Sunday, August 30, 2009

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Joan Crawford stars in a rags-to-riches tale of a woman whose obsessive love for her daughter leads to her downfall.

Crawford plays Mildred Pierce a woman who is taken into questioning about the murder of her second husband. What unfolds is a series of flashbacks that tells us what brought Mildred to this point in her life, starting out as a married woman who divorces her husband who then has to work in order to support her two daughters. When one daughter dies, Mildred becomes obsessed with her eldest daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) and making her happy devoting her time and new found money from the opening of her own restauraunt to pleasing her spoiled, horrible daughter, leading to a tragic conclusion.

The cast in the film is uniformly good, with Joan Crawford creating a character that we root for, pity, and sometimes want to slap for being so dumb. She's an everywoman who is able to use her skills of observation and intelligence to seize opportunities and use them to further herself and her daughters. Crawford won the Oscar for this role, and it's hard to argue that she didn't deserve it. She creates a strong, intelligent character, but pulls no punches when it comes to her love of Veda, showing it as unhealthy and obsessive.

Ann Blyth also deserves a mention for going completely and totally into making a nasty, horrible character. Veda is spoiled, selfish, and manipulative, using her mother's resources for her own gain, and Blyth doesn't even attempt to make her likable, which is a great feat she was a teenager when she made the film, so be so into the character that sympathy goes right out the window.

The choice of making the film primarily consist of flashbacks works to great effect. Much like A Woman's Face it allows for our perceptions of the characters to shift and change as we see what occured in their past as well as offering various twists as to who actually committed the murder, even though it eventually becomes pretty obvious by the end.

The film is an interesting entry into the film noir genre, considering it focuses on a woman and her rise and fall, in addition to the flashback nature of the film and it's lack of a real "villain", but it's a great film nonetheless. While Joan Crawford has deliver better performances before, she shines in a role that allows for complexity and depth.

It's definately worth watching.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

His Girl Friday (1940)

Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant star in what may be the greatest screwball comedy ever made.

Russell is Hildy Johnson, an ace reporter for a Chicago newspaper who has decided to quit, upsetting her editor (and ex-husband) Walter Burns (Cary Grant). Hildy has decided that she wants a more quiet life and plans on leaving Chicago to marry insurance man Bruce Baldwin, causing Walter to scheme and plot to try and get Hildy to stay in the business by getting her to cover one last story about a murder.

The two leads in this film are absolutely fantastic, playing off each other in a brilliant love/hate relationship. They're both strong, hard-headed people who feed off their work, and it's brilliant watching Rosalind Russell become more and more invested in a story she didn't even want to cover in the first place, and Cary Grant again shows why he is the king of the screwball comedy, charming and funny, even when he's trying to steal another man's woman.

The main attraction of this film is the dialogue, which crackles with wit and humor and is delivered at such a rapid fire pace, it's easy to get lost when watching the film. I'm not joking when I say that, the lines are delivered so fast and often at the same time, that the film requires your attention in order to full enjoy it. It's a classic example of the kind of dialogue that doesn't really occur very much in movies anymore, and when it is attempted, it usually comes off as overly quirky and forced, which is sad.

The film is just a joy to watch, you have two of the greatest actors who ever lived going at eachother with intelligence and zeal and it all moves at a fairly brisk pace.

There isn't much left to say that it's hailed as one of the greatest comedies ever for good reason, and it's something I recommend for anyone.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Now, Voyager (1942)

Alright, it's been a while since I've made a post on a classic film, so why not jump back into Old Hollywood with a Bette Davis movie? And better yet, this is one of Bette Davis' best.

Bette Davis plays Charlotte Vale, a frumpy spinster living in Boston under the thumb of her domineering older mother (Bette Davis actually appeared without any make-up during the films opening scenes), who is whisked away to a sanitarium by the kindly Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains). There, she begins to change from a timid frump into a beautiful and more confidant woman. After leaving the sanitarium, she goes on a South American cruise and encounters Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid), and the two fall in love, despite Jerry being married and refusing to leave his horrible wife out of the fear that he will lose his daughter. Complications arise and the story of the two lovers becomes intertwined with Charlotte's blossoming into the woman she always wanted to be.

Bette Davis is absolutely fantastic in the part of the neurotic young one who evolves into a swan. She doesn't turn it into a before and after type characterization, Charlotte slowly and slowly becomes more confidant as the film goes on and every step feels believable and real. We pity her for her mistreatment from her mother and we root for her to find love and happiness.

The supporting cast is good as well, with Claude Rains excelling as the caring and wise doctor who takes Charlotte under his wing. Paul Henreid is fine too, playing a character that is conflicted in his love for another woman and for his own daughter. Gladys Cooper is brilliant as Charlotte's domineering mother, she never seems to give a second thought to making her character thoroughly despicable and unlikable.

This film is fine example of the superior soaps that were being made during this time, which were able to remain soapy and entertaining without venturing into eyeball-rolling territory. It also takes a few directions that one might not expect (Bette Davis herself had a theory as to what happens after the film, which I like to think is the truth), which helps it rise above being too corny, plus, the level of acting elevates the material to a point where it comes across as genuine emotion as opposed to hokey scenery chewing.

