Monday, November 30, 2009

Cabaret (1972)

Here it is, the musical classic Cabaret. It's actually pretty depressing, and a bit light on the whole "musical" aspect.

Anyway, the film stars Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles, the daughter of a U.S. ambassador who sings at the Kit Kat Club in Berlin. The Kit Kat Club is a place of "divine decadence", where ladies and "ladies" wrestle in the mud or sing songs about threesomes. All of these wild acts are overseen by the creepy Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey), a little man with painted on cheeks who looks like a marionette. Anyway, Sally meets British writer Brian Roberts (Michael York), who may or may not be gay, and establishes a relationship with him, talking about her relationship with her father as well as her aspirations to becoming a big star. While all of this is going on, the Nazis are gaining power and the political environment is becoming darker and more hostile. It's also interesting to point out that Bob Fosse doesn't make every musical number turn into some sort of cotton candy colored gay fantasia that seems to exist on a limitless stage, instead the costumes are pretty cheap and we see the entire size of the stage, which serves to remind us that the numbers take place in a sleazy little club, that this isn't a happy, magical place.

Being a musical, this film is pretty light on actual musical numbers, there are only a handful of songs, and they're all performed in the context of the Kit Kat Club. Which is one of the main themes of the movie, using the acts of the Kit Kat Club to juxtapose the violence occurring outside its walls. While a Jewish girl is being harrassed, we see the M.C. in drag goosestepping around the stage, mocking the Nazis, or he's singing a ballad about his love for a gorilla, asking the audience to accept their love because no one can choose the direction of their own heart. This theme adds a lot of very sudden, very random shots inserting themselves in the film. You may see a man being beaten to death with a quick flash to girls dancing in the Kit Kat Club, or to the M.C.'s grinning face. For some, I can imagine that it can be very off-putting.

Now, for the performances. Liza Minnelli totally knocks it out of the park as Sally, offering the performance of a lifetime. Sally is a insecure young woman who wraps herself in grand gestures and this overblown mythology about her sex appeal, her ability to shock people, and her own quirkiness. You can see just how deliberate this act is when Sally drops the facade, gone is the campiness, instead leaving a vulnerable woman with dreams that she knows will probably never come true.

Joel Grey (who won the Oscar as well as Minnelli) is brilliant as the M.C. He displays such twisted, impish delight at the ongoings at the club, and the fact that we never see him outside the Kit Kat Club (let alone outside a stage performances) just adds to the mystery and oddness of his character, since we have no idea who or what the hell he is.

This film holds the records for most Oscars ever won without an actual Best Picture win (it won eight), and it's truly deserved. Bob Fosse has crafted a masterpiece that is entertaining, but sad and shocking as we learn that the Kit Kat Club may be the only place in Berlin were people can be truly free, and even that may be coming to an end.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Gaslight (1944)

Ingrid Bergman shines in this well-made, albeit predictable thriller.

Ingrid Bergman is Paula Alquist, the niece of the famous singer and actress Alice Alquist. When Alice is strangled one night, Paula goes to live with her aunt's closest friend to study singing, there she falls for Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), a pianist, and they wed. But it becomes apparent that her marriage is not what it seems as Gregory attempts to drive his wife insane.

Now, I know that may seem a bit like a spoiler, but to be honest, the film essentially tells you the eventual twist that Gregory is evil right off the bat, so I didn't really find myself thinking "Maybe Paula really is crazy, maybe it's all in her head".

But aside from that small flaw, the film is really good. Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar for her performance, and it was well deserved. Paula is a genuinely sweet person, and its painful to watch her slowly lose her grip on reality as Gregory repeatedly tells her false stories about how she keeps losing things, or how she takes things and then hides them. Watching her doubt her sanity is heartbreaking since Bergman makes Paula's desperation palpable, and once the seed has been blossomed in her mind about her madness, she becomes a shell of her former self, her eyes glazed over and her movements slow and weary.

