Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Tim Burton adapts the Broadway classic into a brilliantly made, expertly acted, and incredibly bloody film.

Johnny Depp plays Benjamin Barker, a barber who lives with his wife and young daughter. Unfortunately for him, the corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) lusts after his wife and has Benjamin arrested and taken away. When he returns several years later, he encounters his former landlord and piemaker Mrs. Lovett (Helen Boneham Carter) where he learns that his wife had poisoned herself after being raped by the judge and his daughter is now being raised as Turpin's ward. He takes the name Sweeney Todd and sets about getting his revenge with Mrs. Lovett as his a partner in crime, disposing of his victims by baking them into her pies.

It's odd for a musical to tackle this sort of subject matter, since for the most part, film musicals have been happy, cheery affairs, but this one is pretty dark, dealing with revenge, lust and obsession. The plot really works as a musical revenge tale, and it has several twists and turns as the story unravels. It's aided by the brilliant Stephen Sondheim's songs, which serve as moments of humor as well as insight into the minds of these characters. Plus, the songs are just great to listen to. Granted, some of the actor's are not really singers, but I think the film succeeds in that they nail their characters so well that the singing really just becomes more of an extension of their own acting.

And the acting is phenomenal. Johnny Depp makes his Sweeney Todd and dark and brooding character, filled with anger and vengeance and not really thinking about much else. Which causes the "humanity" and humor of the film to fall into the responsible and capable hands of Helene Boneham Carter (who probably deserved an Oscar nomination more than Depp) who has to make her Mrs. Lovett vulnerable and darkly funny. She loves Sweeney Todd, and she actually makes you pity her as she falls in love with a man with a mind focused entirely on revenge.

Even if you dislike the story and characters, it's hard to not be taken the the visual feasts that the film presents before you. It's moody and melancholy, with a pallet of blacks, grays and browns, filled with sumptuous sets and wonderfully Gothic costumes.

This is a good idea for someone interested in getting into musicals, but yet ready to dive into the flamboyant, over-the-top campiness that permeates the genre. The "musical numbers" in this film feature no dancing, and no real bombastic qualities, instead it's almost like someone singing instead of talking (though, Chicago is another good starter musical too, I would think).

I can understand why someone could dislike this film, one it's a musical, one of the most reviled genres of the modern filmgoer, plus it's Tim Burton who has become the patron saint of the "Emo" movement. But being someone who has been a life-long fan of Burton, it was inevitable that I would enjoy this film, but it's also a well-crafted and unique film, one that I hope my lovely readers (all 9 of you and even that's assuming) will enjoy.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The General (1926)

Yes childrens, today I am writing about a silent movie. But it happens to be a very good movie, probably one of my favorite of all time.

Buster Keaton stars as Johnny Gray, a southern train engineer who loves only two people, his train (The General) and Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), and when both are stolen by Union soldiers, he chases after them, straight into enemy territory.

The film isn't really a "plot movie", the film is actually a set piece for some truly amazing stuntwork by Buster Keaton, who climbs all around a speeding train performing various acts of daring. It's fascinating to watch and made even more amazing by the fact that it's all real. No special effects, no CGI, no stuntmen, it's all Buster Keaton.

He's also a great comedic actor. Given that it's the silent era, you'd expect the acting to be more over-the-top, which is what makes Keaton's stoic performance so funny. He doesn't freak out at a set beck, jumping around and going for a laugh, instead he'll just furrow his brow and get to work.

This is a great entry-level silent movie for anyone interested in getting into the silent age of film. It's not dialogue based at all, so you aren't going to miss any talking, since the film is predominately all action, making it easy to watch without even realizing that it's silent. It was my first silent film, and since then I've added a few silents to my Netflix queue (though I've only watched one more, Sunrise, which I've made an entry about).

This film is cited frequently as being one of the greatest of all-time, and I really can't argue with them. Just technically, it's a marvel to watch Buster Keaton do what he does best, and it's also a very funny and expertly-crafted yet simple story. Regardless of whether it's silent or not, this is really a movie that I recommend everyone see, plus, it may be your gateway into the soundless films of yesteryear.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

I finally got around to watching one of the many films I have blind bought at a local dollar store, which offers some good movies for only $3 a pop. For example, I've bought Anna Christie, Ninotchka, Queen Christina, Capote, Gosford Park, Funny Girl, A Man for All Seasons, My Man Godfrey, Cimarron, and Grand Hotel. The only problem is finding time to watch all of them, but hopefully with this Woody Allen classic, I'll start a habit of tackling the massive venture before me.