In case you haven't guess it by now, I heartily recommend this movie, especially for older film buff or fans of Bette Davis. While some people may find the films soap opera-ish story to be a turn off, it's such a finely crafted film that you should give it a chance.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Clue (1985)

No, I have not lost my mind. Clue is actually far better than it has any right to be, featuring a great script and a cast that is absolutely to die for.

The movie basically follows the idea of the game, 6 strangers are gathered in a mansion and given aliases, and are informed that they are all there because they are being blackmailed by Mr. Boddy. The lights go out, a gun is fired and Mr. Boddy is dead, causing a investigation that leaves even more dead as the film goes on. The film features Tim Curry as Wodsworth, the butler and host of the evening, Martin Mull as Col. Mustard, Michael McKean as Mr. Green, Christopher Lloyd as Prof. Plum, Lesley Anne Warren as Miss Scarlett, Eileen Brennan as Mrs. Peacock and Madeline Kahn as Mrs. White. Of course, the cast is fantastic and they all have a ball with their characters, from Madeline Kahn being a sort of black widow murderess to Professor Plum being a total pervert, everyone has a sharply defined persona that they use to its fullest effect.

Tim Curry deserves a lot for grounding the film with his deadpan humor, being the perfect counterpoint to the crazy cast of characters, while everyone else is bickering, he's actually trying to solve the murder.

The script itself is smart and a throwback to old-fashioned murder mysteries of the day, it takes advantages of the absurdity of the situation and elevates it until the characters themselves become outrageous and over the top, right up until the denouement/re-enactment that leads the group running from room to room. There are several quotable lines such as "Well, it's a matter of life after death. Now that he's dead, I have a life. ", as well as a lot of funny dialogue between the characters.

The film is very fun and entertaining, and it really stands up to multiple viewings. While it's not a great film that will join the pantheon of Casablanca or All About Eve, it's a solid, fun film which is something you would never expect from a movie based on a board game.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Kill Bill

I know that lately I've sifted away a bit from the "Classic Hollywood" aspect of my blog, but I just received Peyton Place in the mail yesterday which I plan on watching soon. Plus, Kill Bill was on Spike last night and it just reminded me how much I love them. And for those who haven't realized it yet, this entry is about both Vol.1 and Vol. 2.

The film stars Uma Thurman as The Bride (Also known as Black Mamba), a former assassin who used to work for her lover Bill (David Carradine). During her wedding rehearsal, Bill and the members of his Deadly Viper Assassination Squad show up and blast everyone away, after which Bill shoots the very pregnant Black Mamba in the head, sending her into a 4 year coma. When she wakes up, she sets about getting revenge.

Kill Bill is the perfect blend of style, smarts, and self-awareness. It knows what it is, and sometimes intentionally ventures into the over-the-top or corny, but it also features some fantastic dialogue that makes the scenes where people are just talking just as interesting as the scenes where the Bride is seeking bloody revenge. It's also the kind of film that tricks you, both in the time framing of its events (it's out of order) and in the emotional development of the film. The Bride starts out as a simply killing machine, a wronged woman hell-bent on avenging her lost child, but once you get into the slowly paced, more dialogue heavy Vol 2, she is actually developed as a character, giving us flashbacks into her past hardships as well as showing us the relationship she had with Bill. It leads to a final confrontation that is heartbreaking, as Bill (whose voice is only heard in Vol. 1) becomes someone we can empathize with, someone who we actually like.

Uma Thurman gives a brilliant performance as a character that requires her to be a badass, over-the-top, emotional, and realistic and she hits every single note perfectly. She makes us go on the emotional journey with her character, adding depth and nuance as the film plays out, which most people probably wouldn't expect from a film like this, so by the end of the film she has gone from a killing machine to a conflicted woman.

David Carradine also deserves special mention as Bill, adding warmth and humor to someone he himself describes as a "murdering bastard". He also adds regret for his actions against The Bride, knowing that their relationship will never be the same because of what he's done.

The cast of characters themselves are all interesting, from The Bride's former master Pei Mai who "hates Caucasians, despises Americans, and has nothing but contempt for women", to Gogo the teenager bodyguard of one of The Bride's intended targets who fights using a bladed yoyo, to Elle Drive, the eye-patch wearing rival of The Bride who is played to b*tchy perfection by Daryl Hannah.

Of course, the action scenes are brilliantly filmed and shot, from an epic battle against a personal army to a one-on-one showdown in a crappy trailer, it's all exciting and it's all fantastically made, oozing style and film homages from every single frame. The film is a blast and you get the feeling the Quentin Tarantino had a great time making this film from the energy he has instilled within it.

Kill Bill is easily one of my favorite films, entertaining from the performances, to the action, and to the dialogue, everything about the film is top notch. Some may find the shift in tone from Vol. 1 to Vol 2. a bit disappointing, since Vol 1. is a straight-up action film whereas Vol. 2 is much more dialogue heavy, but it's so well done that I don't mind at all. In fact, I have a hard time deciding which one I love more.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Star Wars Prequel Trilogy

Ok, the original trilogy is done, now it is time to go into the prequels, which have pretty much tainted the Star Wars name.

First of all, it's inconsistent with the original trilogy. Not horribly so, but little things about Anakin and Uncle Owen's relationship (which is painted as being much closer in the OT), and Obi-Wan not recognizing a droid whose name he spends most of the time shouting. It makes the series seem more like a cash in as opposed to being an organic part of the original trilogy.

