Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Cat People (1942) **

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Avid fans of famed horror movie producer Val Lewton will tell you that Cat People (1942) was where it all began for Lewton. Yes, he’d worked as a novelist and “journalist” in the early 1930s, but after achieving success with an early novel, No Bed of Her Own (which was later turned into No Man of Her Own, starring Clark Gable and Carole Lombard), his next three novels flopped and Lewton found himself writing screen treatments for David O. Selznick at MGM.  In 1942 RKO hired Lewton to run its horror division, where he had to make films for under $150,000 and which had to run under 75 minutes. RKO was on the brink of financial ruin when Lewton delivered Cat People in less than one month and under budget by nearly $8,500.  Over the course of a two-year period Cat People raked in almost $4 million for the struggling studio. 

cat-peopleLewton, for his part, would go on to produce 11 horror films for RKO between 1942-1946, many of which would earn cult status. Some of these films, The Seventh Victim (1943) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), also appear on the 1001 list.  What all three films that appear on the list have in common is that they are heavy on style and light on substance.  There’s no doubt that the stories are wacky—voodoo and zombies and an ancient Serbian satanic cult of cat women, just to name two plot devices—but what they all did best was to create an atmosphere of dread of the unknown.  Modern horror film audiences would be shocked to know that Lewton’s films rarely exhibited violence or showed blood but that they still elicited tension.

I suppose you could refer to Cat People (1942) as a psychological horror movie since obviously Irena (Simone Simon) has intimacy issues and has to engage in Freudian psycho-babble with Dr. Judd (Tom Conway).  Still, it’s hard to get past the absurdity of Oliver (Kent Smith) marrying a woman who he obviously lusts after but is never permitted to kiss for fear that she might morph into a cat woman and kill him. You’d think after living in close proximity to his sultry wife that Olivier would be the one you’d have to worry about committing crimes but instead it’s Irena who is, quite literally, on the prowl.  As usual with Lewton’s films, I am not certain whether the ridiculousness of the story contributed to the less than stellar acting.  cat-people-1942-

The best thing about Cat People is Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography. Working under the direction of Jacques Tourneur, Musuraca’s shadow-infused images are what most people remember about the movie.  Two scenes in particular are standouts: the extended stalking sequence down a deserted and dark alleyway and the frightening swimming pool showdown between Irena and Alice (Jane Randolph). 

Overall, Cat People is a mildly entertaining horror film.  The story is crazy and the acting is bad, but at least it is visually intriguing. 

 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) **1/2

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Director Michael Curtiz’s biopic of legendary Broadway producer, writer, and star, George M. Cohan, is mildly entertaining.  James Cagney deservedly won his only Academy Award for his portrayal of Cohan, but once you get past his singing and dancing there isn’t much more to the movie. 

yankeedoodledandyFor one, Robert Bucker and Edmund Joseph’s script was a sanitized retelling of how Cohan worked his way up the Great White Way and became “The man who owned Broadway”.  Cohan, although in poor health at the time of production, was a consultant on Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), and, as such, wanted certain elements of his personal life either glossed over or completely omitted altogether.  Knowing this unpleasant fact takes a lot of the shine off the movie for me.  I am of the opinion that if you’re going to make a biopic it should at least be relatively accurate, since unfortunately so many people learn their “history” from films and television shows. 

While I don’t have a problem with the fact that Cagney won the Best Actor Oscar for Yankee Doodle Dandy, I can’t help but wonder if he didn’t benefit from the United States having recently entered World War II. What I mean by this, for those of you who haven’t seen this, is that while the film is obviously a musical and a biography, it is also a propaganda piece as well.  When you start your movie off with a visit to FDR’s office to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, primarily for writing such  patriotic songs as “Over There” and “A Grand Old Flag”, it’s obvious that some flag waving is being done. download

The musical numbers themselves are rather impressive, but unfortunately blackface does rear its ugly head ever so briefly.  Still, the staging and performance of the likes of Yankee Doodle Dandy (Boy) and Harrigan are so well done that I can almost overlook that Cagney wears blackface for a few minutes.  What I can’t overlook, though, is that once the singing and dancing stop the film seems to stagnate. A good musical, in my opinion, should seamlessly flow from the overall story into the musical numbers.  Unfortunately, for me, at least, Yankee Doodle Dandy doesn’t do this and seems clunky whenever the music stops.

Overall, Yankee Doodle Dandy is strong on songs and soft on storytelling. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Voyage to Italy (Viaggio in Italia) 1953 **

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Ingrid Bergman’s “shocking” affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini was very unfortunate. It wasn’t harmful because they were both married to other people, or that he ran off with another woman seven years after they were married.  No, what was unequivocally catastrophic about their affair was that it caused Bergman’s banishment from the American film industry because by playing a nun in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) and Joan of Arc (1948) it was believed that she should have behaved differently than every other actress in Hollywood. No one was calling Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, or Joan Crawford out on the floor of the U.S. Senate for immorality. And, so at the ripe old age of 34, and at the height of her acting career, she was banished to Italy to make five forgettable films with Rossellini (Stromboli, Europa ‘51, Voyage to Italy, Fear, and Joan of Arc).  Thankfully, French director Jean Renoir saved her from obscurity by giving her the lead in his fun-loving Elena and Her Men (1956) and 20th Century Fox and director Anatole Litvak brought her back to the States to star in Anastasia (1956), in a role that would win her her second Best Actress Oscar. Oh, but the films she made with Rossellini between 1950-1954… One being today’s entry, Voyage to Italy (Viaggio in Italia).

