We need A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood more than ever

abIts quite possible indeed that we need A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood now more than ever, for patently obvious reasons considering everything going on in the world, and what I’ll get to in the last paragraph of this post. Its a shame its not a classic life-affirming film in the same way that Frank Capra’s Its a Wonderful Life is, and likely won’t be remembered for as long or as warmly as that genuinely Great film, but that’s like complaining that a good film isn’t a great film- if all films were great, as in ‘Great’ with a capital ‘G’ then there wouldn’t be any special films, would there? Indeed, I can almost imagine Tom Hank’s playing Fred Rogers smiling and saying, “not all films can be ‘Great’, and that’s good, because not everybody can be ‘Great’, we can just be ‘Good’, and that’s okay, we just have to try to be as good as we can be.” 

Listen to me a second, its like the Fred Rogers persona is infecting my blog. What is this strange spell this film works over us? Well, maybe its not the film itself, maybe its more its subject matter, a genuine hero for many Americans who grew up with Fred Roger’s (‘Mister Rogers’ to his viewers) gentle children’s programme that ran on American television for many years. Its just wonderfully refreshing, frankly, that the film never found any bones hiding in the cupboard. While I imagine that Rogers himself would never describe himself as perfect, he seems that way- if only because he seems to have been genuine. And that’s so rare. Here is a guy who seemed to live a simple life of purpose, scandal-free, someone who lived up to the myth, the hype (‘hype’ is the wrong word exactly, but you know what I mean). In that sense, the casting of Tom Hanks is particularly perfect, considering his own rather wholesome reputation, as if just his face layers the film with additional authenticity.

I live in the UK, and I have no idea how many entertainers in America have had their reputations crushed by later scandals and revelations , but here in the UK we’ve had more than our fair share- my own generation, in particular, has had more than a few of the entertainers, the people who were entrusted in our living rooms with their family programmes and children’s programmes here in the UK, particularly of the 1970s, turn out to have been genuine monsters. So much so that, watching a film like A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is almost something that makes us nervous, and so relieved, really, that by the end, it turns out some heroes are really heroes. And some people are really genuinely good if only for goodness sake. While the cynic in me roars at lines like that I have to accept that its nice to have something to believe in, that people can indeed be good- I just wonder when such sentiments became old-fashioned and rare.

Its seems so very odd and ill-timed, that this very week when I watched this film, our BBC here in the UK announced it is making a drama series biopic of one of the BBC’s homegrown monsters, Jimmy Saville, which won’t in any way be as life-affirming and pleasant as this Tom Hanks flick. Think something more akin to The Exorcist and The Shining to get some idea of the tone I’m expecting the BBC to take with that one, as opposed to the quite fluffy Capra-like feel that this film justly has. Different kind of childhood heroes, clearly, even if the times were largely the same (Mister Roger’s Neighborhood ran between 1968- 2001, while over here the BBC were broadcasting TV and radio programmes featuring paedophiles and other horrible people). I think the BBC is wrong to be making that drama – and indeed if it has to be made, I think the BBC is the wrong broadcaster to make it. Be that as it may, the news struck me as being particularly unfortunate being received in the same week as I saw this film.

 

City That Never Sleeps (1953)

city2John H Auer’s City That Never Sleeps is a bizarre mixture of realistic film noir, procedural crime drama like The Naked City and a fantasy fable like Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Its such an odd combination that it has a surreal Twilight Zone-like feel, a sense of unreality persisting throughout which is at odds with its attempt to be gritty and ‘real’ (or at least as far as film censors would allow at the time).

