December 28, 2008

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

**** out of ****

"You are cordially invited to George and Martha's for an evening of fun and games," says the film's title poster, but George and Martha are likely the worst hosts in the world. Not only do they invite guests over in the middle of the night, they ridicule each other with no restraint, scream and curse at one another, go for wild car rides, berate their guests, and attempt to lure their guests into bed. These factors result in one really bad night but make for one really great film.

In the film, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (also married in real life at the time) are George and Martha, a dueling pair who return from a party one night at the home of her father, the president of a university. As they bicker, Martha informs George that she has invited a new professor and his "mousy, slim-hipped" wife over for drinks. When they (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) arrive, George and Martha initiate a bitter battle of games, ultimately revealing the skeletons in everyone's closet and exposing the guests to an all-night treat to their way of life.

Performance in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is one of its highlights, and the acting is first-rate. Elizabeth Taylor, who earned her second Oscar for this unexpectedly unglamourous role, stuns as Martha, the catty wife of George, an associate professor in the local college's history department, whose own games are enacted exquisitely by real life hubby Richard Burton. George Segal and Sandy Dennis, as Nick and Honey, are no shrinking violets, though, and they hold their own against the two titanic lead performances (quirky Dennis nabbed the film's other acting Oscar). The film's character development is incredible, and, for example, while viewers think George seems downtrodden at the beginning of the film, he turns out to be perhaps the most powerful and vicious by the end, and Martha, who "wears the pants" through most of the film and has most of the bite, ends up whimpering in his arms. In the meantime, drinks bring out the character in Honey, and Nick reveals himself as he bites back against George and Martha. All in all, these four characters drive the film, and they enthrallingly entertain.

Ernest Lehman's screenplay is well-done, basically a faithful copy of the original Edward Albee play with the inclusion of a new scene or two (and the deletion of a word or two for Hollywood). "Virginia Woolf" is clearly all dialogue and little action, and I am still stunned at the amount of verbal vomit launched by all parties in the film. If I could go back and count the lines, the number would be exorbitant. While the bitter bantering never tires in the first half of the film, the pace begins to drag by the second half, starting around the car ride once they left the house. This roadhouse scene, new to the film, was included to keep viewers' attention, but the house is at the heart of the film and the source from which George and Martha draw their power.

The film's innate theatricality, at least, remembers the stage play from which it is derived. In fact, the art/set direction's faithfulness is apparent, and through Haskell Wexler's beautiful cinematography, many shots maintain this loyalty. One of the best shots comes near the end of the film, where, from a high angle, the four main characters are shown standing at different points in the room, and this particular shot adeptly returns the film to the stage. In addition, the cinematography also matches the mood quite well - much of the talking in the living room is met with comfortable, lengthy shots, while a scene such as the violent one in the roadhouse uses close-ups and is handheld.

In addition, Mike Nichols does well for his first directorial effort, and his work proves he was on the forefront of modern Hollywood. While much of "Virginia Woolf" maintains the cinematic quality of classic Hollywood, its dark tone and ugly realism place it in a new category, undefined at the time.

Meanwhile, the theme of the film itself is interesting and cutting-edge for classic Hollywood. George points out the "truth and illusion" in life, and this contrast between the two structures the film. George and Martha spew venom back and forth at each other and play endless games to belittle the other... or so viewers think. In fact, they are, but they also stride the boundary between reality and illusion, attacking each other in those respects as well. Consider: George is constantly castigated for the truths of his life, and he reciprocates at the end of the film by going for the throat (figuratively, this time), torturing Martha with the truth about their son. Nonetheless, all of their games are laced with truth and illusion, and who knows which is which. This, therefore, becomes the meaning of the film. In addition, the game-like song "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," sung several times in the film and its title, brings laughter at the beginning of the film and tears at the end, thus recounting the transformation from illusion to truth in the film.


December 27, 2008

Revenge of the Nerds

*** out of ****

Everyone has been called a nerd, a dork, a spaz, or a geek at some point in his or her life. I think this particular aspect is what makes "Revenge of the Nerds" so great among 80s comedies―its universality, which still rings true today even though the 80s have saturated its content. Plus, it is pretty hilarious.

The content itself is amusing, for certain―two buddies from high school (Robert Carradine and Anthony Edwards) go off to college and find themselves constantly terrorized by the nerd-hating jocks, all of whom are Alpha Betas. (They would be ― get it? "Alpha males.") When the Alphas burn down their house, the freshmen nerds are ousted to the gymnasium until they can find somewhere to live. When a select group of nerds, including our heroes, are left out (though pranked into rushing Alpha Beta), they bond together to create a new chapter of Lambda Lambda Lambda, a consistently African-American fraternity. In order to find respect on campus, the nerds―I mean, tri-Lambs―must gain the respect of their superiors, outwit the Alphas and their sister sorority the Pis, and win the climactic Homecoming Carnival, which would solidify their position as new leaders of the Greek Council.

The performances are not necessarily going to nab any Oscars, but the characters are certainly well-constructed and identifiable in viewers' experiences. Even if they are a bit stereotyped, they are all still enjoyable. (Meanwhile, making a hilarious appearance, and likely my favorite, is former football player Bernie Casey as U.N. Jefferson, the head of the tri-Lambs' national chapter.)

Probably one of the best aspects of the film is its straightforwardness, omitting unnecessary details and carrying viewers from the beginning when Gilbert and Lewis move off to college all the way to the important events that affect them until Homecoming. The narrative never delays (yay, screenwriting), and this consistency helps the film remain enjoyable for viewers from start to finish.

I love the film's score and soundtrack, as well. The songs, notably including "Burning Down the House" and "Thriller," are 80s fun, while the early Thomas Newman score will leave its impression on viewers' minds for hours afterward. (Test it: How long will it take to remove Poindexter's solo from the Homecoming Carnival from your head?)

All in all, "Revenge of the Nerds" is likely to cause a lot of laughs with funny, stereotyped performances and occasional (by modern standards of political correctness) offcolor humor, although some of the raunchiness and language might cause you to hide the kiddies. While groupable among many other 80s comedies, such as "Porky's" and all of those John Hughes films, and kind of dated, "Revenge of the Nerds," again, stands out with its universality. I am a nerd. You are a nerd. Everyone is a nerd. And we are here to stay. (We will just forget sequels II, III, and IV, for the love of God.)


In the News/Random Musing: SAG Nominations '09

Ah, and now the Oscar race intensifies. The Screen Actors' Guild has released their nominations for the best actors of the past year in cinema, and with this second phase of awards season, pundits begin sweating as they anticipate the selections of the AMPAS, which will finally come next month. In fact, many of the SAG voters will also vote for the Academy, so this round of nominations becomes crucial for those guessing next month's Oscar nominations. For now, let us analyze SAG's decisions and consider what the future will bring, courtesy of the Academy...

Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role
RICHARD JENKINS / Walter Vale - "THE VISITOR" (Overture Films)
FRANK LANGELLA / Richard Nixon - "FROST/NIXON" (Universal Pictures)
SEAN PENN / Harvey Milk - "MILK" (Focus Features)
BRAD PITT / Benjamin Button - "THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON" (Paramount Pictures)
MICKEY ROURKE / Randy - "THE WRESTLER" (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Oh, my... DiCaprio has been phased out and replaced with Richard Jenkins... I thought "Revolutionary Road" would be the darling of the year, but I become blind when biased... (However, the Academy might reward him anyway for his patience, if you know what I mean. *wink*) "The Visitor" seems to have received good critical reviews, at least, and Jenkins was picked out in the film's strengths... Meanwhile, everyone else rides over from the Globes, and the "Comedy/Musical" nominations are ignored, as is frequently the case. (Also, although it has a slim chance of nabbing the award, "The Wrestler" may be the dark horse film of this awards season, or so it seems. I had never heard of it beforehand, actually.)

Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role
ANGELINA JOLIE / Christine Collins - "CHANGELING" (Universal Pictures)
MELISSA LEO / Ray Eddy - "FROZEN RIVER" (Sony Pictures Classics)
MERYL STREEP / Sister Aloysius Beauvier - "DOUBT" (Miramax Films)
KATE WINSLET / April Wheeler - "REVOLUTIONARY ROAD" (Paramount Vantage)
Hathaway is making a really strong showing in both sets of nominations, and it appears that she will succeed in nabbing her first Oscar nom. Like the actor section, the actress nominees also find almost all of themselves carried over from the Globes' drama section, save for Kristin Scott Thomas, who is replaced by Melissa Leo, who comes from a film that debuted at Sundance at the beginning of this year. Since many SAG voters also vote for the Academy, Leo could be like the Laura Linney of last year and pop into the Oscar nominations as a surprise contender. Meanwhile, Streep could finally collect another award if Kate Winslet does not actually become the darling of the awards' year, as I believe she will.

Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role
JOSH BROLIN / Dan White - "MILK" (Focus Features)
ROBERT DOWNEY, JR. / Kirk Lazarus - "TROPIC THUNDER" (Paramount Pictures)
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN / Father Brendan Flynn - "DOUBT" (Miramax Films)
HEATH LEDGER / Joker - "THE DARK KNIGHT" (Warner Bros. Pictures)
DEV PATEL / Older Jamal - "SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE" (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Thankfully, the Guild recognizes Tom Cruise's obsoleteness and has replaced him with worthier nominations from "Milk" and "Slumdog." Downey continues to be a surprise, though worthy, contender, and Ledger continues to ride the wave of what could be voters' pity. While this is a somewhat oversimplified and unsympathetic comment (for which I will apologize in advance to those I offend), he did turn in an admirable, memorable performance. However, I still think Hoffman is going to find success in this category.

Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role
AMY ADAMS / Sister James - "DOUBT" (Miramax Flms)
PENÉLOPE CRUZ / Maria Elena - "VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA" (The Weinstein Company)
VIOLA DAVIS / Mrs. Miller - "DOUBT" (Miramax Films)
KATE WINSLET / Hanna Schmitz - "THE READER" (The Weinstein Company)
Finally, for this section, Marisa Tomei has been omitted (unsurprisingly), and Taraji Henson from "Benjamin Button" has become her replacement. This category will prove tricky for Davis and Adams - while they likely both turned in great performances, history shows that two actors who are nominated together in the same category tend to cancel each other out, allowing for the success of another actor in voting. (Think about it: Judy Holliday for "Born Yesterday" in 1950? (Bette Davis ≠ Anne Baxter) John Wayne for "True Grit" in 1969? (Jon Voight ≠ Dustin Hoffman) Jennifer Hudson for "Dreamgirls" in 2006? (Adriana Barraza ≠ Rinko Kikuchi). NOTE: While these performances were all meritorious, I just wanted to note this effect in Oscar history.) Anyway, again, if Winslet does not get Best Actress, she will get this one. She has been nominated far too many times to let a double nomination year leave her empty-handed. (However, if she wins Best Actress, watch for Cruz to nab it; voters will not have forgotten her since "Volver.")

In summary, watch for this set of nominations to repeat for the Academy voters. Meanwhile, I, personally, will wait with bated breath for next month's Best Picture nominees.


Random Musing: Great War Movies

Now this is a list! I commend Yahoo! users for their diversity... Their selections for the greatest war movies employ depth and breadth uncharacteristic of some other lists I might mention... First, a good deal of their choices are almost equally culled from classic Hollywood as well as modern Hollywood. Just look at the representatives: "Gunga Din," "Sergeant York," and "All Quiet on the Western Front" are all great selections from the classics, and "Platoon," "Black Hawk Down," and especially "Saving Private Ryan" (respectably, their #1) are all splendid choices from more recent cinema. I even love that the selections did not discriminate against foreign cinema, with such films as "The Battle of Algiers" and "Das Boot" appearing. Even the lesser-known Billy Wilder P.O.W. film "Stalag 17," featuring Oscar-winner William Holden (for his role in the film), was not forgotten! (And thankfully 2001's "Pearl Harbor" was...) Meanwhile, I found it interesting to notice the participation of wartime films ("Schindler's List") and historical epics ("Braveheart") in the list, although their inclusion remains feasible enough nonetheless. All in all, this is a worthwhile list, and one that I would greatly recommend for your enrichment.

See the link again after the jump. (Hey, the "read more" has to do something.)

For the complete list (with photos!), take a look here. You will not be disappointed.


December 26, 2008

The Bishop's Wife

*** out of ****

"The Bishop's Wife" is a cheery 1947 holiday film that seems to be a takeoff of the previous year's "It's a Wonderful Life," but it fails to stand up to its predecessor. While the performances are charming, the film itself is greatly aged in comparison, and its themes are hardly as timeless. Unfortunately, there is something less engaging about David Niven than Jimmy Stewart as the memorable George Bailey.

The narrative of "The Bishop's Wife" concentrates on an angel, Dudley (Cary Grant), who comes from heaven around Christmastime to guide Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven), who has prayed for guidance in the construction of a new cathedral. However, that is not quite his purpose, so Dudley begins to correct the issues surrounding the bishop, specifically the unhappiness of his neglected wife, Julia (Loretta Young), who is ostracized by his obsession with building the cathedral. Eventually, Dudley must rectify the bishop's problems by redirecting his attention toward his wife and his work and away from his obsession. However, a conflict arises when Dudley faces a problem of his own: developing a human trait. When Dudley finds himself growing too attached to Julia, the bishop must work to overcome his material obsession, redefine his faith, and reclaim his love for his wife.

While I am a proponent of judging a film on its own merits, "The Bishop's Wife" seems to have been carefully conceived in the shadow of "It's a Wonderful Life": An angel comes from heaven to help a misguided man rediscover what is truly important in life, and the protagonist battles a devious rich person while his wife stands on the sidelines and maybe even suffers. While Loretta Young turns in an appealing performance for her strong character (she meanwhile won the Oscar for Best Actress for "The Farmer's Daughter" that same year), David Niven is just not as enjoyable, and perhaps this is why the film suffers in the face of "It's a Wonderful Life." Niven is a sort of dry religious figure who cannot match the universality of "Wonderful Life"'s George Bailey, an everyman who spends his life selflessly helping others, including his family, friends, and spouse. When Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey hits rock bottom, we watch pitifully as he struggles, and we cheer when he reclaims the meaning of true happiness. Niven floats through the film misguided while Cary Grant as Dudley ameliorates his life. In this way, Dudley is the more well-constructed character in "The Bishop's Wife," and Cary Grant does his role justice. In addition, certain other roles besides Julia and Dudley are done justice ― Gladys Cooper as snobby old Mrs. Hamilton, for example, acts superbly and stands up well to the others.

Anyway, the Christmas season works wonders for the film's setting, and the holiday mise-en-scène enables its transmittable cheeriness. Meanwhile, parts of the narrative feel like fluff (ice skating, anyone?), though others are particularly hypnotic ― note the incredible use of editing to show Dudley's powers as he decorates the tree or as he plays the harp for Mrs. Hamilton. Editor Monica Collingwood did a great job, and it stuns viewers today with its ingenuity for classic Hollywood.

Thus, in the face of 1946's initial failure but enduring triumph "It's a Wonderful Life," 1947's "The Bishop's Wife" looks like an aged carbon copy, and its Oscar nomination for Best Picture becomes questionable. However, it is a hidden charm for the holiday season and watching it on Christmas Eve is a must.


In the News: Eartha Kitt

The world lets out a purr in mourning...

The notoriously sultry Eartha Kitt passed away Thursday (Christmas Day) of colon cancer at the age of 81. Born in South Carolina in 1927, Kitt rose to fame as a cabaret singer and earned the nickname "the most exciting woman in the world," courtesy of Orson Welles. Kitt made her feature film debut in 1958 opposite Sidney Poitier in "The Mark of the Hawk" and also played the lead female role in "St. Louis Blues" with Nat "King" Cole the same year. While not recognized as much for her appearances on film, Kitt found greater success in other entertainment areas, snagging two Emmys, as well as further Tony, Grammy, and Emmy nominations. In the late 60s, she became recognizable as Catwoman on TV's "Batman," replacing Julie Newmar. Following her success on television, anti-war statements made at the Johnson White House found her escaping to Europe for several years among allegations of anti-patriotic sentiments and investigations by the FBI and CIA. In later years, Kitt found great success and new audiences on Broadway, starring in such shows as "Timbuktu!" and "The Wild Party," and on film, probably most memorably as the voice of Yzma in 2000's Disney release, "The Emperor's New Groove."

