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Archive for September, 2008

The Women – 2008

–There is a name for you, ladies, but it isn’t used in high society… outside of a kennel.

 

It’s a sign of the times when the quote above, one of the most memorable lines from the original 1939 version of The Women, is used to screech after women with misbehaving dogs in the recent remake. The George Cukor original starred nearly every female star at MGM, including Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, Mary Boland and Marjorie Main. It was a daring idea: a movie where men are mentioned but none appear. The script based on the Claire Boothe Luce play was playful and witty but with an edge to the humor. That edge is entirely missing from the 2008 version, and we are the poorer for it.

The new movie stars Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Jada Pinkett Smith, Debra Messing, Candace Bergen, Bette Midler and Cloris Leachman. This is the post-feminist version of The Women and the mandate seemed to be to tone down the cattiness and ramp up the feel good girl power. The only character allowed to truly be the word used inside of kennels is Crystal Allen (Eva Mendes), the home-wrecking perfume spritzer. Unfortunately, Crystal is one of the film’s weakest pieces. She is vapid, shallow and cartoonish. Her only assets seem to be physical. The 1939 Crystal as played by Joan Crawford was much more dangerous, but also strangely more sympathetic. Crawford specialized in portraying working class girls clawing their way up from the bottom with their brains as well as their beauty. While one might not like her Crystal’s methods, one couldn’t help but admire her strength. Alas, all of that is gone in the new version. Sylvia Fowler, too, has been tamed until she is nearly unrecognizable.

Believe it or not, I did actually enjoy the Diane English helmed picture as well. It was very funny and definitely sent the audience out feeling good. It was great to see Meg Ryan back in action and she has nice chemistry with the rest of the cast. Cloris Leachman nearly steals the movie with her wry housekeeper who constantly fights to keep down the warm and fuzzy feelings she has for her employer in case she is forced to seek employment elsewhere. Oh, and thank God for Carrie Fisher! Leave it to her to deliver the one smart, unredeemed character of the bunch. Her writer is scheming, brilliant and never punished.

The funniest gag of the film for me would have to be the supermodel who is so hungry that she stands around watching everyone eat while she chews angrily on a napkin. This explains so much. Perhaps, the next time British courts are contemplating sentencing Naomi Campbell to mandatory anger management classes they should instead insist on her eating a four course meal with dessert. It might make her much happier.

Still, beneath all of the sass and sparkle, these women don’t live up to their predecessors. The earlier film not only had an edge, it also had a strong message: sometimes our friends can be our worst enemies. If we allow them to, such “friends” can ruin our lives. It’s more popular today to perpetuate the myth of female solidarity and sisterhood, but the truth is not so pretty. There are good women who make excellent friends, but there are also women who make terrible friends. Learning that a friend has betrayed you can be devastating and almost impossible to overcome. In this film, it looks as simple as getting a new haircut and job. Life is more messy.

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The Godfather

The Godfather (1972)

–My father is no different than any powerful man, any man with power, like a president or senator.

–Do you know how naive you sound, Michael? Presidents and senators don’t have men killed.

–Oh. Who’s being naive, Kay?

 

The Godfather was recently voted the Greatest Film of All-Time by Empire Magazine. Voters included 150 directors, 50 film critics and over 10,000 members of the public. Last week, the entire Godfather trilogy made its Blu-Ray debut. It was difficult to pick a quote to start this review. The Godfather is a lot like Casablanca – dozens of lines from its script have made their way into the mainstream public consciousness. So, what is left to say about such a gigantic film? What accounts for its enduring popularity? How did it manage to overtake Citizen Kane in this poll?

I’m reminded of my review of The Sting: an audience finds great fascination in being allowed to enter a previously forbidden world. In The Sting, we had the world of the confidence man; here, we have the mafia. In the early 1930s, gangster pictures were extremely popular. James Cagney, Edward R. Robinson, and Humphrey Bogart cut their acting teeth in such bread and butter pictures for Warner Brothers. Authorities of the times were afraid of the success of such movies. They feared that the films would encourage young people to emulate their favorite stars and turn to lives of crime, so studios made sure that a gangster would always be punished in the end. From Cagney’s gruesome end in Public Enemy, to Robinson’s oft-quoted lines from Little Caesar (“Mother of Mercy! Is this the end of Rico?”), gangsters were shown to have short careers that ended behind bars or in the morgue. In The Godfather, we do have several deaths, including one immediate family member, but the head of the family dies at a ripe old age while playing with his grandson. Quite a change.

