Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Lost Weekend... aka Love Conquers All?

Let me have my little vicious circle. You know, the circle is the perfect geometric figure. No end, no beginning. -- Don Birnam
Even some 66 years later, Billy Wilder's best picture winning The Lost Weekend remains one of the most compelling films depicting drug addiction. Groundbreaking for its time, The Lost Weekend was the first film to ask if alcoholism was really a just character flaw or if it was a disease... if those afflicted were to be hated or pitied. Wilder had to fight hard to get this movie made; Paramount Pictures was reluctant to finance a movie that uncompromisingly entertained such a dark subject and once the movie was finished, the alcohol industry itself tried to suppress its release. Even proponents of the temperance movement protested, oddly fearing that the film might encourage alcohol use. Despite these road-blocks, The Lost Weekend was eventually released to great acclaim in 1945, thanks to an incisive script by Billy Wilder, his perfect, atmospheric direction, a haunting, ethereal score and, last but not least, a titanic performance by Ray Milland.

At the film's beginning, Don Birnam and his unreasonably patient brother Wick are packing for a restful long weekend in the country. Though Don is pretending to be enthused for the weekend, and the luxuries of the farm, his mind couldn't be further from it. A bottle of rye hidden outside the window is the sole thing occupying his thoughts. His longtime, ceaselessly supportive girlfriend Helen St. James also comes along to see them off. Using the insidious cunning inherent to all motivated drug addicts, Don connives to get them out of the house, and so begins his 3-day meteoric drop to rock bottom.

Ray Milland's Don Birnam is a swirling storm of self-loathing, desperation and compulsive tics. Trading on his innate likeability, Birnam never fails to take advantage of the love and trust of the people around him to further pursue his destructive vice. Once, he kisses a prostitute he stood up for a date just to convince her to give him five dollars, knowing that in her love for him, she cannot refuse his request. An eloquent lush, Milland spends much of the movie pontificating with his favorite bartender Nat on his favorite subjects: himself and his addiction. "Pour it softly, pour it gently and pour it to the brim," he commands the weary Nat, a reluctant abettor to his addiction.

In his own mind, Birnam's descent into addiction is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions and indeed, he seems to find inspiration for self-destruction in classic works... once driven into a frenzy from watching characters in an opera imbibing his sacred liquids. When he drinks, he believes he's unstoppable and that he's worthy of the early promise he showed as a writer (his failure to deliver on that promise is given as the initial reason for his slide into addiction). He proudly boasts of how alcohol bolsters him: "I’m Horowitz playing the Emperor Concerto, John Barrymore before the movies got him by the throat, and Jesse James and his brothers, all three of them, and William Shakespeare...and out there it isn’t Third Avenue, it is the Nile, man, the Nile, and down comes the barge of Cleopatra." Milland's performance as Birnam is fearless. He never pulls any punches to attempt to make him seem likeable, despite warnings from his agent that taking the role might ruin his career. And yet, despite of the way he dissembles and lies his way through the weekend, we never hate him... so thoroughly are we enveloped in his misery.

Throughout the film, the score by Miklós Rózsa drives Birnam relentlessly onward, the eerie wail of the theremin echoing the seductive clarion call of alcohol. That the film has lost nearly none of its impact throughout the decades is in part thanks to this score. Despite the fact that other, more recent films, have been allowed to depict the rock bottom of addiction more nakedly, few have been able to replicate how perfectly this score marries itself with the harried, desperate nature of the addict.  

Wilder's competent hand is in evidence all over this film. The film is perfectly paced, as is evidenced from many excruciatingly tense sequences. Perhaps the most impressive of which is the scene where Milland unsuccessfully tries to steal a woman's purse just so that he might pay for his drinks. Other scenes of note are the horrifying night he spends in the hospital, surrounded by fellow addicts suffering the DTs, and also when he finally succumbs to the hallucinations himself, screaming in mindless horror at his vision of a mouse torn to shreds by bats.

While the supporting cast acquits itself admirably, the limited nature of their roles prevents them from shining in any really memorable way. This is Wilder's and Milland's show... and it's thanks to their total commitment to this movie that even now, watching this movie remains a deeply unsettling experience, and despite the fact that this is not normally among Wilder's most remember films today, there's no denying that it remains his most perhaps his most effective turn as a director.

Many people criticize the ending as being too unreasonably optimistic, but personally I think its among Wilder's most subtle moments. It seems that Birnam has finally and suddenly changed, having refused away a drink, deciding against suicide and beginning, finally, to compose his great literary work. The love of his girlfriend Helen saves him it seems... but has it really? The film's final shot panning over New York City, mirroring the opening shot of the movie, suggests otherwise. I'm reminded of the quote that opens this review. Addiction is a vicious cycle. He's resolute to change now... but what happens the next day? Perhaps he has turned a corner in his addiction, but maybe this is just another bend in the vicious circle of his love affair with the drink. Perhaps Birnam hasn't found a glorious end or a hopeful beginning, but just another loop in his inexorable spiral down the drain.

Top 10 of 2011

Merry Christmas/Happy Hanukkah/Kooky Kwanzaa/Happy Holidays everyone! My Christmas present to you all this year is a list of my favorite movies of the year so far. I might update this at New Years if I get the chance to see stuff like War Horse/The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo/etc., but I'm pretty happy with this list as is. I'll start with #10 and work upwards because it just seems more suspenseful that way:

10. The Mill and the Cross
This intriguing Polish/Swedish co-production is the story of a painter navigating the troubling themes of his time. The director Lech Majewski cunningly toys with the idea of movies as moving paintings by having the film take place on the canvas itself, with the painter and his patron moving and living within the painting themselves. In the background, people live their lives as the Spanish Inquisition wreaks havoc on the well-meaning folk of Flanders. Some might find it a little slow, but for the patient... this film makes for an incredibly rewarding and a wholly unique visual experience.

9. Margin Call
Margin Call is perhaps the most intelligently written movie of the year. First time screenwriter and director JC Chandor ably crafts this stunning indictment of how some on Wall Street acted just before the infamous crash of 2008. With a uniformly excellent cast (great performances in particular from Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons and Stanley Tucci), this film grasps your attention and never lets go... even though it's largely a series of tersely worded conferences. But by keeping these characters relate-able and sympathetic, it makes you wonder, "Would I have done anything differently in their place?"

