“Wiseguy” was a tough, smart 1980’s television series about a cop (Ken Wahl) who goes deep undercover, starting with 18 months in prison to establish his criminal credentials. In this first season, just out on DVD, he infiltrates the organization of a volatile crime boss played by Ray Sharkey. The second season co-starred a very young Kevin Spacey. Warning: the producers of the DVD set did not secure the original music rights, so the soundtrack does not include “Knights in White Satin” and some of the other striking songs that gave extra power to the original broadcast. But it is still a sharp crime drama with excellent performances. I hope the second season is released. It featured a mesmerizing performance from a very young Kevin Spacey.
Ellen Leventry’s list of post-1990 angels on movies and television got me thinking about some of my favorites from the old days. Hard to believe that performers from Jack Benny to Cary Grant to Donald Duck have taken on an angelic role. Angels have appeared in comedies, dramas, cartoons, television series, and even in musicals. They are usually in the story to guide the main character, but quite often they end up learning something, too.
1. Claude Rains and Edward Everett Horton in Here Comes Mr. Jordan. This was the first version of a story later remade with Warren Beatty in “Heaven Can Wait” and Chris Rock in “Down to Earth.” Robert Montgomery (father of “Bewitched’s” Elizabeth Montgomery) plays a boxer whose soul is prematurely taken by an apprentice angel (Horton). Mr. Jordan (Rains), the supervising angel, has to help find a new body for the boxer’s soul. This gentle comedy has a sweetness and kindness that makes it touching as well as entertaining.
2. Clifton Webb in “For Heaven’s Sake.” The impeccable (if slightly fussy) Webb plays an angel who is sent to earth on an important task. There is a special place in heaven for the souls of babies waiting to be born, and two of them are getting anxious. Their prospective parents are postponing parenthood because they are too wrapped up in themselves. Webb appears as a rancher and another kind of angel — a theatrical backer — to get them to change their minds. It is fun to see the ultra-urbane Webb trying to look like a cowpoke and the story is charming.
3. The invisible (except to a little girl) baseball players in Angels in the Outfield. The 1994 remake has its pleasures, but I still prefer the 1951 original with Paul Douglas as the temperamental manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Janet Leigh as the reporter who befriends him after a little girl from an orphanage announces that she sees angels on the baseball diamond. Douglas is wonderfully appealing as he tries to learn to control his temper and finds himself falling for Leigh.
4. Henry Travers in It’s a Wonderful Life. Probably the most-loved angel in the history of movies is Clarence, who has a very unconventional way of helping George Bailey (James Stewart) — by showing him what life would have been like if he had not been born. Travers has just the right warmth and twinkle to make us believe that every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings.
5. Cary Grant in The Bishop’s Wife. The handsomest angel in movie history is Grant’s Dudley, who arrives at Christmas to guide a clergyman (David Niven) who has neglected his family and his faith and become too caught up in the effort to build a cathedral. The most touching moments come from the look in Dudley’s eyes as he understands that even heaven does not match the pleasures of home and family.
6. Gordon MacRae in Carousel. A carnival barker who is desperate for money to care for his pregnant wife dies in a failed robbery attempt. He is sent back to earth to help his teenage daughter, now graduating from high school, to let her know she will never walk alone.
7. Henry Jones in “The Twilight Zone” episode “Mr. Bevis.” Even angels make mistakes. And in this charming episode of the Rod Serling classic television show, Orson Bean plays a lovable loser whose guardian angel (Jones) offers to turn him into a “normal” upright citizen with a responsible job and a solid credit rating. But once Bevis becomes “normal,” he isn’t Bevis anymore, and he and the angel learn that the only way to be happy is to be yourself.
8. Jack Benny in “The Horn Blows at Midnight.” Benny loved to make jokes about this film and considered it a low point of his career. But it is actually a lot of fun. Benny plays a trumpet-player who dreams that he is the angel Athanael, who has been ordered to blow his horn at midnight to signal the end of the earth. Two fallen angels try to steal it from him so they can continue to experience earthly pleasures. The story is softened a bit from the studio-added dream structure, but it still manages some sharp observations and endearing characters. The celestially beautiful Alexis Smith makes a fine angelic companion as well.
9. Donald Duck in “Donald’s Better Self.” Even the irascible Disney duck can be persuaded to listen to what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” In this animated short Donald is a schoolboy who is tempted by the devil to skip school and try smoking but is rescued by the angel, who has not only a shining (and waterproof) halo but a righteous punch.
