Thursday, 14 January 2016

Alan Rickman (1946-2016)

I saw him on stage as Elyot in "Private Lives" almost 15 years ago, but it'll be his cinematic roles, mostly his villains and his role in "Galaxy Quest" that I'll remember him for.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

The Women (1939)

In 1939, MGM arranged to have two of their biggest female starts, Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford together in George Cukor’s “The Women”. The film was shot with an all-female cast (animals included) and has remained famous for that, for it’s one liners (Crawford’s final line is priceless as is daring for Hays era Hollywood) and for the backstories of egos and rivalries between the two leading actresses and Rosalind Russell. 

The film’s admirable idea of an all-female cast, something which was probably not ever done to this extent before or since, disappoints quickly once the film starts. The reality is that it’s treated as a gimmick; as the posters say, “it’s all about men”. In reality it is all about promoting obedient and complacent wives who get rewarded (Shearer, Joan Fontaine) against disagreeable wives (Russell) or gold diggers (Crawford). Despite being written by women, at times it feels incredible misogynist (starting with the credits) with women being reduced to one dimensional figures – or animal like behaviours, and the men implied to be simple things which are played by them. 

Yet, the film has several good moments. There are wonderful lines (the film was co-scripted by Anita Loos) – my favourites are the aforementioned Crawford’s final line and one involving a mention to a swastika (the actual shape) meaning it has being tainted by history – I most recently watched the film at the BFI and the audience laughed at the line and then immediately felt like they shouldn’t have. There are also good scenes, brilliantly directed: Crawford and Shearer’s first confrontation; all the scenes with Olga the manicurist; the exercise sequence for Russell.

And there a lot of famous names in the film (the cast is absolutely massive): Shearer, Crawford, Russell in career changing role, Paulette Godard, Marjorie Main and Joan Fontaine are probably those better remembered today. But they aren’t evenly matched. Fontaine is painful to watch, and Russell is the main reason I can’t love the film as much as others do. She overacts to a degree that’s antagonises me and makes me wonder why she felt she needed to do it like that. On the other hand, both Goddard and Shearer are good; with Shearer giving one of her best latter career performances (I prefer her performance in “Escape” but alas the film is much worse, courtesy of Robert Taylor). Of the lesser known names, Lucile Watson as Shearer's mother is great, as is Hedda Hopper as the gossip columnist, antecipating real life.

But the best performance is undoubtedly Crawford’s. In a clearly supporting part (I think she might even appear less than Russell onscreen), she steals every scene she is in; if the film has passed the test of time is in no small to her efforts.

Finally, Adrian's clothes. I think that too often Adrian created gowns that no sensible woman would ever wear but here, the clothes he designed for Russell's character are so excessive, so much more than required, that it helps tremendously put me off her character - too cartoonish for the rest of the film. Oh, and then there's the pointless Technicolor fashion show...

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Red Dust (1932)

Sometimes there's something about watching a film projected that makes you change your mind about it (or maybe is just watching it again with different expectations). First time I saw it, "Red Dust" left me a bit cold; seeing it projected I realised how steamy and how much fun it was.
Set in a plantation in what was then French Indochina, it stars Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and Mary Astor in a love and lust triangle (or square, if we count Gene Raymond). Harlow plays a prostitute going upstream from Saigon and ending in Gable's plantation. For a while they live in a blissful Eden, until Mary Astor's prim and proper lady arrives as the wife of the plantation's new engineer (Gene Raymond). Of course, as any film with such settings, there is a huge amount of casual racism thrown about. There are several uncomfortable moments regarding Gable's treatment of the plantation workers and the Chinese cook is a series of horrifying cliches with more than a passing hint of homophobia here and there.

