Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Rocket Science (2007)

This is a story about a young boy with a stuttering problem finding his voice, who knew it would be the voice of anger and revenge? 15-year-old Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson) is an outsider both at home and at school. He has a terrible stutter and doesn't know how to overcome it and find a way to fit in somewhere. He meets and falls in love with the star of the high school debate team, Ginny Reyerson (Anna Kendrick), and even joins the team due to his crush's urging. All is bound to not go well, especially with her intense drive to win and his intense love for her.

Reece Thompson and Anna Kendrick in ye olde cheese wagon

Everything about this movie is completely irreverent - the characters, the story and even the music. Have I mentioned how I love irreverent? Plus, all of the young actors are amazingly good and the script is pretty darn tight too. At first, the story is hard to follow, then you think it might be meandering, but once the surprise "evil plot" in the film is uncovered you realize the story has all been leading up to the unveiling. Very cool.

I love the conversation that is taking place in the scene the above picture is taken from. Ginny is telling Hal about how she was identified a few years ago as having debate potential and as such, she must strive to ferret out other folks that have similar talent and she believes Hal is such a person. She sums it up with, "I ferreted you".

The downside of this is that even though this is completely original and not predictable, about halfway through I had the eerie feeling I was sitting through a Wes Anderson film. I don't think that is really the fault of the writer/director Jeffrey Blitz. I doubt that he sat down with the idea of ripping off a Wes Anderson film, but yet, it is unmistakable how similar it is to the feeling of "Rushmore" or "Royal Tenenbaums".

Overall I would say this is very quirky, very irreverent and funny so your funny bone definitely needs to lean in the quirky/irreverent direction to appreciate this one. Needless to say, if you like Wes Anderson films, you will love this one.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Step Brothers (2008)

I have been pretty sick for the past few days and I have a hard time with high brow films while I am near death's door (slight exaggeration there) so I almost always reach for the stupidest thing I can find. Luckily, Netflix had just sent me "Step Brothers" and well, that certainly fits the requirement.

Mary Steenburgen, Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly and Richard Jenkins as a picture-perfect dysfunctional family

Dr. Robert Doback (Richard Jenkins) and Nancy Huff (Mary Steenburgen) meet, fall in love, marry and move in together in the first 10 minutes or so of this film. Their happily ever after is tested by their middle-aged sons who both still live at home with no desire to move out or on. Even worse, Brennan Huff (Will Ferrell) and Dale Doback (John C. Reilly) hate each other instantly and turn the newlyweds home into a war zone.

I find it funny that after dissing "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" I am so quickly back into Judd Apatow land. I can't seem to escape him. Of course, this isn't a romantic comedy, it is definitely a dude's comedy so that is totally cool beans with me. I won't do a full in-depth review of this as ... I am not really sure it is possible to do that credibly. This film is exactly what you expect from a Ferrell movie - constant low-brow humor with shining moments of comedic genius scattered here and there into the fabric of the film. I usually don't love these kinds of films, but I chuckle now and then and forget that I am sick and miserable, at least for an hour and a half, which I consider to be a very good thing.

I would say my biggest surprise of the film was Richard Jenkins. I have seen his face everywhere, it seems, in the past couple of years as a character actor. The thing that amazes me is his range - he excels in drama (example "The Visitor" or "North Country") and also excels in comedy (example "Step Brothers" or "Burn After Reading"). I am going to keep a watch out for future films of his as he seems to be full of surprising, brilliant performances.

I guess the bottom line on this is if you are into dude comedies or Apatow creations or Ferrell's films - this is a great one for those fans and you MUST see this. If you don't really dig low-brow, somewhat stupid comedy, give it a pass and pull out a foreign film. :-)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Marty (1955)

Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) is a lonely butcher from the Bronx who lives with his mother and has little hope for ever finding a woman to marry. Luck is on his side one Saturday night when he finds a lonely schoolteacher, Clara Snyder (Betsy Blair), who shares the same fears about never finding someone to marry. That should be the happy end to the story, but as his family and friends dismiss her as unsuitable for him, does he go with his heart or cave to everyone's opinions?

Marty and his Ma

The first thing that really stood out to me about this film is that it is more like our modern character-driven type independent movies. It is just a story about Marty. No twists of plot, no sub-plot, just a straight-forward movie about Marty. I think that was pretty unusual for the time. In fact, I read that Burt Lancaster helped finance this film because he believed it would bomb and he planned to use it as a tax write off. Oops.

The second thing is that I don't see either characters as terribly ugly like they are referenced in the film. Poor Betsy Blair is referenced as a dog more than one time, yet, although she may be a tad bit plain, she is in no way a dog. I expect that if you stepped out of Hollywood, both Betsy and Ernie would be average looking folk and not "dogs".

Ernie won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Marty. I have to say that both he and Betsy did great jobs in this. I use the word subtle often, but there are several scenes where it calls for a close-up of Ernie's face where he is being rejected or hurt and he does a good job of allowing it to come across. The scene where he calls a woman he met for a date is so painful. She rejects him numerous time and he closes his eyes as if to shield himself from the rejection. Really heart wrenching. In another scene he talks about how he was so depressed he considered suicide, not your average fare, and it is very touching.

I am not sure if some of the lines are supposed to be funny because they are usually in such a serious scene, but one I found kind of funny was when Marty and his mother were having a fight over her desire for him to go out in hopes of meeting a girl. Marty yells at her, "I am just a fat little man. A fat, ugly man." His mother calmly replies, "You're not ugly."

Another one is when Marty is dancing with Clara. He says, "Your not such a dog as you think you are." What a swell pick-up line. :-)

The one thing I had trouble with was believing that Marty would even listen to the people telling him that Clara is not worthy of him. Here is a man that was just saying no woman ever pays him any attention. He finds a decent woman that is interested in him. He enjoys talking to her and has a good time. When he drops her off he is so excited he can hardly contain himself. So, after that, a few unkind words from people who selfishly don't want to share him with a wife and he suddenly isn't sure if he should call her up again? I mean, excuse me? Not only that, but he promised her he would call and the whole movie builds up what a nice guy he is that always helps others and does what is right. I know him questioning calling her is crucial to the plot - it is the whole movie - but I just had hard time believing his indecision.

The last thing that I loved was a quote from Marty's mom when she was talking to her sister. I hope to use this quote some day in the future. She said, "Where you go, rain goes. Some day you are going to smile and we are going to have a big holiday." I love that line. I can think of so many people that would be appropriate for.

I fear that some people might find this a bit of a boring movie since nothing really happens - it is all about Marty having to make a choice to call up this girl for a second date or not. The acting is really well done as is the directing. I think it is a fine film for anyone who enjoys character-driven dramas. If you don't, you will probably fall asleep about halfway in.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)

I had been saving this movie for when I really needed a stupid comedy to make me laugh. Since I haven't been feeling well, I thought there was no better time than the present. The fact that expectations were semi-high is always a sign for disaster.

Movie Poster of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall"

A lovable loser type music composer Peter Bretter (Jason Segel) gets his heart broken after a 5 year relationship with TV star girlfriend Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell). He has a really hard time getting over her so he decides to go to Hawaii for a change of scenery so he can forget her. Of course, as fate would have it, she happens to be vacationing at the same resort with her current rock star boyfriend Aldous Snow (Russell Brand).

Before I say anything else, let me first say that I do not mind puerile, mindless comedy. I do not mind some crude humor here and there. I laughed at "Borat" and actually loved "SuperBad". This one which is closer to a romantic comedy, should be right up my alley then, right? Wrong.

I had to ponder to figure out what the difference was - why I didn't like this one - but liked the others. It finally occurred to me that this is a romantic comedy ... for DUDES. Borat was a comedy and SuperBad was a buddy comedy - that's cool beans. But now we need to make romantic comedies for dudes? I almost find it offensive. Almost all genres of movies are already focused on the male audience so we have to take one of the few genres previously known as chick flicks and make those for men too? What about movies for women? Do we as an audience no longer matter at all?

That is why I didn't like this movie very much. I don't mind going in to see a men's comedy, a men's buddy film, a men's action movie - I know what I am going to get from them and enjoy many of them. But I also like to see the occasional chick flick. I am worried that there is a new trend of trying to add elements that men find funny into the chick flicks so more men will watch them too. I will be honest, I don't want my romantic comedies littered with stupid penis jokes and crude humor every five seconds. I will watch a guy's comedy for that stuff, not a romantic comedy done up for dudes. If we sit through their "death and destruction" movies to be with them they should be willing to sit through a true "chick flick" with us.

