28 May 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Friday Minute
No. 106 | May 28, 2010

Shades of Gray

Our theme this week
Black-and-white movies since 1990

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
Tuesday         —   Clerks (1994)
Wednesday    —   Ed Wood (1994)
Thursday        —   The Good German (2006)

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

good night and good luck

good night and good luck_pic

Cinematographer: Robert Elswit

Good Night, and Good Luck is a righteous film.  As a work that aims to promote a worthy cause, it succeeds, and as a work that aims to remind us of an important figure from an earlier era, it succeeds.  But as a film that provides deep insight into the characters it portrays—well, it never aims to do that.

Edward R. Murrow was one of the founding fathers of broadcast journalism.  He remains an iconic figure, though his career and life were over before most people today were born.  Most of us never saw him on television; we’ve only heard of the man.  It’s our loss that we have no one of Murrow’s stature to inform us of what’s happening in our world.  In the years before Good Night, and Good Luck was made, in 2005, the country had marched off to war, voices of dissent at home were largely quelled, and the performance of the media, through a combination of cowardice and incompetence, was a national disgrace.

George Clooney—whose father, Nick, is a former TV news anchor (and onetime host for the AMC movie channel)—aimed to remind the public, and the media, that the role of journalism is to counter, not acquiesce to, the powers that be.  Clooney co-wrote the script, directed the film, and co-starred in a supporting role as CBS newsman Fred Friendly.

Good Night, and Good Luck takes place during 1953 and 1954, with Murrow and his news team battling the anti-Communist crusade led by Senator Joseph McCarthy.  David Strathairn plays Murrow.  It’s a convincing portrait.  He looks and sounds like Murrow, and he captures the essential bravery that Murrow displayed at the time, which has set the standard for people in television news ever since.

In the film, we see Murrow in front of the TV camera, we see him give speeches, we see him at work at the CBS offices.  He takes his job seriously and he does it well.  He smokes a lot of cigarettes.  We don’t get much more of the man.  We don’t know what else is in his life or what got him to this point.  Fair enough, this isn’t a biopic.  But a movie from a decade earlier, Quiz Show, is an interesting contrast.  Also about television in the 1950s, it gets deep into the lives of the characters when they’re away from the camera.  We see what makes them tick, and it makes for a more engaging movie.  Good Night, and Good Luck, on the other hand, is more urgent.  It may not be a great film, but it’s an important one.

One final note about the cinematography:  like Monday’s feature (The Man Who Wasn’t There), Good Night, and Good Luck was shot in color and released as a black-and-white film.  It’s a good choice.  Black-and-white captures the look of the times.  It’s stunning and artfully done.  But the choice of black-and-white was a practical one too.  The character of Joseph McCarthy is not played by an actor.  The senator is seen only in archived film from the ’50s, all of which is black-and-white.  (Not realizing that the onscreen McCarthy was McCarthy himself, some people in test audiences had complained that the performance of the “actor” was over the top.)

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)
George Clooney, director
Robert Elswit, cinematographer



Good Night, and Good Luck (2005 )
David Strathairn

See It Now 
Edward R. Murrow
March 9, 1954

Quote of Note
No one familiar with the history of his country can deny that congressional committees are useful.  It is necessary to investigate before legislating.  But the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one, and the junior senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly.  His primary achievement has been confusing the public mind as between the internal and the external threats of communism.  We must not confuse dissent from disloyalty.  We must remember always, that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law.  We will not walk in fear, one of another, we will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason.  If we dig deep into our history and our doctrine, we will remember we are not descended from fearful men.  Not from men who dared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular.  This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent or for those who approve.  We can deny our heritage and our history but we cannot escape responsibility for the result.  There is no way for a citizen of the republic to abdicate his responsibilities.  As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age.  We proclaim ourselves as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom wherever it still exists in the world.  But we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.  The actions of the junior senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies.  And whose fault is that?  Not really his.  He didn’t create this situation of fear.  He merely exploited it, and rather successfully.  Cassius was right, the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.  Good night, and good luck.”
—Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

Final Friday Five, the monthly mini-quiz

1.  Name the singer-actor who had a #1 album on the music charts and won an Oscar for acting, but was not featured at MAD About Movies this month?