Secondly, the acting. While Jake Lloyd was pretty bad in The Phantom Menace, he was a kid and therefore gets a pass. But Hayden Christensen completely and single-handedly ruins any chance of the Prequel trilogy succeeding. With the addition of these three movies, Star Wars was turned into a story about Redemption, based around Anakin Skywalker, the big issue with this is that Christensen is so bad in the role of Anakin Skywalker, that you can't wait for him to get his whiny behind torched and mutilated. His performance is so wooden that it boggles the mind. Apparently he decided to base his performance on Jame Earl Jone's voice work in the original trilogy, which is just a dumb decision, because the way he speaks his lines is so devoid of emotion that it becomes laughable. Not that anyone else is astounding, Natalie Portman flounders on screen, having zero chemistry with Christensen. Ewan McGregor is easily the best part of the trilogy, actually being able to infuse his character with some humanity.

But this probably has a lot to do with the writing, which is truly wretched. There are so many lines like when Padme screams "You're breaking my heart!", or "Hold me, like you did by the lake on Naboo.", and the now legendary "NNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOO" that actually made me laugh in the theater. Not to mention the truly horrible puns in Attack of the Clones when C3PO is taken apart, like "This is such a drag" as he is being dragged around or "I'm quite beside myself" when his head rolls next to his body. It's borderline Mystery Science Theater 3000 territory.

The best film of the trilogy is easily Revenge of the Sith, which is must more focused on Anakin's decline, but because of the horrible acting, there's no emotional connection with the film. In addition, Anakin's fall to the dark side occurs only in a matter of minutes. There were hints and suggestions of his ego and anger, but for him to suddenly betray the Jedi and become a crazed child killer so fast strains believability. But it's an entertaining film at least.

Plus, the prequel trilogy has Jar-Jar Binks, a moden day version of the silly old slave you would find back in old racist 30's and 40's movies.

I don't consider myself a Star Wars fan, but I were one, I would be PO'd at George Lucas.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Star Wars Original Trilogy

Yes, I am tackling one of the biggest franchises (at least the first, but kinda last 3 films) to hit movies since...well..ever. And in doing so, I will most likely draw the wrath of, maybe 4-5 people in the process. But at least it means people are reading, I don't care.

Do I really need to explain the plot of Star Wars? Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, and Han Solo and the Rebel Alliance fight against the evil Empire and Darth Vader. Yeah, I could go into specifics, but in this case, I don't really need to.

Let's get into the actual reason I write these posts, for me to spew my opinion upon the masses. And when it comes to Star Wars, opinions I do have.

Star Wars works on a particular level, and to be honest, only on that particular level. It's very much in the same boat as Indiana Jones as being this throwback to the Serials of yesteryear, where the good guys were good and the bad guys were bad and buckles were swashed. It's The Hidden Fortress, combined with Arthurian Legends, combined with Flash Gordan, and (if you believe some film scholars) a whole bunch of mythological, philosophical historical, and religious subtexts. It utilizes archetypes, the fated orphan with a destiny, a princess in distress, the older wizard-type mentor in the form of Obi-Wan, and the charming rogue, in addition to featuring a sinister, black-clad empire headed by one of the most enduring film villains of all time.

And it works, as a throwback, but when you start to take it seriously and view from to a strictly technical viewpoint, the writing is weak, the acting is stilted, but mostly because the characters themselves are pretty one dimensional. There are little attempts at depth, with Han Solo becoming more noble, Princess Leia being a lot tougher than you may expect, and Luke's toying with the dark side, but it all plays out predictably. The main fault lies with George Lucas who's writing skills leave much to be desired, the dialogue is so bland and exposition-heavy, never rising above the serials that Lucas himself is drawing from, though things slightly improve once someone else takes over for writing the last two.

Not to say the films are horrible, the films are a must-see simply because of its place in cinema history as a landmark technical achievement, and as the worldwide phenomenon that captured and stimulated the imaginations of millions and became a permanent fixture in American pop culture. But I don't really believe it's "that great", it's a fun, enjoyable film series as a blockbuster, as an homage to adventure films of the past, and that's perfectly fine. But beyond that, not really.

But then again, it's hard to actually review Star Wars because it's so much more than just the films, it's become to where I can't watch the film and not be aware of the history of the universe that George Lucas has created, it's evolved to such a point that the words "Star Wars" are referring to a film franchise, book series, video games,a religion, food brands, toys, and anything else that one can think of.

I don't really expect to get much of a reaction from this post (simply because I don't get much reactions in general), but if anyone feels like it, I would be interested in hearing other takes on the crazy, zaniness that is Star Wars. That is, if real-life Jedi don't car bomb me.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Seven Samurai (1954)

My first post on a foreign language film is also a post on one of the great movies of all-time. Yays for you, readers.

Seven Samurai is Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece about a village of poor farmers who are threatened by bandits. In an effort to protect themselves, they hire 7 samurai to protect them and help prepare the town for the upcoming bandit raid. The samurai and the farmers have an uneasy alliance, as samurai are morally ambiguous characters of the time, capable of either helping you or killing you, but they must work together for their own survival, which is decided in a climactic battle in the rain.

