Tuesday 28 February 2012

Blind Spot #2 - "Yankee Doodle Dandy" & "Swing Time"

Though I suspect that the decision to choose two films per "Blind Spot" post is going to nip me in the butt at some point, it's proving to yield some nice parallels and contrasts between films so far. This month I chose two black and white musicals - the James Cagney star vehicle "Yankee Doodle Dandy" from 1942 and the Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers hoofing fest "Swing Time" from 1936 - and they've provided a slew of comparison points. While each film has rafts of familiar popular songs and big name directors overshadowed by even bigger name stars, there are also contrasting points like their dancing styles (smooth flow vs. brute physical athleticism) and approaches to set design (lavish vs. minimal). Not to mention the unexpected and unappreciated occurrence of a "blackface" musical/dance number in each film. I have to say I did not see that coming.

Another surprising commonality between the two films are the very poor opening set of scenes..."Yankee Doodle Dandy" is a bio-musical-pic of famous songwriter and stage performer George M. Cohan and frames his life story within bookends of a meeting with the President of the United States (Franklin Delano Roosevelt). It's an awkward beginning and is followed by additional awkwardness as Cohan recollects his early life. Though there's a quickness to the film's pace as it settles into displaying vignettes instead of providing straight narrative, it's slow to get going as we have to make it through scenes of the annoyingly cocky little George. Fortunately Cagney shows up when Cohan hits his early adult years and the story settles into the meaty song and dance segments. "Swing Time" doesn't exactly endear itself to the viewer early on either - in fact, its opening 20 minutes are painful. The comedy is strained and forced, the characters are this close to being unlikeable (and, except for Victor Moore's slightly drunken sounding Pop, without a single interesting attribute) and the plot is set in motion about as effectively and efficiently as any task run by government committee. Things will get moving, but not without a lot of effort. Fortunately Ginger Rogers shows up just in time to lend her hefty charm and spirit.

Which exposes one of the major issues of "Swing Time": Astaire's acting. He's simply not very good here. His comedic timing is the pits while his reactions are overly broad and unnatural. His character isn't much to write about either - he's a bit of a jerk and seems to have all his problems resolved for him. That feels somewhat par for the course with Astaire though - I've rarely liked his characters in pretty much any of his musicals (even as he became a better actor). He simply never manages to bring an abundance of charm to his roles. Rogers, on the other hand, does it with ease. The script doesn't give her much to work with, but she has a presence that dwarfs the rest of the cast. It's easy to see why Astaire starts to fall for her and decides to postpone his task of saving $25000 so that he can return from the big city to his fiancee back home. However, except for his dancing there's little reason to see why Rogers might fall for him. Then again, his dancing is spectacular. The above mentioned blackface number is an 8 minute long sequence that incorporates Astaire dancing with 30 dancers at once (which happens towards the end of a single 3 minute long unedited shot) and ends with him dancing solo against three shadows. Short of the unnecessary and embarrassing makeup, it's a marvel of planning and creativity. As a couple, Rogers and Astaire have three separate long dance routines and the film simply glows during these sequences. Across the three routines, there are only three edits - with one of the dances done completely in one single shot - and it's simply wonderful to be allowed to see these unbroken takes of their artistry (whether it took 1 or 100 takes is irrelevant).

When it comes to "Yankee Doodle Dandy" its focus is solely on George M. Cohan, which of course means it's really all Cagney. And that's just fine. He exudes command of every frame he's in - whether it's his forceful control of a conversation, his ability to pull all attention towards him with a sly expression of satisfaction or the way he whips his legs into a frenzy during one of his stage numbers (as well as the several off stage demonstrations he loves to provide). The film doesn't provide us much real background on Cohan, explain his early stubbornness or give much more than passing background on his family members, but it's pretty easily forgivable since the focus is Cohan's music and ability to tap into what grabs the common man. His war time song "Over There" is a fine example of both - immediately hummable with simple lyrics that hit directly at the patriotic soul. If the film is a bit awash in flag-waving, it's also quite forgivable since it appears that was a Cohan specialty. As well, the film was released in 1942 after the U.S. had just joined the follow-up war to the one that inspired "Over There".

Technically, "Yankee Doodle Dandy" far exceeds "Swing Time" in terms of the quality and smoothness of its editing, pacing and general framing of its shots. It may be spliced up into a selection of scenes instead of an A-->B narrative, but its energy rarely lags and overall provides an entertaining look at some of the best known popular music of early 20th century America through the prism of top form James Cagney. "Swing Time" simply can't compete on the same level of overall quality (except for a few comedic moments between Moore and Helen Broderick), but it shines - no, scratch that - radiates during its dance sequences. The large multi-tiered sets of the cafes and clubs are marvels by themselves, but almost fade to the background when upstaged by the sparkling Rogers and Astaire. I'm willing to give the rest of the rather poorly constructed film a complete pass just simply because it gave us a brilliant 20 minutes or so of glorious art.

