Wednesday, March 28, 2007

1940 Rebecca

Stars: Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine

The book that this movie is adapted from is a personal favourite. I remember reading it many years ago and being totally absorbed. Now it almost seems formulaic, but it is the original from which many have followed. As ever, I cannot get enough of Larry on the screen, although he does almost seem to saunter through the part of Maxim.

I found their whirlwind romance a little unconvincing, but that could be a fault of mine, rather than the cinematic portrayal. Ms Fontaine is delightful, capturing the innocence one imagines coming from such a different background to Maxim, and being thrust into life as the lady of such a great estate.

Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers is truly creepy - just what the role requires, with measured amounts of austerity.

Some people feel that this is not Hitchcock's greatest work, but still remains memorable for its Oscar win. (Personally I always loved "Rope", but probably due to its technical ingenuity, rather than the script.) I enjoyed this immensely - dark and foreboding, but gripping.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

1948 Hamlet

Stars: Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Terence Morgan

It goes without saying that one expects great things from a production of the Bard, but also one featuring the acting pedigree of Laurence Olivier. And he does not disappoint.

Olivier both acted and directed this movie version of the great play, for which he was rewarded with a Best Actor Oscar, as well as the Best Movie for 1948. Critics were harsh when scenes involving Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were cut, and other such notable scenes, but realistically, it is a long play at best, and ancilliary action can be removed to not bore the audience to tears.

I am no great afficionado of productions of Shakespeare, and will happily admit that I may understand possibly only every second line of his verse. But when presented, without the hamming that it can obviously inspire, humbles this observer to understand more than I thought possible. And even moves me in ways I didn’t expect. Until now, the “Alas poor Yorick” speech and even “To be, or not to be”, seemed to be those soliloquies that every two bit actor has played around with – but never truly grasped. But, I felt Hamlet’s suffering in his questioning and his grappling of internal demons. Should one end one’s life, just to stop the pain of living?

Some of the camera work, and hence, direction, confused me. Long, stark views of stone cold walls, with no characters in play, seemed oddly tiresome. But apparently this was considered cutting edge, in the vein of Orson Welles-ian The final scenes leading to Hamlet’s burial seemed quite tedious. The sets, like many “modern” productions brought to the stage, were bare, perhaps forcing one’s eye to the actors themselves. Of course, in Elizabethan times, this may have been the mode of presentation, but personally, it is an artistic device best used sparingly – or not at all.

Ophelia, played by the gorgeous Jean Simmons, was magical and her beauty on the screen helped underscore her sad demise into madness. Finally the swordsmanship by Olivier and Laertes was truly inspiring. It seemed not so much choreographed, as actually, fought with true grit, grace and emotion.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

1944 Going My Way

Stars: Bing Crosby

It seems like one should just naturally like this movie. Bing Crosby in a gentle fatherly role - surely this means that I should just love it. But I didn't. I was bored. It was trite and predictable and overall hum-drum.

Sure, the choir sang well - so they should - but unbelievably well for street kids. Don't get me wrong, I love a good musical, but this was neither musical or dramatic story. It was such a little of both that it did neither genre well. The "good" people were saccharine sweet, and the "bad" people, really weren't that bad.

The supporting cast was adequate, but so glossed over was the story, that I felt no connection with any character. One reviewer on IMDB described it as being "heart-warming without being over-sappy". Did we see the same movie? Or does this say more about my state of mind that this film did not cheer my heart?

Monday, December 25, 2006

1943 Casablanca

Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains

Now here is a movie that has it all. Drama, intrigue and romance, with a back story that engages and an ending that leaves people guessing. By the time that Bogart accepted this role, he star had risen and realistically he could no no wrong. The iconic "The Maltese Falcon" two years earlier, had established him as a star. His laconic demeanour and lisp, gave audiences a man that maybe the bad guy - but with a heart of gold. He certainly hasn't the Hollywood looks, or even a charming tone of voice, but somehow, he drew us in. For men, maybe it is the ruggedness of his features, that made him seem real and they could relate. For women, his understated gentleness concealed under a gruff exterior, made him desirable.

Ingrid and Humphrey - although I suppose an unlikely couple - their desire for each other in these roles, seemed to burn up the screen. For time immemorial people will wonder what attracted Ilsa to the dispassionate Victor, who seemed to show her none of the obvious love that Rick had for her. The movie is full of great supporting characters, who could have been seen as a little ridiculous, had it not been for such strong leads. The quirkiness of the supporting cast seems, to me, to add a certain levity, and reality, to the seriousness of the time and place.

There would be few who could say that they dislike this film. I know I like it a lot - probably because it is so many stories in one. I like a war story, and a romance, and a bit of drama, and some witty lines and interesting characters. And this film has it all. Because of this, I think it will always be a classic, since it appeals to so many parts of human nature.

Lines are oft-quoted, incorrectly, from Casablanca, and others are such a part of modern parlance - it is hard to sometimes reconcile that there was a time that Rick hadn't said, "Here's looking at you kid."

