Monday, 29 March 2010

An Education (2009)

I liked "An Education". It's a well made film with a nice story. It is well constructed. It has a charismatic leading actress that, come out of nowhere, carries nearly the whole weight of the film on her shoulders. It has two great performances by Peter Sarsgaard and Alfred Molina, the latter excellent and underused as the leading lady's father. As a plus it has a cameo from Emma Thompson and Rosamund Pike gets the chance of a light role that sadly doesn't amount to much, although it isn't her fault - but maybe I am still in awe of her after watching her as Hedda Gabler recently.

It's a romantic fantasy in a fairy tale world of girl's schools, chocolate box London and Parisian dreams. But the idea of a father allowing his 16-old daughter to marry a 30 something and to abandon school and the Oxford dreams that he harbours with so much acquiescence bothers me and verges on implausibility. I can not believe that for a minute in 1960s middle class, suburban London. It also proves that films are made in the editing room, not on the set: please watch the deleted scenes on the DVD. Two whole sequences are presented in a fuller, alternative form. Whoever decided to go with the final version deserves a medal. It slightly bothers me that Nick Hornby got praised simply because he's a famous writer. If the two re-edited sequences are representative of his script then he clearly doesn't understand drama or cinema. Of course, this is a bit unfair, as I am using something that did not make to the final cut, but my point is it could have had. True, Carey Mulligan deserves all the praise she got, but overall I felt so underwhelmed by the whole thing.

So, then to my point: how can this truly pass for one of the best films of the year?! It's a lovely soufflé, a delightful bonbon, an indulgent ice-cream cup (ok, you get the idea) but nothing more. You'll enjoy it while it lasts but it will vanish out of your mind at best a few days after watching it, if not earlier. I expect the contenders to best films of the year to move me, to make me laugh, to make me cry, to make me think, to make me hate or fall in love with the characters (as appropriate) and ultimately with the films themselves - or do I really have too high expectations?

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Eça de Queirós by Columbano

Eça de Queirós (1845- 1900) is arguably Portugal's best novelist and one of my favourite writers. Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro (1857 - 1929) is one of the key painters of late 19th Century, early 20th Century and again, a personal favourite. He his known among other things for a series of paintings of Portuguese intelectuals and key figures of the last quarter of the 19th Century. One of the most celebrated at the time was his portrait of Eça de Queirós. Sadly, a few months before the writer's death the painting was lost, with a few others, in a shipwreck while returning from an exhibition in Paris. And obviously, the sitter's death prevented a new one being made.

Fortunately, as I found out recently, there is a surviving photo (below, taken from here). It makes me even more sorry that I can't see it, but at least I can see what the painting looked like. And I love what he did with the hands.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Mary Stevens, M.D. (1933)

"Mary Stevens, M.D." is one of those films that one can hardly imagine being made after the Hays Code had been fully enforced. The title clearly presents the main character as woman in what was then a man's world - medicine. And this is topic is actually tacked in the film: not only is she the only woman doctor, but also because in more than occasion we see patients been prejudiced against her, with some "returning later". The film clearly aims to educate its audience that women doctors are as good as their male counterparts, and I think no feminist would be disappointed with it. In the context of 1933, it's quite progressive. One might object that she decides to be a paediatrician rather than a surgeon, but that's quibbling. After all there are limits to how progressive Hollywood can be.

There some other things that will satisfy even the more demanding of Pre-code fans: an out of wedlock pregnancy and a moment where abortion is alluded to, clear references to corrupted politicians and depression. But keep in mind that the story itself pure soap-opera, revolving around Dr Stevens and her relationship with a colleague who only realises he loves her after getting married to someone else. Well done soap-opera, but ultimately, this is clearly belongs to the "women's picture" genre. Surprisingly enough, while it was based on a story by a female author, both credit scriptwriters are men.

