24 April 2010

Review: "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert"

It had been so long since I had seen The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert that I had forgotten so much of what makes the film so special. The 1994 Australian film stars three of the most masculine actors: Hugo Weaving (Matrix, V for Vendetta), Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential, Memento) and Terence Stamp (The Limey, television's Smallville). These three men play a pair of drag queens and a transsexual (Stamp) who travel across the Australian Outback to perform as female impersonators. The film, while touching and heartfelt, is brutally funny. There are inevitable comparisons to the 1995 American film To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar. Both films are about three women traveling across the country in a untrustworthy vehicle that breaks down and allows the characters to self reflect. To Wong Foo, while also quite funny, is a toned down version that lacks the in-your-face sexuality of Priscilla. The film works so brilliantly because the male leads create characters that are so real and genuine that it is natural to sympathize with their cause. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, while wickedly funny and superbly acted, features a phenomenal soundtrack and outstanding cinematography that make the film an absolute adventure.

Hugo Weaving plays Anthony "Tick" Belrose (or Mitzi Del Bra), a drag queen from Sydney who has accepted an offer to perform at a hotel resort in Alice Springs, a remote town in the middle of Australia. He convinces two fellow performers, Bernadette Bassenger (Stamp), a recently bereaved transsexual, and Adam Whitely/Felicia Jollygoodfellow, a flamboyant drag queen, to make the trip with him. They travel in a large tour bus that Adam christens Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. While on the long trip they encounter a group of less than accepting locals and a group of friendly Australian Aboriginals. The bus breaks down in the middle of the desert and they are saved by a middle-aged mechanic, Bob (Bill Hunter), who ends up going the ladies on their trip. The wildly energetic group continue to travel across the country in Priscilla singing and dancing. Before reaching their final destination the reasons for Anthony's trip to Alice Springs shock to his friends and the three ladies are able to discover more about themselves.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was written by Stephan Elliott, who also directed the film. It features many unforgettable lines that make Priscilla one of the hidden gems of the 1990s. My favourite line: "Why don't you just light your tampon, and blow your box apart? Because it's the only bang you're ever gonna get, sweetheart!" The film won an Academy Award in 1996 for Best Costume Design (the costumers were incredible!) and along with its camp style and incredible soundtrack the film has been adapted for the stage. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert - The Musical premiered in Sydney in 2006 and will be coming to Toronto in October 2010. There are so many outrageous moments in the film that it is too hard to pick a favourite scene. The three lead actors are so committed to their roles that we are able to forget that they are men and not real drag queens. Unlike To Wong Foo, the characters do not live and breath in character which makes it easier to relate to the characters. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert should be seen because it is comic genius, but it will be remember for its performances and its message of acceptance.

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

Review: "Harry Brown"

Forget his roles in Austin Powers and the two most recent Batman films, when I think of Michael Caine only one film comes to mind: Woody Allen's 1986 masterpiece Hannah and Her Sisters. Caine's Oscar-winning performance as an adulterous husband is the best work of his accomplished career, which includes Alfie (1966), Educating Rita (1983) and The Cider House Rules (1999). His most recent film, Harry Brown, released in late 2009 in Britain and awaiting release in North America, is entirely dependent on Michael Caine's quiet control. He has made a career out of playing quiet, brooding men with a restrained anger ready to escape. This is especially evident in Harry Brown, a much better constructed vigilante film than most, especially another Oscar-winner's attempt at vigilantism: Jodie Foster's The Brave One (2007). It is the first feature-length film by Daniel Barber, whose short film, The Tonto Woman (based on an Elmore Leonard story, responsible for the source material for and Get Shorty and Jackie Brown) was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. The film also stars Emily Mortimer (Match Point, and a clever guest appearance on 30 Rock) and David Bradley (most well known for his role as Argus Fitch in Harry Potter films). Harry Brown is a well-conceived film with tremendous acting that is able to maintain its tense atmosphere well past the film's violent climax.

