Friday, April 17, 2009

500 Days of Summer (2009)

Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2009. Directed by Marc Webb. Starring Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

We had the chance to see this movie just a few days ago during this year’s Nashville Film Festival, which has reached its fortieth edition, and it was really a pleasure. 500 Days of Summer is a little jewel of an independent film, witty, tender, hilarious at times, and never pretentious. It centers on the relationship established between its two main characters, Tom and Summer (thence the title), who gradually come to find out that their approaches to love and their expectations from their relationship differ greatly. It’s a simple but compelling story very well directed by Marc Webb, who chooses not to chronicle the love affair in a linear fashion but rather prefers to constantly jump ahead and back in time as he tells the story. This works very well because it gives the audience a better idea of the feelings of the characters at different stages of their relationship, and at the same time, it occasionally achieves interesting comic effects.

This non-chronological way of approaching the story is just one of the many metafictional devices employed by Webb, who proves to be rather conscious of viewers’ expectations about storytelling and filmmaking. Thus, the movie begins with the blatant announcement that it is a story of boy-meets-girl but not a love story. In our opinion, however, 500 Days of Summer is, indeed, a love story—perhaps not a conventional love story, but one that stresses different understandings of the ideas of love and steady relationships and ultimately dramatizes the clash between the way we expect our lives to be and the things that reality has in store for us.

Even though Webb sometimes introduces a narrator, the favored point of view is that of Tom’s. This enables us to have direct access to his perceptions of Summer: we constantly see her through his eyes, and little by little, we come to realize that some of the images of her that he is construing are erroneous. And perhaps because of this narrative device, the character of Summer comes across as not as deep and well-rounded as it could have been. Both Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt give fine performances as the protagonists, and the picture contains several funny parodies of French and Swedish art films and popular culture in general. This movie was certainly a pleasant surprise for us, proving once again that it is possible to make a good film out of a simple story provided that someone takes the time to find an intelligent way to tell it. And Webb, in his first full-length feature, clearly succeeds.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Lady in the Lake (1947)

MGM, 1947. Directed by Robert Montgomery. Starring Robert Montgomery, Audrey Totter, Leon Ames, Lloyd Nolan, and Tom Tully.

Critics usually cite The Lady in the Lake as the first movie to use a subjective point of view shot as its central narrative device, and more often than not, they praise the experiment. In our opinion, undeservedly so. Although it is true that it isn’t without its interesting moments, the film clearly fails in its innovative attempt, which soon grows old and boring. When it was first released, MGM pushed The Lady in the Lake as a groundbreaking interactive movie, one that gave the viewer the chance to experience the events exactly at the same time and with the same intensity as the protagonist. As you can see here on the left, the original poster called the film "the most amazing since talkies began," also underscoring the fact that it was the spectator that solved the murder mystery along with the main character. Yet, even back in 1947, the actual result must have come across as a disappointment.

Based on a Raymond Chandler novel, the picture casts Robert Montgomery (also acting as director) as private eye Phillip Marlowe, who gets involved in a murder plot that turns out to be rather unsatisfying. We have access to the events in the story from Marlowe’s point of view, and as a result, we hardly ever get to see Montgomery, who stays literally behind the camera. It’s true that plot never was Chandler’s forte; he was much more adept at recreating the atmosphere and cityscape of Los Angeles in the first half of the twentieth century. Yet because of Montgomery’s choice of the subjective point of view device, the movie doesn’t capture any of that atmosphere. The gimmick impairs the narrative, which becomes too slow and repetitive: at times the camera moves so slowly that it makes it look as though Marlowe were walking in slow motion. Perhaps the only positive aspect of this narrative device lies in the fact that Montgomery stays off-camera throughout most of the movie, and we only get to hear him talk. In our opinion, Montgomery isn’t as believable in the role of Marlowe as, say, Robert Mitchum would have been, and certainly much less powerful than Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, an infinitely more effective entry in the Marlowe saga.

