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Angels & Demons (2009)
Adequate & Dull
You just can't keep a good symbologist down, apparently, no matter how hard the religious ne'er-do-wells try. Dr. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is back to decoding religious symbols in an attempt to save the world, or some aspect of it at the very least. This time he is helping the Vatican decode a plot hatched by the Illuminati against the Catholic Church (timed with the Pope's death) as retribution for the church's mistreatment of the secret society centuries ago. Now they are wreaking their revenge by threatening the lives of four cardinals, and ultimately, blowing up Vatican City with a nifty little stolen gadget called anti- matter and it's up to Langdon to find and solve the clues in a four hour time span.
With all due respect to the millions of people who read this book and went nuts for it, there was absolutely nothing about this story that I found interesting. Though I actually really enjoyed reading The Da Vinci Code (and this is the first and last time I'll compare the two novels/movies) and had high hopes for this book, when I tried reading Angels and Demons I couldn't get through the first 30 pages without giving up because I found it to be incredibly boring. I can barely even keep my eyes open reading the synopsis I wrote about the movie and that's my own writing. I didn't buy that they were working urgently (it seemed like an hour was more like a "movie hour" of about an hour and a half at least) and found the developments and "twists" so obvious that I entertained myself by pretending I was as smart as Langdon and could figure out the riddles just because the camera pointed out the answer to me. ("Of course it's under the floor – one of the three dozen angels' arrows is pointing right at the spot!") And speaking of predictability, I was once again intellectually offended by a filmmaker forcing several possible villains down my throat in a bid to be suspenseful. Honestly, good writing and direction is all you need, not five people giving furtive sidelong glances like the shifty-eyed dog on The Simpsons.
The acting in the film was decent, though certainly not inspired. Tom Hanks always seems very natural in his films, and I was pleased to see one of my favorite contemporary actors, the under-valued Stellan Skarsgard in the film. Once again, however, the female lead (Ayelet Zurer) was completely ineffectual and Ewan McGregor simply chewed scenery without a lot of panache. I also don't know when Armin Mueller-Stahl become completely unintelligible, but I couldn't tell you most of what he said in the film because I couldn't understand a word he said.
Having completely bagged on the story and an elderly German actor, I do now have to admit that the movie was actually somewhat easy to watch, if only in an "I don't feel like I'm completely wasting my time" way, the same way I will watch a Lifetime Movie Network flick to fall asleep. Realizing this sounds fairly negative, one has to look at Ron Howard's films in general: They are always easy to watch but not challenging, and adequate but not exciting. Unless someone is really interested in a subject matter that he covers, I think that his films tend to be the culinary equivalent of a Little Debbie snack cake. They are good when you're hungry, but other things are so much better; yet, you know what you're getting into when you take a bite. I really enjoyed Frost/Nixon after seeing it, but I'm also a history nerd, and the interesting thing about that movie was after seeing all of the other Best Picture nominees of last year, it quickly fell to a definite last place in the running for me. On a definite positive note, however, I can say that, whether the locations were simulated or not, as an art and architecture lover I thought the location shots were great, and my experience was further enhanced by my parents leaning over occasionally to whisper, "We were there!"
I can't completely pan Angels and Demons, but I also don't have a lot of good things to say about it either. The best thing I can truly say about it is that it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, which is sometimes all you can ask for in a summer popcorn flick.
The Common Law (1931)
Refreshing pre-code fare
In Paul L. Stein's 1931 film "The Common Law", Constance Bennett plays Valerie West, a "kept woman" who decides that she needs to leave her sugar-daddy boyfriend Nick and make a go of it on her own. She ends up working as an artist's model for painter John Neville, Jr. (McCrea), and while they begin their relationship as friends, the two soon become lovers. Unfortunately, there are a number of factors against them, namely Valerie's past as a kept woman and John's sister Claire (Hopper), who believes that Valerie is less than acceptable for their blue blood family. During his bouts of indecision, he succumbs to fits of jealousy about Valerie's past and finds it hard to trust her to be true to him, especially when she suggests they wait until they are absolutely sure of their love before they get married. Valerie, on the other hand, knows that she loves John but is afraid she will get hurt, particularly when she sees the rich life of which John's family are members.
There are a few notable things about "The Common Law", despite its relatively simple plot and short running time. Being a Pre-Code film, the role of Valerie is juicy without being compromised and saddled with social morays. It is clear that Valerie lived with both Nick and John and was married to neither of them, something that just was not expressed in post 1934 films. (The irony of this censorship doesn't escape me either; one would think that there would be a progression as the medium grows and not a recession.) This is where the title "The Common Law" is derived, and it is only near the end of the film when Valerie begins to feel personal and social pressure that she acquiesces to marry. It is left to the audience to interpret whether she is entirely comfortable with the situation, but she does not hide her apparent joy over her ultimate decision; it almost seems like a weight has been lifted off her shoulders.
Also notable are various obvious innuendos (like when Valerie is leaving Nick and he suggests, not cruelly, that she could perhaps survive well as a call girl) and the first scene in which Valerie poses nude for John, not five minutes after he hires her as a model. She is clearly uncomfortable, but loses her inhibitions quickly and though her form is not clear, the scene ends with a long shot showing her lying naked on the platform. This would have been unheard of in a post-code era where even the amorous Nick and Nora Charles were relegated to twin beds.
Constance Bennett, one of the most popular screen sirens of the pre-code Hollywood era, plays Valerie as tough, savvy and intelligent, but with one look she is able to express vulnerability and sadness. Her incredible beauty and impeccable style (her clothes not only look like they were made specifically for her, but are timeless as well) are literally breathtaking. There is no doubt that she is a star of enormous quality and talent. Particularly during this early period of "talkies", there were a plethora of actors and actresses who may have looked gorgeous but couldn't act their way out of a paper bag. It was those who could that became immortalized and revered, and Bennett more than deserves a place in this upper echelon. Unfortunately, this praise can't extend to the rest of the featured cast. Joel McCrea obviously hadn't hit his stride yet, though he had made over a dozen pictures before this one. Though he plays his usual role, the handsome, earnest and ruffled hero, it would be a few more years before he shows some of the greatness that he exhibited in films like "These Three" or a decade later in "Sullivan's Travels". While he is likable in this film (other than when he is being a jealous ass) it is obvious that there are times when he is waiting for his cues, and the delivery is wooden. I have never seen Hedda Hopper in a film other than when she had a cameo in "Sunset Boulevard", so I was first surprised when I saw her name in the credits and even more surprised when I did more research and saw that she actually did 82 other films BEFORE this one was released. And here I thought she was simply a gossip columnist though if her work in "The Common Law" is indicative of the rest of her repertoire, then she found her true calling about 130 films too late. Unfortunately, her nosiness and rumored bitchiness in real life could not be channeled into her role as McCrea's bitchy and nosy sister because she was just terrible.
"The Common Law" is a fine example of Hollywood's pre-code era, when women didn't have to be saints, or if they were "subversive" (by Hays Code standards) they would be punished in the end. Instead we have a strong female role in which her strength is complimented by moments of vulnerability, and despite a non-adherence to a strict moral code dictated by some sects of society, there is a happy ending after all. 6/10 --Shelly
Wise Girl (1937)
Simple, yet delightful
Society heiress Susan Fletcher (Hopkins) and her wealthy father Simon Fletcher (Henry Stephenson) are vexed that their young nieces Joan (Betty Philson) and Katie (Marianna Strelby) are living a Bohemian lifestyle in Greenwich Village with their artist uncle John (Milland) after the death of their parents (Susan's sister and John's brother). Simon has given up trying to convince John to allow he and Susan to take care of the children and have resorted to using private detectives to catch him in either unbecoming behavior or unemployed and therefore unable to care for the children properly. Susan finally decides to take matters into her own hands and goes to Greenwich Village herself, posing as an actress, to try to gain information and/or persuade him to see reason. What she discovers however, is that she not only likes the free and artistic lifestyle John and his friends are living and that the girls are being brought up well, but that she is quickly falling in love with John. Inevitably, her true identity is discovered and she is faced with the task of convincing everyone on both sides of the custody debate who should belong with whom.
I really enjoyed this film, and found that its very short running time (70 minutes) was the perfect length to spin this simple but endearing story. Miriam Hopkins, one of the great 1930's-1940's actresses is delightful in this film. Her energy, style and wholesome beauty really lend themselves to creating an endearing character, even though you know that she's pulling a fast one on the people she quickly befriends. This is the earliest film I've seen Ray Milland in, and he was actually young and non-patrician looking. (And apparently three years younger than his co-star) His energy and carefree manner in "Wise Girl" were a refreshing change to the demeanor he affects in his usual, darker, films. Honestly, though I am usually not remotely a fan of child actors, I really enjoyed the two young girls who played Susan's nieces. They were endearingly precocious, and were really the jewels of the film. Unfortunately, I can't dig up any other films that either of them were subsequently in after this one, which is a shame since both exhibited a large amount of natural talent.
"Wise Girl" was a film that was made three years after the Hollywood Code was instated, and to some extent, this was abundantly clear by the quick, happy ending, and the pie in the sky loftiness and ease with which the characters lived. The alleged Bohemian co-op was in fact a gorgeous cul-de-sac where the artists lived for free or for trade, and everything is tied up very nicely throughout. Fortunately, this was a light enough film and the characters were charming enough to make allowances for its fluffiness and short-comings and I was able to just take "Wise Girl" for what it was; a good old-fashioned love story that was as entertaining as it was endearing. Unfortunately, films of the romantic comedy/drama genre today are considerably less intelligent and entertaining, or I wouldn't find myself continuously returning to the classics. 7/10
Now THIS is romance
Now THIS is romance Back in the mid-late 1930's, when Katherine Hepburn, though she had already won an Oscar, was labeled (along with several other actresses) "box office poison", it was Hollywood that suffered. Unfortunately, after the Production Code blasted out full throttle, strong roles for women disappeared because women no longer had a strong voice in cinema, so a lot of the heavier-hitters (Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Miriam Hopkins) ended up foundering in what they were given. In the case of George Cukor's 1938 film "Holiday", she had a couple of friends involved with the picture who insisted that she be used (she had been the understudy of her film counterpart on the stage) which turned out to be an excellent plan since she is one of the many great things about this film.