Harry Brown (Michael Caine) is a Royal Marine veteran from North Ireland who lives on the housing estate at Elephant and Castle in London. The area is quickly deteriorating due to the high crime and violence committed by young gang members. His wife is in the hospital and the most direct route is to take a public underpass that known for gang activity. Informed that his wife is about to die Harry chooses not to take the underpass and is unable to reach her before she passes. Although depressed by his wife's death and the increasing violent outside his home, Harry is unwilling to get involved. He spends his days at a bar playing chess with his friend Ben (David Bradley). The pub is run by Sid (Liam Cunningham), who receives money from the local gangs. Ben complains that the gang put dog feces through his mailbox and spit on him, revealing that he has told police who have not intervened. The following day Harry is visited by Detective Inspector Frampton (Emily Mortimer) and Detective Sargeant Hicock (Charlie Creed-Miles) who tell him that Ben has been murdered by his own weapon, which would make the crime manslaughter of self-defense. Harry is incredibly upset by this and while walking home drunk from Sid's pub he is attacked by a gang member. His military training allows him to turn the knife on his attacker and he kills the young man. This experience makes Harry aware that Ben's death must be avenged. Harry goes to great lengths to protect himself and his neighbourhood and while DI Frampton starts to suspect him of vigilantism, Police Superintendent Childs (Iain Glen) is more concerned with drugs and gang wars. This leads to a brutally violent climax where many lives are put in jeopardy.

Harry Brown is a tense and harrowing thriller that highlights the negative effects of youth crimes. There is a growing number of British films with youths involved with drugs and violence which leads me to believe there is a growing concern in Britain about gang warfare. It is a social commentary that should make us all aware of our own neighbourhoods. While we do not have the right to commit acts of violence, we do have the right to live in a safe environment. Michael Caine makes Harry Brown one of the most sympathetic characters that I have encountered in a very long time. I may not agree with his actions but I was cheering for him while watching him torture a smart-mouthed kid. I found it very interesting that Emily Mortimer played the role of the police detective who uncovered the truth when she played the role of the oblivious spouse in Match Point whose husband got away with a murder when the detective was unable to prove his accurate hypothesis. Harry Brown is a well-paced and provocative thriller, led by the brilliant Michael Caine, that forces you to consider how you would react in similar situation.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

21 April 2010

Review: "The Maltese Falcon"

As silly as it may be, the reason I chose to see The Maltese Falcon is because it is revered by Roger Ebert. Ebert believes that Humphrey Bogart's performance enabled him to appear in Casablanca (1942) and his Oscar-winning role in The African Queen (1951). It is the first film by famed director John Huston, whose only film I have seen in Prizzi's Honor (1985), which won his daughter Anjelica the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. The Maltese Falcon is widely considered to be the first classical film noir. One of my favourite televisions shows (Veronica Mars) and one of my favourite films (L.A. Confidential) are noir-themed, I found The Maltese Faclon to be less inspiring than I had hoped. The film was beautifully shot with a great mystery, but I was disappointed by Humphrey Bogart. Is it standard practice for all of his films to feature him as a stubborn and conceited man who assumes that every woman will fall in love with him? I would have enjoyed the film a lot more had the bullshit love story been removed. The Maltese Falcon features a great mystery that keeps you guessing until the very end, yet it unfortunately feels too overindulgent and I found myself lost in its arrogance.

Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is a private detective in San Francisco. Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) comes into his office with a great story about her missing sister and a man named Frank Thursby. Wonderly has scheduled a meeting with Thursby and Spade's partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), agrees to be there. That evening Spade is informed that Archer has been killed and he finds that Wonderly has checked out of her hotel. Detective Polhaus (Ward Bond), a friend of Spade's, and his supervisor, Lieutenant Dundy (Barton MacLane), arrive at Spade's apartment and tell him that Thursby has also been killed. The two policemen suspect Spade of both murders. The next morning Spade discovers that Ruth Wonderly is actually Brigid O'Shaughnessy and that she and Thursby were partners and that he probably killed Archer. In his office Spade is meets Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) who offers him $5000 to find a black figure of a bird. With Brigid, back at his apartment, Cairo shows up and it becomes clear that the two are well acquainted with each other. Spade learns that the two are connected to the Fat Man, who is present in San Francisco. The Fat Man, Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), is not as forthcoming with information as Brigid and Joel Cairo were. Sam Spade finds himself in a difficult situation and he does not know which party is telling him the truth. He knows that all three are looking for the Maltese Falcon and have gone to great lengths to uncover its whereabouts.

I have come to realize that it may not be The Maltese Falcon that I found arrogant, but it is Humphrey Bogart and his performances that I find to be overconfident. Even his tone of voice began to aggravate me as I watched the film. The part that ruined the film for me was when it became obvious that the love story between Sam Spade and Brigid O'Shaughnessy was going to become a factor. Why is it that in many classic films the woman in distress has to fall madly in love with the man that saved her? Maybe I am being too unreasonable, or am I just jealous? I know that Humphrey Bogart can be in a great movie, like Casablanca (1942), but that is a film that does not hinge on his performance. It is a wonderful story in a film that is beautifully photographed. I am going to give him another chance. I will watch The African Queen and maybe I will realize his merits as an actor. I have never seen Chinatown (1974) which might be Hollywood's most revered noir. Even without seeing it I would suggest it before I would recommend The Maltese Falcon.