Feh. Please, anyone else seen this and have an opinion?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Count Three And Pray (1955)

This is going to be a review-lite as I didn't expect to watch this when I stumbled across it. It went something like this: I couldn't sleep, turned on TCM and this one was just starting and I couldn't help but watch the whole thing.

Movie Poster - best graphic I could find

Luke Fargo (Van Heflin) returns from the Civil War to find an entire town against him. They are upset that he chose to fight for the North and most think it was just to be contrary and not because he felt he needed to fight for the cause. To make matters even harder on him, he returns telling people that he had a calling to become a preacher. Most of the town recalls him as a gambling, drinking, fighting, womanizer type of a man and they can't believe he has possibly changed. One of the most powerful men in town, Yancey Huggins (Raymond Burr) - the merchant, especially can't get over the fact that he went "blue-legged" (fought for the North) and is determined to bring the preacher down no matter what he has to do. If all of that isn't enough to contend with, when he moves into the parsonage he discovers he has a squatter to deal with. Lissy (Joanne Woodward) is a wild orphan that refuses to leave so Luke allows her to stay and tries to help get her pointed in the right direction. Of course, to the townspeople, the preacher who claims to be reformed appears to be living in sin with a young girl.

This movie is about the struggle of Luke, who is a confirmed sinner, to do right and turn the townspeople around so that he can help them do right too. I always love the theme of bad girl gone good or bad guy gone good. It is nice to think that love can transform a person, be it religious love or parental love or partner love, from caring only about themselves to being truly altruistic.

This is Joanne Woodward's film debut and she plays the part well. I have little patience for the wild shrew bratty type character so I did get a little tired of watching her throw temper tantrums, but that isn't her fault - she was an expert temper tantrum thrower. Van Heflin was very believable as the sinner turned do-gooder. In fact, I am not sure I have ever noticed him before, but dang, he is a good actor! Some of the scenes where he is struggling internally are played brilliantly. You can see him shaking and grappling with his own thoughts and demons, while trying to maintain decorum. Really good acting there. Lastly, of the main characters, Raymond Burr plays a terrifying meanie in this one. He is most excellent at sitting in a chair and just looking menacing and intimidating.

The thing that totally ruined the movie for me was the ending. I have to talk about it, so unfortunately, I have to throw up a spoiler alert.

*************************** SPOILERS **********************************

I was shocked that in the end, out of nowhere, Luke and Lissy suddenly get married. There was no romance there. I mean, it was obvious that Lissy had a crush on Luke, but that looked like puppy dog love - just a childish crush. So ... tell me ... she comes back from the whorehouse all dolled up and that makes her a woman? I know someone tosses in a side-statement that she is actually 18, but I totally don't buy it. She acted like a bratty 14 or 15 year old. This man who went through the war and has a past and scars to heal doesn't need a bratty 18 year old as his wife. I mean, seriously, what the heck was going on with that? Was it a marriage of convenience because they had been "living in sin", but even so why not just move her somewhere else where she can interact with people her age and learn how to be a young woman? I was totally disgusted by that ending. It was way too Woody Allen and Soon-Yi for me. Gross.

**************************** END SPOILERS ******************************

Aside from the absolutely dreadful ending (imho), this is a really good Western that kept my attention throughout. The script is really strong and moves at a good pace. Also, the redemption theme is always interesting to me and I love seeing how other people react to it. If you see this coming up on TCM, I suggest giving it a watch. If for no other reason than seeing Joanne Woodward play a young brat - that is amusing in itself. :-)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Pocketful of Miracles (1961)

This is Frank Capra's last film. As with any movie with this most terrific director, it is a little hokey, a little corny, a lotta syurpy and a definite pleaser of the feel-good fans. And you know what? I loved it - I love a wonderful feel good movie as long as it has the acting performances to back it up and oh, boy, does this one have the needed talent.

Bette Davis as Apple Annie

Apple Annie (Bette Davis) is a panhandling, alcoholic who sells apples on the streets of New York City. Early in the film we learn that Annie has a daughter, Louise (Ann-Margaret), that was born out of wedlock and raised in Spain so that she could have a better life than what Annie could have given her in NYC. They have never met, only conversing through letters, and Annie has embellished her life quite a bit over the years. The trouble comes when Louise writes to tell her she is engaged to the son of a Spanish Count and plans to visit her mother in NYC very soon. Annie is afraid her daughter's life will be ruined once her future in-laws discover her true identity so she manages to secure the creativity and resourcefulness of a powerful bootlegger, Dave The Dude (Glenn Ford). With his help and those of his various associates, they manage to turn Annie into the New York socialite her daughter is expecting to see.

Let me start off saying I loved Bette Davis in this role. I loved everything about her performance. For starters, she doesn't go loud and over-the-top with this, she reins her performance in appropriately. She even was careful with her voice, making it sound slightly frail and raspy - which is perfect for Apple Annie. I like how she is tough on the street, but when she is begging at the fancy pants hotel for her daughter's letter, she is so vulnerable and humble. And when she is drunk and explaining the predicament about her daughter's visit to Queenie and Dave the Dude, the feeling of hopelessness is so palpable - my heart was breaking for her. Just, an amazing performance by Ms. Davis all around.

I also have to say how much I really enjoyed Peter Falk in this. He was fabulous as Dave the Dude's right hand man, Joy Boy, and handy with the zingers. When he walks into the room after the row between Queenie and Dave the Dude, "Look at this place, like the inside of a goat's stomach!" He seriously stole quite a few scenes in this film when Glenn Ford wasn't looking.

I wouldn't have thought Glenn Ford would have handled this kind of role with the twinge of comedy, but I thought he did fine. As did Hope Lange as Queenie. I can't say either stood out as amazing, but I thought they handle the roles well.

I was thrilled to see Edward Everett Horton as Hutchins, the Butler, in this. I swear, that man has the best comedic timing and is a sheer genius. I do adore that man and he had some great lines too. I especially loved the reception scene when the Count asks when they guests are supposed to arrive. He says, "Oh, well, no one arrives first, sir, they all come in last." He just has such a perfect way of delivering lines that sound flat when you read them, but when HE says them, they are riotous.

Also, I enjoyed Thomas Mitchell's performance of Judge Henry G. Blake. I love an exchange between him and Apple Annie as they are preparing for the reception and she asks about the menagerie of fake socialites that Dave the Dude is sending over.

Judge: "Orchids bloom where weeds once grew."
Annie: "What if they make mistakes?"
Judge: "The Dude will kill them."
Annie: "Aww, the poor dears."

My final favorite quote comes from Junior, one of Dave the Dude's cronies. When he sees Apple Annie, all dressed up as the socialite for the first time he says, "It is like a cockroach turned into a butterfly." Niiiiiiice. :-)

I do have a question for those of you who are much more knowledgeable than myself. I read that this is a remake of "Lady For A Day", which I have not seen. I was curious as to which one you prefer and why?

Also, did anyone else notice the Nutcracker music playing softly in various scenes throughout the movie? There were also a couple of Christmas trees here and there. I didn't plan on watching a "holiday" film, but I guess this is another holiday, non-holiday-ish film. You can't escape! :-)

I highly recommend watching this one. It is a great one for when you need one of those pick-me-up feel-good movies after a rough day. It is such a sweet film and I wouldn't mind watching it again, myself, just to see Bette in this first-rate performance.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Remember The Night (1940)

I was lucky enough to be under the weather and stuck on the couch channel surfing when this was starting on TCM. Not having scoured the filmography of Stanwyck or MacMurray I had no idea they had starred together in more than just "Double Indemnity". I know, I am an idiot.

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck

Given the title of the movie, I was surprised to discover it takes place over the holidays and is therefore a holiday movie. "Remember the Night" is a horrible title for this one - maybe they should call it Christmas in Indiana? Heh. Anyway, the plot goes something like this: just before Christmas, Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) is caught shoplifting. Again. It is her third offense. The District Attorney assigns John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) to prosecute the case since he is the best at getting convictions against women. After an abysmal defense attorney makes a mistake at trial, Sargent seizes an opportunity to get the trial postponed till after the holidays. He does this because the jury's heart is always softened around Christmas and convictions are much harder to get. Sargent has an attack of the old conscience and feels bad that his trick will keep her behind bars for Christmas, so he arranges for the bail that she could not pay. Much like feeding a stray, he suddenly can't get rid of her and after discovering they are both Hoosiers, they take a trip home to Indiana for the holidays.