10. Conrad Veidt in “The Passing of the Third Floor Back.” Awkwardly filmed but still very moving, this film is based on the story by Jerome K. Jerome of a stranger who changes the lives of the residents of a boarding house. Veidt often played bad guys, but here he truly shines as a character whose quiet dignity and courteous kindness bring warmth, self-respect, and inspiration to the other tenants.
What do Egyptian launch codes and a new frozen pizza topping have in common?
They’re both secrets that are of value to both those who know it and those who want to know it. Where there are secrets, there must be spies. Where there are spies, there must be counter-spies. And where there is conflict, there must be some sparks.
Writer-director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) has produced another sharp, twisty, and very stylish thriller, this time with romance and a bit of stardust. The result is a top-notch date movie for grown-ups.
Julia Roberts plays Claire and her Closer co-star Clive Owens is Ray. They meet at an American embassy 4th of July party in Dubai and it is not clear whether their opening exchange is flirtation or something a little more professional. The same can be said of the subsequent encounter, leaving one of them triumphant and the other feeling used and embarrassed. As we go back and forth in time, pieces of the puzzle come together. Once spies for the CIA and MI6, Claire and Ray move on to the more-lucrative career of corporate espionage and perhaps the even-more lucrative career of working for themselves.
Gilroy gives the film a bit of a retro gloss, with a soundtrack that has a 70’s flavor and sleek camera effects with sliding boxes reminiscent of the original “Thomas Crown Affair.” Roberts makes a welcome return to the screen, looking less willowy and more curvy. Owen, most often seen in movies glowering or cynical, is more natural trying out a Tennessee accent than he is trying out a smile, but he has a sure sense of timing that makes the best of Gilroy’s clever banter. This movie sparkles with witty exchanges, and the back-and-forth time shifts in story-telling reveals just how much every word of that dialog matters. The stakes are not as dire as in “Michael Clayton,” but that is part of the fun, watching former top spies use all of the resources available to track down information about items sold in a grocery store. More fun is seeing how two people whose careers depend on not trusting and not being trustworthy test each other and themselves to see if they can build a lasting connection. “Duplicity” may refer to a double-cross, but this movie is double-entertaining.
In 2009, film critic Roger Ebert declared “Ramin Bahrani is the new great American director.” I’d say he’s a great new American writer as well. I heard him speak at Ebertfest (his second time presenting there) and was moved, enthralled, and inspired. Only 34 years old and with just four feature films, he has already had a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and has been awarded a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship. It was a thrill to get a chance to talk to him about his brilliant film, “Goodbye Solo” (rated R for language, drug use, and sexual references and situations as well as some very sad moments) which is released today on DVD. Cinematical says “it may be the best DVD you rent this summer.” NPR’s David Edelstein said:
So much of a movie’s appeal comes down to whether you enjoy staring at the actors’ faces. In Ramin Bahrani’s “Goodbye Solo,” there are two you’ve most likely never seen before — two tantalizing maps to pore over…It’s a film of overflowing humanism, yet it acknowledges, in grief and wonder, that some things can never be reconciled.
It is the story of Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), a Senegalese cab driver with a young family and a fare named William (Red West), an old man who once hung out with Elvis and is now alone.
The first thing I want to ask you is how you achieve the extraordinary intimacy of your films, the way we feel we are eavesdropping on real life.
I’ve done the same thing with a plastic bag! My short film opening in Venice has this incredibly expressive bag that I hope you’ll fall in love with.
The most important part of directing is casting. I was deeply involved in casting in all three of my films. Finding the right person for the part, the person you can communicate with, some mysterious qualities that can be articulated in front of the frame — if the performance is not good it doesn’t matter if anything else is good, the camera, the lighting, the music, because the audience will check out immediately. I really like to get to know the actors in advance. We know one another for a few months or at least several weeks before we begin filming. I really like to things not with a lot of cuts, very few cuts; this allows the actors to perform against one other, which they enjoy a lot. It lets them bring their best work.
Then there are little things I like to talk to them about or trick them. Often times the actors don’t really know what the film’s about entirely. For example in “Goodbye Solo,” only William and Solo knew the entire story. Other people only know their scenes.
Is the film completely scripted? It is so natural it feels improvised at times.
