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It's a Great Feeling (1949)
In Search of the Next Star
Generally, actors at the infancy of their careers are saddled with material that range from grade-F to good, but unremarkable. Easy fluff. Light drama that doesn't quite showcase their talent -- until the right kind of picture comes along and thus, a major force of acting comes into play. Doris Day had the rare luck that even when the movies she was given at the dawn of her cinematography fall into this kind of frame, her presence alone, while tomboyish and maybe even a little off at times, was natural and at her best as such. ROMANCE ON THE HIGH SEAS had her do what Janis Paige was known for -- come and steal the picture right out of everyone's feet. Her allure (there) rose from a completely bare presentation of a lounge singer thrown into a comedy of errors, with no sudden affectation of language, or stiffness in performance, a thing another actress might have done in trying to impersonate Paige's upper crust character.
Here, Day continues on a rapid ascension in playing a rags-to (sort of) riches role which Joan Crawford had, and was still, taking into her own version of perfection. (Crawford has a hilarious, near surreal walk-on role in this picture -- as many actors and directors do here -- where she goes from being outraged at the treatment Day gets from those who want to groom her into the Next Big Thing (Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan) but inexplicably morphs into the impassioned speech Mildred Pierce gave her daughter Veda in MILDRED PIERCE, complete with two neat slaps -- one to each men -- and the quote, "I do that in all my pictures.") But back to Day: she's ideally cast in a role that doesn't demand a sudden speech inflection (although in one song she purposely dons a rather bad French accent) but has her playing a woman who wants to get into show business. It's the type of style that would come to characterize her: bare, earthy, sharply comic (note an early scene where she tries to impress with a dramatic scene), sweet, with occasional bursts of powerful emotion (later explored to full use in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH). It's somewhat ironic that the finale of the movie has Day marrying and living happily ever after in lieu of continuing her pursuit of Hollywood: Day would indeed quit the pictures but not because of a happy marriage (quite the contrary, a bad marriage would be the cause of her undoing). Even so, it's a fitting end to a movie that spends most of its time trying to groom her.
Romance on the High Seas (1948)
Despite getting third (or fourth, depending on which source you look into) billing, ROMANCE ON THE HIGH SEAS is Doris Day's show from the moment we get the first image of her -- or her back, as she stands pensively in front of the travel agency she is about to enter. Featuring a story that wouldn't have a need to exist had there been a little communication between its catalysts -- Janis Pauge and Don DeFore --, a married couple who even before their marriage is consummated see infidelity in all the wrong places; she from insinuations coming from the none-too-subtle secretary/blond bombshell her husband has hired (Leslie Brooks, in a nice but pat performance), he from the looks Paige gives the other men around her. Paige, from a random situation that stems from the moment she overhears Day's antics in the travel agency where they've crossed paths (Day plays Georgia, a lounge singer who has a thing for imagining elaborate trips to exotic locales she can't afford or as she states, "hasn't been to/didn't go to"), is amused at this, and decided to concoct a plan to send Day into the cruise she is slated to go on, to stay home and see if her husband will in fact, cheat on her. Paige's husband, also suspicious of his wife, sends a detective (Jack Carson) to do surveillance on her, unsuspecting that Day is impersonating Paige (rather badly, but what would he know? We do, and it's a great, breezy delight to see Day and Carson, who from here on remain on screen, play against each other, neither aware of the other's identity. An extremely silly comedy of errors, with cracking lines basically handed on a silver platter to Paige (who churns them out with real verve), also marking Doris Day's first appearance, and she basically saves this kind-of unmemorable feature from an otherwise different fate (of course, keeping in mind that director Michael Curtiz had brought Bette Davis and Joan Crawford into delivering fantastic performances in THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX and MILDRED PIERCE).
The Uninvited (1944)
The Old, Dark House
The concept of the haunted house is one of the most successful entries of the horror genre due to the fact that the very space we live in could harbor some "unpleasant horror from the world beyond". It's been morphed constantly to meet the demands of the times, and reached a pinnacle in 1979 when Ridley Scott released his now contemporary classic: ALIEN. And in that particular "haunted house" -- itself a spaceship -- you couldn't just get out and leave. And something very physical and hungry was out there within the shadows, waiting....
THE UNINVITED offers no such horrors: in fact, aside from the premise that the mansion overlooking the Cornish coast that a brother and sister (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) have purchased off a whim has its own turbulent history and an invisible guest, it's far from truly scary. Closer to a dark mood piece, it acquiesces itself with an extreme subtlety closer to the style that Robert Wise would utilize in THE HAUNTING (without any intrusive voice-overs, thankfully) and keeping its own touch light and dryly funny, it manages to lift some of the heaviness to a point where it's imperceptible.