Kay Francis takes full advantage of a meaty part. I confess not having seen many of her films except Lubitsch's "Trouble in Paradise" and not being particularly curious about them (this one being an exception). Strangely, despite liking the film and her performance, can't say I am any more curious than was before, and I have a feeling if I watch another of her films I will probably be drawn to it because of the director or co-star. I can't point out exactly why, but she doesn't interest me very much. Lyle Talboy plays her love interest. Usually cast as a not-very-nice-man, often a gangster or something equally seedy, it's curious to see him do something different for most of the film. Closing the trio of leads is Glenda Farrell as Francis' best friend and the best thing in the film. No-nonsense and always ready with a reply (as she often was in her films), she plays a nurse in Francis' practice. She also has the bitchiest remark to another nurse that we meant to think is ugly because she wears glasses. Finally worth noting Una O'Connor in a small supporting part, sadly miscast: the part is quite dramatic, but every time I hear her speak I find her funny. She had such a natural gift for comedy, and a voice to go with it, that it seems unnatural for her to anything but.
On a little note, I found the tag line (in the poster above) rather irritating. Apart from being slightly misleading is not in tune with the film's tone.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

When Ladies Meet: 1933 vs 1941

The 1941 version of "When Ladies Meet" starring Joan Crawford and Greer Garson along with Robert Taylor and Herbert Marshall, is a key film in MGM's history. This is not because of its artistic merits, but rather as a reflection of internal politics. Long were the days of Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer's wholesome vision was now the sole motor at the studio. More important, it's also a reflection of the studio's renewal of the top layer of female stars: Norma Shearer and Garbo retired in 1942 and 1941 respectively, Myrna Loy halted her career during the war never to fully return there (despite two more Thin Man sequels) and Joan Crawford would soon leave MGM in 1943. In their place a whole new generation would appear, lead by Judy Garland and Lana Turner and that Mayer-esque wholesomeness, Greer Garson - who in fact belonged to the previous generation, being a year older than Crawford, Garbo and Loy. So while Cukor's "The Women" had been a battle between two reigning queens, in 1941, "When Ladies Meet" was a battle of the fittest.

The film itself is negligible. It's a duller remake of a dull 1933 version starring a rising Myrna Loy, Robert Montgomery, Frank Morgan and Ann Harding. It's the story of a writer (Loy/Crawford) who falls in love with her married publisher (Morgan/Marshall). Through the scheming of another man who is in love with her (Montgomery/Taylor), she ends up meeting and admiring her lover's wife (Harding/Garson) . The first film is a full-on Pre-code where falling in love also means having sex. The remake is tamed by comparison, with a few more grand speechs and a clear indication of a off-screen happy ending all around. I also thought that its universe was better suited for the 1930s than for the 1940s.

Comparing the two films' casting is interesting. The Loy/Crawford part is the effectively the lead for the first two thirds but then is clearly subservient to the wife. While Myrna Loy isn't particularly memorable in it, Joan Crawford was a grotesque casting error. As a sophisticated author she doesn't convince. I mean, she knits for God's sake! Not exactly what one would expect from a authoress with a deep insight to the modern woman's psyche. Loy fares better but her heart isn't there. She's way too serious. Garson is surprising the better cast of all four women as Ann Harding also left me cold. She's also the only one that showed some humour. The last act of the story (which is based on a play) is built up in such way that makes you root for the wife, and by casting Garson in the better role there was a clear message to Crawford - a message reinforced with her next and last films for the studio ("Reunion in France" and "Above Suspicion").

The men fare a little better, although not much. Robert Montgomery is somewhat charming and redeems himself though that - his character clearly believes all his fair in love and war, and love is a war and that can easily go wrong and gets the balance just right. Robert Taylor on the other had is too heavy handed and misses the point completely. But I would have liked to see him cast as the publisher against Montgomery simply because I can understand anyone falling for him, while I cannot understand why would anyone look twice at either Frank Morgan or Herbert Marshall. I was surprised to find out that as late as 1933 Frank Morgan (the wizard in "The Wizard of Oz") could have been considered as a leading man. But he at least manages to be somewhat slimy as required. Herbert Marshall doesn't even manage that.

