Wednesday, July 27, 2011

#361: A Star is Born

Directed by: GEORGE CUKOR
1954, TSPDT Rank #245

I consider this remake of a '30s film that I have not seen to actually be two films in one: an intense, compelling drama; and a piss-poor, annoying musical. Let's stop and not go any further right now until I point out that anyone who is a fan of the needlessly extended and overblown Judy Garland musical numbers in this film (really the reason why it has a reputation, ironically) is not the target audience for this review. That being said, the songs are terrible. I hate them. They work against the other, better part of the film - which stars James Mason in a typically virtuoso performance as an alcoholic, washed-up Hollywood actor and husband of rising star (Garland) - by padding the length and ruining the tone of the film. In a film where the subject material is increasingly dark and gritty, why muddy the proceedings with useless, unrelated musical numbers which also disconnect the viewer from the actual story of the film? Bear in mind, I'm reviewing the newer, "restored" version of the film, in which the main point is to RESTORE these abrasive musical numbers! If you find a shorter version of the film with minimal musical numbers, I recommend that version because based on the rest of the film and Mason's performance, that would probably be a good film that I could recommend. But this version, that most people (like myself) will see anyway because it's the most "complete", I find impossible to give such a recommendation. A middle of the road rating is given to pay tribute to the portions of the film worth-watching.

P.S. Early in the film, there is a scene where Garland sings "The Man That Got Away" in an empty nightclub with her band. This performance is the only good song in the film.

(Rating: 5/10)

#360: The Shop Around the Corner

1940, TSPDT Rank #196

That legendary, tantalizing, elusive "Lubitsch touch" is definitely on display here. The Shop Around the Corner is not necessarily a perfect film, as the ending is at once both satisfying plot-wise, but disappointingly sloppy and rushed. But all of the actors are great, there's light comedy, fantastic dialogue, wonderful characters, and a steadily building, slow-burning romance that Lubitsch waves around teasingly in front of your face. It's hard to say how this film works so well, but it's supremely compelling and enjoyable, an all-around great film, and highly recommended.

(Rating: 9/10)

#359: Monsieur Verdoux

1947, TSPDT Rank #193

Watching this movie was in some ways a sad experience for me - not because of its dark plot machinations (the film is actually delicious and satisfying in that respect) or the insinuations of a tragic end to the antihero's family, but because this movie could have been a full-blown masterpiece. And that potential is sitting right in front of your face for the entire duration of the film. See, in the opening credits of the film, you see the film was based on "an idea from Orson Welles". This is actually understating it a little bit. Orson Welles had pioneered the idea of the film, and had hoped to work on it with Chaplin. They had worked on an early version of the screenplay and were set to work on it together, when Chaplin dropped Welles from the project in order to have full control over the making of the film. Chaplin's point was that he didn't want to act in a film directed by someone else, and he wanted to have the creative control over his character and the other creative aspects. But for me, during the whole film, the maniacal, fanatical, film-buff voice in my head was screaming, "What if this was a darkly humorous story about a murderous family man, with a social agenda, starring Charlie Chaplin, and directed by Orson Welles?!?!" So of course the film's great even as it is - it's Chaplin! Even so, that sublimely perfect collaboration is now forever lost, seeing that both of its would-be participants are dead, leaving it as a tortuous dream for hard-core film buffs like myself.

(Rating: 8/10)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

#358: To Have and Have Not

Directed by: HOWARD HAWKS
1944, TSPDT Rank #258

Essentially a remake of Casablanca, Hawk's version (with the screenplay written by William Faulkner from a Hemingway novel) is just as good or even better. It follows the basic criteria set forth by Jean-Luc Godard ("All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun") duly, and in great style. The girl is Lauren Bacall at the tender age of 19 - but her character is anything but what her ages suggests. She's commanding, fiery, and her chemistry with Bogart is smoldering - in fact so hot that it at times that she could bend and melt him to her will, all with a mere whistle. Of all the female co-stars Bogart has had, Bacall goes with him the best of any of them. If To Have and Have Not succeeds more, it's probably mainly for the fact that Bogart's relationship with Bacall fills a void that is present in his romance with Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. This film also provides a perfect role for Walter Brennan that gives it the touch of brevity it needs to sail smoothly. And sail smoothly it does. A near masterpiece.