8. Hanna
Hanna is a visually arresting fairy-tale about a young girl who lives alone in the woods with her father. She's been trained her whole life to be a ruthlessly efficient killing machine for reasons she doesn't yet fully understand. Then, one day, when her training is complete, she's released into the world, tasked with hunting down CIA agent Marissa Wiegler. Truthfully, the story here is hardly the important thing as this film's strongest aspect is Joe Wright's engaging visual style and perfect sense of pacing. Also the electronic score by The Chemical Brothers has to be among the best of this millennium. Listen to my favorite track here. Great performances by the three principals bury the lead for this counting among my favorites of the year.

7. Melancholia
Lars von Trier is normally very hit and miss with me (I hated Dogville and Antichrist, but enjoyed Breaking the Waves), but this tale of two sisters facing the end of the world is easily his best work yet. Instances of stunning imagery are anchored by two fascinating lead performances: one from Kristen Dunst (who knew she had it in her?) as the depressed Justine who rises to the occasion in the face of earthly destruction and one from Charlotte Gainsbourg as the initially controlled one who, confronted with the possibility of the Apocalypse, turns to her sister for help and support. By focusing on the characters instead of the inevitable end itself, Melancholia is perhaps the best portrayal of the apocalypse in the past 10-20 years.

6. Beginners
A tale of romance in the face overwhelming grief, Beginners has the singular honor of being among both the funniest and saddest movies of the year. Ewan McGregor plays the main character Oliver, a 30-year old man who, having just lost both of his parents in the space of a few short years, must deal with the fact that he may have just met the woman of his dreams... but he's not sure he's ready, or able, to open himself up to the possibility. It's rare that a movie can have me laughing and then tearing up so frequently during its duration. Mike Mills' script perfectly captures the tumultuous nature of dealing with such a profound loss and the wondrous terror of falling head over heels in love. Anyone whose ever lost someone important to them, will empathize with this movie--and McGregor's subtle, closed-off performance--intimately.

5. The Kid with a Bike
As The Kid with the Bike shows, sometimes the simplest movies are the best ones. This tale is about a boy who must come to terms with the fact that his father has abandoned him. Helping him with that is hairdresser Samantha who agrees to house him on the weekends. Initially refusing to believe that his father would ever intentionally leave him behind, the young boy, Cyril, goes in search of him. Searching for his father leads him into the influence of some less than savory elements. This tale from the Dardennes brothers, who seem to excel at simply presented, unpretentious stories involving children, is about a young boy desperately searching for acceptance... and it strikes a fascinating balance between those that would help him find it, and ones who would take advantage of that impulse.

4. Hugo
I've already written some thoughts on Hugo for this site, which can be found here. Simply put, this is movie magic at its best. Martin Scorsese's surprisingly personal love letter to film is something that is best experienced in theaters and in 3D, so if you haven't see it yet, run, don't walk, to your nearest theater and watch it now. That's the best Christmas present anyone can give themselves. The latter hour is the most affecting hour of cinema I watched this year, and only the overtly kiddie tone of the first 45 minutes keeps me from rating this even higher on my list.

3. Drive

Stunt-driver by day, getaway driver by night, Ryan Gosling's stoic and soft-spoken driver is reminiscent of the great action heroes of years past. Drive is a flawlessly constructed exercise in style over substance, and when the style is this good (thanks to the meticulous direction of Nicholas Winding Refn) there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Drive is the story of a man, previously beholden to nothing but his simple set of values, who, upon meeting a young woman and her son, finds himself willing to fight for something more.  A great, 80s inspired soundtrack impeccably synthesizes the movie's smooth tone, which lifts this construction to something akin to the finest artwork. Indeed, each shot feels like it could be framed and hung in an gallery.

2. Weekend
One Friday night, after a party with his straight friends, a young gay man named Russell heads out to a club. There he meets the refreshingly honest Glen whom he ends up going home with. Over the course of the next couple days, what initially started as just a one-night stand develops into something more. But with Glen leaving for America come the end of the weekend, the question arises, where exactly are they heading? Is this fledgling love worth pursuing? This realistic, perfectly acted film pulls no punches, but also avoids the typical histrionics that might accompany a romance of this sort. Thusly, the relationship between the two principals feels universal, making for a love story that people of all ages, orientations and creeds can relate to. Available on Netflix instant, I dare you to watch this movie start to finish without shedding a tear, or without seeing a little part of yourself in the travails of Russell and Glen as they navigate the complexities of love in the modern world.

1. The Skin I Live In
Another film I've previously reviewed on this site. Pedro Almodóvar's bizarre The Skin I Live In is a unique blend of horror, thriller and off-kilter sci-fi. Antonio Banderas plays the obsessed Dr. Ledgard, who in pursuit of perfection alters the life of the mysterious young Vera forever. Playing with the notions of identity and gender, obsession and memory, The Skin I Live In recalls the best of Hitchcock with its briskly twisting plot. I put it at #1, but really any of the first three I've listed here would fit just as well.

Honorable Mentions: Bridesmaids, The Devil's Double, The Guard, Jane Eyre, Moneyball, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Source Code, Take Shelter, The Trip, We Need to Talk About Kevin,

Alright, that's my list and I'm sticking too it... at least until I see something better.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Seven Men From Now

The era of the Western, once the quintessential American genre, can be divided largely into two sections. First, there was the era of John Ford who, along with his drawling muse John Wayne, created simple, stark morality tales where the line between hero and villain was rarely obfuscated. From 1939 until 1956--when his finest and most morally ambiguous film, The Searchers, was released--he was the unquestioned king of the western and, by extension, of Hollywood itself, winning 4 Oscars and countless acclaim. By 1964, coincidentally the year Ford directed his last film of note, the genre had been adopted by the Italian director Sergio Leone, who spear-headed the advent of the spaghetti western. The world of the spaghetti western was more equivocal than that of Ford...  heroes (most famously the stoic Clint Eastwood) of uncertain character and motivation populated Leone's complex plots.