As a matter of fact, THE UNINVITED is an unlikely template of the type of horror seen in Asian films such as RINGU (and most notably in its remake THE RING), where the story seemed to be heading one way, throws in a red herring that until the end seems to be a much bigger player than it really is -- here, in the rather sinister figure of Ms. Holloway, clearly patterned after Mrs. Danvers and played with deadpan silkiness by Cornelia Otis Skinner (herself physically similar to Judith Anderson and in a lesser degree, Claire Booth), and turns the tables on the viewer in a neat one hundred degree angle. For that, it's clever and awfully effective film filled with rich atmosphere in the Film-Noir style, even when its thrills are watered down to a lull.
Much has been made about the lesbian subtext that is referenced to in THE UNINVITED. In a way, I can see it and I can't -- the unnatural attraction that Ms. Holloway sustains to the unseen Mary Meredith and the none-too-subtle designs she displays towards young Stella (Gail Russell) must have rung a bell. However, it can also be seen as the type of fixation that is closer to a borderline personality disorder -- where a person's sole reason of existence depends on that of the object of his or her attraction, which is always with a tinge of the impossible. It's, as I said, remarkably similar to the premise controlling the passion of Mrs. Danvers in REBECCA, but to a lesser degree. Whatever it may be, it's one of those "hints" of a gay-lesbian presence in a Hollywood who had, by then, decided to ignore "those" people even when major movie stars carried movies and won Oscars.
My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006)
A Quick, Revolving Door
Would it that the producers and the director, Ivan Reitman, had chosen to take a darker path while still retaining a deadpan comic edge in telling their concept of a man who breaks up with his rather needy girlfriend who just happens to be a superhero a la Supergirl and sees his life become a living hell due to his misstep, MY SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND would have been much more. It's not saying that it isn't, or that it's something of a mess because it's not: like clockwork, or a color-by-numbers drawing, it follows its uber-calculated plot demands with robotic ease, offering no surprises along the way and a couple of funny scenes here and there (it looks much better as a trailer than an extended version of a trailer), and delivering the requisite finale in which the person winds up with the one he or she is meant to be with as opposed to the one he wants to. I would have preferred, however, an incursion into the morbid -- a touch of FATAL ATTRACTION would have helped. Consider this: Alex Forrest not only delivering her (in)famous line "I won't be ignored, Dan!" and then really proceeding to, with effective and stomach-churning queasiness, making her point. It's a hard premise to truly carry out in ways that wouldn't seem hokey, repetitive, or even tiresome. Because the movie literally takes no time to reach its "I think we need a break" moment, which allows Uma Thurman a lot of room to chew scenery and move from strictly jealous and possessive to flat-out zany, it doesn't seem to know where it should go from there and introduces the farce element under the form of Eddie Izzard who has a few tricks up his uber-villain sleeve. It's this that mires MY SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND in its comic-book origins (which is saying what is appropriate), but even with that being pointed out, its average enjoyment, like elevator music.
Portrait of Jennie (1948)
The Woman Without Roots
Before Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece VERTIGO, itself a tale of one man's romantic obsession with a fantasy woman, there was this beautiful, elegant and quite Gothic PORTRAIT OF JENNIE, directed by William Dieterle and starring Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones as the alluring Jennie. Eben Adams is the painter struggling to make a living in New York City whose life one day crosses the path of the somewhat enigmatic young girl known to him only as Jennie. They begin a liaison of sorts, strictly in the platonic, but this eventually comes to consume Adams life and very reason to exist until it becomes clear that Jennie might not even be a real person.
Artists have a heightened sense of reality and Eben Adams' is no exception: through Joseph Cotten's subtle performance we get to see a man tortured by a woman he cannot have but nevertheless pursues and enshrines in his mind, going to extreme lengths to retain every aspect of her existence, even when this existence might not be past his own imagination. Dieterle never truly establishes a clear moment when Jennie herself is -- enshrouding her in shadows and filtered light which make her appearances all the more disturbing -- but it's the music, taken from several compositions by Debussy enhanced by the use of the ghostly theremin that really gives this movie an extra ambiance in an early incursion into Musique Concrete and very early Ambient. Jennifer Jones also gives an extremely modulated performance, since she at the start of the movie looks more like a high-school girl who, every time Adams reconnects with her, ages just a bit, turning into a full-blooded woman with that gorgeous voice and haunting presence that almost drives his character over the edge. Worthy of more than one view, if at all for its innovative use of color for the climactic sequence, PORTRAIT OF JENNIE is an elegant mood piece that progressively seduces the viewer into its mystery and allure and lingers on after the credits roll.
