Monday, December 12, 2011

"The Artist" is Why I Love The Movies

If you see one film this holiday season, make it this one.  It is like nothing you've ever seen before (including the old silent films.)  It may be a "silent" picture but it will completely entertain you with it's joy, heart, sorrows, and redemption.  It stars two actors whom I had not had the pleasure of seeing before, Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, along with some very familiar faces (John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Miller and a brief appearance by Malcolm MacDowell.)  The story is centered around Jean Dujardin, the quintessential silent film star George Valentin (much like John Gilbert), who is cast aside when the talkies begin production.  Berenice Bejo plays the young ingenue, Peppy Miller, who has a chance meeting with George, dances her way into a part in one of his pictures, and rises to glorious fame as a star in the talkies.  This film is delightful in so many ways and I urge you to see it in a theater.  The magic will be lost when it is downsized to your television (no matter how big it is.)  Go for the feeling of what it must have been like during the silent film era (minus the live orchestra, of course.)  "The Artist" is clever, 100% entertainment, beautiful and winning.  This is why I love the movies.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Class #8 - Robert Ryan

Robert Ryan

[on being listed as one of the screen's all-time best heavies]: "I guess they never saw me in most of my pictures. Still, I've never stopped working so I can't complain."

Most people will remember Robert Ryan from his later pictures where he was usually a heavy or a grizzled old soldier ("The Wild Bunch" "The Dirty Dozen" "The Longest Day") but as you can see from the picture above, he was quite a dashing young man when he started in Hollywood.  His breakout role was in the 1947 film "Crossfire" where he played an anti-Semitic bully, a role that landed him an Oscar nomination.  He continued to work in films until his death in 1973.  He was an actor who brought grit, honesty, intensity and heart to his roles; whether he was in the old West, fighting in WWII or pounding the beat as a cop.  He starred with such legends as John Wayne, Clark Gable, Richard Burton and Spencer Tracy, and more than held his own.  He was a mainstay in Hollywood for 33 years.  Robert Ryan was handsome, convincing and a terrific actor.  

Friday, November 18, 2011

Class #7: Humphrey Bogart

Humphrey Bogart 

"I made more lousy pictures than any actor in history."

Well, that certainly is not true.  Although Humphrey Bogart took a while to catch on in Hollywood.  He was not the typically handsome star but he had a certain quality that was hard to ignore.  He was a rugged, tough, hard-drinking man who loved his women with passion and determination.  His film career spanned only three decades but it is filled with some of the most iconic performances in film history.  Just say the word "Casablanca" and his face appears before you.  He was Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe, and always will be.  His characterization of Captain Queeg in "The Caine Mutiny" is a tour de force.  "The African Queen," for which he won the Oscar as the irascible and lovable Charles Allnut, is a classic.  Then there's "Key Largo", "Treasure of the Sierra Madre", "To Have and Have Not."  Humphrey Bogart was an original who will not be easily forgotten.  

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Class #6 - Cary Grant......

Cary Grant

"We have our factory, which is called a stage. We make a product, we color it, we title it and we ship it out in cans."
"Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant."

How can a person look this good for his entire life??  Unfortunately, I had to miss this class but I had to give Cary the recognition he deserves.  The man was charming, oh so handsome, funny, mysterious, a terrific actor and there will never be anyone like him again.  My professor was kind enough to forward me some information on him.  Here is a sample:

"He was the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema.  The essence of his quality can be put quite simply:  he can be attractive and unattractive simultaneously; there is a light and dark side to him but, whichever is dominant, the other creeps into view. . . The effect he achieves is one of art.  It shows malice, misogyny, selfishness and solitariness beneath good manners and gaiety; and it reveals a grace-in-humor buoying up a near-sadistic playing upon lesser people's nerves and good nature." – David Thomson.

Monday, November 14, 2011

"Real Steel" - Yes, It Is A Very Fun Film!

"Real Steel" starring Hugh Jackman ("X-Men" "The Prestige" and Tony Award winning Broadway actor), Evangeline Lilly ("Lost" "The Hurt Locker") and the delightful Dakota Goyo ("Thor") is a very good family film.  It has something for everyone:  the beautiful Hugh Jackman for Mom, lots of action and the lovely Evangeline Lilly for Dad, plus fantastic robots and an 11 year old who rules the film for the kids.  This is a formula film, of course, but it is one that is smart, funny, exciting, heart-warming and leaves you feeling good.  It's not exactly the "Rocky" of robot movies but it is worth the money.  I would recommend seeing it in the theatre, also.  There is so much action and the robots are so wonderfully done, the impact of the film will probably lose something on the small screen.

***Side note:  Hugh Jackman is going to be starring as Jean Valjean in the film version of the musical "Les Miserables."  Hallelujah!

Class #5: Jean Gabin - The French Humphrey Bogart

Jean Gabin

"I understood immediately that to get success I had to make for the front door, not for the back one."

"For many people around the world, Jean Gabin was - and still is - French cinema."  (Lincoln Center Program, 2002.)  Jean Gabin was everything a movie star should be: handsome, suave, dangerous, easy with words, intense, soulful, and magnetic.  We viewed one of his most famous films,  "Pepe Le Moko" (1937), which was remade in the US a year later and titled "Algiers" starring Charles Boyer and Heddy Lamarr.  "Pepe Le Moko" is an excellent film and is probably one of the best to view to know who Jean Gabin was.  Although the film was made in 1937, it feels modern and embodies a spirit that American films could only wish for as they were constrained by the Code at that time.  Jean Gabin is a force on screen who brings power and truthfulness to his roles.  Plus his looks (notice his eyes) pull you in.  He truly was a classic actor in every sense of the word.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Class #4: Fredric March - An Every Day Man

Fredric March

"Stardom is just an uneasy seat on top of a tricky toboggan. Being a star is merely perching at the head of the downgrade. A competent featured player can last a lifetime. A star, a year or two. There's all that agony of finding suitable stories, keeping in character, maintaining illusion. Then the undignified position of hanging on while your popularity is declining."