For years the Italian-language version of Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy was nowhere to be seen (or heard) in the U.S., and  it was originally shown in English. However, quite recently Turner Classic Movies aired the film in its original form (in Italian). Loosely based on Colette’s novel, Duo, the story follows an English couple on their trip to Naples to sell an estate that they’ve recently inherited.  Married for mjourney-to-italy-1954-003-george-sanders-ingrid-bergman-drivingore than eight years, Alex (George Sanders) and Katharine Joyce (Bergman) quickly realize on their Italian voyage that they don’t really know anything about one another, and what they do know they don’t seem to like.  He’s a workaholic and she’s an artistic type.  While she’s off visiting museums, the Acropolis, and the catacombs, he’s off licking his wounds and looking for a conquest because she happened to mention an old admirer of hers.  I can see why he might be jealous, as Katharine is years younger than him and much more attractive as well, but to get irked because his wife mentions an old admirer who happens to be dead is a bit of a stretch. Anyway, the couple seem to be on the verge of divorce when divine intervention steps in to save the day.

Did I like Voyage to Italy?  Not particularly, but I didn’t dislike it, either. A movie starring Ingrid Bergman would have to be God-awful for me to truly hate it because she’s such a good actress.  Still, she doesn’t get to do a lot of acting in this—she spends mherculesvoyageost of her time combing the cultural sites and either looking horrified or mesmerized by what she sees.  However, the few caustic, but semi-polite, exchanges she has with her worthless husband are entertaining to watch.  Sanders, for his part, looks particularly bored throughout the picture. I’m not sure if this was intentional, as Alex was bored by Italy and probably Joyce as well, but Sanders didn’t seem particularly happy at any point in the movie—he despised the way Rossellini “directed” it. 

I’m pretty sure that most of the production was shot on location, and in that sense, at least, it has at least one element of Italian neorealism (however, that particular film period ended in 1952). As such, there is an authentic feel to Voyage to Italy—even if its ending is far from realistic. The fact that Rossellini features the Naples’ National Museum of Archaeology, Duomo Cathedral, hypogea (underground tombs) and, of course, Vesuvius and the ruins of Pompeii makes the film much more enjoyable for me.  You see, I don’t necessarily agree with Francois Truffaut’s assessment that it’s a masterpiece or that it should be labeled as the first modern film—if you are unfamiliar with the French New Wave, here’s a quick history lesson: Truffaut, Godard, and the rest of the Cashiers du Cinema worshiped Voyage to Italy and, as The Guardian has pointed out, saw the film as “the moment when poetic cinema grew up and became indisputably modern”. 

Other than the sights explored by Katharine, the most interesting thing about journey-italy-webVoyage to Italy is the climatic staging of the would-be destruction of the Joyce’s marriage.  The couple, rather Alex, matter-of-factly comes to the conclusion that they should get a divorce as they are exploring the ruins of Pompeii.  Perhaps the symbolic correlations between the ruins of a civilization and a marriage is a tad heavy-handed, but nonetheless it was cleverly done.  Still, I’m not exactly sure if this was planned, as most of the movie was shot without a script and Rossellini created most of his “brilliance” haphazardly. 

j1798The absolute worst thing about Voyage to Italy is the ending.  I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but I can tell you that it has a symbolic staging as well.  Trite is the word that best describes what I think of the ending.  Which, of course, lessens the overall appeal of the movie for me.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

An American in Paris (1951) **

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Artistically director Vincent Minnelli’s An American in Paris (1951) is a triumph.  It rightfully earned Oscars for its art direction (Cedric Gibbons, Preston Ames, Edwin B. Willis, and Keogh Gleason) and costume design (Orry-Kelly, Walter Plunkett, and Irene Sharaff), and I suppose one could make the case that its win for Best Music (Johnny Green and Saul Chaplin) wasn’t too far of a stretch—but one could definitely make a valid argument for Adolph Deutsch and Conrad Salinger’s work for Show Boat (1951), too. Howampar9ever, under no circumstance should An American in Paris have won Best Picture over the likes of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), A Place in the Sun (1951) or even Quo Vadis (1951); and, while the field for Best Screenplay was weak, there is no question that Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, and Walter Newman’s script for The Big Carnival (a.k.a. Ace in the Hole, 1951) was far superior to what Alan Jay Lerner produced for An American in Paris. Its win for Best Color Cinematography (Alfred Gilks and John Alton) is a mild irritant since, again, there weren’t any true standouts in the field.  Unlike many of my fellow classic movie fans I don’t like An American in Paris very much.  I hate the story and find the musical numbers less than thrilling.  However, if you are a regular reader of this blog, then you know that my main complaint with An American in Paris is Gene Kelly’s beautifully staged vanity project: a 17-minute ballet performed at the end of the movie. 

Jerry Mulligan (Kelly) is a struggling American painter who lives in the most pristine section of Montmartre ever depicted on film.  Friends with a middle-aged child prodigy (Oscar Levant) and successful cabaret singer, Henri (Georges Guetary), Jerry is also “sponsored” by American heiress, Milo Roberts (Nina Foch). Obviously Nina has the hots for Jerry, but thatan-american-in-paris-1951--470-75 doesn’t stop him from hitting on 19-year-old Lise (Leslie Caron, who was really two years older than her character) at a nightclub right in front of Milo and her friends.  At first, Lise has the good sense to give Jerry the brush off, but eventually she caves into his harassment for a date after he stalks her at her job at a perfumery. But don’t feel bad for Lise, because she’s a two-timer, too. Unbeknownst to Jerry, Lise is engaged to Henri, the man who protected her during the Nazi occupation.  And, that’s the story.  There is absolutely nothing whatsoever that is compelling or engaging about it.  It also doesn’t help that Kelly was twice Caron’s age or that Minnelli and the screenwriters attempted to portray Foch’s Milo as what is now known as a “cougar” when she was twelve years younger than Kelly—this is way more than a mild irritant.

