Monday, 31 August 2009

Los Abrazos Rotos (2009)

Three years after the acclaim of "Volver", Almodóvar's new film has had some mixed reviews. From what I read of the bad reviews, they partly they accused him of self-indulgence, partly of creating a convoluted story which is hard to follow. I strongly believe that those defending the second point should reassess their career of choice and limit themselves to watch something more appropriate to their intellectual abilities, like "Transformers" or "Meet the Spartans". Yes, the film has a flashback, and there are scenes from the film-within-the-film in that flashback, but you can easily tell them apart (either that or I am a genius).

However, those who accuse him of self-indulgence have a case. There are many moments throughout Almodóvar's new opus that brought to my mind scenes of past films (and not only his own - Penélope Cruz as Audrey Hepburn?!). Not only "Women on a Verge of a Nervous Breakdown", which seems to be revamped into the film they are shooting - the gazpacho full of sleeping pills, the leading lady throwing her ex's things from her apartment to the street, the insane second wife, the nosy downstairs neighbour, and I am sure I could go on if I recalled "Women..." better. It also mimics the plot structure of "Bad Education" - a film within the film and flashbacks. And there is even a voice-over/dubbing moment, which is ever present in so many of his films with Carmen Maura and Victoria Abril. And like "Bad Education" and "Law of Desire" one of the lead characters is a film director. Clearly the director/screenwriter is repeating his motifs a bit more frequently than he should - or maybe this is a general wink to an audience which by now has a good grasp of his film career, and most of us are missing the point.

This is a tamed film compared to his previous works. I am not sure if it's aimed to be a crowd pleaser, but it might just be. There are no transvestites, drag-queens, transsexuals or bizarre events. It's a much simpler story of obsessions and things untold, clearly taking inspiration from the "women's pictures" of the 1940s. I should point out by now that I actually liked the film. It's nostalgic for a cinema that I love - there are some crucial stairs taken directly from old Hollywood sets. But it has some wonderful moments which are Almodóvar's own. His colour palette. The scene I mentioned above with voice-over/dubbing and that can be seen out-of-context in the trailer. Put it in context and it has an unsuspecting emotional power, albeit an "artificial" one.

Afterwards I was wondering what will follow from here and I suspect that in a few years time we'll realise that the director has started a new phase in his career.

PS - This review is especially dedicated to a homonym.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Suddenly, Last Summer (1993)

Half a lifetime ago, I was mesmerised by the BBC production of Tennessee Williams' "Suddenly, Last Summer". It starred Maggie Smith, Natasha Richardson and Rob Lowe, and to be honest I have no idea why I watched it. It is quite likely that I already had seen the film version with Katharine Hepburn. I loved the suffocating atmosphere, the faded sunset orange range of colours that inhabit it and the clash between the two actresses. It was a found memory.

Last night I watched it again, projected at the BFI. I can't say this showed it at its best light. Television from the early 1990s doesn't look very well project into a screen, even if the screen is not terribly big (and the NFT2 isn't). It highlights the technical differences between the two mediums (film and TV) simply by showing the amount of detail lost. Nevertheless, all I said above holds. It is still a fantastic version of the play. I have now seen the film a few times, saw a stage version not terribly long ago and have become fairly familiar with Williams' universe.

Last summer (ok, it should be the previous summer, but it doesn't sound as appropriate), Sebastian Venable broke with tradition and instead of going abroad with his mother, took his cousin Cathy instead. By the end of the summer he was dead. These are the facts. The play shows the clash between the two women - each wanting to tell her truth, and although we end believing in Cathy, truth is on the eye of the beholder. Cathy suggests that Sebastian was a predatory gay man, Mrs Venable says he was a chaste, asexual being. The stakes are high - if she loses, Cathy will be lobotomised.

Natasha Richardson gives Cathy a sexual presence of a woman who, as she says herself, had her coming out (as in a débutante's coming out) in the Latin Quarter of New Orleans before she came out to the city's society. She yarns for a freedom that has been denied, but Richardson leaves us wondering if she really is all there (something Elizabeth Taylor couldn't show in 1959 or even wasn't able to do as actress). On the other side of the ring is Maggie Smith. She is the only actress (or actor) that I have seen eclipse Judi Dench. To say that she is one of the great living actresses is an understatement, and she proves it here. Imposing, aristocratic and sure of the power of her money to buy and manipulate all other, her Mrs Venable is a poised tower of strength. But suddenly, you see the cracks - during Cathy's telling of her version, her face, and her eyes, scream with horror, a silent horror, of someone being confronted with facts they have chosen to ignore. Which made me wonder if this particular text doesn't work better in mediums where you can have close-ups.