The Lady in the Lake, then, is the perfect example of a movie constructed around an idea that may have sounded interesting in principle but that doesn’t work at all once it’s implemented. The narrative device used by Montgomery doesn’t help advance the plot, and as a consequence, the finished product suffers greatly, precisely because most movies of the noir cycle are so strongly plot-based. Innovation should always be welcome when it serves a clearly defined purpose, but in The Lady in the Lake, we frankly fail to understand such a purpose.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Shop around the Corner (1940)

MGM, 1940. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Starring James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, Frank Morgan, Joseph Schildkraut, and Felix Bressart.

Remade as In the Good Old Summertime, a 1949 musical starring Van Johnson and Judy Garland, and then brought into the internet age as You've Got Mail (1998), a far inferior movie with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, The Shop around the Corner is a delightful screenplay by Samson Raphaelson (the writer of The Jazz Singer) based on the Miklos Laszlo play Parfumerie. And in the hands of director Ernst Lubitsch, it turns into a timeless classic.

The action takes place in 1930s Budapest, although it's clearly set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, and the plot is a sort of tragicomedy of errors and mistaken identities, full of witty dialogues and Lubitsch's usual flair for tenderness. At first sight, The Shop around the Corner simply looks like a typical romantic comedy, but it'll only take a little scratching of its surface to discover a great deal of hidden tensions that, in spite of its Hungarian setting, bring us back to 1930s America. For instance, Klara Novak's desperation as she insistently looks for a job and Pirovitch's comments about his family's financial struggles underscore the precarious economy of the working class in the thirties. In this respect, we can hear echoes of Rouben Mamoulian's Love Me Tonight, a musical that enacts a displacement of the Great Depression by setting its story in France and bringing in elements of the fairytale tradition.

Yet Lubitsch's main concern in The Shop around the Corner doesn't seem to lie merely in social commentary; he seems much more interested in human relations and in the effects of work on the interactions between people. Thus, store owner Hugo Matuschek becomes a vital character, as he finds in old age that devoting his whole life and effort to his business hasn't brought him real happiness, but rather that his life has been wasted in an endless search for economic growth. Lubitsch seems to hint at the fact that redemption is still possible for Matuschek, though, but only by means of an awareness of his place in the world and a reevaluation of his priorities in life.

Lubitsch places Matuschek in sharp contrast with the young Alfred Kralik, his oldest employee and, in many ways, his opposite. As is usually the case in a Lubitsch film, even though humor plays an important role in the contrast between both characters, the effect is rather serious. As the movie unfolds, we realize that Kralik's approach to life isn't the same as Matuschek's, that his priorities are different. The purely romantic element of the movie, that is, the relationship established between Kralik and Klara, is another instance of Lubitsch's attempt to go beyond plot-based facts: it becomes a statement about lack of communication and the influence of appearances on human relations. In spite of their daily interactions at the store where they work, both characters need to don a mask and create a world of make-believe where they pretend to be what they really aren't in order to approach and get to understand each other.

In short, The Shop around the Corner tells a delightful story that is sometimes funny, sometimes bittersweet, but always tender and deeply moving. The movie is brought to life by an outstanding cast led by James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, and Frank Morgan, whose performances are flawless. And, of course, the genius of Lubitsch's directing, with his very elegant treatment of the subject matter and the characters, arguably makes it one of our favorite films of all time.


Sunday, February 1, 2009

His Girl Friday (1940)

Columbia, 1940. Directed by Howard Hawks. Starring Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, Gene Lockhart, and Cliff Edwards.

Based on the 1928 play The Front Page, by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, the story told in His Girl Friday had already been made into a movie under its original title in 1931, directed by Lewis Milestone and starring Adolphe Menjou, Pat O’Brien, and Mary Brian. It focused on two newspapermen, one of which (O’Brien) wanted to get married and leave the business only to find the opposition of the other one (Menjou), who set about to change his plans. When Howard Hawks decided to remake the movie in 1940, he introduced an important change: he turned O’Brien’s character into female reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), the ex-wife of newspaper owner Walter Burns (Cary Grant). This time it’s Hildy that has marriage on her mind—she intends to marry insurance agent Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy)—and this element spices up the premise of the film because Walter is still in love with her and is determined to win her back.