Miss Kitt, you will be missed.

For a more detailed account on the life of Eartha Kitt, click here.


December 25, 2008

Quote of the Day: A Christmas Story

*Merry Christmas to you and yours!!*

"'Fra-gee-lay'! Must be Italian!" ~ Ralphie's "Old Man" (Darren McGavin) noting the word of warning on the box containing his "major award"

*see it at the :27 mark*


December 23, 2008

Song of the Day: Sooner or Later

*MILESTONE: The 100th post!!!*

...and how better to celebrate than with a new post topic? Having had this song stuck in my head earlier today, I thought it would be fun to share it with my readers. It is one of my favorite songs written specifically for a film -- the Stephen Sondheim-penned and Oscar-winning "Sooner or Later," performed by Madonna in the 1990 Warren Beatty film "Dick Tracy."



Random Musing: Anna Karenina

I will begin this post by informing you readers that I am a huge fan of the Swedish Sphinx, Greta Garbo. She is one of my favorite actresses of all-time, and I spent several whole weeks a few summers ago desperately searching for her (pricey) film collection. Recently, in the course of my studies here at Vanderbilt, the time for spring semester course selections came, and to my total pleasure, I happened to see a class called "The Adultery Myth in Literature and Film: 'Anna Karenina.'" Have you ever before taken a class solely for one reason? That is what has guided me to register for this course -- Greta Garbo's appearance in the 1935 film version of "Anna Karenina"...

I can say I have had success with this before -- I took a first-year writing seminar my freshman year called "New York, New York" just because movies were part of the coursework (and look where it got me -- film studies major!). Concerning "Karenina," I could not turn down such an opportunity as this course provides -- a study on my Swedish love, Garbo. Granted, I would also accept studying the 1948 film version of "Anna Karenina," starring the stunning Vivien Leigh, but the possibility of Garbo captures me like no other.

And thus, here is the problem: the possibility of Garbo... I have not seen the syllabus yet, so I can only hope we will be watching the Garbo version of "Anna Karenina" in this course. While the course seems literature-heavy (the novel itself is a whopping 800-something pages), I am certain that with the course's title, we will be watching several film versions in order to analyze them. I can only hope that Garbo is among them.

...And if not, I can make it happen.


Scene of the Day: It Happened One Night

In this scene, one of my favorites from Frank Capra's "It Happened One Night," Peter Warne (Clark Gable) teaches Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) how to hitchhike. As an "expert," he humorously shows her three different styles of using the thumb to get a ride, but then he fails miserably in practice with all three. After his defeat, Ellie decides to show him how to really get a ride, so she reveals her leg to passers-by, one of whom stops immediately and skids to a halt in his excitement.

Please watch this hilarious, memorable scene with me now.

*watch it from the beginning to the 2:36 mark*


Random Musing: The Academy Awards Trivia

Because Oscar season looms on the horizon, I know everyone, including me, has begun to buzz. On a related note, since I happened to lay eyes on the most wonderful book in the world tonight in a bookstore, my partner Andy and I have been playing a game where he asks me every trivia question in the world he can possibly find on Wikipedia relating to 80 years of Best Picture Academy Award winners, and I tell him the answer based on my own memory of them. (There is some incredibly fascinating trivia in this list, by the way... Who knew the milestones of such films as "Cimarron," "Mutiny on the Bounty," and "Marty"? However, "In the Heat of the Night" as a "mystery"...?)

For a look at the trivia, click here. Test your own knowledge, and see how well you do! (For someone obsessed with Oscar history, I held my own... Sometimes...)


Quote of the Day: Shrek

"Do you know... the muffin man?" ~ the captive Gingerbread Man from "Shrek"
"The muffin man!?" ~ the villainous Lord Farquaad
"The muffin man."
"Yes, I know the muffin man... who lives on Drury Lane!?"
"Well... she's married to the muffin man."
"The muffin man!?"
"She's married to the muffin man..."

*Not a very HQ video, but see it at the :03 mark*


December 18, 2008

Quote of the Day: Romy & Michele's High School Reunion

"Besides, didn't you have a thing for Sandy in high school?" ~ a very blonde Romy White (Mira Sorvino)

"I did not have a 'thing!' I did not have a thing! I did not have a thing... I was very much in love with him. Very much in love, and there's a difference. There's a difference. There's a difference..." ~ a moody Heather Mooney (Janeane Garofalo) in "Romy & Michele's High School Reunion"

*see it at the 8:22 mark*


December 17, 2008

Scene of the Day: BUtterfield 8

Today's "scene of the day" is one of my favorites of all-time. The opening scene from 1960's "BUtterfield 8," starring the iconic Elizabeth Taylor, features her, a model named Gloria Wandrous, wandering around the apartment of recent sexual conquest Weston Liggett (Laurence Harvey). She drinks brandy, slips on a slinky nightie, and ogles herself in the mirror. Because her clothes had been ripped the night before, she dons his wife's lavish fur coat. When she suddenly looks down at a dresser and discovers Liggett has left her money like a hooker, she becomes infuriated and angrily writes "NO SALE" in lipstick on his mirror.

See it after the jump.

*See the "scene of the day" from the beginning to right around the 1:40 mark. The "NO SALE" part of the sequence is left out and would come between 1:40 and 1:41, but it is pictured above for your convenience. Also, I advise you to mute your computer's sound because someone has tampered with the original clip, and it is better enjoyed, even if just the picture. I lament the original version is not available on YouTube.*


Quote of the Day: The Naughty Nineties

*for Andy, who says the answer is "yes" (though Bud Abbott says "absolutely")*

"Who's on first?" ~ a completely confused Lou Costello in "The Naughty Nineties"

*see it at the 1:40 mark and many, many times afterward*


December 16, 2008

Random Musing: The 'Greatest' Characters on Film

*originally posted December 3, 2008*

All that can be said on this topic has been said accurately by Jonathan Crow for Yahoo! Movies: "Any time anyone compiles a 'Best of' list they are practically begging for an argument." How right he is. Upon looking at the list compiled by Britain's Empire Magazine, I was horrified to see that Brad Pitt on "Fight Club" was their idea of the best character ever. Granted, the top 25 does compile a good deal of the most memorable characters on film, but Tyler Durden from "Fight Club"?!? Hardly memorable in the face of #2, Darth Vader. Crow also wrote, "Is Tyler Durden really better than Indiana Jones, James Bond, or Charles Foster Kane?" Point taken. I bet you did not even know that Brad Pitt's name in "Fight Club" was Tyler Durden - I had to look it up! Characters like Indiana Jones and James Bond are instantly recognizable in the memories of people, theme songs and all. So how could Empire compile a list such as this one? I am usually fascinated with lists such as these, but not when it is so horribly subjective. Granted, all "best of" lists are subjective - you win. However, is there a way of making a subjective list objective? For the most part, I think so.

An important UPDATE after the jump!

Crow went on to contribute to a revision of Empire's list with names such as these:

15. Jake La Motta (Raging Bull)
14. Annie Hall (Annie Hall)
13. Will Kane (High Noon)
12. Norma Desmond (Sunset Blvd.)
11. Harry Lime (The Third Man)
10. Gordon Gekko (Wall Street)
9. Yojimbo (Yojimbo, Sanjuro)
8. Tracy Flick (Election)
7. T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia)
6. Colonel Kurtz (Apocalypse Now)
5. Shaft (Shaft)
4. Jake Gittes (Chinatown)
3. Holly Golightly (Breakfast at Tiffany's)
2. Mr. Miyagi (The Karate Kid series)
1. The Tramp (Charlie Chaplin's films)
I completely agree with almost all of those. For a magazine like Empire, it is a shame that their top 25 included bottom-of-the-barrel characters (*cough*TylerDurden*cough*) and especially characters from only incredibly recent movies. For a reputable, respectable film magazine, how in the world could they ignore the classics? What about Marilyn Monroe in "The Seven Year Itch"!? Have you not seen that iconic image of her standing over the subway grate a million times in your life? I am pleased that Crow remembered Holly Golightly from "Breakfast at Tiffany's" - the iconic image of Audrey Hepburn with her long, black dress and longstem cigarette holder graces the walls of many girls' dorm rooms here at Vanderbilt (and not just because they can afford Tiffany's).