It begins with shots of the city of Chicago at dusk,  “I am the city, the hub and heart of America…” instantly instilling the feeling of a Rod Serling introduction for a Twilight Zone episode, albeit here with the casual cosiness of the Angels chatting in the beginning of Capra’s classic. We are introduced by this narrator through short vignettes to the key players in the drama to follow, and then we are off and running on a busy night in which a troubled cop, Johnny Kelly (Gig Young), has come to a crossroads in his life and has to make some life-changing choices. Gig Young himself is a piece of casting that instantly evoked Twilight Zone again, as he appeared in what was possibly its very best episode, Walking Distance, several years later.

city1Kelly is a career cop, albeit a career for which Kelly seems to feel little inclination, forced on him by family tradition (his father a long-time cop near the end of his own career) increasingly resenting, and feeling emasculated by, the fact that his wife earns more than him (and endlessly reminded of it by his mother-in-law who feels her daughter married the wrong guy). So Kelly feels trapped in a job he doesn’t like and a marriage on the rocks, and tonight is the night he has to make a final decision regards quitting  his job and accepting the corrupting influence of crooked lawyer Penrod Biddel (a commanding Edward Arnold) whose offer of big money leads Kelly to think he can then leave town with his nightclub dancer mistress and set up a better life on his own terms.

Having prepared his resignation letter, Kelly begins what he expects to be his last night shift and finds his usual partner is off sick- replaced by an unknown Police Sergeant,  Joe (Chill Willis) whose voice is instantly recognised as the narrator who opened our tale. So there is an air of the supernatural here, with Sgt Joe playing a similar role to George Bailey’s Clarence, Sgt Joe’s subtle remarks to Kelly teasing and prompting him during their night patrol about the value and nobility in being an honest cop protecting the decent people of the city that never sleeps.

Kelly is already something of a corrupt cop and certainly an adulterer, and tonight is evidently his last chance before falling into a bad life of ill repute. The film seems to paint him as inherently a good guy being corrupted by others but I have to say, I took something of a dislike to him from the start. He’s obviously been cheating on his wife (and leading along his mistress Sally (Mala Powers)) and has been working for Riddel in a minor capacity, giving him tips about police cases for some time. This almost soap opera element is the films weakest part, but that may not have been helped by me missing some points during the first third. Riddel has enlisted Kelly to rid him off an over-ambitious associate, William Talman (Hayes Stewart), and the young partner with Talman is Kelly’s own younger brother, Stubby (Ron Hagerthy), who is being pulled deeper into Talman’s own schemes to ruin Riddel. So there is some extra tension there that I missed, becoming quite puzzled towards the end when Stubby and Kelly are obviously so apparently so close and familiar, and Kelly hellbent on protecting Stubby. Maybe I was distracted by the melodrama of Kelly’s wife smartly suspecting her husband of resigning from the force and going to Kellys father, John ‘pop’ Kelly Snr in an attempt to save her marriage and husbands career.

In my defence, there’s clearly a whole lot going on here- sections with Talman ruthlessly desperate to thwart Riddel, the machinations of Riddel and his own wife’s betrayal, the romantic triangle between Kelly, Sandy and her nightclub colleague Gregg who is desperately in love with Sandy. Throw in random crimes/incidents during Kelly’s night patrol with the mysterious Sgt Joe… all of it mixed up with the three seperate styles of film playing out (film noir/police procedural, fantasy fable)  and its quite a curious film. I did enjoy it, but the three styles of film don’t really gel, and I actually wonder if it needed the Twilight Zone-like Sgt.Joe/fantasy fable sub-plot at all.

Almost an interesting failure, ultimately its more than a sum of its many parts, largely saved by some great location shooting, particularly in the latter section when it goes full-on film noir with shafts of light, heavy back-light and low camera angles. Its a great, tense finale and there are some genuine surprises during the film too, including what happens to Kelly’s father who begins to realise his son is compromised by Riddel’s criminal schemes. The final set-piece involving a chase through the streets and over Chicago’s famous elevated railroad track is very good indeed and quite memorable – its almost a pity when the noir aspects are finally dispelled in order to give audiences a positive, life-affirming conclusion. I’m still not really convinced that Kelly deserved it.

Green Book

greenbook1I’m certainly beginning to think I might be getting soft in my middle-age. I’m not sophisticated enough to suggest that this film is a deplorable calculated artifice that plays fast and loose in over-simplifying events and social history, nor am I gullible enough to believe that this film is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. This film has ‘Artistic License’ stamped all over it. But I don’t really mind. In just the same way as I felt about Stan & Ollie, I just think this is a great, life-affirming and warm movie that I really enjoyed. Its a movie, not a documentary, and it’s obviously entertainment first and foremost. Yeah, I’m turning into a softie.

