Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Review: Remember the Night (1940)

It being Christmas Eve, I thought a nice film to watch would be this seasonal treasure from 1940, Remember the Night. It recently came out on dvd thanks to the TCM archives, but unfortunately I couldn't purchase it. The next best thing was that someone had posted it on youtube. And now I can say that it was one of the best underacknowledged films I've seen of the year.

The film boasts the first onscreen pairing of Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray who would later star in the revered film noir Double Indemnity. Away from the bleakness of the latter film, Stanwyck and MacMurray sparkle in a romantic comedy that is nevertheless very moving.

The story - created by Preston Sturges so you can bet it's well done - is basically this: Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) is caught shoplifting near Christmas time. Her prosecutor is John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) who, during court, realises it will difficult to win the case so he postpones it until after Christmas. However, noticing that Miss Leander will have to spend her custody time in prison, he turns sympathetic and requests her bail. Somehow she lands on his doorstep and before either of them knows it, they head out to spend Christmas together with Sargent's family. After the discovery that they are in love, coming back to court proves to be complicated. Watch out for a not so predictable ending.

The plot moves fluidly and is expertly handled by Mitchell Leisen (while not that well known, his filmography boasts other classics such as Easy Living). The filmmaking here is not flashy or auteurish, just well-polished which is in itself not an easy feat. One aspect that is noticeable though is the cinematography - Stanwyck was captured here so lovingly and her close-ups bring out all the appropriate nuances. There are some lovely scenes that are misty and shadowy and thus, bring out a romantic and moving atmosphere.

Fred MacMurray was sometimes stiff in his acting - mostly when the film is itself a dud - but here he is more than adequate and creates good chemistry with Stanwyck. As for Stanwyck herself, there's rarely a film where she's isn't great, but there's something especially moving about her characterisation here. She begins with rather a protective shell around herself, but gradually breaks it down as we get more and more into her personal world. She's quite poignant here. I've seen quite a few films of Stanwyck's over the last two years, but this might be the one that's really made me a fan.

All in all this is a perfect film to watch over the Christmas break or whenever one is in the mood for an entertaining and heart-warming film. Believe me, it has 'classic' all over it.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A sad day

On Thursday 17th December, one of the most cherished of actresses of the 40s and 50s passed away. Her name was originally Phylis Isley, but after fame she became forever known as Jennifer Jones. R.I.P Miss Jones, you will be missed.

In her first starring role, Jennifer receieved an Academy Award for The Song of Bernadette (1943), and she went onto have an unbeatable track record for the rest of the forties, raking up three more nominations. Some of the highlights of the decade that I've seen include:

Since You Went Away - when she sends off boyfriend Robert Walker to war it's one of the most haunting scenes committed to screen; and later when she gives Agnes Moorehead one of the best verbal backhands, it's purely awesome.

Love Letters - Jones shows here that she can work well in psychological dramas. She's bright and wide-eyed, yet has repressed emotions that time will reveal. She was nominated for the third time here.

Cluny Brown - Jennifer Jones proves she can do comedy, and with no less than legendary Ernst Lubitsch at the reigns. Jones' Cluny Brown is a delightful plumber to be who finds her eccentric equal is in Charles Boyer.

Duel in the Sun - Apparently this was controversial in its time, and it makes sense since this is one western that's just spilling over with sex appeal. Jones and Gregory Peck make quite a passionate couple in this.

Portrait of Jennie - Probably Jones' best film and performance (so far), this is one of the most enigmatic films I've ever seen. It has such a fantasy setting and Jones graduates from youngster to mature woman in every second or third scene. Jones' indomitable charm and optimism makes this one of her most memorable films.

Other apparent notables that I am yet to see are: her oscar-winning turn in The Song of Bernadette and the Vincente Minnelli directed Madame Bovary. I eagerly await seeing both.

Jones continued building her impressive filmography in the fifties, which culminated in her final Oscar nomination for Love is a Many-Splendoured Thing. Some of the disappointing aspects of the decade were that two of her films with notable directors were butchered by her partner and producer David O'Selznick. Luckily, the originals still exist. I've only seen two of Jones' fifties films and they were both great.

Gone to Earth - This was a Powell-Pressburger film that was eventually re-edited by O'Selznick and turned into The Wild Heart. Luckily I was able to find the original at my university. Jones proved to be stunning in technicolour (see: Duel in the Sun) and even though she is passed thirty in this, you just can't tell. She continued to play the ingenue perfectly and blended her naivety with sex appeal so well. It's a quirky film as only the Archers can pull off and Jones' sometimes enigmatic presence proves to work here.

Carrie - One of the most effective films I've seen this year, to me it's rather cynical and certainly not your typical love story. Laurence Olivier and Jones are at the centre of this film and they prove to have a nice chemistry, which is predominately why the film pulls at your heartstrings so much. Again, Jones plays a young woman and as she often could, she transitions herself from innocence to experience with a grace that is all her own.

Other apparent notables that I'm yet to see: Vittorio De Sica's Stazione Termini, Beat the Devil with Humphrey Bogart (where she dons a blonde wig), the Oscar nominated Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, Good Morning Miss Dove, and a re-teaming with Gregory Peck in The Man With the Grey Flannel Shirt.

The sixties was more toned down for Jones, and she appeared in three films: Tender is the Night, The Idol and Angel, Angel Down We Go.

Jones ended her career with an all-star cast in The Towering Inferno. I haven't seen it, but with such stars on board (Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire), it's not a bad way to finish such a stunning film career.

Jennifer Jones, you were a marvel on screen. You were somewhat of a predecessor for wide-eyed fifties ingenues like Audrey Hepburn and Jean Simmons. But, of course, you were unique and your characters were all your own. You had an adorable lisp and were stunning to behold. On top of all that, you created some of the most memorable characters of celluloid. Rest in peace.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Review: Avatar (2009)

I haven't really been reviewing films I've seen at the cinema (with the exception of a mini one of 500 Days of Summer), but I felt I'd just give out three cheers to Avatar, now that it's still fresh in my mind.

I first heard of the film late last year because of some boards on imdb (it always comes back to imdb...) concerning the most anticipated films of 2009. Well, as is sometimes the case for me, I didn't really give two hoots about Avatar then. A few things would have to happen before I bought into the hype: first a friend of mine from cinema studies showed me the trailer, and yes it looked interesting. But the aspect of the film that really got me hook, line and sinker was the film's rising star, yes Sam Worthington. He appeared on Rove and his story about his struggles in his career and the fact that James Cameron plucked him out of obscurity kind of grabbed me. Soon Sam Worthington becomes my current actor crush (God I haven't had one of those in so long) and his face seems to appear everywhere. So I watched the trailer again and I became as excited as ever for the film's release. This was a few weeks back.

Now it's Thursday 17th of December, and I can safely say in my current mindset, the film is worth the price of admission. Objectively, as a friend pointed out afterwards, the plot structure is kind of predictable in that it takes the path of most Hollywood narratives - conflict/resolution. And that's not so bad, only that the writing sometimes draws attention to its formula. Not that this ruins the film, hardly. The only other issue I had with the film is that it was quite long. My left arm ached so much.

But that was because I didn't want to move it. I was pretty enthralled throughout the film. I mean generally I have to move around in my seat when I'm watching any film. I moved once this time (I'm pretty sure). There's just something about James Cameron's Avatar that works for me. I like the story - ex-marine in a wheelchair joins a crew to the planet Pandora in order to exploit the land from the natives. He is one of three who turns themselves into these natives - three feet and blue-skinned, quite a marvel - through a machine called an avatar. It's their job to gain the native's trust to make the mission easier. Only Jake Sully, the ex-marine (Sam Worthington) becomes so embroiled in becoming a native that he finds his sympathies lying with them. And you can understand his love - Pandora is this beautiful, natural place where there's a deep ecology happening, humans are one with all other living beings around them. He's wary of all this 'tree-hugging' behaviour at first, but then he understands the connections to nature that humans have long ago forgotten. On this level Avatar is quite significant in today's age.