So my point: Shame on Empire for such a weak list, especially since I saw the great list about the "100 Greatest Performances" a few years ago. Jonathan Crow is right in his disapproval of the list, but I want to offer more suggestions in addition to his offerings to the list. The list itself needs greater range in film history and it needs to be less subjective so that a character like "Tyler Durden" does not make the top of the list. He is the greatest character on film to no one (but Empire apparently).

UPDATE: OK, so apparently this specific post caused quite a stir among my friends. In fact, the stir had little to do with my thoughts on the post and more on arguing for Tyler Durden as the greatest character of all-time, but in a completely different way than the one for which I had been arguing against him. Brad, a friend of mine, argued that Durden was the most well-written character of all-time. However, did anyone notice the way in which I had been arguing against him earlier in this post? I had been saying he was not memorable. Therein lies perhaps the greatest problem of Empire's list: people understand the word "great" in different ways. While I had been reviewing their list as "memorable" characters, friends of mine, such as Brad, had been interpreting it as "well-written" characters. In that case, there are likely a million more well-written characters than Durden (such names as Ethan Edwards, George Bailey, or Charles Foster Kane spring to mind), but it hardly matters. The real change that needs to be made to Empire's list is, therefore, the distinction of the word "great."

And for Brad, I intend to watch "Fight Club" by December 31 at 11:59 p.m. CST. Fear not.


Random Musing: Delgo

Wow. I am completely stunned - in a month filled to the brim with the best and brightest films the studios rush to release in time to be considered for Oscar contention, how in the world can a film like "Delgo" even make it out of the starting gate? Funny, it did not. Making almost $512,000 in its opening weekend in wide release, it is now being dubbed the "worst wide release opening ever" and "wide release bomb of the year." Jonathan Crow of Yahoo! Movies configures "Delgo"'s take on 2,160 screens: "That's an average of $237 per screen for the three days. If you figure there were five screenings a day, and assume ticket prices are about $8, that comes out to two people in the theater per showing." How pitiful...

...So how could a film like this do so badly? On the plus side, an all-star cast, including Freddie Prinze, Jr., Jennifer Love Hewitt, Anne Bancroft, Michael Clarke Duncan, Louis Gossett, Jr., and Burt Reynolds, fills out the voice talents. On the other hand, 1.) Did you even know this movie was coming out? I certainly did not. Chalk this up to weak marketing through an independent distributor. And 2.) What about the quality of the movie? Or as Jonathan Crow accurately states, "Or lack thereof." 'Nuff said. Oh well.

Ladies and gents, expect to see this film coming soon to a $5 pile at Wal-Mart near you! Meanwhile, let us watch (or not) as it continues hopelessly on in the dredges of the holiday movie season.


December 13, 2008

In the News/Random Musing: Golden Globe Nominations '09

Ok, so they were announced two days ago, but I've been busy, so sue me! Ok, I'm kidding, but here is a breakdown of the nominations and my thoughts on them...

Best Film - Drama
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (No clue... Sounds impressive)
Frost/Nixon (historical drama & Ron Howard - 'nuff said)
The Reader (Sounds moving)
Slumdog Millionaire (Long shot, but getting heavy critical praise)
Revolutionary Road (I expect this will be an awards' magnet - "Titanic" will rise again!)

Best Film - Musical or Comedy
Happy-Go-Lucky (A dark horse by critics' darling Mike Leigh)
In Bruges (Ebert sure seemed to like it...)
Mamma Mia! (gratuitious choice... See this for more details)
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody's done better)
Burn After Reading (Hot on the heels of "No Country For Old Men," this looks like a contender)

Best Actor - Drama
Leonardo DiCaprio - Revolutionary Road (For 2 years, I have expected this to be his year)
Frank Langella - Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn - Milk (He tackled a big role impressively)
Brad Pitt - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (hearing good things...)
Mickey Rourke - The Wrestler

Best Actor - Musical or Comedy
Javier Bardem - Vicky Cristina Barcelona (he has an Oscar now...)
Colin Farrell - In Bruges
James Franco - Pineapple Express (no)
Brendan Gleeson - In Bruges
Dustin Hoffman - Last Chance Harvey (always nominating a legend...)

Best Actress - Drama
Anne Hathaway - Rachel Getting Married (Interesting...)
Angelina Jolie - Changeling
Meryl Streep - Doubt (Never miss a chance to nominate Miss Streep)
Kristin Scott Thomas - I've Loved You So Long (Il y a longtemps que je t'aime) (Thomas has been in a LOT of French movies lately - I'm impressed)
Kate Winslet - Revolutionary Road (Again, for 2 years, like Leo, I have anticipated this to be her year)

Best Actress - Musical or Comedy
Rebecca Hall - Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Sally Hawkins - Happy-Go-Lucky (Strong showing)
Frances McDormand - Burn After Reading (a good shot)
Meryl Streep - Mamma Mia! (Cute)
Emma Thompson - Last Chance Harvey

Best Supporting Actor
Tom Cruise - Tropic Thunder (Wtf?)
Robert Downey, Jr. - Tropic Thunder (Hilarious)
Ralph Fiennes - The Duchess
Philip Seymour Hoffman - Doubt (Likely candidate)
Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight (Peter Travers apparently has listeners)

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams - Doubt (I adore her)
Penelope Cruz - Vicky Cristina Barcelona (a good shot... Woody writes good characters)
Viola Davis - Doubt
Marisa Tomei - The Wrestler (she's still around?)
Kate Winslet - The Reader (if she doesn't win for "Best Actress," she will get this one)

Best Director
Danny Boyle - Slumdog Millionaire (underdog)
Stephen Daldry - The Reader ("Billy Elliott" and "The Hours" were great previous endeavors)
David Fincher - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard - Frost/Nixon (always worthy of nomination, but I don't think he stands out)
Sam Mendes - Revolutionary Road (likely winner - a good first post-"American Beauty" chance)
In summary, I think this will be the year of a "Revolution" for Kate, Leo, and Kate's husband Sam Mendes, although other films such as "Benjamin Button," "Doubt," and "Frost/Nixon" also seem to offer strong showings.

For a complete list, including the television series being recognized, click on the link to the Golden Globes site.


Random Musing: Robert Pattinson

What in the world. I have no idea what to even say. He is all I hear about these days. Women go ga-ga for him, the "Twilight" book series, and its film adaptation. What is it about him? ...because I just don't get it. Perhaps it is just for that reason - perhaps it is because he is a creation by women to be their ultimate man.

Ok, so perhaps that thought is a stretch, but maybe that is why men cannot seem to understand this feminine fascination with Pattinson. "Twilight" is by author Stephanie Meyer, and its protagonist, Edward, seems to be the ultimate vampire and male lover ever created... at least, by and for a woman. "Twilight" itself seems to only capture female fans, and they become irresistably captivated by Edward's charms and thus the man playing him onscreen - Robert Pattinson. Add some charm, good looks, and tussled hair to the equation, and you have a sex symbol... for women.


In the News: Van Johnson

Van Johnson passed away yesterday of natural causes at the age of 92. While Johnson was never an iconic actor by any stretch of the imagination, it is still a shame to hear of his death. He hit his big break at MGM thanks to the help of friend Lucille Ball (of "I Love Lucy" fame, of course) and is probably best-known for the films he made for them during and just after World War II, playing the boy-next-door type in "Somewhere I'll Find You," "A Guy Named Joe," "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," and "Week-End at the Waldorf." After being dropped by MGM in 1954 after "The Last Time I Saw Paris" with Elizabeth Taylor, he scored great critical acclaim with Columbia Pictures' "The Caine Mutiny," starring Humphrey Bogart. In later years, Johnson continued to act some, including making appearances on television shows and playing a small role in Woody Allen's 1985 "The Purple Rose of Cairo." His last role was in the 1992 film "Clowning Around."

Van Johnson, we will miss you.

For a more in-depth read on the life of this late actor, see the New York Times obituary.


