Thursday, November 21, 2013

Twentieth Century

Within the first few moments of Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century, we see the beginning of the partnership of Broadway director Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) and acting hopeful Lily Garland (Carole Lombard). It's a rocky start to say the least, but their first play is a success.

Fast forward three years, and their partnership has become more bitter than an unripe lemon. She ditches him for Hollywood and her career thrives. (His in turn crumbles.) Then on a train from Chicago to New York, they meet after all these years, and...well, it's not a friendly reunion by any means.

As someone quite familiar with her work, it's clear to say that Lombard is very funny in this. But bear in mind that did this long before films like My Man Godfrey and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. In other words, this is Lombard's first foray in screwball comedy. (Hawks actually complained that Lombard was too stiff early on in production.)

But the absolute scene stealer of Twentieth Century is definitely Barrymore. Again, bear in mind the actor's other roles, so seeing him do screwball comedy could be a bit of a shock. And yet, he is an absolute riot here. (I also love what Hawks said to Barrymore to convince him to take the part: "It's the story of the biggest ham on earth and you're the biggest ham I know.")

Twentieth Century is a very funny film. Thanks to the manic performances from Barrymore and Lombard as well as Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht's script and Hawks' direction, this is the benchmark for the many screwball comedies in the years to come. Go see it.

My Rating: *****

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The More the Merrier

There's something about comedies from the 1940s that makes them more lasting. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the jokes are actually funny unlike what we get nowadays. (Granted, some jokes are dated.)

George Stevens' The More the Merrier is one such film from that era that could fit the bill quite neatly. It has a nice balance of well-timed slapstick and jokes, but there are a couple of jokes that wouldn't exactly slide nowadays. Still, Stevens knows what he's doing for the most part.

And as with most comedies, it all relies on the right actors to get the job done. For The More the Merrier, Stevens enlists the likes of Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea (a vastly underrated leading man) and Charles Coburn (who got a well-earned Oscar for this). As I said, all it takes for a comedy to work is the right actors, and Arthur, McCrea and Coburn are just that.

I suppose what makes The More the Merrier stand out a bit is that Arthur's character is a working. Bear in mind, this was released in an era where women were either waiting for their men to come home or working in the factories. It wasn't that common to see a woman working a desk job (outside as a secretary, I suppose).

The More the Merrier is certainly amusing though it does get silly after a while. It mainly works because of the trio that is Arthur, McCrea and Coburn, but I'm mostly amused that this was made by the same man who would make A Place in the Sun. (Just saying.)

My Rating: ****

Monday, November 18, 2013

The General

When it comes to films of the silent era, that is something I'll openly admit to being a beginner to. The only titles to have been seen by me include the likes The Gold Rush, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and Pandora's Box. Suffice to say I need to fix that.

One legend of the silent film era I so needed to catch up on was Buster Keaton. There are some disputes over whether he or Charlie Chaplin was the true master of the silent comedy. Those disputes alone convinced me I needed to see something of Keaton's.

So what better Keaton film to start with than The General? (Always start with the more prominent film, that's what I always follow.) And boy, it is funny. (Certainly not something you'd say about a film set during the Civil War.)

In my eyes, the best comedy can be found in the form of a reaction shot. With a number of silent films (particularly comedies), such shots are usually over-the-top. Thanks to Keaton being, well, himself, these shots are just gold. All it took was a very subtle change in his stoic expression to get a laugh.

Anyway, The General is proof on how to make a great comedy. (I was also very impressed by his stunt work throughout.) This just convinced me I need to see more of Keaton's work. (And I think I'm taking a shine to him more than Chaplin.)

My Rating: *****

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Dirty Pretty Things

Early on in Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things, it's established that Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) isn't content with the life he's living. He studied to be a doctor but is currently working as a cab driver and a hotel receptionist. He's also an illegal immigrant from Nigeria living in London, so he has to keep his eyes open constantly.

Senay (Audrey Tatou) isn't exactly better off. She works at the same hotel as Okwe but she longs to live in New York City. And like Okwe, Senay is also an immigrant to London. (She's from Turkey.) But her hopes of going to the United States are appearing to become dashed because of the horrors she faces in London.

The performances Frears get out of Ejiofor and Tatou are quite mesmerizing. Take everything you know and love about Tatou in Amelie and throw them out the window. She's not a shy, lovelorn Frenchwoman here. She is instead a woman scared of the world she's a part of. It simply must be seen.

And even though Tatou got top billing (and her face on the poster), it's Ejiofor who's the star of Dirty Pretty Things. Like with many of his other roles, Ejiofor draws you in from the very moment he appears. (Not that many actors have that kind of charisma.) Again, it simply must be seen.

Although it's not the strongest of Frears' films, Dirty Pretty Things is still quite good. Thanks to the work from Ejiofor and Tatou (as well as a scene-stealing Sophie Okenedo), the film shows that the life you're living can become a dangerous one before you know it.

