Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Dr. Alexander Q. Tower: In the 13th Century, man was happier and more comfortable in his world than he is now. I'm speaking of psychic man and his relationship with his whole universe.
Parris Mitchell: I get it, sir. Everything was so simple then.
Dr. Alexander Q. Tower: That was it, Parris. That was it. But in this modern complicated world, man breaks down under the strain, the bewilderment, disappointment, and disillusionment. He gets lost, goes crazy, commits suicide. I don't know what's going to happen to this world in the next hundred years or so, but I can guarantee you life isn't going to get any simpler. Worry and doubt bring on a bellyache. Mankind's building up the biggest psychic bellyache in history.

Talk about prophetic...

"A good clean town. A good town to live in. A good place to raise your children."
(The sign as you enter Kings Row)

KINGS ROW is an epic soap opera based upon the critically acclaimed, controversial novel by Henry Bellamann. Screenwriter Casey Robinson and Director Sam Wood deserve credit in getting most of the "good stuff" past the pesky old Hays Office. By "good stuff" I'm referring to the novel's bold examination of such topics as homosexuality, insanity, incest, suicide, medical malpractice, euthanasia, lust, embezzlement and plain old run-of-the-mill murder. These constitute exactly the sort of things Will H. Hays, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, vowed to protect the nation from being exposed to by the heathens in Hollywood. But if there is a will (pun intended) there is a way around him, and so this well-connected Republican lawyer (is there any other kind?), who had previously been the United States Postmaster General and the 1920 campaign manager for President Warren G. Harding, found himself snookered by Robinson and Wood thanks to their subtle, crafty and perfidious presentation of "morally unacceptable content."

Hallelujah! Maybe Will and the boys didn't catch on, but most moviegoers in 1942 did, once again proving the general population is far smarter than the probity police who try to protect us from the evils of sin and gin.

The exceptional cast is headed by Ann Sheridan, Robert Cummings, Charles Coburn, Maria Ouspenskaya and Claude Rains. Ms. Sheridan's portrayal of Randy Monaghan, "that girl from the other side of the tracks," is a remarkable combination of both strength and vulnerability, but it is probably the performance of future President Ronald Reagan that most people remember. This may very well have been his best on-screen performance prior to serving as America's Commander-in-Chief. In fact his famous line after he awakes to discover both his legs have been amputated -- "Where's the rest of me!" -- became the title of his autobiography, first published some 39 years later.

There have been a number of memorable films exploring the dark side of small-town America -- BLUE VELVET, LOLITA, TWIN PEAKS and PEYTON PLACE are several that come to mind -- but KINGS ROW may very well be the best of the lot. What elevates KINGS ROW above all others is the talent Executive Producer Hal B. Wallis assembled not only on the screen, but behind it. Special mention must go the the lush Cinematography by James Wong Howe, the striking Production Design by William Cameron Menzies and the memorable Music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. All were giants in their respective fields, and their collective talents blended into making a classic film that resonates as strongly today as it did during WWII.

I mentioned that Korngold's music was "memorable." For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Korngold, he is generally credited with "inventing" what is known as the syntax of orchestral film music. The score for KINGS ROW is one of the best examples of this and here's the kicker -- if you listen to it you will undoubtedly be amazed by the unmistakable similarity with John Williams' score for STAR WARS. Plagiarism? Some think so, and this isn't by any means the only such charge leveled at Williams.

Personally, I'm betting Mr. Williams is guilty -- guilty as the sin in KINGS ROW.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


"He had everything and wanted nothing. He learned that he had nothing and wanted everything. He saved the world and then it shattered... The pathway to salvation is as narrow and as difficult to walk as a razor's edge."

Based upon W. Somerset Maugham's 1942 novel, Bill Murray's THE RAZOR'S EDGE is the second motion picture to be based upon this classic piece of literature. It is surprisingly good.

Murray plays Larry Darrell, a spoiled upper-class college graduate from a small school in Illinois who volunteers to be an ambulance driver in World War I. Unfortunately, Larry was not prepared for what he experiences on the front line -- war, he discovers, is not the "fun and adventure" he was seeking. In fact, his world changes forever, especially after the loss of his immediate commander who died saving Larry's life in a bomb crater somewhere in "no man's land."

When Larry returns to the United States he is a changed man. The shallow and hedonistic parties, the banal banter and the meaningless white collar jobs all seem more trivial than before. For Larry, the silver spoon may provide status, but it also brings a life that is sterile, stifling and stagnant. In his quest to find some meaning in his life Larry first travels to Paris where he works a variety of jobs, including a stint as a coal miner. His evenings are spent living a Bohemian lifestyle and reading as many books on philosophy and religion as he can in a desperate search for the meaning of life. It isn't until he saves the life of a fellow miner that Larry is given a new direction. All these books on the wall, he's told by the surprisingly wise old man, won't give you the answers you seek, "You may read, but you don't know so really don't know anything do you? First read 'The Upanishads'...but to get anything out of it you must also journey to India."