(Rating: 9/10)

#357: Tootsie

1982, TSPDT Rank #365

Tootsie is not a film I expected to enjoy. But I once again underestimated the talents of Dustin Hoffman, and enjoyed it immensely. It's a throwback to classic screwball comedies, especially Some Like It Hot, which it both updates and pays homage to. Dustin Hoffman plays a talented actor, who can't get any work because of his reputation for being a control freak and taking his work too seriously under all circumstances. He gets a job acting on a soap opera after disguising himself as a woman. He just takes the job for the money and to show that he can still get a job if his name isn't involved. The comedy comes from him having to hide his job from his girlfriend (who tried out for the same role and didn't get it), deal with his sexist director, come-ons from various older men (very reminiscent of elements of the billionaire in Some Like It Hot), the embarrassment of his roommate (Bill Murray), and his strong feelings for his (actually) female co-star on the film (Jessica Lange). As expected, Hoffman's masquerade spirals out of control as he becomes an icon in the female community for the strong-willed and vicious character he creates for himself (deviating from the script), and the best (platonic) friend and inspiration for Lange. The humorous avenues this film goes down are many and come in abundance - confirming this as one of the funniest and best comedies of the '80s, in a decade where comedies (and most films in general) were made with an increasing stupidity and overall weakness. Sure, Tootsie has a few of the unfortunate earmarks of '80s films, but these are few and far between, and surpassed by the overall quality of the film. Highly recommended.

(Rating: 8/10)

#356: Notorious

1946, TSPDT Rank #80

Notorious is the quintessential '40s Hitchcock film, and is probably the best of his work in that decade. The plot is espionage-related, but the plot is only a vehicle to serve up an intoxicating and slightly dangerous mix of suspense and romance. And this isn't a normal romance - it's fiery and passionate at first (note Grant and Bergman's impressive extended kissing screen that miraculously passed the censors in trademark Hitchcock fashion), then cold and dismissive soon after. Bergman gives herself up in aid of the espionage unit she's working for, but it seems to really be to evoke jealousy in Grant's character. The two have conflicting, confused feelings for each other but are at the same time working for the same team - working together but apart. In this fashion Hitchcock dissects romance and feelings, while gradually ratcheting up the suspense and intrigue simultaneously. It's not quite the masterpiece Hitchcock sometimes made, but it is an extremely impressive film anyway, for a variety of reasons.

(Rating: 9/10)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

#355: The African Queen

Directed by: JOHN HUSTON
1951, TSPDT Rank #296

Two very good reasons to watch The African Queen: Humphrey Bogart's amazing performance, and the astounding on-location color cinematography. Otherwise, a quite mediocre film. Katharine Hepburn's character is annoying and grating, the plot is threadbare - probably on the hopes that the main character's antics and the cinematography will help the film stay afloat, so to speak. The ending is contrived and abrupt, not to mention unsatisfying. But in the end, the two reasons I mentioned are good enough reasons to stick with this film for the whole ride. And unpleasant as it may seem at times, it's neither that good or that bad - just rather middle of the road. However, it's a much-lauded film in cinematic history, so although the '50s was a decade that produced much better films than this one, it won't hurt to give it a chance if you're interested in said history.

(Rating: 6/10)

#354: The Bridges of Madison County

1995, TSPDT Rank #858

I'm not exactly sure why Eastwood's grand romantic statement of the '90s is even on the 1,000 Greatest Films, I'll give you my two cents on it nonetheless. It's hard to consider this film's quality without the looming presence of the unbearable and insufferable framing scenes featuring the adult children learning about and coming to terms with their mother's romance with the dashing National Geographic photographer played by Clint Eastwood. To put it politely, the film suffers greatly because of these scenes, but unfortunately these scenes are placed so that they are like the cinematic equivalent to the rotten foundation of an otherwise quite fine and respectable house. As far as the meat of the plot goes, I'll try to explain it in a way that is in keeping with the spirit of the film: the tangible affair lasted five days, the love lasted a lifetime. Meryl Streep's Academy Award-nominated performance as the bored and unfulfilled Italian housewife Francesca constantly skirted the line between hard to tolerate and very good for me, but when all is said and done, and the ashes scattered over the bridge, the film serves as a welcome and fairly well-done portrait of middle-aged romance. If it were not for those terrible framing scenes, I'd have liked to put in a better word for it.