Gamely bridging the gap between these two titans was the iconoclast Budd Boetticher. A former bull-fighter turned studio director, Boetticher is most famously known for the seven low budget westerns he produced between 1956 and 1960. All starring the aged famed movie star Randolph Scott, these films are unique for their deceptively simple presentation which belies the subtly complex characters, and the varied interactions between them.

Perhaps the most famous of these is his 1956 film Seven Men From Now, which is both the first and most ambitious of these films. The movie opens with our hero, Scott's Ben Stride, emerging ominously out of the rain. He enters the camp of two men, obviously apprehensive at his presence. Who these two men are, and why Stride has come are initially a mystery; but after revealing that he's arrived from Silver Springs in pursuit of seven men responsible for a robbery and murder comitted in that town, he guns them down in an exchange of bullets that's as brief as it is brutal.

The next day, as Stride tracks his next victims through the wilderness, he happens upon a wagon stuck in the mud. The drivers are the mousy if well-meaning John Greer and his unreasonably attractive wife Annie... the young couple is fresh from Kansas City, but hope to eke out a new life in the woolly frontier. Stride is immediately taken by Annie and, after helping them out of their predicament, agrees to accompany them along the road for further protection. The attraction between Stride and Annie is immediate and obvious, yet goes unnoticed by John whose inability to protect his wife's honor becomes a running theme as the plot progresses.

Eventually, they run into two former nemeses from Stride's past: the eloquently forboding Bill Masters (a young Lee Marvin) and his mostly silent partner Clete. Masters playfully alludes to Stride's past, which to this point has remained a mystery to his fresh-faced companions, and the verbal sparring they engage in foreshadows at the violent final encounter between them which seems inevitable.  Masters and Clete forcefully join the merry band, with Masters having designs on stealing the riches from Stride after he exacts his vengeance on the seven murderers. Stride has a uniquely personal reason for hunting these men down; a reason Masters gleefully reveals to the young couple, and by proxy to the audience.

However, the tale of revenge itself is secondary to the characters and the verbal sparring and interaction that takes place between them. As Masters travels with this uneasy group, he takes an undue interest in Annie, while also making light of the fact that her husband John isn't enough of a man to confront him for his untoward behavior. When Ben Stride steps up to defend her honor, it merely underscores the fact that John was either unwilling or unable to do so, which further undermines his manhood.

Indeed, Lee Marvin is a revelation as the oddly likeable villain. It's obvious how much fun he's having in the part as he schemes and plots and plays each side against one another (later in the film he agrees to help the men Stride pursues, only to betray them in stunning fashion). One gets the sense that he comes from interesting story to toy with Stride and to pursue a modest fortune. The slyest and most compelling scene belongs to him; he effectively undresses Annie with his words by recalling a relationship he had with a women whose looks "were nothing like yours, Mrs. Greer." His tone implies the exact opposite.

Randolph Scott portrays Ben Stride with ease, a seasoned veteran fast approaching the end of his career. His eyes are effusive and expressive, which recall the tragedies of his past but also underline his determination to do what he can to put things right. A classy hero, he managed to be equal parts sinister and upstanding while managing to avoid the cheap theatrics of John Wayne's iconic speech patterns (ironically enough, Wayne's Batjac studios produced this feature).

The budding romance between Stride and Annie is developed with similar subtlety in a series of scene where much is left unsaid (though so much is expressed by the longing in Randolph Scott's clear, blue expressive eyes). The audience, as well as the characters themselves, are also acutely aware of the chemistry when they sleep at night, Annie sleeping in the wagon, while Stride sleeps directly under her... only the wooden floor of the wagon barring them from one another.

There's something comforting about a great Western. Despite the differences in the characters, the story or in the tone, one can always expect to see the same tropes examined and played with again and again. Individuals dwarfed by the sprawling, untamed landscape must fight to survive in the harsh, unsettled west and as such, the problems and connections between them are magnified and laid bare underneath the uncompromising western sun. Despite the low-budgets of Boetticher's pictures, he made full use bare desert landscapes and stripped his films to the bare essentials, realizing that no amount of money could compare to a multitude of well-realized characterizations.

Much credit for these must go to Boetticher's favored screen-writer Burt Kennedy who wrote the scripts for three other Boetticher-Scott collaborations. The dialogue crackles with wit, while also retaining the characters' authenticity. Unfortunately, Boetticher's career was cut far too short by studios who  labeled him a madman and so his steady and assured ability has gone largely unacknowledged when compared to the grand legacies that Ford, Leone and also Eastwood have left behind. However, from the talent evident in Seven Men, it's clear that, given the proper opportunity, he might have constructed a filmography that put them all to shame.

Gleenneen16's rating: ****/*****

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Hobo With a Shotgun

Imagine a world ruled entirely by chaos. A world where pedophiles, dressed in Santa suits, openly prey on young children; where deranged crime lords snort fistfuls of cocaine and slaughter and/or maim at will and where justice is meted out by a rambling shambling hobo armed with poor hygiene, a shotgun and, apparently, unlimited ammunition. If you can picture that, then perhaps you understand a fraction of this movie's madness. Hobo With a Shotgun quickly finds your tolerance level for senseless violence and nauseating gore and spends the rest of its runtime gleefully crossing that line over and over and over again.

In 2007, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez came together to create the three hour, double feature Grindhouse. Though the movies themselves was at best uninspired and at worst flat out-dull (I'm looking at you Death Proof), the false trailers which bridged the two features were easily the highlights of the film. Robert Rodriguez went on to make a film of Machete, starring the pock-marked grimace of Danny Trejo. While he was more successful there in recalling the gloriously OTT (over the top) tradition of 1970s grindhouse films, after a while it still felt like nothing more than a tired retread.

Enter Hobo With a Shotgun, the cellulite equivalent of a kick in the mouth. Within the first 10 minutes, as the hobo first wanders into town, we witness a man having his head ripped off by a car, after which a stripper revels gloriously in his still spouting blood. We see two men beating each other to within an inch of their lives, all at the behest of a man with a movie camera, who cheers them on with promises of payment. To continue to describe the depraved depths this film plumbs would spoil its one asset... the spectacle, but it suffices to say that this is merely the tip of the iceberg. Be warned, this film is not for the faint of heart or pure of spirit.