I Married a Witch (1942)
Bewitched by Veronica
Rene Clair's ultra-magical I MARRIED A WITCH is a delight to see because it doesn't once try to take itself seriously even when it is, in fact, a romantic comedy with a dose of the surreal. The premise is simple: a burned witch returns to haunt and make a mortal fall in love with her via a love philter but in turn drinks the potion... and complications ensue. Veronica Lake is irresistible in her light role, clearly enjoying her part as a precursor to the role of Samantha who Elizabeth Montgomery would play twenty-odd years later in the television show (and rumors abound that this was, in fact, the inspiration for "Bewitched" but that has not been confirmed even when the links are rather clear). Despite the back story that she and Frederic March did not get along they seem rather comfortable in their roles and play against their characters with gusto. Susan Hayworth has a supporting role as March's snooty fiancée and her wedding reception, which Lake's character gleefully upsets into ridiculous levels, is a riot to watch. Towards the end, however, I MARRIED A WITCH loses just a teeny bit of steam, as if the concept of the witch moving about a contemporary society had reached its limit, but other than that this is a playful romp and one that confirmed Lake's status as a capable performer, even when her own career would come to a halt a mere five years later.
Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
It's to be said that sometimes the viewer -- us -- can view a picture and think, "How idiotic was that film's screenwriter to have had this-or-that character behave in this-or that way, or say those awful things? It completely stops the movie dead in its tracks." It's why there's a critic in all of us, writers and movie goers alike, it's why those who can watch will be able to judge accordingly even if we may not be totally right or even able to reproduce what we are seeing.
Now, the premise of BULLETS OVER Broadway is just that: a playwright finds a producer for his play in the Roaring Twenties. The catch is, the producer in charge for the plays financing is a mobster. The second catch is, he wants his outrageously stupid moll to play the lead. But the third has to be the strangest of them all: one of the mobster's henchmen happens to know this play better than its very own playwright. He thinks that the moll makes a terrible actress. He literally... takes over.
And that's it. Woody Allen thankfully is not present in this movie other than its writer and director -- it is becoming something of a stretch to see Allen, who is about as visually inviting as an eyesore and has those ticks in speech that were cute in the Seventies but now amount to little more than hiccups laced with mothballs. John Cusack, seen in SHADOWS AND FOG, takes over the "writer" in this story but doesn't try to act like Allen (a tendency every actor who's subbed for Allen has done since Michael Murphy mirrored Allen in MANHATTAN, Michael Caine did in HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, and so on). Chazz Palmenteri, however, really takes over and drives the movie through and through, being the brains behind the play in production and a thoroughly masculine presence that somehow becomes more and more feminine as the movie walks towards its conclusion. Jennifer Tilly, the moll patterned (at least in the likeness of) Clara Bow, is the bimbo and plays it to the hilt. Dianne Wiest is again on board, this time playing completely against type as a self-absorbed stage actress who throughout the entire movie makes "Don't speak!" hilarious. A fun ride with a shoot-'em-up finale, this was one of Woody Allen's best films of the Nineties after the Mia scandal, because after this one his movies began a sharp decline in quality and what had been up until then been an anticipated wait -- to see a release of the new Woody Allen film of the year -- had by the end of the Nineties been an "Eh... whatever" thing.
Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Courage Under the Threat of Extermination
Unless these tragic incidents take place in our own country, we will see them unfold through our very eyes courtesy of CNN, et. al, and go on with our lives while shaking our heads in horror and pity but not doing much else. This is exactly what a reporter played by Joaquin Phoenix tells Paul Russebagina, the hotel manager of Les Milles Collines as Rwanda begins its inexorable plight into the horrors of racial purification -- the war between the Hutus and the Tsutsis.
As a matter of fact, unless you saw the news back in 1994, you didn't and wouldn't even know of these events. It was virtually kept under wraps and only revealed when the death toll was unnaturally high. What HOTEL RWANDA attempts, and succeeds in doing, is bringing forth the absolute tragedy of a country driven to the extremes of decimating its own population in lieu of establishing the eventual dominance of the Hutus over the more "esthetically pure and therefore privileged" Tsutsis.
However, where the movie really makes its mark is when Paul Russebagina, the smooth talking, subtle Hutu man who as of now has been able to get people to eat out of his palms faces the stomach-turning horror: no one will come to his aid, no one will even attempt to intervene to stop the madness that is exploding all around him. The U. N. has turned its eye away from the situation. Belgian soldiers within the country are escorting only foreign citizens. Paul and those left behind will have to fend for themselves and hope to find a way out.
HOTEL RWANDA establishes the character of Russebagina as an essentially good person who gets caught in a situation that spirals out of control and forces him to face it head on: much like Clive Owen's character in CHILDREN OF MEN, or even Schindler in SCHINDLER'S LIST, his is a man who grows from being just an observer of sorts into a hero who goes beyond the call of duty while maintaining a brave face in the light of the sight of his people being massacred for the sake of genocide. Sophie Okonedo lends a strong support as Tatyana Russebagina, a role that could have been thankless but achieves a relevance all its own. Where Terry George's film succeeds is bringing a moral consciousness unto us, the people viewing this film which is a mirror of the events from over a decade ago without exaggerating the gore. It makes us aware that regardless of how distant these events might be unfolding, it's really unto us to lend a hand to those in need.