Of course, Avatar is also an action-adventure film and I'll say, for someone who doesn't leap out of their way for these sorts of films, I loved the suspense-filled sequences. I was quite into them, invariably displaying tears, excitement and horror. I can't imagine the painstaking effort taken to make the film what it is, and I won't try to. I'll only say that it's a visual treat to see this film and I only wish I had seen it in 3D, but alas, in its 2D format it's still grand.

Superlatives are dangerous to use, as I'm probably blowing up the film out of proportion. It's suffice to say that I enjoyed it, and I went into it knowing the hype. It's entertaining, exciting and makes you think and feel. What else is necessary for a good film?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Awards Season

For the first time in my little life I am going to follow the buzz around the Oscars and try to predict winners or put in two cents on what films/performances deserve acclaim. It's all happening because I was on imdb a little while ago and on the classic film board there's a thread on all these critics awards. And from that thread I deciphered that the biggest buzz has been surrounding such films as [mind you I haven't seen any of these--yet--except Up]:

Avatar [there's a big popularity generating around this film in general]**seen it
An Education [I've been really wanting to see this]
The Hurt Locker [Kathryn Bigelow might become the first female director to win an Oscar]
Invictus [Clint Eastwood directed, so I'm there]
A Single Man

Up**seen it
Up in the Air
**seen it

...Otherwise there are some names frequently popping up for their acting: Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart, Meryl Streep for Julie and Julie, Mo'Nique for Precious, Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds [though I don't think I'll be watching this with its bloodshed...]

None of this means much now, but hopefully in the coming months I'll be posting thoughts as I watch more films...

On the other hand, the idea of this might fizzle out. It's all pretty unpredictable from here.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Glee Completes Me

The last episode of the first season of Glee aired in Aus yesterday and true to all last episodes, it left me wanting more.

I'm almost certain I could watch the ups and downs of the Glee Club at McKinley High all day and not get bored. I might try it when the dvd comes out. All this even though my first taste of Glee wasn't exactly sweet.

From the pilot episode I decided that Glee was too stereotype-riddled and saccharine to be likeable. The only good points I picked up was the sharp and deadly wit of Sue Sylvester. Even though I like musical-filled shows/films, the songs here didn't immediately grab me. They felt too 'high school musical'.

Weird things happened the more I watched. I was actually engaged by the Quin pregnancy storyline (and even moreso when it turned out Puck was the dad) and just as hooked on Mr. Shue and Terri's 'baby' storyline. I was still a little huffy at the stereotypes: why were the blondes unlikeable? Why was Rachel so self-centred? Finn's a ditz, Kurt's kinda flamboyantly gay (but he is lovely), Puck's a bad boy. It's sometimes hard to like characters if they're two-dimensional, and yet the more of Glee I see, the more hooked on these characters I get.

And there's more. I know that Emma is probably best for Mr. Shue, there's obvious reasons to ship them as a couple - she understands him, respects him, adores him. His wife, in comparison, is so self-centred. But maybe Terri's just misunderstood and Emma's not as sweet as she seems to be. It'll be up to the writer's to see how this triangle continues to unravel itself.

One of the biggest drawcards of a show like Glee is the music - they're basically all covers (maybe there are a few written for the show, I don't know), but they're nicely done, in spite of the pop overfill. The kids have a great energy and look like they're really enjoying themselves and that's of bigger importance than anything else. The show has some nice moments of friendship, teamwork, believing in yourself and sticking it out no matter what. Kind of cheesy, yes, but Glee has an indescribable vibrance about it that distinguishes itself from other teen-directed shows out there.

The test now is, will Glee be able to keep it? Will it give out too much too soon? Will it give too little? And will Sue bring on the works as she promises and keep producing hurdles for Glee?

Here's hoping that the second season will be as good as the first!

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Time for the actors, which couldn't quite fit into my last post. I had kind of run out of steam, not to mention it would have been too long. After some repose and some thought, here are some actors that I've liked lately.

Leslie Howard: He's well-known as Ashley Wilkes in 'Gone with the Wind', but I can't personally say I liked him in it. He was probably too old and so he didn't quite look like the guy who had inspired such romantic obsession in Scarlett. That aside, I don't think Ashley's an all that interesting character anyway, even in the book. Leslie Howard made more fascinating portrayals in his acting career. My favourite for the moment is his Henry Higgins in 'Pygmalion', otherwise known what came before the musical 'My Fair Lady'. He's perfectly grumpy and unlikeable until the point where he discovers he loves Eliza (Wendy Hiller, who also deserves a shout-out here). Other Leslie notables have been: 'Of Human Bondage', making use of his sensitive Englishman persona who gets tangled with Bette Davis' Mildred Rogers; 'Smilin' Through': his role is kind of supporting here, but he has great chemistry with Norma Shearer and he makes the transition from young lad to elderly man rather convincingly. Most looking forward to next: The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934).

Robert Montgomery: I saw 'Here Comes Mr. Jordan' and I didn't realise then that his everyday Joe was not quite the persona he had established in his earlier MGM days (meaning maybe I should re-watch this now that I see Robert Montgomery in a newer light). Today, if known at all, he's probably best known as the father of Elizabeth Montgomery, or Samantha from 'Bewitched'. Lately I've know him most as the effortlessly classy, tall and ridiculously swoon-worthy leading man of 30s MGM actresses like Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford. Having not gotten round to Joan, I've lately only been seeing the ones he made with Norma. They have quite good chemistry, even if they can't fully realise it in two out of the three films I've seen. But the film I most look forward to is the one where he got his sole Oscar nomination and cred as an actor, 'Night Must Fall'.

Current Obsessions

It's the holiday season for the next couple months and so I have time to concentrate on some classic movie obsessions. I should probably get a part-time job instead, but I'll be Scarlett O'Hara and think of that tomorrow...

There was a time, and there still is every now and then, when I think I'll stop liking classic movies. Everyone goes through fads - I've been invariably obsessed with various bands, classic books, even knitting and they didn't last long. Somehow I don't think classic films will ever have 'their time up' with me. Or film in general. I guess it's a love that's here to stay.

Right now there's too many actors and actresses to be interested in. Here are some that I'm really intrigued by at the moment:

Linda Darnell: I hadn't heard of her until this year, after I was glad to hear that madman had released some Dana Andrews films, including 'Fallen Angel'. I read up on it a bit and found out that Dana didn't think the film was very well, and that Linda Darnell had given the standout performance [note: I still wait to watch this film]. I think by this point I had seen 'My Darling Clementine' and I liked Linda as Chihuahua. She had a lot of sass and I probably preferred her to the sweet and wholesome Clementine. Just recently I've picked up my interest in Linda and have seen 'Unfaithfully Yours' where she plays off Rex Harrison really well and 'A Letter to Three Wives' where she is initially somewhat cold, but then grows in depth and sympathy as you get to know her character. She very much stands out.

On the 'A Letter to Three Wives' dvd there was also the A&E biography of Linda called 'Fallen Angel'. She lived a somewhat tragic life and was thrown into films at too young an age. But boy was she talented and beautiful.

Bette Davis: Many people view Bette as one of the best actresses in the history of cinema, and I can't dispute that though I've only seen six or so of her films. It's suffice to say that she hasn't disappointed me yet. You can sense that she really understands acting. To me her performances don't try to overdo it, but rather they create a foundation and then build up on this. In one of her recent films I've seen, 'Dark Victory', it's hard to see the mechanisms at work, but somehow you come away with the understanding that this woman is incredibly afraid of death as anyone would be if they were faced with it. You don't have to search for excuses to say that Davis is a great actress, she conveys it without you having to think consciously. That's the feeling I get.

