Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Laura (1944)

Several twists and turns make this classic mystery unforgettable and for some, frustrating.

Successful ad executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierny) is dead, shot at point blank range by a shotgun. Detective Mark MacPherson (Dana Andrews) has been assigned to investigate and soon finds himself faced with 4 suspects, including a venomous writer who was Laura's mentor/lover (Clifton Webb), Laura's cad of a fiance (Vincent Price), her aunt who is madly in love with her fiance (Judith Anderson) and Laura's loyal maid (Dorothy Adams). He soon finds that all of them loved Laura, and he too begins to fall in love with the memories of a dead woman through her letters and journals.

The film's cast is uniformly excellent, each one playing their character well enough to where we are always guessing as to what secrets they may have and the screenplay is witty and entertaining. The only real problem with the film is that the number is suspects is so limited, and they don't receive the same amount of screen time, so we don't really feel as if this is a full blown whodunit. Plus, there's one major twist that may turn people off to the film, it's not necessarily a bad twist, but it could possibly make some people throw up their hands in frustration.

Those two issues aside, Laura is a classic film mystery that features a great cast and a great script, which seems to be a common thread is famous film noirs. So I heartily recommend it. It's on Netflix Watch Now, so watch it while you can.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Jackie Brown (1997)

During Oscar Watch '10, one of the films I ended up watching was Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds. Well, watching it sent my brother on a Tarantino kick and within a few weeks I had seen every single one of his movies, and I have to say that Jackie Brown may be my favorite.

Pam Grier stars as the titular character, a middle aged stewardess with a second rate airline that flies exclusively to Mexico, which makes her an ideal money runner for Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), an arms dealer. When Jackie is caught by the police, she is given an opportunity to sell Ordell out to avoid jail but instead Jackie decides to play both sides in a bid to avoid prison and to make off with Ordell's $500,000 stored in Mexico. Also involved are Ordell's old partner-in-crime Louis (Robert DeNiro) who is fresh out of prison and generally disconnected with the world and his pot smoking "girlfriend" Melanie (Bridget Fonda), and lonely bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster).

The film's cast of character is so strong that every single character could have easily been the focus of their own movie, with the level of acting so strong that it's hard to pick one as a stand-out. If anything, this is Pam Grier's movie. She has to take a character and make her strong, sexy, vulnerable, intelligent and cunning and she does it perfectly, creating one of the screen's most clever characters ever. Samuel L. Jackson is great as well, creating a criminal that can be frightening, charming, and endearing in a single scene.

The reason Jackie Brown is so great can be generalized to all of Tarantino's films. He's the master at casting his movies and he can blend comedy and drama better than anyone. It's rare for a film to feature such an in-depth plot and still be able to make you laugh more than most comedies. And the best part is that it never feels false, it never feels as if he is going for a laugh, instead it's humor the derives itself from the characters and their own unique quirks and personalities.

At 2 1/2 hours, this film is way too short, and an entire hour could have been added and I would be happy. One of my all-time favorites.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

Maggie Smith wows in this film that is incredibly different from what you may expect.

It's easy to look at the description of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and assume it is another entry into the "Offbeat teacher inspires students to live life to the fullest" type of film, but this film almost serves as a counter point to such films.

Maggie Smith stars as Miss Jean Brodie, a teacher in 1930's Scotland who encourages her students to live and to love, teaching them about art and creativity, even though she's a history teacher. She also has a group of 4 students who follows her around outside of class, the "Brodie Girls" who are noted for being unusual and odd.

But the film veers into unexpected territory as it becomes obvious that Jean Brodie is really a spinster who wraps herself up in the mystery and mystique of being a woman in her "prime" and creating this mythology about herself. If you've seen the film Cabaret, it's very similar to Sally Bowles. She exerts this onto her students, defining their traits and trying to give them ideas about who they are, even trying to steer one girl into an affair with a married teacher with whom she has recently finished an affair of her own.

Eventually, one "Brodie Girl" named Sandy (Pamela Franklin) catches on to the falsehood surrounding the beloved teacher and a conflict develops between the two and the film ultimately forced you with a situation with neither character is inherently good or bad.

The film wonderfully exhibits a grey morality about the characters, is Jean Brodie a well meaning teacher or a psychotic spinster with a God complex? Or Sandy a maturing girl looking to bring down a potentially dangerous teacher or a jealous child? The film would work in every angle, and it's to the credit of the two main female actresses, Maggie Smith and Pamela Franklin that it works so well as both gives so much nuance and layers to their characters.

Maggie Smith actually won the Oscar for the film, and it's deservedly so. It's not easy to play a character and do so in a way that supports so many interpretations as to the nature of the character, but she pulls it off wonderfully, playing Jean Brodie as dramatic, inspiring, and witty, but also giving healthy doses of insecurity and arrogance.

It's sad that Pamela Franklin didn't receive an Oscar nomination, because it would have been deserved, having to carry a character through woman hood and effectively portraying the developing cynicism that causes her to see through Jean Brodie's facade.

It's a wonderful movie that could spawn hours of discussion as to the nature of the characters and it features two astounding performances, so watch it if you can.