My rating: 2.5 stars out of 4.

Review: "Date Night"

Tina Fey and Steve Carell are currently starring on two of NBC's Thursday night comedies, 30 Rock and The Office, respectively. Both shows have won numerous awards and gain lots of press for its stars, yet neither would be called a movie star. Date Night, directed by Shawn Levy (whose films include Just Married (2003), Cheaper by the Dozen (2003) and Night at the Museum (2006) -- none of which I have seen), is the first collaboration for two of television's comedic geniuses. I have loved Tina Fey for a long time and her comedy is brilliant, but her prior films (Mean Girls (2004) and Baby Mama (2008)) have failed to turn her into a film star. Scott Feinberg, an entertainment writer for the L.A. Times, ranked Tina Fey tenth on his list of top ten Saturday Night Live cast members turned movie stars. I did not watch The Office at first because I found Steve Carell tried too hard to be funny. It was not until I saw his understated performance in Little Miss Sunshine (2006) that I began to enjoy him as a comedic actor. The most important factor for Date Night to be a success is the chemistry between the lead actors. Tina Fey and Steve Carell are believable as a boring married couple, but the film's screenplay fails them. Date Night stars out as a fun adventure, but by the third act the film turns into a cliched mess that is becomes a tiring bore.

Phil and Claire Foster (Carell and Fey) are happily married with two kids in New Jersey. Their idea of date night is their weekly date at the local steakhouse followed by a movie. Each is bored by the routine and upon hearing that their friends (Kristen Wiig and Mark Ruffalo) are divorcing they attempt to reignite the romance in their relationship. Phil decides to take Claire to a trendy restaurant in Manhattan and when they are unable to get a table without a reservation they take a reservation from the Tripplehorns, a couple that has failed to show up. During their meal they are approached by two men, Collins and Armstrong(Common and Jimmi Simpson, most known to me from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia). The men lead the fosters into the alley and question them at gunpoint about the location of a flash drive. Thinking on his feet Phil leads them to a boathouse in Central Park and after an unlikely escape they go to the police station and meet with Detective Arroyo (Taraji P. Henson). At the station they see Collins and Armstrong with police badges and make an escape. Claire takes Phil to see a former client, Holbrooke Grant (Mark Wahlberg), a security expert, in hopes of finding the Tripplehorns. Their search leads to finding Taste and Whippit (James Franco and Mila Kunis) who willingly hand over the flash drive. Date Night then turns into a less than satisfactory comedy that takes Phil and Claire on a car chase and a less than exciting trip to a strip club where the film ends on a too-forced conclusion.

Unfortunately Date Night is not sophisticated enough for the talents of Tina Fey and Steve Carell. It is nice to see him not have to force the comedy, as he sometimes does on The Office, but the writing is too simple and too cliched for these actors. 30 Rock may not be high class humour but it is exceptionally written and timed, thanks to Tina Fey and her team. Date Night would have befitted from Tina Fey's talents. Mean Girls may have seemed like just another teen comedy, but Tina Fey's screenplay made the film witty and satirical. Tina Fey and Steve Carell do have chemistry, though I believe that they did not kiss until the end of the film which turned into an awkward embrace on the lawn. Mark Wahlberg is too old to be eye candy and if this was a decade ago he could have gone an entire film shirtless. Kristin Wiig is too talented a comedian to be used so sparingly as Tina Fey's best friend, and the only other person on Earth who would have been less obvious in that role is Amy Poehler. Unfortunately, the film underused the talents of its actors and with a better screenplay and a more focused plot Date Night would have been a very enjoyable comedy.

My rating: 2.5 stars out of 4.

EDIT As I watch Goodfellas I am reminded that Ray Liotta appears in the film. It has to say something that I could not even remember his role, in the film's dismal third act, because the ending was such a mess!