Norma Shearer: I was kind of sceptical of Norma. Initially I'd only seen her in 'The Women' and I personally thought she was not that special in it (but her performance deserves a re-watch now). After that I simply knew her as MGM producer Irving Thalberg's wife who got all the prestigious pictures at her home studio. Then I decided three-quarters into the year that I'd try to find out what Norma's best films were. The one I was most eager to see was 'The Barretts of Wimpole Street' and she blew me away with her subdued but confident performance. I'll admit that in some of Norma's performance she makes some exaggerated facial expressions, somewhat left-over from her silent film days maybe. But she has a lot of sass and sex-appeal in her early pre-codes. And she's charming with Robert Montgomery, they make a great screen couple.

Mia Farrow: This year I've also gotten an increased interest in Mia. Last year I first saw her in 'Rosemary's Baby' and I don't think I was expecting much, but she perfectly conveyed her character's feelings in that. For me she really stood out and my opinion of her changed a bit. This year I've been making it a goal to get my hands on her films with Woody Allen and so far, so good. She's barely recognisable in 'Broadway Danny Rose' with her kind of Brooklyn-accent and big sunglasses - that one's probably my favourite of her performances. She also sunk chameleon-like in her performances in 'The Purple Rose of Cairo', 'Radio Days' and 'Hannah and Her Sisters'. Back-tracking a bit I also saw her 1969 film with Dustin Hoffman 'John and Mary'. They had good chemistry, though the film itself sinks a little. It sort of had a cool, bohemian feel about it, but the plot itself seemed unlikely. Then came 'The Great Gatsby' and though Mia looked stunning and her reading of Daisy Buchanan was not bad, the film itself sort of fell flat. Nevertheless, I still hope to see more Mia films in the future.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Review: Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957)

Frank Tashlin is an interesting director to emerge out of 50s Hollywood. He was initially an animator who moved on to live action features, and his abilities to draw out caricatures and exaggerated situations are evident in these latter films. At his best he could use film to mix entertainment with observations on pop culture. In Artists and Models, he explores the craze of comic magazines; in Hollywood or Bust, it's all about the film industry itself; and in The Girl Can't Help It, the emergence of rock n roll is explored. In 1957, Tashlin tackled the advertising industry with Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

In a nutshell, this film is about Rockwell P. Hunter who works for an advertising agency (played well by Tony Randall). He's sort of at the lowest rung of the agency, a rather ordinary guy. That is until he finds the perfect endorser for the latest ad-campaign for Stay-Put Lipstick: none other than the blonde bombsell with the 'most kissable lips' Rita Marlowe (played nicely by Jayne Mansfield). The only thing is that Rock has to pretend to be Rita's 'loverboy'. And overnight be finds himself as a 50s Robert Pattinson, with a bevy of fans wanting every piece of him.

Tashlin's film is fully-equipped with luscious technicolor, a nice supporting cast (with Joan Blondell, John Williams and Betsy Drake) and great gags. One of the best gags is when Rita tells Rock he doesn't have to worry that they're the same height because she's bought him 'lifts'. They were commonly used by short men when up against taller leading ladies, such as was often the case with Humphrey Bogart and Charles Boyer. When Rock tries on the shoes he can't quite get the hang of them (mind you, he's also wearing this large suit belonging to Rita's beefy ex) and he sort of stumbles around the room, looking way out of his league. Quite plainly, he doesn't 'fit' into the publicity world of Rita.

On the surface this is a candy confection film that's well-packaged. But through a deeper lens, the film is exploring the manipulative world of advertising. To paraphrase Rock Hunter, advertisements try to convince ordinary people every day that their lives are lacking in something. It promises to fill that void, but really only provides an unattainable fantasy. As we see in today's industries, models are airbrushed, appliances don't always work as they're supposed to and we probably don't really need all those entertainment gadgets out there. As Rock discovers through his brush with fame, he actually likes being a humble, ordinary person. It's at the top of the business that people have problems, always trying to figure out a new way to sell their items and make the person at the bottom content. But it's a life of continued disappointment and pressue and ultimately, unfulfillment. Ordinary as he is, Rock has his family and not even money could substitute for that.

All in all, this is a wonderful film with great characters and great moments (including a sly side-commentary on the take-over of television in the fifties). It's executed well and with a lot to think about. It's a nice treasure of the 50s.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Review: Samson and Delilah (2009)

Great films, really great films are hard to come by. Really great films produced in Australia are even harder to come by--lately.

It is thankful then when lyrical and beautiful films like Samson and Delilah are produced.
The words 'lyrical and beautiful' have to be taken with a grain of salt, though, because this film does cover some gritty issues that aren't glossed over nor should they be.

The film centres around two rural young Aboriginals, Samson and Delilah (played with realism and pathos by new-comers Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson). Their lives are fairly routine and very little changes during the first five or so days in which we encounter them. Then tragedy strikes Delilah when her grandmother passes away. Perhaps needing a change from their lives, Samson and Delilah move off to the city. There they find that they are just as isolated as they are at home. They struggle for food, find shelter underneath a bridge, endure hostile treatment from others and take salvage in petrol and in each other.

Some of the scenes are hard to watch because they're so confronting. Oftentimes you want to pretend that Indigenous issues don't exist. Very often one can go day to day and not think of such issues or care about them. The film depicts this and shows people--white people--looking down on Samson and Delilah and trying to shoo them away from their guarded society. Watching the film you find yourself despising these people, but then wondering if you're just like them. It can be unsettling. Such is the power of this film.

Warwick Thornton directed, wrote and photographed this film and he did a premier job at that. Although at times the film seemed initially slow-moving and so very quiet, but then the action and the emotions build up. The film gradually gains hold of your complete attention and then doesn't leave it until the credits roll. Before you know it, these characters and their plight are so important to you that whatever happens to them is going to deeply affect you.

The cinematography is beautiful. Thornton's camera captures beautiful sunsets and silhouettes. The rural area that Samson and Delilah live in looks simultaneously harsh and beautiful, depending on the scene. The camera also captures great close-ups of both characters, acting as a window to their feelings.

The end scene is one of the finest I've seen. In spite of all the brutality and despondency of before, Samson and Delilah give each other looks of hope and belief. I guess one of the film's ultimate message is that love, support and connection can be stronger than anything that goes against it.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Reflections on A Clockwork Orange (1971)

I won't call this a review, cos I don't know how far into that territory it will go...also I don't know if I could really review this film or even just articulate what I feel about it. It's been two days since I saw it and it's still in my mind, not quite ready to be released into words.

It's the kind of film that comes along once or twice a year if you're lucky (and watch too many films a year). By that I mean, it's the special kind of film that sinks you right into its unusual world and then follows you wherever you go for a few days. The feeling is indescribable (or maybe that's a cop out way of saying 'I won't even try to understand my emotions towards this film').

Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971) leaves you with recollections of its music, colours and the kind of stunning cinematography you wouldn't except to find in one of the most violent and controversial films (the word 'violence' needs to be used carefully however--it's not the kind that makes you want to turn away, but it does make you uneasy and unsettled). And then you're left with mixed feelings about the main character Alex, and of the systems which keep humans in order.

Could you ever imagine feeling sympathy for someone who rapes and beats up people for kicks? You just may if you see this film. The person in question is Alex DeLarge (played so very convincingly by Malcolm MacDowell), a young man who's apparently still in high school. He goes from being a delinquent with an eerie, dominant presence with a fetish for 'ultra violence' to a prison inmate who takes part in the new 'Ludovico' experiment to get out of jail.

This experiment, however, doesn't end up being the simple procedure he probably expected. It involves him being held down by this electrical equipment, his eyes clipped open, while he watches images of the activities that used to make him feel good. However, as he watched this images again, he only feels pain, and you see him squirming unbearably since he can't close his eyes. Gradually he's reinforced to see violence as bad.

And interesting things happen to your belief system. You noticed that he's being subjected to the kind of torture he used to take part in. He's transferred from the perpertrator to the victim, gaining your initially stubborn sympathy in the process. Secondly, he's getting 'treated' against his will, in that he didn't get to make the conscious decision to be good. We might feel that criminals forsook their liberty when they committed their crimes, but 'A Clockwork Orange' nonetheless sways you to look at things in another way.