Anyway, Hannah and Her Sisters is the story of Hannah (Mia Farrow) and (surprise) her sisters Lee (Barbara Hershey) and Holly (Diane Weist), as well as Hannah's husband Elliot who is in love with Lee, and Hannah's ex-husband Mickey (Woody Allen). The film itself is presented in a vignette style, without a real concrete plot (besides Elliot's love of Lee and Mickey's existential crisis) going throughout the film, instead we are treated to small glimpses into the lives of these three people. Hannah is the backbone of the family, a woman enjoying her life as a mother, wife and occasional actress, she is independent and strong, which unfortunately, causes her family to resent her. Lee is the more emotional, down-to-earth sister, who is in a 5 year relationship with Frederick (Max Von Sydow), an artist who's distaste for people has caused him to practically withdraw from the world, with Lee as his only link to the outside. Holly is the flighty sister, venturing from one vocation to another, she's an actress, a singer, a caterer, a writer, and she's also a former drug addict. She's lonely and Dianne Weist totally breaks your heart as she wishes to somehow obtain what Hannah has secured for herself.

There's also Elliot, Hannah's second husband who has a burning love for Lee, wanting to hold her and "protect her" and watching his clumsy flirtations with his wife's sister is both funny, sad, and awkward. As is Mickey's crisis of faith. After hearing loss in one ear causes a doctor to suspect a brain tumor, Mickey begins a quest to try and find God, determining that he does not want to live in a world with a "Maybe".

The acting in the film is great, with Michael Caine and Dianne Weist giving Oscar-winning performances. So while I don't need to speak much about them, since they deserved the awards. which speak for themselves, I want to talk about Mia Farrow and Barbara Hershey. Mia Farrow is given the thankless role of Hannah, which she excels in, exuding strength and calm. It's easily the least showy part of the film, and Farrow allows herself to become an emotional center to the film and her presence is felt throughout the entire film.

Barbara Hershey has one great scene in this movie, I'm not saying it's because she isn't good, it's because her character is mostly relegated to being the "straight" person, people get to be neurotic and flighty around her without her getting a chance to do much of anything. But in the scene where she breaks up with her boyfriend, she allows herself to be full of guilt and sorrow, leaving a man who needs her and without her will be sentenced to a life on the outside of the human race.

The script is touching and funny, it's never "hilarious", but it's something that can make you chuckle at the humanity and flaws of its characters. Allen is a master at blending sincere humanity with humor and he does it again here, creating realistic people who act like adults, never sacrificing characters for plot or comedy. It's a brilliant script.

The film is something I heartily recommend, especially for those who enjoy Allen's other films like Annie Hall. And for everyone else, it's a touching, human comedy that has become an 80's classic (for the right reasons).

Monday, September 21, 2009

Angels in America (2003)

Ok, so I'm doing a Mini-series, but I really could make the argument that this is simply one long movie. But it doesn't matter because Angels in America is one of the greatest things I've ever seen.

Based on the Tony Award winning play, the incredibly complex "film" follows Prior (Justin Kirk), a gay man in the 1980's who discovers that he has AIDS, causing his long-time boyfriend Louis (Ben Shenkman) to question whether or not he wants to spend the next few years watching the man he loves waste away to nothing. Prior also begins having dreams, telling him of an Angel who is to come to him and give him a message.

There's also a plot about the real life Roy Cohn, a self-loathing, anti-Semitic, homophobic gay Jewish lawyer who also discovers that he has AIDS, causing him to reflect on his accomplishments, mainly using his power to get Ethel Rosenberg executed (she appears to him in visions, where she is portrayed by Meryl Streep).

Also, there's the story of Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson), a gay Mormon lawyer who keeps his Valium addicted wife Harper (Mary Louise Parker) at a distance because of his lack of attraction to her. The only real affection they show each other is the "buddy kiss", a quick peck on the lips. His plot follows Harper's mental descent as well as his own self-discovery of his own sexuality.