Review: "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

For my entire life Elizabeth Taylor has been a celebrity, not an actress, known for her many marriages and health problems. Her last major film role was 1980's The Mirror Crack'd, which costarred Julie Andrews and Kim Novak. Few members of my generation would know that she is an accomplished actress and is a five-time Best Actress nominee at the Academy Awards, winning twice. Her career began at a young age and she gained recognition for her role in 1944's National Velvet. It was not until A Place in the Sun (filmed in 1949, released in 1951) that Elizabeth Taylor was able to compete for adult film roles. In 1960 she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in BUtterfield 8. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the directorial debut of Mike Nichols, the Academy Award-winning director of The Graduate (1967) as well as Silkwood (1983), Postcards from the Edge (1990) and The Birdcage (1996). Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an adaptation of Edward Albee's 1962 play, which was recommended for the Pulitzer Prize for Best Play in 1963 but was rejected because of its vulgarity. It is an astonishing film and I loved every second of it. Elizabeth Taylor deservedly won the Best Actress award for her performance as the drunk and verbally abusive wife. I was mesmerized from beginning to end. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a provocative film featuring an expert cast and screenplay that help create an explosively corrosive environment.

It is 2:00 am and George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) have returned home from a faculty party. George is an associate professor in the history department and Martha is his wife, daughter of the college president. Martha has invited Nick (George Segal), the newly hired biology professor, and his wife Honey (Sandy Dennis), over for a drink. George is immediately upset that he was not asked first and Martha begins yelling and screaming. He seems all too used to her erratic behaviour and before the guests arrive he tells Martha not to mention anything about their son. Nick and Honey enter the house and are at once thrust into the middle of a hostile marital spat, each spouse trying to force their guests to take sides. Martha takes Honey on a tour of the house and upon her return mentions to George that she was unaware they had a child. Martha begins telling stories to her guests about George being an awful father. Honey, who has become very drunk, rushes from the room to get sick and the two men step outside while Martha makes coffee. Nick shares with George that he only married Honey because she was pregnant, which ended up only being a hysterical pregnancy. George and Nick share stories and secrets and George reveals that he does consider Mark a threat. Finally, Nick announces that he and Honey are leaving and George proposes that he drive them, and the ensuing scene should be enough to prevent anyone from getting into a car with a drunk driver! The secrets and lies begin to unfold during a a very intense scene at a roadhouse where it becomes evident that George and Martha's arguments are just part of a game.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is reminiscent of many other films, though two in particular come to the forefront. In Adam's Rib we have two main characters who spend almost the entire film arguing, and even more incredible Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were romantically involved as were Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, during their first marriage to each other. I also see similarities with the Woody Allen film September (1987), which, like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is essentially a stage play on film. Allen's film is set entirely in a dimly lit house, and while it does not feature the same violent arguments I find myself comparing the two. Elizabeth Taylor is incredible in the role of Martha, a character supposedly in her mid fifties, almost two decades older than Taylor was at the time. She demonstrates a controlled insanity and her scenes with the naive Honey are some of the film's best. Sandy Dennis also deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, for a film that was nominated in every category it was eligible. It is hard not to mention the profanity in the film, which was quite controversial at the time, and while it does not include the profanity that one would find in a Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino film, the dialogue is scathing and hostile and yet beautiful to hear. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a powerful film with outstanding performances and exceptional cinematography that shocked me from its verbally explosive opening scene to its heartbreaking end.

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

19 April 2010

Review: "Vertigo"

After being completely underwhelmed by Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 film Dial M For Murder I decided to watch what the American Film Institute considers to be the best mystery film ever made, Alfred Hitchock's 1958 film Vertigo. I have memories of watching the opening scenes and seeing James Stewart's panic attacks. The film is considered to be Kim Novak's crowning achievement, though her performance has not always been reviewed positively. James Stewart is widely considered to be one of the greatest legends in American film history and he gives an inspired performance in the film. James Stewart won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1940 for his performance in The Philadelphia Story. The film is deservedly ranked on the American Film Institute's list of top ten mystery films ever made, but I would argue that it is undeserving of the top spot. Vertigo It is a top notch thriller with a romantic love story at its core, and the collaboration between James Stewart and Kim Novak help make it a tense and captivating film.

James Stewart plays John "Scottie" Ferguson, a police detective who develops acrophobia (fear of heights) after he witnesses a fellow police officer fall to his death from a San Francisco rooftop. He retires from the police force because he believes that his acrophobia will negatively affect him and he refuses to take a desk job. Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) hires Scottie to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) and attempt to decipher her erratic behaviour. He follows Madeleine as she visits the grave of a woman named Carlotta Valdes, a museum with a portrait of the same woman and a hotel that was once the home of the Vales family. He learns that Carlotta is Madeleine's great-grandmother who lived a tragic life that ended in suicide. He witnesses Madeleine jump into San Francisco Bay and jumps in after her. Scottie brings Madeleine back to his home and comforts her and she reveals that she believes she is Carlotta Valdes. The two become increasingly closer and after Madeleine recounts a dream Scottie brings her to Mission San Juan Bautista where Madeleine runs into the bell tower and up the stairs. Scottie, halted by his vertigo, is unable to chase after her and watches Madeleine fall to her death. Scottie becomes depressed after Madeleine's death and begins visiting the same locations as Madeleine. The mystery surrounding Madeleine's death is soon revealed and Vertigo turns into an even more complex and thrilling film.

