Saturday, February 28, 2009

"A Game of Pool"

When we speak of “cinema” we usually refer to a theatrical film, but today I will be dealing with a television show that in my mind has the excellence of some of the finest feature films I’ve ever seen.

The Twilight Zone remains one of the best-loved television series of all time and much of that has to do with its subject matter. The “middle ground between light and shadow” was home to many intriguing ideas, dealing with subjects ranging from nostalgia (“Walking Distance”, “Kick the Can”, “A Stop at Willoughby”) to paranoia (“And the Sky Was Opened”, “The Hitchhiker”, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”) to simple everyday mysteries (“Long Live Walter Jameson”, “Nick of Time”). These were masterfully written and performed espisodes that jolted the viewer’s imagination. Other episodes were simpler treatments, often moving towards a peculiarly unique punch line (“To Serve Man”, “The Rip Van Winkle Caper”). Some people loved the show for its take on humanity in moments of crisis, while others merely appreciated the slightly bizarre science fiction moments. There was clearly something for almost everyone.

I’d like to discuss an episode that is among the best of the series, entitled “A Game of Pool.” Shown in 1961 in the third season, the storyline was delightfully straightforward – a lonely, intense everyday pool player named Jesse Cardiff (Jack Klugman) gets his chance to do battle with the legendary champ Fats Brown (Jonathan Winters). Cardiff practices all hours of the day to become the best and the only way he will be known as that is to beat Fats, whose name he is tired of hearing. Brown is deceased, but upon learning of Jesse’s request, comes back to the pool hall in Chicago for this match, which has a stakes of life and death – if Cardiff wins, he can live; if not, he dies. (The device of coming back from beyond in this episode is a lovely Twilight Zone moment.)

There are so many excellent things about this episode from the elegantly uncomplicated art direction of George W. Davis and Phil Barber to the precise editing of Jason H. Bernie to the high-key cinematography of Jack Swain. He wisely decided not to highlight shadows, as that might have been an overdone touch given the human drama of the story (this is after all, not film noir).

Buzz Kulik’s direction is confident and to the point, with beautiful closeups of the two actors’s faces to highlight the tension. The acting by both performers is admirable; Jonathan Winters fits the role of Fats Brown like a glove and offers a low-key, at times sardonic performance. Klugman on the other hand is superb – I believe he was one of the greatest actors ever to appear on television. Everyone recalls his great comic work on The Odd Couple, but watch his work in this episode as well as two others from The Twilight Zone (“A Passage for Trumpet” and “In Praise of Pip”). As Jesse Cardiff, he is at times forceful, then at times insecure, but always focused on the dream he carries. Klugman does wonderful things with the tone and volume of his voice; he knew how to deliver a line simply and with great passion without ever being a ham. This performance is heartbreaking, as Klugman makes us feel the weight of everyone who ever wanted just a little touch of respect from their peers.

It is the screenplay by George Clayton Johnson that is the greatest single contribution of this episode in my mind. Johnson, who also wrote the series’ “Kick The Can” episode, delivers a story here that is a classic tale of the little guy versus the champ. Yet, this is not one of those simple plots where we root for the underdog. Rather, here we are cast in the middle of these two lives, as we realize this is all about the costs of success. Cardiff may desperately want to be champion so he can exorcize the name of Fats Brown, but he will soon understand that becoming a champion carries with it a responsibility that ultimately develops into a burden.

The exchanges between Cardiff and Brown are beautifully written, as plain spoken dialogue that suits these two characters. There are no glorious, overwrought speeeches here - just tough, direct lines spoken by the two characters that remind us of their differences. Yet at the same time, the screenplay takes on notes of wonder and imagination, as Cardiff imagines what it would be like to be champ.

One of my favorite lines is delivered by Fats when he is egging on Jesse for the match. Sensing Cardiff’s sudden doubt about beating him, Brown tells Cardiff, “You’ll never make the grade at anything by playing it safe.”

After a great shot by Cardiff, he asks Brown, “How about that, fat boy?” Brown replies, “Not bad.” To which Cardiff replies, You know, you’re like all the others.” He confidence is at an all-time high here, but that will soon be questioned.

Toward the end, Brown tells Cardiff, “there’s more to life than this pool hall.” It’s a brilliant line, as it sums up what Cardiff, in all of his intensity and dedication to the game, misses out on in his existence. Become the champ, Johnson is saying, and you may gain some respect from a few, but in the big picture, you lose out on everyday friendship.

Ultimately, Johnson in his screenplay asks several significant questions. Do we have what it takes to dethrone a champion? Do we want to work hard enough to achieve that goal? And finally, what do we gain by becoming the best? These questions raise “A Game of Pool” from a simple human duel to an examination of how we see ourselves among our fellow man. This is an exceptional screenplay and a timeless episode.

A final note: Yes, I goofed on my prediction for Best Editing at this year's Academy Awards. In my last post, I emphatically predicted that "The Dark Knight" would win the award, but of course, it went to "Slumdog Millionaire." Who knew?

Anyway, I'll be back again next year (I hope) with another Oscar prediction. I'm just glad I didn't predict Kate Winslet winning- I probably would have jinxed her. Thank goodness she finally got her long overdue Oscar!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Oscar Trends - A Predictable Category

Quick- what do these movies have in common?

Body and Soul (1947); Champion (1949); Rocky (1976) and Raging Bull (1980). If you answered that they’re all films with boxing as the main subject, you’re right, of course. But the other answer is that they’ve all won Oscars for Best Editing.

