Friday, March 18, 2011

Don't Mess With The Marines...

I should preface this review with this fact:  I love Alien invasion movies.   And "Battle: LA" is a terrific new addition to the genre.  I would certainly never call it "great cinema" but it's full of action, great looking aliens and lots of suspense.  It stars Aaron Eckhart ("Thank you for Smoking" "Rabbit Hole") as the weathered military man who has just submitted his resignation and, of course, gets called in for his last assignment when the aliens invade.  It also stars Ramon Rodriguez ("The Wire" "The Taking of Pelham 123") as the young 2nd Lt. who finds himself in a leadership role he never imagined, Bridget Moynahan ("The Sum of All Fears" "I, Robot") as the civilian veterinarian who has to assist in figuring out how to kill the aliens in a very disturbing way, Michael Pena ("World Trade Center" "Babel") as the civilian father who's bravery saves the day, and of course, Michelle Rodriguez ("Avatar" "Lost") as the usual character she always plays.  But this time it serves the story well and she brings some needed humor.  I truly enjoyed this film, even though the story is an old one.  It brought a new twist to the genre by making it more of a war film.  Go see it if you love these movies like I do, I don't think you'll be disappointed.  

Saturday, March 12, 2011

"The American"

Now for something more current....

"The American" starring George Clooney, Paolo Bonacelli, Violante Placido and directed by Anton Corbijn (best known for his video documentaries of the music legends U2, Metallica and Depeche Mode) is a film that despite its title is very European.  George Clooney ("Michael Clayton" "Up in The Air") is an assassin who is at the end of his career by his own choosing after an assignment in Sweden ends very badly for an innocent woman he befriends.  He then takes one last assignment which brings him love, and ultimately, the one thing he cannot escape from.  I won't spoil it for you by telling you what that is.  This film is stark and slow, with some very sexy scenes thrown in for color.  I have to admit I never quite connected with the film or George Clooney's character.  He is a man who is very controlled and organized but is in love with butterflies.  He even has a tattoo of one on his back.  There are several scenes throughout the film that involve butterflies, including the ending, but I was never clear as to what significance these butterflies held for him.  This film depends on George Clooney to carry it as at times the dialogue is either non-existent or at best it is very cryptic.  George does a fine job and looks very serious and thoughtful throughout, but I just couldn't feel anything for him.  The call girl he befriends was full of life and brought joy to the film but it wasn't enough to make me care.  This is not a thriller - I guess you would call it "a study of an assassin" with some very beautiful Italian countrysides thrown in.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

"Midnight Cowboy"

I hesitate to admit this but Saturday was the first time I'd ever seen this entire film.  "Midnight Cowboy" was released in 1969 when I was 12 years old so it's not surprising I had missed it when it first came out.  Funny side story: "Easy Rider" came out the same year and I did see that film - with my parents and my grandmother.  My mother took us out to the movies for a nice family outing and ended up sitting in between her 12 year old daughter and her 69 year old mother-in-law, both of whom where leaning over to her and whispering, "What are they doing??"  Obviously, my mother had no idea what the film was about. I think she just wanted to see Jack Nicholson.  

"Midnight Cowboy" starring Jon Voight as Joe Buck and Dustin Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo caused quite a stir when it opened in 1969 by being rated "X."  It was based on the book of the same name written by James Leo Herlihy and directed by John Schlesinger ("Day of the Locust" "Marathon Man".)  It went on to the become the only "X" rated film to ever be nominated for Best Picture and then, amazingly, it won, beating out "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "Anne of a Thousand Days."   The story is about Joe Buck, a good looking but naive Texas boy who is looking to make a buck in New York City by becoming a hustler.  After trying and failing and losing more money than he earns, he meets Ratso Rizzo who promises to help him.  Together they also have failure after failure and eventually end up nearly freezing and starving to death in Ratso's make-shift apartment.  Ratso becomes ill and Joe does everything he can to scrounge for money.  The film ends with Joe using what money they have and taking Ratso to Florida, which has always been his dream.  The friendship that forms between these two is one of convenience at first but it develops into a true partnership where neither man can imagine being without the other.  Jon Voight plays Joe Buck as a simple cowboy who just wants to forget his life in Texas (there are very unpleasant flashbacks all through the film involving a girlfriend and a brutal attack by a gang.)  Despite what seems to be a horrific episode in his life, he has managed to maintain his humanity and is just looking to survive however he can.  Ratso is a man who was born with a distinct disadvantage due to a physical deformity and is also trying to survive.  Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of Ratso reminded me in some ways of a small dog who thinks he's tougher than he is.  This serves him well and he ends up protecting Joe more than Joe protects him.  Dustin Hoffman is one of those rare actors who can take a character and become that character with his whole being and Ratso will start out making you cringe and end up making you cry.

This is a film about two damaged people whom we shouldn't care about but we do because of the performances by Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight.  Their characters form an alliance and a friendship that will break your heart.  Plus the ending is a tour de force - beautifully shot with such tender acting between the two men.  The images will linger in your mind long after the film is over.  

