Tag: 1957

5 Jawesome Things for the week of April 13, 2012

I missed last week’s column because of Good Friday or something. So there will be more Jawesome things this week to make up for it! BONUS JAWESOME! BONJAWSOME! He’s everybody’s second favorite New Jersey rock singer.

1. Books!

Since last we spoke I’ve finished three(!) books. Two of them were very short and one was an audiobook, but whatever! Books! Here are some brief reviews.

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A. S. Byatt

A telling of the Norse mythology, at least part of it, wrapped up in a semi-autobiographical frame story about a “thin girl” in WWII England reading about said myths. It’s pretty good, covering much of the basic stories we know and a few lesser known stories (Loki’s children are super great). The real reason to read this book instead of the wikipedia pages is Byatt’s marvelous prose. It borders on poetic, focusing on the forms and functions of the various deities and the supernatural world around them. Rivers flow, rocks move or don’t. Loki shifts. It’s beautiful in its horribleness. Because this is a book about how evil we can be to each other. The WWII border isn’t just there to give the girl something to worry about. It’s there to remind us that we’re still playing out the Ragnarok as long as we fight each other.

“The black thing in her brain and the dark water on the page were the same thing, a form of knowledge. This is how myths work. They are things, creatures, stories, inhabiting the mind. They cannot be explained and do not explain; they are neither creeds nor allegories. The Black was now in the thing child’s head and was part of the way she took in every new thing she encountered.”

The Infernals by John Connolly

This is a sequel to the YA book The Gates, also by Connolly, who is best known for his crime novels. In the first book, young Samuel Johnson and his trusted basset hound fought off an invasion by Hell’s denizens by way of the Large Hadron Collider. In this book, his Hellbound nemesis, Mrs. Abernathy (the demon Ba’al in an Earthly disguise) drags Samuel and his dog and a few innocent bystanders into Hell in order to reclaim her spot at the left hand of The Great Malevolence. It’s kind of confusing, I guess, but Connolly writes with a jaunty wit that keeps everything moving. There’s less here than in the first book, though the friendship between Samuel and a demon he met as he tried to stop the first invasion is nicely written and quite touching. The book flies from place to place, not stopping long enough to create a sense of dread that a book about wandering around the plains of Hell should probably have. There are a few moments of scariness, including a nicely mythical description of one of Hell’s less fortunate denizens, Old Ram, and his torture by twisted souls transformed into twisted trees. It goes by very quickly, being just a little over 300 pages of not-at-all-difficult writing. A fun, if a little too inconsequential, time.

The other book was Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson, which was very good, but that’s about all I have to say about it.

2. Game of Thrones has returned!

The second season of the phenomenal Game of Thrones TV show has returned, and it is continuing the greatness. The first episode didn’t even feature any Arya, arguably the best character on the show, and it was still great. This season seems to be straying further from the source material, but I’m ok with that. There are things you must do when condensing a book down to size and then changing the medium from page to screen. I will reserve judgement until I see something that is bad as a TV show, not just different from the book. The newly introduced characters are pretty great, Davos especially. I look forward to his story on screen.

3. We Need to Talk About Kevin

Whoa! This movie is intense. It gives Melancholia a run for its money when it comes to making you feel what it wants you to feel, namely incredibly tense and unhappy. There are a few scenes that will stick in my memory for a long time. Which makes sense, because most of this film operates in memory. It is much like Tree of Life in that we have a character remembering a childhood with the color of the present instead of a straight show of that childhood as it actually happened. “What personality” is a question that a kid wouldn’t ask, but it totally works because we’re seeing what happened through Swinton’s eyes, not some impartial observer’s. We’re thrown into the situation, and those early minutes are impressionistic and wonderful. What’s happening doesn’t matter as much as how we’re feeling about what’s happening. There’s a shoutout to Rosemary’s Baby and the film traffics in that kind of horror. What do we do when there’s a kid that we think is evil? How do we cope? Where did all this red paint come from?

4. Going to see my sister in concert

My sister, Leah, is a Junior at Hofstra University. She’s going for her Music Education degree and had to sing in a solo show. It was a lot of fun, even if I had to wait a little longer for the season premiere of Game of Thrones.

5. Some 1957 movies, but not others.

You already know how I feel about Sweet Smell of Success, but on the same day I watched Zero Hour! and that was, uh, not Jawesome. Zero Hour! is perhaps only known for being the film that Airplane! was based on. It’s funny, too, but I don’t know if that was on purpose or not. None of the acting is any good, nor’s the direction special, nor’s the script worth writing home about. It’s all so silly, which, I guess, makes for a great farce. This film probably should have been a Twilight Zone episode (though that show doesn’t exist for two more years) and there should have been a gremlin on the wing. That’d be something to watch. This isn’t.