Apparently, the Academy members believe that great editing can be summed up in boxing films with their quick cuts back and forth between the antagonists. I’m not critical of the editing in these films; indeed the editing of Body and Soul and Raging Bull is magnificent. Also, it should be pointed out that not every boxing film wins Best Editing, as was the case with Million Dollar Baby (2004), which lost this award in favor of The Aviator, not a surprise, given the dramatic flight sequences (as well as the spectacular crashes) or Cinderella Man (2005) which was passed over in this award in favor of Crash, a bit of a surprise. So it’s not all the time, but it’s clear that if you make a successful boxing movie, you’ll snag a Best Editing nomination and probably win.

It also helps when you have a great car chase as in Bullitt (1968) or The French Connection (1971), which both – you guessed it - won the Best Editing Oscar. Again, a superb job of editing on these films and richly deserved wins, but it does point out how the members love the fast action of a boxing ring or a car chase when it comes to this award.

So I can say with pretty good certainty, as I write this one week before this year’s awards are handed out, that The Dark Knight will win the statue this year for Best Editing. It’s really the only film nominated in this category that has big action scenes, so I’d be surprised if it lost. It will also win as the voters will try and make up for the film not being nominated as Best Picture. This snub is becoming a too predictable trend, as the Oscars – despite their so-called changes – get all serious at awards time and go for the noble, sincere films, while the beautifully crafted entertainment pictures get snubbed. This is similar to the Bourne films of the past few years (especially the first-rate The Bourne Supremacy of 2006). Last year, the Academy handed out the Best Editing award to The Bourne Ultimatum (along with awards for Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing) not only for its brillliantly edited action scenes, but in my mind, also for the omissions over the past years for the technical work in the previous two Bourne films.

While you’re on your own for the other Oscars, you can rest assured that the Best Editing will go to The Dark Knight. (I’m also thinking that it will win a few others such as Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing; I’d love to see Wally Pfister’s terrific cinematography be honored as well but I’m not that confident in this category).

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Touch of Capra

I finally got around to seeing Ghost Town the other day. It was on the plane ride home from Munich and I’m sure if you’ve flown lately, you know how nice it is to see a good film, given all the garbage that gets shown on the airlines. That aside, I liked this film very much for several reasons, for its performances, which most reviewers have mentioned, but also for its message, which has not been the subject of too many critical analyses of this film.

The focal point of this film is the performance of Ricky Gervais, the great British comic actor who starred in the original version of the TV series The Office. Gervais plays Dr. Bertram Pincus, a New York City dentist who just doesn’t care much for people and even less for their problems. He’s got the perfect job since he can shove all sorts of things in his patients’ mouths, meaning he doesn’t have to listen to their concerns.

One day he undergoes a routine operation in which he is dead for seven minutes before coming back to life. Because of this, he can see ghosts, who upon their discovery that the doctor can actually see and hear them, pester the poor guy with their problems. Just what he needs!

Gervais is brilliant in this film, especially in the hospital scenes when he answers one of those annoying questionnares about everything from when he last ate solid food to how well his laxatives worked. How we’d all love to say the things he does in this scene! He’s also great in his scenes with Gwen (Tea Leoni, in a quirky, captivating performance) with whom he falls in love. Gwen, you see, was married to Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), a businessman who cheated on her. Now Frank (who recently died and is now a ghost) wants the doctor to sway Gwen away from marrying a self-righteous jerk who is involved in organizing medical help for Third World countries (that doesn’t make him a jerk, of course, it’s the way the character is written, as some sort of modern day savior). Kinnear, who is making a nice living playing everyday characters with some annoying tics, won’t give up until Dr. Pincus does the job he asks him to carry out. The more the doctor resists, the more Frank talks to the other ghosts he knows and convinces them to ask the doctor to help them as well.

While the film plays cute at times, the story is effective enough and the performances are so good that we accept some of the limitations of the project. Yet there is one brilliant scene in the film that few have discussed. The message here is that when you die, you don’t just go to heaven (or the other place) right away. No, it turns out that we all have some unfinished business we need to have taken care of. As we’re dead, we can’t do it, so we have to tell our story to someone who has undergone death and has then come back to life.

The scene comes after Dr. Pincus’ associate tells him that one day he should understand that the world doesn’t revolve around him and that he needs to actually listen to other people and help them from time to time. It sounds a bit corny, but it comes across in a subtle way and when Pincus finally understands that message, he becomes a new man, so to speak.

Dr. Pincus goes to the ghosts and listens to their stories. All the ghosts have requests for him; some are simple like the father who needs to tell his son where he lost his stuffed animal, while other are more dramatic, like the construction workers who die because of a mechanical problem on their truck. They know why they died, but their foreman thinks he was careless and caused their deaths. They can’t tell him, so Dr. Pincus must relieve this man of his overwhelming guilt.

The scene that follows is really quite special, told without words with only a quiet, bittersweet theme performed by violin and piano as Pincus goes to the people whose lives were touched by these ghosts before they died. As the doctor clears things up with the living, we see the ghosts’ reactions for a second just before the screen turns to white, signifying their departure to their afterlife. It’s a very moving scene and it’s one that has a touch of Frank Capra to it. Like one of the great scenes from Capra's best works such as Meet John Doe or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, this scene does share a common message of humanity – all of us need to show our fellow man a little more understanding. It’s this decency that made Capra’s films ring true and it’s this same feeling that makes this scene so wonderful.

It’s this message that makes Ghost Town an above average comedy. The film ends with a cute line about Dr. Pincus being able to help Gwen with a minor problem (or is it a major one?), but it’s a line that fits perfectly and has a sentiment that has been earned. How nice that writer/director David Koepp fashioned a modern-day comedy that isn’t afraid to deal with our deepest emotions about our fellow man.