Rutger Hauer: The very picture of mental health

Rutger Hauer's performance as the titular hobo is the center of this energetic, gory production and the success of the project largely rests on his bedraggled shoulders. As a testament to his talents as an actor, he is mostly successful. Hauer deftly avoids taking his role as the shotgun toting, change grubbing hobo too seriously while also refraining from succumbing to the hammy madness of the many talentless actors who surround him (or, if they're able to act, they're certainly not trying to here). When the movie takes a rare pause for breath at a maternity ward, Hauer imbues a monologue he delivers to a screeching horde of babies with real pathos. You may not know where this hobo came from, or how he came to this end, but at that moment the tragedy of his character is quite palpable... becoming a "hobo with a shotgun" was the only option left open to him when faced with the grave sickness of the world he inhabits.  He also tackles the corniest lines with utmost conviction, but understands this movie for what it is: a vehicle for delivering the audience from one blood-soaked set piece to another. As such, he never lets his performance take center stage from these scenes, which are the undeniable star of the show.

And who to thank for the effectiveness of this senseless carnage but the director, Jason Eisener? Well aware of the simple, blood-soaked needs of the grindhouse genre, Eisener's camera is as frenetic and chaotic as the movie itself. The colors of this movie are lustrous and overbearing, but without ever becoming cartoonish à la the blood fountains of Kill Bill. Not that the movie is realistic in any way--some characters persevere through injuries which should have killed them based on the shock alone--but each scene manages to unsettle the viewer even further. Rather than washing over us like so much lurid poetry, every act of violence bludgeons the audience into a stunned silence, or forces uncomfortable laughter. Whether that's a good or bad thing I suppose depends on the proclivities, and perversity, of the viewer. One thing is for certain, watching Hobo is like taking a car-ride to hell... and we're all riding shotgun.

Gleenneen16's rating: **1/2/*****

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

How Green Was My Valley

Howdy readers, sorry for that week of silence (what have you done without me I wonder?). But now that Finals are finally almost over, I can finally focus on blogging more regularly... expect more updates in the coming days. Here's a review I wrote for my friends over at IMDB:

Men like my father cannot die. They are with me still, real in memory as they were in flesh.

It’s unfortunate that if John Ford’s only Best Picture winning film (can that be right?) is remembered for anything nowadays, it’s for topping a film classically acknowledged as being among the best of the 20th century, Citizen Kane. From a modern perspective it might seem hard to understand how an occasionally mawkish tale of a proud Welsh family won the trophy. Nonetheless, to my mind, this melodrama about a Welsh mining town, and how the Industrial Revolution transforms this town and its people, is a classic in its own right, more than worthy of the lofty status inherent in being a best picture winner.

Gwillym and Beth Morgan teach their youngest to be dignified in the face of adversity.

At the center of this story is the youngest son of the proud Morgan family, Huw Morgan, who is finally leaving the valley after 50 years. The landscape, once pristine and barely touched by soot, has been obliterated. The few miners that remain no longer sing jauntily, like his father and brothers used to. As Huw leaves, he remembers happier and more prosperous times, when simple people like his family could flourish. This film is told from his perspective, seen through the eyes of a young Roddy McDowell (too young at times, though several years pass he never looks a day over 10). The valley of his childhood is idyllic, as memories of one’s childhood are wont to be. Huw’s narration provides the film’s most powerful moments: the quotes on his father which bookend his reminiscence, the unrequited, unreturned love he feels for his brother’s fiancée.

The memories of a child were the perfect way to tell this story, the nostalgia inherent in those memories helps make the labor struggles of a small Welsh town seem universal. This is a film about a family, tested through the passing of time and how they must acquiesce to the changes time forces upon them. When their wages are first cut at the mine, a mere sign of the problems to come, the patriarch, Gwilym, is reluctant to accept his sons's calls to unionize. In his mind, he has dealt honorably with his employers and so they shall do the same to him. But these simple values are slowly eroded by the obvious truth that he and his family are being exploited.

The idyllic memories of childhood.
Despite the many tragedies that befall them, the many disappointments and unfulfilled hopes and dreams of the Morgans, John Ford's simple and honest style always allows them to keep their decorum. However, a large share of the credit must also go to the actors. Donald Crisp and Sara Allgood, as the mother and father of the Morgan Family are both outstanding. The dignified love they have for each other, as well as their reserved strength are the highlight of the film. Walter Pidgeon as the idealist preacher, confronted with the inadequacy of his faith in the face of a corrupted township has perhaps the best-acted moment in the movie, when he indicts the mining town for their false piety. Maureen O’Hara, as the beautiful Morgan sister whose love he rejects, also has some great moments.

What makes this film a classic is its superb cast and how ably it plays upon the universal themes of memory and love, family and loss. With the coming and going of time, things inevitably change… sometimes time and time again for the worst. It is in how we deal with those changes that our value is measured. How Green Was My Valley is a tale made ubiquitous by the family at its core, who through their dignity in the face of hardship, prove to be invaluable.

Gleenneen16's rating: ****1/2/*****

Thursday, December 15, 2011

My Man Godfrey

All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people.  -- Alexander Bullock (Eugene Pallette)
In the first scene of My Man Godfrey, two upper class socialite sisters, drunk on wine and blessed with the ignorance of the wealthy youth, traipse into a Depression-era dump. Their goal? To find a "forgotten man" for a scavenger hunt. "Forgotten men" were, as defined by Roosevelt in a speech promoting his New Deal, poor people who had been forgotten and needed help from the state. In their search, they come across a surprisingly erudite yet initially gruff hobo named Godfrey.  Like a giggly, effervescent FDR Irene Bullock, the younger sister, sweeps into Godfrey's life and gives him a second chance at respectability. Clearly, she is attracted to Godfrey right off the bat, and he is taken by her honest well-meaning ignorance. When she asks why he "chose" to live in such a place, he responds affably that his real estate agent thought the altitude would be good for him. After they win the scavenger hunt, she rewards him with a job as their new butler, which turns out to be as much of a chore as it is a blessing.
Godfrey and Irene have their first fateful meeting.