The storylines all interconnect, and you have actors playing multiple characters, for example, Emma Thompson plays The Angel of America, a homeless woman, and Prior's nurse and Meryl Streep plays a male Rabbi and Joe Pitt's mother. There's also Jeffrey Wright, who plays Prior's friend who is also Roy Cohn's nurse, having to put up with his homophobic, racist remarks. Also, it's very abstract, so for those who demand realism in their movies, please back away. For example, Harper has a drug induced hallucination that clashes with a dream of Prior's and the two meet in this weird dream space. Not mention the dreams where an angel may or may not be visiting Prior.

And while the plot seems very heavy, it's actually quite funny, something you wouldn't expect in a film chronicling AIDS in the 80's, but there are several moments where I laughed out loud. That said, it can also be very sad, breaking your heart in one fell swoop, one scene in particular left me emotionally drained.

It's a very layered piece, talking about politics, the AIDS epidemic, religion, faith, and several other topics all at once and without seeming preachy at all. In fact, you could watch the film straight through and simply take it as is and not try to get into the messages of the film, it's that subtle.

The cast is, of course, brilliant. The film actually won all 4 acting Emmys given out that year, and it's justly deserved, with every single person delivering an absolutely astounding performance. It really says something about the level of acting when everyone is on equal footing with Meryl Streep and Al Pacino, but they are. For me to try and explain why each person is brilliant could take all day, and really, you should discover it for yourself.

There is no way I could have even given the film the treatment is deserves, because it's simply one of the most powerful pieces of film/TV ever produced, having a basic human resonance that allows anyone watching it to feel a tug on their very soul, making them connect with every character and pity them, dislike them, laugh with them, or cry for them.

There is nothing else that can be said except that I implore everyone to watch this.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sunset Boulevard

Ok y'all, here we go. We're getting into serious classic territory with this one. Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder's classic dark comedy/drama about an aging star who is basically loosing her marbles.

The film stars William Holden as Joe Gillis a down-on-his luck screenwriter who stumbles across the home of faded silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who decides 2 things. 1. She plans on having Joe write her big comeback film, and 2. She is in love with him. Keeping Norma in her delusions of grandeur is her loyal butler Max (Erich von Stroheim), who continues to insist to her that she is still much loved and as famous as she once was. Joe settles into the life of a kept man, living off of Norma's money and hating himself for it, but things become complicated when he falls for Betty (Nancy Olson), a young woman with whom he begins working on a screenplay. Oh, and did I mention that Joe winds up dead? Yeah, that's not a spoiler, for those stamping their feet in frustration, the film actually begins with the police fishing Joe's dead body out of Norma's swimming pool, and the rest of the film is a flashback chronicling how exactly Joe ended up face down in the water.

The flashback is actually a brilliant addition to this film, because it lets us know, right off the bat, that this will get messy. We know that things aren't going to work out and it adds a layer of suspense as to who will kill Joe and why.

The performances in this film are legendary, at this point. The character of Norma Desmond is really something that has become ingrained into our pop culture, and for good reason, because Swanson delivers one of the best performances of all time. Now, the rest of the cast is great, really, but Gloria Swanson has to toe the line between over-the-top and realism. I mean, her character is a crazy former silent movie star, that's really a license to be as over the top as you would like, but instead she keeps herself from making the character a joke, someone to be laughed at because of how melodramatic they are. Instead it's a character that entertains us and breaks our heart as we watch her retreat more and more from reality. She eventually lost the Oscar to Judy Holliday, for Born Yesterday, which I also did an entry on, if you'd like to get my feelings on that one.

The script is also as flawless as the film. Full of intelligence and bite as it serves as a stark indictment of the Hollywood system that raises people up to God-like status, only to throw them away. It really is one of the best films about Hollywood that you can find.

If you like this film (which I certainly hope you will), I also recommend All About Eve, which came out in the same year and was Sunset Boulevard's main competition at the Oscars (For the record, All About Eve won most of them, and it's probably Bette Davis' best film, so watch it!), it's also about aging and stardom (though, focused more on the stage as opposed to the screen). There, you have two recommendations for the price of one (though I really should make an entry on All About Eve), so that should fulfill you for now. Jesus, that's a lot of parenthesis.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Labyrinth (1986)

You get two entries today, lucky readers. If only because I figured if I did a "real" classic movie, I could allow a little self-indulgence and make an entry on the 80's cheesetastic fantasy film Labyrinth, which was a childhood favorite of mine.

