Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fargo (1996)

FARGO, by Joel and Ethan Coen, is probably a "love it or hate it" kind of film, depending on your tolerance for dark comedy, but I definitely fall into the former camp.

It plays well as a straightforward thriller but also contains a strong undercurrent of jet-black humor that's never quite outright mean-spirited or completely unpleasant (even though it involves kidnapping, gruesome murders, and dismemberment in a wood chipper). Shot largely on location in North Dakota and Minnesota, Roger Deakins' cinematography captures the bleakness of the weather and the long flat expanses, which atmospherically reflects the state of the characters in the story.

The real standout performance is Frances McDormand as practical and tough policewoman Marge Gunderson, but William H. Macy (as the meek everyman in way over his head with kidnapping and loan fraud schemes), Harve Presnell (as his no-nonsense Midwestern business tycoon father-in-law) and especially Steve Buscemi (as a perpetually nervous and volatile hitman) all contribute fine turns in playing well-defined characters that they can really sink their teeth into.

Dark comedy is one of the most frequently mis-used labels when it comes to describing movies, and one of the toughest forms to pull off. FARGO pulls it off, and does so admirably well. It's certainly one of my favorite films of the past 20 years, and my favorite work by the Coens.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Mikado (1939)

While the 1939 film of Gilbert & Sullivan's THE MIKADO is far from a faithful adaptation in terms of containing every song and scene from the show, it is certainly faithful to the spirit of the great 1885 operetta by one of the great teams in theater history.

THE MIKADO was my introduction to the work of Gilbert & Sullivan. I had first learned about this film years ago from my grandfather, who had seen it at the Little Theater in Baltimore when he was about the same age that I was at the time. He had never forgotten the stunning Technicolor photography and mentioned wanting to see the film again. I managed to find a copy on VHS at the time, and it has since become a favorite of mine as well.

Victor Schertzinger, a songwriter and filmmaker whose other directing credits include the first two Bob Hope-Bing Crosby "Road" pictures, does an admirable job in bringing the operetta to the screen. The film is photographed in Technicolor, imbuing the film with a gorgeous, pastel look. The casting of Kenny Baker, as Nanki-Poo, is a rather obvious concession to popular taste, but he acquits himself well in the role. The real stand-outs in the cast are the members of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, especially Martyn Green as Ko-Ko and Sydney Granville as Pooh-Bah.

Most of the classic Gilbert & Sullivan songs are present, although the film does omit a good deal of the score in order to maintain a manageable running time. Perhaps the most regrettable excision is Ko-Ko's comic song "As Someday It May Happen", which was shot but deleted from the film prior to its release (thankfully it is included as a supplemental feature on the recent Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection).

Schertzinger's film of THE MIKADO may not be great cinema, functioning instead as a kind of filmed theater.  But it is a valuable and vivid record of the incredible talent involved in the D'Oyly Carte company, capturing the performances of Martyn Green, Sydney Granville and others for posterity, and for that fact alone is a treasure. It also remains a fine and effective introduction to the work of Gilbert & Sullivan.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Book Review: Fritz Lang - The Nature of the Beast

Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast
by Patrick McGilligan
University of Minnesota Press

Fritz Lang produced one of the most-studied and celebrated bodies of work of any filmmaker, and yet he remains a largely enigmatic figure. After a highly successful career as one of the leading directors in Germany during the silent era, Lang eventually emigrated to the United States, where he directed numerous films in Hollywood and became one of the most internationally-recognized filmmakers in the business. Yet his personal life has remained largely shrouded in the mythology, often spread by Lang himself, that built up over his long career.

Patrick McGilligan’s Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast (originally published by St. Martin's Griffin Press in 1997, and now available from the University of Minnesota Press) undertakes documenting Fritz Lang's life and work beyond the publicity and personal mythology. It is an exhaustively-researched, meticulously-detailed work. McGilligan gives us a comprehensive biography, covering each period of Lang’s life and work in extensive detail, and masterfully interweaving his research with quotes from those who knew and worked with Lang, to give us a stronger sense of how the filmmaker's life shaped his work.

Beginning with the director's early years in Vienna and Paris, McGilligan does an excellent job in shedding light on Lang’s formative experiences, including accounts of his military career as well as his training in the arts. Lang’s entry into motion pictures in Berlin, initially as a scenarist before turning to directing, is well-covered, with welcome descriptions of his earliest works that are now lost, and details about the two producers who did more than anyone else to facilitate Lang’s early film career – Erich Pommer and Joe May.

McGilligan spends a good deal of time in The Nature of the Beast exploring the mythology surrounding the director, particularly in two key incidents that have remained clouded by conflicting accounts of the events. The first involves the death of Lang's first wife Lisa Rosenthal, the cause of which was never fully determined. While it was ruled a suicide, following her discovery of Lang’s affair with screenwriter Thea von Harbou (whom Lang later married), there persisted suggestions that Lang had played a role in her death. Interrogated by the police on the night of Rosenthal's death, Lang and von Harbou insisted it had been a suicide. It is here that McGilligan makes some of his more controversial connections of this incident with Lang's filmography, citing the recurring suicides and slayings in the films - from Brunhild's suicide in Die Nibelungen all the way through the burlesque dancer's murder in his final American film, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt - to suggest that, even though these kinds of plot devices had been present in Lang's work almost since the beginning, they took on a much greater deal of significance after the death of Lisa Rosenthal.

The second incident occurs in 1933. Lang claimed that he had been summoned by Joseph Goebbels for a meeting, in which Goebbels offered him a position as head of the German film industry. According to Lang's account, he quickly fled the country, although there are conflicting accounts of the story and doubts expressed over certain details by numerous sources. What is certain is that during this time his marriage to Thea von Harbou dissolved. With her allegiance to the Nazis, and Lang's own Jewish ancestry, the marriage came to an end in 1933 as Lang prepared to leave Germany.

These events lead in to Lang's departure from Germany, to his brief stay in Paris, and to his eventual arrival in Hollywood. McGilligan gives us a revealing portrait of Lang's struggle to fit in with the structured and producer-centered model of the Hollywood studio system. He developed several ideas for projects before directing his first American film, Fury, for MGM in 1936, and quickly ran in to opposition for some of his more controversial ideas for the script. Lang also struggled to fit in with the colony of other Jewish actors and artists who had fled Germany following the rise of Nazism. Lang's relative comfort stemming from his prestigious reputation in the German cinema, as well as rumors about the death of his first wife and conflicting stories of his meeting with Goebbels, did nothing to endear him to his fellow expatriates.

McGilligan covers Lang's years in Hollywood through accounts of his professional struggles within the studio hierarchy, and providing solid accounts of the often complex production histories of Lang's films from this period. He paints a portrait of a singular artist who never quite adapted to the studio system, as evidenced by the recollections of Lang's collaborators during this time. One of the critical moments in Lang's later career came during the height of the Blacklist in the early 1950s, when he was forced to distance himself from his left-leaning political positions in a similar way that he'd had to distance himself from his associations with Nazism after leaving Germany, another struggle against changing political tides.

Such incidents are consistent with McGilligan's portrait of Lang as an outsider, someone eternally in the process of adapting to his environment and re-writing his own personal history in order to do so. McGilligan's accounts of pivotal moments in Lang's life reflect the approach he has taken with his book, exploring the facts beyond the personal and professional stories that have built up over the years (and have taken on seemingly mythic proportions) to get at a better understanding of the man behind the mythology. Whether or not the reader agrees with the conclusions that McGilligan draws, the book is a meticulous work of research that does an admirable job in presenting the biography of its highly complex and often contradictory subject.