Friday, January 30, 2015

Watch This: Casablanca

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Casablanca (1942)
Directed by Michael Curtiz

A warning: this post does contain spoilers about Casablanca's ending.  However, considering that the final scene is one of the most famous and oft-quoted scenes in all of cinema, I'm willing to risk a few spoilers.

Casablanca is a classic.  In fact, it is probably the classic.

There are certain films that come to mind when one hears certain terms being used in reference to the movies.  For example, when I hear the word "epic," I instantly think of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and my mind fills with the image of Peter O'Toole's sun-bronzed face peering out from the folds of a white keffiyeh.  Likewise, when I hear the word "classic," the film that immediately comes to mind is Casablanca.  It may be the quintessential film of Hollywood's studio era, the film in which the predominant modes of directing, production, acting, musical scoring, screenwriting, costume design, cinematography, casting, and other filmmaking elements of that era all coalesced perfectly, resulting in what is not only one of the most beloved and popular films of all time, but one of the best films ever made.  Although Casablanca's plot is closely tied to a particular time, the film has a timeless quality that has allowed it to age better than most films of its era, and it is one of those rare cinematic works that grows richer and more enjoyable with repeat viewings.

The film is set in Casablanca, Morocco, a key stopping point along the route taken by refugees seeking escape from Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II.  The city is swarming with all manner of characters, some seeking only to obtain exit visas to the embarkation point of Lisbon, others seeking to make money off the refugees' desperation.  Many of these people find their way to Rick's Cafe Americain, a popular nightclub run by cynical American expatriate Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart, in what is arguably the role most inextricably tied with his persona).  One of Rick's most frequent customers is the criminal Ugarte (Peter Lorre), who has come to Rick's with two valuable letters of transit that he acquired by murdering a pair of German couriers.  Nazi officer Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) has come to Casablanca to oversee the apprehension of the murderer by the head of the local police, Captain Renault (Claude Rains), a corrupt official of the puppet Vichy government.  Ugarte gives the letters to Rick for safekeeping, but his plans to sell them later that night are interrupted when he is arrested.  Ugarte's pleas to Rick for help are met with only dispassion and detachment (Rick's cynical neutrality is epitomized by his repeated credo, "I stick my neck out for nobody").

Rick's carefully constructed veneer of neutral indifference comes crashing down when Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) and her husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) arrive at the club to purchase the letters.  Laszlo is a Czech resistance leader, seeking to acquire the letters of transit so that he and Ilsa can make their way to America to continue his vital work fighting the Nazis.  We learn that Ilsa and Rick met and fell in love in Paris before he came to Casablanca, but that she left abruptly upon learning that Laszlo, who she thought had been killed, was still alive (we see all of this in a flashback sequence set to the lovely chords of As Time Goes By, played by the club's piano player, Sam (Dooley Wilson)).  With her appearance at his club, Rick's feelings of love, bitterness, and betrayal come swarming to the surface, and there is the scene after the club has closed where Rick sits drunk at the bar and utters the immortal line, "Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine."  Laszlo and Ilsa are determined to get ahold of the letters and fly to Lisbon, but Major Strasser is determined to keep Laszlo in Casablanca, and there is the further complication that Ilsa and Rick are still in love with one another.  Rick decides to help Laszlo escape, but he must choose whether to keep Ilsa here with him, or put her on the plane with Laszlo.  Of course, he chooses the selfless act and puts her on the plane.

Much of the dialogue in this final scene has entered the American lexicon, with lines like "We'll always have Paris," "Here's looking at you, kid," and "Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship" taking on a life of their own far beyond what the film's writers ever likely thought possible.  The script is bursting with wonderful dialogue throughout, and while Rick's words to Ilsa in the final scene are indeed great, some of the earlier lines are equally sublime.  For example, there is the humorous exchange between Rick and Captain Renault early in the film:

     Renault: What in heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?
     Rick: My health.  I came to Casablanca for the waters.
     Renault: The waters?  What waters?  We're in the desert.
     Rick: I was misinformed.