6. This video of the UNC basketball team playing against some students

I don’t care one way or another about the UNC squad, but this is a great thing that they do to remind everybody that they’re students, too. And then, at the third minute mark, magic happens. It’s wonderful. This is what sports are about.

Movie Review: Sweet Smell of Success

How many noir films have no murder in them? Even Frank Borzage’s anti-noir, Moonrise, has a murder at the center of it. But Sweet Smell of Success has no murder and very little physical violence. All the jabs are verbal. And awesome. This is the best script out of the 8 or so 1957 films I’ve seen. Each character is well written and quick on their feet. Tony Curtis plays Sidney Falco, a press agent who’s looking to become as influential as his idol and sometimes-employer J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a gossip columnist for the Broadway scene and the biggest guy on the block. He’s got senators and singers sucking up to him every night, just hoping to get mentioned in his column – in a positive way, of course. Hunsecker tells Falco he’ll write up something nice about Falco’s uncle’s night club if Falco will break up the affair between Susan Hunsecker (Susan Harrison) – his sister – and a young leader of a lounge band, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Complicated, yes, and it took a good third of the film to figure out who was who and why they mattered, but that’s part of the fun of a film like this.

Sweet Smell of Success is about ambition, obviously. It’s nothing new to see how far people without morals (or people who will repress their morals) will go in order to to achieve their goals. That’s the gist of about 1/4th of all movies. Maybe 1/5th, I haven’t checked the updated numbers. Either way, it’s not the plot that matters here. It exists just to get our characters to show their true colors. Most of these colors are dark and twisted. Like an inverted rainbow. The beleaguered beau, Steve Dallas, and his girlfriend, Susan Hunsecker are the only two main characters that have some kind of goodness in them. They aren’t manipulative at their core, though in the end even they must play the game in order to get out of it. It’s a cynical, messed-up world, but it’s fun to visit because everybody is so witty.

I’m just going to lay out a few examples of the dialogue and japes here, because anything else wouldn’t get at how wonderful the script is.

J.J. Hunsecker: What’s this boy got that Susie likes?
Sidney Falco: Integrity – acute, like indigestion.

J.J. Hunsecker: You’re dead, son. Get yourself buried.

Sidney Falco: If I’m gonna go out on a limb for you, you gotta know what’s involved!
J.J. Hunsecker: My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in thirty years.

Steve: Mr. Hunsecker, you’ve got more twists than a barrel of pretzels!

J.J. Hunsecker: Son, I don’t relish shooting a mosquito with an elephant gun, so why don’t you just shuffle along?

Sidney Falco: The cat’s in a bag and the bag’s in a river.

J.J. Hunsecker: I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.

J.J. Hunsecker: Sidney, conjugate me a verb. For instance, “to promise.”

Sidney Falco: Dallas, your mouth is as big as a basket and twice as empty!

Ok, enough cheating. The movie looks great, as most noirs do. Full of deep shadows and glaring lights. There’s no gray area here, not in grimy New York City. You’re either in or you’re out. Up or down. Left or right. Right or wrong. A success or a failure. But if you’re a success at being a dirtbag what does that get you? A whole lot of bad feelings and friends that aren’t friendly. That Sweet Smell of Success reeks.

Movie Review: Paths of Glory

Paths of Glory is not the movie I thought it would be. From the posters it seemed like it would be a straight up war film, albeit a straight up war film directed by Stanley Kubrick, which would likely be something special. And the first third is a standard war film. It’s all trenches and explosions, this being WWI. Kubrick gives us the set-up: Kirk Douglas is told that he must take a German stronghold. He tells his superior officer, played by George Macready as an evil and power hungry man looking for his next star, that his forces are not big enough nor will they have enough support to accomplish their goal. This, of course, doesn’t matter and although Douglas tries his damnedest to take the hill he barely makes it halfway through no-mans-land and a third of his forces won’t even dare to leave the trenches. This sequence is just as intense as the opening section of Saving Private Ryan, though it is shot completely differently. Where Spielberg’s movie is all shaky cam and tinnitus, Paths of Glory scrolls along, not shying away from the terror, but giving a continuous forward push. Is the camera following the soldiers or are they following it? It’s amazing, actually, in such an action packed frame that we can pick out Douglas as he blows his whistle and climbs over dead bodies and artillery holes. At one point the camera zooms in to spot him and his glorious chin only to zoom back out and show how crazy this attack is. It is grimy to the extreme, at the same time as it is emblematic of Kubrick’s complete control over his films.

After the failed maneuver, the evil General must cover his tracks. He sets up a court marshal in his ridiculously opulent base, a mansion with room sized paintings and marble floors. One soldier from each of the three sections of the troop will be tried for cowardice and shot if found guilty. Luckily, Douglas also happens to be the best lawyer in France, and he jumps to defend his men from the silly trial. To go any further into the film’s plot would do a disservice to it. It is a Kubrick film and as such isn’t exactly a rip-roaring good time. He films his characters with the standard detachment, though he allows them to be real people. You can sense the Douglas is pained and wants to do right by his men, not only from what he says but from how he acts. It’s him against the world, Germans and French alike. The film is as much about the failings of military thinking as it is about the French vs. the Germans. Douglas rages against the machine but to little avail. It is only the final scene that changes how he views the world. It’s a marvelous scene, at first terrifying, then strangely comforting.

