Tag: classic

Movie Review: Casablanca

There are some iconic scenes in fiction, and a lot of them happen in watering holes and cosmopolitan places where people gather. The Mos Eisley cantina in Star Wars, Knowhere of Guardians of the Galaxy, The Prancing Pony in Bree from Lord of the Rings… the list is extremely long. When it comes to films, there are few taverns that have had quite as much influence on the tone, composition, and nature of goings-on within such places as Rick’s Cafe Americain. After all, everybody comes to Rick’s. That is the name of the play upon which the unquestionably classic film, Casablanca, is based.

Courtesy Warner Bros

The year is 1941, and it is early December. The city of Casablanca is relatively neutral territory, even if it is controlled by Vichy France and the oversight of the German Reich. It is a hotbed of clandestine activity, from smuggling to gambling and even the sale of exit visas, which desperate refugees require to flee Europe for the promise of freedom and opportunity in America. Many of these sales happen at Rick’s, where the proprietor is surprisingly neutral and reserved, conveying only quiet bitterness and healthy scepticism towards both starry-eyed freedom-fighters and ironclad fascists. All of that changes, however, when the one woman who has ever truly captured Rick’s affections walks into his cafe, asking the piano player to play the one song Rick insists he never plays, and changes things in Casablanca forever.

It is pretty clear that Casablanca is adapted from a stage play. The settings, dialog, and even the lighting of the scenes could easily be recreated by a savvy director and a good stage crew. In the 1940s, many films were produced in this way, opting for a faster route from script to screen rather than saddling the production with glitz and glamour. In fact, when it was released, a lot of people didn’t expect anything groundbreaking from Casablanca; it was just another of the hundreds of films being produced by the studios. But even as it was being made, those directly involved with its creation knew that it was something special.

Courtesy Warner Bros
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world…”

A big reason for this is the talented, international cast. Only Humphrey Bogart (Rick), Dooley Wilson (Sam), and a minor role or two were American actors. The woman in question, Ilsa Lund, was played by luminous Norwegian actress Ingrid Bergman. Paul Henreid, Ilsa’s husband and a reknown freedom fighter named Victor Lazlo, was Austrian. Many actual refugees played roles of all types in the film, including the main antagonist, Major Strausser, who was portrayed by Conrad Veidt, a German who had himself fled from the Nazis. This gives the entire production of Casablanca a palpable sense of authenticity and earnestness. In one of its most famous scenes, Lazlo leads the people in Rick’s in a rendition of “La Marseilles”, and during the scene, many of the actors burst into tears on set. The nature of this cast is one of the things that makes Casablanca singularly special.

There’s also the fact that every single leading role is brilliantly executed. Bogart hadn’t done any romantic work before Casablanca, but watching Rick’s carefully crafted demeanor crack under the pressure of Ilsa’s presence is clear evidence of the actor’s talent. Bergman smolders, and the two have electric chemistry. Just as good is the interplay between Bogart and the inimitable Claude Rains, who plays Casablanca’s prefect of police Louis Renault with equal parts legitimate sleaze and good-natured humor. Henreid is compelling as a man who has witnessed horrid injustice first-hand and will stop at nothing to combat it, and Veidt gives Strausser real menace barely contained by the sort of impersonal, surface-level diplomacy that villains use just long enough to get what they want. Even smaller roles have real talent and nuance behind them, from Wilson’s unflappable and loyal Sam to Sydney Greenstreet’s unabashedly profit-minded underworld magnate. The performances in Casablanca are more than enough to keep an audience riveted to the screen, far moreso than any amount of modern special effects or computer-generated gimmickery.

Courtesy Warner Bros
The 40s were a great time for hats.

Full of classic quotes, unforgettable scenes, scintillating performances, and a true time-capsule of the atmosphere of its day, Casablanca has a lot to offer an audience even in the 21st century. What was once anti-Nazi propoganda now plays as dramatic historical fiction, as uniformed German officers never occupied Morocco and the MacGuffin of the film, the “letters of transit”, never existed. Still, as a setting for intrigue, drama, romance, and suspense, Casablanca and Rick’s are the foundation upon which many future tales were built. It is film noir at its finest, a shining example of a tightly-produced character-driven story, and one of the best films ever made.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! The Naked Gun

Logo courtesy Netflix. No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

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The parody is hardly a new form of artistic expression. People have been making fun of things other people do since time immemorial. I’m sure there are some cave drawings that, in context, are downright hilarious. For a few years the premiere comedy team for cinematic parody were David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker. One of the finest examples of their work came about in the form of a series of films that have been mercilessly pursued, copied and mined for ideas. It all began with The Naked Gun.