It stars future-Academy Award winning actress Jennifer Connelly as Sarah, an angsty teen girl (who favors the phrase "That's not fair!") that spends more time indulging in fantasy than in dealing with the reality of the stepmother she hates and her half-brother Toby who she frequently has to babysit. One night, after a particularly angsty episode, she kind of loses it and asks the Goblin King, Jareth (the always awesome David Bowie), to take her baby brother away. Which he does, taking him to his kingdom in the middle of the labyrinth (a really big maze, for the uninitiated) , and Sarah must rescue her brother before it is too late, otherwise he will be turned into a goblin.

The technical aspects of the film actually hold up quite well (despite one scene involving creatures who dance and sing and are capable of removing their body parts, it's greenscreened to hell), the various creatures that Sarah encounters are all Jim Henson puppets, which works a lot better than attempted CGI that would have dated the film terribly. Instead it actually works and you buy them as actual characters, plus it helps that the actress is actually interacting with something that has a physical presence.

The rest of the film is pure cheese, though. I mean, how else can you describe a movie where David Bowie prances around in leotards (really, his bulge should have a supporting credit for the amount of time it spends on screen), with 80's hair that is mightier than Bono's old mullet, and singing corny songs about slapping babies?

One thing that the film does have is David Bowie, who revels in playing a very creepy, oddly sexual villain. He's in love with a 15 year old girl, and he makes it sick and twisted. It's an odd character that one wouldn't necessarily expect in a Family-Friendly movie, and Bowie seems to have a blast in the role that allows him to be funny, menacing, and outrageous, so much so that his performance borders on drag.

It's really hard to say "Watch this movie" or even say it's a good movie, because it is loaded with nostalgia, and it doesn't hurt that I enjoy some good cheese every now and then (See my entry on Adventures in Babysitting or Troll 2). But if you remember seeing this movie as a little kid, I highly suggest you revisit it, because it really does hold up.

And if you enjoy your movies chock full of 80's gooeyness, or you just love David Bowie, I would also give this movie a watch, because it's just so odd.

And for everyone else, well, it's really up to you.

Old Acquaintance (1943)

Bette Davis and (the one woman she admitted to hating) Miriam Hopkins star together in this wonderful soap about friends who kinda hate each other.

Bette Davis is Kit Marlowe, an unmarried independent author who has written a critical hit of a book that is unfortunately, not selling very well. She is "friends" with Millie Drake (Miriam Hopkins), an over-the-top attention whore of a shrew who only is able to retain her friendship with Kit because Kit feels a deep sense of responsibility to her because of their childhood together. It doesn't help that she is in love with Millie's husband, who also feels the same way about Kit, and further adding to the friction is when Millie decides to become an author as well, writing trashy romances that make millions. The film follows their friendship as well as their fights and squabbles.

What works about the film is that you never really buy Kit and Millie as friends, Kit is simply too smart and too low-key to enjoy being in the company of the hysterical Millie and the film brilliantly adds conflict after conflict to eventually force the two to have it out. Plus, it's very soapy, with catfights and forbidden love and the stuff that classic films excelled at with class.

As to be expected, the two leads are great. Bette Davis is often cited as being a Hollywood "bitch" but she was much more versatile than people think and the strong, independent, yet still vulnerable woman is a role in which she excelled. Kit is intelligent, kind, warm, and strong, but clinging to a foolish sense of duty to Millie as opposed to following her own feelings. Miriam Hopkins has a license to be overly dramatic in this film, and she takes full advantage of it, not really making an effort to make Millie very likable, instead being as shrill as possible. And as I said, their friction is believable, in part because the two actresses publicly admitted to hating each other, which is odd since they made 2 films together (The other film, The Old Maid doesn't utilize their feelings towards each other in the way that this film does).