In the middle of the two women, there's Dr Cukrowicz. It's a thankless part. He doesn't do anything throughout, just bridge between one or the other of the leading ladies. But Rob Lowe really stinks. Maybe because Smith and Richardson are so good, he comes out even worse. He really just looks pretty...

I really would like to see more plays adapted to TV (and the key word is adapted). There was such a good tradition in British television, and it seems to have died out. But I guess I am in a minority, and that times have changed, etc. Oh well...

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

June Bride (1948)

After WWII, with the return of the men to civil life, film audiences changed. Suddenly strong women were no longer in demand, nor were they palatable. This hit comedies in particular, a genre when if there was gender inequality it was against men. Take a look at the great number of actresses that excelled at it up to 1945 – among others Barbara Stanwyck, Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, Myrna Loy, Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne, Rosalind Russell and Jean Arthur. From the men's side, the only true leading men were Cary Grant and William Powell, Robert Montgomery to a lesser extend. The likes of Melvyn Douglas, Fred MacMurray and Ray Milland were there to support their female counterparts (and I think Douglas is much underrated) or worst, they would play the guy who had no chances at all, like Ralph Bellamy.

The Bette Davis’ vehicle “June Bride” is perhaps the best (worst?) example I have seen of the need to overpower women and keep them in the kitchen, their proper place. It’s the battle of wits between an ex-foreign correspondent (Robert Montgomery) and his new boss, the editor of housewife magazine who happens to also be his ex-something (Davis, obviously). The first half is ok – it plays it as it should, balanced, funny. It’s not exceptional, but Montgomery had a talent for comedy and Davis was great at delivering sarcastic lines: the scene in her apartment is brilliant, with the switching on and off of the lamps broken only by the great dialogue. It’s actually a pity she didn’t do more good comedy. It’s the second half, when the audience starts to feel sorry for Montgomery’s character that lacks sparkle – Davis’ character becomes increasingly unsympathetic. She never gives him any chances; she seems to hold the absolute truth. Per se, this is not the crime. The happy ending should have come when he forgives her and they both find a common ground – but there’s no forgiveness in store when she realises the error of her ways. The script suddenly demands her head, pride, dignity – her absolute and unconditional surrender. I have grown up watching these films as a prime example of the sort of parts women have never manage to get hold again, and seeing in Bette Davis one of strongest female presences in cinema ever. This is a woman that opens one of her films by shooting a man till the gun is empty. To me, who strongly believe in the equality of sexes, the ending was a punch in the stomach. I was horrified.

I know Warner Bros. was trying to get rid of Davis by 1948, and that films were about to change forever for a multitude of reasons such as television, the end of the studio system and method acting. But in my view, nothing can justify something as humiliating as trying to pass the ending of this film as a happy ending.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Pre-code Myrna Loy: Men in White (1934) and Penthouse (1933)

Myrna Loy had been around for a while when in 1934 she sky rocketed to popularity as Nora Charles in "The Thin Man". It was her last film to open before the Hays code was fully enforced and it completely changed her career. It showed how gifted she was as a comedian, but also limited her career a bit, as MGM made her play Nora Charles five more times (I managed to watch the first two sequels and they aren't terribly interesting really) or clone parts that weren't worthy of her talent (there are exceptions, like "Libeled Lady"). Before that, in early sound films, she was often the vamp or something of the kind. No one knew what to do with her. In "The Mask of Fu Manchu" she plays the predatory sadistic nymphomaniac daughter of Fu Manchu (Boris Karloff). Barely keeping a straight face, the two of them make the film a gem.

The man who "discovered" and gave her a chance was director W.S. Van Dyke. He paired her with William Powell (and Clark Gable) in 1934's "Manhattan Melodrama" and then again in "The Thin Man", and of course the rest is history. But between the vamp and the comedian, she did a few films, two of which I got a chance to see recently. One was "Men in White" (1934) and the other "Penthouse" (1933). Both are full on pre-codes. One is a dud, the other is a delight.