Both films are great examples of the studio system as a factory not working. They fail notwithstanding the stars, the modern themes, the classy look and the brilliant technicians (and MGM had no shortage of these). Which leads me to my final point. Cedric Gibbons got art direction Oscar nominations for both films (in either case the only nomination each film had) and he truly deserved it for the 1933 version. I love Loy's appartment and the country house where the last two acts unfold. The sets are clever and work really well. So why change it? They are slightly updated (not even sure if the underlying structures aren't the same) but that seems to be it and yet he still gets a nomination... paraphrasing one of this year's Oscar jokes - ballots are sent out to the members of the Academy and then they mark the ballots, and then, no matter what, they nominate Cedric Gibbons (he won 11 Oscars out of 39 nominations - I think only Walt Disney, Alfred Newman and John Williams have more nominations that he did).

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

The Patsy (1928)

Immediately before "Show People" King Vidor directed Marion Davies in "The Patsy", the story of a not-so-ugly duckling who is in love with her shallow sister's beau. She thinks she lacks "personality", her father disagrees. Her mother (played by Marie Dressler) thinks she is a major cause of problems and much prefers her sister.

I saw this film a few months ago, and again tonight at the BFI. Tonight's screening, part of Birds Eye View film festival boasted of a new score by a "multi-talented singer-songwriter" that has "made a name for herself as an innovative composer". Had I read that description before I bought the ticket, I would have stayed away - she made the music all about herself and not about the film. As a result it killed its natural rhythm and a few comic moments. It created noises slightly out-of-sync with the action (e.g. a plate crashing) that distracted too much. Plus it was loud, invasive and not in the tiniest suited for the action. We were even treated to a song...

And yet, despite all this, Marion Davies' performance shone through. I think I prefer her other Vidor film, but she has great moments. One is a sequence of imitations of great starts of the silent era including Lillian Gish and I think Pola Negri. Another is when she tries to get a "personality" and suddenly quotes witticisms unexpectedly. She's hilarious when trying to persuade the man she loves to kiss her (something on the lines of "what's a kiss between friends") and she engages your sympathy when she is being treated as second class by her mother and sister. She also manages to create those little funny moments that help create a good film - making sure her loved one gets the biggest ice-cream bowl. I can only say it's a pity that more her stuff isn't easily available.

Providing great support and nearly stealing the show is Marie Dressler. I think that had the Oscars a Best Supporting Actress from the beginning, she would have been a serious contender. The first act of the film, during a Sunday meal, is proof enough of that. She bosses one daughter and her husband left, right and center. She's delightfully overbearing when she manages to displace her husband from his seat, take the newspaper from him, play the ill and suffering wife and insult him all in a few minutes. You are left in no doubt who's the boss. She wants her daughter to marry a man that is both a good match socially and that both can boss around but at same time betrays her eagerness to rise socially, even ignoring an insult. Despite all this, she has a heart and while you laugh at her and sometimes with her, by the end you love her.

I have absolutely no idea who was the actress playing the vamp-ish sister, but I quite like her, as I did the father in his scenes with Davies. There was believable tenderness between the two.

I want to see more of Vidor's late silents. They are well constructed films, well acted and well directed. Martin Scorcese said he did one for himself, one for the studios. I assume under the first category fall "The Crowd", "Duel in the Sun" and "The Fountainhead". I struggle to say which one I liked the least. "Duel in the Sun" is just plain awful (Jennifer Jones and Selznick taking a lot of the blame) but the other two try too hard to be relevant. Yet, his studio assignments, star vehicles such as this, "Show People" and "Stella Dallas" seem to me much more interesting. Maybe he just relaxed. Whatever he did, I like it.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Her Sister from Paris (1925)

I think it's a good sign when you watch a comedy in the cinema and not only everyone laughs, but you also leave with your cheeks aching. It happened to me after watching "Her Sister from Paris" with Constance Talmadge and a very young Ronald Colman. It's farce where a plain wife pretends she is her sophisticated twin sister to recover her husband's affections. It's not entirely an original version of "Two-Faced Woman" because the twin sister actually exists.