Set in New York, "Holiday" stars Carey Grant as Johnny Case, a fledgling businessman who is more concerned about making a career out of something he wants to do, and not what he should do in order to make a lot of money. He has a plan; he has been working hard at a job that he doesn't particularly like to save enough money to take an indeterminate time off to figure out what he wants to do with himself. While he takes a holiday, he meets Julia Seton (Nolan), the two fall in love and go back to New York to tell Julia's father. What Johnny doesn't know is that Julia comes from an extremely wealthy family, and while he is shocked and bemused by this fact, he finds himself taken with the other members of Julia's family; Linda Seton (Hepburn), Julia's free-thinking and dramatic sister, and brother Ned Seton (Ayres) a kind but dour alcoholic. Both siblings are discontented with being under their father's thumb (while he is not a bad person, Edward Seton has strong feelings about how things should be handled) and both take an instant liking to Johnny, particularly Linda who finds herself falling in love with him. As plans for the marriage begin to solidify, it becomes clear that Johnny is being forced to quash his dreams, not only to gain the approval of their father, but because Julia thinks it is the way to go as well.
Having never even heard of this film, I wasn't sure what to expect out of "Holiday"; I figured it might either be a screwball comedy (based on the Hepburn/Grant collaboration in "Bringing up Baby") or maybe a regular romantic comedy. What I got was actually a romantic dramedy that was not only charming but heartfelt as well. George Cukor's direction (as usual) is wonderful and the chemistry between Hepburn and Grant is simply electric. Hepburn, clearly the star of this production, acts each scene with an emotion and charm that is almost unheard of in the mainstream cinema of the present. While I watched the film, I found myself becoming so endeared to her character that I probably would have been completely devastated if she didn't get some sort of happiness in the end, probably one of the highest compliments that I can give to an actor's performance since I mainly pay attention to the story and the film itself primarily and the characters are important, but seem to be secondary. Grant, who is probably most famous for being debonair and dashing, often played the goofball in his films of the 30's and early 40's, and this was another one of those roles for him. He is such a fresh and passionate character however, (he often finds himself doing various acrobatic stunts with glee) that he quickly proves himself to be more than just the handsome doofus who makes bug eyes at the camera when he's confused. He and Hepburn actually look like they're having a good time together in this film; a wonderful thing to see when it seems that 90% of collaborations look like they are phoned in nowadays. If Doris Nolan isn't unremarkable and bland all the time, she did a really great job in her role as fiancée Julia at some point you're really wondering what Johnny ever really saw in her and made him declare his bachelorhood over with at the age of 30. Lew Ayres, a name I had heard before, but didn't recognize by face was also very charming as the alcoholic brother. I found his character to be incredibly endearing, especially as the film progressed. A mention also has to be made of the actors who played Johnny's best friends, the Potters. (Edward Everett Horton & Jean Dixon) Anyone would be hard pressed to dislike these two intellectuals with senses of humor that are more arid than the Mojave. Every scene they were in became even more enjoyable.
What stuck with me is that between the script and the actors, I felt like I was actually watching a real slice of life, kind of like Booth Tarkington without the depression. "Holiday" is a fantastic hidden gem in the classic film catalogue and I would recommend it very highly. Not only is it short in length, but also its engaging story, steady pacing and brilliant actors made me wish it were longer. Watch this wonderful movie if you have any ounce of appreciation for classic film. 8/10 --Shelly
Tell Them Who You Are (2004)
A fascinating subject
"Tell Them Who You Are", Mark Wexler's 2004 documentary about his father, Oscar winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler derives its title from a story told by a fellow documentarian in which Mark was with his father when he came across someone he wanted to meet. When he showed reservations about introducing himself, Haskell simply said "Tell them who you are", which, in essence meant, "Tell them you are Haskell Wexler's son." This self-assurance and some would say egotistical manner with which Wexler conducts himself is prevalent throughout the film, and makes for a fascinating documentary.
Haskell Wexler, who won Academy Awards for his work on "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Bound for Glory" and has been nominated for and won many other awards, came from a privileged background in which he wanted for nothing, but was constantly rebelling in some fashion. A leftist from the start, he started a newsletter in his teens with a friend titled "Against Everything" and went on to start a union walkout for the workers in his father's factory before joining the army. After a distinguished military stint, he expressed a strong interest in film-making and began his career making short films for corporations and private groups. When Hollywood took notice, his career skyrocketed, and he went on to shoot films for such directors as Elia Kazan, Milos Foreman, John Sayles, Mike Nichols and Norman Jewison. He directed several documentaries and a couple of feature films himself, most notably 1969's "Medium Cool" which placed actors in the middle of the very real action of the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots.
"Tell Them Who You Are" is more than a chronicle of Wexler's filmography, however. It is equal parts a study of a very contentious relationship between a father and a son. Mark, Wexler's son from his second marriage, has directed one other documentary and admits he is fairly green when it comes to the medium, but whether the two are squabbling over politics, (Mark is a conservative and his father is a devout leftist) or Wexler is trying to direct his son (which is occurring throughout the film) the tension is almost tangible. No one who is interviewed denies the genius of Haskell Wexler's work, but no one also will say that he is easy to work with. Even the many still photograph of Wexler from various movie sets show him gesturing madly, which lend credence to the claim by several that he simply wanted to direct the films himself. Even Wexler will admit this, and say that he probably could have done a better job himself, a claim that isn't entirely refuted by some directors. (Though while most directors and producers admit that they could easily put up with Wexler's manner because of the work he produces, director Elia Kazan and producer Michael Douglas basically said they had horrible experiences with him and neither would work with him again.) This stubbornness and alpha dog manner also translates into his personal life, which lead to some pretty tense moments when Mark is trying to set up a shot with Wexler hollering to him that the lighting is going to be bad, etc. He even refuses to sign the release form his son gives him until later on in the film. But for every seemingly obnoxious trait, there is an endearing element to Wexler's personality. Whether one leans to the right or left, his political convictions are admirable, if not possibly annoying in their omnipresence. His incredible talent almost makes one forgive the way he bosses his son around, until you realize something that the son does; this is Wexler's at times not-so-diplomatic way of sharing something with his son, with whom he has never had a close relationship, and of teaching him and passing on his legacy. Though Mark never actually says, "I don't like my father", his discomfort is clear, as is his realization that his Dad isn't the jerk he and everyone thought he was. One of the most interesting (and in my opinion, heartbreaking) moments of the film occurred near the end. Earlier in the film, Mark was talking to Conrad W. Hall, the son of the late, famed cinematographer Conrad L. Hall ("American Beauty", "In Cold Blood") who was one of Wexler's best friends. During the conversation, Mark tells Conrad Jr. that he felt like Conrad Sr. was a surrogate father growing up, and that he often wished that Conrad Sr. was his father instead of Haskell. Then later in the film, at a tribute for Conrad Hall Sr., Haskell Wexler is addressing the crowd and essentially admits that he knew this about his son, and that was always one of the reasons he was jealous of Hall throughout their friendship. For someone as abrasive and seemingly unfeeling as Wexler sometimes portends to be, this was a really big moment, though the crowd, not knowing the truth behind Wexler's words, all chuckled.
"Tell Them Who You Are" is not the greatest documentary I have ever seen, and it is a little messy, technically. But when one begins to wrap their brains around what Mark Wexler is trying to do with his film, it is easy to see that if these "messy" issues weren't actually intended, they fit in perfectly with the theme of the film itself. Whether you approach it from a film history standpoint, or from the total picture of film and family relationships, you will not be disappointed either way. I'm not sure how available this film is (it has a one week engagement at the classic/art house movie theater I frequent) but if you enjoy film, and particularly some daring and innovative films of the late 60's to mid-70's, I strongly recommend you seek this film out. And check out IMDb.com to see Wexler's filmography I'm sure that even if you didn't know his name before reading this review, you're well aware of his work.
I've often said that if I had the use of a time machine that probably the first place I would go would be California in the 1970's, when filmmakers like Polanski, Altman, Spielberg and even George Lucas were in full swing in their crafts. The 1970's was possibly the last fantastic decade of cinema, where the films were adventurous and the directors were iconoclastic. One of the most revered and famous films from this great decade is Roman Polanski's 1974 crime thriller "Chinatown".
