The King’s Speech

The King's Speech (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Tom Hooper
viewed: 02/26/11 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

As of last night, The King’s Speech has been officially voted “Best Picture” by the Academy, be-knighting it the most celebrated honor in American film awards.

And frankly, it’s a good movie.  It’s solid, and it features several great performances, most notably perhaps that of Colin Firth as “Bertie”/King George VI, the stammering nobleman (who took home “Best Actor” from the Oscars as well).  Geoffrey Rush, who plays his unorthodox speech therapist, was also great and nominated for “Best Supporting Actor”, as was Helena Bonham Carter who played the king’s dutiful, loving wife (“Best Supporting Actress” nominee.)  Neither Rush nor Carter won, but the film also features a great small performance by Guy Pearce as the the king’s brother, which furthers my argument that Pearce seems to only appear in good movies, no matter how small the role.

The knock on The King’s Speech, if there is a valid one, is that it’s a pretty straight-forward affair, a period drama with a “feel good” story, with lots of good British actors and sensibility.  Indeed, it is the kind of movie you go see with your folks or your in-laws or even your grandmother and everyone walks away feeling satisfied and cheery.  And it is good.  It’s just not sexy, daring, or anything too new.  Not that a good film has to be those things.

The story of how an isolated royal figure overcomes a life-long disability by the work of a more “regular” British subject and their ensuing friendship is pepped up with drama, leading up to the British involvement in WWII, the abdication of the king’s older brother, and good old culture clash.  Director Tom Hooper also took home an Oscar for directing (as is often the case when winning “Best Picture”, and he does a solid job with the material.  Others have noted the annoying use of a fisheye lens, which gives a greater, rounded perspective on a shot, but creates a vertiginous sense of perspective, that Hooper employs a fair amount throughout the film.  Luckily, this isn’t as overbearing as it reckons to be in the first 20 minutes of the film, and the rest of it moves along well.

I mean, what’s not to like?  It’s a good movie.  Maybe it’s just that now that I’m divorced (no in-laws) and the older generation of my family has passed away that the need to find films to see with the older segments of the family have faded from necessity.  I wasn’t all that drawn to the film despite its strong reviews, but with it looming as the big Oscar-winner, I wanted to have first-hand knowledge of it, so I took it in.  My mother was a big Colin Firth fan and I’m sure she would have loved this movie.  And I think she would have been very happy for him to win his well-deserved Oscar for acting.


Red (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Robert Schwentke
viewed: 02/25/11

Red, “Retired, Extremely Dangerous”, is an action film/comedy adapted from a DC Comics comic book about several older, retired CIA operatives, who find themselves and each other back in action.  The film stars Bruce Willis (age 55), John Malkovich (age 57), Brian Cox (age 64), Richard Dreyfuss (age 63), Helen Mirren (age 65), Morgan Freeman (age 73), and Ernest Borgnine (age 93).  And Willis’ love interest, Mary-Louise Parker, while still younger than Willis by a decade, is 46 (she looks younger).

Why all the age details?  Well, ostensibly, age is one of the film’s themes, with all these covert operatives now doddering around in boredomville, now treated like simple “old folks”.  Of course, secretly they all still kick ass.

The film is reasonably entertaining, though there are many points at which I found myself wishing that it was more entertaining.  The script just isn’t quite as pithy or clever or crazy as it could be.  So in the end I found it tolerable, decent.

I actually kind of liked Parker, who is quite cute, and gets to play tyro to the old hands (she’s met Willis only by phone and is a member of normal life, not the secret highly-trained killer kind).  She gets dragged into the action by Willis when some team of machine gun firing killers comes to hunt him down.  He goes and gets Parker, Freeman, Malkovich, Mirren, “the old band back together,” while they try to figure out who is behind all the destruction.  And Karl Urban is pretty good as the new up-and-coming CIA man.