Despite this, the film has the power to grasp your attention. It's a key title in both of its two stars' careers, helping confirm Gable and Harlow's super star and sex symbol statutes. In fact, Sex pervades through the film. In fact, it's impossible not to speak of the film without speaking of sex. It's treated casually, and Harlow brings a lightness and energy to it. Her profession is never hidden and she is clearly into Gable. Then there's that bath scene in the barrel. She really had a gift for just bringing out the most fun, lighter side of sexiness on screen. Gable also exudes sex. He has shirtless scene that he would echo later in "It Happened One Night" and for sure didn't harm the box office. Interestingly, that scene proved too much for the censors - Gable's navel couldn't be shown. In the end, one way of seeing the film is as a battle between a more repressed and a freer sexual attitude represented by Astor and Harlow; a very twisted version of the Old World vs New World view of the period. And of course, in the end the winner is clear - a very pre-Code win for Sex.
While the two leads shine, the supporting cast is mostly unremarkable. Donald Crisp is very underused, but still very good is two bigger scenes. Mary Astor is ok, but far from her best parts, and
Gene Raymond is as bland as the part required and probably more. Even is school kid crush on Gable seems devoid of any interest.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Maureen O'Hara (1920-2015)

She had the reddest hair in Hollywood, often shot in gorgeous Technicolor, and I think I was aware of her since I saw "Against All Flags" as a very young boy. She was fun to watch. Other films only reinforced that: "The Quiet Man" (which I caught a glimpse of a few hours her death was announced), "The Parent Trap", "The Black Swan". Fiery and funny, she conquered her place in my love of film.

While I didn't like "How Green Was My Valley" (nor do I want to revisit it any time soon), she was also great in a minor Nicholas Ray "A Woman's Secret" with Melvyn Douglas and Gloria Grahame and "Our Man in Havana".

I don't think I have seen as many of her films as I thought I have (the above, "The Spanish Main", "Miracle on 34th Street", "The Hutchback of Notre Dame"). But in all of those she was unforgettable.

She never got an Oscar nomination but finally got a Life Achievement Award last year - aged 94. I am glad she got it on time.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

More stuff that shouldn't happen in a cinema

Announcing a 12 minute short film before the main feature and then, unexpectedly and unexplained, only show the first half. However, in this instance during the recent D.W. Griffith season at the BFI, not sure if it wasn't for the best (the first half was very, very, very long).

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Practically Yours (1944)

As I (finally) watched this, my only thought was "well, you wanted to see it".

I had high expectations, which were unlikely to be met, but at the very least I was expecting to enjoy it:  I love Claudette Colbert and like Fred MacMurray, the two leads, and I think Mitchell Leisen is one of the most underrated directors of the 1930s and 1940s. The three together produced an unusual 1940s comedy which I liked very much. So how could the follow-up be anything if not entertaining? From that opening line go, you can guess that I wasn't particularly impressed with the film. And not for the reasons that MacMurray mentioned somewhere (that they were too old, which is actually irrelevant for this story). No, the problem is that the premise isn't in the right tone and the plot is badly constructed.

The premise is that a pilot about to embark on a suicide mission says he'll miss Peggy the most in his farewell message. Except he didn't say Peggy (a former co-worker) but Piggy (his dog). This would have worked wonderfully in another context than a suicide mission during WWII and filmed straight (as it should). As he survives, the mistake needs to be upheld to the obvious conclusion. The problem is that we are expected to move from serious (and real) drama to light romance (and back again a few times). This is never an easy change in key and not Norman Krasna (the writer), not Leisen nor the actors manages to do so. And as the key keeps changing, we go from MacMurray's female pursuits to serious war concerns back to romance. You would need a better script, better motivated actors and more inspired director to do it.

If the wrong tone can be ascribed to everyone, Krasna is the sole responsible for the bad plot. Following a clear (and perhaps forced) three-act structure, implausibility sinks in when the two leads, allegedly in love, are never left alone for the whole of Act I. At this stage, the truth comes out and for the sake of war effort, they decide to continue with the deception. The plot is further contrived by the fact that they are "invited" to spend his two week leave in a house of a millionaire who decides he can meddle in other people's affairs and treating them as children (locking a door?!). By the end of Act II there has been way too much fuss about sleeping bags and other nonsense, but there was a decent, even amusing, Act III (with even a dig at twin beds).