Fredric March was an every day man.  What do I mean by that?  He was an actor who looked like us and seemed to be someone we had met on the street or had coffee with.  This quality is what made his characters on screen seem so real.  He had a grittiness and an earthiness that made you watch him with compassion and respect.  Whether he was Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde (for which he won his first Oscar), you felt his pain, his joys, and his intelligence in ways that other actors could not show you.  His body of work speaks for itself:
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Merrily We Go To Hell (1932)
Design for Living (1933)
Les Miserables (1935)
Anna Karenina (1935)
A Star Is Born (1937)
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946 - his second Oscar)
Death of a Salesman (1951)
Inherit The Wind (1960)
Seven Days in May (1964)
The Iceman Cometh (1973)

Friday, October 28, 2011

In Honor of Halloween: Films to Scare You

Here are some of my favorites:

Alfred Hitchock's classic "The Birds" (1963) starring Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor and Susan Pleshette truly scared me as a child and I believe it gave my daughter a real fear of seagulls.  Alfred Hitchcock is the master of suspense.

"The Haunting" (1963) directed by Robert Wise and starring Julie Harris, Claire Bloom and Richard Johnson, haunted me for years.  I saw it as a 9 year old and could not sleep without a light on for years.  I still find long hallways with lots of doors very disturbing.  **Side note:  The hallway with the doors in the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland was modeled after this film.

Roman Polasnki's "Rosemary's Baby" (1968) starring Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes and Ruth Gordon, is a film I did not see in its entirety until a couple of years ago and was completely blown away by the stark nature of the film and the way in which Roman Polanski builds the suspense.  Seemingly ordinary people are thrown into such a horror story that it makes you wonder if it could happen to you.  A true classic.

"The Thing" (1982) starring Kurt Russell is the John Carpenter remake of the 1951 film of the same name starring James Arness that I watched on Saturday afternoons as a child.  John Carpenter is another master in the genre of terror films and this one does not disappoint.

"The Silence of the Lambs" (1991) directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins and Scott Glenn, is an Academy Award winning film (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay) that is a must see for any film lover.  It is suspenseful, horrifying, gripping and one of the finest ensemble casts ever assembled.  Put it at the top of your list.

"The Sixth Sense"(1999) directed by M. Night Shyamalan and starring Bruce Willis, Toni Collette and Haley Joel Osment, is an experience the first time you see it.  You are caught off guard more than once and treated to one of the best endings in film.  I did not see it coming.

"Signs" (2002) also directed by M. Night Shyamalan and starring Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix and Rory Culkin, is one of those films that people either find silly or find truly frightening.  I was one of the latter people.  The scene at the birthday party made me jump for weeks whenever I thought about it.  One of my favorite memories of my daughter's 13th birthday party was picking them up from the theater after seeing "Signs."  I have never seen a group of 13 year old girls run so fast and work so hard to get that car door open and slam it shut.  "Signs" did what a suspense film is supposed to do - scare you into running to your mom.

"28 Days Later" (2002) directed by Danny Boyle and starring Cillian Murphy, is a film that I made the mistake of watching alone, in the dark, in my family room while it was being remodeled.  This film scared the living daylights out of me.  At one point, the plastic sheeting over my new bookcase rattled and I nearly fainted.  This film is a classic and will give you nightmares.

"28 Weeks Later" (2007) directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo and starring Jeremy Renner, Rose Byrne and Robert Carlyle, I, again, made the mistake of watching alone, in the dark, in my family room, but this time it was completed.  Did not help.  I honestly think that this film was even scarier.  It is one of those films that you wish you would stop watching but you just can't.  I guarantee that you will be frightened.

"The Ring" (2002) was directed by Gore Verbinski and starred Naomi Watts.  All I can say is SEE IT.  You will never look at ferries, horses, televisions, little girls or videotapes the same again.

"The Descent" (2005) directed by Neil Marshall and starring Shauna MacDonald, Natalie Mendoza and Alex Reid, is another film that I viewed at home, alone, in the dark, in my family room.  I was not expecting great cinema.  I was wrong.  It may not be a masterpiece, however, it is very, very scary as it drags you down into the cave with these poor women who you want to desperately help.  It is a chilling film.

"The Crazies" (2010) directed by Beck Eisner, is a small film that I'm sure you've probably never heard of.  It stars the wonderful Timothy Olyphant ("Deadwood" "Justified") and it gave me quite a scare.

"Drag Me To Hell" (2009) directed by Sam Raimi and starring Alison Lohman and Justin Long, is a film I saw with my daughter and her friend, who spent most of the film peaking out from behind his sweatshirt.  "Drag Me To Hell" is a scary, suspenseful film that has a surprise ending.  I was thoroughly entertained and frightened.

Last, but certainly not least, is "Se7en" (1995) directed by David Fincher and starring Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman and the incredibly evil Kevin Spacey, is truly one of the scariest films I've ever seen.  Again I saw this alone, but this time I was in a dark theater.  Not a good idea.  The walk to my car afterwards was one of the longest walks of my life.  It is truly a classic.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

"Repulsion" - Repression or Abuse?