And along the way you discover--perhaps while Alex's creepy eyes from the beginning are still in your consciousness--that this young man can be funny and intelligent. And during the post-prison scenes where he comes back into society, the ill-treatment he receives actually makes you feel kind of bad for him. I know, I know, how can this be? It's these weird torn effects that make the film so enthralling.

Stanley Kubrick is often referred to as a 'visionary director' and you can see a unique, bizarre vision unfolding itself in front of your eyes. It doesn't turn out to be the film you'd expect by reading reviews and just looking at the dvd cover. Simply because what it turns out to be is nothing you'd imagine. I think it's brave of Kubrick to step so out of the square--risky, unconventional films either become rejected or they're placed above most other films. I think 'A Clockwork Orange' falls in the latter category.

It's also risky for another reason, which is its content: constant phallic symbols, rape, nudity, are perhaps hard to digest, and maybe it's even more jarring when Beethoven's music is in the background in these scenes. With such a content it's not the kind of film I'd expect myself to rave about, and I still feel a little weirded out by how much I liked the film, but it really is a film to wonder and ponder about.

Moving back to Kubrick, the other intriguing thing I found out about him is that he's a perfectionist. Apparently he likes to sometimes do up to 30 (or was it more...) takes for a scene. He often worked a considerable long time on each film, and as a result he made about 2-3 films in each decade from the 50s till the 90s. And if you go on Imdb, astonishingly, most of them are either in the top 250 or rated above 7.5. Which is kind of rare. I really look forward to seeing and reflecting on his other work.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Review: A Damsel in Distress (1937)

In spite of a varied and rich career in front of the screen, Fred Astaire will perhaps always be most remembered for his partnership with Ginger Rogers in the 1930s. It seems the audience knew it even then, if box office statistics are anything to go by. I say this because the one time Fred decided to break away and make a Ginger-less film, it sunk.

Up till this day I'm pretty sure that this 'infamous' film - A Damsel in Distress - is still most well known for being the only one out of Astaire's 1930s output to lose money at the box office. However, with its steady 7.0 imdb rating and its availability on TCM, perhaps all is not lost with this somewhat obscure gem.

The opening title sequence alone promises that this film will deliver. Aside from Fred Astaire, you have a strong supporting cast led by the beloved partnership of George Burns and Gracie Allen. You also have Joan Fontaine who would later become an accomplished actress most famous for Hitchock's Rebecca. Joan was only beginning her career at this point and in addition, she wasn't a trained dancer. So consequently, as people have noted, she seems like a fish out of water in this musical. Nonetheless, it's always intriguing to see actors in pre-stardom roles.

Then there is George and Ira Gershwin, composer and lyricist respectively of the film's soundtrack. George Gershin wanted to be considered as a serious composer at the time, meaning he didn't only want to be working for money, but also wanting to compose for art's sake. Thus, he rarely composed for film musicals. I think due to the sophistication of George's music and Ira's well fitting lyrics, the film has a touch of elegance. The songs 'A Foggy Day' and 'Things Are Looking Up' are particularly beautiful and romantic.

The other major drawcard of the film is the director, George Stevens. At this point he'd already proved his ability with the Katharine Hepburn vehicle Alice Adams and with a previous Astaire-Rogers film Swing Time. In his pre-war career he was an accomplished director of comedy which you see in the film through a lot of light moments injected into the film with ease.

Once the film gets under way, you find out (or at least I did) that the film lives up to the sum of the talents involved. I can't be objective or elaborate where Fred Astaire is concerned, so I can only say that his great dancing, singing and overall persona is in great form here. George Burns and Gracie Allen establish the fundamentals of their partnership - he is the straight man and receiver of her endearingly loopy personality. Just about all the laugh out loud lines are thanks to them and their delivery. In fact their wonderful exchanges could be devoted to a whole new entry. Here's but one example:

Fred Astaire (to Gracie): What's today [the date]?
Gracie: Well I don't know.
George: You could tell if you look at that newspaper on your desk.
Gracie: [picks it up] Oh this is no help George, it's yeserday's paper.

The other main reason to see this film is for the two wonderful dance numbers between Fred, Gracie and George. As I found out afterwards, Gracie and George did a lot of soft-shoe stuff during their vaudeville years and George even taught tap dancing once. Well it's no wonder then that they dance so well with Fred. The standout is a amusement park number called "Stiff Upper Lip" where they go into this swirly room with slides and distorted mirrors. It's both funny, inventive and a showcase for talent.

The slight letdown of the film is the convulted plot akin to that of the Fred and Ginger films; except minus the charm of the latter. It's a formulaic plot that centres around mistaken-identities and mis-understandings. It's supposed to be funny I guess, but having seen these devices already through Fred and Ginger films, they wear thin. Unfortunately, Fred Astaire and Joan Fontaine don't have the best chemistry -- it's sweet and functional, but it doesn't sparkle.

Their dance number 'Things Are Looking Up', though more often maligned than not, tries to work around Joan's limitations: the garden setting blends in with her and Fred's clothing and they are filmed in medium-to long shot through a kind of low angle. You also don't see Joan twirling around much, but when she does she lands a little off-balanced. She's ok with the leaps, though, and there is some nice choreography framed around her strengths. But again, the dance number doesn't sparkle; it begins and ends with little emotion (one of Ginger's strengths) or technical consistency (which Cyd Charisse had in buckets).

However, I will give the romance one positive. The number 'A Foggy Day' not only utilises a beautiful song, but the cinematography too makes it the most profound moment of the film. It comes at a point where Fred thinks (again) that Joan is in love with him, but what he doesn't know yet is that another misunderstanding has occurred. While Joan looks down at him from her window, he's standing around the garden they danced in the day before. He starts singing in his melodic voice that blends as one with the music, and then he looks around himself, seemingly reminescing. All the while there's a sort of fog/light coming from the sky and it gives the whole sequence a magical look.

So in short, the film is delightful and charming in spite of some flaws. What you come away with is a film that holds up better than its box office stats would have you believe.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

a life in graphics

Making that Halloween-themed post reminded me of one of my on-off hobbies since 2007. I kind of like photo editing, even if it is arguably not a craft (though there are indeed graphic makers who can breathe in vivid new life into photos). I can't remember exactly how it began, but it sort of coincided with my budding enjoyment of classic films. As far as my sometimes unreliable memory goes, I was looking at google for classic-movie related stuff and I stumbled upon livejournal. I saw really cool icons and banners made of Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's and the like and saved as many as I could to my computer. I remember wasting days just doing this obsessively.

And then one day I decided to join livejournal and soon after I started creating my own icons. But I've only gone on lj sporadically this year so my graphic-making career has kind of died. I still get the urge though to edit classic film/general film photos from time to time. I thought I'd just post some recent efforts.

B a n n e r s

I c o n s

Halloween Fever

Halloween was technically yesterday here in Aus, but nonetheless I just wanted to post some Halloween-themed pics I kind of manipulated using a photo editing program called Photofiltre. I didn't do much editing, but it was fun nonetheless.

{edit: unfortunately the images have lost some of their quality during the upload, but oh well}

C'est tout.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Life's Big Questions

Another survey, courtesy of a user over at imdb. I thought I'd post my response here instead of there because most of those threads have relatively short shelf lives...over to the survey.

1. What's bigger, movies or life? Movies-they're my life support system, along with family and friendship of course.

2. Paste one movie quote that you find profound: One that I can't get enough of ever since hearing it: "
The heart is a resilient little muscle." -- Woody Allen in Hannah and Her Sisters. You can't hear it on paper, but in the film it somehow comes across as the sweetest, cutest and moving thing. I don't know what breaking up is like, but the remedy is this quote I am sure.

3. What's the one thing (tangible or non-tangible) you most regret losing? I have no idea.

4. Are you a romantic? If so, have you ever been in love? I used to be a romantic, but now I'm more cynical for no reason (I've been watching too many movies about adultery and fizzled out romances courtesy of Woody Allen). I'm also probably not a romantic because I've never been in love...except unrequitedly for a movie or book character....hmm...

