Monday, August 31, 2009

A journey from despair to hysteria

Just let me sleep it off...

Some movie recommendations from Elizabeth [Oh By Jingo! Oh By Gee!] caused me an emotional roller coaster yesterday. I know that I have a tendency to sink into the world of film, especially when I watch them alone and with a headset - there's nothing from the outside world that can reach me. But to go from inconsolable crying to almost choking to death with laughter (by now I sound like Jean Arthur) is something out of the ordinary, even for me. (Oh well, it doesn't happen every day...)

And for once, I will try to hold my promise to keep the blog post short. (Sure, no one has complained about them being too long, but personally I admire people who can express themselves in a short and concise way, and not, to directly translate a Swedish expression, "word poo".)

Director: William Wyler
USA 1942
134 min

See it on YouTube here.

When I am seriously curious about a film I haven't yet seen, I try to read as little about it as possible not to get it spoiled. Therefore I was quite shocked at finding Mrs. Miniver not being a sweet, cosy, utopian small town story (ey, I only judged by the title...), but rather a beautiful, smalltown nightmare. All the sweetness and sincere joy and appreciation for the fellow man only adds to the tragedy.

Mrs. Miniver (Garson) is the loving housewife of Clem Miniver (Pidgeon) in an English village anno 1939. The married couple's main problem by the beginning of the film is how to tell to one another that they both have too extravagant taste in their shopping for a middle class family (an expensive hat and a brand new car, guess who bought what), and their small children embarrassing the elder brother Vincent (Ney) and his love interest (Wright). This soon changes when Britain joins the World War II, and Vincent has to join the RAF, and Clem goes on a mission on the sea.

Just to further make this film crab ahold of the viewer, there is a sweet side story with a deer old station master, Mr. Ballard (Travers, who we recognize as the angel Clarence in It's a Wonderful Life, 1946), with a passion for roses. He names his most beautiful rose after Mrs. Miniver to enter the local flower contest. This makes it very hard to watch the scenes where the Germans start bombing England to pieces, not to mention the total loss of joy in the face of the otherwise so happy-go-lucky Vincent in the last scene. I frankly couldn't recognize him as the same actor at first.

Bombing of London, 1940.

This is such a beautiful and heart tearing film. Wyler admitted openly that he made the film for propaganda purposes, since he disliked America's isolationism from the ongoing war. The film helped the Americans to sympathize with their British equivalents. The last speech, held by Wilcoxon's vicar (supposedly re-written the night before shooting by Wyler and Wilcoxon), was used as war propaganda. It was translated into several languages and air-dropped in leaflets over Nazi occupied Europe on the request of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Since then, the speech has gone to history as The Wilcoxon Speech, after the actor who first performed it.

The final scene in a bombed church.

Well, in short this is a terrific film. Judging by my reaction (in total loss of hope, drowned in tears, inconsolable), I can be your witness that it's an emotionally gripping film. It got about a billion Oscar statues:
Best Actress in Leading Role - Greer Garson
Best Actress in Supporting Role - Teresa Wright
Best Cinematography B/W - Joseph Ruttenberg
Best Director - William Wyler
Best Picture
Best Writing, Screenplay
A popular rumor is that Greer Garson's acceptance speech lasted for over an hour, something that is completely wrong. She did however speak for five and a half minutes, and broke the record anyway.
Isn't it funny that Greer Garson later went and married Richard Ney, who plays her son in the film?

Yeah, grow a mustache so you look a little older!

Favorite scene: Mr. and Mrs. Miniver in the basement with their youngest children during an air raid. As most children do, they at first sleep through bombings and shootings, but when the bombs comes so near that the basement almost falls in on them, they wake up and are scared to death. There was something horrible in watching a helpless mother trying to keep her calm while comforting her children, who for once really has something to be frightened about.


USA 1947
110 min

See it on YouTube here.

After "The Miniver Experience", I needed something to cheer me up before I went to bed. And now I made the right choice!

Walter Mitty (Kaye) is a terribly absent-minded man who too often lets himself slip away into an exciting dream world of his own, where he is the admired hero and has a beautiful, helpless blonde (Mayo) on his arm.