This seems to be (to me at least), a lesser known Bette Davis film, which is a bit sad, because it is one of her better films. Granted, at the end of the day, it's a big soap opera and the strong woman is a character that Bette Davis has played countless times before, so this is not new territory for her. But the film still succeeds at offering a good soap with good acting and some good bit of "frenemy" action before that became an actual term.

So watch it, if you can.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Soultaker (1990)

I usually try to make entries based upon my Netflix viewings, since that way the films are fresh in my mind. Well, after Peyton Place, I decided to indulge myself and get a Mystery Science Theater 3000 Episode. Since I haven't been the best blogger in the world, what with school starting, I figured I would go ahead and take the opportunity to comment on this horrible little film, also known as Soultaker.

The film revolves around 4 teens who are killed in a car accident, the impact throwing their souls from their bodies, leaving their bodies comatose and their souls on the run from The Soultaker (Joe Estevez), a grim reaper type individual who harvests souls by placing little black rings against their bodies.

Things are complicated when The Soultaker realizes that Natalie (one of the teens) is either a reincarnated version of the woman he loved (and eventually killed for cheating on him) or she just happens to look exactly like her.

This is where Soultaker gets most of its "so bad it's good" moments, from he fact that Vivian Schilling, who plays Natalie also wrote the script, which seems like an effort to boost her self esteem. The entire film is basically about how beautiful she is and how she had two men madly in love with her, even though she looks like Tonya Harding. There's even a scene where she is undressing in slow-motion while her "mother" (The Soultaker in disguise) ogles her teenage body, it's really gross.

There's also an odd attempt at adding a Romeo/Juliet type aspect to the relationship between Natalie and her boyfriend Zach, making her upper class and making him lower class, but all it ends up doing is adding a bizarre homoerotic subtext to the story. You see, Zach's best friend, whose name I cannot remember, is totally against the relationship, because of the class difference. But he's a little bit too passionate about it, and he is the ultimate reason the teens die, because he's driving the car that crashes and it only crashes because he decides to go way over the speed limit because of his issues with the relationship (I'm not sure how that resolves anything, but there you go.) It's very odd and it seems like Zach's BFF has more interest than just being friends with him.

Plus, the film doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Apparently if you murder someone, you must become a Soultaker, which Zach's BFF eventually becomes, even though the crash was caused by THE Soultaker stepping in front of the car and making him swerve. Plus, according to this film, Heaven exists in an upper story of the local hospital, and if there is a heaven, where all the souls go, then how is Natalie the reincarnated version of this guy's long-lost love?

But really, it's just a horrible movie, the acting's horrible, the writing is horrible, but hopefully that poor unattractive girl got a bit of self-esteem out of the whole thing.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

12 Angry Men (1957)

I apologize for the inactivity lately, since school has started and my dogs have been sick, my time's been spent elsewhere. But I return, bearing gifts, in particular an entry for the classic 12 Angry Men.

For those not familiar with the film, it follows 12 All-male, All-white jurors in a single room in a courthouse, charged with the determining the fate of a young Latino who is accused of murdering his father. When they cast their initial vote, all are prepared to give a sentence of Guilty, except for one juror, Juror #8 (Henry Fonda).

What follows is a re-examination of the evidence that pulls into question if the jurors can say with absolute certainty that the young man is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

What makes the film interesting is how diverse these men are. Since they are all of the same ethnicity and gender, you can get to the real issues that may effect jury votes. For example, one of the juror's has tickets to a sporting event, and is basically willing to vote any way that will end the trial as soon as possible, while another is hopelessly bigoted against minorities, talking about "those people" and "their kind".

It's hard to talk about the performances, since the cast is quite large and it's very much an ensemble piece. But you can't really talk about 12 Angry Men without talking about Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb.

Henry Fonda proves that he is probably the greatest "Everyman" actor with this film, as he gives Juror #8 nothing more than intelligence and a belief in justice. Other than that, he's a typical man, we know nothing of his past except that he's an architect. But we don't need to know, because Henry Fonda spells out his history with his own face, showing a man who believes in being fair and taking pull responsibility of the duty he has been given as a juror.

Lee J. Cobb serves as the "villain" of the film, he is a man who has a personal vendetta against the accused, because of his own broken relationship with his son, he sets out to act as executioner against the generation that has broken his heart. He is older and less educated than Juror #8 and he makes his decision based on emotion and from the get-go, we know that he is the one Juror that will be the hardest to convince, setting up for a interesting battle of the wills between the two actors.