In fact, I think one of the keys to The Godfather’s success is its family. From the very beginning of the picture we are invited to witness pivotal moments in the life of a large family. The movie begins with a wedding and ends with a christening. In between, there is another wedding, funerals, children being born, sibling rivalries, and domestic disputes. Betrayal in business immediately becomes personal because it is a betrayal of the family. Look at the two men who beg a favor of Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) before his daughter’s wedding. Both favors are for their own daughters: one wants revenge for a beating and the other wants to keep his future son-in-law from being deported. In essence, part of the fascination of watching this movie is a strange feeling of partaking in familial intimacy, of becoming a member of the family ourselves.

Another vital ingredient of this movie is the journey of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino). His character arc reminds one of classical tragedy. Michael has a fatal flaw, but it is one that anyone can sympathize with: love for his family. In the beginning, Michael is a “civilian.” He takes no part in family business; in fact, he has just returned from the war a hero. He has no plans or intentions to get involved with illegal activities, but aside from being loyal, Michael is also a natural leader. When their father is shot, it is easy to see that older brother Sonny (James Caan) is too hotheaded and middle brother Fredo (John Cazale) is too weak to be effective as Don.  What starts out as Michael trying to protect his remaining family members after tragedy strikes, ultimately results in the final scene where he is proclaimed the new Don. The slow corruption of his character takes on Shakespearean poignance.

Acting, directing, cinematography, music, script – this movie has it all. Generation after generation are drawn to this family tale. Does it romanticize the mafia? Yes, of course. Still, I don’t think the ultimate appeal is the glamorous life…it’s the lure of strong family ties. In this multi-generational epic, we find comfort and recognition but also warning. Ties to one’s family must be balanced with morality as a whole. Our responsibilities to our family must find harmony with our responsibilities to the rest of mankind. Without that balance, we can find ourselves like Michael Corleone: isolated, paranoid, and haunted by guilt.

 

 

 

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Waikiki Wedding (1937)

–Well, shucks, them boys won’t give us any trouble if we let them have their own way. They ain’t cannibals. Besides, if they was, you’d be safe.

 

Bing Crosby started making movies for Paramount in the early 1930s. His first leading role came in The Big Broadcast (1932), also starring George Burns and Gracie Allen. He quickly became the studio’s top star behind Mae West. He starred opposite Carole Lombard in We’re Not Dressing. Other hits included Mississippi and Anything Goes. In 1937, he made Waikiki Wedding.

Waikiki Wedding co-stars Martha Raye, Bob Burns, and Shirley Ross. Anthony Quinn also makes an appearance as a native Hawaiian. The plot is trifling, as many of the plots were of musicals in that era. Crosby’s character Tony Martin works in the PR department of a pineapple company. He dreams up ideas that allow him to spend most of his time out of the office and on a boat. His latest scheme is to hold a contest for a Pineapple Girl. Said girl would be given a trip to the islands which she would write about for the newspapers. It sounds like a great way to generate good publicity. Unfortunately, the pineapple girl, Georgia Smith (Shirley Ross), has been miserable in Hawaii and is loud and vehement about her unhappiness. His job now on the line, Tony sets out to provide her with the romantic adventure of a lifetime. Of course, they fall in love, and of course, she is upset to find out that he works for the pineapple company. These are inconsequential things.

The song “Sweet Leilani” received an Academy Award, but it’s “Blue Hawaii” that stays with you. The filmmakers knew how good it was, too. It’s sung no less than three times: once over the opening credits, solo by Crosby and last a duet with Crosby and Ross. The duet was a bit too much, maybe. It’s not that Crosby and Ross do a bad job on the song; it just feels like one trip too many to the well. Still, Crosby’s earlier solo effort is sublime. It may be my favorite version I’ve ever heard of the song, including Elvis’s famous rendition.

Crosby’s Martin is affable, warm, and friendly. Ross is no Ginger Rogers, but she does a fine job as Miss Georgia Smith, the pineapple girl. Bob Burns and Martha Raye play the comedic couple. Raye’s finest moment is when she sings a solo dedicated to the wonder of Hawaiian moonshine. Burns gets a lot of mileage out of his pet pig. George Barbier delights as Martin’s boss, and Leif Erickson is effective as Georgia Smith’s boring but aggressive fiancé.