This film is a comedy, romance, drama, holiday film and even part film-noir. I mean, really, and does it all well. The sentimentality of some of the scenes is well justified after the dark scenes like the one at Leander's childhood home. I loved how it somehow balanced out all the disparate elements.

I really thought Stanwyck and MacMurray had great, great, great chemistry in this and their performances were wonderful. Stanwyck was so beautiful and played it in her usual sassy manner until her character realizes Sargent is a genuinely nice guy. MacMurray played his part carefully so the he wouldn't look too slick in New York or too corny in Indiana. I don't know how he managed that, but it really was a great performance by him. I also loved the touch of Sargent's mother (Beulah Bondi) and aunt spinster (Elizabeth Patterson) not to forget the farm-hand Willie (Sterling Holloway). The scenes at the Sargent's home are so warm and touching that it makes anyone ache for the familiarity of home during the holidays.

TCM also made an interesting note that I wanted to pass along about this one. Preston Sturges wrote the screenplay for this but was apparently very unhappy with the cuts the director, Mitchell Leisen, made. He decided that if he wanted his scripts done the way he wrote them, he would have to direct the movies too. So, when he finished "The Great McGinty" he offered it to the studio for $1 with the condition that they let him direct it. They agreed and that is how he made the jump from writer to director. Pretty shrewd on his part.

As far as "Remember the Night", other than the title, I think this is a very sweet and wonderful movie. I highly recommend watching it, especially around the holidays. Just remember to bring along a couple of tissues for the ride - you may need them.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Smart People (2008)

Dennis Quaid is Lawrence Wetherhold, a self-absorbed, surly professor who generally appears to hate the world. The bitterness has obvious root, the death of his wife that he hasn't been able to let go. Enter into the plot a former student and ER Doctor, Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), and a drifter-type adopted brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church). Lawrence's life and those of his kids, Vanessa (Ellen Page) and James (Ashton Holmes), are bound to take a slightly different course.

Thomas Haden Church and Ellen Page do a little bonding

When you boil it down, this movie is really about highly intelligent people that are complete emotional idiots. Every single person in this film is damaged. With some, as I said in the plot, the root of the damage is obvious. Others, you don't know how it happened, but you know the damage is there. These people get through life using their brains as a barrier so that their precious isolationism will be maintained.

The performances, as you would expect from these great actors, are good. I have such a serious fondness for all the actors in this movie. I will spotlight Ellen Page specifically because I think she has one of the most complex roles. She portrays a teenager who has somehow turned into a 40-year-old woman after the death of her mother. She is miserable, has no friends and is so completely invested in her father's life that she appears to be more of a housewife to him than a daughter. She strives for perfection in a vain attempt for her father to appreciate or recognize her. In one of the scenes, she is talking to her Uncle. She reminds him that, "You should really make your bed. It sets the tone for the day." The line alone shows how matriarchal and up-tight she has become since her mother's death. She is really in need of some chaos.

I love that the chaos she needs is injected by her adopted Uncle Chuck. I only point out the adopted fact because that well may be his saving grace in this family. He is obviously not highly intelligent, but he has what the others lack in emotional intelligence. He understands people and actually likes getting to know people. He enters the dysfunctional home and immediately understands that his niece is in the most danger of becoming a wreck of an adult. Thomas Haden Church, who is a great underrated actor, plays the part brilliantly. I like the dichotomy between Chuck and Lawrence as totally opposite brothers, but also because watching Church and Quaid act opposite each other was a cinematic treat.

One other thing I would like to note that I really like about this one is that it isn't the cliched "Here are broken people and by the end they are all fixed" kind of a movie, even though they did go for a happyish ending. The movie is much more subtle than the grand fix gesture. It is not about any of the character's massive change, but rather, about characters trying or wanting to change a little - like in real life. Most people do not go from being a curmudgeon to being the most popular guy on the street. They make small changes like trying to greet someone or smile politely when passing a stranger. Again, not a Hollywood ending and much more like the reality of every day life. I think Quaid sums it up for his character when he says, "I know I'm a miserable asshole, but I do have some hope for myself." Indeed.

I will say that I loved this movie in parts, and in concept and themes, but as a whole didn't quite love it. I think with all the beloved indie actors, the expectations were so high, I was bound to be a bit disappointed perhaps. Something didn't quite gel right for me and even though the movie was short, the plot seemed to creep along in a few places. I didn't quite buy all of the characters because they weren't developed enough. I blame most of this on the newbie director as I think with a more capable one, this movie really could have been so much better. But, I did like it and am glad I had the chance to watch it. You will like this one if you are really into character-driven independents (like myself) or are a completionist and want to see all of the work by one of the actors in this one. Otherwise, sadly, I think you will find it a bit dull so you might consider skipping it.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Christmas In Connecticut (1945)

Barbara Stanwyck stars in this movie as Elizabeth Lane, a magazine columnist who describes herself as happily married, new mother and expert homemaker who lives on a perfect Connecticut farm with her family. The would be wonderful if it were actually true. Instead, she is single and lives in a cramped apartment in New York City and, oh, can't cook. Unfortunately, her magazine publisher, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet), is a stickler for the truth and has just come up with a brilliant plot to boost magazine sales. He wants her to invite a war hero, Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan), out to her lovely farm for Christmas. It goes without saying that Yardley wants to tag along so he too can experience a wonderful Christmas in Connecticut.

I felt like this was a holiday version of a screwball comedy. I love holiday movies and I love screwball comedies, so you put the two together and it is like peanut butter and jelly. The best thing was that the screwballiness took the edge off the holidayiness. What I mean is, the film didn't get sentimental about the holidays and that is a nice change for a film with "Christmas" in the title.

I also love that this is kind of a relevant theme given the rise of the Martha Stewarts and Rachel Rays of the world. In fact, I secretly love the idea of Martha Stewart really being like Elizabeth Lane - not having any clue how to cook or live on a farm - and just getting someone else to do all the work for her. heh heh.

Stanwyck, as Elizabeth Lane, attempting to "flip-flop the flop-flips" (yes, a Felix-ism)

The absolutely best part of the whole film though, hands down, was Uncle Felix. It is hard to say exactly how they became friends, but it is obvious that Elizabeth helped him finance the start up of his restaurant and he supplies her with recipes for the magazine in return for her kindness. He also seems to watch out for her and generally worry about her happiness. I always seem to gravitate to the supporting actors and Felix was no exception. S.Z. Sakall was so adorable as Uncle Felix, such a teddy bear. Plus, he had the best lines and so many great Felix-isms, for lack of anything else to call them. Here are a few of his great lines:

After smelling sardines Elizabeth was eating for lunch, Felix says, "Are you mad at your stomach darling?"

After seeing the mink coat she has just bought and her saying how she had to have it he says, "Nobody needs a mink coat but the mink."

When it looks like Yardley is about to find out the truth, Felix says they should go. He explains it with, "When the bag let's out the cat, somebody gets scratched."

What a wise man :-)

I should toss in a few great quotes out of Stanwyck's mouth too.

When she went to talk to the publisher to talk him out of making her invite the war hero and returned without luck she explains it as, "Every time I opened my mouth, he talked. I felt like Charlie McCarthy."

And when she is kissing her now fiance, "John, when you are kissing me, don't talk about plumbing."

I loved Stanwyck and her performance, of course, I think that almost goes without saying when you are talking about Stanwyck. Man is she amazing. Sydney Greenstreet as the publisher is brilliant too. It was interesting to see him in a lighter role - I think I have only seen him cast in dramatic roles. The only casting that I felt wasn't exactly perfect perhaps was Dennis Morgan. Don't get me wrong, he is incredibly handsome so I could see why he was cast, but I didn't really think he added much to the role other than a strong jawline.

I definitely suggest watching this one. It is hard to go wrong with it. You have your great performances, your witty dialogue, your screwball comedy, your holiday backdrop and if that isn't enough - UNCLE FELIX! He really does rock my world.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Stanley and Livingstone (1939)

This may not be the most historically accurate portrayal of the lives of Stanley and Livingstone (especially Stanley), but that is okay with me. If I wanted historical accuracy, I would have reached for a documentary. Instead, I wanted a little escapism and an interesting adventure and that is exactly what I got with this rousing film.