His reality is however somewhat different. His work contains of control reading trash novels with poorly dresses women in despair on the front covers. His boss constantly steals his ideas and takes the credit himself, and Mitty's frequent daydreaming puts his employment at stake. On top of all, he's engaged to a girl (Rutherford) with a horribly spoiled dog, and an equally horrible mother-in-law (Bates, who also plays an annoying mother-in-law in the Powell/Loy comedy Love Crazy, 1941).

One day his path crosses that of his dreamgirl's real life twin, Rosalind van Hoorn (Mayo, again), and soon he is drawn into a dime novel plot of his own - only with the difference that this is for real, and he can't just snap out of it like he can with his fantasies.

This is such a sweet, entertaining and insane movie. I can't believe that I hadn't seen it before, because it's exactly my kind of humour. I think I like Danny Kaye... Boris Karloff was really frightening in a role that kind of mocks his earlier horror performances. And I certainly admire how Virignia Mayo manages to act opposite Kaye and keep from laughing at lines like "Oh, Gaylord!". She should have been rewarded with some kind of reward for that.

By the way; I read on IMDb that Mike Myers is doing a remake of this film, probably finished in 2010. I don't usually like remakes, but if they are done as an homage to the original and with great respect it can be really interesting. And if there is one actor today that can do this role, I definitely think that Mike Myers is the one. I'm curious as heck!

Favorite scene: The dream sequence below. One of them, at least. It's so hard to decide, the whole film is totally hilarious.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

USA, Germany 2009
153 min

Wow. I can't remember the last time there were more than one (if even that) watchable film showing in the theater during the short period of one month. I have already written about Public Enemies [post], a film I was surprisingly pleased with. But when Tarantino's new film hit the theaters, I thought I would burst into tears of joy. Can this be happening? Is there a hope for modern cinema? Will I, in say 30 years, be able to look back and brag about the day I saw this-and-that classic film at the cinema?

I certainly think so, after having seen Inglourious Basterds. There is hope! And I really wish that not all classic film devotees will ignore new films totally - after all, we all want to create new classics, right?

I will not go on too much about this film.* For one thing, I know that this blog is called Lolita's Classics, and I'm expected to write about much older films than this. (Even though I really believe that this one is to become one of the few immortal films from the early 2000's.)
The other reason why I won't ramble about Inglourious Basterds is that it's a Tarantino film. And everyone who has seen only a fragment of a film of his, knows that the plot is seldom too easy to explain. Anyway, the plot is seldom the strength of the film.

When it comes to Tarantino, film is art. Whether it's the surreal everyday dialog ("Royal with cheese"), unexpected camera angles and scene cutting, unusual color schemes or with purpose scratchy frames. Here we have a director that is still experimenting with ways of expression. A guy that dares to go in the opposite direction than his fellow filmmakers.
In short, Tarantino is a really fascinating director, in the same category as, say, Hitchcock and Fritz Lang. Or for that matter (while already name dropping); Polanski, Truffaut and Godard.

Quentin Tarantino. Perhaps not beautiful, but nonetheless a mastermind.

Well, hey-ho! I feel I'm doing well in the "not rambling on and on about it" department. Let's cut to the film itself.

I know I have been complaining about movies nowadays never manage to be shorter than two hours, and this is one of those. Inglorious Basterds is no shorter than two and a half hours. But the difference is huge - I wouldn't have cut out or shorten any of the scenes in it. This is the kind of film that needs to be a little longer, in order to get the audience to really enter the world of cinema.
The introduction scene is a great example. The pace is comfortable, Tarantino doesn't rush. I almost feel that he all through this film thought "Fuck the impatient public. I'm creating - I won't compromise the quality of my art by adding unnecessary action to keep the interest of a retarded audience."
Or at least something similar.

Now I'll do my best with describing the plot.
It's the early 1940's. A French farmer, Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet) and his three daughters are visited by the infamous German "Jew Hunter", Col. Hans Landa (Waltz), who is on a mission to track down hiding Jewish families. Landa is obviously suspecting that LaPadite is hiding a family, but he never says it out loud. Instead he sits down, lights a huge pipe (a hint to Sherlock Holmes) and asks for a glass of milk. (His main interrogation strategy is to keep people uncomfortable and uncertain whether he knows something or not.) Landa smiles and thanks for the glass of milk, with a dubious remark:
"Mes compliments a vos filles et vos vaches."
He underlines the word "vaches". Translated to English, the sentence means "My thanks to your daughters and your cows".
Why do I mention this, you might wonder. Because the word "vache" is not only the French word for "cow", but it is also a vulgar slang for "vagina". What I'm trying to say is that Tarantino manages to fill even the French and the German dialog with double entendres and cleverly hidden insults.