Set in the 1930's, "Chinatown" stars Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes, a private detective who with two associates, seems to specialize mostly in adultery cases. When a woman comes into his offices and introduces herself as Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray, he initially turns down her request to tail her husband. He finally gives in, however, and begins to look into Mulwray's deal. It turns out that he is the chief engineer of the water department, and times are tough right now because of a drought. Jake is confused when he sees Mulwray looking at several parcels of land, but finally meets his objective when he is able to photograph Mulwray with another woman. When the story breaks that Mulwray (currently a controversial figure because he refuses to build an unsafe structure that the public at large thinks is a good idea) is stepping out on his wife, Jake gets a visit from Evelyn Mulwray threatening to sue. Except this Mrs. Mulwray (Dunaway) is completely different, and is the "real Mrs. Mulwray". When Mr. Mulwray turns up dead shortly thereafter, Jake finds himself in the middle of several mysteries, all which seem to point toward the direction of Evelyn and her father, one of the city's richest and most corrupt businessmen, Noah Cross. (John Huston) The greatest element of "Chinatown" is in my opinion, also something that could serve as a deterrent to some. I really liked the slow, drawn out plot. Polanski and Towne did not seem to have a problem taking their time with the pacing on the film, something that I personally found to be refreshing. Instead of rushing to the conclusion, or having fantastic fillers, it is clear how comfortable Polanski is with the material and his actors in that he takes as much time as needed to provide pertinent backgrounds and details. The decision to remove Nicholson's narration and simply have the audience discovering all of the clues along with him was brilliant. Though narration can be a very effective tool, unfortunately it is a device that was done to perfection in the 1940's (and some of the films of the 50's) and emulators don't always do the best job with it. Anyone who is looking for flash and rapid-fire cuts are not going to get that with this film. What one gets is a bright and colorful California setting, where some scenes look like Hockney paintings if they were set in the 1930's. It is hard to describe how lush the cinematography is, but if I had to put it into words, non-sensically I would compare it to butter; that everything looks velvety and soft. Only at night does the scenery turn sharp and slightly harsh.
The acting in "Chinatown" was as good as I expected, and that is to say superior. Nicholson, one of the greatest actors of the past four decades, put together a low key, almost introspective performance as Gittes. Though he is indeed mischievous (how could he not be with those eyebrows and that grin, used to full effect in this film) Nicholson seems to temper his normally explosive style. Faye Dunaway, an incredibly talented actress, who, even if she hadn't played her in an infamous film, evokes the memory of Joan Crawford before she started doing her weird films in the 1950's & 1960's, was the perfect counterpart to Gittes. At times icy enough that you would expect her to spit cubes, and other times violently passionate, she shows some of her best work in this film and is achingly gorgeous to boot. The third main figure is probably the best because his performance was most surprising, and that was John Huston's. He not only directed one of the greatest early noir films ("The Maltese Falcon") and is one of the greatest directors of the 20th century, but he really puts in a dark and gritty performance as Noah Cross; and he's REALLY convincing. I was absolutely delighted in the choice to cast him, because while there are admittedly a lot of actors who could have done this role, it was still really cool to see Huston do it.
All of this is not to say that I adored "Chinatown". Frankly, I thought it was a good movie, but probably in the same way that people scratch their head at why "Citizen Kane" is often called the best film of all time, I kind of did the same in terms of why say, Entertainment Weekly would name it the #4 film of all time. However, even though I definitely liked it, despite not loving it, I can see its importance in film history and I can really appreciate the technical aspects that made up the film. That is why I have no problem rating it a 7/10.
Best role for Madonna
I used to think that there were a couple of absolutes in this world other than the standard issue ones. One is that I will always hate Andrew Lloyd Webber and another is that Madonna will never be a good actress. After seeing Alan Parker's 1996 musical "Evita" however, starring Madonna and featuring the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, I have had to amend those two statements slightly.
"Evita" tells the true story of Eva Peron, the wife of Argentina's former president (and dictator) Juan Peron. In a story that was ready-made for Hollywood, she started out as the illegitimate and poor daughter of a man who dies when she is very young, sleeps with a mediocre nightclub singer at the age of 15 in order to gain passage to Buenos Aires, and from there begins her struggle to reach whatever achievements her ambitions require (which is a lot). Using her body to gain important friends (because, frankly, she didn't have any acting talent) she becomes an actress and radio star before she meets Juan Peron, at the time, an up and coming politician. They get married and the two work to get him elected as the president of Argentina on the platform that "they are workers too". When he is elected, Evita's popularity grows even more, to the point where her dreams of becoming the vice president of the country could be realized, until she is stricken with cancer and dies, essentially with the image of a saint, at the age of 32.
"Evita" is a gorgeous, lush film, full of thousands of extras, great location scenes and features a very talented cast. It acts almost as an incredibly big budgeted and elaborate music video, mainly because it features almost constant singing, and well, it stars one of the most visible music video stars of all time. Madonna finally found her part in this film, and no, it wasn't just easier because she didn't have a lot of speaking lines. It is clear that not only did she take voice lessons (which actually is true) because her voice quality was better than "normal", and has stayed that way since the making of this film, but she was able to knock off some decent dramatic moments. Banderas, though he spent a lot of the film looking pretty furious with the camera, doesn't have to prove any acting mettle (anyone who has seen him in an Almodovar film can attest to this) but did come up with a surprisingly good singing voice. Jonathan Pryce, who was curiously cast as Peron also did a good job, though his part was fairly minor, and even at that he was relegated to giving Evita a lot of loving looks. All in all, however, the slick production, some catchy music (I cannot believe I am actually saying that I actually really like a film featuring the music of the insipid, mainstream, gnome-like Webber) that is good enough to listen to extra-curricularly and performances that weren't bad made for a pretty good and very entertaining viewing.
Don't get me wrong there are more than a few eye-rolling moments in "Evita", but the good definitely outweighs the bad, exponentially. The story, while coherent, was pretty mediocre, and I found that I felt that there were some things that were glossed over or trivialized with a cute musical number. Admittedly, however, this IS a musical and you don't sign up for a hard-hitting knowledge fest when you watch one. This wasn't the first time I had seen this film, and yet I still end up getting so wrapped up in the action that I end up bawling a couple of times, and this viewing was no exception. More importantly, though, I didn't feel like a doofus when I recommended it as a movie that three guys and I should watch together, because while it's slick and a musical, (and therefore, traditionally, a chick film) there's enough compelling elements to the film that will keep some guys happy as well. Good job, Parker and thanks a lot for blowing two of the absolutes I normally stand by. 6/10 --Shelly
Jackie Brown (1997)
Decent, but don't expect a Pulp Fiction sequel
"Jackie Brown", the 1997 film starring Pam Grier as the title character, a flight attendant who smuggles cash into the country for a shady associate, Ordell (Jackson) is the third film directed by Quentin Tarantino. When Jackie is tagged by the feds, (played by Keaton and Michael Bowen) she is willing to give up Ordell because she has a plan of her own. Meanwhile, Ordell has proved himself to be a pretty nasty character, killing associates without even a hint of betrayal, so to say that Jackie is walking a tightrope is an understatement. Rounding out the cast is Robert Forster as Max Cherry, Jackie's bail bondsman hired by Ordell when Jackie is initially arrested by the feds, and eventual love interest, Robert DeNiro as Louis, an associate of Ordell's who is fresh out of jail and about to buy in on one of Ordell's gun selling schemes and Bridget Fonda as Melanie, one of Ordell's women, and object of both fascination and irritation for Louis.
"Jackie Brown" features many "Tarantinoisms" that we have come to expect from his films; slick cinematography, a soundtrack that is perfect for the film (in this case, 1970's R&B) a rich cast of eccentric characters, a solid amount of violence and even more profanity. If there was a Tarantino film that DIDN'T include these elements, I would be disappointed. As John Travolta was dug up to star in "Pulp Fiction", Tarantino resurrects two 1970's actors, Robert Forster and Pam Grier, and both prove once again that there are few contemporary directors around who have better gut instincts and an eye for casting than he. Although there could have been many other bigger name, safer choices that would have jumped to be in Tarantino's perceived follow-up to "Fiction", the film geek once again proves that he knows best. Grier is absolutely luminous, and looks at least 10 years younger than her actual age. Better than that, she is sexy, spunky and knows what she wants. The supporting cast is also excellent, and while it's definitely film geeky to admit it, like the actors who appear in the ensemble films of Paul Thomas Anderson or Wes Anderson, I always admire the cast of Tarantino's film because while they may not have a large or prestigious role in the film, they are always juicy characters that are sometimes played against type. I loved seeing Michael Keaton as a hard-faced, leather jacket clad fed, and Robert DeNiro, who can chew scenery better than a lot is fantastic as the quiet, shlubby and slobby sidekick.
Anyone who approached "Jackie Brown" looking for a Pulp Fiction sequel was probably either somewhat disappointed or, like me, encouraged that Tarantino can not only do flashy, but can spin a good story as well. And perhaps even more importantly, he wasn't a two-trick pony with the inspired films "Pulp Fiction" and "Reservoir Dogs". While I have mixed feelings about Tarantino the man, (I am endeared to his almost autistic-knowledge of film and his inherent film geekiness, but I am both fascinated and repelled by his almost constant hysteria and, particularly in the infancy of his fame, his inability to turn down an acting job or engage in ceaseless self-promotion) I certainly count him among my favorite directors and anytime he releases a film, it's an event. Before seeing his latest releases, "Kill Bill Vol. 1 & Vol. 2" I lamented that he possibly took too much time off between projects, but after seeing "Vol. 1" I quickly reconsidered, saying that if he is going to consistently put out superior product, he can take as much time as he wants.
And that is why I look at "Jackie Brown", a film that wasn't quite as stellar or lauded as his others with a certain amount of fondness, because it is a great piece of work, without all of the flash, bells and whistles of its predecessor. Knowing that a "Pulp Fiction 2" would be an instant hit, Tarantino decided to go in a different direction, and it's that willingness to take a chance, even if it's not a huge leap, that makes me appreciate it that much more. It's probably my least favorite Tarantino film, but even my least favorite Tarantino film garners a better rating than 80% of contemporary cinema. Even Tarantino fans that I know let this film go under their radar, so if you are in the same boat, seek this one out; it is well worth it. 7/10 --Shelly
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Robert Hamer's 1949 film "Kind Hearts & Coronets" is the epitome of British humor, from start to finish. Louis Mazzini (Price) is a descendant of the D'Ascoyne family, a family of royals, but unfortunately his mother has been disowned by the family for taking up with and marrying Louis Mazzini Sr., an Italian singer whom the family highly disapproves of. When Mazzini Sr. meets an untimely death early in young Louis' life, he sees his mother struggle to give him everything he needs, so after she dies, he vows revenge. He decides that he will get his birthright and become the Duke of Chalfont, except he has to get through the eight people ahead of him (all members of the D'Ascoyne family are played by Alec Guinness) who are in line for the title. Meanwhile, while he is calculating how he is going to commit cold-blooded murder to knock off each heir, he carries on a sort of double affair with Sibella (Greenwood), a woman who he has been enamored with since they were children and is now married to a former classmate of theirs, and Edith (Hobson), the young widow of one of the D'Ascoyne heirs that Louis offs. The story is told in flashbacks as Louis sits in a jail cell, awaiting his execution and writing his memoirs.