(Rating: 5/10)

#353: Cleo from 5 to 7

Directed by: AGNES VARDA
1961, TSPDT Rank #531

I do not waver in calling this film an under-appreciated French New Wave masterpiece. It caught me off-guard, and it is endlessly inventive and entertaining, featuring cameos by Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina, and offering a fresh, intriguing female perspective not felt even in Godard films where the focus is all on Karina. This is of course because it's directed by a woman, and I think that if Agnes Vardas were not a woman, she would definitely be considered one of the seminal cinematic masters. I say this solely on the merits of this film, however, as I have not seen any of her other films, but if this one is any indication, those other films should be high in merits as well. With Cleo from 5 to 7, Vardas finds a great reservoir of power in the simplicity of her film, and uses it and the eponymous main character, played by Corinne Marchand, to fantastic effect. I give this film my highest recommendation, it is a masterpiece and it should not be missed - just as one should not miss Breathless.

(Rating: 10/10)

#352: Saving Private Ryan

1998, TSPDT Rank #803

Here's a film that's most likely so cherished and awarded because it's easy to cheer for, and in that regard probably seems like a worthy tribute to those who served in the second World War. And it might very well be, at that - indeed many of those veterans appreciated it and did find it a worthy tribute. My issue with it is that it seems to present two different films: initially, one of incredibly intense and brutal combat which is definitely the best representation of the hell of war ever filmed; and later, an overly simplistic and cliched adventure story which seems to want to serve us contrived heroism on a silver platter. Both sections are extremely well-filmed, but as far as overall quality goes, I'd say the first section is masterpiece-quality, and the rest is only mediocre. To average these two incongruous parts out, I'll it's an overall good, but quite flawed film which remains the most popular and definitive modern rendering of World War II. Required viewing in any case.

(Rating: 7/10)

#351: Now, Voyager

Directed by: IRVING RAPPER
1942, TSPDT Rank #619

One of Bette Davis' better performances in my opinion, outside of All About Eve. Her being a "fat, ugly duckling" is a little hard to believe, but out of all the Hollywood stars at the time, she was the most able to play a role like that I suppose - and the transformation from ugly duckling to beautiful swan is breathtaking nonetheless. The romance with Paul Henreid is in the foreground early on, but then takes a backseat until the end, to Davis' volatile and traumatic relationship with her mother. Domineering and psychologically consuming mothers practically made the psychoanalytic profession, and this is one of many notable movies to feature them (although I'd rather take Psycho anyday). A bit melodramatic of course, but interesting and enjoyable anyway. Now, Voyager has aged considerably well, and other than Davis, features another great character role for Claude Rains, who can be seen in so many wide-ranging supporting roles around this period. An above-average romantic classic.

(Rating: 7/10)

#350: American Graffiti

Directed by: GEORGE LUCAS
1973, TSPDT Rank #460

Obviously the template for many a beginning-of-summer teen film to come, this film is better than the first Star Wars in my opinion. It features a lot of great '50s and early '60s music, and uses a formless plot as a showcase for a bunch of actors which later became big names, including Richard Dreyfuss and Harrison Ford. There's a lot of humor, reflection, and nostalgia, which make up for the film's lack of form or real substance, and provide an enjoyable watch. A worthwhile and timeless '70s film, worth seeing especially for all of the similar films that have followed and still remain in style today. The birth of a subgenre.