In my continuing effort to educate myself on all aspects of film making, and in honor of Halloween, I took the opportunity last night to view the infamous 1965 Roman Polanski film, "Repulsion." This film was groundbreaking in many ways, the most renowned of which was the performance by Catherine Deneuve in her second feature role (her first was "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.")  "Repulsion" is the story of a young woman who is repulsed by the sex act and eventually descends into madness with bloody consequences.  While I understand this woman was repulsed by any contact with men, whether it was actual physical contact or contact with any thing (such as a toothbrush or shaving razor) having to do with a man, I am not at all convinced it was simply due to her psychosis.  There is a disturbing scene where a family portrait is shown in close up and the little blond girl in the background is clearly Catherine's character.  The rest of the family is smiling and sitting close together, while Catherine's character is standing back, apart, distant and forlorn.  There is certainly something amiss in this family.  She is also visited every night at midnight by dreams of recurring sexual abuse and rape by the same man, whom I believe is probably her father.  Her attempt to lead a normal life as an adult becomes an impossibility for her and she commits murder to keep herself safe from what she perceives as tremendous danger to her person.  Repulsion such as this does not develop independently.  There is almost always a history of abuse that precedes it.  Thus I feel this is a film about a woman who endured violent abuse and lost her mind as a result.  This film is brilliant in its depiction of the slow deterioration of Catherine and Catherine plays it perfectly.  There are moments of fright and terror, but the true genius of the film are the close ups of Catherine and the long scenes of her loneliness and anguish.  You will feel like it will never end but hang in there with it.  This film is a genre all to itself, and the vision of the beautiful, yet so disturbed Catherine Deneuve will haunt you.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

I Had a 50/50 Chance I'd Like This Film....

  ....and I did!  The thought of watching a film about a 29 year old man who is diagnosed with cancer and has a 50/50 chance of surviving (especially one that costars Seth Rogen) is not exactly the way I want to spend an evening but this film was worth it.  "50/50" starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("500 Days of Summer" "Inception"), Seth Rogen ("Knocked Up" "Pineapple Express"), Anna Kendrick ("Up In The Air" "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World"), Bryce Dallas Howard ("The Help" "Lady In The Water"), Angelica Houston ("Crimes and Misdemeanors" "The Grifters") and directed by Will Reiser (known until now as a TV producer and director) presents its subject matter with humor, respect and lots and lots of heart.  I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised by Seth Rogen.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt has already proven himself to be one of our finest young actors and his career will continue to rise with his performance in this film.  Seth Rogen plays his best friend and tones down his acting by about 100% compared to his other films.  He brings a much needed sense of humor, coupled with a true love for his friend, that is endearing and very true to life.  Bryce Dallas Howard plays the girlfriend who is in over her head and she continues to be quite an actress.  You can feel her anguish over wanting to be there for her boyfriend but not truly understanding just what he is facing.  Anna Kendrick plays the very young therapist who is assigned to help Joseph and she, too, continues to be one of our finest up and coming actors.  Her scenes with Joseph are some of the best in the film.  Angelica Houston is also superb as Joseph's mom who has always been overbearing and intrusive in his life.  He holds her at arm's length but comes to know that her love for him is just what he needs.  This is a film about the fragility of life, family, love in all shapes and sizes, finding joy, and finding peace.  Never did I think I would walk out of that theatre feeling better than when I went in, but this film achieved that.  This is film making at its best.  

Class #3: Clark Gable - A Classic Actor and Then Some

Clark Gable
"I'm just a lucky slob from Ohio who happened to be in the right place at the right time."

And aren't we lucky he was in that place!  Has there ever been an actor with more raw male energy and appeal?  Clark Gable was one of those rare actors who was adored by women and admired by men.  Women wanted to be with him and men wanted to BE him.  Clark Gable started his career as a bit player but it was apparent early on that he was something very special in Hollywood.  MGM put him under contract as one of their only leading men and cast him in everything.  My class was treated to the film "Red Dust" (1932) also starring Jean Harlow, Gene Raymond and Mary Astor.  This is a delightful film with lots of chemistry between Gable and Harlow (who was quite a comedian.)  Gable is Gable in this film but somehow that does not bother me.  He brings an energy and passion to his roles, whether he is a plantation owner, gangster, ladies man, gambler, or just a plain old guy, that entreats you to watch.  His character portrayals are vivid and lasting.  His sex appeal is legendary and stands the test of time.  Unfortunately, he died relatively young (59 years old) but he left behind a body of work that is unforgettable. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

Classic Actors Class #2 - A Surprise Choice

Fred MacMurray

"I was lucky enough to make four pictures with Barbara (Stanwyck). In the first I turned her in, in the second I killed her, in the third I left her for another woman and in the fourth I pushed her over a waterfall. The one thing all these pictures had in common was that I fell in love with Barbara Stanwyck -- and I did, too."

Fred MacMurray is probably best remembered as the mild-mannered father on television's hit show, "My Three Sons" that aired in the 1960's, however, he had a storied career in film.  His rugged good looks, as evidenced above, surely helped him to land parts.  His most famous roles were in "Double Indemnity" where he played insurance salesman, Walter Neff, who is conned by the beautiful Barbara Stanwyck, "The Caine Mutiny" where he played the smarmy Lt. Tom Keefer and "The Apartment" where he played Jack Lemmon's boss, Jeff D. Sheldrake.  Fred MacMurray could be sinister and hard-edged, or funny and lovable.  He would be someone you wanted to know and depending upon the role he was playing, it would either turn out to be a good thing or a very bad thing, indeed.  He played cops, cowboys, businessmen, absent-minded professors and Naval officers in films from 1929 through 1978.  If you have never seen his work, I highly recommend the films mentioned above. His quiet demeanor will disarm you and creep under your skin.  