The Bullock family is... eccentric to say the least, as Godfrey discovers when he comes to work at their home. The mother Angelica is a loud, delusional lush who when hungover in the morning hears music that isn't there and sees pixies, "those troublesome little men" as she calls them. Her character is given a lion's share of the best lines, which she digs into with a boozy, unhinged aplomb. The two sisters, Irene and Cornelia are mirror images of one another. Both are spoiled, needy and manipulative, but Irene does it with such a harmless openness that only the most idiotic people couldn't see through her machinations (indeed, she's lucky to be surrounded by the brainless upper class). Cornelia is smarter than her sister, and more malicious in her plotting. Both sisters fall in love with Godfrey almost immediately, but where Irene turns to obvious, cloying, romantic ouevres. Cornelia seeks to destroy what she cannot have. However, her attempts to get rid of the genteel butler are as see through as her sister's attempts to woo him. 

Alexander Bullock, the long-suffering husband and father of the Bullock clan, likens the chaotic atmosphere of his home and high-class social circle to that of an asylum. He serves as an angry, loud-mouthed coin purse to  his mother and daughters, who always scoff at his insistence that they be smarter about money. The Depression affects the rich as well it turns out. Carlo, Angelica's "protégé", is an idle concert pianist who spends all his time sitting around and eating the family out of house and home. When he does play, it's the same tune each time--"Ochi Chyornye"--and he doesn't even know all the words. Alexander Bullock's open disdain for Carlo suggests that perhaps there is more going on between this so called protégé and his foolish, if well-meaning, wife. 

William Powell's Godfrey is genteel to a fault. Regardless of whether he's surrounded by garbage piled stories high or by the gross incompetence of the Bullock family, he remains entirely unscathed. The missteps of his past, which he attempts, poorly, to keep hidden from the Bullocks cause him to build a wall against their annoyances and their dopey charm. But not even he can resist the relentless pursuits of their youngest daughter Irene for long. Working for the Bullocks slowly but surely softens him, inspired by their generosity (tempered as it may have been by insanity), he uses his second chance to try and help those fellow forgotten men he left behind. 

Carole Lombard as Irene is a comedic force of nature. With her open smile, coquettish laugh and childish ignorance, she easily endears you to her rather ditzy character. From the first moment she meets Godfrey, she is determined to love him and have him love her back. To that end she wields her charm like a battle-axe, pummeling away tirelessly at his walls of civility and propriety. Their romance, though it drives the film, is never quite believable, and this has to be by design. Lombard's seduction is a war of attrition against Godfrey's stuffy savoir-faire and in the end when he finally gives in (what other end could you have in the 30s?), it's like he's been drafted and has no say in the matter. Indeed, in the wedding ceremony which doubles as an ambush against Godfrey, she comforts him by saying "Stand back... it'll all be over in a minute", once again recalling to the 1930s audience the sexual undertones that the movie was not permitted to explore more openly. 
Godfrey endeavors to resist Irene's charms.

My Man Godfrey is a magnificently madcap screwball comedy, perfectly attuned to an era where people eagerly sought escapist entertainment. Gregory La Cava, armed with an acerbic script, directs this movie with vigor. Every line is perfectly delivered like spitfire, particularly from Godfrey as he chastises, coddles and defends himself from this oddball family. Playing the requisite straight man, he shows surprising affection for these characters, which plays so much better than cynical disdain. The chemistry between him and Irene works bewilderingly, her open desire, barely masked by the confines of the Hayes Code, countered by his frank, well, lack of interest. Apparently the two had been married, and subsequently divorced, in real life before this movie was made... throughout the film this back story seems readily apparent.

While light on social commentary (the "forgotten men" often seem like their simply strolling through the dump for an afternoon), this film is heavy on charm... powered by the likeability of the characters and the perfection of the actors. Overall, the movie breezily shoots through it's 90 minute or so runtime and is so disarmingly pleasant, like the Bullocks themselves. You can't help but want to visit the Bullock mental ward again and again.

Gleenneen16's rating: ****/*****

Monday, December 12, 2011

La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In)

Dr. Ledgard is held captive by the object of his obsession.
In La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In) the brilliant, yet mad scientist Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) holds a beautiful woman, with a shocking and mysterious past, captive in his expansive mansion. As the months and years go by, he experiments on her relentlessly, trying to perfect a new kind of skin. Ledgard's obsession is two-fold, as not only is he attempting to create this new skin (which might have saved his wife who perished in the aftermath of a car accident) but he is attempting to create a whole new person in his test subject Vera who, no matter how she is altered on the outside, fights to retain her identity. The movie opens in the present day as Dr. Ledgard, who watches Vera longingly on the cameras he sets up in her sterile, but well-appointed cell, saves her from yet another suicide attempt. It's implied that this is nowhere near her first try. She begs for him to let her die, but he will have none of it. In his own way, he has fallen in love with her. After a  bizarre interlude with a maniac dressed as a tiger who forces his way into their unconventional home, the movie flashes back 6 years into the past and we learn how things came to be this. The movie twists and turns quite a bit from there, but to describe the plot any further would spoil it.

I've only seen a couple of Almodovar's other films, but his trademarks are readily apparent in the presentation of The Skin I Live In's story. Notwithstanding the darker aspects of the plot, Almodovar arranges it in a bright and colorful fashion. The camera caresses Vera's perfectly formed body lovingly as she bleeds out from cutting her wrists; a man dressed in a vibrant tiger suit commits a violent and brutal act of rape. The pace is relentless and the energetic, soaring score perfectly compliments the movie's relentless intensity. Even with all of the film's visual florishes, they never distract from the action; the marriage of events and style is seamless.