Courtesy Kentucky Fried Films

Okay, I lie. It all began with Police Squad!, a television show aimed at taking the piss out of the hard-bitten noir detective shows like Dragnet. The Naked Gun is the full-length film that grew out of that show, starring Leslie Neilsen as Detective Lieutenant Frank Drebin. Drebin’s a decent cop in a bad town, narrating the particulars of the case at hand and his feelings for Jane, a beautiful woman who seems to keep getting mixed up with slick corporate villains. With this somewhat loose outline of a plot, the writers worry less about the drama inherent to noir crime yarns and more about the right timing of a sight gag, the best snappy comeback and the most over-the-top way in which they can tackle a pop culture target.

When Leslie Neilsen passed away I was among those who mourned. His sense of comedic timing and elastic facial expressions were coupled with a fine form of gravitas which allowed him to deliver punchlines with the sort of straight-faced stoniness that’d put the detectives on Law & Order to shame. I consider the Naked Gun films to be among his finest work, though he also really shined in Airplane! to the point that “Don’t call me Shirley” creeped into the common parlance of anybody fashioning themselves as a top-tier wiseass.

Courtesy Kentucky Fried Films
I dare you not to laugh at this great man.

There are two reasons I feel the comedy in these movies work as well as it does. First, the characters aren’t in on the joke. While the actions that take place and the circumstances in which these people find themselves might be ridiculous, the characters themselves very rarely nudge or even wink at the audience to make sure they get the punchline. The things that are clearly ludicrous to us as observers is unlikely to be commented upon by the characters in the scene, as if they’re oblivious to things like odd chalk outlines or the particular detail given by sculptors to the genitals of the statues outside the high floor of an apartment building. The characters might not comment on these things, but there they are, for the audience to behold and laugh at.

Which leads me to the other reason the Naked Gun movies are rightfully considered go-to examples of well-done parodies. The movie assumes the audience is observant, if not smart. Instead of inserting pregnant pauses, obvious musical stings or other shallow means of calling attention to a moment the writers fell all over themselves laughing, the gags and bits play out in a very smooth, almost breakneck manner in terms of pace and execution. You might be wondering what the difference is between The Naked Gun and, say, one of those Scary Movie sequels.

Courtesy Kentucky Fried Films
There’s a joke about the Wayans Brothers in here somewhere…

It seems to me the many of those sequels and spin-off movies act a bit like carbon copies of The Naked Gun. While the content has been dutifully duplicated and updated with even more pop culture references and gross bodily humor, the intelligence behind that humor, the ability of the actors to play their scenes straight and the assumption that the audience doesn’t need their metaphorical hands held to know when to laugh are all absent. Due to this, the humor suffers, and if the comedy in your comedy movie isn’t funny, you haven’t got much left, have you?

That said, comedy is largely a subjective thing. It’s a case of one man’s meat being another man’s poison. I mean, there are people out there who find Grandma’s Boy or Trapped in Paradise hilarious, I’m sure. Still, I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that The Naked Gun and its sequels have a sort of timeless, universal appeal. They can find a place on just about any Netflix queue. I mean my wife, who typically isn’t a fan of comedies, found them to be pretty funny. And this is the reason I’m tackling these films, you see, because this day, the 18th of March, is her birthday. She recently retooled her blog and there’s lots of content to come there, so why don’t you swing by and check her out? Let it not be said I forget my loved ones on their birthday, even if the only day-of present I can provide is a shameless plug.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! The Adventures of Robin Hood

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

[audio:http://www.blueinkalchemy.com/uploads/robinhood.mp3]

Long before things like 3-D, CGI, THX and all those other wonderful acronyms came along, films were seen as extensions of the stage. Actors brought their best Shakespearean bombast, sets were designed as you would the sort of staging you’d have to quickly break down in the dark between acts, and directors framed and propelled their shots in a particular way. If 1938’s classic swashbuckler The Adventures of Robin Hood has a flaw, that’d probably be the biggest one. It’s also completely irrelevant, however, as this is the sort of movie where I can use the words ‘classic swashbuckler’ with an entirely straight face.

Courtesy Warner Bros

King Richard I of England is on his way back from the Crusades when he gets tied up in Austria. Literally. Some guy named Leopold takes him prisoner. Richard’s little brother John takes over and immediately starts oppressing the Saxon commoners, fattening the purses of the Norman land-holders to build up support for his bid for England’s throne. The big thorn in John’s side is the Saxon Robin, Earl of Locksley, who sees right through John’s public decrees that the increased taxes are to pay Richard’s ransom and vows to do everything in his power to stop the oppression and restore Richard to his throne. Sir Guy of Gisbourne, John’s aide de camp, makes a vow of his own, which is to see Robin dangling from the end of a rope, especially when the lovely Maid Marian starts warming to Robin’s roguish charm instead of falling for Guy’s Norman sensibilities and position. There’s plenty of sword fighting, swinging from ropes, and the sort of laughs men make by putting their hands on their hips and engaging their diaphragms.