My Rating: ****

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Swimmer

Frank Perry's The Swimmer is certainly not one of the more conventional films of the 1960s. (Or, for that matter, any decade.) It doesn't open (or end) on a standard Hollywood note, and yet it's a bizarrely transfixing film.

It's understandable to see why The Swimmer is not that well-known of a film. After all, it was released in the year of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bullitt and Rosemary's Baby. So that could mostly contribute to its obscurity. (Then again, there are a number of other less-than-famous films from that year.)

The story is also an unconventional one. Many films from this era would focus on a character trying to achieve the American dream. Here in The Swimmer, it's a complete deconstruction. Once one gets that dream, it can be hard to maintain it for those around you.

And I can't go on with this review without talking about Burt Lancaster's performance. Lancaster was one of those actors who was always good regardless of the film, and The Swimmer is no exception. With his quiet musings on life throughout the film, Lancaster's work in The Swimmer could easily rank as one of his best.

The Swimmer as a whole feels clunky in spots but is overall a solid piece of filmmaking. Perry, better known for the infamous Mommie Dearest, gives his audience an allegorial curio of a film that simply floats around in your mind long after the credits have rolled.

My Rating: ****1/2

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

All Is Lost

When J.C. Chandor's first film Margin Call hit theaters, many people were intrigued by the work of this new director. Seeing as how it featured many prominent names (and garnered an Oscar nomination), there were some who wondered what his next film would be.

That film ended up being All Is Lost, which is minimalist in every sense of the word. With very little dialogue and (technically) set in one location, All Is Lost shows you don't need a great deal going into a film to make one that's great.

What I liked the most about All Is Lost is that Chandor could have easily gotten a young, robust actor for the film's lead (and lone) role, but he didn't. Instead, he got Hollywood veteran Robert Redford, and it's the best work Redford's done in his long career. Could he snag a second Best Actor nomination? God, I sure hope so.

It's not just Chandor's direction and Redford's performance that make All Is Lost great. The score by Alex Ebert and the cinematography by Frank G. DeMarco are just as stunning. And yet both are used in subtle but brilliant ways.

All Is Lost is quite simply one of those films that comes along every now and again to show that less is definitely more. Every small detail and action of Redford's performance and Chandor's direction prove that cinema isn't a dying art; it's one that's being re-invented.

My Rating: *****

About Time

A few days ago, Richard Curtis' Love Actually celebrated the tenth anniversary of its release. For those who haven't seen it yet (which is practically impossible by now), it's a multi-linking film about (quite simply) love. Many people have since fallen in love with it.

Curtis' new film About Time will probably have the same effect Love Actually had on its audiences a decade ago. (It certainly did for me.) Yes, there are themes of love throughout the film, but it all results into a film about life.

Admittedly, I liked About Time more than Love Actually. Why? Because there were several scenes that were very relateable to me, mainly those near the end. (It came as no surprise that they hit me in the right spot too.) When a film does that, I'm bound to love it.

I also liked the overall message of the film: appreciate the small things in life because they'll be gone before you even realize it. It also reminded me of a quote from the Curtis-penned Doctor Who episode "Vincent and the Doctor" (which is also one of my favorite episodes of the show): "The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don't soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don't necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant."

Long story short, About Time is a ridiculously charming film. It has the right balance of comedy and drama that's practically essential for any piece of fiction. When you have the chance, be sure to see this. (Preferably with someone you care about.)

My Rating: *****

Monday, November 11, 2013


It's not easy making a musical. Not only do you need actors who aren't tone deaf (though that could easily be remedied), you also need a relatively solid plot to fit in around the all of the musical numbers. And believe me, it's harder than it looks. (Not that I've tried, mind you.)

Fortunately Rob Marshall's Chicago hits the right notes. (Yes, that pun was intended.) As I've stated here numerous times before, I'm not that big on musicals. (I honestly thought I wouldn't like this because it because looked too lavish a la Moulin Rouge!) And yet I loved every moment of it.

Why? I'll tell you. There's the fact that Marshall clearly knows what he's doing in regards with directing a musical. (Then again, he was experienced with Broadway enough.) There's also the allusions to Bob Fosse throughout, most noticeably in the choreography for some of the musical numbers. (And Cabaret references!)

Speaking of the musical numbers, they certainly get stuck in your head, don't they? ("He had it comin'!") If I had to choose three numbers from Chicago as favorites, they'd be "When You're Good to Mama" and "We Both Reached for the Gun" because they're really catchy (courtesy of Queen Latifah and Richard Gere, respectively), and "Mister Cellophane" because John C. Reilly is just heartbreaking. (No wonder he got that nomination.)

Anyway, Chicago is just one of those films that dazzles. Thanks to the actors, Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones in particular, this is a film I can see myself watching again and again. Speaking of which, I sort of want to watch it now.

