Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Producers (1968)

The Producers (1968).  Can you believe I've never before seen this movie all the way through? Bits of it seem to show up in every Hollywood comedy retrospective, from Oscar night to PBS specials, and I knew the plot. But I'd never actually sat down and watched it. For once, something was all it's cracked up to be!

Surely everyone else knows the plot too -- Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) is an unsuccessful theatrical producer and Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) is the accountant who comes to do his books. When Bloom points out that Max raised more money for one of his flops than it cost to produce, and then takes the next logical step, the two embark on a search for the perfect flop. Springtime for Hitler seems to fit the bill...but then things start to go hilariously wrong.

There's something in this movie to offend everyone -- Jews, Germans, older women, younger women, gay men, accountants -- but that's Mel Brooks for you, and he gets away with it because he's so funny. It was also fun spotting various sly allusions, such as the name of Gene Wilder's character (Leo Bloom = Leopold Bloom from Ulysses?)  Perhaps the most obscure was the little scene when the director's high-camp assistant has Max and Leo remove their shoes before entering his apartment. (This was not common practice when the film was made). He explains by saying "White, white, white is the color of our carpet...."  Only a couple of years ago at West Denmark Family Camp, I learned the German folk song to which he alludes.

I must point out a coincidence that Onkel Hankie Pants pointed out to me:


In the past week, I've enjoyed two films which ended with the protagonists in prison, Topkapi and The Producers. And in both films, the criminals are unrepentantly either planning or already carrying out their next caper!

The Producers is truly a classic comedy and a fun way to spend 90 minutes. I also liked that it was just the right length -- no joke carried on beyond the point where it was funny.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

In This World (2003)

In This World is not a documentary, although it has the cinematic feel of one, complete with subtitles, map graphics, and plonking voiceovers. The description on the Netflix envelope said it was a documentary, showing that whoever wrote it did not look at the closing credits and the production notes, in which the director (Michael Winterbottom) describes the filming process and says "This is not a documentary, it's fiction."

The story (categorized by Wikipedia as a docudrama) follows two Afghan refugees on a journey from Pakistan to London, overland and illegal. Winterbottom says that he wanted his two actors (amateurs by the way) to represent the millions of refugees all over the world. Jamal, who's about 11 and speaks English, and Enayat, who appears about 20 and does not, are helped with money from an uncle paid to various "fixers" along the way. They travel by various means -- bus, in the back of an open truck, hidden in trucks carrying cargo, on foot through the mountains, and in an enclosed truck within a freighter from Turkey to Trieste. Every border crossing and every sight of an official is fraught with peril -- even at the beginning of their journey, in Pakistan, where Jamal was actually born in the refugee camp, they are suspect foreigners. The worst danger is on the ship, and when Jamal reaches Trieste, he must go on alone.

The film was shot with minimal crew -- a cameraman and a sound man using as unobtrusive equipment as possible (digital video was mentioned). In some scenes, such as the night mountain crossing on the Iranian-Turkish border and in the hold of the ship, it's very hard to see, just as if one of the participants had a small camera along. This definitely adds to the documentary feel of the film. Also, the director stated that the main actors didn't have a real script and just said what they wanted to. The endearing Jamal, for instance, frequently makes up not-quite-funny jokes that he tells to Enayat or anyone who'll listen, much like eleven-year-old boys anywhere.

Two more recurring scenes seemed to be important in the film (and I assume this was an editing decision). One, I think, was meant to underscore the difficulties of maintaining the boys' Muslim religion during this exodus. They're frequently shown washing their faces, hands, and feet much more carefully than most guys their age from non-Muslim backgrounds would under their circumstances. At the end, in London, Jamal, whom we've mostly seen in pretty basic if not squalid settings, goes to a beautiful and lavishly appointed mosque and prays fervently.

The other theme is soccer -- in spite of the perilous journey they've undertaken, Jamal and Enayat are still young boys and they seize any rare opportunity for a pick-up soccer game with other young men they encounter, whether among Kurdish people in northern Iran or on the beach in France while awaiting an opportunity to stow away on a truck bound for London. The Kurds, by the way, are the only people shown who seem to be helping the boys along on their journey out of the goodness of their hearts rather than solely for money, probably because they know what it is to be refugees themselves.

In This World was a very effective film in showing the plight of the refugee. It definitely had a political agenda; although the voice-overs mention that many Afghan refugees came to Pakistan as early as 1979, much is made of the more recent (at the time the film was being shot) arrivals of people fleeing U.S. bombing raids. I would have liked a little more description of exactly what was going on at times, and more background information, but on the other hand, the film is only an hour and 28 minutes long and, given the sometimes-difficult camera work, the dialogue frequently in various languages and not consistently subtitled, and the harrowing events, perhaps I wouldn't have wanted it to go on much longer. I think it's well worth seeing.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Sweet Liberty (1986)

Written, directed, and starred in by Alan Alda, Sweet Liberty (1986) is an enjoyable little movie about making a movie. Alda plays a history professor whose book on the American Revolution is to be made into a movie on location in the historic town where he lives and teaches. Naturally the locals are thrilled, especially the local troop of Revolutionary re-enactors who will play the American soldiers. They, and Alda, are dismayed to learn that historical accuracy is a low priority for the film's director, played by Saul Rubinek. He puts it succinctly to Alda: the target audience, ages 12-22, like to see three things in a movie. They want to see authority defied, property destroyed, and people's clothing removed. The director will get what he wants in an unusual way before the movie ends.