Charles Boyer also offers some fine work here (and was nominated for an Oscar for it). Whereas Paula begins doubting her self, Gregory becomes more and more assured, his wife's madness becoming a topic he returns to over and over. Also, we see small glimpses of his anger beneath his facade of a caring husband, moments where we see the true Gregory, a violent and rough man, far from the dignified gentleman he pretends to be. He plays the role with such conviction that had the film not spoiled itself, he really would have cast a doubt on Paula's sanity.

We also get Angela Lansbury's first film performance ever as Nancy, the rude housemaid. It's an interesting (and Oscar-nominated) performance, because Nancy seems so heartily disinterested in what's going on. She would much rather go out and flirt with the policeman on his beat, than listen to Paula talk about her sanity.

Overall, the film is really good. It's moderately suspenseful, and Ingrid Bergman really does deliver an absolutely fantastic performance full of desperation that begs to be seen.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Great Lie (1941)

Here we have one of Bette Davis' lesser known films, which happens to be one of her better films.

Anyway, Bette Davis is Maggie, a young woman living on the plantation full of obedient Negroes. Her former flame Peter (George Brent), has just married concert pianist Sandra (Mary Astor) only to find out that their marriage is legally void. Of course, the only reason these kinds of things happen in old movies is to have poor Sandra knocked up with Peter's baby, and unfortunately for her Peter has returned to Maggie and married her. And unfortunately for both women, Peter's plane disappears over Brazil and he is presumed to be dead (but we know better, right?). So Maggie and Sandra, who have been rivals, come to a truce and Maggie hopes to care for Sandra during her shameful, sinful pregnancy. This leads to a great scene where both women are in a cabin out in Arizona and Sandra basically goes insane.

Anyway, the baby is born, Peter returns from the dead and Maggie claims the baby is hers, an arrangement with which Sandra has no objections. Or does she? Tune in to find out!

The film is an above average soap, and what really makes it memorable is the performances by the two leading ladies (who actually re-wrote the script together). Bette Davis is in the most least Bette Davis-y role you can expect, as the southern good girl aiding the woman pregnant with her husband's child. But she pulls it off with genuine kindness and sympathy.

Mary Astor, however, steals the show as the vain, arrogant, and catty pianist who find herself stuck in a situation that she loathes. She has lost her man, but doomed to carry his child, and Astor gives an Oscar-winning performances full of bitterness and bile.

Luckily, the film never really switches the focus from either of the two women, so it's able to maintain your attention throughout.

It's a nice little film that doesn't really get a whole lot of attention (well, besides an Oscar), and it's also a good show of Bette Davis' range, that she could convincingly play the good girl of the movie. So, I suggest you watch it, especially if you're a Bette Davis or Mary Astor fan.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Apartment (1960)

Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine deliver some incredibly performances in this Best Picture winner.

Jack Lemmon is C.C. Baxter (though, most people call him Buddy Boy), a everyday Joe who works for an insurance company. But C.C. has discovered a way to get on the good side of his superiors, by allowing them to use his apartment for their torrid affairs. But when his boss Mr. Sheldrake's affair with elevator girl Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), who C.C. has had a crush on for a while, ends badly and leaves the poor girl shattered, C.C. tries to help her and falls in love along the way.

The film was written and directed by Billy Wilder, easily one of the greatest people to ever get into film (He's responsible for Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, and Some Like it Hot, for starters), and it shows. The film has a sharpness and a humanity about it that you typically find in a lot of Wilder's work. It also expertly balance the light and the dark, the film can take some heavy turns, but there's always a moment of humor or sincerity to break up the gloom.

The acting here is phenomenal. Jack Lemmon is wonderful as a frazzled everyman who places his own career advancement above his personal life and comfort. He has a lot of frantic mannerisms, but the performance has a lot of nuance to it, watching his heart break when he finds out about the affair between Fran and his boss, and observing him slowly fall in love with the poor elevator girl. He's just a decent guy, and Lemmon avoids adding any real darkness to the role, just a sense of puppydog sadness and weariness.

MacLaine is also wonderful. Fran is a romantic young woman who puts up a facade of humor and quirkiness to hide a lot of pain and remorse over her past romances that haven't ended all too well (she keeps a broken pocket mirror stating it "Makes me look the way I feel"). The role could have easily gone into far too much woe-is-me nonsense, but MacLaine keeps a humorous edge to a lot of what Fran says, even when she's allowing herself to be hurt and vulnerable.