The chief charm of the film is seeing Helen Mirren, with her well-heeled British style, wielding a machine gun.

Battle Royale

Battle Royale (2000) movie poster

(2000) director Kinji Fukasaku
viewed: 02/23/11

Wow.  Really,  I can’t believe that I didn’t get around to seeing this movie for a decade.

Released in 2000, Kinji Fukasaku’s film Battle Royale was a sensation from the onset.  Adapted from a novel written by Koushun Takami, the film’s premise seemed both shocking and yet also familiar.  Set in an alternate reality, under a fascist state, a class of teenagers is selected to be set on an island, handed weapons, and is instructed that by the end of three days, they have to kill each other.  Only one can survive by that time or they will all die.  They have bands around their necks that will explode is they tamper with them or try to break any rules.

With the onslaught of reality television (2000 was the year that the television show Survivor became a hit), I think I had assumed that this played out along the lines of a reality show.  That is not the angle of this film, unlike Death Race 2000 (1975) or its re-make Death Race (2008), or many others in which characters are selected to do battle for the entertainment of an audience, Battle Royale focuses less on voyeurism and more on the totalitarian control and manipulation, as well as social interactions, cliques, and the ruthlessness of humanity.  There are hints of Lord of the Flies, but this is a system set to dehumanize the students, otherwise a normal group of teenagers, ranging from loners and wallflowers to athletes, outsiders, and popular kids.

They are instructed by their former teacher, the inimitable Takeshi Kitano, as well as a poppy, psychotic television hostess on the schema of the game.  The randomness of the brutality, the perpetuity of the violence, and the mixture of irony and dead seriousness, keeps the film’s edge razor sharp.  It’s social satire and it’s not.

Interestingly, Fukasaku imbued his film with his experience as a youth during World War II.  The state which drafted teenagers to fight, to kill, to betray to survive perhaps carries its gravitas from this subtle sensibility.  It really is quite close to a masterpiece.

I actually watched the “Special Edition” version of the film, and from what I’ve read about how it differs from the original, the additions may be the elements that were the most off-putting, including some sentimental “Requiems” tacked on to the ending.  This film, however, is not purely exploitative, though there have been many who reacted to the film’s subject matter as if that was its primary intent.  It’s a dark film, not lacking in humor, but whose more constrained tone elevates and blackens the material.

Fukasaku made a number of films in his career, but Battle Royale is doubtlessly a powerful, significant film.  And like I said, I can’t believe it took me so long to get around to seeing it.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest (2010) movie poster

(2009) director Daniel Alfredson
viewed: 02/21/11

The finale of the Swedish-produced adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s ultra-popular series of novels, known as “the Millenium trilogy” but perhaps are best known by the first novel’s title, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009), has arrived on DVD.  “Millenium” is the name of the fictional magazine owned and operated by Mikael Blomkvist (played by Michael Nyqvist in the films and assumed to be roughly based upon Larsson himself).  But the center of the whole thing is the character of Lisbeth Salander (played very aptly by Noomi Rapace in each of the films), and so to refer to the series through the name of the magazine seems much less the point than its primary creation,  the girl with the dragon tattoo on her back.

It feels like ages ago, but it was just a year ago that I read the first book, that I saw the first film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  And then I read the second book, and more recently saw the second film, The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009).  And with an American re-make of the original film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo due out toward the end of this year, starring Rooney Mara and directed by likely Oscar-winner David Fincher, this thing is far from over.  But the Swedish series has finished and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest is the end.

So, I was too impatient to wait to read the book.  I didn’t want to read it in hardback, had no idea when it was due in paperback, and in the end, found myself not caring enough to slog through the tomes.  I was glad to finish the series with the final film.