I'll start with the dud: "Men in White". On paper this has a lot of potencial. A young promising doctor (Clark Gable) is having relationship problems, torn between his fiancee (Loy) and his career and a great opportunity to work with a great doctor. After a fight, he has a one night stand with a nurse. She gets pregnant but doesn't tell him. Later she tries to have an abortion, but things don't go according to plan. The way the story is dealt with is surprisingly modern. The problem is it's a flat film. Everyone's heart isn't there. Well, the script didn't help... Gable is too noble and too bloody irritating. Loy's character is a spolied brat in need of a slap. Worst of all, Jean Hersholt's great doctor is the most selfish of all the selfish characters in the film. The film is streched to some very long 74min (according to imdb). If not for the stars, and its theme, this one could easily (and deservedly) be one of those that Time forgot.

And then there's "Penthouse". Her first film with W.S. Van Dyke, and I think he probably spot something immediately. She has great, funny lines and her timing is impecable. You can see the begining of Nora. As you already could in "Love me Tonight". The film is a simple crime mystery where a lawyer tries to prove the guy who's going to marry is ex is innocent of murder. It's an engaging film, fun and with a good pace. The pre-code side of it is visible in Loy's character, a call-girl - despite such a word, or any synonime, ever being used, there is no room for doubt. She's sexy and seductive, in a "been there, done that" sort of way. She definitely has been in that world for quite a while. "Yours or mine" she asks when Warner Baxter tells her they should go home and she gets really disappointed when there's no sex. A few other lines could have been taken from any of the Loy/Powell films. And then there's the ending. This needs some context: for someone not used to classic films, the ending is predictable, because that's how a modern film would end; but if you are used to them then I think it is a bit surprising. And laudable. And I feel extremely happy that I got a chance to see this, it put a smile on my face.

Ritter no more?

Why are these lovely chocolates disappearing from London shops? Suddenly I realised that most of the places that I knew that sell them are no longer doing it - that includes a local shop which had the most amazing variety. Life is definitely NOT fair.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

My Sister Eileen (1942)

Last night another film from the “Icons of Screwball Comedy”. This is the story of two sisters’ misadventures of in New York, one very pretty and blonde, and very successful with men, the other not so much. Only “My Sister Eileen” is not really a screwball comedy, despite being a very funny comedy in parts and despite Rosalind Russell's presence. But that isn’t the film worst fault – it has been adapted from a stage play and it shows. You can even see where the acts would break. Ok, in the beginning, they do open the story, but soon you’re nearly always in the same set. And no, I’ve never seen or read the play. The second fault of the film is the casting and performance of the actress playing the sister Eileen. I supposed she’s meant to be a sweet ingénue, but at moments she comes out rather unpleasant and calculating.

Now, let’s talk about what makes the film worth watching (other than it is actually funny) – two words: Rosalind Russell. She’s fantastic. Her expressions priceless, her timing almost as good as in “His Girl Friday”, but definitely suffering for not having Cary Grant as a counterpart. In a fair world, the only reason I can think she might not have won the Oscar she so deserved here, is because that same year Bette Davis gave one of her seminal performances in “Now, Voyager”. The Academy being the Academy gave it to Greer Garson for Mrs Miniver. Let’s blame that one on WWII and leave it at that.

Answer to a silly question

The silly question is as follows - was there a leading man that had acted with Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford?

It is a stupid question, but I have been thinking about this for weeks. The usual suspects only had, to the best of my knowledge, played against only two of them: George Brent, Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Robert Montgomery, Franchot Tone, Herbert Marshall, Errol Flynn. It didn't help that Davis was WB and Crawford MGM, and each studio had their own leading men. And then the answer just occurred to me - Henry Fonda! With Davis he did Jezebel and That Certain Woman, with Crawford the magnificent Daisy Kenyon and with Stanwyck The Mad Miss Manton, You Belong to me, and of course, The Lady Eve.

In addition, he played with some other favourites of mine: Olivia de Havilland, Gene Tierney and as an old man, with Katharine Hepburn and Myrna Loy (in a TV movie).

If anyone can find any other leading man that has acted with all three ladies please let me know.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Too Many Husbands (1940)

When I found out that Jean Arthur, Melvyn Douglas and Fred MacMurray had worked in an adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s “Home and Beauty” (or in its American and film title “Too Many Husbands” - comments about the play can be found here) I was quite excited with the prospect of one day having the chance of seeing this. When Sony announced its two DVD sets of four screwball comedies each and it decided to include it, I was delighted. After all, hardly anyone knows who any of these three actors are, despite the fact that once upon a time they were extremely popular. (Still waiting for the other volume to arrive so I can watch “Theodora goes Wild” – more Melvyn Douglas, this time with Irene Dunne).

