Saturday, April 19, 2014

Notes on the Method: Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe

Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe.

Is there anything trickier for an actor than playing a show-business legend? Jimmy Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl (1968) didn’t have to worry about getting down George M. Cohan and Fanny Brice because so few moviegoers would have been able to compare them to the personalities they were depicting – Cohan had made only one obscure film, and by the time Funny Girl came out Brice’s handful of screen appearances were long forgotten. They were stage performers (Brice also had a radio fan base); an established movie star like Cagney or a newly minted movie star like Streisand easily trumped a ghost from an earlier Broadway era. But Judy Davis in Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows and Geoffrey Rush in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers – both made for television – were playing movie stars of mythic status, so they had to find a way to replicate their eccentric physical presences while simultaneously inhabiting them from the inside, and miraculously both did. Davis, giving perhaps her greatest performance, burrowed so deep into Garland’s persona that when she lip-synched that famous contralto, with its spring-air freshness and warmth in the thirties and forties and its increasingly desperate tremolo in the fifties and sixties, the results were spooky. Rush approximated Sellers’s madly gifted clowning and made up the rest, since whereas the whole world got to see Garland’s neuroses – in A Star Is Born and on her TV show (and you can hear it on the Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall album) – Sellers’s complicated psychology was always completely separate from the characters he played in the movies.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Neglected Gem #53: Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008)

Kat Dennings and Michael Cera star in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008)

I recently finished teaching a class on iconic cinema and iconic actors, such as Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin and John Wayne, among many others. One of my lectures, the last of eight, was devoted to youth culture, examining the iconic nature of everything from A Hard Day’s Night (1964) to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), to the films starring Saturday Night Live alumni – National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), The Blues Brothers (1980) and Ghostbusters (1984) – and, of course, the popular films of John HughesSixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985). The sleeper of the bunch however is the little known Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008), a teen romantic comedy that is more authentic then Hughes’s contrived output (Sixteen Candles is a complete mess, actually). With its smart use of indie songs on the soundtrack, from the talented likes of Vampire Weekend and The National, and deft use of underground New York City locations, it’s a movie which packs an emotional, moving punch, albeit in a sweet, understated way.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Unwatchable Watchable: Errol Morris' The Unknown Known

Errol Morris (and his subject) in The Unknown Known

Film director Errol Morris once worked as a private investigator and his best part is his investigative-journalist side – the muckraking detective. While planning a documentary about a forensic psychiatrist who became notorious for his “expert witness” testimony in capital punishment cases, he happened to come across a death row conviction that didn't smell right and made a film (The Thin Blue Line) that ended up getting an innocent man released from prison. But Morris’ reputation as one of the greatest living filmmakers, and very likely the greatest living specialist in documentary feature filmmaking, isn't based mainly on 25-year-old headlines generated by his breakthrough movie. It’s based on his being a “stylist” – on his artistic pretensions and the easily recognizable visual and aural tics that make up his style.

Morris has been known to reject the term “documentary” in favor of “nonfiction film,” because he feels that having his movies called documentaries lumps them in with films shown in classrooms and on public television. Frederick Wiseman may well be the most important documentary filmmaker of the past fifty years, but if you happened to walk past a TV set while High School or Basic Training was showing, you could take a glance for a few random seconds and mistake them for a clip from any old TV news show. Morris’ movies look and sound like Errol Morris movies. How impressed you are by the fact that, more and more, they all look and sound like the same Errol Morris movie may depend on whether you use the word “auteur” in casual conversation.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Taking Nothing For Granted: The Holmes Brothers' Brotherhood

The Holmes Brothers have just released their 11th album and these veteran musicians keep getting better with age. For the record, there are only two Holmes brothers, Sherman and Wendall. They grew up in a musical house in Christchurch, Virginia, nurtured by their parents who were schoolteachers. The boys took an interest in music beyond the Sunday morning Baptist hymns and spirituals by tuning to blues artists such as Jimmy Reed and B.B. King. Those influences took a creative hold of Sherman and Wendall who make a beautiful sound deeply rooted, but not confined to, gospel music.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Ebony Sails: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (Freedom Cry DLC)