December 2, 2008

Quote of the Day: The Graduate

*for ReAnne, a cougar-in-training*

"Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me. ... Aren't you?" ~ young, drifting college graduate Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman)
"Would you like me to seduce you? ... Is that what you're trying to tell me?" ~ a sexy, older Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft)

*see it at the 1:51 mark, then at the 4:04 mark*


December 1, 2008

Random Musing: Jane Russell

I am uncertain why, but I started thinking about Jane Russell and her "bazonkas" the other day. When I think of Jane Russell (thanks to Scorsese's "The Aviator"), I always think of that one scene from "The Outlaw" where, in a closeup shot, she leans in toward the camera for a kiss - her eyes are husky and her top is falling at her arms, revealing her exquisite cleavage. As I mused on this scene in my head, I suddenly realized - Jane Russell really paved the way for brunettes out there to become Hollywood sex symbols. Think about it: Who had been sex symbols up to that time? Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Lana Turner, (Universal/early Warner) Bette Davis... The list goes on and on. But what was their hair color? Blonde. Granted, brunettes Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell were beautiful actresses in their time, but they never rivaled the sex symbol statuses of Hollywood's platinum starlets. It was not until Howard Hughes' 1943 "The Outlaw" that Hollywood could accept the idea of a brunette as being as sexually appealing as a blonde, and when they did, it took Jane Russell to do it.

But why Russell? I suppose back in the time of classic Hollywood, studio heads thought men considered beautiful blonde women (especially exotic [foreign] women) to be the perfect women, physically and sexually. However, Jane Russell had a beautiful figure, which Howard Hughes went to great lengths to exhibit in his "The Outlaw." According to Wikipedia, "In 1941, director Howard Hughes, while filming 'The Outlaw,' felt that the camera did not do justice to Jane Russell's large bust. He employed his engineering skills to design an underwired, cantilevered bra to emphasize her assets." Apparently it was the first underwire bra of its kind, but Russell apparently did not even wear it, and she still looked great - in fact, great enough that this film turned her into a sex symbol overnight and redefined the image of the ideal woman in classic Hollywood. All brunette actresses have quite a debt to pay to her...


November 12, 2008

A Girl Cut in Two (Une Fille Coupée en Deux)

*** out of ****

Irony, suspense, wry humor, and an impending loss of innocence fulfill “A Girl Cut in Two,” the most recent film by Claude Chabrol, an important director of the turn-of-the-60s French New Wave, whose contemporary work still finds important recurring characteristics of those influential works, including deliberate cinematography and unsettling editing. A co-writer of the film's screenplay, Chabrol's extensive filmmaking expreience allows him to craft an elaborate story that lends itself to a visually impressive look at a destructive romantic triangle.

The film is about a young, perky television weather girl, Gabrielle (Ludivine Sagnier), who finds herself torn between love for a much older author, Charles (Francois Berléand), and the attentions of a perfectly-coiffed, spoiled, and brash young suitor Paul (Benoit Magimel). As her relations with Charles reach levels of great sexual passion, trouble ensues as Charles refuses to leave his oblivious wife. Meanwhile, Paul pursues Gabrielle and attempts to gain her love through proposing marriage and money. The demands of both men frustrate Gabrielle until forces beyond her control culminate with the collision of violence and passion, leaving her with shattered innocence.

The initial scenes between Gabrielle and either Charles or Paul define their relationships for the rest of the film, Charles offering a passionate sexual relationship to adoring Gabrielle without leaving his devoted, duped wife, and Paul establishing an uncomfortable, awkward relationship with Gabrielle. A powerful shot is when Charles first introduces himself to Gabrielle in her mother’s bookstore, where he is conducting a signing for his new book. It is a medium close-up shot full of energy and sexuality as he huskily speaks into her ear — the hand of his assistant, Capucine, is the only thing that draws him back out of his lust. This particular shot is important in establishing the sexual relationship which will be developed between Charles and Gabrielle. On the other hand, the other example is at dinner with Paul for the first time — the shot is framed to set up an uncomfortable situation, both for Gabrielle and for viewers. A huge column in the middle of the shot awkwardly divides Gabrielle and Paul on either side of the table at which they are sitting. The rest of the scene consists of a sequence of shots and reverse shots that continue to separate them by never putting them in the same frame together and continuing to suggest a level of discomfort.

While cinematography in the film establishes the love triangle that defines the film, it also represents the characters. Among other important scenes, in the scene in Philippe’s office, the shot is framed so that the lamp on his desk dissects Gabrielle, who is seated and a girl cut literally in two. This situation clearly bothers her, so she moves the lamp downward and out of the way. In the next shot, he works quickly to close his laptop, so the lamp again dissects her in the frame. This scene is important in adding a literal level to the figurative status of Gabrielle divided between destructive relationships. Interestingly enough, she is uncomfortable with the feeling of being cut, but on a figurative level, it hardly affects her or changes her attitude toward her relationships. It is also curious to note that it seems important to Philippe, as a male, to maintain the dissection of Gabrielle already perpetrated by the two men in her life.

In terms of acting, Ludivine Sagnier is particularly adept as Gabrielle, endowing the role with energy and naivety that conveys her innocence and charm that generates great appeal. With each wound inflicted, or cut, on her psyche, viewers share her pain. François Berléand and Benoît Magimel are equally believable in their roles as Charles and Paul, respectively, but the real gem in the film is Caroline Silhol as Mme. Gaudens, who delivers a pleading monologue near the end of the film to appeal to the sympathies of Gabrielle to save her son. Though I had already been impressed with the way she portrays Mme. Gaudens with aloofness, in this scene, I was transfixed by her emotional intensity in candor and delivery.

Irony, treasured by the French, establishes and defines the tone of the film. For example, a great deal of thematic irony centers on the adage: “What’s in a name?” Gabrielle Aurore Deneige evokes ideas of purity and innocence with its references to snow and the aurora borealis, the Northern lights. The name Charles Saint-Denis turns out to have been created as a pseudonym—a lie, as the “Saint” has been assumed by a man who is far from such a designation (though he does invoke it in describing his blindly devoted wife). Finally, at one point in the film, someone comments on the name “Gaudens,” realizing it as a symbol of corruption in the way “Tartuffe” has come to stand for a religious hypocrite and “Candide” signifies naivety. These character definitions through nomenclature identify characters in terms of symbolism.

Meanwhile, in terms of Gabrielle’s precarious situation, the titular figurative “cutting” of Gabrielle indicates her triangular romantic relationship. With a married man unwilling to leave his wife and a relentless suitor, viewers can already surmise how the film is going to end, but the film never ceases to offer a few surprises anyway. For example, the ways in which events transpire, including the climax and its motivations, are certainly shocking.

All in all, “Girl Cut in Two” is certainly worth seeing if you enjoy tragicomedies about bad romantic relationships, but more specifically, if you are looking for good acting or an compelling contemporary French film by a director deeply embedded in the roots of modern French cinema.

“A Girl Cut in Two” is playing now at the Belcourt Theatre.

Originally published in the November 12 issue of Versus Magazine: Entertainment & Culture


November 3, 2008

Random Musing: Joaquin Phoenix, Retiree

So it might be week-old news now, but I was still surprised to hear two-time Oscar-nominated actor, Joaquin Phoenix, brother of dearly-missed Oscar-nominated actor River Phoenix, will be putting his acting career behind him. "I want to take this opportunity to give you an exclusive..." was how he initiated his red-carpet interview with E!'s "Extra" correspondent Jerry Penacoli at a charity event last Monday for the Association of Hole in the Wall Camps. The day was also the 34th birthday of Phoenix and four days before the 15th anniversary of the death of Phoenix's older thespian brother.

Phoenix said that "Two Lovers," his upcoming romantic drama with Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw, will be his final onscreen role. His confession: "This will be my last performance as an actor. I'm not doing films anymore... I've been through that. I've done it...." While this divulgence surprised E!'s correspondent, Phoenix seemed perturbed, so he retorted, "I'm dead serious."

Here is the full interview:

Phoenix seemed emphatic that Casey Affleck, fellow actor and brother-in-law at his side the other night, will take up his reins: "It's Casey's time now."