There are some elements of the film that shouldn't work well, but for whatever reason, they still do.  The scene in which Victor Laszlo leads the club's band and patrons in a passionate rendition of La Marseillaise, in order to drown out a group of singing German soldiers, should feel hokey and forced, but instead manages to be stirringly patriotic and surprisingly moving.  There is also the moment in the final scene when Captain Renault tosses the bottle of Vichy water in the trash, a symbolic act that is about as subtle as a gunshot to the chest, but that nevertheless succeeds in making the point without derailing the sentiment of the film's final minutes.

One of the things that makes the film so superb is the impeccable casting.  It is difficult to imagine any role, even the smaller supporting roles like Russian bartender Sascha (Leonid Kinskey) and Rick's sometime lover Yvonne (Madeleine LeBeau), being played by another actor or actress.  Peter Lorre makes his unscrupulous thief/murderer Ugarte immediately likable, as does Sydney Greenstreet in his role as covetous rival club owner Ferrari, and Claude Rains imbues the corrupt Captain Renault with the perfect amount of mischievous charm.  Ingrid Bergman in particular deserves accolades for creating some complexity out of an underdeveloped character (one of the film's few faults is that the lead female character is essentially relegated to the role of arm candy for either of two great men).

Of course, the most important piece of casting is Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine.  The film would not work as well with any other actor in that role.  Bogart's blend of coolness and toughness is undeniably appealing, and this in turn makes Rick's brand of cynicism especially appealing to the viewer.  So when Rick overcomes this cynicism in the film's last act, the change is even more affecting for the viewer.

The enduring popularity of Casablanca is evidence that countless viewers have a deep, personal connection with the film, and this is certainly true in my own case.  Even after many viewings, the film continues to move me in sometimes unexpected ways, especially the ending.  Rick has the chance to spend the rest of his life with a woman he loves, and who loves him in return, but he sacrifices this chance for the greater good (he knows that Victor is a better man and a better leader with Ilsa by his side), and because he wants to shield Ilsa from the inevitable feelings of regret she would experience if she stayed behind.  It is such an exceptionally noble and selfless act, and I find it incredibly inspiring: each time I watch the film's ending, it makes me want to be a better man.

What greater recommendation could I give the film than that?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Learning Commons Open House


Stop in at the Reeves Learning Commons' Open House on 
Wednesday, February 4th from 3:00-5:00 PM. 
We'll have food, fun, and prizes!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Sunday, January 25, 2015

February DVD Spotlight: Oscar Winners

In anticipation of the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, February 22, we're featuring past Oscar winners all month long!  We've got classic and recent Best Picture winners like Casablanca (1942), West Side Story (1961), No Country for Old Men (2007), and The Hurt Locker (2009), as well as Best Foreign Language Film winners like Amarcord (1973) and No Man's Land (2001).  We've got big-budget blockbusters like The Matrix (1999) and The Dark Knight (2008), and lesser-known gems like Gaslight (1944) and Melvin and Howard (1980).  With winners from nearly every Oscar category, there's something for everyone!

Other featured titles include:

Annie Hall (1977)
The Departed (2006)
Fargo (1996)
The Godfather (1972)
The Godfather, Part II (1974)
Gone with the Wind (1939)
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Network (1976)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
There Will Be Blood (2007)

Check one out today!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Spring 2015 Hours

January 22 - May 15, 2015
Monday - Thursday 8:00 a.m. - Midnight
Friday 8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. (6:00 p.m. Learning Commons)
Saturday 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
Sunday 1:00 p.m. - Midnight



Exception Dates  


January 21 - 22 8:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.
January 23 8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
February 1 1:00 p.m. - 5:00 p.m.

Spring Break
 
March 7 - 8  Closed
March 9 - 13 8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
March 14 - 15 Closed

Easter Break
 
April 2 8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
April 3 - 5 Closed
April 6 8:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.