And so Larry is off to India, where he is initially exposed to the Hindu religion, and then he is directed to a Tibetan monastery where he works as a cook for the Buddhist monks. Larry eventually comes back to Paris, a changed man yet again, only to find that Isabel (Catherine Hicks), his status-obsessed, materialistic fiancee, is now married to his best friend. He really doesn't care -- in fact, Larry really doesn't care about anything until he reunites with Sophie (Theresa Russell), now a drug-addicted, alcoholic prostitute who he deeply falls in love with. Don't expect a happy ending -- Maugham's belief that "nothing really makes a difference" simply won't allow one.

Murray's performance is nicely nuanced and surprisingly restrained. This was a film he desperately wanted to do, and only after agreeing to appear in GHOSTBUSTERS that same year (1984) did he get the studio funding he needed. Catherine Hicks is excellent as Larry's fiancee, but it is the brilliant performance of Theresa Russell that one will remember for a long, long time. Her scenes in the hospital after learning of the death of her husband and young son in a car crash are as raw and powerful as any you will see in American cinema.

The Tagline for this film declares it to be "The story of one man's search for himself." That's true, but THE RAZOR'S EDGE is more than simply a tale of self-discovery. It is also a thought-provoking examination of the differences between Knowledge and Wisdom -- between a wealthy person's and a poor person's notion of education, i.e. books vs. experience. This is heady stuff and it is presented in a very subtle manner. In one memorable scene Larry says to Isabel, "You. Just. Don't. Get It." I suspect the same will be true for many viewers.

Thursday, August 07, 2008


Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes sir.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

I guess DuPont wasn't kidding when they declared, "Better Living Through Chemistry." At least that's what I have come to conclude after screening Craig Gillespie's surprisingly intelligent and compassionate LARS AND THE REAL GIRL. Thanks to an extremely well-crafted, poignant and uplifting Oscar-nominated screenplay by Nancy Oliver, this quirky and endearing tale of a reclusive man and his mail-order bride is among the very best movies I've seen in the last year or two.

Lars Lindstrom (no relation to O. G. Lundstom or his daughters, the lovely Lynda among them) is a reclusive, obviously troubled fellow who pretty much lives a lonely life in a garage apartment in back of his brother's home somewhere in the wintery midwest. (Could Lake Wobegon be far away?) Unable to relate to real people, Lars only ventures out of his small, dingy living quarters when he goes to his shared work cubicle or to church. Other than the persistent dinner invitations from his caring, concerned sister-in-law, Karin (Emily Mortimer), no one in this small town seems to notice Lars. No one, that is, except Margo, the wholesome, winsome, willowy coworker. Margo is winningly played by Kelli Garner, perhaps the slinkiest actress working today. She's a scene stealer, that's for sure.

Another actress who deserves special mention is Patricia Clarkson, whose character is the surprisingly astute doctor/therapist that Lars sees on a regular basis. In fact, everyone who appears on camera does an outstanding job -- not since John Sayles' MATEWAN (1987) has there been a film more perfectly cast from top to bottom -- but it is Ryan Gosling's eloquently understated Golden Globe-nominated performance as the somewhat troubled Lars that clearly leads the way. With the possible exception of Johnny Depp, it is hard to imagine any other current actor capable of pulling off this difficult role as intelligently or as sympathetically.

And then we come to Bianca -- the remarkably lifelike, full-sized, silicone sex doll. She may be quiet, very quiet, but she is pliant and pliant is good, or so I'm led to believe. And she is just what Lars needs. When the UPS truck pulls away and the large crate is opened, his life changes immediately for the better. In a simple, no-nonsense, matter-of-fact manner, Lars introduces Bianca to everyone as a paraplegic missionary of Brazilian and Danish decent who has come to America on a sabbatical. It's as good an explanation as any, I guess, since nobody seems to really care once the initial shock is over.

Eventually Lars begins to go out far more often than previously, pushing the beautiful Bianca around town in a wheelchair where the townsfolk not only accept her, they begin to individually include her in all kinds of activities. In fact, Bianca is even elected to the school board -- a bit surprising, perhaps, but this is Garrison Keillor Country, or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

There's no doubt that love is often blind, and, apparently, it can be inanimate as well, but ultimately Lars' sweet, sentimental journey leads him to the real-life Margo. How this comes about in an honest, uplifting, intelligent way is something to behold. Make no mistake, in the hands of less talented filmmakers LARS AND THE REAL GIRL would be little more than a television sketch. Or, worse -- maybe it would have turned out like LOVE STORY (1970). Even Ryan O'Neal would choose Bianca over Ali McGraw.

While the underlying premise for LARS AND THE REAL GIRL is decidedly offbeat and fanciful, keep in mind that Jimmy Stewart had "Harvey." Tom Hanks had "Wilson." And now Ryan Gosling has "Bianca." Of the three, I'll take Bianca. Don't laugh, she can be purchased from Abyss Creations for a mere $6,499 -- that's a lot cheaper than a high maintenance trophy wife (and remember, Bianca's pliant).