Praise must be given to director Sidney Lumet who never makes us feel trapped or claustrophobic. Since the film, for the most part, takes place entirely in the jury room, it's up to the director to keep things interesting, visually. And Lumet pulls it off effortlessly, keeping the camera focused on the brilliant acting and dialogue and never letting us become aware that the action doesn't shift locations.

But really, you don't need me to tell you to see this movie, it's an American classic that speaks of the issues that the justice system faces as well as being a showcase for some truly great acting.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Peyton Place (1957)

Well, I finally watched my Netflix movie, and boy was it worth it. Peyton Place may be one of the biggest soap operas to ever hit theaters.

The film "stars" (Though there doesn't seem to be one actual main character) Lana Turner as Constance McKenzie, a single mother who moved back to her childhood home of Peyton Place after her husband died, leaving her with her daughter Allison (Diane Barsi), a senior in High School. She keeps a firm hold on Allison, terrified that she may commit some sort of scandal, despite Allison being a very good-natures and intelligent young woman who wishes to become a writer.

Allison herself is having a budding romance with Norman Page (Russ Tamblyn), a shy young boy who lives with his oppressive mother, causing him to be totally inept when it comes to girls.

There's also a plot about Allison's friend Selena (Hope Lange) who lives in a small shack with her mother and stepfather, who has to deal with her step father becoming more and more abusive towards her. In addition, there's a story of a classmate of Allison's who is in love with the town slut, but is torn between his whore and his wealthy father who forbids the relationship.

It all takes place in (obviously) Peyton Place, a town which is sexually repressed and filled with gossip hungry people. It was Mad Men before Mad Men, dwelling on the themes of appearance anf perception.

In case you didn't get the impression already, this movie has a lot of plot. So much so that it feels like you're watching a TV series, and this is going to turn some people off. Well, it's also very long, over 2 and a half hours, and very episodic. There will be chunks of the film that are entirely devoted to side character like Selena, so some could view the film as unfocused.

But the film works because the level of acting is so high. Lana Turner, Hope Lange, and Diane Varsi are all brilliant as the three "main" women. Lana Turner keeps her character very reined in, very cool and repressed but she begins to slowly open up as the film progresses (this is actually symbolized by her hair, which is kept in a tight up-do for most of the movie and begins to slowly become looser). Hope Lange breaks your heart as Selena, who probably has to deal with more than any other character in the film, and she pulls it off with strength, never making her character a victim. And Diane Varsi adds intelligence and warmth to a character who sees Peyton Place for what it really is and wishes to expose it in her writings.

The film itself is quite brave, as it deals with the whole "Suburban Repression" topic that was considered to be untapped until the recent film American Beauty. And it deals with it all in an entertaining and soapy way, serving as an indictment of those who seek to ruin someone's reputation as well as serving as a wake-up call to those who value their reputations more than their own happiness.

Plus, as I said, the film is pure soap opera, but it has something behind it, something worth saying which elevates it above pure pulp trash. It's a well-crafted film and one that I heartily recommend.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Star (1952)

Bette Davis stars in a film that is apparently supposed to be a thinly veiled portrait of Joan Crawford. That alone makes this movie a must-see.

Well, not really. Bette Davis plays Margaret Eliot, a now has-been actress who is struggling to keep afloat, but through her renewed romance with former co-star Jim Johannson (Sterling Hayden), she may realize that love is more important than fame.

The film itself is one big cheese-fest, with Bette Davis showing why she may be one of the greatest actresses who ever lived. She may be over the top, but she is insanely entertaining here. I mean, this film has a scene where (I kid you not) Bette Davis throws her mooching sister and brother-in-law out of her house then grabs her Oscar and says "Come on Oscar, let's you and me get drunk!" only to cut to Bette Davis driving around the Hollywood hills with her Oscar propped up on the dashboard and a bottle of booze in her hand.

It may be the greatest scene in the history of film.