Watching the first half of Vertigo I kept seeing similarities between Madeleine and her belief that she was Carlotta Valdes with Toni Collette's character on United States of Tara. At first I thought that Vertigo was made before dissociative identity disorder (multiple personality disorder) was popularized on film, but Joanne Woodward's Oscar-winning performance in the film The Three Faces of Eve was released in 1957. I was a little put off by the age difference between James Stewart and Kim Novak in the film, but Hitchcock did a remarkable job of making the emotional relationship between the two characters seem plausible. Kim Novak was mesmerizing as Madeleine and her suffering was evident through her haunting eyes. I most enjoyed the quiet moments of Vertigo, especially at the beginning when Scottie was following Madeleine and the only sound on screen was the film's score. My only complaint is that Barbara Bel Geddes' character, Midge, was underused. I feel that her character's unrequited love for Scottie added an extra dimension that I wanted to remain present throughout the film. Vertigo is an intensely emotional thriller that mixes pain, lust and guilt to create an unexpected and beautifully shot film.

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

Review: "Dial M For Murder"

Continuing my trend of watching classic Hollywood films I watched Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 film Dial M For Murder, which stars the elegant Grace Kelly. Unfortunately, with a screenplay by Frederick Knott (based on his own stage play), I was expecting much more. Knott wrote the stage play on which the 1967 Audrey Hepburn film Wait Until Dark was based. 1954 was a busy year for Grace Kelly, who appeared in five films, including Alfred Hitchcock's Read Window. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in The Country Girl. I have always loved Grace Kelly because she was the Princess of Monaco, and it is hard to believe that she is only ranked thirteenth on the American Film Institute's list of top actresses in American cinema. This is, of course, owing to the fact that she only appeared in eleven films and retired from acting at twenty-six. My main complaint with the film is that I had trouble discovering the tension within the film. Dial M For Murder primarily takes place in a single apartment and the claustrophobic atmosphere should have heightened the suspense. Save for the powerful scene immortalized in the film's poster, Dial M For Murder was a sub par thriller that left me wanting more from the actors and the screenplay.

Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) is a former tennis player who retired when his wife Margot (Grace Kelly) complained about his schedule. A year prior Margot began having an affair with Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), an American crime novelist. Tony discovered a letter that Mark had written to Margot and after faking the theft of her purse to steal the letter he began blackmailing his wife, expecting her to admit to the affair. Filled with jealousy and greed Tony coerces a college acquaintance, C.J. Swann (Anthony Dawson), to kill Margot and threatens to turn him into the police as the blackmailer if he refuses. The plan works perfectly until Swann attempts to strangle Margot against the bureau and she reaches for a pair of scissors and kills him. Realizing that his plan has been foiled, Tony uses his wife's naiveté to convince the investigator, Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams), that Margot lured Swann to the apartment to kill him. Margot is sentenced to death and the only way to save her is to find the truth.

Besides the lack of suspense in Dial M For Murder, I found the performances by Ray Milland and Grace Kelly to be too over the top. Maybe I have trouble believing that a woman who would go to such lengths to have a secret affair would be so subservient to her husband. I also find it hard to believe that so much circumstantial evidence could put a woman in jail and sentence her to death. The film lacked all of the suspense present in Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. Swann's murder was tense and thrilling, but this happened halfway into the film and while we should have remained worried about Margot's future it was evident that Mark would defeat Tony and save her. The film was more conversation than anything else and the film failed to live up to my expectations. I feel that Dial M For Murder would have had a more satisfying second act had the focus been on Margot and her state of mind and her discovery that her husband had attempted to murder her and then set her up for the murder of her assailant.

My rating: 2 stars out of 4.

17 April 2010

Review: "Strangers on a Train"

After watching Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 film Strangers on a Train I realized I had only ever seen one of his other films, Torn Curtain (1966). I have seen parts of Veritgo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960). For the longest time my only knowledge of Strangers on a Train was from an episode of CSI on television! The film is based on a 1950 novel by Patricia Highsmith, who also wrote the novel The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955). The film stars Robert Walker and Farley Granger as two men who meet on a train and concoct a wild plan to commit murders for each other. The opening scene of the films features two pairs of feet entering the train station from opposite directions. Strangers on a Train is well known for its use of doubles, which highlights the central theme of crisscrossing. Strangers on a Train is an intelligent thriller with two wonderful lead actors and Hitchcock's expect understanding of scene and detail, which he uses to maintain the tension throughout the film up to its infamous climax.

Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is an amateur tennis star who wants to divorce his wife Miriam (Kasey Rogers) so he can marry Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), the beautiful and rich daughter of a senator. On the train he meets Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), a who approaches Guy and claims to be a fan. Bruno tells Guy that he has heard about his marital problems in the gossip columns and then tells Guy about his plan for a perfect murder. Guy would kill Bruno's father and Bruno would kill Miriam, and since the two men are strangers neither will be suspected of the crime. Guy visits his wife and is expecting to meet a divorce lawyer and instead Miriam takes his money and refuses to grant him a divorce, adding that no one will approve of a senator's daughter having an affair with a married man. Bruno eventually murders Miriam and Guy is unable to provide a solid alibi. Guy, angry and upset that Bruno assumed that he had agreed to the plan, refuses to perform his end of the bargain. Bruno then makes a series of intrusive appearances in Guy's life, putting Anne and her family at risk.

It is unclear at the beginning whether or not Bruno is mentally unstable, though by the end it is perfectly clear that he is a psychopath. You cannot help but envision yourself in the same situation and wonder whether you would follow through with your end of the murder. There are some marvelous scenes in the film: while Guy is playing a tennis match the spectators heads move back and forth with the flow of the game, except for Bruno, whose eyes remain fixed on Guy. It is that minute detail that makes Hitchcock's film a terrific thriller and makes you even more aware of Bruno's increasing instability. The film's climax, set at the fairground where Bruno murdered Miriam, includes a runaway merry-go-round which did not use special effects and could have killed the stunt man. Roger Ebert argues in his review that there is an unstated sexual tension between Bruno and Guy. I am not positive that I agree, but it is makes me want to watch the film again and pay more attention to Bruno. I agree that Bruno may be gay, and that the reason he wants to kill his father is because of his objections to his lifestyle. Strangers on a Train may not be as good as my favourite classic thriller, Wait Until Dark (1967), but it is an expert thriller from a director that understands every aspect of a film.

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

12 April 2010

Review: "Adam's Rib"

Katharine Hepburn may be the most revered American actress in terms of Academy Awards success (having won a staggering four Best Actress awards). Unfortunately, no one epitomizes old Hollywood, in my opinion, more than Audrey Hepburn. I almost find it challenging to like Katharine Hepburn, and have not really seen many of her films because of this so-called rivalry. Thanks to the always marvelous Siobhan I was given the opportunity to see Adam's Rib. The 1949 film was the sixth film to star Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy and the second (of three) directed by George Cukor (who is most well known for the films The Philadelphia Story (1940) and A Star is Born (1954)). Adam's Rib is a classic romantic comedy and Hepburn and Tracy own the screen with the kind of chemistry that is often lacking in modern films - even Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan could learn quite a few things from watching this film! The wonderfully witty screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award in 1950, and the film was ranked by the American Film Institute as the seventh best romantic comedy. The best parts of Adam's Rib are the arguments between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, which flow so naturally that it feels like the characters will come to blow.

Adam's Rib opens with a young housewife, Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday) carrying a loaded gun through New York City. She follows her husband Warren (Tom Ewell) and his girlfriend Beryl (Jean Hagen) to her apartment where she repeatedly shoots at them. The following day, while reading the morning paper in bed, Amanda and Adam Bonner (Hepburn and Tracy) argue the logistics of the case and discover they have vastly different views. Adam, an Assistant District Attorney, is dismayed to learn that he has been chosen to prosecute Doris Attinger for attempted murder. Amanda, also a lawyer, goes out of her way to offer her legal services to Doris. She knows that this will upset her husband and reveals this information to him during a dinner party in front of their close friends and neighbours. Adam is incredibly upset by Amanda's actions and the couple soon begin to battle each other in the courtroom, with their antics spread across the front pages of newspapers. Adam and Amanda use every tactic to try to win the case and the harder they fight the more the tension builds at home.