As the second film in my 1957 marathon, Paths of Glory continues the year’s excellence. Along with Throne of Blood, it shows that filmmaking was just as vibrant then as it is now. There’re plenty of explosions and gunfire and later plenty of explosive dialogue and fiery speeches. It is at least as good as that other courtroom drama from the same year, 12 Angry Men. And you can imagine the entirety of War Horse happening alongside it! Both films rely on American and British actors playing foreign characters. Where are the cries of crass commercialism for Kubrick’s film? Lost in the fog of war, I guess.

Movie Review: Throne of Blood

Get ready for a few reviews of movies from 1957. I’m starting a fun project to watch a bunch of movies from that year. And what better way to begin it than with this classic Japanese film?

Admirable, my Lord. You, who would soon rule the world, allow a ghost to frighten you.

Throne of Blood is my first Akira Kurosawa film. I don’t know how I’ve gone this long in my movie fandom without seeing a film by him but it has happened and now it has been corrected. This was a perfect film to start with, too, since Macbeth is the best Shakespeare play. The best! One of the great traditions of cinema is to adapt Shakespeare plays and do whatever the heck you want with them. Some are straight adaptations, using the same words and depicting events exactly as they happen in the play. Others change around everything from genders to time periods. This film transposes the main events of Macbeth onto feudal Japan. There’s one evil spirit instead of three evil witches. The dialogue is entirely new, nothing wicked this way comes. But the themes are there. And the outsized acting suits the play’s melodramatic plot and characters. It’s Shakespeare and Kurosawa equally, and that’s great.

If you read a few Shakespeare plays you’ll soon recognize a few themes he likes to use over and over again. My favorite is the way nature and the physical world reflects the interior states of the powerful. Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark, and he’s not talking about the day old meat. Kurosawa uses this theme beautifully throughout the film. When we first see Washizu and Miki (our Macbeth and Banquo) riding through the Spider’s Web Forest on the way to the fortress that lies in the middle of it the rain pelts and the sun shines. The characters stop to recognize how strange the weather is, and then they see the evil spirit. Was she the cause of the weird weather? It would certainly suit the theme. Later, after Washizu has taken over as Lord of the Spider Web Fortress and on the night before his inevitable comeupance, there is a strange bird attack. It’s straight out of Hitchcock (even though this film came out 6 years before The Birds). Washizu decides to interpret the birds as an omen of success. People that know their literature or understand how stories work know that it’s probably an omen, but not of success. And then there’s the story’s biggest claim to fame: the army of moving trees. It’s a freaking great image and Kurosawa captures it beautifully and creepily. He shoots a fog filled frame from on high, so we see only the tops of these swaying trees, moving back and forth. It’s totally menacing. And amazing.

I’m told by the internet that Kurosawa shot this film in the style of Noh theater, a form that emphasizes the dramatic, using dance-like movements and grand, over the top acting. It’s on full display and it totally works for a film that hinges on big actions by big players. The film’s Lady Macbeth (Asaji) is the same murderous character, pushing her husband to kill his Lord and his friend. The two actors that play the couple, Toshirô Mifune and Isuzu Yamada go big, using their piercing eyes and expressive faces to convey the doubt which leads to extreme hubris. The scene where Asaji convinces Washizu to kill the Lord plays out like a dance. First he circles around her and then she circles around him. We know, of course, who wins this battle.

The movie looks amazing, as well. There’s one shot early on that sold me on the whole film. It comes at the end of the scene with the evil spirit, and the camera pushes into the small hut the spirit was in before it disappeared, following Washizu and Miki as they look for where the spirit might have gone. It doesn’t cut away as they search for the spirit, and when they turn around to look back at the hut they see that it has disappeared. All in one shot! It’s not super hard to do, I’m sure, but it sells the unquiet nature of that forest and its supernatural denizens. The camera likes to move in this film, too. It tracks behind creepy trees as the characters ride through the forest, glimpsing pale white spirits in the background (or is it just more fog?). It moves to reveal Miki’s ghost at the banquet scene, and then it moves again to show that the ghost was never there. If the characters are caught in a wheel of fate, maybe the camera is the axle, spinning and directing them on their paths.

I’m waxing philosophic now. That means it’s time to wrap up. I couldn’t have asked for a better start to this mini-marathon. I’ll be sure to check out more Kurosawa as well. And look for Throne of Blood to appear in my new top 100 list later this year. Its spot is almost guaranteed.