Monday, July 14, 2014

Kirk Douglas Story

I seem to be on a bit of a Kirk Douglas kick right now. At least this is the second Blog post where I have discussed the still-living titan of American acting. I promise the next post will be about a recent movie, and one not starring Michael Douglas's Dad.

I sometimes write these posts thinking, "geez, these really great films, probably most of the people who read film blogs or are members of Google Plus communities have already seen these." Maybe you have, but if you haven't you really do have to check out "Detective Story". This 1951 classic directed by the nearly never bad William Wyler is nearly perfect in its organic unspooling of a story that made the long journey from novel, to Broadway hit (starring Ralph Bellamy) to, finally, the silver screen.

Douglas has rarely been better, and he is at his finest as the eponymous New York City detective working in a room full of his peers. Douglas and company handle the riff raff that walk, lurch and even stumble through a swinging wooden gate (a great touch, by the way) into the den of investigative prowess, moral judgement and bromance-ishness that the story asserts would be a mid-Century police detectives division.

While Douglas's Detective McLeod is not the leader of these not-so-merry men -- that role is superbly taken by actor Horace McMahon as the "L.T." -- he is clearly the engine that drives them. While "Story" plays as an ensemble piece, Det. McLeod has the arc that seems to be so often required to give a film its, what...meaning? Energy? Too, even though the narrative of the film involves several inter-connected sub-plots about suspects in custody, witnesses and others, the primary story line comes to concern Douglas and his treatment of a seemingly nefarious character: a doctor who it is implied has performed unmentionable acts on women 'in trouble'. It seems McLeod and the good doctor have a history, as the saying goes, and the doctor's lawyer appears in the squadroom to meet with the L.T., to prepare for his client's willing surrender for an unnamed crime.

What is revealed is the primary, and it turns out tragic truth about how McLeod and the Doc are connected in ways McLeod is unaware. Without spoiling the plot let me say that the brave script interrogates issues of women, sex, abortion and other tough topics in a way we might not expect of the Eisenhower era. And it doesn't exactly directly address these issues, but more like clearly implies them. Nonetheless, the result is gritty, dark and no-nonsense. Not qualities one would normally associate with Wyler, I don't think.

As stated, the acting, to a person, is superb. Eleanor Parker is a revelation as Douglas's troubled wife, and co-co-star William Bendix is perfect, that is to be expected given his many, many supporting roles. It is hard, though, not to think of Bendix as a "swabbie" out of Central Casting, he played in so many WWII movies set in the Pacific, or as Gangster Number three in an overlooked B noir. Wyler's direction is transparent, letting the acting and the story surface as they need to in this type of film, and Lee Garmes's camerawork is tight, as is the fairly seamless editing, which was I think typical of this era in American filmmaking.

You have probably already seen this noir-ish gem, but if not, might I recommend Amazon Prime? I support the writers in their effort to get fair pay out of Jeff Bezos's monster, and still I love the high quality of print and transfer (this one was in HD) we always get on the Prime-ster. Enjoy...

Friday, January 24, 2014

In the Heat of the Night

This post is about digital media (Google Play), female directors that kick butt and pure film craftsmanship (craftwomanship?). [SPOILERS below]

I had an interesting discussion last year -- with the man who inspired me to start my Blog -- about Zero Dark Thirty. I said it was definitely the Best Picture of the 2013 Oscar race, and he challenged me to say why. I said it was an expertly crafted film, extremely well made. He challenged me further, implying that this was kind of a canned response, he wanted to know WHY I thought it was so good.

Here's why.

ZD30 comes on like gangbusters, and never lets up. It is a terror train of images, music and human drama hurtling toward an inevitable, though problematic, conclusion, and nothing is going to stop it from the time you leave the station with questionable 'full rendition' techniques in a terrifying opening scene, to the not-so-morally-satisfying final image of the female (!) CIA analyst standing over the corpse of Public Enemy Number One. This is my IMPRESSION of the film, how I connect to it emotionally. The true artistry of Kathryn Bigelow's masterpiece is that it accomplishes this while telling the mundane, 'cold coffee and donuts at 2 am in the morning' truth about how hard it is to actually do the heroic work all the people involved in "The Hunt for Osama bin Laden" actually had to do. And, to add to that, the mind-numbing, Kafka-esque experience of trying to get the U.S, government to actually do anything.

That is the headline story. Underneath that is a top-notch script by Mark Boal, precision casting and workmanlike acting from the whole cast. Who knew Jessica Chastain had these kind of chops, although she was quite good in Terrance Malick's "Tree of Life". It was sad, as I re-watched this excellent thriller on Google Play (more on that, below) to be reminded of how great an actor we lost last year when James Gandolfini died. But we have his scene-chewing performance as the "CIA Director" to relish, and Chastain's interchanges with the dear departed are worth the price of admission. You get a real sense of how truly difficult it is to accomplish anything in our intelligence agencies, not just because of the important checks and balances in place, but also because of the mind-numbing politics involved in making a decision.

I could go on, but my other point about ZD30 is that it is a triumph of femininity, or of woman doing purported "men's jobs" up and down the line. Bigelow has been a lone standard-bearer for a woman in a man's game (directing big budget films in the U.S.) for years, and not only does she continue to evidence a unique vision here, but she stuck to her guns when idiots in Congress questioned her patriotism in showing scenes of torture that implied we actually used it to extract information -- which it is very clear we did. One of the functions of art, and film is most definitely an art form, is to raise difficult questions, and ZD30 does that in spades. And to focus on the female CIA analyst who worked so hard -- in reality, along with maybe dozens of others -- to track down the bastard was brave, and gives the film an emotional dimension we rarely experience in American cinema.

Somewhat unrelated to my relish of this film as my delight in using Google Play as one of my new digital media services. I have been using the Music service for quite some time, but I decided to experiment with the video service. I was not disappointed. I purchased the HD version of the film, on sale, and watched it over a crappy hotel Internet connection, using my HDMI out laptop connection to hook it up to a large HD TV. Brilliant, the picture quality was exceptional, and the video player performed very well under demanding conditions.

In whatever fashion you decide to watch this excellent film, please do. HD is really the best way to experience what the filmmakers were trying to do, but even DVD with a decent upscaler will be a nice experience. Please do not watch on a Smartphone, if you can avoid it.

Happy Viewing,
- Eric