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.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Water For Elephants

"There's nothing wrong with me, I'm just old." 
Hal Holbrook as older Jacob

I saw this film last night with a dear friend and here's my review:  Read The Book.  Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon are miscast.  Christoph Walz is perfectly cast, and yet, the most moving performance in the film is done by Rosie.  She's the elephant.  The film is beautifully shot and has some classic circus characters that are well-acted but overall the film is predictable and cliched.  If you want some light entertainment and beautiful people, go see it.  If you want heart and soul, Read the Book.  

Friday, April 22, 2011

A Forgotten Actress

"Perhaps I'll get used to this bizarre place called Hollywood, but I doubt it." 
Margaret Sullavan

I had a rare treat last night and was introduced to a classic actress I had not seen before.  Her name is Margaret Sullavan and she was quite a force on screen.  Her acting career spanned 35 years, wherein she made 16 films and starred in countless stage productions, which was her first love.  She was married briefly to Henry Fonda, director William Wyler and had a decade long marriage to agent Leland Hayward which produced three children.  Unfortunately, her life took a sad turn when she divorced Leland Hayward and lost her children to him.  She had a congenital hearing defect that took her hearing when she was in her late 40's, which made it almost impossible for her to act on stage, and she ended up losing her life to an addiction to barbiturates at the age of 51. 

Despite, or maybe because of, her sad and storied life, Margaret Sullavan's presence on screen was very complicated.  She brought a depth to her roles that made it seem as if she wasn't acting at all, but merely showing us a glimpse of her life.  The film we saw in it's entirety was the 1938 version of "The Shopworn Angel" also starring Jimmy Stewart (her life long friend) and a very young and handsome Walter Pidgeon.  This is by no means a fabulous film and it is much watered down due to the fact that it's Post-Code, but it is still a very good vehicle for discovering the talent of Margaret Sullavan.  We were also shown two screen tests for the film "Rebecca" - one was Margaret Sullavan and the other was Loretta Young.  While neither actress got the role (it went to Joan Fontaine) it was fascinating to see the different acting styles.  Loretta Young played the part with a deep longing in her face and used her large, glorious eyes to full advantage.  However, she left me cold and it seemed as if she was playing a part.  Margaret Sullavan, on the other hand, played the part with such ease and authenticity, it was as if she was just speaking and certainly not reading a script.  She was wrong for the role because she had too much passion and self-awareness, but it gave me a full appreciation of her acting talent.  And that talent was to not make it look like acting.  Her presence alone pulled you to her, much like Garbo.  I am very glad I now know Margaret Sullavan.  

Other films of hers to watch:  "Three Comrades" co-starring Robert Taylor and Franchot Tone; "The Shop Around the Corner" co-starring Jimmy Stewart and Frank Morgan; and, "The Mortal Storm" co-starring Jimmy Stewart and Robert Young.  

Saturday, April 9, 2011

"Source Code" and "The Adjustment Bureau"

I saw this film last week as I also happen to be a huge fan of SciFi movies.  I prefer more outlandish kinds of SciFi films such as "Blade Runner" "Alien" "Star Wars" and "2001: A Space Odyssey," but this is still a pretty good one.  Set in a not too distant future and starring Jake Gyllenhaal ("Zodiac" "Brokeback Mountain"), Michelle Monaghan ("The Bourne Supremacy" "Gone Baby Gone") and Vera Farmiga ("The Departed" "Up in the Air"), "Source Code" is a kind of time-travel movie.  Now sometimes time-travel movies make my brain hurt, but this one is simpler than most and involves just three or four characters which makes it easier to follow.  I won't try to describe the story for you as I think it loses something when written in black and white, and this is a very good film with lots of heart and it deserves to be seen without much prior knowledge of the story.  Jake Gyllenhaal is excellent in the lead role and the chemistry between he and Michelle Monaghan gives the film much of its success and appeal.  I recommend this film for everyone, SciFi film lovers and regular film lovers alike, as it is easily accessible and quite an enjoyable way to spend an evening.  

This is another film that I saw recently, as again, it has the feeling of a SciFi film.  However, this film was a disappointment.  "The Adjustment Bureau" starring Matt Damon ("Good Will Hunting" "The Talented Mr. Ripley") and Emily Blunt ("The Devil Wears Prada" "Sunshine Cleaning") is based upon a Philip K. Dick short story called Adjustment Team.  Philip K. Dick stories usually turn into fabulous SciFi movies such as "Blade Runner", "A Scanner Darkly", "Total Recall" and "Minority Report", however this one is not.  It is a good film with fine performances from Matt Damon and Emily Blunt but I have some reservations about it.  The chemistry between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt is believable, and it gives the film a much needed sense of urgency, but I found it hard to believe that Emily Blunt's character would do what she did.  She seems to be an independent, forthright person who has this man appearing, disappearing and reappearing in her life, sometimes after several years, who she eventually blindly follows into a very dangerous situation simply because he asks her to.  It did not ring true to me and it even seemed a little silly.  I feel as if the romance of the story overshadowed what the author was originally trying to convey.  This could have been a gritty film about big brother and the existence of human free will but instead it is a nice safe film about the bonds of love.  They missed the mark here and missed an opportunity to make another great Philip K. Dick film.  