Spencer Tracy looking like Africa has gotten him a little down

This movie is about Henry M. Stanley (Spencer Tracy) who is a reporter for the New York Herald. He is known for his perseverance in chasing whatever story his paper assigns to him. His newest assignment might be his biggest challenge yet. He is told to go to Africa to find Dr. David Livingstone (Cedric Hardwicke), a missionary, who another newspaper reported as deceased. Even by today's standards this would probably be a difficult task, but during the 1870s it is darn near impossible. This movie details Stanley's journey to find Dr. Livingstone, the long and hard fought discovery of Dr. Livingstone and Stanley's subsequent fight to have his story believed upon his return.

There are so many things that make this film really work. I love that 20th Century Fox actually sent a small crew to Africa to film authentic safari footage to include in this film. The on-location shooting is priceless for the scenery that is added to the film. They even included stand-ins of the main actors so they could do wide shots showing them walking along the African plains.

Another obvious thing going for this film is the caliber of the actors. First off, you have Spencer Tracy as the lead. The more I watch Spencer the more I enjoy him as an actor. In some of his movies he plays the character so understated that you wonder if he even has to think about acting, it is so natural. With just a slow, almost lazy blink of his eyes he conveys how he feels about what is being said to him, without uttering a word. It is sheer brilliance and I swear, the camera loves his face. Aside from the lead though, the supporting actors in this one are all wonderful too. Walter Brennan plays a guide and sidekick type character to Spencer. His very colorful character is a good yin to Spencer's even keeled yang. Brennan actually steals a few scenes right out from under Spencer and, I have to say, that is not easy to do. On top of Brennan, you add in Cedric Hardwicke, Charles Coburn and Henry Travers and you have a pretty amazing supporting cast.

I also like how, to me, this really had the feel of a western, but set in Africa. One of the reasons I love Westerns is the way the directors use the old West as a secondary character in the films. The scenery in some of the great Westerns simply can't be beat and I felt the same about this one. The shots might not be clever or fancy, but gosh, it is amazing. They definitely used Africa as a secondary character that, just like the Old West, could beat a man down without too much effort.

I loved so many of the scenes in this film too. One of the great ones is the chase scene where Stanley's caravan is attacked by a local tribe. It was filmed and edited brilliantly and, you just don't see many great chase scenes on foot, especially of this magnitude. It is a sight to behold and shouldn't be missed.

I also enjoyed the opening scene of the movie. The US President had sent a couple of delegates to talk to an Indian Chief and were supposed to be escorted by the Army. An Army Officer was explaining to them how you can't just go in and talk to the Indians, they are brutal and would rather scalp a white man rather than talk to him. Suddenly, out of a clearing, come an escort of Indians with Spencer Tracy and Walter Brennan in between them. The Indians wave goodbye fondly as does Tracy and Brennan as they ride towards the Army camp. LOL! Guess they only want to harm certain men. :-)

I also loved the climatic scene where Stanley finally finds what he has been looking for all this time. As strings play "Onward Christian Soldier" in the background, Dr. Livingstone walks out of his hut and Spencer nails the famous line, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume." He says it with such disbelief, awe and weariness - just brilliant. I also love the line a little later from Livingstone, "Well, this is an occasion. We will have the fatted pig for dinner." Mmm ... the other white meat.

I thoroughly enjoyed this film. I can't really think of anything negative to say about it, which is uncommon for me. As such, I highly recommend this one.

Monday, December 8, 2008

It Happened On Fifth Avenue (1947)

Tagline of this movie: "It's Happier Than Heaven ... the Hit of '47!" Are you kidding me? Who wrote that? :-)

Hobo Aloysius T. McKeever (Victor Moore) looks forward to winter every year as that is when the O'Connors leave their mansion on New York's Fifth Avenue for three months. He takes the opportunity to move in and enjoy the lap of luxury behind their backs. This year is different though. First off, McKeever meets Jim Bullock (Don DeFore) who just lost his apartment and invites him to be his guest. Second, the O'Connors daughter Trudy (Gale Storm) shows up at the mansion unannounced. She thinks the duo seem more fun than her finishing school so she poses as a runaway to keep her identity secret. Soon her father (Charlie Ruggles) comes looking for her and she begs him to pose as a panhandler as well. More people move in, more sub-plots and more confusion. One thing is certain, the O'Connors and their new friends will never forget this Christmas.

Gale Storm (seriously, is that her real name?) and Don DeFore

I decided to watch this one because I was in the mood for some sort of a holiday movie. This isn't exactly what I would call a holiday movie, but it does take place over Christmas and New Year's therefore it comes close. It has a feeling of warmth and community and I loved that about this one. Over New Year's, with the whole crowd at the table, McKeever says, "I would like to feel that you are all my friends. For to be without friends is a serious form of poverty." Very touching and true words.

Not only is this a comedy on the surface, but it also has a little bit more of a serious level underneath that. One level is the funny shenanigans of McKeever and all the people moving into the home. On the deeper level is the theme of social reform as to what is left if rich developers buy up affordable housing? What are the young folks starting out and the old folks who no longer work supposed to do? Of course, the ever present theme of money not buying happiness is there throughout the film as well.

Some of the funniest lines are given to two night watchmen type characters who are hired to check in on the mansion every night. One of the watchmen says to the other, "How would you like to live in a joint like this?" The other says, "What? And have room for the rest of my wife's relations?" Another funny line is when a detective shows up looking for Trudy. One of the night watchmen says, "She ain't in there. That joint is as empty as a sewing basket at a nudist's camp." I also liked the deadpan of McKeever in a scene with the watchmen. One of the watchmen, upon seeing McKeever in a Santa's suit, says, "Well I'll be a monkey's orphan." McKeever deadpans, "Oh, come sir. Your family connections must be better than that."

One of my favorite scenes is towards the end of the movie when Trudy and Jim are in a Latin restaurant. While they discuss the very serious matter of if he should take a job that takes him out of the country or stay, they keep having the unstable, rocking table problem due to uneven table legs. The physical gag of the table combined with a persistent waiter and the serious conversation, oh, and Latin singers serenading of course, cracked me up. I am a pushover for physical sight gags.

There were also a few things that I didn't like about this one. It seemed they were using a pre-filmed moving backdrop in every outdoor scene. I understand this was 1947 and I understand budget constraints, but still, I found this very distracting from the scenes. Surely they could have improved that with a little more creativity.

I also got annoyed by McKeever's character pretty quick. At first he was a cute old hobo, with a cute little dog, very nice and mischievous. However, after being in the house with a crowd of people, he suddenly turns into bossy boots. Suddenly he acts like the patriarch of this mis-matched family, correcting their every behavior while not pitching in to help. I kept thinking "If I see his finger waggle at someone one more time, I may have to break it." Of course, I don't expect everyone would feel this way. It probably goes back to my disdain for authority figures. :-)

Lastly, I think the pacing was a bit off. It is rather obvious that Mr. O'Connor is going to be the character that goes through the biggest change. At the critical moment when the movie looks like he is going to change, he doesn't. Then the movie drags on for another 30 minutes. I think they missed the opportunity to tighten the movie up a bit there. I am not saying lop off the whole last 30 minutes, but it should have been written tighter with Mr. O'Connor seizing the first opportunity, not letting it pass him by. I don't think that added anything but time to the movie.

Lastly, one of the strangest things that occurred to me while watching this was that McKeever could be the character of Johnny Case from "Holiday", many years later, if he never found love. I kinda liked that thought - that Johnny Case would while away his elder years reading in other people's mansions and enjoying his time. Yes, I know, I am weird.

This was a good movie, but not a great one. There were good comedic elements, but it didn't all come together quite as well as in some of the other great holiday themed movies. If you have the time and opportunity, this is worth a look.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Purple Violets (2007)

Ed Burns wrote, directed, produced and co-starred in this movie. It has his fingerprints all over it and is typical Ed Burns fare. The focus of all of the movies he writes is on relationships - whether they be familial or romantic. He likes to explore how relationships tear apart due to external forces or how they become mended and every scenario in between. He also, almost always, makes his movie a love story to New York City. He films all his movies there and intersperses them with wonderful shots that make me wonder how I miss all that beauty when I visit there.

Patrick Wilson and Selma Blair as cooooool New Yorkers

The movie is about four people who, twelve years ago during college, were all best friends and dating. They happen to run into each other while dining at a restaurant and the history of the past relationships unfold a bit. Pretty quickly you discover that Michael Murphy (Ed Burns) and Kate Scott (Debra Messing) are no longer together and haven't spoken in 12 years because she believes he cheated on her in college and it destroyed her. You also discover that Patti Petalson (Selma Blair) and Brian Callahan (Patrick Wilson) broke up back then due to Brian going off to college in another state and Patti not wanting to have a long distance relationship.