2.  Five black-and-white films from the past two decades are listed below.  Name the one color film.

Dead Man (1995, Jim Jarmusch)
Pi (1998, Darren Aronofsky)
Celebrity (1998, Woody Allen)
Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Béla Tarr)
Dogville (2003, Lars von Trier)
The White Ribbon (2009, Michael Haneke)

3.  This month director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (call him “Joe”) won the top prize at Cannes for his film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.  It was the first time a film from his country won the Palme d’Or.  What is his country?

Sri Lanka

4.  Match the information below for the three films adapted from 1950s teleplays.

Film title (year):  Television series (teleplay year), Writer, Lead actor on television, Lead actor on film
Marty (1955):  _____, _____, _____, _____
12 Angry Men (1957):  _____, _____, _____, _____
Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962):  _____, _____, _____, _____

Television series:  Studio One (1954), The Goodyear Television Playhouse (1953), Playhouse 90 (1956)
Writer:  Rod Serling; Paddy Chayefsky; Reginald Rose
Lead actor on television:  Jack Palance, Rod Steiger, Robert Cummings
Lead actor on film:  Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, Ernest Borgnine

5.  What is the “Sinatra Doctrine”?

a.  The policy of the Rat Pack to have Frank Sinatra sing the first and last song of every concert appearance.
b.  The policy of the Catholic Church that allowed Sinatra to remarry in the church despite his first, second, and third divorce.
c.  The policy of the Kennedy administration to go easy on Sam Giancana during its crackdown on organized crime because of the mobster’s ties to Sinatra, a friend of the Kennedy family.
d.  The policy of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s to allow Warsaw Pact nations to determine their own internal affairs.
e.  The policy of Woody Allen’s character in Bananas after the rebels have made him president and he declares that everyone is now going to do it “My Way!”

Answers here.


 27 May 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Thursday Minute
No. 105 | May 27, 2010

Shades of Gray

Our theme this week
Black-and-white movies since 1990

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
Tuesday         —   Clerks (1994)
Wednesday    —   Ed Wood (1994)

The Good German (2006)

the good german

the good german_blanchett clooney

Director of Photography:  Steven Soderbergh (as Peter Andrews)

Watching The Good German made me wonder what Steven Soderbergh did to offend the critics.  Did he forget to send them Christmas cards?  Did he shoot spitballs at them from the back of the theater?  Did he say something nasty about their mothers?

Surely he did something egregious to account for the reaction to his film.  The critical response doesn’t seem entirely rational.  I hesitate to use the word savage, but after reading another review just now, I’d say it might be the right word for describing the critical war party that was out to get the director when The Good German came out.  “Off with his head!” is the approximate gist of many reviews, though as far as I can tell, those exact words didn’t make it into print.  (It might have made for an engaging ad campaign.)

I won’t say that The Good German is an unqualified success.  I’m not sure it’s even a qualified success.  But I’d say at the very least it’s an interesting misfire, and probably even better than that.  I’ve only seen the film a couple of times—once when it was first released, once recently—and I may need another viewing before making any firm assessments.  Some films are like that.  This one seems to be.

Set in 1945, in the aftermath of the Allied victory, The Good German follows Jake Geismer (George Clooney), a war correspondent (for The New Republic, no less), as he returns to Berlin to search for, among other things, his former lover, Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett).  Lena’s husband, Emil (Christian Oliver), is a mysterious figure and the “good German” of the title.  Having been involved with the German rocket program during the war, Emil is a much-wanted man, sought by the Americans, the Soviets, and the British, all with their own motives.  The war was hell, and even for those who made it through, there was a price paid for survival, secrets they’d rather not divulge.  The end of the war is no end to the moral compromise, and in Soderbergh’s universe, there is not the usual clear line between the good guys and the bad guys.  At least you can’t tell by the uniform.