An American in Paris was inspired by George Gershwin’s music, most notably his 1928 orchestral composition of the same name. Several of Gershwin’s notable standards are performed: “Embraceable You “(from Girl Crazy, 1930); “Nice Work If You Can Get It” (from A Damsel in Distress, 1937); “Our Love Ihqdefaults Here to Stay” (which was a slightly altered version of his “Love Is Here to Stay” from The Goldwyn Follies, 1938); and, “’S Wonderful” (from Funny Face, 1927).  However, the only Gershwin musical number in the entire film that I like is “I Got Rhythm”, and even it pails in comparison to Judy Garland’s performance of it in the lackluster Girl Crazy (1943).  Additionally, right smack in the middle of the movie there is what amounts to an unnecessary intermission when Oscar Levant’s character dreams that he plays every instrument in “Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra”. His character, Adam, is completely useless to the plot—why must we watch him in an extended 4+ minute sequence?

Gene Kelly could dance, there’s no doubt about it, but how many of the same tap routines must one watch in the same movie?  And, then there are the ballet sequences. I can get over that Kelly and Minnelli chose to introduce their big discovery, Caron, in a hodgepodge ballet number—at this time, she was a ballerina and not an actress.  Moreover, I can somewhat stomach their interpretive dance along the Seine for “Our Love Is Here to Stay”.  An-American-in-Paris-2But, that’s where my patience ends.  When Minnelli chooses to do a close-up of Kelly’s Jerry and the film morphs into la-la land (what I assume is Jerry’s subconscious) and for 17 minutes I have to watch a ballet tribute to French art, most notable Toulouse-Lautrec, but the works of Raoul Dufy, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Maurice Utrillo, Henri Rousseau are also paid homage.  Should the art direction,  costumes, and choreography be commended?  Sure, those things make the film palatable.  Yet, they don’t negate the fact that having a 17-minute ballet as the conclusion of your film is ridiculous. Is it pretty to look at? Yes. Does it drag on for what seems like forever? Yes.  Does it make any difference in the overall plot narrative of the film? No.  And, when your story is already suspect and not the least engaging, why would you choose to end it with a ballet sequence that people can’t wait to be over?  Vanity—particularly, Gene Kelly’s. 

So, I know I’m probably in the minority regarding my distaste for An American in Paris.  Frankly, I don’t care.  The story is lackluster. The acting is passable but by no means stellar.  The most memorable musical number is a ballet sequence that has no connection to the plot narrative. Seventeen minutes of spectacular art direction and costume design, and beautiful choreography does not make a film great—especially when the other 96 minutes are only mildly entertaining. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) *

poster2 Jeanne Dielman

 

I know what you’re thinking: that sure is an elongated film title!  Well, the title matches the movie’s runtime, which clocks in at three hours and twenty minutes.  Oh, you think that sounds like an awfully long time to watch a story unfold?  Unless you’ve actually viewed this in one sitting, you have absolutely no idea just how long director Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) really is. 

Jeanne_DielmanThe plot, if you can dare to even call it that, of Jeanne Dielman revolves around three days of tedious household activities by Belgian widow Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig).  Akerman, who also wrote the screenplay, tells Jeanne’s story in real time.  That means that you are forced to watch Jeanne peel potatoes, make coffee, shine shoes, wash dishes, and countless other activities for countless minutes on end.  And these activities are almost always captured in one long static shot with no dialogue whatsoever. The only time that dialogue creeps into the movie is either when Jeanne goes out shopping or her son, Sylvain (Jan Decorte), comes home from school. And, even then, there are very few words passed between the characters. 

For me, Jeanne Dielman is a study in boredom.  I get that this was some feminist attempt to depict the alienating effects of being a homemaker who only lives to please her son, but this was boredom overkill. I literally had to drink as much coffee as Jeanne made during the duration of the movie to stay awake.  I find it beyond exasperating that some people believe this is a masterpiece in minimalism.  How can a 200 minute movie be referred to as minimalistic? 

Nothing exciting happens in Jeanne Dielman—and she was a Jeanne 1prostitute and, eventually, a murderer! Now, before anyone starts saying that I need to see it more than once to appreciate its “beauty” or “true meaning”, please be advised that I made the fateful decision to see this film before I started writing this blog. As such, I had to rewatch this today to ensure that it was as bad as I remembered before writing an unpleasant review. My ability to notice on my second viewing that Akerman does insert clues about Jeanne’s declining mental stability is the only reason that I didn’t award Jeanne Dielman my worst rating: :(((. 

Overall, watching Jeanne Dielman is like watching paint dry.  The best thing about finally writing this review is that I will never have to watch this hideous film again.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Guys and Dolls (1955) **1/2

 

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When I think of Gene Kelly or Frank Sinatra I envision them in musicals—they belong in this genre.  But Marlon Brando in a musical?  WTF!  The first time I sat down to watch Brando’s starring turn in director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Guys and Dolls (1955) I thought to myself: This isn’t going to end well, is it?  But, what a surprise, as the movie is actually rather entertaining and Brando does a relatively good job (thanks to a lot of sound engineering). Still, Brando’s not the best thing about Guys and Dolls. What makes the film really tick are the musical numbers performed by Frank Sinatra and Vivian Blaine. 