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Classic Actors Film Class: First Up......

James Stewart 

"Well, I think one of the main things that you have to think about when acting in the movies is to try not to make the acting show."

Was there ever, or will there ever be, a more likable actor?  James Stewart had one of the longest careers ever seen in Hollywood.  It lasted for 38 years, starting with films like "The Shopworn Angel" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and ending with his amazing turn in "The Shootist" at the age of 68.  James Stewart is probably best known for his roles as an every day man in films like "It's A Wonderful Life" and "The Philadelphia Story" but he could also play very dark characters such as his roles in the Hitchcock films "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and "Vertigo."  James Stewart captured the essence of his characters and showed us how the average man would deal with situations of all kinds.  He could be carefree and loving, hard and conniving, confused and at his wit's end, or cold and downright evil.  Stewart was believable in every role he handled and he truly lived what he said above - his acting did not show - just his unfailing talent.  Oh, and he was also a highly decorated Air Force Officer who commanded bombardier squadrons during WWII, eventually receiving the rank of Brigadier General.  

His body of work is extensive but here is a list of the clips we watched:

"The Shopworn Angel" directed by H.C. Potter, starring Stewart and Margaret Sullavan.  Released in 1938.
"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" directed by Frank Capra, starring Stewart, Claude Rains and Jean Arthur.  Released in 1939.
"Destry Rides Again" directed by George Marshall, starring Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Winninger and Brian Donlevy.  Released in 1939.
"The Philadelphia Story" directed by George Cukor, starring Stewart, Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant.  Released in 1940.
"It's A Wonderful Life" directed by Frank Capra, starring Stewart and Donna Reed.  Released in 1947.
"Winchester '73" directed by Anthony Mann.  Released in 1950.
"The Man Who Knew Too Much" directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Stewart and Doris Day.  Released in 1956.
"Vertigo" directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Stewart and Kim Novak.  Released in 1958.
"Anatomy of a Murder" directed by Otto Preminger, starring Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzarra and Arthur O'Connell.  Released in 1959.
"The Shootist" directed by Don Siegel, starring Stewart and John Wayne.  Released in 1976.  

Other recommended films are:  "You Can't Take It With You" "Shop Around The Corner" "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" "The Man From Laramie" "Rear Window" and Stewart's favorite role, "Harvey."  

Moneyball Hits A Home Run

"Moneyball," based on the true story of Billy Beane and his determination to turn the Oakland Athletics into a winning team despite the team's lack of funds, not only hits a home run, it turns a triple play.  Starring Brad Pitt ("Tree of Life" "Curious Case of Benjamin Button"), Jonah Hill ("Forgetting Sarah Marshall" "Cyrus"), and Phillip Seymour Hoffman ("Capote" "Doubt"), with a screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin and directed by Bennett Miller (this is his second feature film - the first was "Capote" - this is guy is talented), the triple play analogy is obvious.  Brad Pitt turns out another impressive acting feat in his interpretation of Billy Beane as a failed athlete who loves the game and wants to contribute however he can.  He takes his competitive drive and uses it to win off the field.  Brad Pitt makes him believable, likable and someone worth rooting for.  Jonah Hill is delightful as Peter Brand, the fresh out of college economics wizard (and baseball statistician with an amazing memory) whom Billy Beane hires as his assistant after listening to him at an opposing team's business office.  Together, Billy and Peter work out a formula for hiring players based solely on the numbers, much to the chagrin of the A's older, established scouts.  The result is well-documented and not a surprise, but you will still love the ride and are on the edge of your seat as you watch the storied team move ever closer to a championship, along with some very impressive records.  "Moneyball" will be added to the list of great baseball films, but even if you are not a fan of the sport, you will be a fan of this film.  It is ordinary people using their extraordinary skills and determination to make something happen and make it happen better than it has in the past.  It's always good to see the underdog win.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Driven Crazy In My Seat

Oh, I wanted to like this movie.  Ryan Gosling ("Blue Valentine" "The Believer" "Lars and The Real Girl") is a fine young actor who has great screen presence.  I feel he will mature into one of the greats but not if he chooses films like this.  "Drive," directed by Nicholas Winding Refn ("Valhalla Rising" and other 'B' type films) and also starring Carey Mulligan ("An Education" "Never Let Me Go") and Bryan Cranston ("Breaking Bad") is an action film with very little action.  It is based on the book of the same name penned by James Sallis, who co-wrote the screenplay with Hossein Amini.  This film takes itself very seriously and takes a very long time with every shot of each character's face.  There is a tremendous amount of starring and gazing and grinning.  Ryan Gosling is a man who makes his living stunt driving, working on cars and being the getaway driver for criminals.  We are never told why he does what he does and therefore there is very little connection with his character.  He falls for his neighbor (a too cute and perky Carey Mulligan) who's husband is in jail.  Things, of course, go terribly wrong when he is released.  The ensuing drive sequences are terrific but they left me flat.  There was no depth to the story other than the long gazes and smiles between Ryan and Carey, which had me squirming in my seat.  Bryan Cranston had the most to say and brought some much needed life to the film but overall the script just did not give enough.  Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan, two of our finest young actors, deserve much more to work with than this film could give.

Here are some much better films that I highly recommend:

"Crazy Stupid Love" - also starring Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Julianne Moore and a very funny Emma Stone.  This film is clever, engaging, surprising, touching and truly funny.