[Update: The quote was not entirely correct, the actual quote is "À votre famille et à vos vaches, je dis bravo.", which does not change the meaning of the pun, and it sounds better. Thanks for informing me, Michael 'Llakor' Ryan!]

It does not take too long before Landa plainly asks LaPadite if he hides a Jewish family in his house. LaPadite has played his part well, but realizes that Landa is on to him. With a tear falling down his chin, he points out where under the floor the Jewish family is hiding. Landa calls for his men, who shoots the wooden floor into pieces. One Jewish daughter, Shosanna, manages to escape the massacre.

Cristoph Waltz as Hans Landa must be one of the modern actors that has amazed me the most - he is simply brilliant. You can't help but having a kind of love/hate relationship with his character. He keeps everyone around him on the edge, they're never sure whether he is onto them or just messing around. He is a monster, but still have some twisted, sick charm. Your conscience will haunt you long after seeing this film, I tell you.

"The Jew Hunter", Col. Hans Landa (Waltz).

Now to the inglourious basterds, and Brad Pitt. Years ago I hated this actor. I've always hated the typical teenage poster idols. After his part in Fight Club (1999), I had to change my opinion about him. He really can act, and he can be quite adorable. If yet, a little mental. Playing Lt. Aldo Raine in Inglorious Basterds, he grew even more in my eyes. I guess Pitt is that kind of an actor who needs a skilled director to bring out his qualities, and it's worth it.
For the first thing - he plays a character his own age. In the close-ups you see the thin lines under his eyes, and it does look awfully good on him. And the old-fashioned cap should live and start a family on Pitt's head.
But most importantly - he has a character that is just oh, so right for him. He is cool as hell.

Lt. Aldo Raine (Pitt) gathers a group of American-Jewish soldiers to complete a mission - each of them will kill and cut off the scalps of a hundred Nazis. They do so by infiltrating the enemy, pretending to be Nazis themselves.
The group calls themselves "The Basterds", and soon the rumor about their fatal habits is spreading among a frightened Nazis of The Third Reich.
Tarantino has cleverly skipped the training-for-the-mission part of the story (I had feared a 1980's montage scene), because it's not important. We instead directly get a wonderful insight in the Basterds' interrogation technique, shown in a lovely graphic manner. But in the usual Tarantino way, it's more entertaining (and strangely artistic) than gruesome. Or am I just a very sick girl?

Brad Pitt, Brad Pitt, Brad Pitt and Eli Roth.

The earlier mentioned Jewish girl, Shosanna, with a brand new Aryan identity, now runs a movie theatre. This causes a lot of fun references to classic cinema, like G.W. Pabst, Marlene Dietrich, Leni Riefenstahl and Louis B. Mayer (who, according to the Nazis, is second greatest in the film industry after the minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels). Shosanna is courted by a German sniper hero, Pvt. Fredrick Zoller (Brühl, who we recognize from the international success Good Bye Lenin! from 2003).
Fredrick has just played himself in a film adaption about his war efforts, and has soon convinced the obviously disgusted Shosanna to premiere the new film in her theatre, with all the big names of the Nazi organization attending - including Der Führer himself.
If this isn't a perfect opportunity for revenge, then what is?

Among this misch-masch, we also have a German actress, Bridget von Hammersmark (played by Diane Kruger) who works for the Basterds, informing them about the film premiere at Shosanna's movie theatre. Soon we not only have Shosanna plotting for revenge, but also the Basterds planning on blowing up the whole Nazi organization, mustaches and all.

Even though this is a historical film, it is far from predictable. Tarantino has thrown most historical correctness aside, you see. It is a "What if?" film, Tarantino style. Watching Inglourious Basterds is like entering a parallell universe, truly fascinating.
In the lack of historical correctness, Tarantino has instead chosen to reach another kind of relism. For example it's a quatrilingual film (French, German, English and Italian), and the film was mainly shot in different locations in Germany and in Paris, France, instead of going out in the American country and faking the locations. He has hired French and German actors, instead of American actors with silly accents. (Something for you, Kate Gabrielle!)
You therefore notice that there's a lot of efforts behind this film, something that is great about Tarantino. Instead of massproducing a lot of crappy films, and only once in a while put some energy into it (like many other directors do), Tarantino puts his soul in his work, and make almost exclusively masterpieces.