Martin actually has more than a streak of Walter Burns from His Girl Friday running through him. He lies, schemes and manipulates situations the way other people breathe. Of course, all’s fair in love and war when one is watching a musical….still, I was left just a trifle uneasy by the end. We all know Walter is “a stinker” as Hildy Johnson bluntly lets him know. He never claims to be anything else. Georgia Smith leaves Martin because of his dishonesty, and yet how does he win her back? Through dishonesty. Still, the movie is lighthearted and fun with some funny routines and beautiful songs.

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L. A. Confidential (1997)

–Come to Los Angeles! The sun shines bright, the beaches are wide and inviting, and the orange groves stretch as far as the eye can see. There are jobs aplenty, and land is cheap. Every working man can have his own house, and inside every house, a happy, all-American family. You can have all this, and who knows… you could even be discovered, become a movie star… or at least see one. Life is good in Los Angeles… it’s paradise on Earth.” Ha ha ha ha. That’s what they tell you, anyway.

 

It’s hard to believe that it’s been over ten years since this movie premiered. It served as my introduction to the director Curtis Hanson as well as actors Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce. Both Crowe and Pearce are Australian. Confidential was Pierce’s first American film, but not Crowe’s. I had seen him before in The Quick and the Dead but had paid more attention to the fun showdown between Sharon Stone and Gene Hackman. L. A. Confidential served as Crowe’s calling card. His turn as Bud White led to his later being cast in such great films as The Insider, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, and Master and Commander. Pearce would go on to do Christopher Nolan’s Memento and John Hillcoat’s The Proposition, as well as the period pieces The Count of Monte Cristo and The Time Machine. Both were relative unknowns in Hollywood when Hanson cast them in his adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel.

They are joined by veterans Danny Devito, James Cromwell, Kim Basinger and David Strathairn. The third leading role was taken by Kevin Spacey, fresh from his success in The Usual Suspects. Hanson reports that the studio wanted him to simplify the storyline and eliminate two of the leading roles, but ultimately he won the fight. Thank goodness! One of the joys of watching this film is its multi-threaded plot. This is a story that takes your full attention, but the rewards are fruitful. Not only do the disparate threads come together in a most satisfactory manner, but the dialogue is intelligent and biting and the performances full-bodied and unsentimental. This is neo-noir done right.

Crowe, Pearce and Spacey all play cops in Los Angeles of the early 1950s. Crowe is Bud White, ostensibly a hotheaded muscle man whose past ensures his burning hatred for men who beat women. Pearce is Edmund Exley, the son of a highly respected policeman who died in the line of duty. He possesses a sharp intelligence, burning ambition and killer political instincts. Spacey is Jack Vincennes, the consultant for a popular television show. He is treated much like a movie star himself. These three men, although possessing considerable flaws of character, nevertheless also adhere to a sort of code of honor. A skirmish between some drunk racist cops and some Hispanic prisoners leads to Vincennes being temporarily stripped of his consultant status, White losing his partner, and Exley getting promoted to Detective Lieutenant in Homicide. There are plot twists aplenty – including one so unexpected yet perfectly pulled off that it will take your breath.

Kim Basinger does her finest work here and was rewarded with an Oscar. Danny Devito is as funny and sarcastic as ever. James Cromwell turns his back on the kindly farmer from Babe to create a tougher persona. David Strathairn gives his oily millionaire, Pierce Patchett, a touch of airy grace. Watching this movie ten years later, I was amused to spot actors now more famous for their television roles like Alias’s Ron Rifkin or CSI’s Paul Guilfoyle.

The cast is uniformly excellent. If you think that I have a tendency to say such things about the casts of the films that I review, you might have a point. Many of the movies I’ve been reviewing lately have attained a classic status, and one routine ingredient of a film that gets the label “classic” tends to be a standout ensemble cast. The one Hanson has put together here has talent aplenty as well as that indefinable quality, chemistry. The soundtrack, the cinematography, the sets, locations, costumes along with the acting, script and directing make this a must see.

 

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Gone Baby Gone (2007)

–Kids forgive, they don’t judge, they turn the other cheek, and what do they get for it?

 

Ben Affleck has made some bad movies as an actor, but he has also made some very good ones: Good Will Hunting, Chasing Amy, Bounce, Shakespeare in Love. I was glad to see that post J-Lo madness, Affleck has begun to turn his career around. He gave an outstanding performance as George Reeves in Hollywoodland and followed it up with Gone Baby Gone, his directorial debut.