The film is long (with some versions bordering on 3 hours), but that's to the strength of the film, as the story is sharply divided into three acts, the finding of the samurai, the fortifying of the town, and the final battle with the bandits. The long runtime also allows for the individual characters of the samurai to develop, with actually makes us invested in the outcome of the battle.

The samurai themselves are rich and fully developed. With most of the attention devoted to Kambei (Takashi Shimura), the "leader" of the samurai, he is a battled hardened man who has tired of war and fighting, KatsushirĊ (Isao Kimura), a young untested samurai who finds himself in awe of the other, more skilled warriors, and finally Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a wannabe samurai who identifies the most with the villagers, he is a show off and dramatic.

It's actually Toshiro Mifune who delivers the strongest performance in the whole film, but this partly due to his character being the most developed, he's really a farmer wanting to be a samurai, and to make up for his lack of nobility, he makes up for it with attitude and showmanship. It's no surprise that the sword he wields is larger than the other samurai's.

It's easy to have issues with the acting of some of the lesser character, given the massive difference in acting styles between American and Japanese film, but that's really only a minor nitpick, because the characters that really do matter are all enjoyable to watch.

The film also has a very organic feel to it, Kurosawa showcases the village and landscape itself as much as he does the characters, and it makes everything seem very natural, where you don't really even feel like you're watching a movie.

The film also has a lot to say with its message, which comments on war and bloodshed, as well as the treatment of Samurai in Japanese history, and it does so without becoming preachy or obvious, instead allowing the viewer to glean from the film as opposed to the film spoonfeeding you.

The film has earned its place in film history, establishing many film conventions we now take for granted, such as the gathering of individuals to accomplish a certain goal, the reluctant hero, as well as the idea of introducing a character in the middle of accomplishing a mission.

Even without this historical pedigree, the film is one of the most finely crafted stories you will most likely see in your life, and I hope that anyone who may have an aversion to subtitles and overcome it to witness Kurosawa's finely told tale.

Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

Katherine Hepburn keeps Liz Taylor locked in an asylum to prevent her from telling the truth about her son's mysterious death. That's kind of an odd movie just from the premise, isn't it?

Montgomery Clift is Dr. Cukrowicz, a neurosurgeon who has been asked to perform a lobotomy on the disturbed niece of the wealthy Violet Venable, a grieving mother who was totally obsessed and in love with her son Sebastian, who had died last summer. Usually, Violet and Sebastian would on vacation during the summer, but on his final trip, he instead asked his cousin to go, where she witnessed his death. Upon meeting Violet's niece Catherine, it is apparent that she is only being kept away so she doesn't tell anyone about the way her son died. What follows is Dr. Cukrowicz digging to uncover the truth and hopefully set Catherine free from the trauma that is affecting her.

This film is particularly odd in structure, since it mainly centers around a few key scenes that are almost monologues on the part of either Violet or Catherine. But it certainly allows for the showcasing of some fantastic acting. Katherine Hepburn is brilliant in the role, portraying a woman that is full of wit and intelligence, but also hopelessly, unnaturally devoted to her son at one point referring to them as a couple, how no one ever said "Mrs. Venable and her son" or "Sebastian and his mother", but instead "Violet and Sebastian, Sebastian and Violet". She'll do anything to preserve the memory of her son, even if it means subjecting Catherine to a lobotomy to shut her up.

Elizabeth Taylor is equally as great, having to play a damaged young woman who is being told by everyone around her that she is insane, and possibly beginning to believe them as she deals with the shocking truth about her beloved cousin Sebastian and how he truly felt about her.

The actual resolution to what happened with Sebastian is shocking, but also unbelievable. But I think this has less to do with the quality of the film and more to do with the limitations that the filmmakers undoubtedly encountered in bringing the topics and themes from Tennessee William's play to the screen. If they had been allowed to say everything they needed to say, than the outcome probably would seem less out of left field.

Overall the film is fantastic, especially if you are a fan of the two leading actresses, because this is essentially a platform for them to deliver some brilliant (and Academy Award nominated) performances, as well as serving as a meditation on the brutality of humanity and other themes that were most likely shocking for its time.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Juno (2007)

Wow, two entries on newer movies in a row. Anyway, here's the story of Juno, a film that is also torn apart by it's overly forced script.

Ellen Page plays Juno, a quirky outcast who finds herself pregnant by her bandmate/boyfriend Bleeker (Michael Cera). She decided to give the child to a middle class couple, only to discover that they have their own issues.

Ok, let's talk about the script, since it got most of the attention when the film came out. The script, written by Diablo Cody, lacks any sort of naturalness or humanity to it, at least for the first part of the film. It's entirely too wrapped up in being overly quirky, with horrible lines like "Honest to blog?" and "That's one doodle that can't be undid, homeskillet". Such attention is paid to making Juno into a sarcastic, concentrated lump of quirkiness that she becomes a cliche and not very believable. She has a hamburger phone, she listens to 70's rock music, she collects old thrown away furniture, and she speaks like a 30+ year old screenwriter with something to prove. She treats her pregnancy like one might treat a stray cat following them around with no sense of panic, fear, or urgency, she handles it all like it's nothing which just doesn't come across as resembling anything like the real world. In addition, none of the characters seem to have their own original voice, instead every actor on screen seems to have become a mouthpiece for Diablo Cody's glorification of the high school outsider that leaves little doubt in my mind that Juno is some sort of idealized version of High School Cody. And thank God for Ellen Page for making her dialogue seem at least somewhat believable, because in the hands of a lesser actress, the character who would have been a complete and total joke ruining any any good that is in the movie.