This was one of the most clever and wickedly funny films I had seen in a long time. I honestly had no idea what to expect from it when I started watching; I only knew that it was an IMDb Top 250 film and it starred Alec Guinness. I didn't have a clue that it was going to turn out to be one of the greatest examples of British comedy I've seen this side of Monty Python. The gags in the film are so dry and subtle (at one point, Louis causes an explosion that means the demise of one of the D'Ascoyne heirs, yet when it goes off while he and the heir's wife are sitting in the garden having tea, neither of them even flinch, and she doesn't notice something is wrong until she actually turns around and sees the plumes of black smoke) and the theme so dark that it could theoretically be easy to forget that one is actually watching a comedy. There are no sight gags, double takes or high hilarity present, which makes this film all the more appealing, because it elicited huge laughs without stooping to typical elements of comedy.
I thought that Guinness was going to be the breakout guy in "Kind Hearts and Coronets", and believe me, it's certainly noteworthy to see him dressed in drag as Lady Agatha, but the real star of the film was the fantastic Dennis Price. He plays Louis with the slick charm of a Rex Harrison, but it is clear that his heart and temperament is far more nefarious than anything Harrison could drum up, even when he was plotting to kill his wife in "Unfaithfully Yours". When he utters lines like "The next morning I went out shooting with Ethelred - or rather, to watch Ethelred shooting; for my principles will not allow me to take a direct part in blood sports" when he has not only already killed several, but is planning on killing Ethelred himself, his aplomb yet sincere delivery is comic gold.
I really enjoyed "Kind Hearts and Coronets" and sincerely hope that even though it seems to be slipping more and more to the bottom of the IMDb Top 250 list after an initial strong appearance, its placement on the list will make more people seek it out. Frankly, I had never heard of the film before seeing it appear on the list, and I consider myself to be fairly adequate in my knowledge of classic film. And you'd be hard pressed to find a better classic film comedy than this one; it is ahead of its time in its clever wickedness. I would be willing to bet the Coen Brothers are fans of this film. 8/10 --Shelly
Duck Soup (1933)
They say that in the world there are two kinds of people: Those who like Elvis, and those who like The Beatles. (Don't ask what category those who don't like either fall into.) A similar analogy that I like to use involving classic film comedies is that there are Marx Brothers people and there are Three Stooges people, and ne'er the two shall meet. Being a Marx Brothers person myself, I watched Leo McCarey's 1933 film "Duck Soup" with great delight.
Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) is named the president of a small city/state called Freedonia, which has just been hauled out of bankruptcy by the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (longtime Marx Bros. foil Margaret Dumont). Firefly has been appointed the president because of Mrs. Teasdale's devotion to him, much to the chagrin of Ambassador Trentino (Calhern), a man who wants control of Freedonia and the hand of wealthy Mrs. Teasdale. He hires Chicolini (Chico, natch) and Pinky (Harpo) to spy on Firefly so that Trentino can not only become Mrs. Teasdale's husband, but president himself. Because they are the Marx Bros. alliance lines are blurry, and Chicolini and Pinky end up on both sides of the fence. War breaks out and hilarity ensues.
Nope, there's not much to the plot, but "Duck Soup" is an absolutely riotous film that was almost as surreal as it was funny. Enormous musical numbers that seem to come out of nowhere certainly contribute to the bizarre theme, and this film is even more manic than other Marx Brothers films. Part of the appeal of their brand of comedy is their rapid-fire delivery, sometimes so fast that you don't realize that you've actually heard what you just heard. Teeming with double entendres, (" ") and featuring the wonderful "mirror gag" that somehow gets me every time, I find that there isn't actually a lot to say about the film because it is truly a simple little gem. Barely an hour long, I suspect it contains the most gags in ten minutes that are truly funny than an entire two hour comedic production from the last twenty years. And this comedy is whip-smart and damned funny. This may not be the best Marx Bros. film to initiate someone with, ("A Night at the Opera" may be just a tad less manic and a little more "user-friendly) but it is a bona fide comedy classic that exudes relevancy a whopping 72 years after its original release. 7/10 --Shelly
Introspection and nostalgia
"Wild Strawberries", Ingmar Bergman's classic film in which an elderly physician examines his life while traveling to receive an honorary award for his years of service is probably not a household name, but it should be seen. Professor Isak Borg (Sjostrom) has been living alone for years with only his housekeeper to keep him company, as he has alienated his grown son and his daughter in law. His cold demeanor and brusque mannerisms don't help to win him many friends, so on the advent of the award ceremony, while his daughter in law drives him there he reflects on his past and things that happened/decisions he made that led him to become the man he has, and led to the life he is living. Whether they are nightmarish dreams about death, or bona fide memories he experiences while they visit his childhood home along the way, each occurrence makes him more introspective (and a bit frightened) about his life and the lives of those around him.
"Clarity" is not the first word that comes to mind when I think of Bergman, but the words "introspective" and "provocative" do. "Wild Strawberries" was like a less sentimental "Goodbye Mr. Chips", and even has some similarities to "Deconstructing Harry". After experiencing Bergman films like "The Seventh Seal", I was expecting there to be a lot of room for interpretation, and what I got was a beautiful, interesting and thought-provoking study of a man who didn't realize all that he had lost until he finally allowed himself (or forced himself, depending on which way you want to look at it) to come to terms with certain turning points in his life, some of which he had complete control over, and some which were decided for him.
Bergman's black and white cinematography is gorgeous and artful, and Sjostrom's performance is heartfelt and natural. The supporting cast is good as well. If you're trying to get someone to get into Bergman films, this may be a good warm-up before exposing them to "The Seventh Seal" or even "Persona". With "Wild Strawberries", Bergman proves once again that he is one of the most thought-provoking and creative directors of the 20th century. I would definitely recommend this film. 7/10 --Shelly
The plot of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 film "Psycho" is by now the stuff of legend; Marion Crane (Leigh), a secretary in Phoenix is desperate to marry her boyfriend Sam (Gavin), only Sam is still paying off debts from his previous marriage. One Friday a man comes into her real estate office with $40,000 in cash to purchase a house for his daughter. Instead of taking the money to the bank as her boss directed, Marion packs her bags and leaves town with the money, presumably to give to Sam so they can finally make a life together. After driving for a day and a half, she ends up stopping at a motel only 10 miles from Sam's home. The Bates Motel, operated by one Norman Bates (Perkins) is a creepy place shrouded with mystery, particularly the mystery that is Norman's mother, a driving force that looms over the property and controls Norman himself. When Marion does not show up for work on Monday, her sister Lila (Miles) comes looking for her as well as a detective, Arbogast (Balsam) hired by Marion's employer. Unfortunately they all find that as one mystery begins to unravel, another one, more quizzical and shocking is ready to take its place, and none of them are safe from the danger of the Bates Motel.
I'm pretty sure that there isn't much more to say about this film that hasn't already been said; "Psycho" being one of the most studied and analyzed films in film history. (I myself took a class in college that examined parts of the film frame by frame, and have read books analyzing the film) However, I have to wonder if the sensation of the film and the fact that it is an instant classic, regardless if someone has seen it or not (truthfully, I have heard people say, "Oh, that is such a classic." And then later admit that they haven't yet seen the film at all.), sometimes waters down its mastery and the impact this film had (and continues to have) on the film industry as a whole. If you ever get the opportunity to see the art exhibit "24 Hour Psycho", wherein the artist slows the film down to make the running time span an entire day, or if you were to read the excellent book Shower Scene in Hitchcock's Psycho: Creating Cinematic Suspense and Terror by Philip J. Skerry, you can see how incredibly impeccable each frame of the film is. If you were to lay out any scene in the film and look at it frame by frame, you would have some incredibly compelling photographs, and that was exactly how Hitchcock intended his presentation to be.
Aside from being a work of art, it is well known that "Psycho" changed the way that moviegoers attended the cinema. Because of the big event that occurs halfway through the film, Hitchcock could not have people continuing their normal practice of strolling into the theater whenever they felt like it. If any of these people came to see a Janet Leigh picture, they would be pretty confused at that point. So Hitchcock, ever the showman (and his own greatest publicist) announced that no one would be admitted into the theater after the movie began. This was HUGE for its time. Besides changing the attendance factor, it was one of the greatest publicity stunts of its time. If people weren't going to go to the film before, they sure were going to check it out now. I'm sure that "Psycho" doesn't have as much of an impact to people who grew up on slasher films or other horror films, but despite the fact it was released 45 years ago, its secrets are now the stuff of general film knowledge, and personally, the fact that I have studied it clinically, when I went to see it at the classic movie house two weeks ago, I still found that my heart was racing and the hair was standing up on my arms during the very last scene of the film. Even more of a testimony to its impact is the fact that a friend that I attended the film with, who isn't much of a film fan, much less a classic film buff not only said that he was so tense during the film that he was on pins and needles, but that he wanted to see it again, and soon. Why does this film have such a forceful impact nearly five decades after it was first released? I'm sure that one of the several hundred books written about this film and Hitchcock's filmography could give you several reasons at length. But a simple answer may sum it up best for now: It's simply a damn good movie. 9/10
A worthy remake
Much has been made about whether or not "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", directed by Tim Burton, was even necessary. The original film about Willy Wonka, Mel Stuart's "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" (1971) is a bona fide classic, so it was inevitable that there would be some trepidation in the wake of a remake. Fortunately, Tim Burton not only is the best man to helm the project, but the film, while having many similarities to be sure, does differ substantially from Stuart's.