Frank Loesser’s hugely successful original 1950 Broadway musical, Guys and Dolls, won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical.  Loesser based his musical on two short stories by Damon Runyon, “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure”. While screenwriters Mankiewicz and Ben Hecht made a few changes from Guys and Dolls Simmons and BrandoLoesser’s musical, the film is essentially about a $1,000 bet between two professional gamblers, Sky Masterson (Brando) and Nathan Detroit (Sinatra), that Sky can’t take repressed Salvation Army Sergeant Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons) on a date.  Nathan desperately needs the money to secure a location for a floating crap game that he runs, and knowing that Sky will bet on just about anything and that Sister Sarah is a no-nonsense woman, especially when it comes to sin, i.e. gambling and drinking, Nathan believes he has a sure bet.  However, Sister Sarah’s mission is failing and General Cartwright (Kathryn Givney) is threatening to shut it down. Seeing an opportunity to win his bet and also take a rather attractive, if not uptight, woman to dinner in Havana, Sky guarantees that he can fill the mission with at least 12 bona fide sinners for the mission’s next meeting if she agrees to go with him.  When Sister Sarah agrees and Nathan loses the bet he must find another place to hold his crap game. Fortunately for him with Sister Sarah away in Havana, the mission is the perfect place to hold the game—Lieutenant Brannigan (Robert Keith) and the cops would never suspect such a venue. 

While Sky and Sister Sarah make an interesting pairing, it is Nathan’s Guys-And-Dolls-1955-4relationship with his nightclub singing fiancee, Adelaide (Vivian Blaine), that makes the film entertaining to watch.  Blaine, one of the four original Broadway cast members, is flawless as a woman with a 14-year old cold to match her 14-year old engagement to Nathan.  Yes, her baby-doll voice is a little annoying at first, but it grows on you as the picture progresses, and eventually you’ll accept it as a necessary character trait (or flaw).  She and her Hot Box chorus girls get to perform two outrageous numbers, “Pet Me Poppa” and “Take Back Your Mink”, that you can’t help but be amused by.  Her one solo number, “Adelaide’s Lament”, is about the psychology behind her cold and delivers the laughs.  Additionally, she sings “Sue Me” with Frank Sinatra near the end of the film, which spotlights that they were by far the two most talented singers in the movie. 

4359-3Sinatra, for his part, plays a member of the gambling underworld well—of course, he had the background for this role.  Perhaps he was miffed that Sam Goldwyn and Mankiewicz decided to cast a less than stellar singer who had never been in a musical before as the lead, but Sinatra really amped up his game for Guys and Dolls.  From his rousing rendition of “The Oldest Established (Permanent Floating Crap Game)” to his delivery of the best musical number of the movie, “Adelaide”, Sinatra showcases why people would eventually pay so much to watch his live shows—he has the chutzpah to deliver the goods. 

Surprisingly, the most well-known song from Guys and Dolls, “Luck Be a Lady Tonight”, was not sung by Sinatra but by Brando.  Of course, Sinatra went on to later record his own version and it became one of his signature songs.  Brando may have had an inflated sense of self regarding his Guys-And-Dolls-19551abilities as an actor, but he was the first to admit that he had a terrible singing voice.  In an interview ten years after his performance in Guys and Dolls he revealed that all of the songs we hear him sing in the film were the result of countless takes being cut into one version of a song.  This probably explains why Brando never did another musical, even with Guys and Dolls making an estimated $14.5 million profit.  Of course, he had company when it came to less than stellar voices, as Jean Simmons was known for her dramatic abilities and not her singing.  Still, they muddle along well together in the film and do admirable jobs on “I’ll Know” and “A Woman in Love”.  But, truthfully, their best interactions are when they are just acting. 

6997_5One musical number that is often overlooked in Guys and Dolls is “Fugue for Tinhorns”, which is sung by Stubby Kaye, Johnny Silver, and Danny Dayton.  This is a shame because it’s probably the most difficult to sing and best arranged song in the entire film.  Stubby Kaye was a fabulous singer, who was relegated to ancillary roles because of his weight, so it’s nice to see him shine in “Fugue for Tinhorns” as well as “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat”. 

Overall, Guys and Dolls is an entertaining, not-all-together ridiculous 1950s Hollywood musical. It’s light and fun, and filled with catchy, memorable songs.  Most importantly, no one wanders off to dance a 10 to 15 minute ballet solo for the sake of art which makes absolutely no sense to the film’s overall narrative.  On the down side, it is a tad too long and would have benefitted from some editing.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Seconds (1966) **1/2

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Based on David Ely’s 1963 novel of the same name, Seconds (1966) is a disturbing science fiction—and, I would go as far as to say horror—film about a man who completely takes on a new identity to escape his meaningless suburban lifestyle.  Director John Frankenheimer, along with cinematographer James Wong Howe, depicts a stark vision of a world where lives can be created or taken by an underground company headed by a man who looks and sounds a lot like Harry S. Truman (Will Geer).  The story itself is so bizarre that it is frightening, and Howe’s voyeuristic cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith’s seconds1966eerily haunting score only heighten the troubling plot. 