"Contagion" - starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Jude Law and many other stars. It is a well-written and very well-presented thriller with undertones of being a story told in real time.  It is almost too real at times and you will jump the first time you hear someone cough after it is over but it is a smart film that entertains and informs.

"The Debt" - starring Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Ciaran Hinds, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and a wonderful Marton Csokas who stole every scene he was in.  This film has depth, an intricate script and excellent acting.  This is one of the best films of the year so far.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens - Another Summer Hit?

I think not so much.  In the words of my daughter, I liked this movie....medium.  It had its moments but I found myself checking my phone, watching the people getting up to get food and wishing I could help the little girl looking for her sweater in the row behind me.

"Cowboys & Aliens" directed by Jon Favreau ("Elf" "Iron Man") and starring Daniel Craig ("Road To Perdition" "Casino Royale"), Harrison Ford (everyone knows his movies) and Olivia Wilde ("House" "Tron" "The Next Three Days").  Paul Dano (the angsty brother from "Little Miss Sunshine" and the young preacher from "There Will Be Blood") has a small role that, in another film, could have seemed brilliant.  Instead, stuck here in this film, it is wasted.  As are Sam Rockwell ("Frost/Nixon" "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind") and the young boy, Noah Ringer.  There's even a dog who brings more life to the film than the main characters.  The aliens are fun and the juxtaposition between the wild west and the ultra-modern spacecraft was inspired.  However, this film comes across as confused as to what it is.  My feeling is that they should have either played it as complete camp or played it straight.

My recommendation is to wait to watch it at home - even with the spaceships and explosions.  A semi-large screen is good enough for this film.  It is probably better in fact.  No regrets over your $10.

Friday, July 8, 2011

"Tree of Life" - A Trippy Experience

This film is very hard to review.  It was like nothing I have ever seen before.  When I sat down to watch, I was under the impression that this was a film about life, death and our concepts of the ever-after.  I also assumed that these ideas would be presented like they are in most films, through dialogue and the storyline.  Well, it was...kind of.  However, the ideas were also presented in the form of poetry read over images of water, space, constellations, cells, and all sorts of other things that I believe represent the universe as a whole.  "Tree of Life" was written and directed by Terence Malick ("Badlands" "Days of Heaven" "The Thin Red Line") and stars Brad Pitt ("Babel" "Inglorious Basterds"), Jessica Chastain ("Jolene" "Stolen"), Sean Penn ("Mystic River" "Milk") who gets second billing even though he is literally in about 10 minutes of the 2 and half hours of film, and young Hunter McCracken making an incredible film debut.  One synopsis I read of the film is this:  "The story centers around a family with three boys in the 1950s. The eldest son witnesses the loss of innocence."  He also witnesses verbal abuse and paternal rejection.  The film opens with what appears to me to be a funeral for the middle son who has died in combat at the age of 19.  Now, do not quote me on that.  He has definitely died but the way in which he died is only inferred by the telegram that his mother receives.  Jessica Chastain as the mother who has to deal with the death of her child is luminous in her grief.  It pours out of her and seems to make her glow with sorrow and pain.  The film then goes to Sean Pean, the older brother, but it is many years later and he is working in a high rise but is clearly still deeply affected by the death of his brother.  From there we spend the next 30 minutes or so viewing the images I described earlier interspersed with various readings and thoughts from Jessica Chastain.  I have to say I was becoming bored after about 20 minutes but it finally ended and then the real story of this 50's family was presented.  And boy, was it worth waiting for.  The images of the mid-West in the 50's are still etched in my mind.  Terence Malick captures a family in crisis beautifully by setting a mood that is lonely, stark and almost scary.  There is too much structure and precision expected from the father (as played by Brad Pitt in another fine performance) and not enough from the mother (played by the beautiful and moving Jessica Chastain.)  There are wonderful scenes of the boys at play and the birth of each child is perfectly rendered.  The first born is cherished and adored, the second is also cherished but it is much harder as now there are two children to contend with and all the jealousy that develops in the first child.  The third boy is almost over-looked when he is presented to the family, as if he is an afterthought.  From there, as they grow, their predicaments and roles within the family become clear.  

This is a beautifully filmed story and is well worth the price of admission.  However, I am still unclear as to what Terence Malick was actually trying to say but I would venture to say that he was trying to say many things and those things are going to have different meanings for each viewer.  Please comment back if you have seen this film.  I am very interested in hearing your thoughts.  

Thursday, July 7, 2011

"Super 8" - A Great Summer Film

Summer is always the best time for action films and this summer is no exception.  So far we have had "Green Lantern" "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" "Thor" and "Super 8."  I have to admit that I have not seen the first three films on that list but I did see "Super 8."  Twice, in fact.  This is the kind of film that encompasses everything: mystery, humor, family, friendship, an amazing train wreck, aliens, young love, and redemption.  It also features some of the best special effects I have seen all year and the best dialogue. "Super 8" was written and directed by J.J. Abrams (the brilliant executive producer of "Alias" "Lost" "Fringe"), and was co-produced by Steven Spielberg.  The story is a basic one.  A group of young teenagers are spending their summer vacation making a zombie film and they unwittingly film a train wreck that involves aliens and a military cover-up.  The kids are pulled into many dangerous situations, along with their respective parents, but in the end, they triumph.  I'm not giving anything away here.  Most alien films end like that but it's the journey to that triumph that is the joy in viewing these films.  The young actors (Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee and Gabriel Basso) who play the teenagers are revelatory.  They play each part exactly as they should and with such ease you feel as if you know them.  You will find yourself rooting for them and just waiting for the next scene to see how they play it.  Elle Fanning is the lone girl in the group and she is also wonderful.  The best part is she actually looks like a 14 year old girl.  That is so refreshing.  Kyle Chandler (Coach Taylor from one of the best shows to ever be on television, "Friday Night Lights") is perfect as one of the boy's father and the Sheriff's deputy who has to take over during the crisis when the Sheriff is killed in a very dramatic way.  Ron Eldard ("ER" "Men Behaving Badly") is the other father who features prominently and he is also very good.  