But the film really is not all that.  Maybe the book isn’t either (I’ve read as much).  The film starts with Salander with life-threatening injuries, sustained at the end of the prior film.  She spends a huge portion of the film in the hospital, healing, not doing a whole hell of a lot.  The film’s intrigues unwind in a courtroom, villains are white-haired elderly dudes and Salander’s German automaton half-brother, who is no personality and all brutality.  While Blomkvist runs around with stuff happening and drama and action, it’s really the dud of the series.

Borderline boring.

The best character in traction, the finale bereft of surprises, the film ties up its loose ends, but to little effect.

Larsson died prior to the publication of the books, their exponential popularity, and the films, perhaps before the books were even properly edited.  He was apparently working on a fourth novel at the time of his death.  So, this wasn’t necessarily “the end” to his trilogy.  His trilogy wasn’t necessarily a trilogy.  But that’s what we’ve got.  And like I said, ending on a point of dull anticlimax.

If you want my real opinion, the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was the best of the series (as was the film).  The convoluted back-story that Larsson developed for Salander in The Girl Who Played with Fire was interesting, especially if you were taken enough with her to want more.  But the latter two books could have been boiled down into one perhaps.  This final installment just feels extraneous, and while it does bring closure to things, it’s a 2 1/2 hour struggle at closure that really isn’t very satisfying.

At the moment, I somewhat dread the American re-makes.  I mean, David Fincher is a better director than either of the Swedish film-makers who made this first series.  But Noomi Rapace nailed the character.  It feels like it’s been done.  And Nyqvist as Blomkvist seems more apt than the ripped Daniel Craig.  I am very tired of the series.  I am tired of it all.  Especially after slogging through this final film.

Born Yesterday

Born Yesterday (1950) movie poster

(1950) director George Cukor
viewed: 02/20/11

I, myself, was not born yesterday, but I had still never seen the 1950 film that won star Judy Holliday a Best Actress Oscar, until stumbling upon the opportunity to catch it on Turner Classic Movies’ Oscar cavalcade.  I’ve had it queued for who knows how long, but opportunity knocked and I answered.

Written by Garsan Kanin and Albert Mannheimer and adapted from Kanin’s stage play by director George Cukor, it’s one of those all-time Hollywood comedies, often ranked among the best ever.  And it is funny, particularly Holliday, who plays the archetypal nasal, loud, gormless beauty Billie Dawn, the better half of  Broderick Crawford’s brash, tasteless, brutish Harry Brock, who is a strong-arm businessman in Washington, DC to buy a congressman and get some legislation passed in a none too up-and-up manner.  As lacking in sophistication as Harry is, he finds Billie’s lack of “couth” even more painful and worries that she’ll cause some embarrassment for him while he tries to finagle his way to more money.  So, he hires Paul Verrall (the always charming William Holden), a reporter with class and intelligence, to teach Billie how to “talk better”.

A little education goes a long way, of course, and what Paul introduces Billie to is not just general knowledge and vocabulary, but to the whole concept of American values, free speech, independence, and a hatred against all forms of tyranny, which ends up including her brutal, semi-criminal long-time boyfriend.  And, being a Hollywood movie from the classic period, there is romance to be had as well.

Holliday is terrific as Billie.  Her character is so well embodied, there is not a false step anywhere.  And you can see so many who have gleaned from this archetype since the time, there are traces of her character in many such characters since then.

What struck me the most about the film, which I enjoyed, was the education of Billie by Paul, set against the background of the many institutions and monuments of Washington, DC.  Holden’s voice seems an archetype of its own, the consummate “movie” voice of the American 1950’s, clean, clear, adult, serious, clever, wise, paternal.  There is ideology simply in his tone.  And what he imbues in Billie is just that: ideology.  It’s an American sense of ideals that speaks of a free-thinking, independent, liberal tone (of the period), but one which houses as well some of the veneer and image of the 1950’s that is today considered a pretense which hid much darker truths about the America of the time.  It’s both explicit and subliminal, his education of Billie is meant as kind and enlightening, but echoes of some ironies now from our vantage point today.