The two women and the two men, separately, have remained best friends throughout the span of time but have not spoken to the others. Each character is pretty well developed by Burns and have their own story to unfold throughout the movie. Patti is in a loveless marriage and even though she used to be a great writer, has lost the confidence to write anymore. Brian became an author of a series of novels that amassed him and his lawyer, Michael, a great deal of money, but he is unhappy with doing that kind of fluff writing. He is also in a relationship with a young girl and soon after seeing Patti, no longer finds the young girl amusing. Kate appears to have never recovered from her heart break over Michael and is so consumed with anger towards him spends much of the movie refusing to even speak to him. Michael became a lawyer and also realized he was an alcoholic in college and for most of his 20s and went to AA to sober up. He spends much of the movie chasing Kate trying to make amends.

I see this movie as having two great strengths. The first one is the actors who deliver solid performances. Everyone in this works well as an individual and as a cohesive team. The second strength of this movie is Ed Burns. He has really seasoned as a movie maker. I don't always love his movies (I recall really hating "Sidewalks of New York"), but I can see where he has learned from his mistakes and corrected them. In this one, he really allows the characters to breathe. What I mean is, instead of trying to cover every second of the movie in dialogue, he allows the characters to have scenes where the actor conveys where they are and their emotion without overtly verbalizing it. Only the camera is there to capture their dialogue and it is all internal. I think it is scary for a director to allow that, but I love it when they give the character time to breathe. Also, I think Burns has made a consistent effort to improve the interest of his chosen shots, which I personally am a stickler for in a director. Burns usually focused on just the actors, but in this effort, he focused on a few clever or beautiful shot setups. I particularly loved one in Patti's apartment where she is arguing with her husband and the camera is at the other end of the hall, showing a wall divider between them. Shots like that speak so much to the story, saying this couple can't tear down the wall, they are completely divided, and probably will never be together as a whole again.

I have to say one negative about Ed Burns, since I just spent a paragraph talking about how he has seasoned and how he did really well in this. I always hate that all of his work has some snide air of superiority. Maybe it is just me, but I always get the feeling that he is trying to say something like "Look at me! I am esoteric! I am an intellectual!" I also get the feeling that if you say you don't like his stuff, then you are branded a Philistine. Again, it could be just me though. :-)

So to wrap this up, this was a good, sweet movie. Not a great movie, but certainly an enjoyable one to sit down and watch for an hour and a half. The main issue with it was the predictability, within 15 minutes of the movie, I was pretty darn sure I knew how this was going to play out. So there weren't really any twists or clever turns, just an exploration of the characters and their relationships. But if you sit down to a Burns film, that is pretty much what you should expect, and this is his most solid one yet.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Rocking Horse Winner (1950)

I will start with the fact that I really did not like this film. It is based off a D.H. Lawrence short story, which I read ages ago, and wasn't super thrilled with the story. Given that, it is not a shock that I didn't quite enjoy the movie. Even though I didn't enjoy the movie, it was still interesting for certain parts, so we will touch on those points and then I will try to erase this one from memory.

Brilliant shot of Valerie Hobson with the shadow of her son trying to predict a winner

The story is about a young boy named Paul (John Howard Davies) whose family is in a financial crisis, despite being upper class, due to his mother's voracious appetite for money. His mother, Hester (Valerie Hobson), constantly spends on whatever she thinks she wants and isn't even remotely remorseful. She bluntly tells her husband that he simply must make more money despite the fact that he obviously has a well paying job as is. The story takes a strange turn when the children are given a rocking horse as a Christmas present. Paul senses his mother's unhappiness and understands that money is the only thing she really wants. Through his desire to make his mother happy, he discovers that if he rides this rocking horse long enough and hard enough, he comes up with the name of the winner of the local horse race. He confides this to their servant Bassett (John Mills) and soon the two are placing bets and making money off of Paul's revelations. The question becomes how long Paul can keep the secret and keep up the stressful pace required to have the winning horse names revealed to him.

The theme of consumer greed is very timely considering today's rampant desire to live beyond our means using credit that we can't pay back. I have a hard time understanding how such a beautiful woman with a loving family couldn't be happy with what she already had. At one point when faced with the obvious conclusion that they are in serious trouble she says, "We will scrimp and save and do all the ghastly things you say we must do." Exactly when did saving money become a ghastly chore?

The main reason I think this film really didn't work was the young boy. He was 10 or 11 when he did this film and I think it was too complex a role for him to handle. When he is in a conversational scene, he is fine, but the heavier scenes of him with his rocking horse consist of him widening his eyes in some poor display of the power the horse has over him. I just don't think he had the chops for the role so it didn't work for me.

The other problem is that this is a rather well known short story with a rather well known subtext. This is supposed to be an oedipal story about Paul's desire to become the bread winner to take the place of his father and "please" his mother. The scenes of him on the rocking horse are supposed to be of a sexual nature. In the movie, they ever so slightly hint at this and perhaps it is something that should be read and not seen. Watching the young boy on the horse, with the thought of what it should be in the back of my mind, completely creeped me out. Plus, they took several steps trying to sexualize the scenes of him including having him walk around with his pajama shirt wide open and riding the rocking horse with a crop. It is hard to explain if you haven't seen it, and perhaps I was over-reacting, but it just didn't feel quite right.

Having gone over what didn't work, I should mention a few things that did. I really enjoyed Valerie Hobson's performance as the selfish mother. She was incredibly beautiful in this, which I thought was odd since I didn't feel that way about her in "Great Expectations". The arc of her character is done well and despite her being the cause of the troubles, you feel sorry for her before the end of the movie.

I also really enjoyed John Mills performance as Bassett. So far, I haven't disliked anything that he has been in. I may have to seek out more of his movies to watch.

Lastly, my favorite scene is very short, but worth mentioning. Paul is being drawn up the stairs to the rocking horse and he pauses and looks out the window. The sky seems to be turning grey and threatening and the clouds form the shape of the heads of horses. I am impressed they pulled this off in 1950. It is kinda creepy and really perfect for setting the tone of the next scene.

Unless you are a huge fan of D.H. Lawrence or like mild horror movies, I have to regretfully suggest that you give this movie a pass. The interest factor of the odd story doesn't outweigh the pain/discomfort factor.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Great Expectations (1946)

A great friend tipped me off to the fact that "Great Expectations" was coming on TCM last night and I might want to give it a viewing. I was very familiar with the story, having read it a couple of times in my misspent youth. Since I hadn't seen the movie, I fired up ye olde television set and got down to business.

The thing that struck me the most about this movie was the awesome cinematography. I noticed it won the 1948 Oscar for Best Cinematography and boy, did they get that one right. The cinematographer is listed as Guy Green. According to, Guy Green replaced the first cinematographer after the director, David Lean, viewed the opening shots of the marshes and was quite dissatisfied. I don't know what the first cinematographer did, but the opening scene was what mesmerized me in this movie. The screen is filled with a big expansive sky and a small path between marshes and this tiny silhouette of a boy running down the path. Brilliant shot. That shot and the churchyard scene both easily convey the feeling of this tiny boy in this desolate place, isolated and alone. Your heart breaks for him.

Part of the beginning of the movie - stunning scene and image

I am going to choose to kinda skip over the plot as I think most people know the plot of this story, either from the various movies or the novel. The movie does vary quite a bit from the novel, but still, I think it is a wonderful representation of Dickens work.

There were several casting choices for this one that raised my eyebrows, either in a good way or in a bad way. The first was John Mills as the adult Pip. He is playing a man just coming into adulthood, yet, according to IMDB, he was 40. I must say, he didn't look like a young man so I thought that was a surprising choice. However, having said that, I still thought Mills delivered a wonderful performance so I quickly forgot whatever quarrel I had with that one.

Secondly, the casting of Jean Simmons as the young Estella. What an absolutely fabulous casting choice. I estimate she would have been 16-ish and she was perfect. She was exactly who I imagined when I read about the young Estella. She is so beautiful that one immediately understands why Pip would fall for Estella instantly. And Jean Simmons played Estella with such disdain for poor Pip, yet a mild curiosity. She was cold and mean, yet beautiful and interesting. It was perfect for the character.