"Super 8" is the perfect summer film - it's fun, it's exciting, it's well-acted and well-written.  I highly recommend it for the entire family.  ***Be sure to stay for the credits - there's a surprise!***

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Another Forgotten Actress - Ann Harding

Ann Harding 1901-1981

Take a close look at that face.  Within those eyes, there is an intelligence and a warmth that comes across on screen with such grace and wholeheartedness that I could not stop watching her.  I had barely heard of Ann Harding, again my mom mentioned her in passing over the years of our talking about movies, but I had never seen her films.  Therefore, I was very pleased to learn that my class last Thursday was going to be devoted to her and her acting career.  My professor is in love with 30's actresses but he especially loves ones like Ann Harding, who seem so real and glowing on screen.  The film we watched was "The Animal Kingdom" directed by Edward H. Griffith and also starring Leslie Howard and Myrna Loy (in the marvelous role of a temptress and villain which I had never seen her do before.)  This film was based upon the play of the same name written by Philip Barry, who also co-wrote the screenplay.  Ann Harding plays Daisy, a woman who has a relationship with the wealthy Tom (Leslie Howard) for a number of years but is reluctant to marry.  Tom meets Cecelia (Myrna Loy) who uses all of her guile and sex appeal to win him and he agrees to marry her, breaking Daisy's heart.  The film centers around Tom's slow realization of Cecelia's true character, or lack of, and that his heart and soul truly reside with Daisy.  Ann Harding gives Daisy such an earthy and again, intelligent, feel that how could anyone not love her and want her in their life.  She exudes a calm beautiful nature that was probably not far from her true personality.  Watching her on screen I fell into her eyes and hung on her every word.  She had this beautiful deep voice that was soothing and magical.  We also saw a clip from a film called "When Ladies Meet" from 1933 that also showed this quality.  Again, Ann is playing opposite Myrna Loy as the woman wronged.  Ann and Myrna are discussing infidelity and as the conversation progresses, Ann slowly realizes that Myrna is having an affair with her husband.  Ann uses no gimmicks or mannerisms to show her emotions, it is purely in her face and especially in her eyes.  Many of her films were banned after the Code hit Hollywood because of their frank view of relationships but luckily for us they are available now.  I highly recommend both of these films and Ann Harding.  The Pre-Code films of women like Ann Harding are so real and allowed them to play roles with such life and depth, I am always surprised at their honesty.  

Friday, May 27, 2011

An Original - Katharine Hepburn

If you obey all the rules you miss all the fun.
Katharine Hepburn 1907-2003

Katharine Hepburn has never been one of my favorite actresses but I have always admired her spirit.  She was truly an original and in some ways, ahead of her time.  Her manner of dress and outspoken personality on screen made her someone to look up to and in some ways, fear.  For me, she was far better later in her life in such roles as Eleanor of Aquitaine in "A Lion in Winter" and as Christina Drayton in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?"  However, in my class last week we were shown the 1937 film "Stage Door," which was one of her earlier films.  It also starred Ginger Rogers, Adolphe Menjou, Lucille Ball, Eve Arden and Jack Carson.  It is the story of a boarding house for aspiring young actresses in New York and has some of the craziest dialogue (especially between Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden and Lucille Ball.)  The story is a simple one about actresses trying to make it on Broadway and Katharine Hepburn joins the house as a wealthy socialite who is irritating and brutally honest thus not making many friends.  She receives a role on Broadway that was coveted by one of the quieter girls in the house with dire consequences.  This is not a great film but it is a very good film that shows her style and appeal.  She delivers her lines with a quickness that bites but when the unthinkable happens to one of her fellow actresses, she shows us a soft, kind heart and a loyalty to her friends that surprises everyone.  I have a feeling that the real Katharine Hepburn was probably very much like this character - strong, outspoken, original, warm, kind and loyal - someone you would want to know and have in your life.  

Other films to watch to know the young Katharine better:

"Morning Glory"
"Bill of Divorcement"
"Alice Adams"
"A Woman Rebels"

For the older Katharine, do not miss:

"The African Queen"
"Lion in Winter"
"On Golden Pond"

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

"The Conspirator"

