Curtiz, a versatile workman of a director who is often overlooked by cinema scholars despite an impressive and prolific body of work; with the skill of a master he weaves all the disparate threads together into a cohesive package, which revels in its intricately embellished atmosphere and its lush moods even as it drives its intrigue-laden plot at a steadily building pace towards its immensely satisfying conclusion.

Casablanca is full of memorable scenes: the capture of Ugarte, the arrival of Ilsa at Rick’s and the flashback to their romance in Paris, the cafe patrons drowning out the singing Nazis with a rousing chorus of “La Marsellaise.”  Indeed, more than almost any other film, it seems a progression of one remarkable moment after another; but, finally, it is the ending that sticks with us.  Rick and Ilsa’s farewell on the runway hits us in a place that the artificial thrills of the plot cannot, and it feels so right that it is impossible to believe that any other ending was ever considered.  Then, right on its heels, there is the not-so-surprising defection of Captain Renault from the dark side, just in time to walk off into the foggy night with Rick for “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”  The emotional wallop is potent; and maybe the reason it hits us so hard has to do with the choice that affects us all, at one point or another, to serve our own needs or to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others.  In a world full of suspicion, greed, and deliberate cruelty- or even just a world where nobody wants to look like a sucker- it’s a tough choice to make, and maybe Casablanca affects us so deeply because it lets us believe in the notion of “doing the right thing” even when everyone else is afraid to.  In a way, it’s a bridge between the noble sentimentality of a world long gone- if, indeed, it ever existed- and the hard-edged realism of the modern era.  We are still human, after all, even in an inhuman world, and (as the song so aptly expresses it) “the fundamental things apply, as time goes by.”

Six Degrees of Separation (1993)

Today’s cinema adventure: Six Degrees of Separation, the 1993 adaptation of John Guare’s Pulitzer-nominated play of the same name, starring Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland and Will Smith, with a screenplay by the playwright himself. Through the tale of a well-to-do Manhattan couple whose lives are infiltrated by a mysterious and charismatic young con artist, Guare uses his gift for language to explore how our connections to other people weave us into a tapestry of shared experience and lead us to new perspectives on our lives and ourselves, and to subtly reveal how the parallels between us transcend the illusory differences of class, race, sexuality and culture and expose the sometimes uncomfortable truths which unite us all; however, in the translation from stage to film, the complex, literate and emotionally resonant dialogue sometimes borders on sounding awkward and stilted, the central premise comes across as contrived and unconvincing, and the powerful revelations of the play seem almost artificial and trite. The fault lies with director Fred Schepisi, who- instead of utilizing the potential of the cinematic medium to enhance and illuminate the play- has taken the rather pedestrian approach of grafting it into a straightforward narrative, expanding the action into a variety of real-world settings which only serve to distance us from the characters and undermine the cumulative power of the unfolding story. The endless progression of upper-crust social gatherings and well-appointed locations continually remind us that we are watching a movie about the problems of spoiled rich people, instead of providing us with the class-dissolving intimacy of a more abstract theatrical experience; and as a result, instead of an emotional catharsis, we are given an intellectual exercise. Nevertheless, the power of Guare’s original work shines through (albeit in diluted form) thanks to the talented ensemble cast, which clearly relishes the opportunity to speak his words and embody his characters, and if the movie is ultimately a bit disappointing, they at least ensure that it is never boring. Sutherland is, as always, interesting to watch, and Channing does possibly her best screen work here- she earned a well- deserved Oscar nomination for her performance; Ian McKellen shines as wealthy dinner guest who is also taken in by the young hustler, as do Heather Graham and Eric Thal as a younger, less affluent couple whose experience with him yields considerably more tragic results.  In the key role of the enigmatic stranger, Will Smith copiously displays the charm that made him a star; but my favorite performance comes from Anthony Michael Hall, whose brief appearance as a key character steals the show and makes us keenly regret his relative disappearance from the film industry.  As a side note, from the standpoint of social history, Six Degrees represents a minor landmark in the acceptance of gay-themed subject matter in mainstream cinema with its inclusion of the con man’s homosexual trysts, which may generate interest for some viewers; for everyone else, however, it’s a film that is worth the time investment, for the sake of the performances and the opportunity to experience Guare’s script- just manage your expectations, or you may end up feeling you are the one who’s been conned.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)