In Gone Baby Gone, Affleck has assembled an outstanding cast and set them on location in Boston. The city is an additional character, as alive and influential as any other member of the cast. The script, based on Dennis Lehane’s novel, is gripping and poses heart-wrenching moral questions.

Casey Affleck, Ben’s brother, plays Patrick Kenzie, a young private investigator who specializes in missing person’s cases. He and his partner/girlfriend, Angie, played by Michelle Monaghan are approached by Helene McCready (Amy Ryan), the aunt of a little girl who has vanished. Patrick and Angie feel out of their depth, but are moved by the aunt’s devotion and accept the case. They work with Ed Harris’s character, Remy Bressant, a detective working under Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman). Doyle’s own 12-year-old daughter was kidnapped and killed years ago.

Casey Affleck is quite the up-and-coming young star. He also scored success opposite Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. His Patrick Kenzie is likeable and possesses a fierce loyalty to his neighborhood coupled with a strong sense of right and wrong. Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman are given complicated roles to sink their teeth into and they do so effortlessly.

Amy Madigan plays the mother of the missing child. In lesser hands, the character, who is deliberately presented in a polarizing fashion, would not have been as effective. She is the movie’s lynch pin. Our emotions conflict about her. On the one hand she is a crude, promiscuous druggie who steals money from a dealer and exposes her baby to sordid behavior; yet, she does show in various ways that she loves her daughter. This dramatic tension is essential to the film’s concerns.

Amy Ryan was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award. It is Helene’s strength and devotion to her niece that propel Patrick and Angie into the case. Morgan Freeman gives one of his finest performances in years. He’s not in many scenes but every one is weighted with emotional significance.

I loved this movie. Affleck used many native Bostonians and they give the city a realistic face. I found myself caring intensely for all of the characters. When they hurt, so did I. The choices facing them are not straight-forward, and I find myself still haunted by them. I genuinely do not know how I would’ve responded if I had been in Patrick’s shoes. I will be thinking about this film for a long time – one of the highest compliments I can give.

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Juno (2007)

–Uhhh, I hate it when adults use the term “sexually active.” What does it even mean? Am I gonna like deactivate some day or is it a permanent state of being?

 

Juno is a warm-hearted, intimate, humorous look at a teenage pregnancy. Many people have noted that the script written by Diablo Cody contains more hip one-liners than most films put together. Oddly they were funnier to me when I was reading over a page of the best while attempting to choose the quote above than they were while watching the film. Perhaps it’s because they come so quickly in the movie that it’s hard to completely appreciate them. While it is highly unlikely that people in real life would be able to rattle off such a succession of wonderful bon mots, I’ve always had a soft spot for such literate scripts. They remind me of the joys of my youth discovering the banter and quips of old Hollywood on satellite television.

Ellen Page plays Juno MacGuff, the titular unwed teenage mother. After discovering her condition in a hilarious scene involving a sarcastic store clerk, gallons of Sunny Delight and multiple home pregnancy tests, Juno at first intends to have an abortion without informing her father and step-mother. When she goes to the women’s clinic for her appointment, she encounters Su-Chin, a fellow classmate, who is the sole Pro-Life protester picketing that day. If all activists were as committed but gentle as Su-Chin the world would be a better place. She doesn’t rant or attack, but calmly chants, “All babies want to get borned.” I think the only person more surprised than Juno that the talk about babies having fingernails changes her mind is Su-Chin.

J. K. Simmons and Allison Janney play Juno’s parents, Mac and Bren MacGuff. They are fantastic: sly and playful but supportive. I laughed heartily at their exchange after Juno drops her bombshell when they reveal they were more prepared for expulsion or drugs than pregnancy. Bren MacGuff was my favorite character in the movie. Juno’s biological mother deserted her years ago and sends a cactus on Valentine’s Day each year (not a practice that Juno is in favor of). Bren proves herself to be Juno’s real mother is exchange after exchange. They bicker just like any mother and teenage daughter, but when Juno is insulted by an Ultrasound Technician Bren sharply takes her stepdaughter’s side. Their bond is shown again when Juno is in labor – a wonderful scene.

Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman play the Lorings – the couple who wish to adopt Juno’s baby. It’s obvious from the first meeting that Vanessa Loring is completely baby obsessed, but her husband Mark is not so interested. Garner does a fine job at showing us the neurotic side of the character, but layers it in with humanity. Ultimately, we agree with Juno that she is probably going to make a good mother. In fact, all of the characters in this film are likeable, even the ones causing problems, like Mark. Mark is probably the closest the film has to a villain, and yet he’s not really. He’s not ready to be a father, but it doesn’t make him evil.