I find the circumstances bizarre, actually. While Yahoo! Movies' Matt McDaniel reports "Phoenix is apparently giving up acting to pursue music, a passion of his since he learned to play guitar to play the role of Johnny Cash in 2005's 'Walk the Line,'" I think he has an ulterior motive for leaving the film industry. Call me crazy, but I find that the 15th anniversary of the death of his brother is a good motive. River Phoenix was set to become one of the greatest actors of his generation until a drug overdose cut his burgeoning life and career short in 1993. River Phoenix's career began in the mid-80s with a series of popular and critically-acclaimed roles in films such as "Stand By Me" and "Running on Empty." Joaquin Phoenix began his acting career in the 80s, too, with small, insignificant parts in television shows, but he did not score his big film break until 1995's "To Die For," directed by Gus Van Sant, who had also worked with River in 1991 in "My Own Private Idaho." Look at the timing - River dies in 1993, and Joaquin finds success in 1995. Also look at the connection - has Joaquin Phoenix's career been a sort of continuation of the career of River? Was his career a long tribute to River? Does Joaquin really live in his big brother's shadow without us realizing it? Granted, Joaquin is a great actor in his own right, but in McDaniel's article, he cites that Phoenix's career change might be partially inspired by the need to expel some demons. Perhaps his "career change" is a need to break away from the trade of his brother to find himself. Only Joaquin knows this answer, but for the future, perhaps his (to-be-released) music will provide us some insight.

"Two Lovers," Phoenix's final film, premiered earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival to mostly positive reviews and is scheduled for release on February 13th, 2009. I suppose if you have to go out, best to go out with a bang, eh?


October 29, 2008

Flow: For Love of Water

** out of ****

While not “Hustle and Flow,” the new film, “Flow: For Love of Water,” still demands that viewers “hustle” to activism against the global water crisis. The humanistic aspect with which the film concerns itself persists through cultural references that bind together many kinds of people all over the world, showing how this crisis affects everyone. Though this documentary’s cinematic qualities are not noteworthy, its message is certainly striking, interesting, and worthwhile.

The quote, “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water,” precedes the film and presents a dichotomy between love and water, though it is soon rectified because the rest of the film focuses on the “love of water,” as denoted by the title, apparently an acronym. The film works in two parts. It begins by presenting a series of statistics about the world’s vanishing clean water supply and interweaving a series of featured experts who relentlessly warn of the injustices being perpetrated on all of mankind. After the intensely pessimistic tone exhibited at the beginning of the film, it becomes more humanistic by showing people in other countries who directly suffer from a lack of clean water, or worse, from worldwide corporations’ self-serving “privatization” of clean water.

Continuing on “the love of water,” the beauty and power of water are represented frequently in “Flow.” One striking shot is from underwater with a light penetrating from above, suggesting a heavenly atmosphere. Besides the film’s unmistakable adulation of H2O, one of the more colorful interviews features a scientist who compares the flow of water over land to blood in veins and arteries. This comparison equates two fluids essential to life, intrinsically making them inseparable and invaluable. Although the quote presented at the outset seems to demonstrate that water is more essential than love, the idea of love drives the recognition of water’s indispensability, and the film presents an urgent case for its free generation for all of mankind.

On the other hand, corporations who stand in the way of clean water—a free right for all—are intensely scrutinized and judged in the film through demonization. The film has a distinct good and evil, and the director’s passion to solve the global water crisis leads to this demonization of anyone who stands in the way in order to make a profit. The film makes hypocrites of these corporations’ representatives, especially one for Vivendi, whose smug grin in describing his company’s actions certainly contributes to his demonization. Essentially, the film is a sort of propaganda, but one that promotes the plight of “the little guy” against the selfishness of his bigger counterpart. In addition, the film is not afraid to point out these perpetrators, including Vivendi, Sven, and a surprisingly-fingered Nestle, which is severely depleting water in Michigan for free and turning out millions of dollars in revenue each year.

Overall, the film is a radical statement, but it is a great film for open-minded people who enjoy listening to the bold statements of others. On the other hand, for lovers of documentary filmmaking, this film is nothing new and not terribly exciting, so it will appear run-of-the-mill to viewers such as yourselves. However, as one interviewee frankly presented it, the global water crisis facing the world today is “not a Republican problem and not a Democratic problem—it’s a people problem.” The added concern with disappearing water’s effect on climate change also helps provide the film with another note of relevance, especially in a world growing more and more concerned with that issue.

In sum, though the filmmaking is amateur, director Irena Salina’s message is strong and impassioned.

“Flow: For Love of Water” is playing now at the Belcourt Theatre.


October 27, 2008

Random Musing: Breathless

While the "cinéma à papa" (i.e. classical Hollywood cinema) had been the nourishment of filmgoers for so long, Godard's "Breathless (À bout de souffle)," somewhat unlike fellow New Waver Truffaut's "The 400 Blows," truly throws it all out the window in favor of something new, fresh, and watershed, becoming the epitome of the French New Wave, especially in terms of its stylistic elements. The reason I mention the film is because I simply want to muse on one quotation in it that I feel, as simple, throwaway, and forgetful as it may seem, defines the film's ideology.

Cinema itself is certainly important to the film, just as it also was to Truffaut's "400 Blows." Another "Cahiers du Cinéma" critic, Godard's passion for film influences several scenes in the film, including Michel's incessant thumb movement over his lips in the style of his idol, Humphrey Bogart. (Though I cannot recall him ever making such a motion in any film in which I have seen him, I would say he is probably the one who inspired this gesture for the character of Michel.) Anyway, besides his idolization of Bogart, his similarities to François, the protagonist of the 1939 French film "Daybreak (Le Jour Se Lève)," could certainly inform his status as a representative of older cinema.

The interesting scene that I have cited already shows a young girl with a copy of "Cahiers" as she approaches Michel. She asks, "Monsieur, do you support youth?" If memory serves, Michel tells her, "No, I prefer the old." It is quite amusing because younger film critic contemporaries were the reason why French cinema (and all cinema, for that matter) was, or would be, undergoing a groundbreaking change. Perhaps Michel's preference for the style of "old" (meaning older cinema) is the reason why he dies in the film... It could be like the old saying - "Out with the old, in with the new." Godard, as some sources suggest, may have been immodest about the fact that his film was going to break new ground and become a legend, but perhaps Michel had to die in order to fulfill the new rite of passage in cinema that would be the French New Wave. Of course the theme of death does play a greater role in the film and in Michel's death at the end than could be suggested by this one quote interpretation, but I think this one quote, in the context of the film and of its time, reveals the film's logic. (Furthermore, the fact that the film's narration is also defined by newspaper headlines might also point out the fact that journalists at the time [think "Cahiers"] were also "narrating" the change that would become cinema at the time.)


October 26, 2008

Random Musing: High School Movies

Because I am preparing to do my next high school project (just another criteria for my "America on Film" class) on high school representation, lately I have been considering the way people judge some high school movies compared to others. Critics are always quick to examine a high school movie's authenticity in its portrayal, and I noticed it again when reading Sam B. Girgus' America on Film the other day. In his chapter on John Sayles' "Lone Star," he says, "The scene provides a rare moment in film in portraying the ambience and attitudes of a high school classroom with realism and authenticity" (p. 52). I thought about his quote a bit - a rare moment of authenticity? On what grounds can he state that this scene is authentic and not something like "Mean Girls" or "The Breakfast Club"? Then I realized - high school movies, unlike many other genres of film, are more easily and quickly judged because everyone has gone through it!

Consider "Blackboard Jungle" (You must watch this trailer before reading further - it is unlike anything you have ever seen before):
Did you find yourself laughing at it? That is because you judged it based on your own experience in high school. "Teenage terror in the schools?" Pshaw. Just like you (and I) judged it, that is how critics discover that they can judge other high school movies as well: "The Breakfast Club," "Heathers," "Angus," "Mean Girls"... The list goes on and on. Apparently few of these films actually depict high school classroom settings accurately, though (except "Blackboard Jungle," of course!).

So why do high school movies get hated on the most, though? Again, it is because we have all been there. We all have an idea, based on our own experience, of what high school should be like, so when we see it on film, a high school movie becomes a great film when we recognize its similarities to our own experiences. It is in this way that other genre films - war films for example - can never be so quickly judged. Only veterans can offer support to the authenticity of a war film because they were the only ones who were there and can prove it. We other viewers can only sit back and accept the film as a historical document, capturing a time and place we know little about. On the other hand, a high school movie is a time and place we know everything about. I challenge you: The next time you watch a high school movie, see if you do not comment on its authenticity in your head, but then think about why.