If you are bothered by spoilers, I would suggest you should stop reading here. For once, I intend to discuss plot into some detail, and wouldn’t like to spoil anyone’s pleasure.

The first thing that caught my attention was the changes in the plot line. When they said “based on” they should have said “loosely inspired by” – not that is a capital sin, it’s just doesn’t bare any resemblance to the play. Ok, it does in the following – a woman finds out that her dead first husband isn’t dead after all, and that she finds quite difficult to choose between old and new. The similarities end there. In the play, set at the end of WWI, Victoria is a truly unpleasant character and the husbands (both soldiers, who were friends before the war) find themselves trying to push her to the other. In the end, she divorces both, marries a rich man, and the two men probably live happily ever after (I don’t mean as a couple, but rather because they just got rid of that horrid woman). In the film, pushed forward to 1940, Vicky is quite a sweet girl, neglected by both husbands (one has a travelling bug, the other is married to the business) who now takes advantage of the situation to put herself centre stage. So does it work?

Well, yes and no – no, because it loses the well-built Maugham plot, as well as his razor sharp wit. No, because the script is never brilliant, the secretary was a pointless addition, Fred MacMurray isn’t as likeable as he should have been (I spent my time rooting for Melvyn Douglas). Yes, because it’s actually funny at times, because Melvyn Douglas and Harry Davenport are very good, and Jean Arthur pulls it most of the time. Yes, because you can never guess which one she is going to choose – i.e. there is no obvious ending, unlike “My Favourite Wife” (same year, very similar premise) where Gail Patrick just begs to be abandoned. Actually, the ending is quite astonishing by itself – despite the fact that her marriage to Melvyn Douglas being declared void (because MacMurray was alive), the film seems to suggest a ménage a trois – think Coward’s “Design for Living” but without the gay component. I was left wondering how it survived the Hays Office – adultery was not meant to be fun.

It’s not a masterpiece, but I am quite happy that films like this are still put on the market, despite the economic downturn, despite a slowdown in DVD sales and releases, despite a growing lack of interest for films not produced in the last 10 years. It made me laugh, and reminded me why I love comedies of the period so much.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

10 films from the last decade

That my film preferences lie with older stuff is not a surprise to anyone reading this blog. But people get annoyed when I can’t list a recent film which isn’t animated among my favourites. Even here, I think there have been only a handful of comments or posts about more recent films. So in order to dismiss the idea that I only watch or like old films, I went through my voting history at IMDb and selected a few from the top rated ones.

I have chosen the titles from films I have rated 8 or more and had a release date of 2000 or later. I have deliberately excluded animation, as otherwise Pixar would rule with Monsters, Inc., The Incredibles and Ratatouille making the cut. This also means that there’s no “Persepolis”. It is not the list of my highest rated films – my criteria change through time, and unless I watch the film again, I won’t revise my vote. Instead, I chose films that I thought were something different or left a mark on me for positive reasons – several are European, which is a change from what would have been a similar list 10 years ago. So, are you ready? Here it goes in chronological order:

Gosford Park (Robert Altman, 2001) – I think Altman described this as a Who-cares-Whodunit. It’s a very accurate description insomuch as the mystery goes. It is far more an account of the upstairs, downstairs lives of English aristocracy in 1932. The cast is nearly a who’s who of the great living British actors (Judi Dench, Miranda Richardson and a few others come to mind as missing) and the film is worth seeing for Maggie Smith’s scene stealing Countess alone.

Le Fate Ignoranti (Ferzan Ozpetek, 2001) – I can’t remember why I went to see this. I think someone recommend it. I also can’t remember if I saw it in the Watershed or (more likely) the Arnolfini in Bristol. But I was won over and Ozpetek has since become one of my favourite directors. A potential soap-opera (a woman finding out her recently deceased husband was having an affair with a man), it turns into a study of grief, survival, family and as in all Ozpetek films – food. And as ironies go, the two leads (playing opposite ends of the “love triangle”) end up playing husband and wife in Ozpetek’s later “Saturno Contro”.