Thankfully the second half of the movie tones it down a bit and the characters are allowed to take a form that resembles actual people as an actual plot develops.

But if there's any standout in the movie, it's Jennifer Garner who plays Vanessa, one half of the couple hoping to adopt Juno's baby. She gives her character such vulnerability, due to a past experience where she was unable to get a child because the mother backed out, that you want her to get Juno's baby because she plays it as if it's the most important thing in the world to her. The scene where she feels Juno's belly hoping to feel the baby kick has you hoping and willing for that baby to kick. It's a great performances that was ultimately overlooked, probably because she doesn't have any showy dialogue or overly emotional "Oscar moment' scenes.

Overall, the film is similar to Moulin Rouge in that the first part of the film is simply too much, too much forced quirk, too much "Look at how different I am", and too much Diablo Cody patting her quirky self on the quirky back with her quirky hand. But once you get past that, and the film mellows out, it becomes a fairly good movie that deals with a current issue affecting the world from a unique perspective.

Plus, the cast is uniformly great, with Jason Bateman, J.K. Simmons, Olivia Thrilby, and Alison Janney delivering great supporting work. Unfortunately for anyone familiar with the brilliant Arrested Development, Michael Cera is essentially doing a retread of George-Michael Bluth, which he actually seems to have built his career upon.

So as a whole, Juno is a nice little movie, no more, no less.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Moulin Rouge! (2001)

Yes, Moulin Rouge, probably one of the more divisive films in recent memory, forcing people to make stands on the grounds of either loving it or hating it. Me? I kinda loved it, but I kinda hated it.

First, the plot. Christian (Ewan McGregor) is a writer who falls in love with the showgirl/hooker Satine, the leading star at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. They work together on turning the Moulin Rouge from a brightly colored den of large women in giant dresses jumping on people and flashing their panties into a theater with which to perform the musical Christian has wrote and in which Satine will star. Unfortunately, their financial backer, The Duke (He's not given a name), also desires Satine.

Ok, let's get this out of the way, Moulin Rouge is large scale musical that features modern songs such as Smells Like Teen Spirit, Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend, and Like a Virgin, it also has excellent production values with the costumes and sets covering the screen in bright and vibrant colors. This is where a bit of an issue comes out, it's simply too much. Especially in the first third or first half, where the music video style editing and the cheesy sound effects make it appear like you're watching a live-action cartoon. It's during this part that I almost stopped watching the film, because it was way too hard to watch. I suppose it could be a directorial choice to try and make us feel like Christian, being exposed to the razzle dazzle and craziness of the Paraisian night life, but it came at the expense of the watchability of the film.

Fortunately, the actual plot kicks in and everything mellows down and the film turns into a beautifully crafted and ultimately tragic love story (That's not a spoiler, you find out in the first few minutes of the movie that things don't end well). The musical sequences are brilliantly staged and the songs are used to great effect to compliment what is going on in the plot, and the two lead actors are brilliant (not to mention pretty good singers) in their roles. Christian is hopelessly romantic and slightly naive, slowly maturing as his loves deepens for Satine, and Satine herself is slightly world weary and underneath the glam and sex appeal is a fairly sad and lonely woman.

As a whole, the films ultimately leaves a good taste in my mouth, because the second half is just so good (even though the director relies a bit too much on randomly inserting slow motion), and if you can make it through the first half, then hopefully you'll feel the same way I do. Of course, someone could love the first half and become disappointed that the manic tone of the film tapers off and it settles into a more traditional film, so it's really hard to gauge how people may react to the film.

So just watch it so you can love it or hate it, or get mad at me for suggesting you watch it. But regardless of your view on the film, you can't deny that it's a unique one.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Overdrawn at the Memory Bank (1983)

Ok, I've done a few classic films, now it's time to do a little trash.

Granted, my fondness for this film has much more to do with the fact that it was mocked on Mystery Science Theater 3000 as opposed to the film being hilariously bad, though it still kinda is.

Raul Julia plays Aram Fingal (easily the greatest named film character of all time), a lowly computer programmer who lives in an Orwellian type future where computers control everything and the obese "Chairman" is in charge. Apparently the Chairman is bad, I don't really know why, as far as I know, we aren't shown anything to suggest that he's evil.

Anyway, Fingal likes to "scroll up Cinemas", in other words, he likes to watch movies instead of working. His favorite happens to be Casablanca, which becomes a mjor part of the film. Once he is caught watching movies, he is forced to be "doppled" as a mandatory vacation in the hopes that it will do him some good. When someone is doppled, their conciousness is placed into an animal, as a sort of vacation. Since he doesn't have the money, Fingal has to become merged with a dirty old baboon named Daisy, but when he has to be taken out of the Dopple do to an emergency, his body is lost, causing him to be uploaded into the Main computer for safekeeping (Why you would put some poor guy in the computer that controls everything is beyond me). There, his romantic interest Apollonia James must monitor him to prevent his identity from being erased. But Fingal decides to incorporate Casablanca into his virtual reality, where Raul Julia also plays Rick and and his sidekick is a creepy Peter Lorre lookalike. But the Chairman enters this reality in the hopes of getting Fingal to stop fiddling with things.