It has to be a crowning achievement for a movie to have entered into public consciousness to such a point that even when the average person may not even have a passing idea as to what this remarkable movie might be about, they assume, from the title, from the poster, that it has to be "one of those unforgettable love affairs between Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart". Of course, the more you do know about CASABLANCA the clearer the in-jokes and the subtle yet potent lines become: as a matter of fact, CASABLANCA has now become one of the most quoted pictures of the last one hundred years. With a convoluted story which is really a romantic love affair between Rick, Ilsa, and her husband Victor Lazlo as well as a denouncement of the Nazis in this otherwise relatively safe haven that is Rick's cafe in Casablanca, Morocco, CASABLANCA becomes a ferociously sophisticated tale that has overtones of film-noir and that overwhelming chemistry that both Bogart and Bergman possess, their romance surpassing everything else and being the barometer for which romantic drama has been measured up against. If anything, of the supporting cast, Paul Henreid, for all his third billing, is the more thankless since he doesn't get much to do other than play the somewhat befuddled Lazlo (although he does get to find out that Rick and Ilsa have a little more than common than they'd like to admit). Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre (who also appeared with Bogart in THE MALTESE FALCON), Conrad Veidt also appear here as well as Claude Rains who has one of the most memorable supporting parts as the general who is "shocked! shocked!" that any gambling is taking place at Rick's... as he smoothly takes his winnings from an employee. Also featuring one of the most deeply, lush ballads, "As Time Goes By" and that powerful scene of defiance as the occupants sing for France, CASABLANCA has become an emblem more than just another feature film -- the stuff that dreams are made of.
Stardust Memories (1980)
Through the Looking Glass
There comes a time in every director, every writer, every person who creates works of art, when he or she comes against the brick wall of re-evaluation which entails the need to look back and see the mistakes, the paths tread, the work that has been done, the detours, and do an assessment of where now is, where the future -- if there is one -- lies. Woody Allen, no stranger to homages and to the criticism his work -- and its progression -- had received as he went further and further away from the "earlier, funnier" movies he made, goes into Fellini's territory -- namely, 8 1/2 -- and sums up an array of images that could very well be a neat, carbon copy of what the Italian had made back in 1963. On his way to the Stardust hotel, Sandy Bates views another train filled with passengers (among them a "pretty lady" who blows him a kiss, none other than Sharon Stone making her film debut and sort of playing the wispy, fleeting role that Caterina Borato played in Fellini's masterpiece). Once he arrives to the hotel, everyone, including aliens, harass him on everything from his earlier comedies (which were much better according to them) to the most trivial of aspects, one of them which is his sister demanding that he take more charge of her life. At the same time, Sandy juggles affairs with several women, among them the blonde Isobel (Marie Christine Barrault, a neat substitute for Mia Farrow), Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling, a nice variation on Diane Keaton), and Daisy (Jessica Harper, ditto). STARDUST MEMORIES looks equally as great as MANHATTAN, being shot in the same textured black and white, but unless the viewer is in on the joke, this one may fall a bit flat on its face due to the very reflexiveness of its story. However, without resorting to the excesses that Fellini did in 8 1/2 (no scenes of women fighting over him, loudly, in a very Italian mode), it's darkly funny in that very personal Woody way that has become his staple. This is Woody facing his own career, his own life, even when it seems to have been done a little too early in his career which continues alive and well today, a quarter of a century later.
The Title Says it All
A love letter to the city that never sleeps, featuring one of the most iconic images ever recorded on screen: that of Diane Keaton and Woody Allen, two quintessential New Yorkers, sitting on a bench which overlooks Brooklyn, the East River, and the Brooklyn Bridge. MANHATTAN is arguably one of Woody's best romantic comedies and an upbeat one at that despite the usual suspects of dysfunctional individuals who populate the city. The world of Isaac Davis whirls around the love he feels for an underage girl named Tracy, the love he wants to feel for the acerbic Mary Wilke (Diane Keaton), and the love that has turned sour towards his ex-wife turned lesbian Jill (Meryl Strep) who's written a none-too-flattering book based on their marriage (which makes you wonder not only if her lesbianism is merely an excuse to get out of marriage, but how sane she really is but then again: tell-all books have as of today become a thing of vague interest; back in 1979, they weren't). The story moves around like a loop-de-loop of relations and it foreshadows a remark that another college girl named Rain (Juliette Lewis), one which another Woody character, Gabe Roth, will date in HUSBANDS AND WIVES, will do in criticism of his work and the fact that characters move in and out of relationships with this casualness that is unnatural. But this is the world he lives in, and in a way, this is pretty much how things actually happen -- we just don't see it this way, or choose not to. To top it all, it has the pristine Gershwin score that makes its presence throughout, it's shot in a crystal clear black and white and the only movie he's done in letterbox, and it has the beautiful, radiant performance from Muriel Hemingway as the precocious Tracy -- her scene, where she gets the bad news from Allen, is shot dead-on and is heartbreaking, but she's the only one who is grounded enough to accept things as they are and look forward. One of the most beautiful, nuanced pictures Woody Allen has done.