My Rating: *****

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Blood Simple

Jean-Luc Godard once said, "All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun." This is also the guide to make a film noir. (I mean, they're practically essential.)

This is also what Joel Coen followed when he made his debut Blood Simple. Made with a shoestring budget and a simple premise, the film takes the standard crime drama and is given a few twists courtesy of Coen and his brother Ethan.

As with any early film of a prominent director, you can pick up on certain trademarks throughout. In regards with Blood Simple, there are subtle additions that would be seen in later Coen Brothers films. It's small stuff like lighting or editing, but they're very Coen Brothers.

But the most telling Coen Brothers element in Blood Simple is the (excuse the slight pun) intolerable cruelty the characters inflict on each other. It's just a detail like that must have made some critics back in 1984 raise a few eyebrows. (It's more of a shrug nowadays due to films being excessively violent.)

Anyway, Blood Simple is noir at its finest. It's not very often that you see a film with a limited production that resulted in a satisfying way. This isn't a film often talked about, and I don't understand why that is.

My Rating: *****

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Random Harvest

I usually don't care much for love stories. (I'm a cynic, so sue me.) If I do decide to watch one, it's usually one that's either doomed from the start or on its last legs. The best ones, however, are those that appear perfect but are anything but.

That can describe the relationship between Paula (Greer Garson) and "Smithy" (Ronald Colman) in Mervyn LeRoy's Random Harvest. Yes, they meet, fall in love and get married, but neither know of Smithy's past prior to their meeting. Then Smithy remembers who he is...but forgets his life with Paula.

Much like LeRoy's earlier film Waterloo Bridge, Random Harvest spends the first third revolving around the budding romance, the second third on their separation, and the final third on their possible reconciliation. (The endings for both films, however, are very different.) Even then the stories between the lovers bear striking resemblances.

And to make the story more potent, LeRoy enlisted the likes of Garson and Colman. Garson has a number of heartbreaking expressions throughout the final third which make the film have more of an impact. Colman in turn has a vulnerable look in his eyes that makes his work in the first third more lasting. The combination of these two looks during the final moments all the more enduring.

Random Harvest is a very lovely film. Thanks to the work from LeRoy, Garson and Colman, the film takes a simple plot (which in the wrong hands would be a melodramatic mess) and makes Random Harvest a romance for the ages.

My Rating: *****

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


With certain directors, you can pick up on certain traits in their work as you watch their films. For some, it's noticeable after one film. For others, it takes a few viewings to notice them.

In regards with Bob Fosse, it depends on which films of his you see. Either way, one of the major characters will have a self-destructive lifestyle. (Lenny Bruce from Lenny and Fosse expy Joe Gideon from All That Jazz are prime examples.)

Sally Bowles from Cabaret is a milder version but a prominent one. She is by no means on the path of self-destruction but she certainly doesn't know when enough is enough. She's the kind of woman who likes the best of everything: alcohol, men and various small luxuries. But she longs for her name in lights more than anything else.

And Liza Minnelli makes Sally radiate. (Then again, whom else but the daughter of Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli would be ideal as a hopeful entertainer?) Her musical numbers throughout the film are very reminiscent of those of her mother's during her prime. No surprise on how she got that Oscar. (Likewise to Joel Grey.)

Cabaret is a very good film though I'm more fond of Fosse's two succeeding films. Thanks to Minnelli and Grey's vibrant screen presences (as well as Michael York's subtle work), the film depicts carefree lifestyles amid a changing society. On that note, now I want to see a stage production of Cabaret. Thankfully there'll be one on Broadway in a few months' time.

My Rating: ****1/2

Friday, November 1, 2013

BOOK VS MOVIE: House of Sand and Fog

For every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction. Not just a law in physics but it can be applied to life itself. (Admit it. You've been in such a situation.)

This is certainly the case with House of Sand and Fog. The story follows three people: former Iranian colonel Behrani, emotionally unstable Kathy and uncertain police officer Lester. All three are thrown together because of the titular house. The outcome is one tinged with tragedy.

Andre Dubus III's novel has the first person narrative split between Behrani and Kathy (with an additional third person narrative for Lester later on), which adds more depth into the characters' psyches. You have three different perspectives on one single event, and all of them become determined (read: obsessed) to get what's theirs. It's quite an unnerving thing to read.

Vadim Perelman's film noticeably condenses Dubus' novel by omitting a number of scenes. The film also alters a number of crucial moments throughout. (They're not too severe of changes, but they are noticeable if you've read the book.) Still, the performances from Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly (as well as Roger Deakins' cinematography) makes the film worthwhile.

Now which version of House of Sand and Fog is better? Dubus' novel is much darker than Perelman's film though the film has a nice, slow burn to it. But the film failed to fully capture the novel's sinister nature. After all, the novel proved that even good (well, mostly good) people can do bad things.

What's worth checking out?: The book.