Ok, to be serious for a moment. Bette Davis is the only reason to see this movie. It's a corny, soapy film that Davis elevates by actually giving a good performance. Granted, it's over-the-top, but it can get a bit of a pass because she's an actress, and generally people in the arts can be over-the-top (or so says any movie review in which someone is playing an actor/dancer/artist). But aside from that, the film is pretty dull. Her romance with Jim lacks any sort of spark and Sterling Hayden (I keep expecting to write Sterling-Cooper) is wooden in a role that's not particularly fleshed out. The actual plot is pretty shallow too, and only really entertains on a pure campiness level, like when Margaret gets a role in a film as a frump, but she tries to sex it up using her hair, make-up, and costume only to watch the dailies and fall screaming to the floor.

To put it plainly, this is a film you could easily skip, unless maybe you are hardcore Bette Davis fan (like I am) and you're interested in seeing her Oscar nominated performance. But other than that, unless what I just described sounds like your idea of a good film, it's a pass. Campy entertainment and not much else.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Wait Until Dark (1967)

Audrey Hepburn is a blind woman being terrorized by Alan Arkin in an attempt to get a drug-filled doll from her apartment.

Really, do I need to say anything else? But since I've been neglecting you, my poor readers, I suppose I'll try to flesh out as to why you should see this movie.

First of all, let's get to the plot. Audrey Hepburn is Susy, a woman was recently blinded and still learning how to live in a world she cannot see. One day, he husband brings home a doll that a woman asked him to hold for her at an Airport, claiming that she didn't want her daughter to see it and ruin a birthday surprise. In reality, she was hoping to prevent her partner Roat (Alan Arkin) from getting the doll, which is filled with heroin.

So the doll ends up in Susy's apartment, and one a day where her husband is working, Roat and two associates create a story about Susy's husband Sam being involved in a murder and that this doll is evidence that could implicate him, hoping Susy will hand it over since they can't seem to find it. Unfortunately for them, Susy begins to grow wise to their plan, setting up a confrontation between the murderous criminal and a blind woman adjusting to life.

One issue with the plot, it's a bit ridiculous. In fact, Susy seems to never lock her door, allowing for Roat and his henchmen to walk in and out without Susy noticing. This may bother some people, and I can totally understand that, though if you consider that for the majority of the film, one of Roat's henchmen pretends to be an old friend of Sam's, it makes sense that she would leave the door open for him.

Now the acting. Audrey Hepburn is magnificent in the role of Susy. She creates a character who is hanicapped, but not useless. She's realistically limited because of her blindness, but it's not to the point where she has to rely on other people to bail her out, she can hold her own. And Hepburn adds gallons of likability to the character, making Susy a smart kind woman who is able to catch on to what's going on, hitting every emotional note perfectly as she has to run the gamut from being angry, terrified, suspicious and happy.

Alan Arkin is good as well, effectively portraying a character that is essentially a killer Beatnik. He's menacing as Roat, and he adds a twisted pleasure out of his dirty dealings, elevating him from a simple criminal to a psychopath.

And the film totally works. Audrey Hepburn makes you care about Susy, which makes it all the more gripping as we see the noose tighten around her neck as she unravels the lies around her, forcing Roat and his men to take action, making for a very tense viewing experience.

I can't recommend this movie enough. As I said, it may turn some people off with what they may feel to be the "Idiot Plot", but I happen to love this film.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Atonement (2007)

Sorry for the lack of updates, I've been busy with school and some dog issues.

But anyway, I'm back (Hopefully), and I think I'll start with a film I recently watched, and it's also a film that I disagree with the majority when it comes to this film.

As some of you may know, Atonement was nominated for a slew of Oscars, including Best Picture, and it tells the story of Cecilia and Robbie, two young adults who fall in love. Robbie is the son of Cecilia's family housekeeper and is attending the same college as Cecilia (on Cecilia's father's dime). Their romance is cut short, however when Cecilia's younger, would-be-writer sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan, then later Romola Garai, and then Vanessa Redgrave) accuses Robbie of a crime he did not commit, sending him to prison, and later into World War II.

The film itself is beautifully made, with great costumes, and sets and cinematography, but the plot falls flat. Not because it is poorly written or not well-acted (in fact, the cast is universally good), it's that the romance between the two characters is so rushed that I never bought into it and the tragedy of the film was lost. Maybe I have an issue when it comes to romances, but when it comes to "Here are two characters, now care about their relationship" type scenarios, I usually find myself indifferent. The film is still easy to watch, and it's not offensively bad, but it's a bit of an empty spectacle. It's well-crafted but lacks any real emotional connection to the main plot of the film.