Adam's Rib is a hilarious romantic comedy that owes every bit of its success to Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. It is wonderful to watch the real life couple create magic on screen. It is no wonder that Katharine Hepburn is listed as the American Film Institute's greatest American screen legend, she presents herself as such as strong woman that Amanda Bonner's personal convictions could encourage today's youth. Unfortunately, there was one part of the film that just pissed me off. The side story involving the Adam and Amanda's neighbour Kip (David Wayne) just infuriated me. It was as if the writers were trying to soften the humour from the tense arguments by having Kip constantly profess his love for Amanda through song. Hearing him speak and sing just annoyed me. Adam's Rib is a smart comedy that highlights the strengths of Hepburn and Tracey's partnership and reminds us that a film does not need cheap laughs to be outrageously funny.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

Review: "Sunset Boulevard"

I have started to fulfill my promise, I have begun watching more classic films. Next on my list: Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder's 1950 film about an aging silent screen star's attempt to return to the big screen. I have seen two of Wilder's films, Sabrina (1954) and Some Like It Hot (1959), which are two of the best classic comedies from the 1950s. Sunset Boulevard stars William Holden (who would later star in Sabrina), Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim and Nancy Olson. Famed director Cecil B. DeMille makes also makes a cameo appearance in the film. Sunset Boulevard was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, including nominations for all Best Picture, Best Director and acting nominations for the four aforementioned stars. It won awards for Art Direction (Black and White), Music and Writing. Sunset Boulevard is a fantastic film that dramatizes the negative aspects of Hollywood, and just as Sunset Boulevard itself is synonymous with the golden age of the film industry, Sunset Boulevard is a classic film about an aging actress that spawned a long list of imitators. William Holden's and Gloria Swanson's performances are so mesmerizing that it is hard to believe that this film is pure fiction. With Swanson's deadpan sarcasm, Sunset Boulevard may be one of the first American black comedies.

Like All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard begins at the end with a body floating in a pool. Through his narration we learn the body belongs to Joe Gillis (William Holden), a struggling Hollywood screenwriter who is finding it harder and harder to sell his material. He is three payments behind on his car, and in a last ditch effort to find some work he goes to Paramount Studios where a young script reader, Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), deflates his ego. On the run from the repossession crew, Joe parks his car in a seemingly abandoned garage of a large house on Sunset Boulevard. The house belongs to Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a former silent screen star who has long since lost her fame. Norma has written a script which she hopes which thrust her back into the spotlight, and she convinces Joe to stay at her mansion to edit her screenplay. With the help of her servant Max (Erich von Stroheim), Norma turns Joe into a kept man by lavishing him with attention and gifts. One evening when Joe tries to return to his old life Norma slits her wrists, prompting Joe to return to her side. Norma eventually sends her screenplay to her old friend Cecil B. DeMille, and while on the Paramount lot Joe runs into Nancy again and the two begin working on a screenplay together. He starts sneaking out of the house at night to be with Nancy and eventually Joe has to choose between the women in his life.

Sunset Boulevard has spawned many imitators, but the one film I kept envisioning was Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway. It makes me wonder if Dianne Wiest's Helen Sinclar was channeling Norma Desmond in her performance. The aging actress has long been a central issue in Hollywood films, from All About Eve (1950) to Being Julia (2004). It is amazing that it has taken me so long to see this film, and it was not until seeing it that I realized that the famous line "Alright, Mr. DeMille. I'm ready for my close-up." is from this film. I should stop being amazed at the references I have missed because I have not seen so many classic films. The final scene of Sunset Boulevard is reminiscent of the final scene in one of my favourite cult films, Cecil B. Demented. As a true fan of film I loved Sunset Boulevard and I love almost every film about the industry. It has a true dark sense of humour and incredible performances from every actor. Gloria Swanson was incredible as Norma Desmond, it was mesmerizing to watch her create a character so blinded by her own ego. My only complaint is that my mind often wandered to memories of watching the reality show Kept, Jerry Hall's criminally pathetic show about finding herself a kept man.

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

11 April 2010

Review: "All About Eve"

There is something about labeling a film a classic that often makes me not want to watch it. The same goes for a lot of classic novels. I have never read Ernest Hemingway or J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. The major difference is that I have a love for certain old films, especially anything featuring Audrey Hepburn. With the great number of films available to watch online, I have decided to go back to the past and watch some of the classic films that are a part of cinema history. All About Eve is a 1950 drama written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who also directed Guys and Dolls (1955) and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) and starring Bette Davis and Anne Baxter. All About Eve was nominated for fourteen Academy Awards, and is still the only film to receive four female acting nominations (Best Actress for Davis and Baxter, and Best Supporting Actress for Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter). The film did win six awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for George Sanders. With superb performances, All About Eve, a film about ruthless ambition, is a worthy classic because its themes of aging and career are timeless.

