15
Sep
14

Modern times

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I loved Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times with Paulette Goddard. A year ago, I wouldn’t have bothered to watch, but I’ve gotten intrigued, if not hooked on silent films from the Criterion Collection.

Released in 1936, in a time when the Marx Bros. and W.C. Field’s films were full of jokes and dialog, Modern Times isn’t completely silent. A distant boss speaks in broadcasts to alienated factory workers and Chaplin himself sings. Still there’s no dialog and remarks are conveyed with cards. That seems risky for a studio in the 1930s. I hadn’t realized there was such an overlap between silent films and talkies.

As some experts have pointed out, the film is more like a series of short films (2 reelers) rather than a story with one arc. We see Chaplin as his famous Tramp for the last time he’ll play that character. He gets a job in a factory and in scenes that are similar to À Nous la Liberté ecomically exposes the system as dehumanizing as the Tramp gets caught in the gears of the machinery. In another scene the Tramp tests out an eating machine with disastrous effects. (Since workers have taken to grabbing lunch at their desk there’s little need for this machine.) Inadvertently, the tramp gets arrested and mixed up in labor disputes. The cops’ violence against the workers shows us how times were back then. It’s a part of history rarely taught.

Along the way the Tramp meets a “gamine” played by Goddard, who’s stunning and joyful, yet ever bit an outsider. I can’t think of an actress today who could play this role. The gamine has two siblings, who’re rounded up by the police and put into an orphanage, she barely escapes their clutches. There’s a sweetness and affinity between the Tramp and the Gamine, the only two who are on each other’s wave.

The Criterion Collection DVD’s contain lots of extras: a home movie made on a boat during the shooting of the film trailers, commentary and a separate film commentary with more background on the making of Modern Times. Watching that I saw how dapper the gray haired actor was without his Tramp suit. While I expected a certain élan from Chaplain in his real life, I also expected dark hair. Nope he was gray and distinguished in real life.

All in all, it’s a delightful thoughtful film. hard to imagine that Chaplin still entertains.

10
Sep
14

Belle et Sébastien

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Because six year old Sébastien is himself abandoned, he’s the only person in the village to give Belle, a mangy dog a chance. Sebastian lives with an old, often drunk man and his family in the mountains of France. He doesn’t go to school, but learns about life and nature from the man. Belle is a dirty gray dog everyone fears. Only Sebastian gives the dog a chance and a good bath. After the bath, the dog is snow white and comes to the aid of Sebastian.

Later when Sebastian’s unofficial adoptive family helps Jews escape the Nazi’s everyone sees that Belle is a wonderful dog. The film is suspenseful and the characters real. Their plight rings true and the story compels. It’s fitting for older kids, who can understand the history and read the subtitles, and adults.

02
Sep
14

The Keys of the Kingdom

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In Keys of the Kingdom, Gregory Peck plays Father Chisolm, a young, humble, authentic priest who is sent to China after a lack of success in his home of Scotland. His mentor, a bishop feels Fr. Chisolm will thrive in China.

The story’s told in flashback. It begins with an old Fr. Chisolm getting reprimanded and told his unorthodox teachings are forcing him to be removed from his hometown parish. The bishop who makes this threat is staying at Chisolm’s rectory. Before he goes to sleep, he picks up Fr. Chisolm’s memoirs and reads of his extraordinary life.

Chisolm’s father and mother were killed in a riot against Catholics. He’s brought up by and aunt and almost marries as a young adult but circumstances lead him to stick with his choice of the priesthood. As a young priest, his parishioners don’t appreciate his questioning and some of his theology. His mentor has a hunch that Fr. Chisolm would be right for a deserted mission in China.

When Fr. Chisolm arrives in rural China, every believer has left as they really only came for the free rice. The church is in ruins. Slowly, Fr. Chisolm rebuilds and stays true to his principles and beliefs even if it means losing the church or being treated like an inferior by a haughty former classmate.

At one point the political climate in China shifts and warlords threaten the mission.

I found the movie compelling and was better than average for avoiding the stereotypes so common in the 1940s. His performance is carries the film and I would never have guessed it was Peck’s second film. It seemed like a biography, but apparently it’s based on a novel, not a real life.