The acting, especially from the two leads, is fantastic. Banderas, whom I've never really been a fan of, excels playing the brooding, charismatic and unhinged Ledgard. Layering his typical easy charm with the occasional frightening hint of his passionate obsessions, he flawlessly walks a fine line between disgusting the audience  and inspiring a great amount of sympathy for the character. No matter how extreme his actions become, one always understands them; though we never condone his madness as he descends into the chaotic world of the carnal pleasures of the flesh. Banderas proves here that when handed a rich and darkly realized role he is more than up to the task.

Equal to his barely restrained ferocity, however, is the enigmatic and resilient Elena Anaya who portrays the captive Vera. She imbues her performance with desperation and cunning, seduction and a manic frenzy. Once we return to the present day, and understand the true extent of her transformative journey, the underlying nuances of her character--which recall her shrouded past--are given context and allow you to completely appreciate her dexterous performance.

Almodovar also deserves praise for his apt handling of the film's "twist". I'm reluctant to call it a real twist per se as he handles it in such a straight-forward and matter of fact fashion. In hindsight, though I did not see it coming, Almodovar foreshadows the revelation in a way that makes it seem obvious and as you watch the plot unfold, you want to smack your forehead and say "Of course... it really couldn't be any other way!" Therein lies the brilliance of this movie. Regardless of the outlandish characters, and the equally extravagant happenstances they find themselves in, the film remains entirely believable. It's absurd in many ways, but the world of The Skin I Live In is an absurd one and so, like the pieces of an abstract puzzle, everything fits together perfectly while we, the audience, reap the benefits.

Gleenneen16's rating: *****/*****

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Sorry fans...

It's been a few days since my last update... I've been consumed by schoolwork and Skyrim. Right now, I'm about to get on a plane to Philadelphia, so I'm not sure if I'll get an update out to y'all this weekend. To tide you over, here's a trailer for what's sure to be the greatest movie since Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus. A move adapted from everyone's favorite totally non-alien based game... Battleship. Starring Liam Neeson and Rihanna (talk about random), this movie's trailer pretty much speaks for itself. Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What we do in life echoes in eternity.

So to balance out the rather estrogen-laden film I reviewed yesterday, here are some thoughts on one of my favorite movies, Gladiator, which I watched last night.

Perhaps it's odd to be nostalgic for a film that was made just 11 years ago, but in a day and age when the only sword-and-sandal epics are the hyper-stylized, over produced, CGI-laden noise-fests like 300 and Immortals it's easy to pine for the simple, classical style of Gladiator. Ridley Scott hearkens back to an era of Hollywood when it was built of the success of spectacles like these. With iconic, weighty characters, breath-taking set-pieces, and an unabashedly epic story-line, Gladiator more than does those classics of the 50s and 60s proud, it surpasses them, keenly taking advantage of the strides movie-making has made since the olden days.

And yes Mr. Crowe, I was entertained. Now please, will you put down the sword?

Even at over 2 and a half hours long, the story is blessedly simple. Maximus, an intelligent, reliable and unflinchingly noble Roman general, is presiding over the end of a long war with the Germanic barbarians. The final, bloody battle scene is shot in a muddy palette of browns and grays, so it would be wrong to call it strictly beautiful, but combined with the roving camera which insinuates itself intimately into each sword stroke, it provides a brilliant contrast for the stoic and composed Colosseum of Rome, where human lives are packaged and sacrificed in the name of cheap entertainment.

Maximus wins the war in the name of Rome, and of his emperor Marcus Aurelius (inhabitied with a diginified grace by the late great Richard Harris). Aurelius, an aged, dying monarch, is a reluctant warrior who fears for the fate of Rome after he, and the distraction of constant bloodshed, are gone. To that end, he decides to name the competent Maximus as his successor--trusting that he will watch over a peaceful transition of authority back to the Senate, transforming Rome into a republic for the people (these epics are always about freedom it seems). However his son Commodus (played to sniveling ambitious perfection by Joaquin Phoenix) slays his father in a fit of oedipal rage and jealousy, in effect usurping the throne. Maximus manages to escape with his life, but loses his family and his freedom in the process and is eventually sold into slavery where as a gladiator he begins to find his way back to Rome and vengeance.

One can't review this movie without acknowledging how heavily it borrows on the towering epics which came before it. Ben-Hur, Spartacus, Braveheart all make their mark on this movie. Like it's predecessors, this movie never pauses for a dull moment and like them, it's not afraid to go gloriously over-the-top. The script, despite it's length, moves consistently at a brisk pace, with a healthy dollop of unique and tense action scenes, which present a legitimate source of danger and fear for our protagonists, even though the final confrontation between good and evil is never in doubt.

So Maximus, how's the fam-... oooh, right, sorry about that. 

So why does this succeed where more modern-day, effects driven epics like the aforementioned 300 fail? Both of them value extravagance over artifice, both of them have their fair share of cornily written lines (see: "Brothers! What we do in life... echoes in eternity" vs. "This is where we fight! This is where they die!") and both contain their fair-share of well-shot violence. But the answer is simple: the complexity and honesty of the characters. Let's compare protagonists for a moment. Maximus might not seem all that complicated on the surface, he's a brilliant general who inspires unflagging loyalty from his troops; who longs monogamously for his loving wife and son; who is fearless in the face of near certain death and who can take on several foes and survive despite long odds. But there's more too him than just badassery (not a word, but you get what I mean).

In his character is a definite antipathy, an unwillingness to accept the mantle of hero when it is thrust upon him. Russell Crowe's Maximus is just a husband and farmer who misses the embrace of his wife, the laugh of his son and the dirt of his fields (whenever he visits a new place, he feels the dirt between his hands, to remind himself of the lands he's left behind). When the Emperor first charges him with becoming the protector of Rome, he is reluctant to accept, as it would merely delay his return to his family. After his family has been slain, he lives on and fights with a similar reticence, only continuing to struggle because of his hated of Commodus and because he cannot abandon the neophyte gladiators who come to rely upon his experience and expertise as a soldier. Maximus is no schemer, at first rejecting the entreaties by Commodus's fearful, yet resilient sister Lucilla, and her Senate ally, the eloquent Gracchus (another stalwart performance from theater legend, Derek Jacobi) who beg him to help them oppose the unstable Emperor Commodus; even though their motives would seem to match his own hunger for revenge. But eventually, with some reluctance, he agrees.