In our opinion, the movie is one of the best comedies of the 1940s, full of fast-paced, often overlapping dialogue that attempts to depict the frenzy, as well as the hollowness, of the newspaper business. In this film, journalists don’t try to inform their readership; rather, they invent and exaggerate their stories. Theirs is a world of lies and ornate language, and in their search for sensationalism, fiction usually prevails over fact. Satire on the newspaper world and the shady relations between journalists and crooked politicians is a main element of the original play, yet in His Girl Friday, it seems to take a back seat to the frantic relationship between Hildy, Walter, and Bruce. Indeed, the film is satirical, but the perfectly crafted characters played by Grant, Russell, and Bellamy often overshadow this satire. Social and political criticism is explicit, yet rather light and usually hidden among absurd bits and pieces of blurted dialogue, and this certainly makes the movie extremely enjoyable.

The three featured stars offer solid performances: Russell shines as an energetic woman who has the know-how to survive in a traditionally male-dominated world; Grant is delightful as a tough, double-crossing newspaper owner with a quick wit and a knack for distorting and exaggerating reality; and Bellamy plays a role that has always been tailor-made for him: that of a nice, law-abiding fellow who simply can’t fit in a world ruled by deceit. The cast also includes Gene Lockhart as the nitwit sheriff and Cliff Edwards (a.k.a. Ukulele Ike) as one of the cynical, cold-blooded reporters always on the lookout for a sensational story at no matter what price. In short, His Girl Friday is arguably the best version of The Front Page, skillfully directed by Hawks, who certainly worked hard in order to keep all the noisy, seemingly chaotic dialogue under control. The story never gets out of hand, though, and will have you grinning from beginning to end.


Monday, September 29, 2008

The Parent Trap (1961)

Walt Disney / Buena Vista, 1961. Directed by David Swift. Starring Hayley Mills, Maureen O'Hara, Brian Keith, Charlie Ruggles, Una Merkel, Joanna Barnes, and Leo G. Carroll.

Far superior to its unnecessary 1998 remake, the original version of The Parent Trap was one of the favorite movies of our childhood, and as such, we tend to treat it with indulgence when we watch it again as adults. However, the film is good family fun, a movie that never fails to satisfy and that is apt to be enjoyed with your kids and their friends on special gatherings such as Thanksgiving or Christmas. No wonder that this project had a soft place in Walt Disney's heart.

The plot is based on the 1949 book Das Doppelte Lottchen, by the great German children's storyteller Erich Kästner, and it tells the story of twin sisters Sharon and Susan—both played very adroitly by Hayley Mills—who were separated as babies due to the divorce of their parents. When they meet at a summer camp and come to the realization that they're sisters, they decide to make up for lost time by switching places: one goes to California to meet her ranch-owning dad, and the other goes to Boston to see her high-society mom. Their ulterior scheme will be to reunite their parents in the hope that they'll fall in love all over again so that the sisters won't have to live apart. Of course, this role change will bring about many comic scenes that are very well developed and put together. Brian Keith, who is better known for his work on television than on the silver screen, turns in a delightful performance as a rough-edged but ultimately tender family man. Maureen O'Hara is stunning as his ex-wife, and the movie is graced by very charming appearances by an elderly Charlie Ruggles and by Leo G. Carroll, who plays a particularly funny minister.

On the whole, The Parent Trap is an extremely light-hearted approach to social issues such as divorce and single-parent households, with a rather stereotypical plot that sometimes indulges in slapstick comedy. But beyond that, the premise of the movie—the fact that the sisters have been separated for almost fourteen years without even knowing of each other's existence—is rather grim, and the film isn't without its moments of tenderness and downright hilarity. You'll do your kids (and yourself) a favor if you choose the original over the more modern remake; in our opinion, the quality of this 1961 version is way beyond compare. Oh, and the soundtrack is also quite interesting: Tommy Sands and Annette Funicello sing the title track, while the twins themselves (Hayley Mills, that is!) perform "Let's Get Together," a tune that made enough of an impression on Anton as a kid that he's still looking for the original record of it.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Ladies in Lavender (2004)

UK Film Council/Baker Street, 2004. Directed by Charles Dance. Starring Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Daniel Brühl, and Natascha McElhone.