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (Freedom Cry DLC)

Downloadable content (DLC) has been an inherent function of the video game industry for over a decade now, and it’s become both a blessing and a curse: it allows us to dive back into the virtual worlds we love and live in them for that much longer, but this comes at the risk of being nickel-and-dimed to death. Some unscrupulous video game developers have been known to split a full product apart and sell you the smaller pieces after the initial release, as though they were designed as "additional" content. The scrupulous ones, on the other hand, invent all-new content which enhances and builds upon the original experience, but instances of this kind of craft are rare in the industry. The Freedom Cry DLC for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag would have no place in the narrative of its mother game (simply because there just isn’t enough room), and so it sets out to justify its existence through a strong standalone story and engaging new mechanics. Black Flag was the story of Edward Kenway, legendary pirate, and this plays almost like a fan fiction set in that world – it’s a rich enough realm that it feels natural to visit it again through a different character's eyes.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Mr. Vaudeville: Remembering Mickey Rooney

When Mickey Rooney died on April 6 at the age of ninety-three, he’d been in show business for a surely unprecedented ninety-one years. (He was shooting not one but two movies at the time of his death, including the third in the A Night at the Museum series.) His parents were vaudevillians who introduced him into their act when he was seventeen months old; he started making film shorts in 1926, first as Mickey McBan and then as Mickey McGuire. He was all of fourteen when he played Clark Gable’s character as a boy in Manhattan Melodrama, the earliest of his many movies at M-G-M that film buffs are likely to have seen. (It’s a famous picture, though not because of its cast; it acquired instant notoriety when John Dillinger was shot down as he emerged from a Chicago movie house playing it.) A number of film personalities in the early days of the talkies began in vaudeville (Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, The Marx Brothers), but Rooney retained a special connection to it because the musicals he and Judy Garland made in the late thirties and early forties – Babes in Arms, Strike Up the Band, Babes on Broadway and to a lesser extent Girl Crazy, which was the best of them – were imbued with the vaudevillian spirit. They were about brave, persistent adolescents who want to put on shows and usually have to fight authoritarian adults with sticks up their asses who try to get in their way. In Babes in Arms, the flagship musical in the series, which was adapted from a hit Broadway show by Rodgers and Hart, Rooney and Garland and their cohorts are also the children of vaudevillians who are on the road, fighting the Depression in order to put bread on the table, and the success of their kids’ musical revue keeps the do-gooding locals from farming them out to orphanages. The message of all four of these movies was the same: talent will out. And though Rooney also starred in the fantastically popular homespun Andy Hardy series (twice opposite Garland), it was in these musicals that he truly made his mark.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

When the Political is Personal: Borgen

Sidse Babett Knudsen and Pilou Asbaek in TV's Borgen

Note: Spoiler alerts.

“Nearly all men can withstand adversity, 
but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
- Abraham Lincoln

This aphorism appears at the beginning of the final program in the superb Danish television blockbuster Borgen, which is the brainchild of Adam Price who both produced and was a major writer of the consistently intelligent scripts over three ten-program seasons. (The title refers to the Christiansborg Palace, where the Danish Parliament, Prime Minister's office and Supreme Court reside.) Every episode begins with an epigraph that ranges from Machiavelli to Churchill; a casual viewer might not realize how astute it is until he or she watches it twice, which I highly recommend. Along with The Killing and The Bridge, Borgen has been an overwhelming popular and critical success in the UK, and the trio of shows are beginning to make inroads in North America, primarily through libraries, independent video stores and specialized American channels. Since television viewers on this side of the pond seem to be put off by reading subtitles (although the actors all speak excellent English when speaking to any foreigner), the two police procedurals have been remade for North American audiences with at best mixed, and in my opinion inferior, results. Apparently, HBO is considering a remake of Borgen, but I am not certain how American audiences will respond to a series that deals with coalition politics involving eight political parties, a process likely alien to many of these viewers.