I was also struck at their reading of the US Constitution (oddly enough Billie reads aloud the line about the right to bear arms).  I’d just read an interesting article in The New Yorker that discussed America’s obsession with the document, yet the irony that few people, even those who frequently invoke it, actually are truly familiar with it word-for-word.  Billie’s education could just as easily occur today, perhaps on an side of the political spectrum.  I am willing to guess that there have been a few feminist theory papers written about the film, especially if I’m just picking up what I have from one viewing.

I have to say, it’s not as funny as I might have imagined, but I certainly laughed aloud a few times.  Holliday’s Billie is a classic.  Quite a good film, too.

The Illusionist

The Illusionist (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Sylvain Chomet
viewed: 02/19/11 at The Clay Theater, SF, CA

Having enjoyed director Sylvain Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville (2003) so much, I was keenly looking forward to his latest film, The Illusionist.  And I was working to get the kids excited.  The trailer for the film is low-key, but I reminded them of The Triplets of Belleville, which they remembered fondly to build their anticipation.  Felix queried me, “Which one of the films received better reviews?”  I told him that I didn’t know, that they both had received good reviews, but I did tell him that I thought it was going to be less strange and fantastic than The Triplets of Belleville.  Turns out, I was very right.

And for the record, The Illusionist, while a lovely, melancholic film, is no The Triplets of Belleville.

Chomet adapted an unproduced script by Jacques Tati, the story of a touring “illusionist”, set in the 1950’s, bouncing from town to town, gig to gig, increasingly passe compared to the onslaught of rock’n’roll, quaint, talented, but not prospering.  The aging magician heads to Scotland, where he lands in a small town, where a young woman, believing his magic to be real, tags along with him to Edinburgh, like a long-lost daughter.

The film is low-key, as the trailer indicated.  Like The Triplets of Belleville, the film is virtually wordless.  Whether people are speaking French, English, or Gaelic, their words are mumbled and unimportant, with all of the story really told through gestures and images, which gives the film its primary charm.  The animation is traditional cel animation, with a particularly “hand-drawn” style that offers genuine character.   Chomet’s people are hilarious caricatures, with massive noses, buck teeth, grandly rendered.

The Illusionist is really an utter homage to Tati.  The illusionist himself is styled after Tati’s film persona, a gangly, pear-shaped, but deft and comic, much like Charlie Chaplain at moments.  And the story, which is said to have been inspired by a relationship with an estranged daughter, is sad and quiet.

Edinburgh, as everything else, is rendered in miraculous detail.  Much of the film is lovely and charming, though the most humorous character, the magician’s feisty rabbit, is only a bit player, a highlight.  The film focuses on the change of culture, to rock’n’roll and cinema, away from the Vaudeville-like stage performers who once created the magic of entertainment.  But as the illusionist tells the girl, in a card that he leaves for her, “There are no magicians in the world” (or something to that effect.)  In other words, in this process of aging and the changing of the world, things slip away, disappear, and quite frankly, there is no real magic in the world.

The kids liked it, though they noted how it was kind of sad.  It was a rainy day movie, and a apropos one at that, as it rains throughout the film quite a bit.  The film has charm, but it lacks the strangeness of Chomet’s earlier film, which was certainly a part of what made that film so interesting.  I guess I was a little disappointed with it.  Not terribly.  I’m glad we saw it.  Especially because the other kid film option in town yesterday was Gnomeo & Juliet (2011), which I’d gladly avoid on the whole, and snobbishly prefer that we saw The Illusionist anyway.


Beetlejuice (1988) movie poster

(1988) director Tim Burton
viewed: 02/18/11

Going back to the late 1980’s, Beetlejuice was a favorite film of mine.  It turned me on to both Tim Burton and Winona Ryder.  I watched it numerous times back then, reveling in the lively comedy, cool designs, and the lovely pale-skinned, dark-eyed teen beauty.  Its mixture of black comedy and strange fantasy was revelatory and I really enjoyed Burton’s designs and cartoons from which the characters, the dead ones, evolved.