There are going to be inevitable comparisons to the original film, and whether or not this is entirely fair, one cannot help but look at some main similarities and differences. Both films certainly have fantastically odd set designs, though (perhaps being a product of its time) the original is pretty psychedelic. It is hard to describe Tim Burton's sets in most of his fantasy films, though he has made enough of a name for himself in that he's probably been used as an adjective (A set being "Burton-esque I know I've personally used this phrase). The Bucket's house is impossibly slanted and the "garden" in the beginning of the factory tour is not just colorful, but looks like Dali designed it. Burton has traditionally made some really slick looking films, and his style is just as present in this one. One of my favorite scenes in particular was in the sterile room where Mike Teevee meets the end of his tour. The stark white is the same from the original film, but there was something about the presentation, from the lighting to the funky goggles they were wearing, that made me really take notice. The many different Oompa Loompas were replaced with the hilarious Deep Roy (superimposed on many bodies), with songs that were not only updated and more contemporary, but ones that were mostly written by Dahl himself. Unfortunately I am at a disadvantage in that I have not read the book and therefore am not certain which script changes (from the original) can be attributed to Burton's production or to the book itself, but I really enjoyed the background information on Wonka; it not only gave him a more human appeal (despite his bizarre appearance) but really gave the production more depth than I felt the original had.
When I first heard about this project last year, and learned that Depp had signed on as Wonka, I was really excited because I firmly believe that not only is he one of the greatest contemporary actors working, but he and Burton are the greatest actor/director team in decades. Both people, while they have shown their versatility (mainly Depp) are better known for their creativity, and as a result, every project they have done together has been nothing short of spectacular. There is no way to compare the performances of Gene Wilder, the original Wonka and that of Depp because they are very different and both great, but I can aver that any trepidations that some may have about whether he can do the part justice are quashed in about 30 seconds. Made up with ghoulishly white face makeup on a chiseled face that looks like it could cut stone, with a toothy grin and a shiny straight pageboy hair cut, if Depp were about two degrees more frightening-looking, he would be nightmare fuel. His portrayal of Wonka and his ironic dislike of children is less sarcastic and more phobic. He clearly doesn't feel anything but disdain for most of the children, but deals with them on an almost childish level himself, spouting out "Ew's" and bickering. His equal dislike of the parents is just as funny, but it all comes together, psychologically, with the inclusion of his own back-story. Freddie Highmore is, frankly, adorable. Emitting SO much more charm than Peter Ostrum, the original Charlie Bucket, he not only shows that he can act, (though I discovered this while watching "Finding Neverland") but he can charm the pants off an avowed kid hater. (That would be me) When I saw this film, I was with my boyfriend and a friend of ours, and I believe that we were the only "adults" in the theater who weren't accompanied by kids. Yet, I found that while everyone in the theater seemed to be enjoying the film, it was the three of us who laughed the loudest. The original film was wicked at times, but I think that "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" had moments where it was downright evil, and I thought the whole film was (no pun intended, really) simply delicious. There are few films where I sit through them with a big dumb grin on my face throughout, ("Moulin Rouge", any Coen Brothers film comes to mind) and this one definitely goes on the short list. There are so many appealing elements to this film that make it, in my opinion, an instant classic, and a film that is as kid-friendly as the original. That is to say, the kids will like it, but the adults watching it with them are going to pick up on how twisted it really is. 8/10 --Shelly
Visually arresting, thematically compelling
I wasn't entirely sure what to expect when I sat down at my local art house theater to watch Nimrod Antal's 2003 film "Kontroll". I knew exactly three things: The film was in Hungarian, it was about subway ticket inspectors and it looked fairly intriguing, at least visually. I was soon pleased to discover that not only is "Kontroll" a visually stunning film, but it has a compelling story that can possibly be interpreted in several different ways.
"Kontroll" tells the story of a group of subway ticket inspectors who have the unenviable job of attempting to make sure that the subway commuters are holding the appropriate ticket or pass. Normally, their jobs are simply annoying, and somewhat psychologically disturbing; sometimes, however, it is physically dangerous and downright deadly. Particularly lately, when there is a phantom subway dweller in a black hood that is pushing people onto the tracks in front of approaching trains. "Kontroll", while showing most of the members of the subway crew, focuses on one crew in particular, headed by Bulcsu (Csanyi). Bulcsu's crew can best be described as a merry band of misfits; there is a man who gets into such rages that he puts himself into a narcoleptic coma on a daily basis, an older man who seems to be the voice of experience, the requisite hothead and the newbie. Bulcsu, who we find out the most about, (and it's not that much at that) has a mysterious past in which he seemed to be a professional of some sort, is working underground almost as a self-imposed hell, not even going above ground, rather resorting to curling up next to a pillar after the trains are finished running for the night and the lights go out. Not only is his coloring terrible, but also he begins to have horrible dreams, some involving a beautiful young woman in a bear costume, who he eventually meets up with and befriends. "Kontroll", while not having a completely defined storyline, (which is, honestly, part of its charm) is certainly a thought-provoking and compelling film.
Inevitable comparisons will be made to Danny Boyle's "Trainspotting", from the gritty surroundings to the thumping techno soundtrack, but while I honed in on these similarities immediately, "Kontroll" has enough originality to be more than a clone or even a pale imitation. This was the first film I've personally seen surrounding the underground world of subway inspectors, and the story, though at face value may carry an immediate "who cares" stigma BECAUSE of its subject matter, is really quite good and is further bettered by the performance of Csanyi. Looking like a Chris Noth clone on the tail end of a two-week bender, Csanyi is able to give his character sufficient appeal and depth despite the fact that we never really know who he is and what his deal really is.
As I've stated, "Kontroll" leaves a lot to the imagination, and there are several elements of the film that could point in the direction of the theory of purgatory and the duality of man's psyche. Or, it could just simply be a slick, stylish and entertaining film about the subways of Budapest. Whichever way you choose to approach the film and its various themes, if you can find it (as of the present it has not been released on DVD) "Kontroll" is definitely worth seeking out. 7/10 --Shelly
The Way We Were (1973)
Despite some faults, it's still pretty good
The theme of a golden boy falling for a girl from "another world", be it social class, the "wrong side of the tracks" or fill in your cliché here, is one that goes back to the silent film era. One of the most famous examples is Sydney Pollack's 1973 film "The Way We Were". Set from the 1930's through the 1950's, Barbra Streisand plays Katie, an outspoken member of the Communist party and campus activist who does not have anything handed to her; she works two and sometimes three jobs in order to pay for her living and college tuition. Hubble (Redford) is your typical aforementioned golden boy, a "big man on campus" who indulges in sports, debutantes and all-around good times. The two know each other from the diner Katie works at (he being the patron) and at one point before graduation, briefly bond over their shared passion for writing. Cut to a few years in the future and Katie encounters Hubble at a bar. Hubble is in the armed forces and Katie is characteristically working a couple of jobs while volunteering for various social causes. After a night of drunken sex (Hubble being the drunken one) they embark on an unlikely relationship that spans over a decade and includes a move to California (when Hubble becomes a screenwriter in Hollywood) and the conception of one child. They are happy, but realize that regardless of their desire, they can't completely cross social lines and certainly can't change one another, particularly Katie's ever-ferocious dedication to social causes; a fight that becomes exponentially heated during McCarthy's Red Scare. The two have to decide whether they can sustain enough raw emotion for one another to persevere over everything else that is stacked up against them.
There are several things about "The Way We Were" that require suspension of disbelief (the fact that despite never having had much contact with one another that after one night of drunken lust and an awkward "morning after" being enough to kick start a relationship the magnitude of theirs is the first thing that comes to mind) but the bottom line is that it really is a well-written, well-directed and well-acted film. The two principal characters are full and complex, regardless of whether we are talking about the socially conscience Katie or the socially acceptable Hubble. I suspect they somewhat were written with the intent of familiarity for the purpose of effectiveness, and if this is true, it worked on me. The era in which these two characters were set was a very interesting time in American history, and the characters' actions during these times created some compelling cinema, particularly when it touched on the Red Scare.
But who am I fooling? The main reason people watch this movie, whether for the first time or for the fiftieth is for the doomed romance, and Streisand and Redford deliver in spades. "The Way We Were" was written for Streisand, (something that cause Redford to turn down the part at first, because he knew the film was going to be hers) and her portrayal of Katie is excellent. There are so many perceptions of Streisand nowadays (some of them correct, to be sure) that it's easy to forget that she really does have some serious acting chops, and she exhibits them to full effect here. I also happened to learn that the soft filtered lens thing with her didn't just start with her later movies, for whatever reason she was filmed with that lens more often than not here, but that didn't do anything more than slightly distract me because I couldn't help but chuckle. Redford gives a typical solid performance as well, though his initial doubts about taking the role turned out to be valid; he is not the dynamic figure in the film. However, his character is a strong one and Redford does a good job.