Mélanie Laurent - a modern femme fatale.

The actress playing Shosanna, Mélanie Laurent, breaths Golden Age of Hollywood all over. Sure, in most scenes she appears in an old cap, straight unbrushed hair and no make-up, but she still looks ravishing and glamorous. She is so real and has such charisma. I can't see how she does it. But what I know is that I get the same feeling watching Laurant, as I got watching Marion Cotillard in Public Enemies. I hope to see more of them both in Hollywood.

The most surprising actor to be found in the film though, must without a doubt be Mike Myers. I really thought I misread his name when the film started. I mean, while Tarantino made Jackie Brown (1997), Mike Myers introduces his sex crazy, time travelling British agent to the movie going audience in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)!
No complaints - he was great as General Ed Fenech. I was just a bit shocked, to understate it.

Diane Kruger as Bridget von Hammersmark. Stunning!

So, what are my final thoughts about Inglourious Basterds? I'm still in quite a rush after this experience, and I can't really think straight. Besides, I want to see the film again before I can decide whether this is my favorite Tarantino or not. (As today, Death Proof, 2007, is my number one. Even though I usually don't like to rate films.)

I found it both disappointing and amusing that Bridget von Hammersmark was a fictive character - I thought I had a new German actress to discover! She is however a great character, and very credible to that. That's about the only negative thing I can come up with. But it's not really negative, is it?

All I can say for sure right now is that I've had myself a film experience so fascinating, that I can't remember the last time I had one like it. This is without a doubt the winner of this years films. (Perhaps that's not saying too much?)
The film might not appeal to everyone, because it's art. You either love it, or you don't. And I guess you understand what category I belong too.

[Update: If you enjoyed this, I recommend Llakor's blog post on his experience of seeing the film at the Fantasia Film Fest Besides from being amusing, it gives you an interesting behind-the-scenes glimpse.]

*Sorry, I couldn't stop myself.

Joan Blondell - 103 years

Today it's the 103rd birthday of one of my favorite pre-code actresses - the cynical, gum chewing, night club girl Joan Blondell. Happy Birthday!

We have other birthday children today, that I could honor with some photos too.
Fredric March reaches the honorable age of 112. He's very happy about it.

Tough Fred MacMurray turn 101 years, and amuses himself with a Claudette Colbert melting in his arms.

And the oldest birthday kid is Raymond Massey at 113 years of age. He celebrates with a quiet evening at home, dressed up as Abraham Lincoln. (You can't blame him for becoming a little senile at this age, can you?)
According to the real Abraham Lincoln's son, Robert Todd Lincoln (1843-1926), Massey's speaking voice had a strong resemblance to his father's. That might be the reason for Massay getting the part of dear old Abraham in Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940).

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Director: John M. Stahl
USA 1945
110 min
Starring: Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain and Vincent Price, among others.

See it on YouTube here.

Writer Richard Harland (Wilde) approaches a bridge by boat, and is greeted by people who seem very uncomfortable. Harland looks around, a woman says "That poor man...". Harland steps into another boat and quietly rows on. A man speaks up, telling a fellow beside him that it was through him that Harland met that disastrous woman. The backstory unveils.

Harland meets his wife-to-be, Ellen Berent (Tierney), on a train. She notices a remarkable resemblance to her late father in Harland, something that at first seems pleasant. Everything is honky-dory at first (besides some dubious remarks about Ellen from her family, and the fact that she a little too early after meeting Harland broke her engagement to a previous fiancé, Russell Quinton, played by Vincent Price). Ellen meets Harland's beloved, crippled little brother Danny (Darryl Hickman), and encourages him in his illness.
Harland, Ellen and Danny move to a country place called Back of the Moon to live there together, but Ellen soon realizes that she hardly gets any time to spend alone with her husband. Harland writes a new book and Danny is always around. On top of that, her cousin and adopted sister Ruth (Craine). seems to have an affair with Harland. Or is it just in her imagination?
Soon weird things start to happen, making a cute countryside lovestory turn into a thriller.