Saturday, April 2, 2011

"L'Eclisse" and Michelangelo Antonioni

During my class last quarter, I was introduced to a director and a film that profoundly moved me.  It's taken me until now to write about it as I needed time to digest what I had seen.  Michelangelo Antonioni was a director who worked mainly during the 1950's and 60's, at the same time as the legendary and much more well known, Ingmar Bergman.  They actually died within hours of each other.  Antonioni was born in 1912 in Italy, living through both great wars.  Those experiences had a tremendous impact upon his view of the world which shows up in his stark, slow and colorless films.  Now, don't be put off by that last description.  The film that we watched, "L'Eclisse," which means The Eclipse, is a slow, stark and colorless film, however, it is also filled with images of human interaction and the beauties and frustrations of life that burn into your mind and leave you almost breathless.  I can honestly say I have never seen another film like "L'Eclisse" and I am having great difficulty trying to describe it.  It is the story of a woman, Vittoria (Italian actress Monica Vitti), who breaks off one relationship and begins another but the materialistic nature of her second lover dooms their relationship.  However, what really tells the story is the cinematography which uses the landscape, buildings and things that litter the space around those people to convey a sense of hopelessness and futility.  Monica Vitti as Vittoria is transcendent with her beauty and uses it to show both joy and a great yearning within her that is not being fulfilled.  Then there are the last 7 minutes of the film.  They are unlike anything I've ever seen.  Vittoria and her lover make a date to meet at their usual place (a corner of a street in front of a building that is under construction.)  There is a barrel of water on that corner where Vittoria has dropped a scrap of paper the last time she was there.  As the camera pans that corner and we, the audience, wait for the two lovers to arrive, we see the lamppost slowly come on, the wind blowing trash down the street, a nanny pushing a stroller, and the water starting to slowly seep out of that barrel.  With each pass of the corner and the accompanying buildings and things, we realize, with a painful and awful slowness, that they are not coming.  There will not be a happy ending for Vittoria.  We are never told the exact reasons why they don't come but they are evident.  Neither of them is fulfilled by this relationship and the world around them.  They feel a sense of being lost in a material world that is meaningless.  All of this sounds terribly sad, I know, but Antonioni was presenting his view of the world as colored by his experience in Europe during the War.  For him, the world was a nebulous and unsafe place that can be destroyed at any moment.  I hope you will take a chance and view this film.  It will be a cinematic experience unlike any you've had.  

**Other Antonioni films I highly recommend that are slightly more accessible are:  "Red Desert" starring Richard Harris and Monica Vitti, and "Blow Up" starring Vanessa Redgrave, David Hemmings and Sarah Miles.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Now I Understand Garbo

"I never said, 'I want to be alone.' I only said, 
'I want to be left alone.' There is all the difference." Greta Garbo

I started a new film class at Stanford last night entitled "Classic Actresses and Their Signature Roles."  It is again taught by Mick LaSalle, a film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and the author of several books about actresses and actors of the 1930's.  He began the course with Greta Garbo, one of the most iconic faces and names of 20th Century cinema.  I have to admit that I have never understood the appeal of Garbo.  I, of course, can see her beauty, but she has always appeared so cold and stoic in my eyes.  I also have to admit that the only film of hers I've ever seen is "Grand Hotel."  The film Mr. LaSalle chose to show us last night was a silent film of hers titled "The Mysterious Lady" from 1928, when she was just 22.  The film itself is rather melodramatic and the male actors are very comical, without meaning to be, but Garbo... now I get it.  She was the shining light in the film, despite it being in black and white, that lit up every room and she seemed as if she truly was "Tania" without being overly dramatic.  She floated through the part and I truly could not take my eyes off of her.  Almost the entire story was told through her face, which is an amazing talent especially for someone so young.  Mr. LaSalle also showed us clips from several of her other silent films, most notably from "A Woman of Affairs" from 1929, which also starred John Gilbert (one of my mom's many favorite actors.)  In this film she is a woman trapped in a love triangle that ends very badly for her, and the depth and range of emotions that play across her face are truly extraordinary.  She draws you into her pain and suffering and you come away feeling as if you lived through the experience with her.  A talent like that is not made, it is simply there.  And Garbo was filled with it.  She filled the screen with beauty and emotion, and I can only imagine how the young men of the 1920's and 30's must have felt the first time they saw her.  If you've never seen her, please give her silent films a try.  You will not regret it.