On his nightly commute from his New York banking job to his suburban home in Scarsdale, Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is given a scrap of paper with an address written on it. Later that evening he receives a phone call from a man claiming to be his dead best friend, Charlie (Murray Hamilton), who attempts to convince him to change his life.  What happens next is a series of shockingly matter-of-fact conversations between Arthur and the “Company”.  It seems that they can help him extricate himself from his empty existence, in which he no longer shares intimacy with his wife (Frances Reid), sees his married daughter, or enjoys his job.  All he has to do is set up a trust worth $30,000 to handle his transition—a cadaver must be procured for his “death”; extensive plastic 2777985698_a9c8a24486surgery must be performed; and, his new identity must be established. Trust signed, Arthur goes under the knife and several weeks later Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson) emerges.  He chooses artist as his new career, and the company sets him up in a beach house in Malibu and assigns John (Wesley Addy) as his adjustment advisor (and servant).  When it appears that Tony isn’t transitioning as they would like, they send in a woman (Salome Jens) to help the process along, as well as some other “reborns” to monitor his behavior. Unfortunately, Wilson doesn’t adapt to his new life and returns to New York to see where he went wrong with his wife and to ask the Company for a redo, so to speak.  Without giving the ending of the movie away, I will say that the last five minutes of the story are startling and uneasy to watch.

Seconds - 1966.avi_snapshot_00.20.53_[2012.08.08_23.55.17]There’s something about black and white film that makes psychologically disturbing movies even more frightening.  Howe’s cinematography creates a cold, austere atmosphere for Seconds, which expertly matches the disturbingly detached narrative.  Cinematically, the most important theme created by Howe and Frankenheimer is the distortion of reality. Their use of a fisheye lens to capture Arthur/Wilson’s distorted sense of being creates a mode of expression that a standard lens could not achieve. Additionally, the use of extreme close ups (so close you can see the character’s pores) elevate the tension/anxiety level and are almost jarringly uncomfortable to look at.  In one particular scene, after Arthur has spoken on the telephone to Charlie, Arthur is framed in a tight close up shot which depicts his unease and unhappiness. This shot is then followed, in rapid succession, by a seconds4medium and then a long shot, which emphasize Arthur’s isolation. Another scene that I especially enjoyed was when Wilson returns home and picks up a picture of Arthur, while standing in front of a mirror, and his face is reflected across the glass of the picture frame and the two faces of the same man are captured. 

Of course, such disturbing images deserved to be set to an equally disturbing soundtrack. While it has a sound all its own, Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtrack seems to pay homage to Bach’s Baroque style. Filled with imposing organs, melodic strings, and eerie 60s electronic music, the soundtrack is just as disquieting as the film’s subject matter.

00001Seconds did not do well at the box office or with critics.  Some found the idea ridiculous that John Randolph’s Arthur could be transformed into Rock Hudson’s Wilson. This is a valid complaint, as Hudson was nearly a half foot taller than Randolph and ten years younger, too.  Moreover, audiences weren’t quite prepared to watch Hudson in such a dark film—especially not after seeing him in a string of light romantic comedies.  Personally, I was equally impressed by Hudson and Randolph’s performances. Randolph expresses his character’s disillusionment and resignation quite effectively—so much so that you actually do feel sorry for him.  And, Hudson, for his part, is quite memorable in the last few scenes of the film, where he displays a gamut of emotions: regret, hostility, and horror.  

Overall, while I must admit that the story is a bit far-fetched, it is also so disturbing that I couldn’t help but be drawn into it.  It also helps that it was expertly filmed and that the soundtrack only enhanced the terror of the narrative. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Three Colors: Red (Trois couleurs: Rouge) *** 1994

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The third installment in director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors Trilogy, Red (1994), is by far the most philosophical and entertaining of the group.  I am a fan of films that interconnect the seemingly unconnected—this is why I so adore directors/producers like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Alfonso Cuaron—and Three Colors: Red not only artfully pulls together what appears to be two independent stories but also seamlessly unites all three movies of the trilogy together in one fell swoop. Kieslowski was justly rewarded Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay (along with co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz) for his cinematic interpretation of the bonds of fraternity.  How on earth this wasn’t one of the five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film is beyond comprehension (although if it had been nominated it wouldn’t have won, as even the film that should have won, Before the Rain, was somehow beaten by Burnt by the Sun—personally, I believe that international politics had a lot to do with this outcome…oh, stroiscouleursrouge1994ttop, this is not what this review is about…). Thankfully, the Academy did nominate Piotr Sobocinski for his brilliant cinematography, which only elevates the complexity of this intricately woven together story.

Perhaps it is a coincidence that Red takes place in Geneva, Switzerland, but I like to believe Kieslowski chose this setting because of the Geneva Convention, which established the standards for the humanitarian treatment of war.  No, this isn’t a movie about war, but it is, in some way at least, about how laws and society determine what is ethically and socially acceptable.  As in the first two films of the trilogy, Red abounds with isolated, lonely characters.  Valentine (Irene Jacob), a student, model, and pleasant and innately good person, is separated from her family and her pathologically jealous boyfriend. However, quite by accident, her world is changed by running over the dog of retired Judge Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant). When she returns the dog to him, Kern seems not to care and she takes on the responsibility of nursing the dog back to health. When the dog runs away, Valentine returns to Kern’s house on the off chance that’s where the dog has gone. It also gives her a reason to return the excess amount of money that Kern sent to her to pay the dog’s vet bill. Of course, Kern knew that she Trois couleurs - Rouge1would do this, because he understands that she is driven by her interpretation of what is right and what is wrong. Upon this visit, she learns the Kern eavesdrops on all of his neighbor’s phone conversations. She is repulsed by not only his actions but also by how he views the world. When she threatens to turn him in, Kern says that it will make little difference if she does, because in the end all of his neighbors’ (and perhaps society) lives will eventually turn into hell anyway.  She doesn’t turn him in, but she does cry for him—and she leaves the dog with him, too. Obviously Valentine has an impact of Kern, because he writes confessional letters to all of his neighbors who then proceed to bring civil action against him.  Upon reading about the case, Valentine returns to Kern’s to swear that she didn’t turn him in and learns that it was Kern himself who did so.  And, thus, one very unlikely friendship develops. 

