Monday, February 15, 2010

February Finds [part 1]

It's turning into an ace film February for me. Two weeks before university picks up again is ripe for some good viewing. I hand over the highlights thus far:

The Good Fairy (1935) --

I'm beginning to feel William Wyler could do no wrong (yes he could do silly caper fun like How to Steal a Million, but still no wrong). In this earlier fare, he directed wife at the time Margaret Sullavan in one of the cutest of comedies (penned by no less than Preston Sturges). The film is filled with sweet and tender moments - Margaret's raspy voice and sad eyes are at full disposal in her characterisation of the wonderfully named Luisa Ginglebuscher. In my first two encounters with Margaret (The Shop Around the Corner and The Shopworn Angel) I'll admit I didn't really like her because I felt she came across as too cold and inaccesible. But upon watching The Good Fairy I've done a switch around because she's delightful here.

Along for the ride is a wonderful cast. You have suave Herbert Marshall sporting a beard, Reginald Owen's waiter who tries to protect Luisa (he has facial expressions that are sort of reminescent of Eric Blore) and Frank Morgan as a hilarious rich man who wants Luisa to himself. You couldn't ask for much better.

I'll See You in My Dreams (1951)--

I kind of wasn't expecting this to be as wonderful as it was. I mean, as much as I am a Doris Day fan, I'm a bit wary of musical biopics. They have a general reputation of being dull and unrealistic. Well, I don't know how accurate I'll See You in My Dreams is, but dull it is certainly not.

The film chronicles the highs and lows of Gus Kahn (wonderfully portrayed by Danny Thomas), memorable lyricist of such songs as Pretty Baby, Makin' Whoopee, and the beautiful title song. It is also about the woman that helped him through it all--and tried to control his career too if you want to read it that way--his wife Grace Leboy (Doris Day).

I like the film for a few reasons. For one it runs through pretty smoothly and gives us a good insight into Gus' achievements and low moments; I believe a lot of that has to do with Danny Thomas. He injected into the character a right balance of humour, inspiration and self-loathing that makes him fascinating to watch. One of the other aspects that works is that Thomas and Day genuinely have a good chemistry and you can believe in their relationship. For the film's span, they are the characters and you can imagine that they are experiencing every moment as if it were real. The songs are also nice and beautifully sung - they contribute to the plot in their own way, giving further insight into our characters' feelings.

Trouble in Paradise (1932) --

Nobody does subtlety quite like Ernst Lubitsch. And I think this film best exemplifies that. While many a film today will show rather than hint, Lubitsch did the opposite in this early 30s pre-code.

Herbert Marshall's Gaston Monescu (God I love him) is a jewel thief who meets his match in fellow thief Lily (Miriam Hopkins). All goes well until the stock market crashes and they realise they're in financial trouble. Conveniently, opportunity strikes when Gaston somehow finds himself secretary to rich Mariette (Kay Francis). Trouble brews though when he falls for her.

Getting back to the art of subtlety, there are moments in this film where Lubitsch will ask of you to use your imagination and scenes become far sexier and classier (can you have the two together?) than they otherwise would have been. Case in point. Lubitsch's camera fixates on a clock, while Gaston and Mariette are heard talking in the background. Gaston is supposed to leave the office around five and get back to Lily. The clock dissolves into later hours, Gaston and Mariette have left. After the clock finally settles on one or so, you hear Gaston and Mariette coming back. You know he hasn't gone back to Lily. On paper it doesn't look like much, but on screen it's pure Lubitsch.

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

The violence factor (which wasn't too bad in the end--ugly but bearable) sort of turned me away. I mean heads being skinned sounds bad enough on paper. But I finally gave in because Basterds has been receiving some rave attention. And well, it deserves it.

I think it's probably the film of 2009 (of what I've seen) that is quite unique, so part of its director Quentin Tarentino's vision, that you couldn't quite compare it to something else. Painted with delicious visual design, intriguing characters (yes Christoph Waltz survives the hype unscathed--his character's fate is another matter-woops spoiler alert) and a plot that is really unreal.

It's called a fantasy world war 2 picture and this is perhaps why: a band of troops who call themselves the Inglourious Basterds, led by Aldo Raine (great performance by Brad Pitt) go out on a Nazi killing spree. Simultaneously, Shosanna (Melanie Laurent--great too-actually everybody in the film puts on a great show), whose family was shot by a Nazi, is out for a revenge, plotting the death of Hitler in the cinema complex she now runs. The two forces collide in a spectacular showdown at the cinema. Basically, that's the plot, but the way it unfolds is the interesting bit. It's just too bad I didn't see this at the cinema because it just felt so grand--not in a pretentious, self-aware way. Just in a well-written and entertaining way that suspends you in your seat. My predictions are that this film will have quite a cemented following.

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