It is completely scripted. I oftentimes do not show the actor the script. William and Solo were trained actors but nobody else saw a script. We have rehearsals where they learn what their scene is about. If they want to change certain words because it is easier to say, as long as it is okay with the structure of the film, that is all right. But there is not a lot of improvisation.
Here’s a story. The actress who played the young girl, Alex, had no idea what the movie is about and did not know why they were going to the mountain. When Solo came back alone, she was not at all in anxiety and assumed William had gone home with a friend. As we were rehearsing the final scene, she pulled me aside and said, “Why is he so sad in this moment?” I asked, “Why do you think?” “I think he’s sad because he failed his exam,” she said. I said, “Why don’t you encourage him to pass it?” She was so full of courage for Solo and that enhances his performance and encourages his character and the audience to move beyond what has happened.
What kind of training did you have in film-making?
I never had a class on directing or acting. No one told me how to make film; I just started.
You said you were deeply involved in casting. What do you look for?
People who kind of resemble the part. Souleymane Sy Savane is naturally kind of a friendly, charming guy, also very meditative, very thoughtful. He doesn’t talk that much or that fast or use those terms that Solo does. He talks at a much slower pace. I had to accelerate him so it is really a performance and an amazing one. The first thing is the face, you could just look at those faces for a long time and be engaged. That’s critical. Bergman was very good at finding faces you want to look at for a long time. There’s a mystery to a person’s face that the camera must respect. In literature you can’t look at someone’s face. You can can go into their mind, in theater, poetry, book, music, you see a lot but not the face the way you see it in a movie.
That is why I don’t like to cut when the scene is supposedly technically done. I let it run to see what they are thinking about what just happened, to wait to see what they do. Those are important moments. The people who say “Oh this is slow,” I don’t really believe they think that, I think they’ve just seen too many of the other kind of film.
I remember at Ebertfest you caused a bit of controversy by telling people there not to see some big blockbuster. I think it was “Wolverine.” Do you think people are diminished by watching films like that?
Of course I think that people are diminished by those films. Independent does not mean slow or boring or slow or obtuse or in a museum that no one can understand without a book on semiotics. I think a child could understand and enjoy my films and an adult could enjoy them in a different way.
I was just asked if I want to make a “big film.” I don’t know what it means to make a big film. Someone called “Man Push Cart” a “nice little film.” What does “nice little film” mean? It’s just as big as “Mission Impossible 3.” I actually think MI3 is a microscopic film. It provides nothing to the world or the universe or humanity except an extreme waste of money and talent. It is a massive waste of resources. The reason people think they are big is that they cost a lot of money.
Film is an expensive financial venture, to try to engage the audience in a good story that anyone can understand. Important to keep the budget at a level where you can still do what you want do. If you’re going to spend $80 million you will have to do what they want you to do. You have to ask yourself, “Do I want to be in that position.” I don’t.
So, what do you want to do next?
Of course I want to work with known actors as well as unknown. If Viggo Mortenson wants to play the part, fine, he’s a talented actor. And having him in the film can help get more resources. But these films get caught up in big/small instead of important/important.
“Goodbye Solo” is set in your home town of Winston-Salem. Were you interested in film when you were young?
I was born and raised in North Carolina. I developed an interest in cinema as a teenager. Before that I was painting and drawing, then literature Camus, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Faulkner, then renting “Aguirre, Wrath of God, “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.” Herzog, BuÃ±uel, Fellini, Bergman, Rossellini –“The Flowers of St. Francis” was very influential, I love Ken Loach, Kurasawa, these are the ones I really respond to.
What about performers?
The great American actor is James Stewart. You really see that in the Anthony Mann westerns, and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Not all directors knew how to access what he had to offer, of course Hitchcock did later in “Vertigo,” his qualities of being unnerving and and mysterious and violent. He had the widest range, with all respect to Brando, Newman, Depp. Monica Vitti is in her own category, one of the great female actors.
Now tell me about the plastic bag movie!
It’s premiering at the Venice film festival, a 20 minute film, and it will be online in early 2010. It is about a plastic bag in an existential crisis looking for its maker. It encounters strange creatures, brief love in the sky, and then to be with its own kind it goes to the Pacific trash vortex to try to forget about its maker. I cannot tell you who it is, but the voice of the bag is extremely special. It is not an agenda film, but like “The Red Balloon,” it will make you care about an inanimate object.
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