"The Conspirator" starring Robin Wright ("The Princess Bride" "Forrest Gump" "White Oleander"), James McAvoy ("The Last King of Scotland" "Atonement"), Tom Wilkinson (who seems to be in everything!) and directed by the iconic Robert Redford, is a good solid film that could have been great.  "The Conspirator" tells the story of Mary Surratt, a boardinghouse owner who was tried and convicted as a co-conspirator in the assassination plot to kill President Abraham Lincoln, Vice-President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward.  She became the first woman to be executed in the United States.  She was hung on July 7, 1865.  Robin Wright is excellent as Mary Surratt.  She plays the role with such subtlety and intensity that you feel her anguish and confusion as a visceral kind of pain.  Robin Wright has always been a tremendously talented actress who has not been given starring roles and I hope that this turn as Mary Surratt wakes up Hollywood to her true talent.  James McAvoy is also very good as the young lawyer, Frederick Aiken, who is called upon to defend Mary despite his belief that she is guilty.  As the trial unfolds, Frederick discovers that there is another conspiracy at work and that is to convict and execute Mary Surratt in place of her son, the real co-conspirator, who has disappeared. Frederick becomes personally involved and does his very best to provide a defense for Mary but he soon realizes that he is fighting a corrupt prosecutor (played by the great character actor, Danny Huston) and a government that is looking to bring a swift end to the tragedy of Abraham Lincoln's death.  Robert Redford shows us what life may have looked like in 1865 by shooting scenes in semi-darkness and through filtered lenses to make the atmosphere look dusty and sepia-toned.  The costumes of the day are very well done and overall, the film seems a true representation of its time period.  However, there is something missing.  I am not sure if it is just too cold of a film, or if it is that the actors do not quite gel together, but I came out of the theatre slightly disappointed.  I also have not thought about the film much since I saw it Mother's Day weekend and that is always a true test for me.  If a film does not stay with me and cause me to think about it, then for me it missed the mark on an emotional level, whether those emotions are happiness, sadness, hilarity, joy or fright.  I do recommend it, though, as a glimpse into an event in our history that has been swept aside.  It's not a pretty representation of our government at work but it is a true story that should be told.  

Monday, May 9, 2011

Ingrid Bergman

"I can do everything with ease on the stage, whereas in real life I feel too big and clumsy. 
So I didn't choose acting. It chose me." 
Ingrid Bergman  1915-1982

Who would have thought that someone as beautiful and talented as Ingrid Bergman would feel like that? It does my heart good to know that even those who seem to have everything and who are adored by so many still feel as we in the audience so often feel.  To me, Ingrid Bergman was one of the most easily accessible actresses of her time.  Her beauty had an attainable quality to it, unlike other actresses from the 40's such as Lana Turner, Vivien Leigh or Ava Gardner.  She looked like she could live next door and be a dear friend.  She was born in Sweden, both of her parents died early in her life and she made her first film in 1935.  Her second film, "Intermezzo" filmed in Sweden, caught the attention of David O. Selnick.  He immediately signed her to a contract in Hollywood, remade "Intermezzo" and she was a sensation.  Ingrid went on to become one of the most intelligent, sought-after and award-winning actresses ever.  

The film we watched in class, the 1941 version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" also starring Spencer Tracy, Lana Turner and Donald Crisp, while not one of her most famous roles as my professor likes to show us films we probably have not seen before, it is an excellent example of just how extraordinary she was.  Spencer Tracy is wonderful in the lead role(s), of course, but Ingrid Bergman takes the role of Ivy Peterson (the barmaid who Mr. Hyde imprisons) and makes her unforgettable.  When the film was being shot, the gossip in Hollywood was that Lana Turner would play the part of Ivy Peterson and Ingrid would play Dr. Jekyll's very kind and simple girlfriend, Beatrix Emery, as that part seemed to suit her based upon her past roles.  However, Ingrid insisted that she play Ivy and, boy, did she.  Her scenes with Mr. Hyde in the apartment where he imprisons her are works of art and there is not a minute during those scenes that you take your eyes off of her.  The depth of her anguish and pain are apparent on her face and you can hear it in her voice.  Her friends come by to help but her terror that Mr. Hyde will find her no matter where she goes is heartbreaking.  She goes to see Dr. Jekyll to ask for help and she shows him the welts on her back that Mr. Hyde has inflicted.  She breaks down and weeps with a passion that seems so real.  Dr. Jekyll sees what he as Mr. Hyde has done to this poor girl so he promises he will never let Mr. Hyde near her again.  She believes him and goes home to celebrate, but her celebration is cut short by a knock at the door that turns out to be Mr. Hyde.  He confronts her, they quarrel and she slowly realizes that he is going to kill her.  Her dear sweet face shows such fear and utter helplessness that I was brought to tears.  Mr. Hyde attacks, slowly strangles her and she disappears out of the camera's view, leaving you devastated.  The rest of the film seemed colorless and flat after Ingrid's demise.  She lit up the screen and drew you a picture of a young woman caught in something she could never understand.  Ingrid Bergman gave her heart and soul to her roles but also brought a tenderness that other actresses could not.  She was a true film actress who took each role further than anyone thought possible and breathed life into them.  She was truly one of a kind.  

Friday, May 6, 2011

Hedy Lamarr

Any girl can look glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.
Hedy Lamarr