The film begins at an awards dinner honouring Broadway's newest star, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). All About Eve flashes back a year to when Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is Broadway's biggest star, though she is beginning to show her age. One evening the wife of the playwright, Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), meets the young Eve outside the theatre. Eve claims to have seen every performance. Karen brings her backstage to meet Margo, where she is also introduced to Karen's husband Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), Margo's lover Bill (Gary Merrill) and Margo's maid Birdie (Thelma Ritter). Blinded by Eve's obsession, Margo befriends her and soon offers Eve a job as her personal assistant. It then becomes apparent that Eve has an agenda. She wants to become the queen of Broadway. Eve uses her close friendship with Margo and her small circle of friends to achieve her personal success. She schemes against Margo by playing against her insecurities, which include her relationship with Bill and her age. The only person who seems to understand Eve's tactics is Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). Eve, seemingly young and naive, is ambitious beyond her years and will stop at nothing to achieve fame.

It is almost embarrassing, but for the longest time my only knowledge of Bette Davis was the Kim Carnes song Bette Davis Eyes. Bette Davis was the first actor to ever be nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning for Dangerous (1935) and Jezebel (1938). One of my favourite directors, Pedro Almodóvar, plays as an homage to All About Eve, where the characters are seen watching the film and a reference is made to Eve Harrington later in the film. All About Eve reminds me of Woody Allen's film Melinda and Melinda, where a young girl comes and alters the life of a unassuming couple, though it does not have the same themes of blind ambition. This theme becomes more and more obvious while watching All About Eve, and it seems to be quite a prevalent issue in Hollywood today. So many films are made about a young star's attempts to gain fame and fortune, and I believe that any of them would benefit from Eve's techniques!

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

Review: "Chloe"

I confess, I will watch Julianne Moore in anything. From her awkward Boston accent on 30 Rock to her scene-stealing role in The Big Lebowski to her career best work in Far From Heaven, Julianne Moore is a brilliant actress. Her current film, Chloe, has a lot of positives that attracted me. It is directed by acclaimed Canadian director Atom Egoyan (whose previous films include Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997), which was nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards). Chloe is a remake of a 2004 French film, Nathalie, by Anne Fontaine (who also directed Coco avant Chanel). Erin Cressida Wilson, the film's screenwriter, had set the film in San Francisco, but at Egoyan's urging the location was changed to Toronto. According to the CBC, Egoyan had to convince producers Ivan and Jason Reitman that Toronto is an alluring and sexually charged city. Amanda Seyfried (television's Big Love and Veronica Mars, two of my personal favourites), one of Hollywood's newest it girls, stars as Chloe, the film's most pivotal role. Chloe, entangled in lies and assumptions, is a clever and classy film that sets out to provoke and challenge your point of view.

Catherine (Julianne Moore) is a wealthy doctor in Toronto's upscale neighbourhood of Yorkville.
Unhappy at home, Catherine feels neglected by her husband David (Liam Neeson), and completely ignored by her seventeen year old son Michael (Max Thieriot). She has gone to great lengths to plan a surprise birthday party for her husband. David, a university professor, was lecturing in New York the day of his party and missed his flight home to have a drink with an attractive young woman. The next morning she intercepts a message on David's cell phone, a picture of David with the young woman thanking him for the previous night. This only fuels Catherine's suspicions. After discussing the number of young girls (prostitutes) with older businessmen while celebrating David's birthday with friends at a trendy restaurant, Catherine meets the young Chloe (Amanda Seyfried) in the washroom. This interaction leads Catherine to track down the young call girl and offer her money to attempt to seduce David. Catherine is unable to imagine the effects of this decision and her secret dealings with Chloe eventually put her and her family's future in danger.

Chloe is Atom Egoyan's most mainstream film, which is saying a lot considering the highly sexual themes and imagery in the film. There are a great number of films which deal with wives who suspect their husbands of cheating, but Chloe takes this plot and gives it a new spin. The film is not about whether or not David is cheating on Catherine, but how Catherine's jealousy fuels the film's development. Julianne Moore is beautiful and electrifying as the vindictive wife, while Amanda Seyfried shows a considerable amount of maturity and restraint as the young temptress (although I have trouble believing that an upscale prostitute like Chloe would wear such an unflattering coat!). Roger Ebert talks about the film's conclusion in his review, and wonders if some viewers will find it arbitrary. I would have preferred if the film had ended a few shots earlier and left the ending more ambiguous. I understand the symbolism reflected in the last shot, but I believe that Chloe would have benefited from a less forced ending.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.