Which, sadly, brings me to the casting of the adult Estella. This part was played by Valerie Hobson and after watching Jean Simmons, it was utter disappointment. I won't really go into how she wasn't nearly as beautiful as Jean Simmons. Estella is supposed to be a woman who mesmerizes men with her amazing beauty and torments them with her indifference. As Pip says at one point, "My admiration of her knew no bounds" and that was the way every man felt about Estella. Yet, Estella was trained by Miss Havisham to break men's heart for retribution because a man broke hers. Valerie Hobson did not play Estella as a heart breaker at all. She actually played her as a flirt and as someone who genuinely likes Pip even though she doesn't feel the need to be with him. I don't know, maybe I am being hard on Hobson, but I thought her performance was a little flat for what Estella should have been. When I watched Jean Simmons' Estella, I was captivated. When I watched Valerie Hobson's Estella, I was a little bored.

Of course, having said all that, she did crush Pip's heart. I loved the scene at Miss Havisham's house where Estella tells Pip that she is going to marry someone else. She tells him, "You will get me out of your thoughts in a week." The reason I loved this is the layers of complexity of her saying something so poignant with Miss Havisham behind her, in the room that has become a monument to her own heart break. She is even wearing the wedding dress that she was never married in, all those years later. Miss Havisham certainly didn't get her betrothed out of her thoughts in a week. Yet, Miss Havisham looks on, saying nothing as if proud that her revenge is being exacted on the male population.

There are a few other brief, interesting things to mention. Alec Guinness was in one of his earliest talking roles in this film as Herbert Pocket. That was a nice surprise for me - I had no idea. Also, towards the beginning, there was a scene with talking cows. Now, I watched this on TCM and I was tired, I am beginning to think I dreamt this part. Were there talking cows and if so, why? That seems like a terribly strange thing to throw into this kind of movie. I am not sure what the motivation was behind that. Any ideas?

I definitely think this is a great, great film. Well, aside from talking cows, if there was such a thing. Maybe I was just hungry? :-) Seriously, the black and white, gorgeous cinematography alone makes it worth the two hours. It is like moving art on screen. The story, is a great story. You can't do much better than Dickens with his twists and turns of the plot. Also, most of the performances are very strong. The characters themselves are terribly interesting and complex. When you are in the mood for a good drama, do yourself a favor and give this one a chance.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Female (1933)

I will start out by saying I loved that they explored gender role reversal in 1933. They put a woman as a top executive in a male dominated field (which most everything was then). Not only did they have her working in a man's role, but they showed her acting like a man in her personal life. What a freakin' awesome statement and progressive movie in 1933!! Of course, there are flaws which we will discuss, but I guess we will take what we can get.

Ruth Chatterton longing for a vodka-hazed man

The general idea of the movie is Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton) is the owner of an automobile factory. She works hard like a man and plays hard like a man. She uses her attractive male employees as evening entertainment until they profess feelings for her. Then she has the lovelorn transferred far away so as not to annoy her with their insipid feelings and grotesque gestures. Of course, as you might guess, she runs into a newly hired engineer named Jim Thorne (George Brent) who does not come when she gives the come hither look. From that point on it is a battle of wills, but who's will is strongest?

One of my favorite scenes was the seduction of poor old Cooper. After plying him with vodka and being all sweet and feminine, he had no chance. She asks him, "Are you naturally enthusiastic?" followed with a toss of a pillow on the floor, a twinkle in her eye and a wry smile. Oh, she was one saucy minx!

I have to say that I find it fascinating that according to her birth date on - she was 40 when she made this movie!! She looked fabulous. We talk about how 40 is the new 30 now, well, apparently it was then too. Not only that, but I think I admire the bravery of the movie even more to show a sexy 40 year old cavorting around with young men.

At one point Alison says, "You know, a long time ago, I decided to travel the same open road that men travel. So I treat men the exact way they've treated women." Mighty bold Miss Alison.

I also love the scene where her she is in misery because her male secretary professes his love. This scene is great for several reasons. The first reason is Pettigrew, her assistant, played by Ferdinand Gottschalk. I noticed him earlier, but his cheekiness won me over here. As her secretary sits there, she tells Pettigrew that the secretary, Briggs, must be transferred to Montreal immediately and to make the arrangements. Pettigrew, knowing exactly why he must be transferred, delights in tormenting him with a sing-song "Ohhhhhhh ... does Mr. Briggs WANT to go to Montreal?" The second reason I loved this scene is for her edict that she will only have a sensible female secretary from then on. She asks Pettigrew to line up interviews with sensible woman and says, "And remember, it takes more than flat heels and glasses to make a sensible woman."

I really enjoyed George Brent in his role as well. Jim Thorpe tried desperately to avoid the vodka trap she laid out for him while being stern and maintaining his dignity. I think I have seen George Brent in two movies now and both times I thought he was a bit stiff in his performance at first. I am not sure if that is by his design or if I am not used to him as an actor yet. It took no time for me to definitely appreciate him. I especially loved when he was working on the automatic transmission and that cute curl of hair fell across his forehead. I am always a goner for that look. :-)

Before I get to the joke they called the ending, I will add that I thought it odd that Ruth Chatterton spent most of her time naked, kinda. I am not talking about the bedroom type scenes. They had that poor woman take two or three showers during this short one hour movie! What exactly was up with that? She must have been the cleanest, dirty girl out there in the 30s :-)

Now, I need to discuss two parts about the ending. So if you haven't seen it and don't want to see the ending, please skip all this.


The part that I was a bit confused about was when Alison broke down in the directors meeting and ran to her office. Pettigrew said to her that he had been expecting that to happen. Basically because, "You are just a woman after all (so you can't run a big business you silly little thing)". I felt betrayed by Pettigrew since he seemed to really support Alison. He seemed to be pretty proud of her and how tough she was. I have to admit, I quickly thought of him as a toadie and got pretty angry with him being supportive one minute and sexist to her the next. Then, after a bit of reflection, I began to think about why he said that to her. I started to think that maybe he was just trying to goad her into bucking up and charging back in there like a strong woman. What does anyone else think about that scene? I thought he was goading her because in the next scene when she ran out to go chase her man, he acted terribly upset. If he really were sexist and wanted to see her out of the comapny, he would have been thrilled to she her chasing a man down. So, that makes me think he wasn't being sexist, just trying to get her back on track. Anyone have thoughts about this?

Lastly, the dreadful end of the movie. I hated it. HATED IT. I definitely support a woman's right to choose to stay at home just like I support a woman's right to choose to have a career. That is what feminism is all about to me - having the right to do what you want for yourself. The reason I **HATED** the ending is because it seemed like such a sexist cop out! It is totally unrealistic to me that she would be happy to just be subservient to her man and play house while he goes off and runs her company. It was such a drastic change that it makes no logical sense. If they had simply left it with her running the company and him doing great engineering work that made the company successful too, it would have been brilliant. What a team they would have been! I am not sure if the censors forced this kind of an ending on them (like in the cut version of "Baby Face" with the bad ending) or if the studio was afraid of public opinion or what exactly motivated this, but it shouldn't have been done that way. End of story.

*******************************END SPOILERS*********************************

Even though I SERIOUSLY hated the ending, I would still say this is a very worthwhile movie. Just watching a woman in a power position in the 1930s makes it worth watching, despite the "bite the big wiener" ending.

Wife Vs. Secretary (1936)

Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, Jimmy Stewart ... and oh yeah, Clark Gable ... how could this movie go wrong? Well, it really doesn't. This is a very enjoyable drama with a lot of light moments thrown in for good measure.

With Jean Harlow on his right and Myrna Loy on his left, Clark Gable is a very lucky man

The basic plot is as follows: Gable, as Van Stanhope, is a millionaire magazine publisher. He is married to Linda (Myrna Loy) and the beginning of the movie portrays their loving and happy marriage. However, after a few suspicious incidents occur between Van and his beautiful secretary named Whitey (Jean Harlow) friends and family begin to plant seeds of doubt in Linda's mind where there never was any before. Even though Whitey has a boyfriend named Dave (Jimmy Stewart) it doesn't take long for the audience to wonder if she might harbor secret feelings for her boss as well.

I really enjoyed this film. I am not a big fan of Gable, but he didn't look as oily (or whatever it is) as he usually does to me. In fact, in this movie he actually looked handsome and came off as charming without the usual "roguish" adjective attached somewhere. Myrna was, as she always is, a breath of fresh air. In the early scenes of the film she is cute as a button teasing Gable. Harlow is breath taking, as always. I have to say it was a surprise to see Jimmy in such an early role. He looked like a baby! There is something so cute about how boyish and unsure of himself he seems.