As I said, the cast is great, with special mention for Saoirse Ronan for her portrayal of Briony. She creates an intelligent 13 year old girl who is a master of observation. She uses it to fuel her writings about love and romance as well as take in the wealthy, well-to-do goings on around her. And in the same instance, I must mention Vanessa Redgrave who plays an elderly Briony. She's only on screen for a few minutes, but those minutes pack more of an emotional punch than the rest of the film. Her Briony is a lonely, regretful woman, broken by her past sin of lying about Robbie and she totally breaks your heart in a matter of minutes sinply using her voice and subtle face movements. It's breathtaking and heartbreaking.

I don't really find much else to say about Atonement. I can't rightly say to avoid the film, because if you were to buy into the main romance, it's sure to be a pleasant viewing. But it can be a bit hard to finish if you find yourself ambivalent to the matter of whether or not these two crazy kids are going to get back together.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Sex, sin and Southern Belles collide in New Orleans as Vivian Leigh and Marlon Brando clash in a twisted tale based on a Tennessee Williams' play.

Vivian Leigh plays Blanche DuBois, a faded Southern Belle who has moved to New Orleans to live with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and her brutish husband Stanley (Marlon Brando). Unfortunately for Blanche, she's a little bit off-kilter and the film basically chronicles her her tragic downward spiral, which includes her new beau Mitch (Karl Malden).

The film itself is light on plot, but that's only because it serves as an amazing showcase for some absolutely fantastic performances from all 4 main actors.

Let's start with Vivian Leigh who delivers one of my absolute favorite performances ever (And it won her a second Oscar). Blanche is almost like a fallen Scarlett O'Hara, only crazier. She makes a big show of being a "lady" and being better than the squalor that her sister and brother-in-law live in, when in fact she has far worse demons in her past, but she makes you feel so sorry for her character, watching the world she has constructed for herself tumbling around her. It's almost like a performance in a performance, with the "Well, I do declare" Blanche taking control most of the time, only for cracks to appear and widen, exposing the troubled and unstable woman beneath.

Marlon Brando plays Stanley almost as if he were a cross between a child and an animal. The famous "Stella!" scene almost feels like a child calling for its mother, and he's filled with childish spite towards Blanche, always getting angry with her for appearing to think she's better than he is. The rest of the time, he's almost like a gorilla, skulking around the house and oozing animal sexuality that Stella almost seems addicted to. It's a shockingly natural performance in a time where acting was still theatrical and mannered.

And with that, it's a good time to point out how interesting it his that Vivian Leigh and Marlon Brando were paired in this film, since they are obviously from two different schools of acting, but it works brilliantly as both character represent two different eras. Blanche calls up the old fashioned gentility of the South whereas Stanley is the new-found worker of the era, a man who comes home and demands beer and sex from his wife. Both characters seem to be from completely different worlds, so their fireworks together spark and crackle.

Poor Kim Hunter has to serve as the mediator between the two (though she did win an Oscar so she's not that deserving of pity). It's a role that is much less showy than the two leads, but Hunter makes Stella an interesting character. She is torn between her crazed sister and her abusive husband who she seems to crave sexually, it's a dynamic that is not obvious, because Kim Hunter keeps it on the back burner, allowing the heavy flames to exist between Brando and Leigh.

Karl Malden (Who also won an Oscar) plays Mitch, the single, loser-ish friend of Stanely who becomes infatuated with Blanche, seeing her as a "real lady". His mother, who always hoped to see him settle down, is dying, and he sees Blanche as someone who could grant his mother's wish. Unfortunately for him, their romance is doomed from the start as Blanche begins to lose her grip on reality. Malden makes Mitch pitiable, and you ache for him when he discovers the kind of woman Blanche really is.

I know I haven't spokem much of the writing, plot of direction (though, I usually don't comment on those very much anyway), but in this film, there is a particular reason, it's almost an actor's showcase. It's 4 insanely talented individuals playing fully developed, well-written characters, and from someone who loves intimate films with a small number of characters, you can't get any better than that.