But maybe we need stories, and films, like this now. God knows the news is depressing, politics feels broken, and ‘truth’ seems to be a matter of interpretation rather than cold hard facts. Maybe we need movies as an avenue of escape more now than ever, and it’s refreshing to think that that escape might not always involve people in capes with superpowers righting over-simplified wrongs or saving the world from nasty bad-guys who are clearly mad. I think a film like Green Book serves the same function as earlier films like, say, Field of Dreams or Glory, or possibly even Its A Wonderful Life, a film that I was, funnily enough, thinking about as the end credits of Green Book crawled up my screen (I’m always a sucker for nice Christmas moments in film). Maybe we just need ‘nice’ movies about good people doing the right thing simply because it’s the right thing or people learning they are wrong and changing their ways. Maybe we need to believe people can be decent.

Yeah, maybe I’m turning into a softie and need to watch Taxi Driver, pronto.

But I did rather enjoy this film.

The basic premise of this film explains all- in 1962, a streetwise, working-class Italian-American bouncer looking for work is hired as the driver of an African-American classical pianist on a tour of venues through the 1960s American South, during which he witnesses the racial prejudices which blighted America’s Deep South and re-evaluates his own prejudices, becoming a better person for it. It leads with the text  ‘based on a true story’ as if that lends weight to its message, or excuses some of its ‘so strange it has to be true?’ moments. I’m caught in that ‘don’t even care’ position, to be honest- all film is make believe, no matter how intent on portraying a true story, and all that really matters here to me is that it’s a great story and well told. The period detail is really nice, the art design convincing without drawing too much attention to itself, the cinematography likewise isn’t too stylish, and the casting and performances really endearing and impressive. Its weird to think that Viggo Mortensen is actually Danish, as he does such a great turn as Tony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali deceptively underplays the pianist Don Shirley – I struggled to recognise him from his brooding, haunted and mumbling character in season three of True Detective that I watched about a week ago. He’s clearly an actor I need to look out for in future.

Party like it’s 1989: Field of Dreams (4K UHD)

pris2Another 30th anniversary, and another 4K UHD release of an old favourite- this time Field of Dreams, a film blessed by one of James Horner’s best and most intimate of scores, and a story/screenplay that makes it the best Ray Bradbury movie that isn’t actually based on a Ray Bradbury story. Like Rod Serling’s early Twilight Zone episode, Walking Distance, this feels so much like a Bradbury tale it’s almost from some kind of fantasy uncanny valley.  As someone who spent much of the 1980s devouring much or Ray Bradbury’s short fiction and later novels, quietly laughing and shedding a tear at just the right moments with each turn of the page, Field of Dreams was, to quote the characters, not just incredible, it was perfect.

In just the same way as Alien is possibly the best Lovecraft film ever made, in how honest and sincere it is in conveying the alien horror of his best tales, so Field of Dreams is the best Bradbury film ever made- the fact that neither author had anything at all to do with the original source materials of either movie matters not one jot.

So anyway, I had to pinch myself a little this past weekend- I was a very lucky ghost watching The Prisoner of Second Avenue in a new HD master on Blu-ray and the following day a new transfer of Field of Dreams, splendidly brought to 4K UHD disc. While the disc will never win any awards or standout from the 4K UHD crowd, it’s the best the film has ever looked- a quick spin of the original Blu-ray disc reveals how limited that old edition really was, hampered by a lackluster print/master which in comparison really highlights the improvements in this new 4K disc. The image is more stable, the detail and filmic grain more defined and the colour depth really improved- HDR is mostly subtle and all the best for it, only really vivid in scenes with neon street lighting or in the baseball field at night.