As I said, this is a classic swashbuckler. The classic part of that comes from the Oscar-winning score and art direction, as well as the acting. The story isn’t all that original but it’s being told with such adventurous abandon and honest charm that the premise never gets in the way of the fun. Sure, the sets look a bit two-dimensional in places, the lighting isn’t always appropriate for the fictional time of day or night and there’s more than enough men in green tights on display to give Mel Brooks something to parody, but in the case of this Robin Hood it’s easy to brush all of that aside. The way in which this movie is acted, shot and presented is so rousing, colorful, lighthearted and satisfying that it could have been shot in the round against a black background and it’d still be entertaining.

Courtesy Warner Bros
“So, I heard you like venison…”

Errol Flynn in particular possesses so much charisma and wit that it’s obvious why he became the iconic Robin Hood for years. He takes a film with a setting, story and style that would normally mark it as charmingly camp, and elevates it to being just plain charming. He has chemistry with Olivia de Havilland, who manages to look glamorous even when she’s wearing some pretty ridiculous headgear. By this point they’d already worked together on two pictures, one of which being the equally iconic Captain Blood which also paired Flynn with one Basil Rathbone.

This is one of the earliest instances I can recall of seeing a main villain who keeps their hands clean while a top lieutenant does the dirty work with relish – a Big Bad and a Dragon, if you will. In Robin Hood, Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone demonstrate exactly how this dynamic should work. Rains’ Prince John is affable, magnanimous, crafty and ruthless all at the same time, and while he never becomes physically involved in the goings-on, his presence is undeniable. Rathbone’s Sir Guy, on the other hand, has little patience for posturing and politics, spending most of his time waiting for Prince John to tell him who he gets to stab next. Long before things like powered armor or automatic weapons were born, Basil Rathbone used tone, poise and expression to show audiences exactly what it means to be the biggest badass in the room.

Courtesy Warner Bros
Prince John’s “WAT.” face

There’s even a touch of a villainous Power Trio, with Melville Cooper’s somewhat rotund and cowardly Sheriff of Nottingham revealing himself to be a pretty smart guy. However, the most interesting relationship is that between Robin and Sir Guy. These are two men who are completely confident in their own abilities, are vying for the affections of the same woman and serve two entirely different masters. Underneath the story stuff, however, is the chemistry between Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone. It’s particularly telling in their swordplay, which segues me into the ‘swashbuckling’ portion of this ‘classic swashbuckler.’

The swordfights that happen in Robin Hood are fun to watch, with high energy and great music underscoring the tension. The movements are large and deliberate, swords clash against one another and the hero and villain exchange blows on spiral stairs, or wander out of shot for their shadows to do the dueling. This is the textbook example of well-choreographed cinematic swordplay, even if trying to engage someone in a sword fight in real life using these techniques would quickly get one skewered. It’s the kind of swordplay that makes films like the aforementioned Captain Blood, 1940’s The Sea Hawk and The Princess Bride such swashbuckling classics – and those are good examples of how these fights are staged, a method sometimes referred to as Flynning. Guess why.

Courtesy Warner Bros
“But enough talk! Have at you!”

This isn’t to say that it looks terribly fake. Outside of the occasional set or lighting error, Robin Hood looks great all around. While the costuming’s probably not terribly historically accurate, it’s quite sumptuous and atmospheric, and being shot in Technicolor, everything’s got a bit of a bright sheen on it. And while the aforementioned sword fights aren’t necessarily realistic, they don’t look bad at all, either. Hell, Basil Rathbone was an accomplished fencer as well as a great actor, and he used his skill to make sure he let Errol Flynn have a convincing win!

Whups, sorry, should’ve put a spoiler alert on that one.

Anyway, The Adventures of Robin Hood is a classic that might show its age in places, but has definitely aged gracefully. It’s exciting and fun to watch without being dumb or terribly formulaic, which is more than can be said for a lot of films being made some 70 years later. The cast is charming, the action is well done and the story, while familiar, is told with enough touches of freshness that it’s still interesting after repeated viewings. I say give it a look. If you have already seen it, I have to ask this one question: Where the hell did the phrase “lusty infant” come from?

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

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