In my varying range of films to watch with the kids, I was looking for a change-up, and like a flash, it struck me that this film might be quite good for them.  And besides, it had been years since I had last seen it.

Coming on the heels of Burton’s first feature film, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Beetlejuice was an original story concept, with some very inventive characters (Beetlejuice, Michael Keaton, the liveliest of all), it showed a kind of promise that belied the direction of Burton’s career.

The characters are terrific, deftly sketched, quite often pitch perfect, beyond Keaton and Ryder, Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O’Hara are hysterical as Lydia’s (Ryder) parents, the nebbish and high-strung dad and the delusional, shallow step-mother and great.  O’Hara may never have been better.  Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin are very charming as the small-town couple whose happy home is invaded by the tactless, tasteless Deetzes.  And Glenn Shadix as Otho, Silvia Sidney as their caseworker Juno, and Dick Cavett and Robert Goulet as pompous New York snobs, the whole group is pretty terrific.  It was one of Ryder’s most effective roles; she was in her element as a teenager.

The story of how Baldwin and Davis wind up dead, returned as ghosts to their small town home, which is invaded by the Deetzes and their dealings with the afterlife is all strange, tweaky funny stuff.   Apparently, the film started as something much darker and creepier, but it plays well as a family-friendly romp.  When Baldwin and Davis discover the “bio-exorcist” Beetlejuice, the most crass, offensive, madcap “ghost with the most”, all heck breaks loose.

This time around, I found much of the dialog to be surprisingly snappy, sharp and very funny, tuning in to the characters and performances with far more panache that Burton is known for usually.  The kids really enjoyed it.  Clara said she wanted to watch it again, right after it was over.

Burton has been an interesting yet frustrating director for me, perhaps because of his early promise and his failure to grow and blossom.  He’s still a big name in Hollywood, bigger perhaps than he would have imagined back in 1988.  But really, outside of Ed Wood (1994), Beetlejuice may be his best film.  That said, the kids have virtually no memory of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and when considering re-queueing it, thoughts of Mars Attacks! (1996) or either of his Batman films has suddenly seemed like another trope that the kids might enjoy.

Keaton’s performance is so manic, so bizarre and hilarious, I find myself still humming his Beetlejuice jingle:

“I’ll eat anything you want me to eat,
I’ll swaller anything you want me to swaller,
Give me a call,
I’ll chew on a dog!”

Pretty damn good.


Restrepo (2010) movie poster

(2010) directors Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger
viewed: 02/15/11

Noble in effort, the documentary Restrepo follows the story of the Second Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, stationed in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, over a period of a year.  Film-makers Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger lived with the troops, while researching articles and books that were written about the experience.  What the film portrays is a ground-level view of life in “the deadliest place on Earth” for American troops.

What the film delivers most pointedly are the soldiers themselves, through many different experiences, as raw recruits, deploying for the first time, living under constant fire, losing friends, killing innocents accidentally, and battling the elusive and deadly enemy.   It’s a life that most Americans would find hard to fathom, the intensity of warfare, the constant danger, and while there is a clear set of goals (to kill insurgents and to win the favor of the locals), it’s a part of the world so different, so isolated, with a fully different culture and language that not many of the troops understand.

What is also fascinating is the people and the landscape of Afghanistan itself.  The mountainous country has a great rugged beauty, but it’s isolated and the people that live there seem to come from another century.  They are farmers, a lot of whom have their beards dyed an unusual red color.  Settling in for the stretch of time, the place takes on a greater reality to those of us who have never been anywhere near a place that we read about daily in the newspaper.

The film, for its goals of depicting the realities of the lives of the soldiers, does a good job.  And there is a lot of interesting stuff to be gleaned throughout.  But it doesn’t really soar or strike any notes of surprise or revelation.  While it’s amazing to see what these young Americans face in this valley, their fears, joys, and tragedies, it’s not really different than many stories of war depicted over time.  It’s unique to the here and now of Afghanistan, and it’s telling, but not something grand or awing.