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

1939 Gone with the Wind

Stars: Clark Gable, Viven Leigh and Olivia de Havilland

What can be said about this movie that hasn’t been said already? To many it is the greatest film ever made. To others it is striking and colourful, but lumbering and beastly. The Academy certainly had their work cut out for them in this year’s selection of movies. The wonder of Gone with the Wind was in competition with the perennial classic “The Wizard of Oz”, Olivier’s version of “Wuthering Heights”, “Goodbye Mr Chips”, which never ceases to make me cry, “Mr Smith goes to Washington”, yet another Frank Capra, to name a few. What made this particular year in movie making so outstanding to have so much good competition, and movies that have lasted through the decades? Was it the spectre of war in Europe that Hollywood worked twice as hard to distract the US audiences from problems abroad?

No matter what the reasons, the film itself is a marvel of movie-making. It attempted to show the pure scale of war, and achieved it admirably with one single and memorable scene. Should anyone ever forget the increasing panorama of the wounded?

Vivien Leigh deservedly won her Oscar for Best Actress. Annoying as her character was (although Prissy aggravates me to the bone!), her determination to come through the war and her constant manipulations and contrivances, is always a marvel. Such a strong female character, whilst retaining her inherent femininity is a quality rarely seen in movies these days. And who else could have been Rhett? Clark Gable personifies the shifty arrogance, masculine hero and debonair playboy, all in one. How Scarlett is able to resist him defies my imagination. I would have easily have been swept off my feet by him at first sight.

And maybe that is why it persists in memory. Women want to be beautiful like Scarlett, and earn the attentions of their own Rhett, and men want to project such confidence that Rhett carries with such an air of grace.

It is not a movie that I desire to see repeatedly, purely on the basis of time. To be transported somewhere else in time and place for over three and a half hours is certainly wonderful. But it can feel like you are living the whole of the civil war in one’s lounge room.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

1938 You can't take it with you

Stars: Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart, Jean Arthur and Ann Miller

Before there was "It's a wonderful life" and "Mr Smith goes to Washington", there was "You can't take it with you". Those on low-carb diets should avoid the saccharine that this movie represents. Don't get me wrong, I love Frank Capra. Despite being Sicilian, he is the quintessential American film-maker whose movies are somewhat wholesome, but brimming full with messages of good will and niceties.

James Stewart became the poster-boy for Capra films, encapsulating all that American audiences wanted to see on their silver screens. His charming, and somewhat goofy, demeanour ensured his success with ordinary people. Not being classically good-looking, and with a unique timbre to his voice, he is often the apple-pie romantic lead. This movie is yet another vehicle for this yearning for innocence by movie-makers.

Barrymore is delightful as the kooky grandfather, whose simple manner belies a great depth of people and the pleasure that life should bring. Of course, it is all too easy to say that the rich are evil and heartless, and those with less, are obviously more in touch emotionally. But in the world of Capra, this distinction is what drives the movie vehicle. I enjoyed Jean Arthur's presence on the screen, and her ability to cope with the snobbery of Stewart's screen parents, and the idiocy of her own relations. Ann Miller annoyed me no end. Her character was meant to be creative and unique, but I just found her socially incompetent and annoying.

One of the other contenders for that year's Oscar was "Boys Town", for which Spencer Tracey won the Best Actor Award (plus a few other awards). There are reviewers who feel that this movie is Capra's masterpiece, I have to disagree. But maybe a movie where everything turns out ok, is just too Hollywood for my taste.

Monday, September 11, 2006

1937 The Life of Emile Zola

Stars: Paul Muni and Gloria Holden

In high school I studied French, and somewhere along the way I remember hearing about a famous letter entitled "J'accuse". Perhaps I even knew it was written by someone known as Emile Zola. But that was the limit of my knowledge of this person. Thankfully for me, this movie came along to show me something of what this person was about.

Emile Zola was a writer cum philosopher of sorts in France, born in 1840. His best friend and confidante was painter Cezanne. His works were often scandalous, but always note-worthy and brilliantly written. But, as the movie shows, as his wealth and fame grew, his care for matters seemed to wane. His most lasting work is related to the case of a French officer jailed for treason, without evidence. The officer's wife beseeches Zola to act on her behalf and re-open the case. It is as a result of this that he writes his open letter entitled "J'accuse" to the French president.

Some of the acting in this film is a little wooden, but it all seems to lead towards the reading of the letter. The manner of its reading is such to put this letter up there with the great works of oration. The movie is both touching and factually credible.

I am not sure whether I liked it because of the portrayal, or because it was just a really good story. I think a little of both.

"Truth and justice, so ardently longed for! How terrible it is to see them trampled, unrecognised and ignored!"
Back after these short messages...

Despite my long absence from writing, I have still been watching the movies. This means that I am now quite desperate to catch up in my reviews/comments. When I tell people about this "project", they are often more interested in the movies that *didn't* win anything, rather than those that did. It seems that politics and media has always played a big part in the choice of winners in certain years.