Big Business (1988)
Bette and Lily, Times Two
It's possible I may be a dim bulb, since I'm probably one of few people who love movies who find a lot to like in Jim Abrahams' screwball comedy BIG BUSINESS starring Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin. I love build-ups to a climactic scene and this movie is pregnant with it -- of course, being screwball, the situation/premise is way out there on a flimsy limb but who cares? Seeing these two extremely funny women with distinctive comedic styles playing against each other, gravitating towards a final showdown at the Plaza Hotel which delivers on every level, strung along by a plot that just gets crazier and crazier, is really a stroke of genius. I loved this movie, I still do, and truth be damned, I think it's hilarious to the nth degree.
And Nary a Banana On Screen
Before Woody Allen became a "serious" director, often bringing his admiration and influence of old Hollywood and Ingmar Bergam into the forefront, he directed one of his funnier entries in this, his 1971 movie BANANAS. Here the jokes come rather fast and furious as his alter-ego Fielding Parrish, a product tester who has a thing for Nancy (Louise Lasser) who wouldn't want anything to do with him anyway. Somehow he finds himself in a Central American country called San Marcos, where he becomes its guest of honor and later its ruler, a position which later places him in hot water as he becomes labeled a subversive. Sight gags abound left and right even when it feels sketchier -- less of a movie than a short reel, and foreshadow the side-splitting comedies EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX and SLEEPER.
A Family Lies in Ruins
It seems that the moment Woody Allen strays from his trademark quirky, nervous humor, people in the know and in the appreciation of his work tend to do a Linda Blair, throw their hands up in the air, and exclaim to the skies, "Why, God, Why???" before jumping off a Manhattan skyscraper and on their way down, slitting their throats in sheer devastation because the Master Allen had failed them. It seems rather shallow to pigeon-hole someone who after almost ten years of making wacky comedies (and winning an Oscar in the process a year earlier for ANNIE HALL, groundbreaking in every aspect) only wanted to tell the stories he wanted to -- it's the equivalent of the horror writer who gets lambasted when he attempts to write a straight-forward drama, or the dramatic actor who all but gets ruined in the process of effectively conveying comedy.
But not to digress: INTERIORS is Woody Allen's finest drama which gets better with every subsequent viewing. It's hard not to appreciate the tragedy being played out within its characters nearly thirty years after its first release. It could, as a matter of fact, represent the essential family mechanics without the overwhelming violence that some families enact -- but still inflicting severe wounds of a deeper, mental and emotional nature, the type that years of therapy cannot erase. Three daughters come together to face the burden of their parents' separation (although unlike subsequent movies in which Allen would involve three sisters, i. e. HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, INTERIORS only focuses on two of the three daughters and the third, Flyn, gets an underdeveloped treatment).
The aptly named Eve (Geraldine Page) is at the center of this separation. She is the mother who is silently going mad, if she has not been for a while now. It's rather disturbing to see the damage she's inflicted on Renata (Diane Keaton) who herself is involved in a very unsatisfying relationship with a man who cannot appreciate her work as a writer, but more so when we focus on how she treats Joey (Mary Beth Hurt) and imposes her will on her. Joey, the most hurt of the three, has to carry the brunt of this dysfunction, seeing her father's wife-to-be (Maureen Stapelton) who has a natural attitude towards life and could care less about the intellectual pretentiousness these people have.
Where Allen really brings forth his forte as a director is right at the moment when everything festering below the surface comes to light, literally. Page's character appears for the first and only time dressed in black, already a ghost, to her daughter Joey who is still clinging onto some hope. As the entire household sleeps (seen in quick inserts), Page decides to walk into the ocean. Joey tries to go after her mother, possibly to save her, possibly to join her. Stapelton, the only one truly awake in the house, runs after Joey and into the water, breathing life into her lungs. It's a powerful, moving scene -- one of the most emotionally satisfying I've ever seen in a Woody Allen movie, since his pictures tend towards the intellectual, and it just shows that a director is much, much more than the sum of his apparent parts, Bergmanesque and all.
There seems to be a misunderstanding between people and critics who have seen Woody Allen's September. It's as if they were expecting something and that something didn't deliver, or if it did, they either didn't catch up on it or it did so in an unsatisfying manner. I personally love this movie because of the situation it presents by putting together six people inside a summer home, filling them with the ghost of unrequited love and a secret that seems to be about to burst forth at any given time. Mia Farrow plays Lane, a mousy woman who is spending some time alone to nurse some inner hurts, has been harbouring a love towards Peter (Sam Waterston) who is considering writing a book based on her mother Diane (Elaine Stritch) who has come to visit with her husband Lloyd (Jack Warden). Peter at the same time is finding himself falling for Lane's friend Stephanie (Dianne Weist), while Lane is at the focus of a friend's attention (Denholm Elliott).