Finals
 
May 11 - 13 8:00 a.m. - 1:00 a.m.
May 14 8:00 a.m. - 9:00 p.m.
May 15 8:00 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.
May 16 - 17 Closed

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Watch This: The Return

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

The Return (2003)
Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev

A group of Russian boys take turns jumping into the water off of a seaside observation tower.  Anyone who takes the ladder down is a "cowardly pig," according to the first boy in the water.  Each takes his turn until the last boy left atop the tower is Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov), who, despite encouragement from his older brother, Andrei (Vladimir Garin), is frozen in place by fear.  Ivan remains there, alone and shivering in his underpants, until his mother comes to get him.  The next day, Ivan catches up with the other boys playing soccer in an abandoned building.  They ignore him, Andrei calls Ivan a coward, and the two brothers begin to scuffle, leading to a foot chase back home.  When they arrive, sweat-soaked, out of breath, and shouting, their mother admonishes them to be quiet because their father is inside sleeping.

"Who? Who's sleeping?" replies Ivan, acting as though he didn't hear her correctly.  The accusations of cowardice and the ensuing foot chase are immediately forgotten, as the boys move quietly into the house to verify their father's presence.

These are the powerful opening scenes to The Return, and although the events at the tower are seemingly out of mind at the moment, they will have a lingering impact over the remainder of the film.  The father (played by Konstantin Lavronenko) has suddenly reappeared after an absence of twelve years.  The boys have no firsthand recollection of him, knowing him only through a single photograph kept in a trunk in the attic.  At dinner that evening, the boys are curious but hesitant, and the father shows no particular warmth.  Plans are made for a father-son fishing trip, and they leave early the next morning.

From the very start, the father is gruff and authoritative, and the two boys react differently to his taciturn manner.  Andrei, starved for attention from a father figure, looks up to him and actively seeks his approval.  Ivan, in contrast, is wary and distances himself, showing defiance at nearly every opportunity.  He senses something dangerous about this man, and his wariness seems justified as the father engages in suspicious behavior.  He remains vague about their destination, saying he has "business" there, and when they stop at a remote seaside pier, he exchanges money for a wrapped bundle tied up with rope.  When they arrive two days later at a beach, we discover that the bundle is in fact a boat motor, which they use to propel an old rowboat across the water to a stark, uninhabited island.  The motor stops working halfway there, and the father makes the two boys row the rest of the way.  The island, it turns out, has a dilapidated wood observation tower, and film's portentous opening scene gains renewed significance.  The tension mounts slowly as the battle of wills between father and son comes to a head, leading to a tragic, but perhaps inevitable, conclusion.

One of the things that makes The Return such a stunning film is that it works so successfully on a number of different levels.  Not only is it a powerfully resonant father-son relationship drama, it is also an engaging road movie and a haunting psychological thriller.  Some critics have even noted the film's elements of religious allegory and Russian mythology.  Indeed, there is certainly a mythological or allegorical feeling to the film, as though everything that happens has a broader meaning.  The film's director, Andrey Zvyagintsev, has remained decidedly hush-hush about the film's meaning, wisely leaving it up to the viewer to interpret the film for him/herself.

Some viewers may be frustrated by the film's unanswered questions, in particular the contents of a metal box the father digs up on the island, but that only lends the character of the father, and the film as a whole, an even greater sense of allegorical import.  The character of the father presents a beguiling mystery.  We know nothing about him (he is never named, and is only credited as "Father"), and his vague and evasive answers to his sons' questions lead only to speculation about his past and his motivations for taking the boys on this trip and treating them so harshly.  We are, almost by default, left to share a point of view with the two boys, as we know just as little about their father as they do.

The Return marked the directorial debut of Andrey Zvyagintsev, and it is certainly one of the most assured first features of the new century.  Zvyagintsev has not disappointed with his subsequent directorial efforts, which have included this year's Golden Globe winner and Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, Leviathan.  Zvyagintsev's prior background had been in the theater, and he proves very adept at working with his actors, eliciting standout performances from all three of the film's key cast members.  The actors playing the two sons show an astonishing range of emotions, and Lavronenko's inscrutable performance as the father is equally impressive.  The film is also notable for Mikhail Krichman's striking cinematography, with its muted color palette dominated by grays, blues, and subdued earth tones.  Even in sunshine, everything has a leeched quality.

Compelling, unsettling, and deeply resonant, The Return is a richly rewarding film worth checking out.