I have a few favorite scenes from this film. I already mentioned the beginning of the movie with the interactions between Gable and Loy. They actually have great chemistry together and it is sweet to watch. I also loved the scene at the anniversary party where Harlow dances by with Gable and an older man quips, "Gentlemen, I fear that even I could give that little lady dictation". I was on the floor laughing over that line. Great, great line. I also loved the ice skating scene only because it was fun to watch Jimmy Stewart get completely eaten up with jealousy.

One of the scenes I totally didn't understand was towards the end when Whitey goes to Linda's stateroom on the cruise liner to tell her how she feels about Van. If Whitey really wanted him all for herself, why even talk to Linda when Linda is obviously out of the picture at that time? Only two scenarios would come from Whitey going to talk to Linda: 1) Hearing Whitey talk about what a great man Van is would make her want to run back to him. 2) Linda thinking Whitey is a liar and chooses to ignore her and continue down the path of leaving her husband. It appeared that Linda was going to leave Van anyway, so was there any real upside in Whitey talking to Linda? Was she trying to clear her conscious in some way so she wouldn't feel like she stole him from Linda? I will add that I was secretly hoping for a third scenario that would end up in a good old-fashioned cat fight, but really, I don't think it would have been a good fit for the movie. I just love the hilarity of a good cat fight. Call me crazy. :-)

I also found it ironic that Dave tells Whitey he is sorry for his jealousy and launches into this speech about how there wouldn't be any problems if couples just trusted each other. I thought it ironic because just hours before, Whitey was making it clear to Linda that if she gets the chance to be with Van, she will. In other words, she would have dumped Dave faster than you could say "bye-bye". Was it meant to be ironic or was there some other moralistic message there?

All in all, I definitely recommend watching this one too. The women will love watching how cute and in love Van and Linda are in the beginning of the movie. Of course, the men will enjoy watching Harlow swinging her hips around the office like it is a new Olympic sport.

Monday, December 1, 2008

When Did You Last See Your Father? (2007)

This movie is based off the novel by Blake Morrison about how he comes to grips from the point that he learns his Dad only has a few weeks to live. He returns to his childhood home to help his Mom care for his Dad and, in his own way, to make peace with their relationship. Blake is played by Colin Firth and his dad is played by Jim Broadbent.

Jim Broadbent and Colin Firth both give two very strong performances in "When Did You Last See Your Father?"

I really liked that this was overwhelmingly, an unsentimental film. The film established and explored Blake and his Dad's relationship through a series of flashbacks. The flashbacks followed the relationship arc with Blake as a child, believing his dad could do no wrong, to Blake as a teenager thinking he wished his father were dead. It showed the Dad as a truly flawed human being. I loved the almost constant use of mirrors and reflections from the point that Blake returned to his childhood home to be with his Dad before he died. The symbolism is obvious as he reflects over the memories of the past.

The problem with the film is that it has all been done before. That may sound callous, but this is a pretty common story without any unearthed themes. I will concede that the amazing acting by Colin Firth and Jim Broadbent does make this one top-notch from the pack. Colin plays his cards close to the vest as he typically does in roles, but he finishes with a super-emotional scene that would water the eyes of even the coldest of us all. Jim Broadbent delivers an amazing performance throughout. I have always adored him as a wonderful character actor and adore him even more after seeing this.

I would say this film is definitely worth watching for the amazing, strong performances of Broadbent and Firth. Just remember that it is a slow, emotional drama so not for the faint of heart, so to speak. Also, another reason to watch this film might be a bit personal, but I will share anyway. It is this: watching Mr. Darcy naked and, uhmm, enjoying himself in a bathtub definitely made it worthwhile. I know, I am a naughty girl :-)

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Twentieth Century (1934)

This one came on TCM while I was drinking some coffee this morning and it seemed like a delightful way to start the morning.

The movie centers around an egotistical Broadway director named Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) who finds and cultivates a new theatrical star in the form of a lingerie model named Lily Garland (Carole Lombard). He takes on the role of mentor and in the process totally plays her like a violin. The young, naive Lily, of course, falls for him. Over time, the Svengali loses control of his puppet as she becomes more like a female version of himself. She develops her own ego issues and (gasp) independent thought which puts her at odds with Jaffe. It doesn't take long for her to believe she can do much better than him and the theatre life. They part, but of course, it is not the last time they see each other. They run into each other aboard the Twentieth Century Limited.

Carole Lombard and John Barrymore before she decides she can do better :-)

I have to admit, I knew nothing about this movie and when I started watching, I was really taken aback. First, at how dreadful Lombard is in her performance as an actress (with the play within a play). Then I realized she was supposed to be terrible so Jaffe could polish her up. Secondly, I was shocked at how much Barrymore completely overacted every second of his performance! I mean, he did the most expansive, over-the-top, hammed up (Jewish people wouldn't even watch due to Kosher laws) and I couldn't imagine why Hawks didn't tone him down a little. Then, maybe 15 minutes in, it dawned on me. Overacting was the whole point. Oscar Jaffe is SUPPOSED to be this incredibly hammy person. That IS the character of Oscar Jaffe. Barrymore is actually spoofing himself as Oscar Jaffe. Duh. Brilliant.

After I understood what the point of it was, I really enjoyed the interactions between Jaffe and Lily. I am not sure if there was truly a love-type chemistry there, but they were wonderful in their roles. It is almost like watching a tennis match as they throw barbs back and forth, trying to out do the other. At one point Jaffe says a line that, I think, sums up their relationship. He says, "She loves me. I could tell that through her screaming."

I especially liked the supporting characters of Jaffe's two cronies, Owen O'Malley (Roscoe Karns) and Oliver Webb (Walter Connolly). They have some of the best lines in the whole movie and are hilarious from beginning to end. At one point, Jaffe shouts an empty threat of suicide, as he often does, and one of them quips, "He won't kill himself. It would please too many people." In fact, the whole script is fantastic. The writing is stupendous with great lines throughout. To be fair to Jaffe, he has some good ones at his cronies expense too. For example, "It’s typical of my career that in the great crises of life, I should stand flanked by two incompetent alcoholics!"

I always have weird observations or thoughts after watching a movie for the first time. For this one, I am surprised by what held my focus for one entire scene. On the train, at one point, Lombard is wearing a lightweight white turtleneck. I don't want to sound prudish, but I was surprised that she wasn't wearing a bra under it. I was completely mesmerized watching her, uhmm, assets getting in on the acting. Has anyone else noticed this and was it common to wear a sheer top without a bra in those days? I know it was common in certain dresses, but in a sheer turtleneck? Gosh, maybe I am a prude for even noticing and questioning it.

Also, I had the strangest deja vu watching this. At one point, early on, I saw John Barrymore as Gene Wilder in his Young Frankenstein performance. I mean, seriously, don't those two performances seem very similar? It was disconcerting for me when I realized this and I couldn't stop hearing Wilder's voice and seeing his face in place of Barrymore at various points in the movie.

I also like that this is one of the first screwball comedies. I think "It Happened One Night" gets the honor of being the first, but this was released in the same year. Considering this is a part of the beginning of the genre, this is a wonderful film to take in. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys comedies, especially of the screwball variety.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Baby Face (1933)

Let me start with how much I thoroughly loved this movie. What a treat. I am going to take a different path on this and make use of a wonderful review by my friend Jenny where she describes the plot much more cleverly than I could. So click here and read that first, don't forget to read the comments below, then we will get started dissecting the details I want to talk about. :-)

Stanwyck getting ready to adjust a man's attitude with a beer bottle

I love the tagline that is listed for this movie: "She climbed the ladder of success - wrong by wrong!" ha ha.

I wanted to focus this blog about the two different movie versions. The version that had been known to the world prior to 2004 was the original theatrical release. Meaning it is the version that was cut up by the New York State Board of Censors after they demanded many changes and cuts. In 2004, someone in the Library of Congress happened to notice that of the two reels of "Baby Face" one of the reels had more footage. They investigated and realized it was a duped copy of the movie as it was meant to be, prior to the censors getting their fingers in the mix. So, more than 70 years later, the pre-release version was found and finally viewed.

I find it really surprising the number of cuts and changes that were made. Yes, some of them seem rather obvious, but the number of cuts of seemingly rather innocuous lines surprised me. For anyone interested, click here for a document from Warner Brothers, detailing all the changes that were made due to censor demands. Don't worry, I will go over some of the more obvious ones if you don't want to click and read the whole document.