October 25, 2008

Quote of the Day: Rosemary's Baby

*Just for my McGill peeps*

"What have you done to it!? What have you done to its eyes!?" ~ a horrified Mia Farrow fighting against an evil far greater than her in "Rosemary's Baby"

*look for it around the 2:08 mark*


October 21, 2008

Random Musing: Madonna on Film

One of the most heckled popular entertainers to grace the silver screen is pop superstar Madonna. Ok, so before you laugh, know this: although she may have had her share of (huge) flops, she does well enough in the right role. You might argue that anyone is capable of achievement in the right film role, which certainly applies to Madonna, but she has made several roles her own. Eva Perón? Mae Mordabito? Breathless Mahoney?

Roger Ebert, an idol of mine, has taken the opportunity to trash Madonna on a number of occasions. I am using his thoughts to provide a basis that represents the general popular consensus of her work.

In his 1990 review of "Dick Tracy," though overwhelmingly acclaiming, he said of Madonna: "Her mistake in 'Dick Tracy,' I think, is that she frankly reaches back to Marilyn Monroe and tries to make Breathless into a Monroe clone, right down to the lighting and costuming in some numbers, which seems inspired by Monroe in 'Some Like It Hot.' It doesn't work. She's not Monroe and she's not Madonna, either."

In his 2000 review of "The Next Best Thing," he again criticizes the pop music icon, saying she "never emerges as a plausible human being in the movie."

On his 2002 comments on the remake of Guy Ritchie's "Swept Away," starring Madonna, he never really mentions anything about Madonna elsewhere in his review besides her character being unbelievable, so I will assume this can be inferred for her acting, too.

However, in his 1996 review of "Evita," he praises, "Madonna, who took voice lessons to extend her range, easily masters the musical material. As importantly, she is convincing as Evita - from the painful early scene where, as an unacknowledged child, she tries to force entry into her father's funeral, to later scenes where the poor rural girl converts herself into a nightclub singer, radio star, desirable mistress, and political leader."

He also lauds Madonna's debut in 1985's "Desperately Seeking Susan" by asserting the film "has its moments, and many of them involve the different kinds of special appeal that [Rosanna] Arquette and Madonna are able to generate. They are very particular individuals, and in a dizzying plot they somehow succeed in creating specific, interesting characters."

While Ebert fortunately missed such films as "Shanghai Surprise" and "Who's That Girl" in his long film-reviewing career, it stands to show that he praises her relatively infrequently compared to his wallops on her acting talent.

I, on the other hand, would like to praise her talent. Although, yes, she has made her share of flops, I think she really shines in those moments that she does shine. While "Susan" is a good example for the beginning of her filmography, I did, contrary to Ebert, enjoy Madonna in "Dick Tracy." Her style was a bit Monroe (who would not use this icon as the example of sexuality?), but I thought she captured her own sensuality and sexuality exceptionally well. She was certainly believable, at least. When she told Tracy (Warren Beatty), "I sweat a lot better in the dark," I was panting just as much!

I remember when I first saw "A League of Their Own" as a child, and I have admired Madonna ever since. She certainly proves herself as Mae Mordabito, as she continues to sustain the sexuality synonymous with her name while generating an admirable human element to her character. She fits among the film's ensemble cast so well and especially forges a hilarious repartée with cast member Rosie O'Donnell as Doris Murphy.

Ultimately, I suppose the problem facing Madonna the actress is that some people might question her ability to separate herself from Madonna the singer. Madonna the singer has a dominant, controversial personality, so some people might fail to recognize her ability to be a conceivable actress. I think her role in "Evita" might dispel all of those critics who continue to question, though. How could this spectacular, unabashed pop music entertainer have played the human, beloved Argentenian icon otherwise?

Therefore, I will contend that Madonna is a good actress, given the right film role. She certainly has the "Globe" to prove it.


October 20, 2008

Random Musing: Writing on Film

Let me preface this "random musing" by initially informing you, my readers, that I am currently taking a course at Vanderbilt University called "America on Film," taught by Professor Sam B. Girgus. For this course, we have been required to purchase and read the textbook, "American Cinema/American Culture," by Professor John Belton of Rutgers University. On October 13, or last Monday, Professor Belton was invited to come speak to our class, so his guest lecture centered on a new chapter to be included in the third edition of his textbook - a chapter to be called "What It Means To Be Human: The Horror and Science Fiction Films." While all of this information seems dispensible, I can assure you it is important to know as I propose what I intend to do one day when I write on film.

While, yes, I do hope to one day become a regular film reviewer in a film magazine (or even for a newspaper), I also have some ambitions of writing books about film. This semester has offered me a great deal of insight into authoring such books, as Professor Girgus has written at least seven, two of which - "America on Film" and "Hollywood Renaissance" - I am currently taking turns reading. Also currently enjoying Belton's "American Cinema" book (which I would highly recommend for its insight and its being well-written), I have thus come to this decision of writing myself. Since purchasing "2001: A Space Odyssey" by Arthur C. Clarke this summer, I have decided I would like to write a book analyzing the film version while drawing on its connection to the novel. I suppose this would then become a comprehensive version analyzing this mysterious and beautiful film. In addition, I have also considered writing a book about queer theory. While some of you might have read my first blogs on my studies this summer, I basically bemoaned its virtual nonexistence in film courses, especially those at Vanderbilt, today. After enjoying the first few chapters of Boze Hadleigh's "The Lavender Screen" earlier this summer, to which I promise I will return eventually, I have decided that following my studies, I would eventually like to pen my own book scrutinizing everything there is to know about queer theory.

In the last few days, religiously watching "Sex and the City" and seeing Carrie's collection of columns make their way into book form further solidifies this desire to become published one day. I would also like to see some of my film reviews meet the publishing light-of-day one day, but for now, I am content to continue publishing through "Versus" and through this site. I suppose all of these plans lie in that "one day" realm, but they will happen, I assure you.


October 8, 2008

Battle in Seattle

** ½ out of ****

At the turn of the century, a battle was being fought on the streets of Seattle, Washington—one that would pit protestors hoping for a better world against the inhumane crimes committed by the World Trade Organization. The film is a dynamic, volatile, and intensely powerful documentary on the riots that would occur between the protestors and the police because of this conflict.

The narrative itself, while based on true events, creates a fictitious account with which to relate them, centering on a group of anarchist activists, led by Jay (Martin Henderson), who have some sort of political or personal motivation in gathering in Seattle, Washington at the end of 1999 to protest the summit meeting of the World Trade Organization. What begins as peaceful protests that block off the roads around the WTO’s meeting place suddenly becomes violent warfare on the streets when a State of Emergency is declared, calling on the police to begin to attack the protestors. Mayor Tobin (Ray Liotta) is horrified at this turn of events, as the attacks lead to the physical harm and imprisonment of many innocent protestors. Even some innocent bystanders are assailed, such as Ella (Charlize Theron), the pregnant wife of officer Dale (Woody Harrelson). With all of the odds stacked against the protestors, these fateful days bring together the people of the city in an intense, edge-of-your-seat sequence of events that leads up to the provocative ending.

Boasting a relatively well-known cast, including Oscar-nominee Woody Harrelson, Oscar-winner Charlize Theron, Ray Liotta, Michelle Rodriguez, Channing Tatum, and Joshua Jackson, the film unfortunately suffers from weak character development. However, this does not prevent some respectable performances from shining through. The best performance easily comes from Harrelson, whose simple character ultimately possesses the most dynamic range of emotions. In one memorable shot before the police begin their second assault on the peaceful protestors, Harrelson is emotionally devastated because of the attack on his wife the day before, and a simple medium-close up shot on his face conveys its emptiness but also its intense emotional anguish. Another noteworthy performance is from Rade Serbedzija as Doctor Maric, a member of Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) whose impassioned plea to members of the WTO who continue to ignore his appeals for medicine for young, dying children in third-world countries actually made me tear up just a bit. The realities of these two performances lie in stark contrast with the disappointing one of Ray Liotta as the Mayor—his frustrations and excited speech come off more as trying too hard.

Concerning the film’s narrative, the first half is relatively weak, suggesting no clear reason for the insertion of a fictitious set of character accounts to dramatize the Seattle riots. In fact, the occasional insertion of the original documentary footage made me initially consider the film as a potentially better documentary. However, the turning point of the narrative comes with the assault on Ella in the first day of police retaliation, and I realized then that the narrative is actually in place to emphasize a humanistic aspect of the events portrayed within. Furthermore, the narrative offers a discontent with establishment, alluded to through the corruption of the WTO and the savage brutality of the police.