The Good German is an adaptation of the 2001 novel by Joseph Kanon.  The film version departs from the book, and Soderbergh borrows freely from films of the ’40s for story material, and more.  One obvious influence is Casablanca, and perhaps this is where Soderbergh gets himself into hot water with the critics.  It’s an unwise comparison to draw for any film, but more than that, the borrowing overshadows what’s onscreen, especially the final scene with the plane waiting at the airstrip, and it does get in the way of The Good German telling its own story.  The divided-city milieu of The Third Man is also evident, as are echoes from Chinatown, though that isn’t a war film or in black-and-white.

Soderbergh has had an interesting career, hopping between entertainments and experiments.  The Good German qualifies as one of his experimental works, though essentially it’s a genre film, an historical spy story/murder mystery, with a recognizable narrative.  Soderbergh made a 1940s film in the 21st century.  He did mimic the technology of the early era, at least, though the sensibility—not to mention the language and subject matter (the Hays Office would have had a field day with this one)—is more appropriate of our time.

The initial response was hardly receptive, though I do think it’s worth another view.  The final word (as always) has yet to be written.

The Good German and Casablanca
Homage, Theft, or Just Wishful Thinking?  Discuss.

 the good germancasablanca

The Good German (2006)
Steven Soderbergh, director, director of photography


The Good German (2006)
Cate Blanchett, Tobey Maguire

Quote of Note
“You can say what you want about the war, but the war was the best thing that ever happened to me.  Because when you have money, then, for the first time in your life, you understand it, what money does for you.  Where before all you understood was not having it? Money allows you to be who you truly are.”
—Patrick Tully (Tobey Maguire), The Good German (2006)


 26 May 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Wednesday Minute
No. 104 | May 26, 2010

Shades of Gray

Our theme this week
Black-and-white movies since 1990

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
Tuesday         —   Clerks (1994)

Ed Wood (1994)

ed wood

ed wood_pic

Cinematographer:  Stefan Czapsky

Yesterday a cheaply made film, today a film that celebrates cheaply made films.

It’s hard to imagine Ed Wood in anything but black-and-white.  Ed Wood made black-and-white movies—he seemed to live in a world without color—and Tim Burton’s biopic of the 1950s director was true to its subject. 

Today Ed Wood is a beloved figure, in large part because of Burton’s movie and Johnny Depp’s endearing performance.  But there was a time when Wood was a subject of mockery, famously the maker of the worst movies ever made.  No one now would accuse him of making great movies, but as camp classics his films are entertaining in ways that Wood might not have intended but are achievements nonetheless.  There is something to be said for that.  The talent to entertain is a rare thing, and Wood’s legacy is greater than that of some other more respectable, but forgettable, filmmakers of his time.

Making a movie is no easy task.  It’s not a job for the easily discouraged.  It takes a certain amount of optimism.  That’s a quality that Wood had in abundance.  He seemed utterly blind to the million reasons that he couldn’t do what he wanted to do.  He forged ahead regardless.  He was the intrepid filmmaker, the artist who couldn’t be stopped, and in some ways a hero to anyone who ever stepped behind the camera, or anyone who dreamed of doing so.

The Tim Burton film follows Wood in his struggles to make a career in Hollywood.  He wants to make a movie of Christine Jorgensen’s life, but when he can’t get the rights, he films a fictionalized story about a transvestite called Glen or Glenda.  That 1953 movie is a breakthrough of sorts, and Wood makes more movies during the ’50s (the scope of the Burton film), culminating, at the end of the decade, in Plan 9 from Outer Space.  Along the way he meets and befriends Béla Lugosi (portrayed, in a memorable, Oscar-winning performance, by Martin Landau).  Wood doesn’t provide Lugosi with a career comeback, but he does give the actor work in his final years.  Wood also has a chance meeting with his hero, Orson Welles.  Wood never gets much closer than the periphery of Hollywood.  But most of all, he makes movies, and that’s what counts.