When I was a kid I spent many Saturday afternoons watching movies on television.  One of the movies that I saw numerous times and seemed to be on about once a month was "Samson and Delilah" starring Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature.  So I was very pleasantly surprised to see that Hedy Lamarr was on the list as the subject of my class last night.  I knew nothing about Hedy Lamarr herself but had spent so many afternoons as a young teenager watching her that I felt as if I did know her.  Well, I was completely wrong.  While I had always had the impression that she was a "B" actress, she was actually quite a wonderful actress who was stifled by the filmmakers of the post-code era.  Hedy Lamarr was born in 1913 in Austria and made several films in the early 30's in Europe that brought her to the attention of Hollywood.  She came to Hollywood in 1938, starred in the film "Algiers" with Charles Boyer and her career was started.  She was truly one of the most beautiful women to ever be in films (imagine Vivien Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor rolled into one) which over-shadowed her acting.  She was cast as the silent but gorgeous costar throughout the 40's, which is probably what prompted her to say the line that I quoted above.  Yet, as she aged, staying just as beautiful, she found her footing as a dramatic actress in such films as "Samson and Delilah" "White Cargo" and "Lady Without a Passport." However, the film that we saw in it's entirety last night was her first film from 1933 called "Ecstasy."  It was made by a Czechoslovakian filmmaker and was one of the most daring films of its time.  Even by modern standards, it is still quite daring.  Hedy plays a very young woman who marries an older man who turns out to be cold, probably OCD and unable to consummate the marriage.  She longs for the sexual fulfillment that marriage should bring so she leaves him.  She meets a much younger man while out swimming (naked, of course) and what follows is something I never thought I'd see in a film from the 1930's.  It is the first ever filmed sequence of intercourse.  It is all done with shadows and filmed through gauze, but the film maker's focus on Hedy's face throughout the scene tells the whole story.  It is actually quite beautiful.  The film itself is quite strange as there is very little dialogue and there is a very long and odd scene at the end of men working in the fields, but there are many references to sexual longing throughout the film using flowers, horses, bees and the waving wheat in the fields.  Hedy's portrayal of this young woman is almost breathtaking.  With the lack of dialogue, she is left with only her face as a way to convey her struggles or her happiness.  She divorces the older man, has a rendezvous with the younger man, the older man finds them and commits suicide in the room upstairs.  Hedy and her young man have planned to leave town by train the next day but Hedy cannot go through with it.  Her guilt over the older man's suicide is something she cannot forget.  As they are waiting for the train, her young man falls asleep, she gathers her things together, kisses him one last time and gets on the train going the opposite way.  I was very moved by her performance, especially from someone so young (she was only 19.)  In "Ecstasy" she was neither made up or made to wear glamorous clothes.  She was merely a young woman.  I could see the woman Hedy would become later in her career in that lovely teenage face.  
I am glad to know the real Hedy Lamarr. 


Claudette Colbert

"It matters more what's in a woman's face than what's on it." 
Claudette Colbert  

Now here is a woman of distinction.  Claudette Colbert was beautiful, funny and an extremely talented actress who everyone remembers for "It Happened One Night" with Clark Gable.  The film won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1934 and garnered the Best Actress award for Claudette.  This is a wonderful screwball comedy,  however, her true genius can only be fully recognized by viewing her other films.  She was brilliant at comedy but the film we watched, "Torch Singer" from 1933, (again a pre-code film) shows her depth as a dramatic actress.  The story is a scandalous one of unwed motherhood wherein Claudette plays a woman who has a child outside of marriage, tries her hardest to support the child but fails.  She is forced to give the child up for adoption and ends up supporting herself the only way she knows how - as a torch singer.  Her career blossoms so she seeks out the child but cannot find her.  Eventually the father of her child reappears, finds the child and everyone is reunited.  The range of emotions that cross Claudette's face as she faces motherhood and finds that she loves her child more than she could have ever imagined and will do anything to ensure that her child has everything, even if that means giving her up, are heartbreaking.  She has an earthy and an almost every day type of woman look to her that, I feel, makes her easy to identify with.  What I truly love about these pre-code films is that the emphasis is almost always on the woman and the actress who plays her.  The actresses of this time period were not only talented and beautiful but they had the ability to really dig deep and show true emotions in their films because they were allowed to.  

We also viewed clips from "Cleopatra" "Four Frightened People" "The Palm Beach Story" and "The Smiling Lieutenant."  "Cleopatra" was another pre-code film that featured a lovely bath scene that showed a nearly naked Claudette.  Her career spanned seven decades and she is one of the few pre-code actresses who survived the Code (probably due to her earthiness and her dramatic abilities.)  She also worked on stage and in many television productions.  Claudette Colbert will always be remembered for "It Happened One Night" but, for me, I will always remember her as a classic actress who could do everything.  She made me laugh, made me cry and made me really feel something. 

Friday, April 29, 2011

Dial M For Murder

Now this is a movie!  I watched it again the other day just to remind myself what true genius is.  "Dial M For Murder" was made in 1954 and stars Grace Kelly, Ray Milland and Robert Cummings.  It was directed, of course, by Alfred Hitchcock.  The screenplay was written by Frederick Knott as an adaptation of his play.  "Dial M For Murder" is the story of Margot (the unbelievably beautiful Grace Kelly) and Tony (Ray Milland), a couple who is struggling with their marriage.  Margot had had an affair with Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings) while Tony was on tour as a tennis player but had called it off.  Tony knew about the affair but did not tell Margot.  Tony gave up tennis under the guise that he wanted to be closer to Margot but actually started to hatch a plot to kill her.  He hires an old school buddy to do the deed but things go terribly wrong and the school buddy ends up dead instead.  Honestly, you have to watch it for yourself to see how the plot builds upon the intricacies of the players involved and the way Hitchcock sets each scene with such care.  He uses shadows and light to invoke a mood and build the suspense.  Ray Milland is magnificent as Tony, playing him as both the injured husband and the cold-blooded plotter of murder.  Grace Kelly is luminescent as Margot.  Her scene with the would-be murderer is exceptionally chilling and her reactions after the attack are heartbreaking.  When Tony comes home to supposedly help her when she is attacked, you want to yell at the screen and warn Margot of his deceptions.  Hitchcock makes you feel as if you are such a part of the action that you become increasingly uncomfortable and frustrated that you can't warn the players of the danger they are in.  And that is where Hitchcock's true genius lies.  His ability to present a story, draw you in and create visions and scenes that are unforgettable has and never will be duplicated.  His films have a signature that is unmistakable.  Even today, "Dial M For Murder" is relevant, accessible and thoroughly enjoyable.