September has this way of looking like a comedy of manners without the laughs and with a deadline to meet. The thing is, when you place so many people and so much angst together under one roof, it's only time before something unspeakable comes forth -- and in this case, it's the unresolved issues between Diane and Lane who have some truly awful baggage together. Due to the fact that Diane, even when she says she's moved on, is rather insensitive to her daughter, and her daughter is much too sensitive and incapable of moving forward, they seem poised for some serious explosion. It's all very modern-day Shakespearean and while the movie is devoid of any humor (except some witty dialog that only those keen in ear will catch), this could be, in a lighter tone, resemble the sitcom it's about to turn into. Even so, this is quiet affair, quintessential Woody, with a sextet of actors very much a part of his rotating troupe and a satisfying watch.
On Golden Pond (1981)
Scenes From a Summer Place
Mark Rydell's ON GOLDEN POND is one of the quieter outings of the 1980s, a movie that despite its star power is almost as serene as the lake in which the entire story revolves around. Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda play the Thayers, who have come to their house on the lake for the summer. Norman Thayer seems to be on the edge of mild dementia, as he gets lost while on the grounds and seeks reassuring from his wife Ethel. He also hasn't patched things up with his daughter Chelsea (Jane Fonda) who also arrives with her fiancée Bill (Dabney Coleman) and future son Billy (Doug McKeon) in tow. Chelsea and Bill are on their way for their own vacation and ask the Thayers to keep check on their son. Friction erupts in minor quakes from the start -- Norman isn't the most congenial of people and age has clearly only intensified his curmudgeonly nature -- but it's the bonding that later occurs with young Billy and Norman where most of the movie develops its story, as this brings forth much of Chelsea's old wounds.
It sounds predictable and borderlines on the premise of a sitcom or one of the more recent, emotionally charged shows tailor-made for a female audience, but ON GOLDEN POND is quite a movie. I don't think it's the acting from its entire cast, namely being the dominant presences of Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda who are in the movie for most of its run and convincingly play a married couple. There's an added element here, one that has become more and more relevant in films of today where stories that rely more on setting than power-plots are in demand. Films rarely focus on the twilight of people's lives and this one is all about that, even presenting a character that we may not appreciate but who is going through a mild case of memory loss. Also, to see two women perform minor athletics -- Hepburn, diving off to rescue her own husband; Jane Fonda doing a back-flip in a scene where she makes amends with her father -- is worthy the price of admission. A fine movie, delicate and soft, one of these rare pictures that take place in their own nostalgic universe.
The Miracle Worker (1962)
The Power of "Water"
A life, when faced with insurmountable obstacles, can either go two ways: forwards or backwards. Thanks to Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller, the girl who was born with three of her vital senses missing, became the woman who not only overcame her condition but learned to "speak" in several different languages, and thus not remain the "animal" she was being dubbed as be her own family who did not know what to do with her. Arthur Penn's movie THE MIRACLE WORKER, based on William Gibson's heart-pounding play, is essentially a two-character study of two people with similar conditions bound together by their need of each other. Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke rip into their roles and create a monumental piece of truly mesmerizing acting, since much of their interaction is basically non-verbal and intensely physical. The entire play is a set-up to that one wondrous moment when Helen finally is able to effectively communicate and understand the concept of "water": this is, quite frankly, one of the most moving sequences in not only this movie but cinema that deals with the triumph of the spirit. A timeless classic and a major inspiration.
Johnny Guitar (1954)
The Battling Lesbians
If there ever was a Western that could inspire the confused line, "Huh...?" this is it. Nicholas Ray's allegory of lesbianism and McCarthyism (yes, it's rather evident, I'm not trying to sound or look more intellectual than anyone else) is one of those left-field genre movies that has to be seen more than once to see its brilliance. At its basest, it's the story of two women who while hating each other can't seem to keep themselves too separated from themselves. Emma Small (appropriately named so, here played by Mercedes McCambridge) is the uber-villain of the piece with the most screen dominance, the butch bull-dyke whose main goal in life seems to destroy saloon owner Vienna (Joan Crawford) with the pathetic excuse of preventing road builders to cross their land, a thing Vienna, in dire need of business, welcomes. Emma goes to great lengths to make sure she succeeds in doing so, and when the man of the conflict is revealed -- Dancin' Kid -- there's this expression of "What the hell??" that becomes born, because the character is so out of Emma's league, being barely a boy and certainly not the object of Emma's unrequited affection. Adding to the film's oddness is the fact that all of the men in the movie are either unable or unwilling to fight at one point or other and behave solely to fulfill the will of these two strong women: even the more subtle, feminine Vienna has control (emotional and circumstantial) over the title character, gunslinger Johnny (Sterling Hayden, who for all his overpowering masculinity has to endure a nearly thankless second-billing). As it stands, JOHNNY GUITAR is a rousing, entertaining movie that steps outside of its constraints and delivers on every level.
Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
The Moebius Strip
Metafiction, since the arrival of Charlie Kaufmann, has become the driving force in cinematic storytelling. Consider that ADAPTATION and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND ar the types of stories which evolve within themselves and turn logic inside-out by breaking the thin layer of fantasy and bringing it into reality. Not that this was groundbreaking, Luis Bunuel was there first, happily deconstructing the art of plotting from BELLE DE JOUR to THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE.
However STRANGER THAN FICTION is less a surreal experience than a blend of what is happening as opposed to what is not, and even what might be implied. Harold Crick has started to hear a voice within his head. It's a voice we hear, too: a woman's voice -- the Narrator. He wonders if there is any meaning to this voice who tracks his every move and peppers it with bon mots. It begins to get intrusive and frankly, he gets fed up with it: what does this woman want? Can anyone outside of him hear her narrate his life? Is he on some perverse reality show? At the same time, Karen Eiffel is experiencing writer's block. She fantasizes constantly about death -- then again, death is ever present in her novels, and the protagonists (regular folk, good people as she later calls them) die senselessly. But, in their death, beautifully written by her hand in narration, they achieve a certain immortality that becomes a work of art in itself. Her public, her success, her reputation depends on their death.
How director Marc Forster blends both the life of Harold Crick with the writing of Karen Eiffel is really what's at stake here and this is the kind of movie where a review about it would destroy any expectations a viewer would have of the revelation that is STRANGER THAN FICTION. Adding to this, its mismarketing as a comedy actually makes it the better picture: the trailer teeters only on Harold's apparent crack-up as he yells and goes berserk at the voice that he keeps hearing but it leaves out the meat, which is a wise move. Harold is much more than a Will Ferrell comedy-sketch: he becomes fully realized as a man caught in a completely surreal experience. STRANGER THAN FICTION has some excellent acting from its entire cast which is of the likes of Dustin Hoffmann, Emma Thompson (in a rather darkly funny role as Karen Eiffel), Maggie Gylenhaal, and Queen Latifah in a role that seems to have been conceived as larger but got lost in the scissors that is the cutting room floor.
Fantastic Voyage (1966)
The Cartoonish Expedition
From the get-go, FANTASTIC VOYAGE is a study in dated science-fiction that seen today induces self-conscious laughter instead of awe. The concept of scientists being miniaturized to microscopic size and inserted into the comatose body of a scientist who has a clot in his brain now seems like an exercise in Discovery Channel porn but then was filmed with the seriousness of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, and because of the time it takes in bringing a strong realism into its hokey montage, it succeeds rather than sink before it's even started. For the first half hour the movie develops its set-up with care. Once the crew becomes injected into the scientist's bloodstream, the effects of blood platelets is startling -- considered all it is, is lava lamp bubbles and a greenish background. Plotwise, the story makes no sense and transitions between one scene to the next are flimsy at best, but this is escapism made very well. If you can get past awful acting from Arthur Kennedy who continues to spew out bad lines and a King Charles' head approach to his scenes, and Raquel Welch's presence as eye candy -- she was J. Lo before J. Lo was even a blip in this world; check out the many reference the movie gives her torpedo-like breasts, particularly in the scene when the crew removes antibodies from her body), FANTASTIC VOYAGE is silly, cotton-candy fun. And kudos to the human GPS system who continues to track the ship's trek through the scientist's body -- that visual alone is priceless.
The Template of Women's Prison Dramas
CAGED is an important movie of its own genre, maybe one of the most relevant due to the way it tackles its gritty and heretofore unexplored subject matter head-on, devoid of sentimentality and hope. It can be even taken as a voice for those women who have no voice, those who regardless of the gravity of their crimes, have been literally "locked away" from society and forced to an accelerated involution into the subhuman where the only way to survive is to become the antithesis of good and give in to corruption, here dominated by the overpowering, smothering persona of Hope Emerson as Evelyn Harper. Whatever its position in cinema history (it can also be placed as one of the earliest examples of queer cinema due to its inclusion of aggressive lesbians and lesbian actresses in prominent roles), CAGED is an unforgettable experience, a perfect match of Neo-Realism, Crime Drama and Film-Noir summed into a relentless assault of the senses that only grows more and more desperate as it delves deeper into its sordid story. Marie, here played by Eleanor Parker in what has become her most-remembered movie role, is haunting as the ingénue who gets ground into mincemeat and comes out a hardened criminal. It certainly is light-years ahead of the blonde dimwit that Judy Holliday portrayed in BORN YESTERDAY which eventually won the Oscar. Perhaps Oscar-voters didn't know what to make of it. Perhaps its very sordidness, its pulp roots, and its B-movie looks took away from its chances. It's a shame that due to its ahead-of-its-time release, CAGED, a dark horse in 1950 (completely obliterated by the larger than life ALL ABOUT EVE and SUNSET BLVD.) has now, nearly sixty years later, grown into a monster of its own despite garnering no awards during its release. However, CAGED is a fantastic film, with a first-rate cast including the likes of Agnes Moorehead, Lee Patrick, Betty Garde, Ellen Corby, Jane Darwell, Sheila McRae, and Jan Stirling in a scene-stealing role as Smoochie and a presence that points at the type of women that would become icons of beauty a full decade later -- think Goldie Hawn and Twiggy.
