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.