The film, of course, is something of a marmite picture; often described as a male-weepie or adult fable, it’s a charming and finely-judged film that is really quite subtle – I think it will be interesting to rewatch Always, also from 1989, and similarly old-fashioned and gentle in spirit, to see how Spielberg’s less subtle hand fares (a bargain-bin blu-ray sits waiting on the shelf as I type this). I was naturally predisposed to fall for this film simply because it evokes so much of the magic Bradbury’s old Americana fantasies, but this shouldn’t detract from the qualities of the cinematography,  the performances (Kevin Costner is at the top of his game and James Earl Jones a greater joy everytime I rewatch this), the sublime score, the deft direction.  It has the feel of lightning caught in a bottle- a film has naively nostalgic and innocent as this shouldn’t have worked in the 1980s and beyond, but like Capra’s Its A Wonderful Life, it’s rather gained a timeless life all of its own.

Two Christmas movies…

I seldom if ever get chance to watch a film over Christmas, visiting family etc takes care of filling days that are just too short and exhausting. Christmas’ of old that I remember so fondly for watching Jack Lemmon films or film noirs or sci-fi b-movies are a distant memory, back when I was a youngster on long school holidays, not married middle-age and a few days off work.

However, I did manage to watch two very special Christmas movies just prior to the holidays- back on the 23rd I watched Its a Wonderful Life on blu-ray, and on Christmas Eve I watched Die Hard on 4K UHD. Both films are fantastic Christmas movies. While Its A Wonderful Life is an established classic and a firm favourite of mine (bought the books, the soundtrack etc), it is something of an acquired taste for some (a query at work revealed some spouses turn it off at the opening scenes where the stars are talking to each other- have some people no soul?). The film is surely a fable for the modern age and as relevant now as it was when first made – indeed maybe more so considering Trump is dissing Santa to kids these days.  

Die Hard is a film I hadn’t seen for several years, somehow, and while Its A Wonderful Life is a Christmas staple pretty much every year, this was the first time I actually sat down with Die Hard at Christmas. Of course it’s a Christmas movie (although some argue that it isn’t) but beyond that, it’s a great action thriller that delivers excitement, laughs, shocks and surprises – particularly the surprising notion that 1980s films can feel so old-fashioned now. Old-fashioned in a good way, you understand- this was back in those pre-CGI days when the script and characterisation took preference over the action and noise, but I think I’m reaching the end of the line when a 1988 film gets to feel old-fashioned, even if it is in a good way. Everything in Die Hard is finely tuned and while it isn’t perfect it’s damn near it, and while during the long dark nights of a moviegoers soul I’d take it to task for all the rip-offs inflicted upon us in the years since, that’s hardly the films fault.

Anyway, Die Hard remains the highlight of Christmas 2018 for me. I really did enjoy it, so much so I’ve already got it booked in for Christmas Eve 2019. Could be the start of a new seasonal tradition…

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

shaw1The Shawshank Redemption (Blu-ray)

For what it’s worth, I’ll start this by just pointing out that I saw The Shawshank Redemption at the cinema back on its release in 1994. I don’t know why I feel the need to point that out, but this film was such a ‘sleeper’ hit, only becoming popular on home video really, that it feels pertinent to mention that when there is so little ‘new’ to add about the film, as so much has since been written about it. It is now on so many people’s Top Ten lists it is easy to forget that the film took years to gain its audience and popularity.

I don’t think it is any accident that it reminds me so much of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, another perennial favourite that was ignored on its original release. Both films are life-affirming, and I think it’s fair to say that both films failed to get initial success because they sort of suggest they are going to be one thing, and then turn into something else. Frank Capra’s film seems overly sweet and simple at the start but becomes rather dark, and Frank Darabont’s film starts as if it is just another prison flick, when it becomes something more. And yes, both films champion the human spirit and having faith in oneself and in others, and both films are uplifting cathartic experiences.

Returning to the film after a number of years, and watching it for the first time on blu-ray, I was pleasantly surprised that it really is as good as I remembered. Sometimes films fade or disappoint when revisited after a space of time. Shawshank remains as vital and sincere as it ever was. The script is excellent, the cast engaging, the music score perfect, the direction remarkably restrained of any artifice or stylistic heavy-handedness. The film tells its story at a leisurely pace (over something like two and a half hours) but it never feels long. It feels just right, and the eventual finale is note-perfect and thoroughly deserved. There is, afterall, a simple reason why it is on so many people’s Top Ten lists. It is simply a damn fine film.