From the opening scene, a fight between the two leads, till the end, there is not a dull moment. The pace is incredibly fast, the supporting cast exceptional. Talmadge in a double role shows impeccable comic timing and gift for comedy that I didn't suspect after seeing her in "Intolerance". The effects to show the twins together are actually very good, and the shots of the double when the two sisters share a scene are clever enough to hide the fact that it is a double and not the actress. Ronald Colman is stripped of all the weight of being an "Actor" that he acquired through the 1930s, and which is plainly in sight in "A Tale of Two Cities". Here he relaxes in front of the camera, and it shows. Great support comes from George K. Arthur as Colman's friend who works for the Embassy and takes care of monocles and the marmalade.

The copy shown at the Barbican was restored by the Library of Congress. Despite most of it being of very good quality, there were moments were the image nearly disappeared. I hope the source of the print is not the sole surviving copy. The film is about to be released on DVD through Kino in the US. It's a double bill with another Colman feature, "Her Night of Romance". I think sooner or later it will make way to my collection. But I hope they managed to mix and match prints to solve those problems.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

I'm sure there was a time before I saw Howard Hawks' "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" but to be honest I don't remember. I also have no idea how many times have I seen it, but each time it gets better and better - and I just got the chance to see it where it belongs, on the big screen, in a beautiful print.

The film follows two friends travelling from New York to Paris on a ship and their love lives tangling and untangling at the sound of some great songs and the help of a diamond tiara. One of the friends is Lorelei Lee, a blonde keen to marry for money and the other is Dorothy Shaw, a brunette keen to marry for love. The film stars Marilyn Monroe as Lorelei, Jane Russell as Dorothy and Charles Coburn and the supporting cast includes the delightful Norma Varden as Coburn's wife (the queen of obnoxious women on screen). These latter two are key in helping setting the comedic tone of the film. Norma Varden's obsession with diamonds made me think that she might have been a Lorelei herself in younger days. Coburn gives one of his most memorable performances and certainly the one I remember him for (well, that and the one in "The Lady Eve"). Another cast member that deserves some mention is the young kid, George Wilson. One of those wise beyond his years sort of kid, he's clearly directed to be as innocent and yet as keen on Marilyn as all the others. It's a credit to both him and Hawks that he succeeds.

Watching Jane Russell I couldn't help feeling a bit sorry for her. She's very good and she was the main star at the time of filming (doubt me? She's top billed over Marilyn). She's funny and energetic, delivering some of the best lines of the film, as when she turns to the recently engaged Lorelei and tells her she doubts her future father-in-law would let her commit matrimony with her son. She particularly shines when she's imitating Marilyn in the court scene or in the gym number when she's surrounded by many semi-naked men who seem to have no interest whatsoever in her. But does anyone really remembers her here? Marilyn runs away with the film. It's one of her best performances, and I would say the template for the dumb blonde who turns out not to be as dumb as all that. She's funny, sexy and far clever than anyone but her friend gives her credit for. She has some delicious moments, when she predicts exactly to the minute how long she needs with a man to get from him what she wants or how she blackmails the head waiter to seat a particular gentleman on her dinner table. But the best is the excellent "Diamonds are a girl's best friend". She's so at ease, so perfect, and finishes by provoking her former fiancee (poor thing, never really got a chance...). Actually, his reaction before the show made me think that there might be more than meets the eye, and that perhaps this is a coded striptease number, like the one in "Gilda".

The film is now approaching 60 and despite being hardly unknown, it deserves some reassessment. It's pure joy and it feels much younger than its years. Like the men in the film, you can't take your eyes away from the "two little girls from Little Rock".