The twist to the plot is that there is a parallel story that runs throughout the movie that only starts to come together after Kern explains to Valentine (in an absolutely inspired setting: a dark red theater with red chairs) how he came to be such a wretched man.  Like Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit), a young man studying for a judgeship (and the man who lives across the street from Valentine), Kern had dropped a jurisprudence book that when picked up was opened to a chapter which provided the answer to the most crucial question of the exam. And, as Auguste is deeply in love with a woman who betrays him (Frederique Feder), so was Kern.  He was so desperately in love with her that he followed her across the English Channel but she died in an accident.  Strangely enough, Auguste will follow his woman across the English Channel, too, but Valentine will also be on the ferry crossing.  When a disastrous storm strikes, only current_redfgseven people survive: six of them look quite familiar to anyone who has seen the entire trilogy.

Red, of course, is the dominate color. It’s in every shot, either as an object, as a background, or as a lighting element.  As mentioned above, perhaps the most striking use of the color is the set design of the theater. For me, Kern’s description of the events that destroyed his faith in man and in himself is deeply personal. He allows Valentine to see inside him—his metaphorical flesh--which is symbolically enveloped by the sea of red which encompasses the entire theater. 

hero_EB20030309REVIEWS08303090308ARThe second most memorable use of the color red is almost shockingly clever.  Early in the movie, Valentine does a photo shoot for a billboard ad for chewing gum.  In the scene, the photographer instructs her to stand in profile and think of the saddest thing she can think of.  The backdrop of the photograph is an endless swath of red.  Up goes the billboard and occasionally it makes an200_s appearance when Auguste or Kern notice it, but it seems to hold no larger meaning.  That is, of course, until the end of the film, when Valentine is rescued from the ferry and news cameras catch a extremely sad looking Valentine’s profile in a backdrop of, you guessed it, red. 

Obviously, I have droned on enough about why I prefer Red’s story arc to that of its trilogy mates, Blue (1993) and White (1994), but plot is not the only superior quality that Red has. Unequivocally, Red is the best acted of the three films. I‘m not trying to take anything away from Juliette Binoche’s turn in Blue, because she gives a haunting performance, but she didn’t have the luxury of working opposite Jean-Louis Trintignant.  Unfortunately, American audiences, in general, have no idea who Irene Jacob is.  Very early in her career she made two very important movies, Au revoir, les enfants (1987) and The Double Life of Veronique (1991), as well as Red, that found her poised for international stardom, eGUxYXYwMTI_o_kieslowski-trois-couleurs-rouge-1994-extrait3but after a number of lackluster movies her film career pretty much evaporated, sans a few minor roles in a number of crappy productions.  This is a shame because in Red she gives a multi-layered performance that shows her ability to display emotional depth. Additionally, she is not overshadowed or overwhelmed by working opposite one of the greatest French cinematic actors ever, Jean-Louis Trintignant.  Unlike Binoche, who absolutely dominates every scene she is in with Benoit Regent, Jacob is evenly matched with Trintignant.  Their conversations about what is ethically and socially acceptable are so well done that the viewer feels as if they are the one eavesdropping on the private conversation of one of their own neighbors.

Overall, Red benefits from gorgeous cinematography, good acting, and a tightly-woven intricate story. If I were to levy a complaint about it, it would be that the idiotic phone conversations between Valentine and Michel (the jealous boyfriend) could have been cut without much notice. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Three Colors: Blue (Trois couleurs: Bleu) 1993 **

 

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I find it odd that the editors of the 1001 Book only selected two films from director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors Trilogy (Blue, White, and Red), as they are all connected in their exploration of the ideals of the French Revolution (and the French tricolor flag)--liberty, equality, and fraternity—and have overlapping themes.  Of the three films, I prefer Red (1994) because of the story arc and Irene Jacob’s phenomenal performance.  That’s not to say that Blue (1993) isn’t good or that Juliette Binoche isn’t compelling as an emotionally withdrawn widow, but the plot is not nearly as interesting as Red’s. And, while I found White (1994) to be the weakest installment of the trilogy, it probably should have made it onto “The List” as a matter of principle, since all of the movies from the Toy Story Trilogy and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy made it even though each of these trilogies had a weak link, too.

Three Colors: Blue (1993), the first entry in the trilogy, was Kieslowski’s analysis of the meaning of emotional liberty.  Binoche plays Julie, a Parisian woman who wakes up from a car accident to learn that both her husband and daughter were killed in the crash. The only way that she can shot0003-16deal with her sudden loss is to completely shut down emotionally. To accomplish this, she decides to shed any “baggage” that reminds her of her prior existence, and so she gets rid of everything except a blue-beaded chandelier that was in her daughter’s room.  She then moves into a half-furnished and half-finished apartment without telling anyone where she’s gone off to.  However, try as she might, she is haunted by a musical score that her husband was supposedly writing for the impending unification of Europe under the EU which she believes she’s destroyed. I say supposedly because Kieslowski’s script seems to imply that Julie is actually the composer but he never explicitly says this. Anyway, when this pesky incomplete score isn’t overwhelming Julie’s solitary moments in the swimming pool or at a café, it causes people like Olivier (Benoit Regent), who is asked by the EU Council to finish the score, to seek her out for guidance or to guilt her into helping.  In the end, Julie must decide between isolation from or unification with other people. 