Really, that's the plot, and I've seen the movie at least 10 times and I still don't understand it, because there's this subplot about Apollonia's friend being some sort of spy, though nothing comes out of it, and there's this matter of being "Interfaced" that doesn't make any sense, neither does the final showdown between Fingal and the Chairman.

Plus, the film features a Faux Casablanca set, including a bar called "The Place", not to mention that in order to coax Fingal out of messing around with the computer, Apollonia inserts herself into the reality and gets his attention by descending naked from the sky on a seashell, wearing nothing but some carefully placed foliage, carrying a set of Ten Commandments that say "Thou shalt not mess around with things thout does not understand" or some such nonsense. I'm not making that up.

Worst of all is when Fingal uses his powers in the computer to make a virtual version of frumpy co-worker spend days in bed with him and then makes her disappear when he gets bored with her (Apollonia's response to witnessing Fingal in E-Coitus is to say "Now he's playing around with himself!") And the entire medical system revolves around placing colored fabric circles on the hands of unconscious patients, so a child switching Fingal's circle with another circle basically causes society as a whole to melt down.

Really, it's just an awful movie that doesn't make very much sense, but the production values are so low, and the special effects are so bad, that it's hard not to be entertained.

Any movie that has the line "Electrons don't dance Fingal, they don't make love" needs to be seen.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

I'm No Angel (1933)

Yes, another Mae West movie, which guarantees entertainment. I know I've said it before, but Mae West's movie are endlessly entertaining. They aren't necessarily the best movies, but they don't need to be, it's essentially Mae West walking around being a sassy whore.

Mae West plays Tira, a circus performer who, of course, is the darling of all the men who visit the circus. When she needs some money, she decides to perform a risky new act involving tons of lions. The sequence itself is filmed pretty poorly, but it's entertaining in how bad it is. Tira becomes even more famous and begins to flirt with the various rich men that are enchanted by her. Until she meets Jack Clayton (Cary Grant), the love of her life, but her sordid past catches up to her and she must fight to keep her man.

Really, there's not much else to say, since the best part of the movie is Mae West wearing insane looking outfits and tossing out zingers, much like She Done Him Wrong. Which is probably the strength of Mae West's movie, you know exactly what's going to happen, yet you're entertained the entire time, because she doesn't try to make her movies anything more than they are. Like She Done Him Wrong, this film is very short, it's not even a full 90 minutes, which means it never wears out its welcome.

It's easy to recommend this movie, simply because it's pure entertainment, even when it gets into melodrama and cheese, it's still fun because it's Mae West, the queen of Pre-Code Comedy. It's especially fun to watch it (And any other Mae West movie) with other people, because it's just a big cheesy, sassy mess that is easy to enjoy.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Big Sleep (1946)

If you've noticed a pattern from any of my entries, it should probably be that I end to focus more on the female stars of the past as opposed to male. I'm not entirely sure why, but it led to my massive disappointment in the film Key Largo, which can read about in a past entry, when Lauren Bacall was simply placed in the role of "Decent War Widow" who didn't do much else but look frightened. Well, in The Big Sleep, she used to her best as a fast-talking, mysterious, and intelligent woman who may or may not be a killer.

Humprey Bogart is Phillip Marlowe, a Las Angeles private eye whose new client, General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) asks him to resolve some gambling debts of his impulsive, flighty daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers). Upon leaving, he is approached by Sternwood's recently divorced older daughter Vivian (Lauren Bacall) who suggests that there may be more to the case than some simple gambling debts. And as expected, Marlowe is submerged in a world of murder, lies, and crime, where the woman he's falling for may be the woman he's after.

The plot itself is a bit convoluted, in fact, there's one murder than never is solved, which apparently the author of the book on which the film is based was unaware of. But the plot is really only a vehicle for Bogart and Bacall to engage in the fast-paced, witty banter for which the film noir is famous. And both leads are fantastic, with Bogart nailing the persona he could play sowell, that if a morally ambiguous tough guy and Bacall adding wit, intelligent, and mystery to a quintessential femme fatale.

Much as been made of the Bogart/Bacall combination that started with To Have and Have Not, resulted in their marriage and lasted until Bogart's death, and resulted in 4 movies. I've only seen 2, but this film probably exemplifies what made the pairing so electric better than Key Largo. Bacall was essentially the perfect match for Bogart, able to be as cunning as he was, as witty as he was, plus she had beauty and an ability to keep Marlowe and the audience guessing as to what she was thinking.

The film has become a classic, and for good reason, the script is insanely clever, with some of the best dialogue put on film being spoken by some of the best actors put in film. The plot is incredibly complex, which will keep people guessing as to which person is really who they say there are and if they really did what they say they did. A true classic of the genre.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Deception (1946)

Ok, it's been a while since I've actually given a write-up to a Bette Davis movie, and since yesterday was Bette Davis say on TCM's "Summer Under the Stars" I figured I would write about one of her lesser-known movies.

Bette Davis is Christine, a pianist who believed for many years that her long-lost lover cellist Karel Novak (Paul Henreid) was killed in the war. That is, until she encounters him during a concert and the two resume their romance. However, during Karel's absence, she had taken a new lover, the famed composer Alexander Hollenius (Claude Rains), a fact that she hopes to keep from the incredibly jealous Karel, even if she has to resort to desperate means to do it.