One thing that really struck me was how the leader of the troop, who does good work and leads well, is so lacking in training in the meeting and negotiating with the locals.  He works through a translator, speaking to tribal elders, but his messages are not profound, not tuned to what the locals may react to positively.  There is such a lack of cultural understanding, even in his noble and well-meaning talks, but it’s little wonder that the impact of Americans in Afghanistan or other countries is so fraught with failure and negativity.  And it’s not through a lack of desire to make the situation work, but perhaps a lack of understanding and training.

It’s one thing to be a soldier, another to be an emissary.

Restrepo is an interesting film.  Not the most powerful documentary, but still offers insights to the war in Afghanistan and the lives of the American soldiers there.

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

The Most Dangerous Man in America (2009) movie poster

(2009) directors Judith Ehrlich, Rick Goldsmith
viewed: 02/14/11

Though it’s not the best-made documentary in the world (it’s satisfactory), The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers is an immensely timely and poignant film because its subject matter reverberates with so much in the present.  Though it’s very explicitly about something that happened in the past.

The story of Daniel Ellsberg and the release of the Pentagon Papers, a report commissioned by Robert McNamara for the Lyndon Johnson White House, is a story about the lies that are told through the teeth of the government and about the attempt to suppress the truth when someone decides to blow the whistle.  Ellsburg had been a marine, a keen intellect who wound up working for the RAND Corporation, advising the government on most effective war practices among other things.  He was an inside man in the Johnson administration and tied still to the Richard Nixon administration deep in the behind-the-doors world of what really happened.

Ellsberg’s story is told by Ellsberg himself, narrating the tale of his change in political beliefs and his shift from the government’s company man to the government’s worst nightmare.  Well, Nixon’s anyway.  And it’s not simply an amazing story, but what it says about the government of the United States of America from Harry S. Truman, through Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and finally with Nixon.  The lies, the politically motivated versioning of the the truth in order to invade Vietnam and fight the war there.

The classic line about one who does not know history being doomed to repeat it proves frighteningly true when considering the Bush administration’s build-up to the Iraq War.  But considering that the lies and groundwork for Vietnam were laid over decades, it’s impossible to forget that so was the groundwork for the battles in the Middle East.  The fact that, as Americans, we’ve learned nothing from the fact that the government, even some of the heroes of the presidency, have flat out lied to us, that the precedent is set, that we shouldn’t just simply believe everything/anything we are told, we really should be more intelligent and more outraged.

Beyond the lies, Ellsberg’s release of super Top Secret documents to the major newspapers of the United States was also groundbreaking in the right to information, the freedom of the press, and our first amendment rights to freedom of speech as anything else.  Of course, the parallel now is Wikileaks.  While Wikileaks is not an American institution, as The New York Times and Washington Post and others were at the time of the Pentagon Papers, it comes down to the same issue.  When there is critical information that proves the lies and manipulation by the government, things that speak less to national security than the back room planning of the people in charge, there is a real need, perhaps a mandate, that that information have an outlet for release.

While the film clearly paints the picture of the decades-long deception, uncovered in the report that was drafted for McNamara, the real villain of the film is none other than Richard Nixon.  In 2011, Nixon is perhaps less known or appreciated for the vile entity that he was.  It’s his own voice and his own words that paint the picture of the man in this film, someone who cares not about human life, who wishes to repress information that will show his administration’s lies, and who vindictively sends his henchmen to try to punish Ellsberg for his actions.  He is so utterly despicable that it’s barely fathomable.