The cast is painfully underused. Colbert's part is very one-dimensional, and her performance lacks any spark, only allowing some rather welcome mischief in the last third. This was her last film for Paramount, and by golly, it shows it was an obligation. MacMurray is wrong for the part and probably lacked any interest to do something with it, as around this time he was showing he could actually act in Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity". And there is a major problem in the architecture of 1940s romantic comedies. The de facto lead was always the woman. A few exceptions apply, as usual. Here the female lead is reduced to a cardboard figure, and MacMurray carries the film through the first hour. Or rather doesn't. Ray Milland, who usually got the not so wholesome leading ladies' leading men parts at Paramount would have been a better choice. Because the part is less than wholesome for the first two acts, and at times could be a young Sheldrake, his part in Wilder's "The Apartment".

This is the weakest of all Leisen's films I have seen (although I stopped "The Lady is Willing" because I thought it was atrocious) and second weakest of the seven Colbert/MacMurray pairings. I am glad to have seen it - I would have been very frustrated otherwise - but not something I intend to do again.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Los Amantes Pasajeros (2013)

I originally watched Almodóvar's "Los Amantes Pasajeros" when it came out in 2013. At the time, I ended not writing about it, thinking it silly and generally agreeing with the poor reviews. Watching it again, I couldn't help thinking how hollow it really is. There really isn't much holding it together. Almodóvar was clearly trying to emulate his earlier comedies but failed completely to capture the effortlessness and the energy of, say, "Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios".

A technical problem in a flight causes the plane to have to circle for hours on the air, in the hope that an empty runaway is found to have it land. Despite the (preposterous) catastrophe film premise, this is just an excuse to put crew and first class passengers together, exposing their problems. The economy class (and the female crew) are drugged - a political satire element that the director hammered in press interviews at the time of the release.

Many of director's usual actors were on call: Javier Cámara, Lola Dueñas, Cecilia Roth, Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz, etc.. However, while he may have relished the opportunity to work again with many favourites, the character list is too long and in need of an edit. This is a major problem - the first class passenger list is too big for a 90 minute film and we spend too much time changing from one to the other. Random subplots go nowhere, most noticeable the actor who decides to take sleeping pills and the newly weds, who contribute little more than eye candy to the film. As a result, and with the exception of Lola Dueñas's character, I couldn't care less if all of them had disappeared or died when the plane finally lands. The crew fared better, partly because their soap-opera style antics are far more relatable than pseudo-political/financial/sexual scandals, some of them perhaps too specific to the Spanish context.

Javier Cámara makes the most of having the best character in the film and gives the best performance. Whether he is panicking or drunk, he commands your attention. Alas, this says far more of his acting ability than anything to do with the film. Banderas and Cruz provide cameos (while causing the aforementioned technical problem), Dueñas and the actors playing the rest of the crew do well and Roth is completely wasted.

At the time of "La Piel que Habito" I mention "the absence of his trademark random strange characters (again, no transsexuals, no drag queens, although there is a surrogate mother) and the colour palette which has toned down the reds and oranges that intoxicated "La Mala Educación" and "Volver"". These are back - sort of. The colour palette is toned up again, even if only a little bit, and while there aren't transsexuals or drag queens, there are plenty of random strange characters (a dominatrix and most of the crew come to mind). But disappointingly, most parts often drift to stereotypes that would cause an outcry if not coming from an openly gay director. Having said that, the relationship between the captain and Cámara's character is by far the most rewarding element of the film, with Hugo Silva's closeted co-pilot storyline the funniest (if not particularly original or deep) mostly thanks to the actor's charm.

The bizarre "I'm so Excited" sequence, where Cámara and the other two gay stewarts perform and lipsync to the song is both surreal and technically the most interesting sequence in the film. But it serves no other purpose than providing an odd English title of the film, missing the double meaning of the word "pasajeros" in Spanish (i.e. passengers and transient). 

His next film, coming out in 2016, is supposed to be a melodrama. My hopes are still high. Melodrama has suited him better in recent years. And even if it ends an honourable failure like "La Piel que Habito", surely it won't be as hollow as this. But perhaps the lesson here is that one shouldn't try to redo the past. In trying to do so, Almodóvar missed its soul.