Stylistically, Blue is a French art film with good acting and excellent music.  Kieslowski and his cinematographer, Slawomir Idziak, make numerous visual allusions to the movie’s title by somewhat overwhelming us with various shades of blue.  Forget that key objects, like the 3a9c2830edf3d517a2eb212bcfbb565fchandelier and the ink used to write the score, are blue, the most striking use of the color documents Julie’s emotional state.  For example, there are several scenes of her swimming alone in an indoor swimming pool that are lensed with blue filters and lighting that are aesthetically unique and pleasing, but that also convey an overwhelming atmosphere of isolation and despair. And, strangely, Kieslowski and Idziak have forever changed my visual interpretation of the color blue by making it an ominous, unrelenting terrorist of the psyche, as anytime Julie thinks of the musical score her mind drowns in a powerful shade of blue.

imagesOf course, Kieslowski and Idziak’s aggressive use of the color blue is heightened by Zbigniew Preisner’s dramatic musical score, which sounds quite antagonistic up until it is finally completed.  This, of course, is quite clever, because the score itself becomes a character and serves as Julie’s adversary.  As Julie’s isolation grows so does the intensity of the music. It is not until the ending, and what appears to be Julie’s need to be connected to something, that the tone of the score changes.  Still, the chorus of the finale, taken from 1 Corinthians 13, sounds a little more haunting than what St. Paul probably had in mind when he wrote about the power of love. 

Binoche, for her part, is definitely haunting as a woman who refuses to grievblue-300x227e for those she’s lost.  Maybe that’s why the score doesn’t sound very sentimental, because Julie is incapable of mawkishness. Still, I wonder if Binoche ever got tired of playing such a tightly wound woman.  Plus, her matter of fact conversations with friends and loved ones, most notably the one with her Alzheimer-stricken mother (Emmanuelle Riva), required her to sound quite callous and unfeeling.  It was probably just as emotionally draining for her to play the part as it was for the audience to watch it—if only the story had been more engrossing and less ambiguous.

Overall, Blue is an interesting film to watch because of its cinematic elements, but the story lurks in the realm of ambiguity and drags at certain points.  Perhaps if Kieslowski had cut the entire Charlotte Very as a sex worker/exotic dancer element out of the movie things would have moved along at a brisker pace. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

On the Town (1949) **

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I’m a sucker for a good musical, but there’s one particular aspect of a Gene Kelly musical that I rather don’t like: the soliloquy dance number.  I can forgive the “Singin’ in the Rain” soliloquy because it’s absolutely breathtaking to watch, but the soliloquies in his two other notable musicals, An American in Paris (1951) and On the Town (1949),  really rankle me.  Kelly was an amazing dancer and choreographer, and so I understand that he wanted to show off his immense skills, but these interludes in the action come off, at least to me, as vanity projects that don’t always mesh with the overall productions in which they appear.  This is one of the reasons that I’m not more of a fan of On the Town—the other reason is that other than Betty Garrett’s hilarious turn as Hildy and Ann Miller’s fantastic song-and-dance number, “Prehistoric Man”, I wasn’t overly impressed by anything else. In my opinion, Leonard Bernstein’s music and Roger Edens, Adolph Green, and Betty Comden’s lyrics are rather pedestrian.  Perhaps this is musical heresy, but aftercap191 Miller finishes her awesome tap dance at the end of “Prehistoric Man” I could have happily stopped watching the movie and been quite happy.

Kelly co-directed On the Town with Stanley Donen, whom he would go on to make probably the greatest musical ever, Singin’ in the Rain (1952). While they are regaled for the their innovative dance numbers, they should also be remembered as the first directors to shoot a musical number on location.  As On the Town is about three sailors who go on shore leave for one day in New York City, Kelly thought it only right that the film be shot on location.  Of course, this was not a cost-effective way to shoot a musical (or any film for that matter), especially when MGM had an entire lot of studios that had been good enough for countless other musicals, most notably, The Wizard of Oz (1939).  Yet, Kelly persisted and eventually got the green light to shoot nine days’ worth of footage of the sailors visiting various landmarks in NYC, as well as the opening (and closing) number, “New York, New York”.  Most of the sight-seeing scenes were captured by a camera mounted on the back of a station wagon, while “New York, New York” required a bit more traditional way of filming. 

millerOn premise, On the Town is based on Leonard Bernstein’s 1944 Broadway musical of the same name, but Roger Edens changed or omitted several of Bernstein’s songs to appeal to a larger audience—namely he got rid of any hint of opera.  Since I have never seen Bernstein’s original vision of On the Town I cannot say which version is better, but hopefully the Broadway edition had more entertaining and engaging songs.  Still, Edens did create the most memorable number in the film, “Prehistoric Man”, so for that he should be applauded. Maybe I like risqué songs, because there’s a whole heaping load of “oomph” and “ooh la la” in the lyrics of “Prehistoric Man” and Miller sings them with such vim and vigor that you can’t help but be amused.  You add the dazzling tap dance number that she performs while singing this song (with a little help from her backup singers and dancers Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Jules Munshin, and Betty Garrett), which has a tremendous ending to it, and you easily have the best musical number in the movie.