5. What's one song you can't get enough of right now? I love Bobby Caldwell's Beyond the Sea. It's nice and jazzy and breezy.

6. What's your favorite fashion accessory (other than clothes of course)? I love the hats of the 20s and 30s.

7. Tell us something about the last film you watched: Zelig. A mockumentary about a man from the late 20s who has a psychological disorder where he assumes the identity of those around him. Among other things, he achieves wide fame and ends up falling for his psychoanalyst and finally his condition becomes less of a nuisance. It's a Woody Allen treasure. <3>

Favorite movie from The Archers (alias Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)? The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. From the moment I heard of it I was sceptical about its appeal. Anything with the word 'colonel' sounds too military like and bland. Somehow this movie, in its glorious technicolour and great storyline, was anything but bland.

9. About how often to you post here on IMDb? Very rarely. I read other people's comments more. What can I say, I'm an observer first and participator second.

10. Coffee or Tea? Bleh, I dislike coffee (and yet I was addicted to it when I was 12, go figure), but tea is practically a staple. I drink it every morning with milk.

11. Favorite subjects? Cinema studies, Literature, Sociology-related subjects, Philosophy (which I've been really taking indirectly through Self & Other).

12. If you could be one film character for one day, who would you be? The ultimate question and yet I'm stuck. I have no definitive answer for this, so I'll have to answer with one out of a million choices. Any of Jean Arthur's characters would be great, but I'd especially like to be her Connie Milligan, no-nonsense working girl with sharp wit who's secretly yearning for romance. Why definitely.

13. What is your best and worst quality? I can't be objective about this, but at my best I'm an honest, kind, perceptive and humble person. At my worst, I'm narcisstic, insecure, unsociable and irritating/irritable. Woops, that was four qualities each, narcissicm (sp?) creeping in again.

14. What is your motto? It's simply, be happy.

15. If you could listen to one voice for the rest of your life, whose voice would it be? Charles Boyer. Sexy French accent yes.

16. If you had one superpower, what would it be? The power to be incredibly witty, now that is talent if you ask me.

17. What came first, the chicken or the egg? This question just puts me round in circles. Unanswerable.

18. Name one historical figure you find absolutely fascinating: Anne Frank. Remarkable writer, utterly complex, firm believer in good at such a time of atrocity. Her life and her diary haunt and inspire me whenever I return to them.

19. If you could live during one time or place, where would it be? Hollywood in the 30s and 40s.

20. If you could change one thing about you, what would it be? To be more productive and put some more effort into things rather than run away when the going gets tough.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Survey (classic-ish style)

A survey mood! I found the following one on this blog
It's classics-ish which is a bonus.

1. What is your all-time favorite Clark Gable movie?
Probably Gone with the Wind, it's Clark at his roguish charming best I say.

2. Do you like Joan Crawford best as a comedienne or a drama-queen?
Hmm, she's a great drama-queen, particularly in Mildred Pierce. But she's delightful when she's wise-cracking like say in Grand Hotel or The Women. Perhaps a tie?

3. In your opinion, should Ginger Rogers have made more musicals post-Fred Astaire?
I kind of wish she had made a couple or so with Gene Kelly...

4. I promise not to cause you bodily (or any other serious) harm if you don't agree with me on this one. So please be honest: do you like Elizabeth Taylor? Hm?
She can be quite a tour-de-force actress at times (particularly in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly, Last Summer) and she's stunningly beautiful, so I like her for the most part.

5. Who is your favorite off screen Hollywood couple?
Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. 50 years of marriage, I think that's wonderful. <3

6. How about onscreen Hollywood couple?
Hmm...a tie between Fred and Ginger and William Powell and Myrna Loy.

7. Favorite Jean Arthur movie?
The More the Merrier (I like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town a bit more, but I think The More The Merrier is more of Jean's film).

8. What was the first Gregory Peck movie you saw?
Roman Holiday, but I got my first glimpse of him in the court room scene in To Kill a Mockingbird. I don't think I saw how powerful a person can be on screen until that moment.

9. What film made you fall in love with Alfred Hitchcock? (And for those of you that say, "I don't like Hitchcock" -- what is wrong with you?!)
I've admired Hitchcock for a while, but it was seeing Vertigo last year that gave me a newfound appreciation for his art.

10. What is your favorite book-to-movie adaption?
Gone with the Wind.

11. Do you prefer Shirley Temple as a little girl or as a teenager?
Hmm, I haven't seen any of her films of her as a little girl, and yet that's the image of her that is most prominent in my mind.

12. Favorite character actor?
Charles Coburn.

13. Favorite Barbara Stanwyck role?
The Lady Eve, I think it's the most layered role I've seen of hers so far (I still need to make my way through most of her filmography though).

14. Who is your favorite of Cary Grant's leading ladies?
He worked terrifically with just about all of them, but I've liked him most with Kate Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman and Irene Dunne.

15. Bette Davis or Joan Crawford?
There's a truckload of movies I need to see of both, but so far Bette is a finer actress. But to give Joan credit she has quite a dazzling and dynamic screen presence.

16. What actors and/or actresses do you think are underrated?
Actors: Charles Boyer Actresses: Jean Arthur, Irene Dunne, Claudette Colbert

17. What actors and/or actresses do you think are overrated?
Not sure...I mean I know Marilyn, Audrey and James Dean are probably the most exposed of classic cinema, but their talent beneath their iconic/commodified images is much underrated outside the classic loving sphere imo.

18. Do you watch movies made pre-1980 exclusively, or do you spice up your viewing-fare with newer films?
I was kind of exclusive for a while, but spicing it up is good and allows me to appreciate a wider ranger of films.

19. Is there an actor/actress who you have seen in a film and immediately loved? If so, who?
Maybe Rosalind Russell. When I saw her in His Girl Friday I immediately thought that was one of the best performances an actress could have the opportunity to give.
Also Humphrey Bogart. I saw him in Sabrina and felt I knew immediately he was a good actor.

20. Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire?
Fred Astaire for me.

21. Favorite Ginger Rogers drama?
I recently saw her in Romance in Manhattan and thought she was so touching in there, particularly when faced with the moment where her brother was to be taken to an orphanage. It's a good depression era film and Ginger excels as the struggling working class girl.

22. If you wrote a screenplay, who would be in your dream cast and what roles would they play? (Mixing actors and actresses from different generations is allowed: any person from any point in their career.)
There are probably trillions of 'if only' pictures I could imagine (though strangely they're not coming to me now), but here's one: Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Ginger Rogers. The plot would probably be a recycled love triangle one that allows the two leading men to dance with Ginger and then for there to be a nice number at the end where they all come together to dance (something like the near end of Broadway Melody of 1940). It would be made in the early to mid 40s, shot in colour, produced by Arthur Freed and perhaps directed by Vincente Minelli.

23. Favorite actress?
Audrey Hepburn, though she might be more my favourite all round humanitarian and role-model.

25. Favorite actor?
Humphrey Bogart.

26. And now, the last question. What is your favorite movie from each of these genres:

Drama: Bonnie and Clyde

Romance: A Matter of Life and Death

Musical: Top Hat

Comedy: The More the Merrier

Western: Shane

Hitchcock (he has a genre all to himself): Vertigo

Blue Skies Turn to Grey

I'm not supposed to have much free time right now (not with my last essay of the semester hanging in the air and upcoming exams trailing not far behind), but I'm so pooped this evening or night. Blogging sounds like a good diversion.

But then we get to this pressing question: What to write about this time? I was going to write about film highlights I've had lately, but as it turns out, there has been really only one standout film I've seen since New York New York.

A back-story: Two or so weeks ago, on a Sunday night when I should have been researching for a French debate (which wasn't so crash hot in the end, but I digress), I chose instead to embark on a three hour filmic journey. It was something I had eagerly wanted to watch ever since a) I found out it was a good film and b) I grew really interested in the actress Jennifer Jones.

I mentioned the film's length, 3 hours, and on average such a length can give me pains and an incessant looking over at the time. Heck, even a one hour and a half film can have the same effect. But this film -- and I've neglected to give its title, Since You Went Away (1944) -- stood faithfully by rule number one "Thou shalt not bore". It was an engaging treat, combining interesting storylines with interesting characters.