My only complaint is I wish they hadn’t skipped through the years of turmoil and war in China. They show early 20th century violence, but explain and show little of the revolution that erupted. The film jumps from one attack when Fr. Chisolm was probably in his late 30s to Chisolm as an old man. By weaving in Fr. Chisolm’s ecumenical beliefs and his strong friendship with an atheist, the film feels modern.

02
Sep
14

all about eve

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Starring Bette Davis, All About Eve is a classic, yet I’d never seen it — till now. It’s a captivating film about Margo Channin, a veteran actress and her circle of theater friends. They’re a jaunty bunch, witty and rather insular. I doubt they know anyone who isn’t in the theater. It’s a happy group though till Eve, a young fan of Margo Channing, the big star, is spotted near the stage door. Margo’s friend is struck by Eve’s persistence and apparent innocence. Before you know it, the group takes Eve into their circle as an adoring fan cum servant.

The problem is Eve’s rather obsessive and driven, she plots to take Margo’s place in the stars, to supplant her favorite actress both professionally and romantically by stealing Margo’s boyfriend. Eve’s psychopathic and manipulative managing for a time to fool everyone but Margo. Eve was wooden and scary. It’s troubling that she got the success she got. The dialog’s snappy and the acting good. Thus even though there weren’t any characters I’d like to know, the film kept my attention from start to finish.

01
Sep
14

Gosford Park: No Downton Abbey

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I began watching Julien Fellows’ Gosford Park with high hopes. After all, I love Downton Abbey and Fellows won the Oscar for this screenplay.

I was disappointed. Sorely. Despite an all star cast, Gosford Park lacked a single character I found charming or likable. There was one Scottish maid who seemed mousy but nice. She wasn’t enough to carry a film of this length. The characters all came off as cold, greedy and indolent. The upperclass people spent money like water and had nothing but disdain for each other and got no joy from their money.

The downstairs servants weren’t much better. Though not as spoiled they were all out for themselves in a different way. No warmth at all. They just wanted to get their work done with as little fuss as possible. Anyone who upset their system was glared and scoffed at.

One theme that rose was how the servants felt overshadowed by their employers. I can see that, but the grass isn’t always greener. If they worked in offices, their lives would also be precarious and as one of my new colleagues asserts if you work for one company for a long time, that company forms your identity to a great extent. So if they traded their apron for a factory uniform it’s not sure that they’d be happier or more secure.

Sexual harassment was rampant as the lord of the manor couldn’t keep his hands to himself, but in a store, office or factory women run into that too.

For the first 75 minutes we see rich people bicker, whinge and finagle for money. Now and then someone says something they think is droll and smokes a cigarette. Then the plot picks up when the lord who’s a churl gets murdered. Yet the investigation is so incompetently carried out that I just couldn’t buy it. In the end we do learn who did it, but by then I barely cared.

Fellows sure deepened his understanding about character and plot by the time he started Downton Abbey.

18
Aug
14

Remarkable Story

A man on disability leave is living hand to mouth. He owns an old Navajo blanket and . . .

Watch to see what happens.

16
Aug
14

The Big Sleep

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In honor of Lauren Bacall, I watched The Big Sleep, a classic from 1946. Based on the Raymond Chandler novel, The Big Sleep involves detective Philip Marlow trying to keep a rich man’s degenerate daughters out of trouble and to find out who killed Sean Ryan, who worked for the rich father. The plot gets quite confusing and even the director and cast had trouble figuring out who killed whom. The snappy dialog and chemistry between Bogart and Bacall make us forgive the film for confusing us and for not following the maxim of providing a hero who undergoes a transformation.

Some favorite quotations:

(Female) Taxi Driver: If you can use me again sometime, call this number.
Philip Marlowe: Day and night?
Taxi Driver: Uh, night’s better. I work during the day.

Vivian: I don’t like your manners.
Marlowe: And I’m not crazy about yours. I didn’t ask to see you. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners, I don’t like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings. I don’t mind your ritzing me drinking your lunch out of a bottle. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.

IMDB offers some interesting trivia on the film.




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