Still, Kelly had to have his moment to shine, too, and so we get to watch him dance, for what seems like forever, the soliloquy ballet number, “A Day in New York”.  Let’s forget that it’s444783_1279309606679_463_300 completely useless to the continuity of the musical—although that is also exceedingly annoying to me.  What is most irritating is that the only person, other than himself, from the starring cast who performs the number is Vera-Ellen (who, I must admit, I don’t like), even though part of the sequence includes two male and two female dancers who accompany Kelly.  To me, that’s like saying, “Hey, Frank, Jules, Betty, and Ann, sorry, but you ain’t good enough to do this routine.” And, maybe they weren’t, but that’s beside the point. By making the decision to use other dancers in that scene, Donen and Kelly purposefully chose to disrupt the overall continuity of the film. 

on_the_town_still_0If I had to pick one shining bright spot, other than the “Prehistoric Man” number, in On the Town, it would have to be watching Betty Garrett’s feisty performance as Hildy. Garrett was no Ava Gardner in the looks department, but her Hildy comes across as a wanton woman nonetheless. Her unsubtle sexual innuendo toward Sinatra’s character, Chip, is undeniably worth the price of admission.  Probably the best description of Garrett’s brassy talents came from New York Times columnist Bosley Crowther, who once wrote that Garrett’s “way with a line is homicidal. What’s more she can dance and sing.” 

Overall, On the Town is, for me, a one trick pony.  When I watch a musical I want to be wowed by several great song and dance numbers. Here I only got one: “Prehistoric Man”.  This spirited routine coupled with Betty Garrett’s spunky performance is not enough to overcome what I find to be a set of lackluster musical numbers.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Wrong Man (1956) **

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Had Alfred Hitchcock not appeared at the beginning of The Wrong Man (1956) to introduce it and to say that it was different than his other films you wouldn’t believe that the master of suspense directed it.  It doesn’t look like or develop like any other Hitchcock movie I’ve ever seen.  Yes, the Hitchcockian theme of the wrongfully accused man is the centerpiece of the story, but countless other directors also enjoyed employing this plot device.  Furthermore, the poster above is misleading, The Wrong Man is not an “adventure into terror”. Instead, it is a dark and depressing docu-drama that is based on the true story of a man arrested and tried for a crime that he did not commit. This, of course, makes it somewhat difficult for me to say that the story is boring and that the movie drags, but it so desperately does both of these things. 

wrong6Hitchcock had an unnatural fear of the police and so when he read about Manny Balestrero’s (Henry Fonda) wrongful arrest and subsequent trial for armed robbery, he was intrigued.  And, it is a rather compelling story. A jazz musician at the Stork Club makes the fateful decision to take out a loan against his wife Rose’s (Vera Miles) insurance policy to pay for her to have her wisdom teeth removed.  While at the insurance company, the overly sensitive women who work there mistake Manny for the man who’d robbed them twice in one year. The next thing you know, Manny is picked up by the police, taken on several perp walks, and then arrested for a crime that he did not commit. While out on bail, Manny and his wife try to find witnesses who can prove that he was away on vacation when one of the robberies occurred, but every lead falls through. Surprisingly, his wife has a nervous breakdown and has to be sent to an asylum while Manny stands trial. 

If you work very hard you can pinpoint some of Hitchcock’s stylistic elements. He and cinematographer Robert Burks spend a lot of time focusing on the hands of characters and inanimate objects, and there are thewrongman3a number of low-angle close-ups of faces—what is sometimes referred to as framing for emotion. Additionally, they shot the booking sequence from Manny’s perspective, which had the effect of involving the audience in his distress. Yet, probably the most Hitchcockian element comes when Manny is placed in a cell for the first time.  After suffering through the humility of being questioned, fingerprinted, and charged for armed robbery, Manny is completely overwhelmed by the insanity of the entire situation by the time he stands alone in his cell. To emphasize Manny’s  confusion and mental anguish the camera appears to start spinning—so much so that it is both disorienting and nauseating to the audience.  However, these few elements, along with a cracked mirror and transposed shot near the movie’s ending, is where any resemblance to a Hitchcock production ends—there isn’t even a MacGuffin that I noticed!

hitchcockFor me, The Wrong Man suffers immensely from Hitchcock’s insistence that the audience experience the entire arrest process.  I know that he wanted to put his audience in Manny’s place, but while it does have some effect, it demands that the story be told at a crawling pace, which allows distraction and boredom to creep in.  Boring is not a word that I often associate with a Hitchcock production, but The Wrong Man is indeed just that.  Plus, his matter-of-fact way of telling the story really doesn’t allow the audience to emotionally connect with either Manny or his wife.  Sadly, when Rose goes off the deep end, I found myself annoyed by her presence and the story arc, as it made the movie even longer than it needed to be.

The one good thing about The Wrong Man is Henry Fonda, who stoically portrays a4983 character who should have been at his wit's end but never seems to lose his composure.  Emotionally restrained performances can be difficult for some actors, but Fonda does an excellent job of displaying Manny’s terror through his eyes and body language.  Plus, he capitalized on his own persona as a solid ,trustworthy person to get the audience to be even more outraged by what Manny goes through.

Overall, I am not a fan of The Wrong Man.  The story drags and is often quite boring, which is a black mark for any movie helmed by a master storyteller like Hitchcock.  Thankfully, Fonda’s performance gets me through such tedium.