(Rating: 7/10)

#349: The Philadelphia Story

Directed by: GEORGE CUKOR
1940, TSPDT Rank #156

With a cast featuring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and James Stewart, there's not really a way this romantic screwball comedy could fail. Grant plays a role that he specialized in around this time period, of a man technically out of a relationship but continually hanging around and sticking his foot back in the metaphorical door. He's hilarious, and this movie provides one of Hepburn's great film roles, as an irresistible society heiress engaged to be married to an upright citizen (played by John Howard) who she doesn't love but who is the exact opposite of Grant's Dexter Haven, her former husband. Stewart adds another facet to the plot as a newspaper reporter, who pursues Hepburn romantically while covering her for a society column feature, despite her upcoming marriage, and the fact that he is inevitably paired with his standby photographer (played by Ruth Hussey). Besides all of this, the film supplies one of the few funny, enjoyable, and actually NOT annoying (!) child actors, with Virginia Weidler portraying Hepburn's witty younger sister. Although its not the funniest of the classic screwball comedies, it's one of the more directly romantic, and it relies on its two main assets, the wonderful cast, and the nearly dizzying romantic plot, to make up for a lower level of all-out comedy. Definitely not worth missing.

(Rating: 8/10)

#348: Ninotchka

1939, TSPDT Rank #265

This comedy starring, in my opinion, the best and most beautiful of all the movie stars of the 1930s, could have been a disappointment for fans of Greta Garbo's alluring mystique and flair for romantic tragedies, but in the hands of the great Ernst Lubitsch it actually adds another side to Garbo's legacy and remains a great example of light but satisfying romantic comedy. Garbo is luminous and entertaining in her first comedic film role, and forms the core of a great cast that features Melvyn Douglas as her eventual lover, and some Lubitsch regulars fleshing out the story. Many of the comedies as old as this have aged considerably, but the famed "Lubitsch touch" makes this another timeless film, as enjoyable and enchanting as ever. A great Greta Garbo film, and another classic from the golden year of 1939.

(Rating: 9/10)

#347: All That Jazz

Directed by: BOB FOSSE
1979, TSPDT Rank #399

All That Jazz is a very personal and honest portrait of life in show-business. Rob Scheider gives a great and intense performance as a thinly veiled version of Bob Fosse - as a director simultaneously staging and casting a high-profile Broadway show, and working on finishing a film about a stand-up comedian. As authentic and emotional as it feels, however, it has been criticized as being overtly negative by a lot of critics, which might be a valid critique, but I think portraying it any other way would have been dishonest from Fosse's point of view, who undoubtedly used the film as a canvas on which to unload his negative energies. It also won the Palme d'Or at Cannes that year. Although it's a very well-crafted, energetic, compelling, and personal film - it certainly can't be called that original, as it borrows heavily from the structure and format of Fellini's 8 1/2, and suffers from feeling too much like a rehash of that film. But despite it's flaws and imperfections, this is worthwhile view - one of the rawest and most intimate purgings of personal demons ever filmed.

(Rating: 7/10)

#346: Gone With the Wind

1939, TSPDT Rank #64

This epic Civil War-era film is, along with another Fleming film, The Wizard of Oz, probably the most popular and enduring classic of the big Hollywood year of 1939. It is one of the most adored romantic films of all time, still enormously popular today despite its age and length. However, I find it interesting how beloved this movie is even today, despite its plentiful similarities in plot and attitude to The Birth of a Nation (which today is a film severely scorned unless being studied purely for its technical cinematic importance). It opens with a bold title card which describes the era of master and slave being a forgotten dream of the past, and portrays the relationship between the two groups as being harmonious and mutual. Now, it doesn't necessarily go as far as portraying the Ku Klux Klan as glorious knights riding into town to save the good ol' white folks as Birth of a Nation does, but it basically hints at the same concept with its portrayal of the despicable black "carpetbaggers" and the pitiful, helpless, abused-looking survivors returning home from battle. That being said, the film is a visual masterpiece, which is allowed to look its best yet thanks to the Blu-ray format, and despite its lies and blatant racism, the structure of the plot is absorbing and nearly impeccable. Add Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh (the two best possible actors for their roles) and this film remains a near-masterpiece. Its almost as important to cinematic history as Birth of a Nation, but its luscious cinematography and nostalgic memories have probably allowed it to get more respect, although on the inside, its ideals and attitudes toward slavery and racism are really not much different at all. A great film, nonetheless, and still worth watching.

(Rating: 9/10)