I don't know if Pollack knew he was creating a screen classic when he directed "The Way We Were" but he did make a very good film. If you can make it past some major melodrama and some plot holes (what was the deal with their child?) watch this film, and just sit back and appreciate it for what it is a chick flick that guys don't have to feel ashamed watching. 7/10 --Shelly
Old Acquaintance (1943)
Long before "Beaches" and "The Turning Point", there was the film "Old Acquaintance" (1937?). Focusing on the familiar theme of longtime friendship that is tainted by jealousy and competition, one of the most remarkable things about it is that Davis actually plays the "nice" one this time around. "Old Acquaintance" begins with Kit (Davis), a writer who turns out books that appeal to female intellectuals, returns home to visit her old friend Millie (Hopkins). Kit and Millie basically grew up together, and despite Kit's seriousness and drive and Millie's concern for all things material, the two have forged a friendship that is pretty tight. When we first meet the two, Millie, married and pregnant with her first (and only) child, decides that she too can become an authoress, only she is going to write what she thinks the public wants; torrid potboilers (ala Danielle Steel) that are high on the sappy melodrama, and low on the substance meter. When Millie finds eventual success and becomes extremely wealthy, churning out book after book, her husband Pres (Loder), and child, Didi begin to feel neglected and eschewed, thanks to Millie's highly materialistic and "queen bee" attitude. They both turn to Kit, who has managed to stick around through all of this, Pres falling in love with her, and Didi looking to Kit as a surrogate mother. Despite Kit having reciprocal feelings for Pres, she insists that they can never come to fruition since Millie is her best friend, so he divorces Millie and leaves. Years later, still a success, Millie finds out that Kit and Pres were in love at one point, and despite the fact that neither followed through with their feelings, Millie blames Kit, now an accomplished and respected playwright, eventually turning Didi, now in her late teens, against her. The drama is further heightened when Kit finally agrees to marry Rudd (Young), her younger lover, right when he meets and falls in love with Didi, causing further conflict and heartache until Kit and Millie are left with the prospect of only being left with the other, despite their serious issues over the years.
I really enjoyed "Old Acquaintance" because it had all of the elements of a great melodrama; back-stabbing, unrealized and tragic love, Bette Davis. Whether she is playing the good soul or the evil one (most likely the latter), Davis does drama the best, and "Old Acquaintance" is a fine example of her work. Hopkins, who I previously have seen playing fairly harmless and airy characters in ("The Heiress") as well as endangered and misunderstood (the wrongfully accused school teacher in "These Three") really rolls up her sleeves and digs into this part with obvious relish. She is fantastic, and while you spend most of the movie hating her, you can't help but admire how well Hopkins performs the role. The supporting cast of Loder and Young are fairly solid, and Loder in particular is great as the put-upon, romantic and downtrodden husband. Part of you wants to smirk and call him a wuss and part of you wishes you could date him.
The story itself is full and solidly carries itself well from the beginning of the film until the end. Coupled with good acting and a couple of great slaps courtesy of La Davis, "Old Acquaintance" was a good, meaty film that I watched with great relish, wondering where it had been for the last 20 years I have spent watching all things classic film, and in particular, Bette Davis. There was nothing stupendous about "Old Acquaintance" that made me speak in tongues or anything, but it is a wonderful film that has fallen into relative obscurity over the years that deserves to be seen and enjoyed. 8/10 --Shelly
The Male Animal (1942)
Cute at times, but it's pretty trite overall
There are some actors and actresses who can seamlessly cross film genres, and then there are some who don't. While I have not seen a lot of comedies starring Olivia de Havilland, I do know that from what I have seen, despite the occasional moments of inspiration (her turn as a young, star struck debutante in "It's Love I'm After" was particularly charming) she really does her best work in melodramas. Unfortunately, in Elliott Nugent's 1942 film "The Male Animal", de Havilland proves that her successful comedic turns are most certainly an exception and not the rule.
"The Male Animal" focuses on Tommy Turner, (Fonda) an English professor at Midwestern College in Michigan. His effervescent wife Ellen (de Havilland) is both celebrating her birthday and planning a dinner party the eve of the small college town's biggest football game of the year. Tommy, a fairly serious academic, is vexed when he finds out that one of their weekend guests will be Joe Ferguson, the former captain of the football team and all-around campus hero. Joe and Ellen have a romantic history together (she was head cheerleader to his football hero), an element that is further complicated when he finds out that Joe is recently separated from his wife. A subplot involving Ellen's younger sister Patricia and her two beaus mirror Ellen's situation; boyfriend #1, Wally, is the current football star and boyfriend #2, Michael, is a scholar. The two plots collide when Michael writes an editorial for the school paper hailing Tommy's decision to read a letter written by Bartolomeo Vanzetti (of Sacco-Vanzetti fame) in his class the following Monday. Tommy soon becomes a target for the school's trustees and his job situation becomes unstable while he decides whether he is going to succumb to the trustees and not read the letter, or exercise his academic and personal rights. Between his job situation and his fear of losing his wife, Tommy ends up having an unprecedented weekend.
Like the plot itself, "The Male Animal" is conflicted in the kind of movie it wants to be. On one hand, it is a goofy physical comedy wrought with misunderstandings worthy of Shakespeare (or Three's Company), yet it throws in a fairly compelling subplot concerning the freedom of speech element that is great on its merits, but coupled with the silliness around it, it doesn't quite fit. Fonda is a great, laid-back actor who doesn't look lost with comedy, and while my first impression is that he looked a little lost and befuddled during the high hilarity, I can safely attribute that to the character that he played. de Havilland, on the other hand, is charming for a total of 15 minutes of her screen time and spends the rest of the film being shrill and acting helpless. It is films like this that remind me of her comedic limitations; actresses such as Bette Davis or Myrna Loy are able to slide effortlessly between the comedic and dramatic genres I think, because they have a wryness about that. Davis is able to deliver a comedic line with a whip smart raise of an eyebrow and Loy has the aplomb and class to deliver a line with typical dry humor. de Havilland, at least in my experience, doesn't always possess these gifts, and therefore failed in this film. Jack Carson played the same kind of role here as he did in "Mildred Pierce" or "Arsenic and Old Lace"; he is predictable, but his predictability works.
"The Male Animal" is billed as a comedy/romance, and there is indeed some comedy and some romance. Unfortunately, by throwing in a heavy subplot involving something as important (and, admittedly, refreshing) as freedom of speech, particularly when it involves a convicted anarchist, it both waters down the romantic comedy aspects and lessens the effectiveness of the statement it is trying to make about personal and academic freedoms. If the film had either handled these conflicting themes better, or gave up on one or the other entirely, the film may have been more enjoyable, but as it was presented, and despite the fact that it featured a couple of actors I really enjoy, I can only give "The Male Animal" a 5/10.
Keeping the Faith (2000)
I had faith in the fact I would hate this film
Despite my complete obsession with Edward Norton, and my generally ambivalent, though generally benevolent feelings toward Ben Stiller, I really thought I was going to hate this film, because of two words: Jenna Elfman. Jenna Elfman, one of the banes of my existence for her "oh so quirky perky" characters, but mostly because she asserted once that AIDS victims were suffering needlessly because the disease was "all in their minds", is an actress that I try to stay from for many reasons, at all costs. Unfortunately my parents didn't get my memo regarding this subject because they not only recommended this film, but shoved the DVD in my hands on a recent visit and sent me home to watch it.
Surprisingly, neither the film nor Jenna Elfman was annoying. Approximately twenty years ago, Brian (Norton) and Jake (Stiller) became close friends with Anna (Elfman) when she stood up to a bully for them. Her family inevitably moves from New York to California the following year, and they don't see one another until Anna calls Brian, now a Catholic priest, to tell him that she is coming into town and wants to get together with he and Jake, now a Rabbi. The two friends, known colloquially as the "God Squad" grew even closer over the years after Anna's departure and managed to bring new ideas and unconventionality to their respective positions, make them two of the most popular "holy guys" in their neighborhoods. Jake is being pressured to date and find a wife because there has never been a head Rabbi in his congregation that was single, so he has to endure endless set-ups by congregation members and their daughters. This all changes when Anna returns and she and Jake begin a secret relationship, no strings attached. Unfortunately their feelings for one another become very strong and Jake must cope with the reality of his position and the effect that an interfaith relationship could have on his congregation. In the meantime, Brian has been developing feelings for Anna himself and, not knowing about the secret relationship going on under his nose, starts to question his own faith and position, wondering if he should chuck it all for the chance of a secular life with Anna.
"Keeping the Faith" is Edward Norton's directorial debut, a rather curious notion because I would have expected something a little less conventional and heart-warming than this film turned out to be. This is not to say that he didn't do a good job; he did there weren't any obvious pacing issues and he was able to capitalize on the obvious chemistry the three of them shared. Unfortunately, perhaps because of his dual role as director, or perhaps it was completely intentional and in the script, his role is billed as a main character, but he racks up a lot less screen time than the other two principals. Certainly this is a minor quibble with the overall film. All of the performances were good (particularly that of Anne Bancroft, who has a small but pivotal role as Jake's mother), but nothing dynamic. Frankly, however, going into this film I would have settled for "not annoying", so it worked for me.
After watching "Keeping the Faith" I felt like I had eaten a tuna melt on white bread; it tasted okay, but it could have been so much better if it had just been on some hearty rye. The general idea behind and execution of "Keeping the Faith" was okay, but I was left wanting more. Whether that is possible with this material is something that I'm not sure of, but I AM certain of one thing; I may not be a religious person, but I was thanking my lucky stars that the role of Anna was not played by Meg Ryan. Hell, I should award the film one extra point for this fact alone, so I'll just round up my true assessment of 5 ½ stars and give it a deserved 6/10.
It's not terrible
I'll say it straight out: I'm an anime fan, but the anime has to fit a certain niche. I'm not a big fan of comedy, so it can't be the silly anime, and I'm not real big on fantasy or science fiction. Like, at all. So when I mention that I love anime, those who know me aren't completely unsurprised. "X", a full-length anime feature directed by Rintaro was recommended to me by a hard-core anime fan who knows my limited criteria because of its utter lack of comedy and its fairly straightforward storyline.