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Joan Crawford and "Possessed"

You have to be self-reliant and strong to survive in this town. Otherwise you will be destroyed.
Joan Crawford

Take a look at this picture.  Is this the Joan Crawford that you remember?  I sure don't.  During our second class at Stanford, Mr. LaSalle showed us another film from the Pre-Code era called "Possessed" starring Joan Crawford, Clark Gable and Wallace Ford.  Joan Crawford plays a small town factory girl named Marian who is longing for excitement.  She leaves the small town and her long time admirer, Al Manning, played by Wallace Ford, and heads to New York.  There she becomes the mistress of Mark Whitney, a wealthy divorced attorney played by Clark Gable.  Mark is unwilling to marry again so Marian posses as the divorced Mrs. Moreland to cover up their relationship.  Mark eventually decides that he loves her enough to marry her but when he decides to run for Governor, Marian overhears his colleagues discussing how any scandal would ruin his chance of winning.  When Mark finally comes to Marian to ask her to marry him, she pretends that she doesn't love him, that she's never loved him, and what a chump he is for ever thinking that she did.  Watching Joan play this woman who is giving up the love of her life to save his career is heartbreaking and tender at the same time.  Her face when Mark turns his back to her during their argument gives up her anguish and despair to the audience with a simple look.  She then disappears from his life.  But, when Mark is on the verge of being elected and his opponent tries to start a scandal by distributing flyer's that say "Who is Mrs. Moreland?" she comes to a rally and stands up and tells everyone who Mrs. Moreland is.  To save his career, again.  The speech she gives and Mark's reply are beautifully written and beautifully acted.  

This movie completely changed my thoughts about Joan Crawford.  As a young woman, she was a vulnerable actress who drew you in with her intensity.  I was completely enthralled by her.  Compare that to the older actress I remember who was bitter, hard and scary to watch.  She was still a powerful actress but the tenderness and vulnerability were gone.  Now I need to read more about her life to see what happened.  

*Here's something I noticed as I was looking for pictures of Joan:

Minus the cigarette - remind you of anyone?  

Madonna stole her look!


Friday, March 4, 2011

Norma Shearer and the Pre-Code Era

"The morals of yesterday are no more. They are as dead as the day they were lived. Economic independence has put woman on exactly the same footing as man." Norma Shearer

I have had the pleasure of attending a film class at Stanford University for the past 10 weeks and have been introduced to a stunning actress and film era that is in danger of being forgotten.  My professor, Mick LaSalle, film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, author and historian, presented a film a couple of weeks ago called "The Divorcee" starring Norma Shearer.  I had heard of Norma Shearer but had never had the pleasure of seeing one of her films.  Mr. LaSalle gave us a wonderful introduction to the era that she worked in, namely the 20's and 30's, in what has become known as "the pre-code" era.  Starting in July of 1934, a censorship code, developed by a Jesuit Priest and a lay Catholic and adopted by the studios to avoid government censorship, was established in Hollywood and all films were held to a very strict "moral compass."  Thus depictions of sex outside of marriage were never to be portrayed as attractive or beautiful or made to seem right and permissible.  There was to be no swearing, no interracial couples, no homosexuality, all criminal acts were to be punished, and the clergy could never be presented in a comic or evil light.  Basically, they took all the fun out of movies.

Prior to July 1934, pre-code films had become quite bold and the biggest stars of the day were women.  The biggest star being Norma Shearer.  She was beautiful, charming, a wonderful actress and a force in Hollywood.  These films depicted strong independent women who had love affairs, jobs, marriages, divorces, and called the shots in their own lives whether it be good or bad.  Even the clothes they wore were daring.  The beautiful silky gowns of the 30's showed a pride and confidence in their sexuality that was apparently too much for the clergy at the time.  The film we watched, "The Divorcee," is about a woman who discovers that her husband has had an affair and how she deals with it; namely by having an affair herself.  The dialogue between Jerry (Norma Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) when she realizes that the flirtations of a woman at a party are not innocent, could be said today.  Ted comes over to Norma to kiss her after talking with the other woman and Jerry says, "There is something about the way she was looking at you that makes me want to kill her."  And one of the last lines of the film is my favorite.  Jerry says it to Ted after he has come back to her to tell her that he forgives her for her affair even though he never took responsibility for his own - that was different, you know.  Jerry says, with so much pride and courage, "From now on, you're the only man in the world that my door is closed to."  "The Divorcee" is a film that still feels modern (despite the sometimes stilted acting that was popular at the time) and I highly recommend it.  It is available on Netflix along with another film starring Norma Shearer, Lionel Barrymore and Clark Gable called "A Free Soul."  This film is also a very good representation of the pre-code era and has an amazing scene with Lionel Barrymore at the end.   Lionel Barrymore won the Academy Award for Best Actor for this film and it also catapulted Clark Gable's career.  

Hollywood has never quite recovered from the Code.  Women like Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich and Carole Lombard were the stars in the early 1930's depicting real women facing real issues.  After the Code, Hollywood became male dominated and women were pushed into supporting roles.  I urge you to take a look at some of these films and actresses and see a body of work that could be presented today and should not be forgotten.