Karel is a jealous type, all right, which is actually the movie's downfall. Bette Davis and Claude Rains are on a high level here, especially Rains who revels in the part of the brilliant composer toying with Christine and Karel's romance. But the main problem is that Karel is such a jealous douche that it's hard to find yourself becoming tense or worried when Christine's affair comes close to being revealed. I mean, when he sees her beautifully furnished apartment when they first reunite, he tries to STRANGLE her, believing her to have taken up with another man, and later he slaps a glass out of her hand. I mean, I dunno what your views on monogamy are, but I would think that if you were thought to be dead for years, it would be ok for your significant other to find someone else, especially when they immediately come back to you. So it's hard to actually care for the character that would supposedly be destroyed by the revelation that the film hinges upon.

Luckily, Bette Davis makes us care for her character, so there is some investment in whether or not her relationship is revealed, but it's purely for her sake, not Karel's. But if there's any reason to see the movie, it's Claude Raines, who plays such an interesting character. He loves Christine, yet he's jealous enough to where he sets out to destroy her and her new husband and he does it all with a smile on his face and cheeky remark on his lips.

The film itself isn't horrible, it's just hard to invest yourself in the main romance, but aside from that, it's not a bad movie. But if you happen to like the cast from the film, check out Now, Voyager which features the same actors and is MUCH more enjoyable.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Born Yesterday (1950)

Judy Holliday is the fiance of a corrupt businessman who undergoes tutoring to "smarten her up" and in the process discovers what she truly wants out out of life.

Ok, that sounds very Lifetime-ish, which the film is not. It's not nearly as melodramatic as that description would suggest, but it still applies to the film, so there's not much I can do about it.

Judy Holliday is Billie, a slightly dim former chorus girl who is now the stay-at-home fiance of crooked businessman Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford) who has made a big movie to Washington in the hopes of persuading some crooked politicians into passing laws and bills that benefit him and his business. Since he's going to be entertaining the wealthy and powerful, Harry hires Paul Verrall (William Holden) a newspaper writer to tutor Billie and make her presentable. From the beginning, Paul and Billie have an attraction to each other, and through Paul's tutoring Billie becomes more idealistic and begins to question the way that she and Harry lives their lives.

It is an understatement to say that Judy Holliday is 100%, totally, absolutely pitch-perfect in this film, nailing every single frame that she's on. Her character may originally appear to be a simple dumb blond, but Holliday has to be charming, full of vitality, slightly stupid but still give a hint that she possesses some intelligence, and then make a very subtle change to her character. Billie never becomes a genius, quoting Shakespeare and spouting scientific theories. The main change she undergoes is that she begins to latch onto a few key ideals that begin to shape the way she sees the world. So she has to change enough to forward the plot, but keep it subtle enough to wear it remains believable and Holliday pulls it off masterfully.

I know she's gotten a lot of flack over the years for winning against Bette Davis and Anne Baxter for All About Eve and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, but I don't have any complaints after seeing this film. She takes a character that may seem like a movie staple and adds depth and charisma to make her entirely endearing.

The rest of the cast is suitable, but they aren't given a great deal to do. Harry yells all the time and is basically an ignorant bully, and Paul is an idealistic writer and neither character pushes beyond that. It makes sense, though, because Billie undergoes the primary change of the film, and both men serve as opposite ends of the spectrum that we see Billy travel upon, becoming less like Harry and more like Paul.

The script is sharp and funny and as I said, Judy Holliday is astounding in the role and make the film worth seeing just for her, but luckily the rest of the film is great too. It's definately one to watch.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Man's Castle (1933)

Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young play a Depression Era couple who have to deal with poverty as well as the unique dynamics of their own relationships.

Tracy plays Bill, a poverty-stricken man who encounters Trina, who is also dealing with the Great Depression. Whereas Bill is able to somehow always able to find food, Trina is starving on the streets, refusing to take the easy route and prostitute herself. Upon seeing Trina jealously eying the popcorn that he is throwing to some pigeons, Bill takes her to dinner (which he can't afford) and then invites her to live with him in the shantytown in which he lives.

There, through a serious of vignettes, we see the relationship develop, as well as the issues plaguing the relationship. Bill is a somewhat childish man, who never sticks around for very long, but certain events occur that could keep him nailed down in one place, and he struggles with his urges to leave as well as his growing love for Trina.

What makes the film interesting is the dynamics between the two. It's very easy to see Trina as the poor downtrodden woman who only wishes to become a good wife for the man who saved her life, but she's probably the most stable and mature in the relationship. She understands who Bill is, and accepts it, giving him the independence that he so thrives on. Bill, however, seems to keep Trina at arm's length, trying to leave room open for the departure he feels is inevitable, but we get to see him change, particularly in a series of money-making methods to buy a new stove for Trina. The brilliant thing about the stove is that it requires monthly payments, so it comes to represent a commitment, one that Bill seems willing to make for Trina's happiness.

It goes without saying that the acting is top notch, with each actor fully embodying their character and giving in rich and subtle performances. Loretta Young is bright and happy as Trina, which serves as a brilliant counterpoint to Spencer Tracy's aloof Bill, who acts almost like a bird in a cage for most the film, hoping to somehow get free.