The fate of Tokyo lies in the balance (when doesn't it?) when two sides, Dragons of Earth and Dragons of Heaven fight to gain control. The Dragons of Heaven want to protect Tokyo and its inhabitants, and the Dragons of Earth want to go back to a nature-loving society, where the people don't matter, and the Earth is at peace. Kamui is asked by Hinoto of the Dragons of Heaven to help their cause since he has other-worldly powers. By joining the other six warriors, they will be able to protect Tokyo and its citizens from the seven Dragons of Earth. Led by Hinoto's younger sister Kanoe, the Dragons of Earth soon are joined by Kamui's best friend Fuma who has been designated as Kamui's twin; whatever side Kamui joins, Fuma has to join the other. All Kamui wanted to do was protect Fuma and his sister Kotori, and now he's got Kotori in a coma and Fuma fighting him for the domination of Tokyo.
While the story is fairly simple, boy is chosen to protect the world while his best friend unfortunately fights against him (For just one example see Wars, Star in your local library's card catalogue) , what isn't simple is the number of characters involved in this story at least 17 if you pair it down to just the two sides. Over the first half of the film is spent establishing the back story and the characters, so by the time the real action started, "X" was starting to really lose me. Basically, I wanted them to cut the novel and make with the action. When they did, I was not disappointed, and the film ended well and not without a few surprises, but I think that it was just a little too late for me to make the film anything better than just "okay". Additionally, and this is just a purely aesthetic criticism, but I am REALLY not fond of the animation style in "X"; I believe it's pretty standard in Clamp anime, but the pointy chins and ginormous eyes of the character designs are just not my cup of tea. Hey, I'll admit that it's a pretty minor quibble, but anime has to be held up to the same stylistic standards as live action films and as a lover of art I tend to look at character design when I watch my anime. "Cowboy Bebop" and even "Evangelion" or "Lain" contain some really slick animation where I can really appreciate them as "art". As minor a consideration as it is in my overall assessment of the film, I just didn't feel this way with "X".
It probably looks like I disliked "X", but I really didn't. If I had I would have felt that I had wasted my time watching it, and that is far from the truth. There just was nothing that propelled it from average to great, the way I perceive most of Miyazake's films or recent animation offerings like "The Triplets of Belleville" or "Perfect Blue". "X" is seen as a classic anime and all of the elements are there if you're a die-hard fan, and it should be seen if you do enjoy anime. I'm glad I did, but I honestly don't need to see it ever again. 5/10 --Shelly
It's Love I'm After (1937)
The plot of "It's Love I'm After", Archie Mayo's 1937 film, is a fairly simple one. A famed Shakespearean actor, Basil Underwood (Howard) is set to marry his longtime co-star Joyce (Davis) after a tumultuous courtship. The night he proposes to Joyce (again this has occurred several times before) a stranger named Marcia (de Havilland) visits his dressing room, professing her love for him, telling him that she has seen all of his work, etc. He finds this intriguing and charming, but on his way to elope with Joyce, Marcia's fiancée Henry (Knowles) comes to visit Basil, asking for his help in curing Marcia's obsession. The two concoct a plan wherein Basil will go to Marcia's house, where her family is throwing a weekend party for guests, and act like a complete ass so that her affection for him will wane, and she will run back into Henry's arms. Basil embarks on his plans with his trusty valet Digges (Blore) with Joyce following close behind to get to the bottom of why she has been ditched again.
The entire reason why I wanted to watch this film is because I had never seen it, and it features two of my favorite actresses of all time. And while de Havilland and Davis were characteristically wonderful (particularly de Havilland, who was positively luminous in this fairly early role), it was two of the male leads, Howard and Blore, who were the most delightful and humorous. Howard, probably best known as the weak Ashley from "Gone with the Wind", is absolutely hilarious in his role as a self-important, over-dramatic, yet earnest actor. I was often reminded of Rex Harrison, particularly of his performance in the sublime film "Unfaithfully Yours". The combination of intelligence, rapier wit and at times completely moronic behavior was a huge winner in this film. This is the first film I've seen Eric Blore act in, but his role of Digges was another hilarious inspiration. His seemingly stuffy (veddy British) demeanor was in complete conflict with the downright ridiculous situations he willingly participated in. The two were wonderful together, and it looked like they were having a great time doing this film.
Director Archie Mayo has directed films as widely diverse as "The Petrified Forest" (Humphrey Bogart) and "A Night in Casablanca" (The Marx Bros.), but it is clear that he has a true gift for comedic direction. The pacing of "It's Love I'm After" was very quick and the dialogue was whip-smart. I enjoyed this film a lot more than I ever expected to, and since it's one that seems to go under the radar often, I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys classic comedy. "It's Love I'm After" gets a very emphatic 8/10 from me.
F for Fake (1973)
M is for mediocre
Orson Welles' 1974 documentary "F for Fake" examines trickery and fraud, mainly focusing on two men who have been exposed as frauds themselves. Clifford Irving is a biographer who wrote the allegedly fraudulent Howard Hughes autobiography, yet, at least it seems, purports his innocence. The other main subject of the film is artist Elmyr de Hory, a man who has spent his life painting fakes of famous masterpieces, sometimes selling them to museums as real works by the original artists. Interspersed among these stories are bits where Welles does magic tricks to illustrate points, etc., and he also addresses the fact that his career began as a fraud when he first lied on his resume and then created a radio sensation with "War of the Worlds".
I really wanted to love this film and find it profound since I am such a Welles devotee, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. Part of the problem lied with the fact that it was not just non-linear, it was completely scattered. While I appreciate stylish editing and quick jumps and zooms, particularly when used in an unusual format such as a documentary, there was simply too much of it going on in "F for Fake". They created a distraction as opposed to lending style. If the story had been more clear and comprehensive, I think that the editing probably would not have been as annoying. The scattered storytelling was made all the more obnoxious by the fact that these were truly interesting subjects, particularly Elmyr de Hory. His artistic fakery brings up the topic of fraud in the art world, and who is truly able to determine the authenticity of certain works; and if the works are not authentic, what does it say about those who admire the pieces in museums? This is one documentary that I would say to at least give a shot, but don't be afraid to turn it off if you're not enjoying it. It is certainly the most discombobulated documentary I have ever seen; it is a cross between a documentary, an art film and experimental film, none of which is properly represented or isolated. I don't have any lesser opinion of Welles after seeing it, but it certainly, in my opinion, doesn't stand out as a glowing specimen in his oeuvre. 4/10 --Shelly
Light in the Piazza (1962)
The scenery is the star
"Light in the Piazza" is the story of an overprotective mother, Meg (de Havilland) and her daughter Clara (Mimieux) who are traveling in Florence, Italy. While there, they meet Fabrizio, a young, rich native who immediately falls for Clara. Meg has severe reservations about the courtship, however, because as a child Clara had a riding accident that left her mentally impaired; essentially with the mind of a 10 year-old. Clara's charm and genuine innocence is one of the things that draws Fabrizio to her, and after Meg meets and approves of Fabrizio's family, his father in particular (Brazzi) she allows the courtship to continue, with some reservations. It isn't until she sees that their love is true, and finds that, back in the States, her husband has signed Clara up for a "special school" that she begins to consider that Clara may be better off marrying Fabrizio.
I'm a huge fan of de Havilland, but I'm a bigger fan of good drama. Unfortunately, I wasn't treated to anything above average in "Light in the Piazza". The performances were fine, and Mimieux in particular was charming, but something about the film didn't click with me. Perhaps it was a very slight story that was drawn out into a full-length film, or it could be the slightly generic direction by Green (who three years later made the excellent "A Patch of Blue"). The film's greatest asset by far is the scenery, obviously filmed on location. Imagine sitting at a café less than 100 feet from Michelangelo's statue of David; that is the kind of atmosphere we are treated to. Though made forty years apart, I saw a similarity between this film and "Under a Tuscan Sun" in that there wasn't much to do during the film other than look at the gorgeous Italian scenery.
"Light in the Piazza" is not a terrible film by any means, but there isn't anything about it thematically that makes it anything better than average either. I would recommend it if you enjoy Olivia de Havilland, which is why I watched it, but anyone who isn't a die-hard fan would probably be disappointed. 5/10 --Shelly
After the Thin Man (1936)
The greatest movie marriage
In this first sequel to the celebrated film "The Thin Man", detective Nick Charles, (Powell) his socialite wife Nora (Loy) and their beloved terrier Asta are on their way home to San Francisco after a long trip. Shortly after they arrive, Nora is invited to her wealthy aunt's house for dinner where she is told by her cousin Selma (Landi) that her husband Robert has run off (again) and she needs Nick to find him. When Nick and Nora find Robert at a local nightclub that very evening, they soon discover that he is wrapped up in a situation with some shady people; he is soliciting David (a really young Stewart), an ex-beau of Selma's who is still in love with her, for $25,000. In exchange for this $25,000 he will leave Selma's life forever, will run off with his girlfriend, a singer at the nightclub, and David can then step in. The plan promptly goes sour when Robert is shot and killed, leaving five suspects in his murder, including Selma herself. It is up to Nick and Nora to help the police solve the crime and clear Selma's name.
I thoroughly enjoyed "The Thin Man", and was absolutely charmed and delighted with this sequel. Nick and Nora Charles absolutely have to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest on screen couples in film history. Certainly, they take a back seat to the better known Hepburn/Tracy, Gable/Leigh, hell, even Curtis/Lemmon. But while the story itself in "After the Thin Man" was good, and strong enough to stand on its own merit, but the film itself is great because of Powell and Loy. Myrna Loy, one of my favorite classic film actresses, made a career out of being the non-plussed wife or object of affection to varying degrees of spastic leading men. (Particularly Cary Grant in "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" and "The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer", both films I would definitely recommend.) Loy's straight-faced elegance is perfection as Nora Charles, a young and beautiful wealthy socialite who married Nick, a detective from the wrong side of the tracks who loves liquor and ribald humor. Powell is hilarious and charming as Nick, and they own the characters so thoroughly, I can't fathom anyone else playing those roles.