The film circles around the Hilton family, who has recently had to separate from their husband/father who went to war (the second world war to be specific). And so we get a picture of what this war was like for those on the home front. We see this family feel that slightly bit emptier and then pick themselves up and do what they can for both the war effort and for their personal happiness. It's a bumpy ride for them, since they encounter happiness, then sadness, death, and then hope. And so you get this homely atmosphere, perhaps a little sweet and sentimental, but all the same their journey is genuinely touching. You want them to have all the happiness they could get really.

I can't quite explain it in minute detail, but this film was a treasure. There's something both slightly ominous and then sparkling about it. It never wants to be completely depressing nor completely light and make something frivolous out of war, so it straddles between the middle line and the result can be a sort of bitter and sweet combination.

All the main actors do a top notch job, but there were two that particularly stood out for me. There's Monty Wooley who plays a sort of war veteran (if I'm correct) who stays at the Hilton family's house because of housing shortages. He starts off kind of grumpy and keeps to himself, but gradually you find he has endearing qualities. He doesn't exactly have the most screen time, but he's a character who adds something to the atmosphere and whose presence gradually becomes familiar and more potent as you progess to the end.

Then there's the tour-de-force that is Claudette Colbert. I've seen four of her films and she's not one to disappoint. It isn't that she does something dramatic and dynamic with her role, it's really how she subtly underplays and remains the constant source of strength of the film. She plays the mother role and she's the kind of warm, understanding and capable mother one would like to have. She displays the range of her talent in this film, showing why she is one of the best comediennes of the 30s and 40s during the lighter moments. She's equally good in the more dramatic moments, displaying well her emptiness and struggles in the absence of her husband.

The cast is pretty much what is called an all star cast. You have:

- the aforementioned Jennifer Jones as the older sister, who matures from naive teenager to someone who learns what it's like to deeply love and then to lose that loved one,

- Shirley Temple (yes, the cute curly blonde Depression star with the addition of a few years) as the younger sister, who's as chatty and chirpy as any younger sibling is known to be,

- Joseph Cotten as the charming and cheeky-ish dear family friend,

- Robert Walker as Jones' love interest (curiously, and perhaps painfully, Walker and Jones were once married in real life, and were pretty much estranged during the production of this film. In an arguably cruel twist, David O. Selznick --producer and lover of Jones at the time--decided to make them the estranged couple love interests in the film. I think the chemistry is there in the film, but it's almost unsettling to watch with the above knowledge),

- Hattie McDaniel, as the Hilton's servant and dear friend is as warm and engaging as always,

- and in a great, deliciously catty role is Agnes Moorehead, portraying an irritable character to perfection.

So that's that. This is a great film. I think it would fit perfectly on a double billing with 'The Best Years of Our Lives' to show classic Hollywood's representations of the during and after effects of war. An idea for future curating?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Change Your Mind {Jane Eyre part deux}

True to my fashion, I've decided to go blogging on the night before my French debate. I should really be preparing my heart out, but no, I have something 'important' to say.

Two entries ago I wrote a positively gushing love note to what was one of my favourite books of all time 'Jane Eyre'. And all was going well until my Literature tutorial last week. And unforuntately I can't look at that novel the same. Now it seems bizarre, contradictory and not quite the celebration of women's rights I once saw (because why does Jane keep insisting on calling Rochester 'my master'. Sure I could once bypass this and even mentally erase it, but not anymore).

Plus, why does the book end with Jane pondering on St. John Rivers, the guy she declined to marry? Is she not happy with Rochester? Suddenly the love she must have felt for him somewhere in the middle of the novel feels like it deteriorated at the end. And did Rochester ever really love her? After all he was planning on making her his mistress. Right now to me he seems predator-like and only wanting selfish desires out of the relationship. By the time he's blind and a shadow of his former life, it feels like he's more happy that he's got someone, and someone who loves him than because he loves her.

Well it's still an intriguing book, but it's not quite the same wildly romantic read it once was. Now I only have cynical lens when I approach it. But upon reflection, that's not so bad. I've gotten an alternative reading out of it, sure, but maybe it's more intriguing and dark this way.

But yes, by a general rule, it's best to steer clear of literature subjects that feature your favourite novels on their reading lists. If you have a malleable perspective like me, you're bound to never look at the novel in quite the same beloved way.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Review : New York, New York (1977)

Hmm, I'm not sure how easy it's going to be to review this film. I want to try and balance the good aspects with the not so good. I'll see how it goes.

This film is, for one, quite long. Apparently the original was four and a half hours long so director Martin Scorsese had to cut it. Well it went through a series of cuts and then a restoration of extra material, before finally standing at 163 minutes. How did I bare it? I rarely noticed the length, such is the engagement I had with the film.

But engagement doesn't necessarily equal a flawless film experience. I did have issues with the film, mostly because it doesn't move in a typical, familiar way. It's not simply a musical, nor simply a dramatic love story nor simply a comedy (because actually a lot of it is comedic, sometimes awkwardly so--deliberatly I think). It aims to be all and then to transcend genres and be something else.

The film could be what you may call a homage to those technicolour musicals of the 40s and 50s. It has some of the most beautiful colours swirled together and you can just tell that the scenes are taking place on lush, romanticised sets that probably bear little resemblance to New York as it actually was. But at the same time the film wants to express truth and it does this through Liza Minelli (as Francine Evans) and Robert De Niro's (as Jimmy Doyle) tumultous relationship. There's a certain tension between the artifice and the attempted reality of emotions, and I'm not sure if it works. However, I will admit that this tension adds a certain poignancy to the film (it is somewhat reminescent of watching the 1954 version of A Star is Born, starring none other than Liza's mother, Judy Garland).

Another tidbit is the seeming bipolarity (a word?) within the film. It goes through certain hyperactive moments and tries to balance this with more subdued, tender scenes. I'm not sure, but this could partly be because of the following trivia: both Scorsese and Minelli have stated that the dialogue was mostly improvised (though taking cues from the script) to add to the seeming reality of the main characters' relationship. Apparently it was hard to edit these improvisations and still make the film seem like seamless viewing. And so it feels apparent in the film, for when I examine the film as a whole I get some points of disjointedness. But again, I can somehow rebut this by saying that the film becomes truer to real life this way. Sure, we love a flawless film, but they aren't life. If we were to review our lives as a film we wouldn't get such a seamlessness. This is where, as a film New York, New York has room for improvement, but as a piece of reality, it works much better. Interesting that it can become this within the bounds of a lavishly photographed film.

So it turns out that when I get to the bottom of things, the above mentioned aspects of the film don't bother me much at all; they're simply passing observations. Perhaps the uneasiness I really have with the film is Robert De Niro's performance. I'm sure it's written in his character to be a tryhard Joe Cool and to be at times overbearing, arrogant and chauvinistic. However, there were times when I found him to be overdoing it. Maybe this is a feminist's perspective, but one has to ask what Liza's Francine really saw in De Niro's Jimmy. But then it got me thinking that indeed he does have a bit of charm and when he's tender and subdued, he's very likeable. Plus, he's a talented saxophone player which somewhat gels with her singing skills.

And I suppose there's this: in filmdom fantasy, only the most perfect man will do for the heroine. He's got to be effortlessly funny like Cary Grant and never be overbearing. And yet, often as he does, De Niro is attempting here to portray a person, not a movie-star persona. However, unlikeable he can be in this role (sometimes hamming it up), he's being that much more truer to life. In life, nothing moves smoothly, nobody has quite the right lines like in the perfect comedy; and nobody has the right things to say in painful scenes.

And actually I can't deny that there are some scenes where De Niro really excels (in that, rather than getting choppy moments of overacting, you're getting a more complete character), and you feel all at once that he's fading into the background, that he's quite not so successful without Francine. That underneath the Joe Cool act there's a bit of self-loathing. No it's not likely the performance that is going to make it into the top De Niro performances list, but it deserves to be looked at for both its flaws and triumphs.