Ed Wood (1994)
Tim Burton, director
Stephan Czapsky, cinematographer


Ed Wood (1994)
Johnny Depp, Martin Landau
The Octopus

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
Edward D. Wood Jr., director

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1:18:21)


[Click the pic and give it a minute or two to connect.]

Greetings, my friend.  We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.

Quote of Note
Ed Wood:  And cut!  Print.  We’re moving on.  That was perfect.
Ed Reynolds: Perfect?  Mr. Wood, do you know anything about the art of film production?
Ed Wood:  Well, I like to think so.
Ed Reynolds:  That cardboard headstone tipped over.  This graveyard is obviously phony.
Ed Wood:  Nobody will ever notice that.  Filmmaking is not about the tiny details.  It’s about the big picture.
Ed Reynolds:  The big picture?
Ed Wood:  Yes.
Ed Reynolds:  Then how ’bout when the policemen arrived in daylight, but now it’s suddenly night?
Ed Wood:  What do you know?  Haven’t you heard of suspension of disbelief?
—Ed Wood (Johnny Depp), Ed Reynolds (Clive Rosengren), Ed Wood (1994)


Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 25 May 2010 @ 08:42 AM

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 25 May 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Tuesday Minute
No. 103 | May 25, 2010

Shades of Gray

Our theme this week
Black-and-white movies since 1990

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

Clerks (1994)



Cinematographer:  David Klein

Why make a movie in black-and-white?  Black-and-white may be a good fit for the period and subject matter (see Monday’s feature).  Or, it may be a choice made for artistic reasons (see last year’s Tetro, from Francis Ford Coppola).  Then again, it may just be a matter of budget.

It’s true, color is more expensive than black-and-white, and in Clerks, the language is so flagrantly colorful that virtually nothing was left for film itself.  If not for black-and-white, there might have been no movie at all.

Director Kevin Smith sold his comic book collection and maxed out his credit cards to raise the cash to make Clerks.  The film didn’t cost much to shoot—about $27,000, peanuts for the movie biz—then earned about $3 million at the box office.  Chump change by Hollywood standards, but a huge return for a DIY film, and enough to launch Smith’s career, along with a few others’.

The action in Clerks takes place inside, outside, and on top of a convenience store, during a single day, a day that should have been an off-day for Dante Hicks, the clerk who’s called in when his fellow worker is sick.  No doubt Kevin Smith had read Aristotle’s Poetics, as the story closely adheres to the three unities of drama.  I’d guess that Aristotle was not the source for one of the more shocking (and hilarious) plot developments:  Dante’s girlfriend has sex in the bathroom with a dead man, who had died while reading a porn magazine.  There are various comings and goings, a hockey game on the roof, but mostly a lot of talk.  Silent Bob doesn’t have much to say, but he and his buddy, Jay, make their big screen debut.

The film is uneven, and certainly rough in places, but that’s part of its appeal.  Hollywood could never have made a movie like Clerks, and part of the success of the film is that it validated the indie movement.  It showed that movies could be done another way, and among other things, done funnier.

Clerks (1994)
Kevin Smith, director
David Klein, cinematographer

Clerks (1994)
Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith
Jay & Silent Bob

Quote of Note
Coroner:  My question is, how did she come to have sex with a dead man?
Dante:  She thought it was me.
Coroner:  What kind of convenience store do you run here?
—Coroner (Pattijean Csik), Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran), Clerks (1994)


Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 25 May 2010 @ 08:19 AM

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 24 May 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Monday Minute
No. 102 | May 24, 2010

Shades of Gray

One of the constants in the history of film is the advance of technology.  Filmmakers are always inventing new ways of telling stories, and in many ways those developments have created a richer experience for film audiences.  Sometimes a new technology is adopted widely and immediately.  Sound came to Hollywood in 1927 and by 1931 Chaplin’s silent classic City Lights was viewed as a nostalgic anomaly.  Other times, technology is adopted in fits and starts.  Bwana Devil arrived in 1952 but 3-D never went mainstream; now, with Avatar and other films, 3-D seems new all over again.