Russell Crowe is pitch-perfect as Maximus, he combines the inherent charisma of Chartlon Heston and Kirk Douglas, with the easy physicality of action stars like Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone. When met with his superior acting talent, he plums emotional depths that these lesser actors could not dream of. The scene where Maximus discovers his ill-fated wife and child resonates especially because of Crowe's ability to convey the enormity of the loss... these are characters we never got a chance to know or care about ourselves, after all.

By contrast, 300's Leonidas is a bloodthirsty brawler. He, and the rest of his Spartan ilk glorify war for war's sake simply to fulfil to adolescent fetishistic obsession with blood. Now I'm as susceptable to a well-composed action scene as any human being with a decent amount of testosterone, but after the 100th straight minute of slow-motion operatic slayings, or loudly-roared, bombastically written lines, my eyes begin to glaze over. And aside from some tenuous griping about freedom (though the complaint sounds odd, coming from a king with absolute authority over his people), that's all there is to his character: anger and bloodshed.

Not shown: subtlety, restraint, dignity

Gladiator also benefits from a well-developed supporting cast. Joaquin Phoenix's Commodus makes for a compelling villain. Driven by avarice, ambition and a need to overcome his unacknowledged, deep-seated, cowardice, Commodus is a man who has long lived in the shadow of his far superior father. Well aware of his own moral shortcomings, he uses them to his advantage when tussling with the seemingly invincible Maximus. That, paired with his devious, and deviant, cunning, makes him a worthy adversary of the forces of good. Oliver Reed, in the last role of his career, makes for an imposing Proximo. A former gladiator himself, he sees a lot of promise in Maximus and excitedly grooms him for Rome. Inspired by Maximus's near single-minded conviction to honor, he finds the strength to resist injustice outside the arena as competently as he resisted death within it. Djimon Hounsou also does well as Juba, a fellow slave and gladiator who befriends Maximus and helps him find his way back to living in his early darkest hours. Connie Nielsen, the sole female in the cast (aside from Crowe's wife--who has a grand total of 0 lines) carves out a formidable niche as a woman surviving in a man's world, who must fend off threats to her son--heir to Commodus's ill-gotten throne--as well as the slimy advances from her brother who pursues her bed in the name of so-called purity.

By comparison, the supporting casts of more recent efforts are cardboard cut-outs. Some of the other 300 Spartans with Leonidas may have had names, backstories and/or motivations, but damn if I can't remember a single one of them. Every character was exactly the same, enthusiastically seeking blood, or a glorious death (or a nearby tanning salon) for its own sake... never any trepidation, never any doubt. As for the villain Xerxes, words fail me, so in lieu of 1,000 insufficient ones, a picture shall have to suffice.

Not shown: sanity, decency, clothing
Ridley Scott and co filmed Gladiator with a great understanding of the importance of a unique story and convincing characterization. They never let the awe-inspiring imagery overwhelm the narrative. Instead, the larger-than-life depictions of Rome, the griminess and grittiness of the battlefield, the composed feeling to the fights within the arena itself, all are in service of the plot. During the reign of Commodus's father Aurelius, the games of gladiators had been banned within Rome. He understood all too well the value of human life, and the great sacrifices already made in his name were too large for him to enjoy the death of others for sport. Commodus's reinstatement of the games underscore the corruption of Rome, which he only exacerbated with his tenure. This is further indicated by the sole instance of actual warfare in the film, which is the antithesis of the brightly shot, gaily staged games where people chortle and cheer on slaves who are engaged in a frightening struggle for their lives. The countless, nameless men and women who are killed seem like a high price to pay for the edification of the masses. But perhaps not, as Proximo puts it, when confronted by Maximus's anger at the abuse he and his fellow gladiators must endure: "We mortals are but shadows and dust. Shadows and dust, Maximus!" What does such insubstantial stuff matter, in the face of thunderous applause?

Gleenneen16's rating: *****/*****

Oh, and before I forget, here's Part III in the series of photos in which I debase myself on the internet:
I have no idea what I'm doing

Monday, December 5, 2011

Sister, My Snoozer

I thought I'd do a quickie this morning, so here are some thoughts on Sister, My Sister, which I saw a couple days ago. But first, as per popular request (read: one anonymous comment on the internet) here's another stupid picture of me.

God Bless Facebook.

One can easily tell that this 1994 film, lauded in the promotional material as an "all-female production", was initially a play as it never fully escapes its theatrical roots. It opens with a preview of what is to come: the camera pans ominously over the bloody aftermath of this oppressive war of the classes. Then we see how it all began, Christine invites her younger sister Lea to come work for the Danzards--her stuffy, bourgeoisie employers.

Madame Danzard is penurious and niggardly, and insists on perfection within a nearly impossible standard (once she pitches a fit over a flawless hemline, insisting that it is off by a fraction of a fraction of an inch and is therefore worthless). Always looking to save every penny, she leaps at the chance to employ two sisters for the price of one maid.  Isabelle is her homely and resentful daughter who, while waiting to be married off (though no suitors ever come calling), takes joy in those who are worse off than she is with her unfortunate looks. This expresses itself in a blatant and painfully developed disdain for the two sisters.

This teleplay (I refuse to call it a movie) is stifling, both for the characters and the viewers. All the time is basically spent in one of two rooms. Either the upstairs bedroom where the sisters contrive to insulate themselves in forbidden intimacy... the only outlet for their long repressed desires. Or in the study where the Danzard duo spends all their time--they're either knitting or nattering, gossiping or poorly playing the piano.

The only bright spot in this movie comes from the performances of the cast. Julie Walters as Madame Danzard is an imposing presence, even when she's not on screen you fear (and hope, as she's the best part of this mess) that she'll come a calling, looking to find fault with a dish or an outfit, seeking to put these upstart country girls in their place. Joely Richardson and Jodhi May acquit themselves admirably as the two sisters. Richardson as the older sister Chrstine is protective and reclusive. Initially she seeks to remain aloof for her sister, and she's jealous of Lea for having such a close relationship with their unseen mother (or maybe she's jealous of the mother for being so close with Lea?)--to whom Lea sends her half of the money every Sunday like a dutiful daughter. Lea, not having inoculated herself to the difficulties of working for the upper class is initially more defiant. Once she wears a beautiful and expensive pink blouse in front of Madame Danzard... an unacceptable transgression of her station.