I think Liza's Francine comes across as much more sympathetic. Her character development is less jagged than De Niro's and we can gradually see her move from wall-flower-ish singer to confident star. She has a notable naturalistic acting (perhaps helped by the improvisations) and her emotion-charged scenes work well. On a somewhat more aesthetic note, she looks quite stunning in the film. I also want to bring attention to her big eyes that are particularly haunting in one close-up scene. Her singing moments are also note-worthy for being in turns entertaining and poignant.

Just by writing this review, I'm starting to see something very special in New York, New York. It's an interesting, bumpy experience (just like Francine and Jimmy's relationship). It made me laugh, cringe, feel uneasy and all the while my eyes received such a treat through the cinematography and art design. An intriguing blend of a film that somehow transports you back to post-war 40s through a 1970s Scorsese lens.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"Reader, I married him"

I'm re-reading Jane Eyre for Literature and falling in love with it again. It's my 'it had to be you' book (for all your faults/I love you still) because it is in fact flawed, yet it still retains something special. Jane Eyre, with all her plainness and quietness, is an intriguing character. She's observant and acutely aware of things that nobody else cares to see. Rochester (move over Cullen, this is the real Edward) is incredibly questionable in his morals and his treatment of Jane, yet she gets him--even if a lot of readers don't--and he happens to be just as observant as she, however immersed in his troubles he may be. And for the record, it never detracted from the book that Bronte's main characters happen to be 'ugly'. Maybe because I always reached the conclusion that:
a) they're not that 'ugly', they're unconventional
b) whatever the case, they have attractive qualities that speak louder than exterior appearances

Anyway, I just wanted to put on this blog a powerful passage (courtesy of Charlotte Bronte's moments of inspired poetry) about Jane 'getting' Rochester, while simultaneously revealing the hidden, profound love she fosters for him.

I saw Rochester smile - his stern features softened; his eye grew both brilliant and gentle, its ray both searching and sweet. He was talking, at the moment, to Louisa and Amy Eshton. I wondered to see them receive with calm that look which seemed to me so penetrating; I expected their eyes to fall, their colour to rise under it; yet I was glad when I found they were in no sense moved. 'He is not to them what he is to me,' I thought: 'he is not of their kind. I believe he is of mine - I am sure he is - I feel akin to him - I understand the language of his counteance and movements: though rank and wealth sever us widely, I have something in my brain and in my heart, in my blood and nerves, that assimilates me mentally to him.


[I'm still waiting for the perfect film companion to the book, though the 2006 BBC version was pretty good. I think Rochester is not too difficult to capture on screen, he's naturally a fascinating and engaging character. What's harder is to capture Jane Eyre without making her dull or submissive, and also not to increase her age--she never quite looks eighteen in the film versions. But Ruth Wilson in the aforementioned BBC version was pretty good...gosh I gotta watch that again...]

In other news, I found out via email that one of the dvds I requested of the city library to purchase has come through and it's ready for me to borrow. I say, Christmas has come early. Why? Because this is not any film, it's Martin Scorsese's sole musical feature (as far as I know), called none other than 'New York, New York' (with that famous theme song). Liza Minelli and Robert De Niro? It's sure going to be one of the most intriguing pairings I've seen.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

30s and 40s : Glitz, Glamour, Drama, Humour, Wonder

I've had a really good run of films lately, and they've been mostly from the 30s, early 40s (I'm going back to my classic roots). Here are some little summaries from the best of the bunch:

Come Live With Me (1941) - Hedy Lamarr and James Stewart make an interesting couple. She's foreign and has a raven beauty (well she was dubbed the most beautiful woman in Hollywood) and he's the everyman. But they make it work. The film has some comedy and clever lines, but at heart it's a (albeit light) love story. It has some nice cinematography (particularly when considering these films were usually made on the studio lot) and nice performances (I've seen one other Hedy film, Ziegfeld Girl, and she was unfortunately cardboard bland in it. But in this film she is much comfortable and engaging). Overall a very enjoyable film.

It's a Wonderful World (1939) - Another Jimmy Stewart film, and this time he's paired with Claudette Colbert (one of the fine comediennes of the 30s imo). Again, they're not the couple you'd expect to be paired up, but they work fine. There's a particular scene where Colbert's character has to get up on Stewart's back (this is a screwball comedy so it's to be expected) so she can get apples from the tree. The processes of this action and its results show a real naturalness between the actors and great comedic timing from both. The rest of the film is great lighthearted fun and was much more enjoyable than I was expecting (since it's not talked much of, I naturally thought it wasn't good).

My Best Girl (1927) - This was my first Mary Pickford film and it didn't disappoint. The fascinating thing about Mary was that she was quite young looking and played ingenues even when she was well passed thirty (as she is in this picture). She was also short and petite and cute, which I guess helps. Here she was teamed with a younger man, Charles 'Buddy' Rogers (just about the cutest, baby-faced looking guy in silent filmdom), who would later become her husband. It's no surprise I say because they have quite good chemistry in this. There's such a lovely boy/girl cuteness between them, but also tenderness in one particular close-up scene. The film is on a whole pretty funny and very lovely, capturing a sweetness that only other silent films of its kind can capture.

The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) - I'm generally a sucker for period romantic films, but I'll admit that they're not always well made. That said, this one is wonderful. I think it might be because the romance is not overbearing (nor under utilised), and also the heroine is a fascinating character. I've never cared much for Norma Shearer (I've only seen her in The Women, where she played arguably the dull character amongst show-stoppers), but watching this has made me re-examine her. I don't know if she was Oscar-nominated [edit: she was nominated, yay], but she should have been. The story itself is fascinating. It's about the poet Elizabeth Barrett's life around the time that she met and fell in love with Robert Browning (played by the handsome Fredric March, though his performance was a little over the top, or maybe that's how Browning was?). They have one obstacle, her overbearing and possessive father (played to perfection by Charles Laughton) who doesn't want his children to marry. The film is a winner for me.

Romance in Manhattan (1935) - I've seen about five (now six with this new inclusion) of Ginger Roger's films sans Fred Astaire, and each of them have given me a different outlook on her. As it is, different co-stars and settings can bring a different dynamic to an actor's performance. In this film, Ginger still keeps up her 30s, no-nonsense, yet wise-cracking working class girl persona, but she brings something a little varied to the plate. This time she has to deal with the Great Depression (it was also an issue in Swing Time, but somehow there wasn't a doubt she'd pull through financially). I don't know if Romance in Manhattan is classified as a comedy, but it's through-and-through drama for me with a side-dish of smiles. Ginger is great as the struggling working girl who has to find a way to prevent both her brother from going to an orphanage and her newfound Czechoslovakian lover (Francis Lederer, also very good and sympathetic in this) from being deported. Up until that final reel I still didn't know if the ending would be happy or not (though, alas, the ending is happy--perhaps wishfulfillment happy, but I'm not complaining; it would otherwise have been a painful film).

I Love You Again (1940) - I just watched this one today and boy, William Powell and Myrna Loy can do no wrong when they're together. Now this is the screen couple upon which all others are measured. In my opinion, nobody quite has the believability that they do. Their chemistry is mostly known for its comedic qualities, but blended in this comedy is much affection and a dash of romance. In their own rights they are fine actors and they make this film possible, which would otherwise probably not work (the plot is slightly absurd and the comedy could easily have been uninteresting and unfunny if actors with less enjoyment and dedication to their work had been on board). That said, the plot does run smoothly and this film is very funny and has meaning. Powell and Loy are wonderful, unique talents.


Up-lifting music

I've been listening to some ace music and watching some ace films lately, but I haven't been doing that dreaded two-part word that will be addressed here only as 'hw'. Yes, I have two essays due in on Wednesday (which means I still have three days and whatever is left of this day, but still I also have classes on those days too, so I really don't have much time). The best break from stressing would be to actually do the work, but no, I'll take blogging instead.