Then, there are times when the shift to new technology happens gradually.  So it was with the introduction of color, with the transition in Hollywood films from almost all black-and-white to almost no black-and-white taking decades.  From 1939 to 1966 (except 1957), the Academy awarded separate Oscars each year for black-and-white and color cinematography, with Gone with the Wind winning the first for color and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? winning the last for black-and-white.  Since the change to a single award, only one black-and-white film, Schindler’s List in 1993 (with a few scenes in color), has won the cinematography prize.

The black-and-white film is now an endangered species, but not extinct.  Recent years have seen a few exceptions to the general trend, and we’ll look at some of them in this week’s theme.

Our theme this week
Black-and-white movies since 1990

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

the man who wasn't there

the man who wasn't there_lawyer room

Cinematographer:  Roger Deakins

The Man Who Wasn’t There is typical for the rare black-and-white film of recent times.  Its story is set in a period when black-and-white was the predominant choice for the medium.  In this case, the film borrows heavily from the traditions of film noir.  Some of the apparent influences, in style and theme, include The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and In a Lonely Place.

Joel and Ethan Coen wrote and directed the movie, with frequent collaborator Roger Deakins, who earned the film’s sole Oscar nomination, handling the cinematography.  (Notably, and unlike movies from decades earlier, the film was shot in color but released as a black-and-while film.)

Set in mid-century Santa Rosa, California, the film stars Billy Bob Thornton as barber Ed Crane.  In the early minutes of the film, Ed says, “I don’t talk much,” and it’s true that he has little to say to the characters in the movie, yet in a series of voiceovers, he doesn’t shut up.  Ed shows little emotion but has a lot on his mind.  Much of it has to do with the people from his small-town world.  They include his wife, Doris (Frances McDormand), her boss, Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini), who’s having an affair with her, his brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco), who owns the barber shop, and Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito), the businessman who talks Ed into investing in a dry cleaning operation.  Ed may be the protagonist in the film, but his true fate is as a secondary character subject to the whims and conceits of the others.

Ed is not unlike the heroes in some other Coen brothers’ movies—the man whose best efforts are no match against forces greater than himself.  He’s in one respect a tragic figure, but also darkly comic.  The Man Who Wasn’t There seems to get the balance just right.  The performances and writing are crisp, as you’d expect from the Coens.  The black-and-white photography is a feast for the eyes.  Part homage to earlier films, the visuals are unmistakably Coen brothers’ material.  When a shot dollies in, the Coens don’t stop at a close-up, they continue moving in till the camera is nearly inserted into the character’s mouth.  The Coens are playing with viewer expectations, and even dentists in the audience probably feel uncomfortable.

Unlike films from the noir era, which typically zip along,  The Man Who Wasn’t There is slow-paced, even meditative.  Perhaps the movie is a little too concerned with appearances rather than just telling its story.  That said, the film truly comes alive when Tony Shalhoub is onscreen.  Shalhoub plays Freddy Riedenschneider, a brilliant, slick lawyer hired to defend Doris in a murder trial.  It’s one of the great portrayals of any lawyer in any film from recent years—a performance not to be missed.

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
Joel Coen, and Ethan Coen (uncreditied), directors
Roger Deakins, cinematographer


The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Shalhoub

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Shalhoub


Quote of Note
“Time slows down right before an accident, and I had time to think about things.  I thought about what an undertaker had told me once, that your hair keeps growing, for a while anyway, after you die, and then it stops.  I thought, What keeps it growing?  Is it like a plant in soil?  What goes out of the soil?  The soul?  And when does the hair realize that it’s gone?”
—Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)


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