Ladies They Talk About (1933)
Nearly twenty years before CAGED, LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT touched the theme of women in prison with a much lighter touch. Barbara Stanwyck, this time, is at the helm as the ingénue sent to prison by her no-good boyfriend played by Preston Foster, although you wouldn't know it since this prison resembles more of a posh boarding house than the hell CAGED would present much later. Stanwyck is her usual gritty self (which is saying, she's fierce and elevates what would have been a throwaway role) as the girl who toughens up, and there is one of the earlier references info lesbianism thrown in as an oblique character who "likes to wrestle". It's probably more memorable due to the fact of being made in Hollywood's Pre-Code years, but if at all for an early Stanwyck, it's worth a shot. Look for Lillian Roth in a supporting role, one of the few she made during her short career before collapsing into almost absolute ignominy.
Beyond Bottom of the Barrel
A negligible incursion into the science-fiction horror movie with a strong 1950s feel, SSSSSSS (yes, seven of them, purportedly to mimic the sibilant sound of hissing snakes make) attempts, rather stupidly, to tell a tale of a mad scientist (Strother Martin) and his pet project (Dirk Benedict). The premise: Martin is looking for an lab assistant, focuses on dim-bulb Benedict who comes along for the ride, gets special "inoculation injections" (there's a term for you) that will immunize him from possible snake bites, and gets slowly turned into a King Cobra. There's virtually zero suspense, a silly love story involving Heather Menzies in a trademark Seventies shag and bad eyeglasses, an inexplicably covered up nude scene, a little bit of beefcake thrown in early on, and no third act to boot.
The Queen (2006)
The Lady Named X
Towards the end of Stephen Frears' THE QUEEN there is a scene in which Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren, at her acting finest)gets a visit from Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen, a great foil for Mirren). Two months have transpired from the events following Princess Diana's tragic death. Blair inquires if it must have been hard for her (as they take a walk which will take them out into the gardens). The look that Mirren as the Queen gives Sheen as Blair is unique -- the stuff that elevates simple acting into something truly transcendent. It's the look that conveys pages upon pages of untold, unexpressed words, the gesture which says, "You have no idea how it's been for me. Not just that awful week last year, but all my entire life."
And true to fact, neither can we. Never in the history of reigning monarchs has there ever been a less popular, more thankless person. It's as if she had devolved from being little more than a decorative figure maintaining a dying tradition, into worse than a relic, or the painting she is posing for at the opening credits. Diana, the rival, roams throughout the movie, unseen but clearly the Rebecca everyone -- variations of Mrs. Danvers, all of us, the vox populi -- rooted for and loved and expected to see carrying the ultimate Title, whereas all Elizabeth II could aspire to be less than X, blotted out, a brittle old woman with bad fashion taste frozen in the Fifties, on standby as to how she should react to Diana's death -- and this is the crux of the action. One hellish week, a battle of popularity, and a moment of indecision as to what would be the right action to take in regards to mourning The People's Princess.
A stunning movie made by a consistently remarkable director, THE QUEEN is a subtle little game of wills while it takes a darkly perverse time in skewering the monarchy, particularly in scenes involving arguments between the Queen's husband, Prince Philip (James Cromwell) and the Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms) who dissect their reactions, none too pleasant, about the rituals of mourning -- you wonder if these people actually exist and the headache it must be living with them. The feat that THE QUEEN manages to pull off is that it makes the viewer commiserate with Queen Elizabeth in the end and the fulcrum happens to be that surreal scene where she gets stranded in her own grounds and comes upon the stag her husband has been trying to hunt down. That she is, through this stag, able to finally come to terms with the fact that the world has moved on and she is in her own island is the best scene in the entire picture.
The Purifying Element
There are questions that sometimes hover over us and have no answer. Two women progressively find themselves ensnared in each other's arms (as corny as the expression sounds, that is exactly what happens) and fins that they cannot answer their own question as to what defines their relationship when their very own society has no name to what they are. Deepa Mehta's somewhat mis-titled FIRE is the first of a loosely connected trilogy, here linked by the theme of the elements, and more symbolic than consuming. Fire as uncontrolled erotic passion does not make an appearance here, since the women -- the older and more feminine Radha (Shabana Azmi) and the younger, more masculine tempered Sita (Nandita Das) come to realize they share a lot more than common ideas and affection for each other and stand for what they believe is their passion for each other despite the opposition faced by their very traditional husbands and families. As in WATER, FIRE is deeply spiritual, even if it technically falls into the mode of sentimental melodrama (where WATER, much like the weight of the word, carries a stronger meaning that ultimately transcends its definition). Even so, it's a very beautiful picture, and a strong voice from a strong director.