Much is made of "chemistry", and the chemistry between our two main characters is electric. The material they had to work with certainly helped in the success of this film. Hammett's story works as a good base, with Goodrich & Hackett punching up the script. Toward the beginning of the film, there is a scene where Nick and Nora are returning to their San Francisco mansion, completely exhausted and pledging to sleep for a month. When they open their door, however, they find their house filled with a couple of hundred people; apparently, friends of theirs were throwing them a surprise welcome home party, only no one there recognizes them as the guests of honor, so they non-chalantly begin to dance with everyone else until they are finally noticed by their servants. Describing the situation doesn't do it justice, but it is just one example of the many charming scenes contained in this film. "After the Thin Man" also has some hilarious lines, and while a lot of the appeal is in the delivery, dialogue like a scene between Nick and Nora, who are waiting to be let in to her aunt's house, (Nick and her aunt have a mutual dislike for one another) when Nora asks, "What ARE you muttering to yourself?" Nick replies, "I'm just trying to get all of the bad words out of my mind." And then later, when reintroducing her husband to her aunt, Nora says, "You remember my husband, Nick " her aunt replies with "Hello, NicholASS." (And proceeds to call him that the entire film.) Even Asta has a subplot in this film; when they arrive home in the beginning of the film, he runs back to the kennel to see Mrs. Asta. Apparently Mrs. Asta has had a litter of puppies, and when they all come out black and white (with one fully black one) even though the Astas are fully white, he finds out that the culprit is a black dog from down the street. The two scenes involving this little side story are truly funny and fitting of a dog that has reached iconic status. (At least in the crossword puzzle world his name is a clue in at least one crossword puzzle I do a week!) "After the Thin Man" has some corny moments, but they are few and so minor compared to the relative greatness of the rest of the film, that I don't think I could truly single them out easily. (At least not with seeming needlessly picky) I would truly recommend this film series to anyone who enjoys classic films I so thoroughly enjoyed this film that I plan to check out the rest of the sequels in the near future. The snappy & clever dialogue, great performances and good story truly make "After the Thin Man" a worthy sequel to its great predecessor. 8/10 --Shelly
Masculin féminin (1966)
A work of art
"Kill one man and you're a murderer. Kill thousands and you're a conqueror. Kill everyone and you're a god." This is one of the many intriguing lines spoken in Jean-Luc Godard's 1966 film "Masculine, Feminine", a French film that examines what Godard calls "The children of Marx & Coca-Cola". Paul (Leaud) is a 21 year-old man who has just completed his mandatory national service in the French army, and, disillusioned with life, finds himself writing in a café. At one café in particular, he meets Madeleine (Goya), a beautiful young woman who is an aspiring pop singer and is able to get Paul a job at the magazine she occasionally works for. Soon after, she (seemingly almost reluctantly) succumbs to Paul's advances and they embark on a relationship. Along the way, they spend time with his friend Robert (Debord) and her two friends/roommates Elisabeth (Jobert) and Catherine (Duport). During their time together, Paul, who is becoming an increasingly vociferous political activist, struggles with Madeleine's apparent apathy and bursts of affection as well as her complete indifference to social and economic issues plaguing France and the world at large.
I had the pleasure of seeing this film tonight at a local theater that shows art and classic films, and the experience was wonderful. I have read about this film for years, but short of catching it in a film class or at a retrospective of Godard's work (which is not very likely in Milwaukee, WI) it was unavailable until now since it has not yet been released on DVD and isn't readily available on VHS. As cliché as it sounds, "Masculine/Feminine" ended up being so incredibly good that it was more than worth the wait. Therefore, I am pretty much breaking one of my regular traditions of letting a film kind of "settle" in my head before writing about it, since it was so thought-provoking and excellent it's like I wanted to prolong the experience.
With raw and grainy black and white cinematography by Willy Kurant, "Masculine, Feminine" at times feels like a documentary, which is perhaps Godard's intended perception. The camera lingers on the young actors, examining their faces as they wax philosophic on everything from Vietnam to birth control to Bob Dylan. While the film is extremely "talky" at certain points, there was not one moment where I was not captivated. Part of this was the unconventional style with which Godard blocked several of the scenes, particularly the scenes between two characters who are discussing various topics to an extent where they are practically interviewing one another. Normally, the camera switches back and forth between the actors, but Godard chooses instead to keep the camera trained on the person who is being asked the questions, perhaps in an effort to gain a more natural reaction. Another interesting component of the film is its various philosophical points about men and women, posted between scenes and accompanied with the sound of a gun shot. Counting down 15 philosophies about relationships and life in general, this (at least I'm assuming for the time) unconventional style of film-making was surely an inspiration for stylish filmmakers of the future, like Danny Boyle, Guy Ritchie and especially Quentin Tarantino.
Leaud, whose most famous role is probably the young Antoine Doinel in Truffaut's "The Four Hundred Blows" may be about 10 years older, but he looks exactly the same. His rumpled, academic look and sincerely intense and intellectual demeanor are intriguing, and his strong emotional self is prevalent and endears the audience to his character; as with "The Four Hundred Blows", I really cared about his character's fate. Goya is also good as the vapid Madeleine, a woman who takes great care in her appearance to make it appear that she doesn't take care. Other than really not having anything philosophical or intellectual to bring to the table, she also is content to steal the interests of those around her, to give her the appearance of depth. (For example, after making fun of Paul for becoming worked up over Bach, she has no problem telling a reporter she encounters toward the end of the film that he is one of her favorites.) The rest of the cast serve as great supports, particularly the semi-deep and fully charming Catherine (Duport).
I mentioned earlier that it was particularly a treat to see this film simply because it is so rare. Apparently, if all goes as planned, the incredibly wonderful Criterion Collection will be releasing this film on DVD September 2005. I personally plan to pick it up when it is released because I feel like I will gather either more information regarding the characters and/or the story or could possibly come up with a completely different perspective. When the film does become available, I would highly recommend "Masculine, Feminine" to art-cinema lovers or anyone who appreciates the French New Wave. And if you have never seen a film of this type, or by Godard himself and are looking for something to get your feet wet, this would be a good one to start with, because it is avant garde without sacrificing a coherent story and tangible characters. Mostly, I would recommend seeing this film with someone who appreciates good cinema, because I regret not having done so myself, I was so in need of discussion immediately after walking out of the theater. 8/10 --Shelly
How to drive your wife mad 101
Without the benefit of psychological expertise, it is fair to say that Gregory Anton (Boyer) is a certifiable psychopath. Not only does he kill a famous London singer for the chance to find some priceless jewels, but also when he fails, he waits for ten years and seduces the niece of his victim so that he will be able to get back into the house, which she now owns. The niece, Paula Alquist Anton (Bergman) falls head over heels for Gregory; they are soon married and, initially against her wishes, back living at the home in the Thornton Square section of London. Gregory begins to drive Paula mad slowly, first by giving her something then removing it secretly, chastising her for being forgetful. Soon Paula begins to hear sounds coming from the attic, and the gaslights dimming, while Gregory feigns innocence. When he begins to pin servants (one played by Lansbury, in her first role) against her and shaming her in public, she loses all control and, truly believing she is mad, hits her breaking point. Meanwhile, Paula's strange behavior doesn't go by unnoticed for Brian Cameron (Cotton), a Scotland Yard detective who was once a great admirer of Paula's aunt. Brian decides to look into the goings-on in the Anton house and when he uncovers the mystery, must convince Paula of the truth in order to save her life.
"Gaslight" is an essential film in the suspense genre; at times it was easy to forget that it was not a Hitchcock film, rather, directed by the masterful George Cukor, a man as known for his romantic comedies as for his melodramas. At times, "Gaslight" is genuinely creepy; the fact that it takes place at the turn of the century and we must rely on small lamps or natural lighting adds to the dramatic shadows and lighting. The Oscar-winning set design also contributes to the spooky atmosphere. Bergman, who won an Oscar for her performance in this film, is so fragile one expects her to crack any minute. A sheltered and timid woman after discovering her aunt's body as a child, she briefly comes out of her shell when she thinks she has found true love, until her husband begins his machination. Cotten, an excellent actor, was underused in this film, though he is technically the film's hero. It is Charles Boyer who turns in what I consider to be the most incredible performance of the film. He can turn his character from a charming, romantic man to a raving (or worse, icy) psychopath within seconds. With just a quick flash of his eyes, you know that he has locked on to yet another way to toy with Paula's mind. Good beat evil at the Academy Awards that year (at least on screen it was Bing Crosby that won for "Going my Way", but at least he didn't beat his kids until he got home) but Boyer's performance should have won out.
There were several suspense films that were released in 1944, (one of them, "The Uninvited" is quite good) but "Gaslight" has a hint of originality to it. I'm sure there are instances that I can't come up with from the silent film era in which one spouse tries to convince the other of their insanity for mercenary reasons, and there are many films that have visited this theme since, but "Gaslight" stands out because the villain is just SO evil that even people (like myself) who look for dark themes in their films may have a hard time grasping how much of a real deal this guy is. I would particularly recommend this film to Ingrid Bergman fans, but if you enjoy Cukor's lighter fare ("The Philadelphia Story", "My Fair Lady", "Pat & Mike") check out this rare thriller from his filmography. Even his most melodramatic of melodramas can't compare to this one. 7/10 --Shelly