Incestuous, killer lesbians have never been more boring. 

However, as the plot progresses, due to reasons that are not incredibly clear, the sisters grow to serve as more than just siblings to each other. Christine becomes at first like a mother to the less assured Lea, and afterwards they begin seek comfort in each other's embrace. The motives for this are obfuscated, but perhaps under the constant watchful, critical eye of their employer, it is in silent, tentative passion that these two sister/lovers find release and happiness. Unfortunately, this is not enough... as then tensions between the two families, and two classes becomes so overwhelming that a violent outcome seems pre-ordained. The specific trigger (a shirt burned by an iron, lights left on too late, poorly cooked food) is not so important as the message behind it: class warfare is inevitable without  mutual communication and understanding.

This movie (play) has at its center an interesting concept, compelling themes, and great performances... so why then is it so damn dull? Unfortunately, it's never able to overcome its theatrical roots and never feels like more than just a poorly filmed play. Had they expanded the story, integrated more characters and been more cinematic and dynamic; or if they had kept the running time to under 80 minutes, this might have been worth watching. As is, your time is better spent reading the actual play, or maybe watching paint dry.

Gleenneen16's rating: *1/2/*****

Sunday, December 4, 2011


Hi all, my name is Glenn and this is my blog about movies.

Here's a picture of me making a stupid face.

Hello internet.

Great, now that we've got intros of of the way, I'm just going to get started.

So recently I watched two films that would be best describes as love letters to cinema. The first was the seminal classic Cinema Paradiso; the second being Martin Scorsese's delightful 3-D opus, Hugo.

Hugo and the Station Master (Sacha Baron Cohen) play a dangerous game of hide and seek.

Hugo, which I'll start with while it's still fresh on my mind, is quite unlike any film Martin Scorsese has directed before. While I normally respect his talent as a craftsman, and his eye for the unforgettable visual, usually the unrelenting brutality of his protagonists and their inexorable downfalls leave me cold (the notable exceptions being Taxi Driver and The Departed, which I both loved). But now, after decades of delving thoroughly into deception and betrayal, anger and paranoia, Scorsese makes what seems to be his most personal film yet--a lighthearted family film. This is his first film to use 3-D, but you wouldn't know it considering how he integrates it seamlessly into the film with such ease and comfort. His use of the newest advance in film technology to tell the story of its inception as an art form shows how he continues to grow and mature as a director, even in the latter stages of his career.

The opening moments of Hugo are dazzling. In a single, breathtaking shot, Scorsese confidently leads you into an un-named Parisian train station, through the lives of its denizens, shop owners, and the tin man Station Master and up into the face of the clock which Hugo Cabret (played with surprising fidelity and ease by the 14 year old Asa Butterfield) has claimed for his secret home. Hugo's life is one of theft and solitude. When he's not pilfering pastries from nearby shops in the station or avoiding the Station Master--who is determined to see Hugo hauled off to the orphanage--he's working obsessively on fixing an old, rusted automaton. This automaton is the last vestige of his father (a brief appearance by Jude Law), a mild-mannered clock-maker whose death in a fire left Hugo to the whims of his alcoholic uncle. He is quickly deserted by this irresponsible lush... leaving poor Hugo with nothing but his dreams for company. But as luck, or perhaps fate, would have it, the grandfather of cinema Georges Méliès, played lugubriously by Ben Kingsley, also makes the train station his home and throughout the film, they begrudgingly develop a deep friendship

Georges Méliès teaches Hugo his pre-cinematic career as a magician.

On a technical level, Scorsese and his crew have never been better. Even at the start, before the movie fully embraces the story's cinematic roots, the crisp and assured movement of the camera, the richly designed train station setting and the colorful, yet dark palatte Scorsese's team employs, draws you effortlessly into his world. During Hugo's flashback to better days with his father, one can hear the telltale click-clack of an old-time projector, which serves to underscore the movie's main theme... that films are the vehicle by which dreams are made real. The intricate clockwork of the machinery which litters the landscape literally pops off the screen, at once both whimsical and imposing. And several shots of Paris from the top of the train station's clock-tower complete the analogy that Hugo verbally underscores, comparing the world to one large machine, and the people in it to cogs, each one with a vital job to do. 

The story itself is as richly layered as the film is visually. Each character, even the background residents of the train station, has their own dream to pursue and each character is broken in their own way. Just by touching their lives, Hugo fixes them as easily as he fixes the machines in the train-station and toy shop. While the story is ultimately lacking in any real suspense (outside of a couple scenes involving the Station Master and the threat of the orphanage) or subtlety, one has to remember, this is a movie for children too. The happy outcome is never really in doubt.

At a little over two hours, Hugo is 20 or so minutes too long. The uneven pacing of the first hour--bogged down by some awkward slapstick from the Station Master--is largely to blame, but when Hugo and Isabelle, an orphan Méliès has taken into his home, endeavor to help the old magician reclaim his lost legacy, the movie hits its stride and all is forgiven. 

Hugo serves as a love-letter to film-making itself. Any long-time fan of movies can readily identify with Isabelle's awe-struck joy when Hugo sneaks her into her first film (the silent Buster Keaton vehicle Safety Last!), or can empathize with Méliès's pain as he relates the tragic tale of how he lost his taste for dreams. And despite the darker notes that Hugo occasionally touches on, the death of family and the loss of passion, ultimately it affirms the beauty and joy of a purpose driven life, with a conclusion that is guaranteed to bring tears to the eyes of audiences of all ages. Pacing problems keep it from being a masterpiece, but for anyone seeking a feel-good movie for the holiday season, there are no better alternatives in theaters now than Hugo.

Gleeneen16's rating: ****1/2/*****

This took longer than I anticipated, so I'll wait on the Cinema Paradiso review. It'll be forthcoming in the next couple days.