Sunday 26 February 2012

Ghost Rider: No Spirit At All

It's not that Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance is completely terrible. No, I've seen plenty of films that lack basic competency and have far less focus than the burning biker's second foray into the multiplex. It's that it ISN'T completely terrible - had it been worse it may have kept my attention. An occasional head-slappingly bad film (not something I typically search out) can be awfully fun and certainly more memorable than the generic. Even better would have been an embrace of the campy potential on hand and a determination to push it to the limit. After all, the dude's skull is on fire and a solid Nic Cage freak-out or two is always good tonic for the soul. Sadly, the film just doesn't capitalize on these factors enough.

Ghost Rider's central problem is that it just sits there allowing it's drab blue/grey surroundings to fill up your vision for about 90 minutes until you can go back to the full spectrum of reality. It's completely inconsequential.

So why am I bothering to write about it? Well, I'm somewhat bewildered by films like this. With all the effort that goes into the production of a movie - especially an effects heavy beast like this one - why is there sometimes so little care put towards making it artful? Either from the point of view of the story (a true yawner here) or the visual components? There's absolutely nothing I can take away from this film in regards to character or story - nothing. I'll give some credit in regards to the flaming skull and the blasts of fire that provide the only respite from the surrounding blandness, but that was it and it wasn't much. I typically try to avoid fare of this nature, but a night out with some buddies for beer, a movie and more beer was not to be dismissed.

Perhaps I'm overstating my case. My friends had a lot of fun with it and several reviews and Twitter comments seem to be saying the same thing. Maybe I filtered out all the goofiness...But coming out of the theatre - when I generally want to talk about what I just saw - my thoughts were solely on that next pint.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Just a Little Inspiration

I've been in a bit of a funk lately when it comes to writing on my blog. It's not the fault of the movies (a quick browse of my favourites from 2011 show plenty of titles about which one can be excited - in particular the about-to-be-released magnificent Cafe De Flore), but for whatever reason I haven't felt the urge to post about random titles I've been watching. The "inspiration" just hasn't been there.

And then the other night I finally got around to watching "Cameraman: The Life And Work Of Jack Cardiff". Though a fairly straight-ahead documentary mixing talking head interviews, scenes from his movies and archival clips and photos, it was a bit of the tonic I needed. Shortly after covering the stunning cinematography of Cardiff's work on "A Matter Of Life And Death" (aka "Stairway To Heaven"), "Black Narcissus" and "The Red Shoes" (a 1-2-3 punch he did with directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), I paused the film and went upstairs to babble incomprehensibly to my wife. Just that single scene from "Black Narcissus" of Sister Ruth - out of her frock and now dressed in deep crimson with everything except a single deadly look drained from her face - should be enough to kick start any film lovers heart, but seeing it bookended with the glorious staircase from heaven in "A Matter Of Life And Death" and any of the random scenes from the ballet section of "The Red Shoes" is almost too much to process at one time. It's an overload of luminous creativity. I failed miserably in conveying this to my wife, but it was right there in front of me - inspiration.

Delving into the rest of the film, it only deepened as I listened to Cardiff talk about where he receives his own inspiration. His love of art covers several realms, but the biggest influence for him is work by some of the master painters. He gathered ideas for lighting from Turner and Degas and many others and incorporated them all into his shots. If you've heard the term "painting with light" to describe what cinematographers do, then you'll instantly recognize that it's wholly and completely applicable to Cardiff's style. It's also unmistakable in the numerous photos of the stars he took like the portrait of Audrey Hepburn which he uses to demonstrate a good example of chiaroscuro (though I suspect he selected it solely to stare at her gorgeous face - can you blame him?). Cardiff also paints and regularly creates his own copies of masterworks that inspire him in order to get an even better appreciation of how lighting is used.

It's not just the pretty pictures though - like the best designers, Cardiff creates environments that encourage great work and add to it. Actors loved him for that since they believed their performances came out much stronger due to his involvement. Throughout the film Cardiff relates stories about some of the actors with whom he's worked: Hepburn, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe (who he believed wanted to work with him simply because everyone else did) and Marlene Dietrich among many others. Dietrich gets the most interesting and illuminating anecdotes as Cardiff relates how she knew just as much about properly lighting scenes and faces (particularly her own) as he did. "She was always right".

Cardiff also eventually tried his hand at directing for quite awhile (14 films according to IMDB) and though he received some recognition, was pretty much forced back to cinematography when the market didn't allow for as many pictures to be made. Some of his late career film work was, to say the least, surprising since he has cinematography credits for "Conan The Destroyer" and "Rambo: First Blood Part II". Not that those films don't necessarily deserve the craftmanship, but I certainly wouldn't have guessed he would have been involved. It's great to see an artist who doesn't restrict himself to his sphere of expertise and who truly appears to take pleasure from the simple act of creating art. Particularly as he describes some of the very creative techniques he used to solve the problems posed to him - like the way he created the fading mist that gives way to ocean waves (he breathed on the lens and let the moisture dissipate) or how he doubled the frame rate at the height of a dancer's jump in order to give them just a bit extra hang time. Scorsese gives credit where credit is due (though it probably sits with Powell & Pressburger in addition to Cardiff) when he tells of taking ideas from "The Red Shoes" for the way he provides the viewpoint from the boxing ring in "Raging Bull".

The biggest compliment I can give the film (and Cardiff himself) is that it's encouraged me to get back to trying to be creative. For how long and to what extent is an unresolved question, but the inspiration itself is enough for me right now and that's a start. Thanks Jack.