One of the most obvious cuts they would make is to what I affectionately call the "exploitation" scene where Cragg the cobbler tells Lily to use what she has. The un-cut version goes something like him saying: "Exploit yourself. Go to some big city where you will find opportunities. Use men. Be strong! Defiant. Use men to get the things you want." In the theatrical version it is: "There is a right and a wrong way. Remember the price of the wrong way is too great. Go to some big city where you will find opportunities. Don't let people mislead you. Be clean, be strong, be defiant and you will be a success." Pfft.

In the theatrical version, they also took out her "paying" her and Chico's way to ride in the rail car. It is a shame too because I really loved how Chico just smiled when she realized what Lily had in mind, and walked to the other end of the car singing a nice song.

Also, in the un-cut version, Cragg the cobbler sends her another Nietzsche book for Christmas. He calls her attention to this passage: "Face life as you find it, defiantly and unafraid. Waste no energy yearning for the moon. Crush out all sentiment." In the theatrical release, they instead show a written letter from Cragg chastising her for choosing "the wrong way". He tells her she needs to regain her self respect and use the book to guide her right. Of course, they never show any descriptor of the book that is supposed to guide her right as Nietzsche would not be the book they would have in mind.

The biggest difference is the ending. So yet again, if I haven't already completely spoiled it for you, the ending will be discussed so skip if you don't want it to be known.


In the un-cut version, the last scene is of Lily and Courtland in the ambulance where she says the money in the case doesn't matter and the EMT tells her he has a good chance.

In the theatrical version, they toss in the most absurd and depressing scene in the whole movie! The cut from the ambulance to the board of directors office at the bank. They make it clear that Courtland survived and that he and Lily are happy together. They say that Courtland and Lily gave up all their money and possessions to help get the bank running again. Then they moved to Pittsburgh so Courtland could be a steel mill worker.

Now, is it just me, but didn't she hate being across from the steel mills when she was in the speakeasy? Why on earth, now that she knows better, would she ever go back there? Even penniless they could have found opportunities elsewhere. It is the worst possible ending for Lily. I think she would have rather used Courtland's gun to put a bullet through her own brain instead of being dragged back to that horrible life.

******************************END SPOILERS********************************

I really loved everything about this movie except the part of Lily dumping Chico at the end. That seemed really unforgivable and unnecessary. I loved Stanwyck's gritty acting and bravery at playing such a bad girl. I love the emotion when she told her father what she thought of him. "Yeah, I'm a tramp, and who's to blame? My father. A swell start you gave me. Ever since I was 14, what's it been? Nothing but men! Dirty rotten men! And you're lower than any of them! I'll hate you as long as I live!"

It is interesting to see both versions back to back, but of course, I highly recommend the un-cut version. I can't believe such a great movie was cut up and ruined for so long. Shame on them.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Lady in the Lake (1947)

Well, I have said it before and I will say it again. The key to happiness is lowered expectations. After having watched "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" (1941) and being completely taken with Robert Montgomery in the movie, I dutifully looked for a movie I might have of his that I hadn't yet watched. Sure enough, I had a film noir, Philip Marlowe movie just waiting on me to get around to watching. You might guess that I was very excited about this and so ... unfortunately, expectations were high.

Robert Montgomery and Audrey Totter in "The Lady in the Lake"

"The Lady in the Lake" stars Robert Montgomery as Philip Marlowe and Audrey Totter as Adrienne Fromsett. Robert Montgomery actually did double duty in this, not only was he the star but also the director. Somehow, someone came up with a brilliant idea (sarcasm dripping here) to do this film totally in first person point of view. That means the audience sees everything from Philip Marlowe's eyes, i.e. the camera is Philip Marlowe. Aside from a few glimpses in mirrors and windows, we only see Philip Marlowe for a few minutes during prologues for scenes. (The fact that the movie needed prologues thrown in because of the complicated plot was an instant warning in and of itself.) So keep in mind, I watched this movie solely because Robert Montgomery was in it. Yet, even though he is the star - the protagonist of the film - he is only seen for maybe 5 minutes of the entire movie. Yay, me.

I can't believe I was suckered into two of these in a row. I went from "The Thomas Crowne Affair" (1968) movie gimmick of multi-image screen to the "Lady in the Lake" camera point of view movie gimmick. Both with disastrous results. I think the main problem in the "Lady in the Lake" is pacing. Since the filmmakers wanted to make it feel realistic for the audience, the camera slowly lumbered from marker to marker in what could only be described as an excruciating old lady's pace. They wanted to show Philip Marlowe getting out of a car and checking out a guy on the ground and hiding behind a fence. In what would take today's cameras 30 seconds to do, with the camera setups in the 1940s, it takes minutes which to, at least today's audience, feel like days.

The other disappointing thing is that ... and I really hate to say this ... but I really disliked Robert Montgomery as Philip Marlowe. That is hard to say given you only see him for 5 minutes. I think if we had actually seen him, I would have warmed up to him. As is, you only hear his dialogue and it doesn't sound like Robert Montgomery at all. It sounds more like Robert Montgomery imitating Humphrey Bogart because he thinks that is the way Philip Marlowe should sound. His delivery is terrible. Whereas Bogart comes across as a wise-cracker, Montgomery's dialogue comes off as obnoxious. I think, again, maybe if we had nonverbal clues via actually seeing Montgomery on film, it wouldn't have been as obnoxious, but as is, not so good.

The last point I want to make contains a spoiler. If you don't want to hear about the end of the movie, turn away now.


Even if the pacing were fixed, and even if Montgomery didn't try to imitate Bogart in a most obnoxious way, the other thing I truly hated about this movie was the Adrienne Fromsett character. So what if she wasn't the actual murderer? She still was a tramp trying to sleep her way to a million dollars while making sure the wife of the guy she was sleeping with stayed out of the picture. On top of that, when she told Philip Marlowe how much she cared for him and how she loved him, it was the most disingenuous speech I have ever heard. The entire time I was hoping he was just playing her to get info and then he would cut her loose. But at the end, he stays WITH the disingenuous, gold-digging tramp? Are you KIDDING ME? I actually threw a pillow at the TV screen at the end of the movie. Just ... I couldn't believe it.

******************************END SPOILERS***********************************

Before I close, I do want to say that I have seen the gimmicky, first person point of view thing work well in other movies. I will use the beginning of "Dark Passage" (1947) with Bogie and Bacall as an example, which happened to be released the same year. The camera portraying Bogart in first person point of view works brilliantly in the beginning. Not only that, but they have the good sense to ditch the gimmick so they can get the movie going faster than a turtle with a camera strapped to it's back.

My point being, it isn't just one thing in the movie - it is the whole movie. If you haven't guessed already, I really disliked this one. Take my advice and don't waste your time.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Remakes - Better The Second Time?

I am not a classic movie expert, but a lot of my friends think I am, so I guess I play one in real life. It isn't my fault I pretend to be an expert. I am in my early 30s and it seems that most of my peer set have only watched b&w films under duress. By comparison, I am an expert even though I feel guilty for even using that term when compared to true experts like my dear friend Jenny.

So many times in day-to-day conversations with the classic movie clueless, I end up in the role of expert trying to get someone interested in watching one of those icky old movies. The easiest way, I think, is when someone raves about having seen some recent movie and I interject "Well, if you loved that, you really should see the original." Of course, they almost always have no idea the movie they had been raving about was a remake and we all know, the original is always better than the remake. Or is it?

With such wonderful actors - how could it all go so horribly wrong?

I bring this up because I watched the original, 1968, "Thomas Crowne Affair" on TCM today. Oy!! I had to force myself to stay with it. There were a few good scenes with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, but overall, the movie was hard to watch. It rambles on with the gimmicky multi-image screen that didn't work and was very distracting. The 1999 version is clever, focused and sexy as hell. Did I mention sexy as hell? I mean it. Yowser, and in a good way. Much better than the original.

So after the movie ended I started pondering, what movies were actually better the second time around? I decided to make a short list, in no particular order, and see if anyone wanted to add to it or disagree with me.

1) His Girl Friday (Oh yeah, I had to start with a Cary Grant one. Yippee!)

2) Ben-Hur

3) The Maltese Falcon

4) Scarface

5) The Thomas Crowne Affair

I can list a few more - mostly sci-fi or horror genre, but want to see what others anyone might want to toss out there. Anyone disagree about anything I listed? Chime in.