Fred MacMurray is good here as well, playing a total slimeball, who uses the same ploys to land woman after woman, convincing each one that he's in love with them and on the verge of leaving his wife. It's amazing to see the sudden warmth and caring develop when he's turning on the charm, knowing that he's essentially a jerk trying to get what he wants.

The film is a very human story, showcasing two wounded, damaged people who slowly begins to heal themselves by their growing friendship and romance. We see C.C. change from a doormat to a more assertive man, who doesn't allow those to simply boss him around, and we see Fran begin to shift from being satisfied with being "the other woman" to realizing that she deserves someone better.

It's a wonderful film, regarded as one of the best ever, and I can't really disagree with that.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Letter to Three Wives (1949)

It's a husband-stealing whodunit that features moment of poignancy and insight.

The film (which was written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz who would win back to back writing and directing Oscars for this film and All About Eve the following year) tells the story of three friends, Deborah (Jeanne Craine), Rita (Ann Sothern), and Lora Mae (Linda Darnell) who are about to take a group of children on a riverboat trip when they receive a letter, informing them that that Addie Ross, a mutual friend/enemy has run off with one of their husbands.

The film then offers flashbacks that give us some insight into the marriage of all three women and the issues that could possibly propel their husbands into the arms of another woman. When it comes to Deborah, a sheltered farmgirl who married her social superior and feels out of place at the fancy outings and parties that her husband loves. Rita writes stories for the radio, which causes friction between her husband since she makes a substantial portion of the family's income and focuses more on the radio station's needs than her husbands. And Lora Mae is married to an older, wealthy man she forced into marriage.

One aspect in which the film works is that neither marriage is shown to be truly broken, in fact, we pretty much get the pros and cons of all the relationships in these little vignettes. While the men all have issues that may drive them away from their wives, they're also shown to love their female partners and be supportive of them. So it adds a great deal of suspense as to who has run off with the never-seen Addie, since it's not really obvious.

The three lead actresses all turn in great performances, with each wife creating a distinct personality and effectively conveying doubt and worry while agonizing over their potentially dead marriage. And the writing is sharp and smart, never bogging itself down in the cliches that could easily arise from the story, which is no surprise since the script was penned by someone who would go on to write what could be considered the greatest screenplay ever written.

This is a wonderful little film that doesn't really get much attention, so do yourself a favor and watch it.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

The brilliant Barbara Stanwyck elevates this pretty average thriller into something actually worth watching.

Alright, y'all, here it is, Sorry, Wrong Number. It stars Barbara Stanwyck (obviously) as Leona Stevenson, the invalid wife of Henry Stevenson (Burt Lancaster). One night, Leona is all alone, her husband is late so Leona tries to find out where he is. Her only means of communication is the telephone, so while waiting for her call to be connected to her husband's office, the wires are crossed and she overhears two men planning the murder of a woman. As the film progresses, we learn that Leona doesn't know quite as much about Henry as she thought, and that the murder being planned may be her own.

Now, that doesn't sound too bad, right? Well it's not, but the main problem with the film arises out of its narrative structure. You see, a great deal of the film consists of flashbacks, as Leona calls person after person hoping to find her husband and we get scenes of what someone observed about Henry the previous day or something like that. Also, we get the story of how Leona and Henry met, as well as the current state of their marriage. We learn that Leona stole Henry from a woman who loved him, and that Leona is a spoiled heiress to her father's prescription drug fortune, we also learn that Henry is frustrated with Leona, having to keep her happy to avoid upsetting her condition, which consists of a heart attack during times of stress.

The flashbacks are a nice way to flesh out the backstory of the film, but it takes away from the suspense, especially since most of the flashbacks concern themselves with the condition of the Stevenson marriage as opposed to the murder plot that Leona overhears, which seemed to be a higher storytelling priority, at least to me.

Luckily, we have Barbara Stanwyck in the lead. She delivers a wonderful performances, making Leona horrible and spoiled in the flashbacks, but adding levels of vulnerability and sorrow during the present, where the life she had constructed for herself falls down around her. She makes the character paranoia and fear totally real, which makes it easy to relate to her and to care about whether or not she survives the film.