I saw Up (2009), the latest Pixar wonder last week and I loved it. Films of its calibre are just peerless. Before they come along, you feel like you've seen the height of filmmaking. And then you watch this superior film and you realise that filmmaking has no limits. Up has what I call the perfect blend, and that is of comedy and drama (which--as Jack Lemmon said and probably Charlie Chaplin affirmed this--is what life is about). Watching it, I laughed hard (to the point of tears) and I felt sad and inspired (to the point of tears). And I generally don't expect animations to make me feel the sort of emotions I expect from live-action films. And yet Pixar's Up does what even live-action doesn't. It's so balanced that it never feels cheesy, nor too silly. And all the while it has meaning.

One wonderful thing about Up is its soundtrack. My particular favourite song is 'Married Life' and it has everything -- happiness, sadness, excitement, quietness. And on top of that it has this nostalgic, 30s/40s feel to it that makes me happy. I made a tribute video set to it just recently, of classic film marriages (what else?). I'll probably post it on yt later in the week.

I also found out that my favourite scene in 17 Again is set to the Cat Power song 'The Greatest' and I realise that half the emotion of the scene is directly from the song. I've been listening to it frequently, but such incessant listening has worn off the impact of the song. Oh well, it's still lovely.

And then...I've heard of Sarah Blasko for a while now. She's apparently one of those quiet achievers who slip under the cover if you're not paying enough attention. She's got a nice, indie, mellow voice (the kind that's pretty popular now). I really like the songs 'Planet New Year' and 'Perfect Now'.

That's all for the moment.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Review: Taxi Driver (1976)

The alternate title for this entry was going to be 'Taxi Driver Or: How I Learned to Stop Postponing and Watch This Film' (a thinly veiled reworking of the film title 'Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb'--coincidentally another film I have to get around to).

There were a few reasons why I took my time in watching Taxi Driver. They are as follows.
1) It was really only recently that I got the urge to want to watch it.
2) I didn't have access to it--today I was lucky enough to find it on the cheap at a dvd store
3) Its R rating was a deterrence (I was expecting lots of violence--yes there's violence, but it wasn't over the t)

Even though I say I was avoiding it, I nonetheless had high expectations about it (It's considered one of Martin Scorsese's best, it's one of the landmarks of the American New Wave, it has much hype over at imdb and elsewere). When I have high expectations I tend to look more closely at every tendril of a film and anticipate the 'wow' moment. Of course, it never comes. But with Taxi Driver what did rush over me at the roll of the closing credits was still positive. The film has much going for it.

I could go on about a few different things. The music was probably the first thing that striked me. It was scored by Bernard Hermann (most known for scoring Hitchcock films--in fact some of the music in Taxi Driver could easily be substituted into a Hitchcock film, that's what I think anyway). There's two recurring music themes in this film. I don't know their titles, but one has this low, humming dangerous feel, and the other one has a more saxophone seedy/sensual sound to it (sort of reminds me of the music they sometimes put on soapies--except Taxi Driver is by no means a soapie). As it usually goes with motion picture music, Hermann's score helps in the creation of the film's atmosphere. The music anticipates the bleakness and loneliness to come.

Of the performances, Robert De Niro as the main character, Travis Bickle, is of course the standout. The intriguing thing about Travis is that if he were a guy in your suburb you'd cast him off as a loony and would want nothing to do with him. Yet since the film gives us a look into Travis' private world and as we're with him for most of the film, you can't help but feel sympathy for him.

Bickle is a Vietnam veteran who has now taken the path of a cab driver. His mundane existence consists of cab driving, taking pills and porn theatres. He's also a pretty observant person and we see that as he witnesses all the seediness and corruption of New York's nightlife. He feels growing despair towards these things and vows to 'clean up' the city. But cleaning up turns into a gun and violence fetish. De Niro portrays Travis' bundle of contradictions--as Bickle's one time love interest Betsy put it--really well (quite characteristically to his dedication to acting, he apparently spent many months refining his taxi driving skills and brushed up on his knowledge on insanity).

Yet the piece of acting that made my jaw figuratively drop was that from a young (12 years old in fact) Jodie Foster, portraying an underage prostitute. It was pretty astonishing to see her talk--and convincingly--about prostitution and the like. Foster's acting is really natural, there's nothing self-conscious about it. Her performance adds to the grittiness of the film.

And what to say about the director that is Martin Scorsese? (On a quick side-note, he actually plays a minor but significant character--a mentally unstable man plotting to kill his wife; he's pretty good).

I have seen six films of Scorsese (do I count The Aviator though? It's been quite a long time since I've seen it) and so far he has a flawless track record. His films flow well and all have smooth editing, it's such that it's hard for me to actually speak of Scorsese's directing and what it achieves. Except that it achieves what filmmaking should--he let's the story be told and to be told well. He also happens to be a daring director in my opinion, anyone would be to make something like 'Taxi Driver'. I think (as the cliche goes), if it were in lesser hands the film wouldn't have been quite as good. I think it was also a risky film because Scorsese seems to me the director who makes each project personal, he seems to put a lot into his films, and it's not unlike the risk that actors put when they're out on stage or in front of a stagecrew. You're exposed to scrutiny.

What can be said in short of Taxi Driver? Only that I think it's a film that's rightfully praised, except that I don't want to blow it out of proportion. It didn't have that loud spark, but alas sometimes the impact of that kind of film can quickly fizzle out anyway. No, I think Taxi Driver more quietly and deeply weaves into the consciousness and promises to stay there for longer.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Films That Are Surprisingly Good

Every so often comes a film that prompts me to think about similar film experiences, and so here we are. The film this time is 17 Again. The reaction was pleasant surprise. You see I was expecting the teeny bopper routine that always gets old in five minutes. Anything 'Zac Efron' generally screams 'steer clear' for me. But generally, this latest Efron epic (no, it's not an epic by any means, but I made an alliteration so the word stays) was not bad. It had enough to keep me interested. And by enough I mean plenty of Efron charm (and his comic timing is ok), several other interesting characters (my favourite being Mike's best friend--have forgotten his name--the weird sci fi fan), good enough dialogue and some sweet moments (my favourite being--spoiler--when young Mike enters the courtroom, which older Mike was supposed to attend to finalise his divorce, and he starts 'reading out' Mike's message. After he leaves, Scarlett goes over to the letter and realises those spoken words weren't written down. Surprisingly effective).

Now, it's not that I'm hailing 17 Again as the best film of all time, but what I mean to say is that it wasn't as bad as I was expecting. It was entertaining, and the flaws weren't distracting enough. With so-so ratings by the Herald Sun I was expecting much less.

And now for some other examples of films that I was expecting to not get along with (mais au contraire...).

Yolanda and the Thief -- in the classic lover's world this film hardly gets a mention (though I'm pleased to say it does have its fans on imdb) and during its release it flopped badly. So I wasn't expecting much when I approached it. But as it turned out, this was a film I could like. It has Fred Astaire (big plus), gorgeous technicolour, nice dancing and it's directed by Vincente Minelli (one of the best musical directors this side of the universe). It's arguably not for everyone, maybe because it's indulgent and not really conscious of marketing appeal.

Dr. Zhivago -- This film didn't have much to recommend itself to me. Its running time is too long and I've read from others that they couldn't sit through it. Somehow I did endure, and it wasn't so bad. Granted, I do have issues with it -- mostly that the illicit romance doesn't seem interesting, but instead its saddening for the wife that gets laid aside (Geraldine Chaplin, who's character is my favourite, so of course my sympathies are entirely with her). Otherwise, the film's grandeur, gorgeous cinematography and great music (Lara's Theme in particular) outweigh the flaws. Quite a surprising treasure.

School of Rock -- I avoided watching this film for God knows how long. One friend kept telling me how wonderful it was, but I didn't believe them. So really the only way I was going to see this film was if it was obligatory to, and that was just the case this year in cinema studies. Needless to say it's a treat from beginning to end, with terrific lines and a great delivery by Jack Black. Oh and the end title song is cool.

C'est tout.