Juno eventually gains some maturity from the experience which was the saving grace of the picture for me. I found the early Juno to be funny but glib. It seemed like nothing was very serious for her – though I do think she represses most of her panic – until the last third of the movie. The Juno of the end is still recognizable, but also more aware of others. It’s truly a coming of age film, as defined by Roger Ebert as the time of life when we become truly aware of others. Basically, we realize that the world doesn’t revolve around us, that actions have consequences, and that it’s important to pay attention to how our actions affect other people. Juno learns these lessons, but the movie doesn’t punish her. She remains witty and vibrant to the end; she’s now just a little bit older and a little bit wiser.

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A Star is Born

A Star is Born (1937)

–Esther, everyone in this world who has ever dreamed about better things has been laughed at, don’t you know that? But there’s a difference between dreaming and doing. The dreamers just sit around and moon about how wonderful it would be if only things were different. And the years roll on and by and by they grow and they forget everything, even about their dreams. Oh yes, you want to be somebody, but you want it to be easy. Oh you modern girls give me a pain!

 

I’m very familiar with the Judy Garland remake of this classic thirties melodrama. Garland’s performance of “The Man that Got Away” is one of the all-time great moments in the history of music. I’d never seen the original, though, until recently. Starring Janet Gaynor and Frederic March, it leaves out any musical moments but the plot is still familiar to anyone who has seen any of the many remakes.

Esther Blodgett, played by Gaynor, comes to Hollywood looking for that big break that will make her a star. Frederic March plays Norman Maine, an actor already a star but one whose alcoholism is becoming a detriment to his career.  Their paths cross and Norman helps Esther to get her break. Newly rechristened as Vicki Lester, Esther is an overnight sensation in Norman’s new movie. They fall in love and get married. It should be a fairy tale ending, but of course it isn’t. Norman’s star is on the decline. He has made too many enemies and grown too fond of booze. The juxtaposition of her rise and his fall makes for a three hankie weeper.

Janet Gaynor was a huge silent film star. She is the only actress to win an Academy Award for multiple roles. Her award was for performances in three films in the same year: Street Angel, Seventh Heaven, and Sunrise. She was one of the few actresses to make a successful transition to talking pictures and she is delightful here. She shows a deft hand with comedic scenes, particularly a party scene where she imitates Mae West, Greta Garbo and Katharine Hepburn. A later scene where she is rehearsing lines also highlights her skill with light comedy.

Frederic March is incredible, as always. One of the benefits of watching films in chronological order is not only being introduced to new talent but watching it progress. Until earlier this year I wasn’t very familiar with March but after watching such earlier films as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Sign of the Cross, Les Miserables, Anna Karenina, and Nothing Sacred, I’m a newly converted fan. Here he plays Norman with a touching dignity that makes it subtly obvious that Norman finds his own behavior pathetic. He shows more restraint in his drunken scenes than James Mason does in the 1954 version, but I prefer it that way. His self loathing grows in proportion to his admiration for his wife until his end is quiet but inevitable.

One change from the remake is the addition of Esther’s family. We see her before she comes to Hollywood and most delightfully we meet her grandmother, Lettie, played by veteran May Robson. I can’t emphasize how much I love this character. She is loving but unsentimental, generous but tough as leather. She provides Esther with the money she needs to get to California but is the first to warn her that achieving a dream always carries a price. It’s her words of wisdom that I quote above. It’s the return of Grandma Lettie at the end of the movie that puts the iron back in Esther’s backbone. If Norman had had more dealings with her brand of tough love, he may have been able to turn himself around. Maybe not. Still, her influence helps the movie end on a more triumphant note than the Garland version. Esther is hurting, but she survives, and the audience gets the sense that she will continue to do so.

While preparing for this review, I read the news that a fourth version of A Star is Born may be produced. It would possibly star Jamie Foxx as Norman Maine. I wonder how well the story will survive into the 21st century, as one of the undercurrents of Norman’s dilemma is male insecurity. How does a man cope with the fact that his wife has become more successful in their mutual profession than he? In the 30s and 50s, the idea of a house husband was unthinkable. A woman being the bread winner of the house would be seen as abnormal – despite the fact that it occasionally happened. Have our conceptions of masculinity expanded enough that this story will seem quaintly old fashioned?  I look forward to finding out.

 

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