Aside from that, the film is a solid thriller with a big hiccup in the story telling department due to the overabuse of flashbacks. But it features one of Barbara Stanwyck's best (and Oscar nominated) performances, which makes it watching simply for that.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Dark Knight (2008)

That's right readers, I'm tackling a new movie, and a giant, huge, money-making blockbuster at that (I have to do something to please the kids, right?).

Anyway, here we have The Dark Knight, the massive hit from last summer, featuring the last completed performance by Heath Ledger, for which he earned his only Oscar.

The film follows Batman/Bruce Wayne as he deals with the higher-ups of the crime world, who are now being led by a mysterious figure known as The Joker (Heath Ledger). He's also dealing with his former flame Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal)'s new relationship with crusading DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).

The plot is easily one of the weakest aspects of the movie. Not because it's poorly constructed, but because the overall plot of The Joker is so convoluted, requiring him to have almost-psychic level powers to accomplish what he wants. Now, I know he's supposed to be a master planner, but he performs some actions that would have completely nullified his future plans if Batman hadn't intervened at exactly the right moment. At the time you're watching, this doesn't present itself as an issue, but upon 2 rewatches, you begin to question the structure of the plot and it eventually unravels.

Not to say that the plot ruins the film, it's still good, but it makes the film a bit hard to rewatch.

As for the acting, everyone involved gives great performances, with the obvious standout being Heath Ledger, who totally immerses himself in the role of an enigmatic killer who only desires to create chaos to create chaos, hoping to prove a point that everyone is like him deep down inside, they just need a push. Aaron Eckhart was mostly ignored for his performance as Harvey Dent, which is a bit sad, because he does deliver a much more subtle performance (but no less powerful) than Ledger, having to create a moral man fighting in an amoral world that doesn't fight fair.

The film deals a lot with this idea of order versus chaos. And the question is raised if Batman can truly protect people by limiting himself by certain rules (No killing being the chief one), it brings an interesting question regarding vigilantism and how low are people willing to sink in order to actually do good.

It's that regard that elevates The Dark Knight above standard action fare, it's an intelligent, but still entertaining examination of a moral question that a lot of people pose in post 9/11 America.

That said, director Christopher Nolan does a brilliant job of keeping our interest, and the action sequences are wonderful to behold. As I said, the main issue with the film is the actual plot, but besides that, it's an entertaining ride with some actual brains behind it.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

First off, I know that I'm a bad. bad, blog writer. But if you'll forgive me, loyal readers, I had a doggy emergency that's kept me busy and frazzled the last few days. I'll try to be good, I promise I will.

Anyway, here is my much belated Halloween entry, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It's easily one of the oddest (and possibly gayest) movies I've ever seen, so much so that it spawned a cinematic movement of audience participation.

It's hard to actually evaluate this as a film, since a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show has since become an event, something you are part of as opposed to something you view. But anyway, the film follows two straight-laced kids Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon), who have the misfortune of having their car break down in front of the castle of Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry), a pansexual transvestite from the planet of Transsexual Transylvania, who is unveiling his createst creation, a blond muscular man named Rocky who is essentially a love toy for the hedonistic professor. Mayhem, sex, and cross-dressing ensue into one crazy homage to the B-horror and sci-fi RKO films of yesteryear.

Performance wise, everyone is pretty competent, there's not real Oscar level acting on the part of the main cast, except for maybe Mr. Curry. But let's face it, Tim Curry is the main reason to see this film (though the songs are pretty catchy), he just seems to be having a total ball playing one of the oddest cinematic creations in history. He's funny, over-the-top, and generally brilliant, and it's hard to look away, even if he's in full on drag for the entire movie.

But really, this is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, I'm talking about. It's risen above any sort of real criticism and has become something to be experienced. Really, regardless of what I say, everyone should see this film. See it to love it, see it to hate it, see it to be offended. It's so out-there, and so bizarre, yet so fun that it's hard to tell anyone to avoid it. You really need to just see it for yourself.