Today’s cinema adventure: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the 1958 screen adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning drama by playwright Tennessee Williams. Set on the plantation of “Big Daddy” Pollitt, a Southern cotton tycoon who has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer, the plot revolves around the angling of the patriarch’s family for control of his estate and the various conflicts between them, particularly between the heavy-drinking youngest son, Brick, and his wife, Maggie, whose relationship has gone cold over a recent tragedy- and a guilty secret. Produced at the height of the glamorous era of late-fifties American cinema, and starring two of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the time- Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman- it was an A-list prestige production and one of the ten biggest box office hits of the year, yet both Williams and leading man Newman expressed disappointment in the final product; indeed, the playwright publicly distanced himself from the film, even telling potential audiences to stay home. Their reticence, shared by numerous critics and literary purists, was due to the studio censorship, influenced by the then-still-observed Hays Code, which led to the removal of the play’s homosexual references- rendering the central conflict of between the two leads vague and unconvincing- and to the extensive rewriting of the final act to allow for a more “satisfying” reconciliation between Big Daddy and his alcoholic son. While it is certainly true that this filmed version of Williams’ personal favorite play was substantially tamed down from its original form, it nevertheless provided plenty of controversy in 1958: even without overt reference to homosexuality, savvy viewers could certainly still pick up on the unspoken truth behind Brick’s gnawing shame; and puritanical eyebrows were raised in abundance over the sexual frankness of the dialogue (not to mention the sultry chemistry between the stars, surely two of the most beautiful people ever to step in front of a camera). These controversial elements no doubt contributed greatly to the film’s popularity at the time; but by today’s standards, of course, its content would barely warrant a PG rating. What then, if anything, is there to recommend this venerable artifact of mid-century sophistication to modern audiences? To begin with, the sets, the costumes, the cinematography- the entire production- is everything you would expect of a high-budget, top-notch MGM product; but the same is true of many infinitely less watchable films from the same era. What really matters here is the material. Even watered-down Williams is a treat to see and hear, particularly in the hands of a cast capable of bringing out the rich, musical literacy and the deep, resonant emotional landscape of his text; and though director Richard Brooks (who also co-wrote the sanitized screenplay with James Poe) crafted a relatively uninspired film version, cinematically speaking- particularly when contrasted with other Williams adaptations of the time, such as the earlier classic, A Streetcar Named Desire– he clearly had a strong enough understanding of the piece to evoke uniformly superb performances from his players. Recreating his role from the Broadway production, Burl Ives dominates his every scene- and appropriately so- as Big Daddy, overbearing all before him with a grim, determined Southern smile even when most assaulted by pain, whether emotional or physical. Matched against him is the great Judith Anderson, oddly cast but highly effective as Big Mama, creating a sympathetic portrait of a woman, hardened but unbeaten by a lifetime under her husband’s imposing shadow, desperately clinging to the illusions she has worked to maintain for herself and her family. Jack Carson is likable as older brother Gooper despite the ineffectual disinterest of a character forever dominated by the others around him; and, as his wife Mae, Madeleine Sherwood (another veteran of the Broadway production) balances him by being equally dis-likable, an embodiment of mean-spirited pettiness, hypocrisy and self-righteous entitlement that serves as the closest thing in the piece to a villain. Of course, all this stellar supporting work would be meaningless without equally strong performances from the leads, and the two iconic stars here give performances that rank among the finest of their careers. As Brick, Newman proved once and for all that his ability as an actor was as formidable as his steely-blue-eyed good looks; he gives a remarkable and definitive interpretation of the character, playing against those leading-man-looks to bring out the ugliness of Brick’s dissolute bitterness- the high-handed and deliberate cruelty, the obstinate refusal to face his demons, the willfully self-destructive embrace of his alcoholism- without ever completely obscuring his underlying sensitivity and compassion, creating a complete portrait of a good man crippled (both literally and metaphorically) by the effects of failure, regret, and shame. The keystone performance, however, comes from Taylor, at the peak of her astonishing beauty and the beginning of her reign as one of Hollywood’s most glamorous and beloved stars. It would be easy to play Maggie “the Cat” as an ambitious, tawdry social climber bent only on claiming the family fortune of a man she has married for money, but Taylor makes her so much more: she not only radiates the aching sexuality of a woman too long neglected, but also the determination and candor which make it clear that she alone has the strength to be Big Daddy’s true successor as the dominant force in this family, coupled with the earnest feeling that makes it possible for us to believe, in the end, that she has the power to “make the lie true.” That, ultimately, is what Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is about: in a world full of “mendacity,” it takes passion and, yes, love to make the difference between truth and illusion. This first and still most authentic film version, with all its Technicolor gloss and its soundstage artificiality, is Hollywood illusion at its most persuasive- but thanks to Miss Taylor and the rest of its remarkable cast, it has the real ring of truth about it, and that is what makes it a classic.