This film might be an interesting companion to Errol Morris’ The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, another look back at the time period by another key figure, the now late Robert McNamara.  But as intelligent and thoughtful as McNamara came across late in life, reflecting on what happened, Ellsberg stood up to a government machine, bigger than any one administration, though one that was becoming increasingly out of control and totalitarian, whose mistakes cost many, many lives.  Ellsberg, though perhaps considered a “liberal” hero by some, is someone who stood for more than himself, but for the ethics that the country was based upon, against people who warped that ideal.


Casablanca (1942) movie poster

(1942) director Michael Curtiz
viewed: 02/11/11 @ the Paramount Theater, Oakland, CA

It’s only one of the most famous and beloved movies in the world.  It was my first film professor’s favorite film of all time.  Doubtlessly it falls on many people’s lists.  It’s peppered throughout with iconic dialog and moments that are as transcendently famous as any film clips.  I mean even people who have never seen it are familiar with lines like “Here’s looking at you, kid.”  It’s one of the big films, period, populist yet critically respected as well.

But you know?  I think I’d maybe seen it once before.  And because that was a long time ago, I don’t know that I appreciated it quite so well.  In that sense I likened it to Citizen Kane (1941) in that it’s so iconic, so revered, so talked about, that when you first see it, maybe you’re expecting something more than any film can offer you.  Then again, in citing Citizen Kane, I often note that the film’s innovations have been so co-opted over time and become such standards that looking back on it now, without an educated eye, it’s understandable how some might not appreciate it.  But Casablanca is different in that sense.  I can’t tell you why it didn’t strike me so well the first time other than over-inflated expectation.

This time, on the big screen at the Paramount Theater in Oakland (a more ideal experience I’d be hard pressed to imagine), the film hit home for me in the way that it doubtlessly has for so many others.  The Paramount, every other week, does a Friday night show of classic films (a selection that is quite often from the most popular, populist film titles out there — in other words, great films but not the most original selections).  As well as the feature, there is an old newsreel shown, a Bugs Bunny cartoon, and a raffle.  And the Mighty Wurlitzer.  And then there is the Paramount itself, which is well worth the $5 admission alone.  I’d only been there once before myself, some many years ago.  It’s Oakland’s Art Deco jewel, designed by local architectural legend Timothy L. Pflueger, and it may well be more accurately referred to as a movie palace than a movie theater.

I’ve been on a Michael Curtiz jag of late, since stumbling on his remarkable Doctor X (1931) and then more recently in watching his terrific The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).  While he’s not a top name in the auteur theory, his name does appear as director on a number of awesome classic films.  And while Casablanca may be his most famous and most beloved, I’m continuing on a march toward seeing more of his films.

Casablanca is a romance, a political thriller, set in the Moroccan city of the title.  Humphrey Bogart is Rick, an American ex-pat, who runs a bar and tries to stay neutral to the politics of the world.  Ingrid Bergman is Ilsa, and when she and her political refugee husband wind up in Casablanca, in Rick’s Cafe Americain, well, all the backstory comes to the fore, and Rick’s chance at staying neutral as the politics and romance come alive ain’t worth a hill of beans in this world.

Frankly, the dialog is terrific.  Claude Rains, as the corrupt but highly affable Captain Louis Renault, does the most with the most, quipping along quite amusingly throughout the film.  Of course, most of the film’s most famous lines are spoken by Bogart in his most iconic role.  The funny thing about seeing the film in this day and age is the constant awareness of the classic lines, cultural icons as they are, so much bigger than their context in the film.  Of course, the audience members who are more familiar with the film, having seen it God knows how many times, all can anticipate the lines and perhaps appreciate their context as much as their pure recognizability, give more weight to it all and often broke out in applause and cheer.

I have to say that it was a damn good time.  The Paramount is a marvel.  Frankly, you could go see a Justin Bieber film there and still feel like you didn’t get ripped off.  But Casablanca at the Paramount, now there is a match made in heaven for a film aficionado.  Though this is the first time in 17 some odd years that I made it there, I can tell you, that I plan to go back soon.