À la folie... pas du tout (Laetitia Colombani, 2002) – Despite a 2002 release data I have only watched it a few months ago. It has Audrey Tautou and a fantastic script that kept surprising me, without being implausible. It uses a fantastic, old story device – different accounts of the same story. And, as always, the versions don’t necessarily match.

Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002) – If I had to venture a favourite in this list this is probably it. When I saw it last (and I have seen it three times, I think) I had yet to see Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows” from which it borrows massively. Maybe it will change my perception of it, maybe not. It still has a fantastic script, Julianne Moore’s best performance ever (and that's a difficult choice), Elmer Bernstein’s beautiful score which was sadly his last, and Haynes endless love for the material is paying homage to.

La Mala Educación (Pedro Almodóvar, 2004) – In the mid-1990s, before he skyrocketed in the English-speaking world, I had passed through a mini love affair with Almodóvar. Then “Kika” came along (I saw it on the first TV screening in Portugal, so I guess around 1996-1997) and the affair was broken. “La Mala Educación” was the film that reconciled me with the Spanish director’s oeuvre. It probably isn’t my favourite Almodóvar, but I couldn’t resist all the “Double Indemnity” quotes, and Gael García Bernal is certainly one of cinema's deadliest “femmes fatales”.

Sommersturm (Marco Kreuzpaintner, 2004) – This is one of those films where a good script and confident acting and direction do combine quite well to produce something that is better than the sum of the parts. It’s a coming of age, coming out tale. Two teenager best friends are part of a rowing team, until one of them starts going out with a girl in the team and the other gets jealous.

Un long dimanche de fiançailles (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2004) – Audrey Tautou again… A woman believes beyond all reason that her lover is still alive despite being given for dead in WWI. I didn’t think too much of “Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain”, although I know I am in the minority. However there was something about this next Jeunet/Tautou collaboration that touched me and makes me want to go back to it. But this time I want to see the film without the aid of English subtitles (French ones are allowed though).

Startdust (Matthew Vaughn, 2007) – This one appeals to the child, the romantic and the fan of swashbucklers in me. I watched it on the edge of my seat, something very rare, and with a smile on my face throughout. To make it perfect, I would take Rickie Gervais and Sienna Miller out of it. And then there’s Michelle Pfeiffer’s perfect, inspired casting – the scene when she admires herself in the mirror is my favourite. ‘Nouf said.

Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck, 2007) – I wasn’t expecting much, and certainly not the punch in the stomach that is this film. Discussing it with a friend a few days ago, he said the film was worth because of the ending. I think it is the most uncompromising ending I have seen in a film since “I am a fugitive from a Chain Gang” (and I mean that chronologically, so it's 1933) – but the film is more than that. It demands your attention and keeps you focus on it. Casey Affleck is great, and so is the actress who got the Best Supporting Actress nomination. Pity that life occasionally imitates art, and the film never got the attention it deserved.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton, 2007) – A cinematographic adaptation of a Broadway musical is not the easiest thing to do. An adaptation of a Sondheim musical is even less, because of his music and his themes – this is not a musical for the masses, nor are the themes of Sweeney Todd for the fainted hearted. However, Tim Burton managed to do it successfully, helped by Johnny Deep and Helena Bonham-Carter, the latter massively overlooked. My favourite moment of hers is towards the end when she closes a door behind her. Her face shows how much heart broken she is for what she has done, which she knows it’s the only thing she could have done.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Some really good news

A few months ago I mentioned the trailer for a friend's film. There have been some good news, which hopefully will be even better in a few months.

Yet another thing that shouldn't happen in a cinema

The film starts and instead of the opening credits, it starts with a scene about an hour and half into the film, and no one seems to notice... ("Once upon a time in the West", yesterday at the BFI)

Monday, 3 August 2009

Catching other people's expressions

I have long noticed that I am very quick at picking up other people’s expressions. Something quite common if you spend a lot of time with someone. What perhaps is less common is the fact that I can still use some those expressions for quite a while afterwards. Two examples come to mind – one from V when we were in high school, and that I have noticed she hasn’t used in years (and I still use it); the other was something quite irritating that RB picked from her then boyfriend, and that I started making fun of and ended up adopting it for a while against my better judgement (dropped that one now, thankfully).

However, the opposite isn’t true – I’m not as catchy… So, I was a tiny bit surprised and amused when my flatmate yesterday repeated something I say quite often while speaking to someone else.