There is also a love story between Alda and a fellow professor; while they are "on a break," each gets involved with one of the film's stars (Michael Caine and Michelle Pfeiffer), but those involvements prove ultimately unsatisfying. Another subplot involves Lillian Gish as Alda's mother, and appears to have been written in merely to give Alda the opportunity to act with this screen legend, whose first films were released in 1912. Death-defying feats (mostly by Michael Caine), slapstick comedy, and a jaundiced eye cast at Hollywood recur throughout the film. It was an enjoyable way to spend a little less than two hours, and most likely better than anything that was on network TV that night. I don't think you should go out of your way to see it, though.

Topkapi (1964)

I've been reading the winners of the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Best Novel awards since June of 2007 (I'm up to 1988 now; they began in 1954). Whenever possible, I've also been watching films made from the winning books. Often I've been disappointed in the film version of a book I've enjoyed, but this is not one of those times. Topkapi (1964), directed by Jules Dassin and based on Eric Ambler's book The Light of Day (1963, Edgar Best Novel 1964), is faithful to the book in its essentials, with changes made appropriately for the different medium. Like the book, it was thoroughly enjoyable.

The story is that Elizabeth (Melina Mercouri), an international jewel thief, challenges her friend and sometime lover Walter (Maximilian Schell) to help her steal a fabulous jeweled dagger from the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. He agrees, with the proviso that only amateurs be enlisted to help them, since amateurs will not have police records. Part of their plan is to get a car in which a rifle and smoke grenades are hidden from Greece into Turkey. To this end they hire Arthur Simpson (Peter Ustinov), a half-English, half-Egyptian unsuccessful conman. Through various events, Simpson is soon much more deeply involved in a number of roles than anyone expected.

At first I found Mercouri's performance a bit over the top, but I guess she grew on me, and the joie de vivre she brought to the part was perfect for her character. Maximilian Schell was his urbane self, portraying a character whose ability to think on his feet was astounding. But the standout performance was Peter Ustinov's. Both in the book and the film, Arthur Simpson is portrayed as one of life's losers and not a very charming person; he deludes himself more often than he fools anyone else and he has few redeeming qualities. He's cowardly and of low moral fiber. Yet he is somehow endearing, and we end up hoping that things will go well for him. From his initial appearance with his imperfectly-tucked in shirt, to his realistic performance as a man terrified of heights who must hop about the roofs of the Topkapi Palace, Ustinov perfectly portrayed Arthur Simpson. I found it interesting that Topkapi brought Ustinov an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role because in the book, the focus is on Simpson; and because I'd read the book first, I focused on Simpson while watching the film as well.

The added attractions in Topkapi are, of course, the beautiful scenery and atmospheric scenes in Greece and Turkey, especially the all-day wrestling event which gives the thieves some cover for their activities.

If you've never seen Topkapi, I'd urge you to do so any time you are in the mood for a great caper movie with very little violence. And read the book, too!

The American Experience: The Great Fever

I like the PBS series, The American Experience. My only real problems with it are that I can't remember what night it's on, and that I still haven't adjusted to the Eastern Time Zone, so everything on TV seems as if it's on much too late. Fortunately for me, the PBS website carries information on the series (and some episodes can be watched online) and Netflix has it available for rental. So when I found a reference to an episode called The Great Fever while doing some genealogy research, I was able to have it at home to watch within a couple of days. (I will be blogging about the genealogy on a new blog, coming soon!)

The Great Fever was yellow fever, and the film is a documentary about how Walter Reed, Jesse Lazear, and others proved that the fever was transmitted by mosquitoes, enabling effective prevention measures to be undertaken and saving thousands of lives. This happened during the aftermath of the Caribbean phase of the Spanish-American War, during which U.S. forces took Cuba and Puerto Rico with a minimum of combat deaths but a huge number of deaths from disease -- typhoid, malaria and yellow fever.

The film, like most in the series, uses a variety of techniques. The talking heads and period photographs, paintings and documents with which we're familiar from Ken Burns's work are there, but added to them are re-enactments which make the hour-long film move faster. This was very effective in The Great Fever, juxtaposing a contemporary photo of one of the doctors with film of an actor applying a disease-bearing mosquito to his own arm with the help of a test-tube. In addition, the series uses very early motion pictures taken during the war (the first in which motion pictures played a role in keeping records of the war). I learned some useful background material from this film and it was a good way to spend an hour. I'd recommend it to anyone with an interest in epidemiology or the Spanish-American War, and especially also to genealogists who may find a Spanish-American War veteran or yellow fever victim in their ancestry.