The film, which was directed by Frank Borzage, almost has the feeling of a bizarre fairytale. When we first see the shantytown in which Bill lives, it's almost idealized, like some sort of Fairy Land, due to the lighting and mist. Which is odd, because the film has more "real life" issues than a lot of older films, primarily because it was pre-code film. Just the fact that the film focuses on a unmarried couple who live together sets it apart from a lot of other films.

The film is really good, and it's probably hard to find, since it's quite obscure. I'll post a link to the first part of the movie on youtube at the bottom of this entry, and I hope you actually take a chance to watch it, because it's a great little movie that hasn't really received the attention is probably deserves.

Part 1

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Lady Eve (1941)

Barbara Stanwyck is a tough cardsnipe who tries to take naive rich boy Hentry Fonda for a con, only to fall in love with him.

Barbara Stanwyck is Jean Harrington, a cardsnipe who travels from boat to boat with her father setting wealthy men up in card games to take them for all they're worth. So when Charlie Pike, son of a wealthy Ale maker boards their ship, Jean sets about romancing the poor fool and robbing him blind. unfortunately she falls in love with him, and to make matters worse, Charlie finds out what she is, lies and states that he was on to her the entire time and was only playing her for a sap and they part ways on the boat, leaving Jean broken-hearted and full of hate.

She plans to get her revenge, however, but showing up at Charlie's father's house as The lady Eve, winning Charlie over and then breaking his heart just like he broke hers. But, given that this is a romantic comedy, things don't necessarily work out that way.

Let's get this out of the way, Barbara Stanwyck is fantastic in this movie, especially when you consider that she's really only her "true" self a few times, and most of the time she's pretending to be someone else. She makes Jean tough, but still vulnerable, and she gives her an intelligence that makes her a believable card snipe and smart enough to realize that being in love with a man you've only known for a few days is pretty silly.

Henry Fonda is good as well. Making his character appear to be clumsy, naive and spoiled, but never to the point where he's unlikable. He has the task of making it appear believable that he could fall in love with the same woman twice, and it really works.

If there's any real fault with the film, it's that the comedy aspect of it is very light. I didn't find the film particularly humorous, but I still enjoyed the lightheartedness of it, as well as the script and the acting.

The film itself feels very brisk, despite being an hour and 40 minutes long, it seemed to fly by, which is great because it never seems to wear out its welcome.

While I wish the film would have been a bit funnier, the acting more than makes up for it, particularly on the part of Barbara Stanwyck. It may stretch your suspension of disbelief (though, the film plays on that by having on character constantly insist that Jean and Eve are the "same dame"), but it's a good film that's become a "must-see" when it comes to screwball comedies.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

One of my favorites movies of all-time, featuring a brilliant cast, a great script, and an insane amount of venom and poison.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton are George and Martha, a middle aged married couple who spend their days insulting each other, insulting others, and engaging in various flights of fancy. George is a history professor at a college where Martha's father is the president. One night, after a part welcoming a new instructor, the couple have the new teacher, Nick (George Segal) and his wife, Honey (Sandy Dennis) over for a nightcap. What follows is a descent into the twisted relationship between George and Martha and the cruel games they play with others and themselves.

The acting in the film is phenomenal. Elizabeth Taylor (who at the time was too young to play a middle aged woman) gained a significant amount of weight to play a character whom she inhabits with great zeal and nastiness. Martha is loud, obnoxious, rude, nasty, and is willing to do whatever she can to break her husband's spirit, even if they happen to be entertaining guests at the time. But Taylor never does it to a point where it becomes unbearable to watch, instead, she fuses Martha with a great bit of humor that allows for several funny moments in the film, even though she happens to be digging into her husband.

Richard Burton is great here as well, playing a man who hasn't amounted to much in life, who speaks in an odd, roundabout manner, possibly because he seems to constantly drift in and out of some sort of daydream. While he tries to go toe-to-toe with Martha, he comes across as much weaker, usually letting her dig into him over and over. Burton gives George as great deal of weariness and sadness that never becomes too overbearing.

George Segall, unfortunately, seems to have the least to work with. His character, Nick, comes across as just a normal guy who happens to be stuck with a pair of old bitter people. But, this is probably intentional, because he has to serve as the main reaction to the anger and venom we see unleashed between the two, and they become a reminder of what he and his wife may eventually turn into one day.

Last but not least is Sandy Duncan as Honey. Duncan was the second Oscar winner for this film (Taylor also won Best Actress) and it's totally deserved. Honey is someone who wants to be the perfect housewife, so she deals with the craziness of the night by laughing it off, and by taking a drink. And another, and another, and another, until she's dancing around the room. Duncan has to make the more significant transition in the film, going from a seemingly happy housewife to a sobbing, drunk mess who discovers a few things about her marriage she never wanted to hear and she plays it off perfectly.

The script is insanely good, able to be both layered and entertaining. George and Martha's bickering originally starts as funny, only to descend into nastiness and anger, it also contains a lot of subtext about what is and isn't true about what George and Martha say about themselves. It's just fantastic.

I cannot recommend this movie enough, it's easily of on my top movies ever, and for those who don't mind "movies where they just talk" with a very small cast (only 4 characters), you're in for a brilliant movie.