Ladies in Lavender may well be the archetype of the movie that lays a quite interesting foundation but that fails to build on those initial premises. Even though it's compelling and very beautifully put together, its screenplay ends up coming across as a good chance that's been wasted away. In the end, it looks as though British filmmaker Charles Dance hadn't dared to follow the road less traveled, and we can't help but feel that, if trodden, that road might have led him closer to a more satisfying work of art.

Set on a remote English coastal town a few months before the outset of World War II, the film tells the story of two sisters, Ursula (Judi Dench) and Janet (Maggie Smith), whose uneventful life is dramatically altered by the unexpected appearance of the young Andrea (Daniel Brühl), whom they find lying unconscious on the beach. The plot is built around a study of the relationship between the youth and the two elderly ladies, but in our opinion, this study is sometimes lacking in depth. For instance, the presence of Andrea awakens Ursula's yearning for a life that she never had the chance to live, and she plunges into nostalgic memories of a past that never existed. As she grows old, Ursula's innermost longings and desires come to the surface as she looks back on her life and is overwhelmed by the wonder of the many things that could have been but never were. Yet the treatment of this aspect of the plot comes across as rather shallow, and we certainly wish that it'd been pushed a little further. The same could be said of the influence that Andrea exerts on the small community that inhabits the tiny village: even though at first it looks as though the film is going to delve deeper into this issue, it's eventually overlooked in favor of Andrea's passion for music.

Nonetheless, in spite of these drawbacks, the movie is quite entertaining, and its scenes are drenched with emotion and occasional humor. Judi Dench and Maggie Smith prove yet again that they're magnificent performers, and Daniel Brühl and Natascha McElhone add to the consistently high interpretive quality of the film. Overall, then, we do recommend the watching of Ladies in Lavender, a film that is further embellished by its picturesque setting and its beautiful, dramatic music. Yet we wish that Dance had been a wee bit more daring in his approach to the telling of the story—it surely would have gone a long way...


Monday, September 8, 2008

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

20th Century Fox, 1951. Directed by Robert Wise. Starring Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, and Sam Jaffe.

The Day the Earth Stood Still is far from your typical sci-fi movie. It's actually the product of a very specific social and historical context: that of postwar America as it entered the 1950s. Such a film could never have been made before World War II or before the outset of the Cold War. All the fears that plagued the American society of the time creep into the movie—the atom bomb, the menace of a nuclear war, worldwide political instability—but they're handled in a radically different manner, and that contributes to the appeal of the finished product. One of the foremost assets of the film is the fact that it doesn't treat highly delicate political issues in a one-sided way, but it simply highlights their existence and their complexity, making the audience reflect on them.

The plot is very simple, although extremely telling when we look at it in the light of its historical context. It tells the story of Klaatu (Michael Rennie), an alien from outer space who arrives in Washington on a sort of diplomatic mission: warning humans about the concern that their increasing military power is creating on other planets. After a not-so-warm welcome, the storyline follows Klaatu as he mingles with human beings in an attempt to understand the way in which their society works. Therefore, we see human society from the detached point of view of an outsider that is struggling to come to terms with the fact that dialogue doesn't seem to be a viable way to interact with his distant neighbors.

Robert Wise, who directed great B-movies such as The Body Snatcher (1947), offers here an interesting take on the state of affairs of world politics in the early 1950s. Unlike many pictures of this kind during this period and afterwards, The Day the Earth Stood Still doesn't seem to be interested in taking sides, and it doesn't offer a definitive solution either. It simply warns us about the evils of war and points out the dangers of the lack of communication between governments of different political tendencies. If humans had allowed two World Wars to break out, there's no reason why there couldn't be a third one.

When you see this movie, you may claim that its special effects are a little dated by modern standards. Well, even though they weren't when the film was made, that doesn't really matter, because the essential element of The Day the Earth Stood Still is its message. Wise very deftly twists our expectations as spectators of a sci-fi movie. Here, aliens aren't a menace to humans; on the contrary, it's the other way around. Klaatu doesn't travel millions of miles to attack the Earth; rather, he arrives as a friend, trying to draw attention to the dangerous turns that life on Earth has taken. And in his final speech, he's very eloquent: "Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration." Of course, Klaatu isn't really talking about an alien invasion. Unfortunately, not many have actually paid heed to his warning, and his words ring as true today as they did in the war-stricken world of the mid-twentieth century.