The greatest theme of the film recalls the driving theme behind Frank Capra’s 1939 classic, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” In the film, Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith is driven by the idea that “lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for.” The same ideology holds true for the protestors of this film, whose “lost cause” drives them to reject the inhumanities perpetrated by the WTO. It is the character of Django (André Benjamin) who evokes the idea of the “lost cause” to re-inspire discouraged Jay.

Furthermore, a powerful symbol in the film is the balance of justice, established by the statue on the desk of the Mayor. In every scene in which it appears, its placement or use predicts or defines the successes of the protestor protagonists.

All in all, “Battle in Seattle” marks a strong directorial debut for actor Stuart Townsend (a.k.a. Mr. Charlize Theron). His vision behind the camera instructs the realism he appropriates through the film’s messages. Meanwhile, cinematography and editing are also greatly important to the film and directly contribute to its senses of frustration, dynamism, and volatility.

As a word of warning, this film is intense in all senses of the word’s meaning, even until one of the most viscerally wrenching scenes I have ever witnessed on film occurs. The long shot of a police officer slamming pregnant Ella square in the stomach with his stick is anguishing and might require a tissue for your tears or a bag with which to relieve sudden nausea.

“Battle in Seattle” is playing now at the Belcourt Theatre.

Originally published in the October 8 issue of Versus Magazine: Entertainment & Culture


October 6, 2008

Quote of the Day: Rebecca

"Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again..." ~ a reflective Joan Fontaine's first lines as the second Mrs. De Winter in "Rebecca"

*look for it around the 1:39 mark*


October 1, 2008

La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game)

**** out of ****

"La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game)" was hardly what I expected—I was already aware that it was held in high regard by filmmakers and critics across the world, usually a close second to Welles’ 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane in polls (Sight & Sound), but I had a different expectation for what the film would be like. My experience would have led me to anticipate "La Règle" as a self-important and cinematically brilliant, but unfortunately boring and distant film, but a pleasant surprise welcomed me when I watched the film for the first time. The film itself is actually arresting, engaging, playful, and poetic. Director Renoir truly crafts a masterpiece with this stunning film.

In "La Règle du Jeu," the aviator André Jurieu (Roland Toutain) lands in France, having made a transatlantic flight in the name of the woman he loves. He is dismayed when he learns that she, Christine (Nora Grégor), has skipped out on the historic event, and he tries to commit suicide later while driving in the countryside with his unwitting friend, Octave (Renoir himself), also in the car. To please his depressed friend, Octave convinces Christine and her husband, Le Marquis (Marcel Dalio), to invite them to a hunting party at their home so André can see her again. The party at the exquisite home that day continues to sour with the revelation of the interconnected series of affairs occurring between the people in attendance at the party, and the upper class level of refinement descends to violence, which leads all the way up to the film’s tragic, troubling, and surprising ending.

When Renoir’s opening title card attempted to convince me that the film was no kind of social criticism, I was immediately suspicious. Any kind of book or film that tries to emphasize such a notion (L. Frank Baum’s "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," for example) can easily be lying to the reader/viewer, and according to Jean Renoir himself, he is doing just that. He once explained in his biography, "Ma Vie et Mes Films (My Life and My Films)":

"At the beginning, I didn't want to present the public with an avant-garde work, just a good, normal film. People came to the movies thinking they were going to be able to leave their worries behind. Instead I plunged them into their own problems."
Therefore, one of the first titles that proclaims the film’s innocence in storytelling was actually as false as I had presumed. In the course of the film’s narrative, this becomes easy to recognize, as cinematic elements demand the interpretation of the faults of French high society on the brink of World War II.

Clearly, France’s high society plays by a strict code of “rules of the game,” and it becomes important to the film's characters in the way they chase each other in encounters of love and lust. Almost every character is married or connected to another character, but the thrust of the story lies in the way those same characters are after a different character, culminating in a huge web of interconnecting relationships. Renoir clearly underlines the hypocrisy of the elite when Robert points out the shame of cheating on a significant other to Schumacher, who is quite likely one of the film’s least deplorable characters.

A visiting film professor a few years ago referenced this film in her lecture and noted the importance of watching what occurs in the background of any given scene. I took heed of her advice and carefully scanned each scene for clues and was thus rewarded for my observations. Mirrors appear infrequently, but when they do, they are crucial to a scene. For example, in one scene, a mirror portrays the easily associable concept of vanity, but in another, the “Danse macabre” scene, a subtle mirror in the background reflects “death” upon the entirety of the people in the room—the entirety of high society.

Another example of the traits of high society can be interpreted through the comparison of old versus new. Early in the film, radios and airplanes contribute to the film’s modernism. On the other hand, Robert’s collection of antique musical dolls signals something older and outdated. In this way, Robert, a representative of the elite, whose collection’s mechanical meaning can be extrapolated to himself and his culture, is also becoming outdated. In fact, the final words of the film predict this change, as someone insightfully points out, “His race is dying out,” speaking of The Marquis. As the party reenters the castle, the camera is in a long shot, showing only the shadows of the guests on the far castle wall as they “march” off-screen. These shadows can be tied back to the “Danse macabre” and the death symbolized through it—on the eve of World War II, the French high society is going to its (metaphorical) death.

Therefore, Renoir anticipates the coming of a new social order. In this way, "La Règle" was certainly before its time (as was "Kane") and will securely maintain its position as one of the best films of all-time. Going back to my initial conception of the film, I was wrong in every way—this film presents a fluid, riveting narrative while also being on the cinematic cutting edge. What an achievement for its time.


September 30, 2008

Quote of the Day: Dark Victory

"Well, I think I'll have a large order of prognosis NEGATIVE!" ~ Bette Davis as dying Judith Traherne in 1939's "Dark Victory"

*look for it around the 0:39 mark*


September 29, 2008

Random Musing: Les Visiteurs du Soir (The Devil's Envoys)

Although the film is set in the 14th or 15th century, "Les Visiteurs du Soir (The Devil's Envoys)" is clearly a symptomatic representation of the Nazi occupation of France in WWII. The final part of the credits shows an old French proverb that will guide the film: "The Devil sent down some men to break men's hearts." I do not think it is terribly difficult to guess who represents whom, so I will leave it at that. It is clear, though, that it was necessary to hide the representation as much as possible although Carné definitely made the film to voice his opinions and to probably let out some anguish. I also think it is interesting that the film contains so many elements of surrealism: the dance scene, the tourney in the pond, the vanishing/appearing characters, etc. I think this only contributes to the somewhat otherworldly presentation of the film.

The scene where Domini plays the lute is actually quite powerful (my favorite, actually) - the dancing slows to a halt and everyone in the room is frozen. This allows Domini and Giles to play with Ann and Renaud, separating them and toying with "love." Starting with the scene at the party, viewers begin to realize the male/female power structures of the film, which I think influence the film in some way or another:

Domini > Giles
Domini > Renaud
Renaud > Ann
Ann > The Devil
The Devil > Domini, Giles, and Renaud

It is interesting to consider, and it definitely gets convoluted. Ann seems to be the most powerless through the whole film, but her disregard of the Devil's presence is important, and her ability to defy him is one of the greatest powers in the film. On the other hand, Domini seems to be the most powerful throughout the film, and a great deal of that power seems to come through her legs. I am uncertain if this is some kind of objectification she uses to her advantage, but they draw the attention of Renaud and they are significant to look at when she makes her transformations between her "male" self and female self. It is perhaps this binary male/female self that offers her all of her great powers.

Perhaps the greatest scene of the film is at the end, where Ann tells the Devil she will become his slave if he lets Giles free. Once her lover has been liberated, she lies to the Devil and departs, claiming to not be his slave. I believe this action is the springboard for a moral that drives this part of the film, that old adage: "All's fair in love and war." In the name of love, she has committed this action she most certainly would not have otherwise. Meanwhile, for his revenge, the Devil turns Ann and Giles to stone forever as they cling to one another. In the name of war, he has conquered them for tricking him. For the end of a film based in no small part on the occupation of Nazi Germany in France, it leaves a bitter, resigned fate for viewers.