To quote Raquelle at Out of the Past, Gene Tierney is THE SPAWN OF SATAN in Leave Her to Heaven. It was this film that made me realize that Tierney is not only beautiful, but also a darn good actress. (She was nominated to an Oscar for an Actress in a Leading Role, but lost to Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce.)
I never understand whether Ellen is really evil, just "loves too much" (wants all the candy for herself) or is in fact mentally ill. Is she lying about not remembering falling down the stairs, or did she actually have a black-out à la Laird Cregar in Hangover Square [post]?
After only having seen Tierney in Laura (1944) and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), I was quite shocked and amazed by her character in this film. My respect for her acting skills grew a noticable amount.

Gene Tierney - beautiful and competent.

There are a lot of discussions going on about which genre this movie belongs to. To me, the answer isn't very interesting (as I've said before, I don't like to categorize art), but the discussion is. IMDb tried to put the film in the three main categories Drama, Film-Noir and Thriller - quite a broad spectrum! But it's not entirely a drama, nor entirely a thriller.
I'm tempted to call it a Technicolor-Noir. We have an amazing Academy Award winning cinematography, playing with shadows, lighting and camera angles. (See the Vincent Price scene I picked out, below - a great example.) But the sparkling colors make the noir-feeling go down a bit. But we do also have a cool femme fatale that we can't be sure if we can trust, on the other hand.
But to me, the most unquestionable noir resemblance is the beginning - like Sunset Blvd. (1950) starts off by showing the male lead drowned in a pool, the first thing we meet here is the shattered remains of Richard Harland, destroyed by an evil woman.

Scene: Vincent Price makes his entrance. I love the dialogue in this scene. "What in the world brought you here?" "An airplane."
Notice the low angle and the lighting on Price's face when he enters the room, simply brilliant.

One last thing I'd like to discuss is, again, the title. I discussed this in my I Wake Up Screaming post [here] - I want to know why the movie title was chosen. As far as I can recall, "Leave her to heaven" wasn't a quote from the film itself.
Imdb's trivia section gave me a hint:
The title is taken from a line from William Shakespeare's "Hamlet".
Okay - but why? No direct Hamlet connection wasn't obvious to me at first glance.
Since I didn't want to be as predictable as to do a Google search, I find myself tossing around in my bed wondering about the title. Since I couldn't sleep anyway, I got up to search my bookshelf for a hude book called "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare".

In Act I, Scene V of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1599-1601), I find Hamlet just having spoken to the ghost of his dead father. His father, King of Denmark, had told him that his death was no accident, but that it was his brother who poisoned him in his sleep to take over the throne of Denmark and wed the Queen, Hamlet's mother! Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Hamlet has to avenge his father's death.

As early as in Scene II, Hamlet spoke to himself about his mother, uttering my favourite words of Shakespeare; Frailty, thy name is woman! And the "leave her to heaven" quote is also about his mother, who after being a widow for only a month gets married to her dead husband's brother.
Spoken by the ghost of Hamlet's father, the dead king:
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Againt thy mother aught ; leave her to heaven,
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge,
To prick and sting her.
And there we have it - the reference! Hamlet's mother is a treacherous woman, just as Ellen. As far as I, to whom Swedish is my first language, can understand 16th century English, I guess that both Hamlet's mother and Ellen will pay for ther crimes when their time comes. Leave her to heaven to be judged, is my interpretation. Anyone having another opinion?

(Note: I don't usually read Shakespeare when I can't sleep. I find keeping "who is who" in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov much more effective.)

Laurence Olivier in the titlerole of the self-directed Hamlet (1948).

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Stage Door (1937) and Andrea Leeds

Director: Gregory La Cava
USA 1937
92 min

See it on YouTube here.

Wow! What a film!

Stage Door is a fast-moving drama/comedy about a boardinghouse full of women waiting for their big break as actresses. The dialogue is quick and snappy, so this is probably one of those movies that only gets better with every time you see it!

They say that Gregory La Cava was a "woman director", and I bet you have to be really gifted to handle this crowd of big and promising actresses go, not making the film confusing. And it really manages not to be - the fact that all cthe haracters are interesting and take almost equal amount of space in the film is brilliant. You feel the cat claws in the air when Linda (Patrick) and Jean (Rogers) snap cleverly at each other, the clashing personality differences between the roommates Jean and Terry (Hepburn), and the dejected cynicism among the rest of the girls, with a stunningly beautiful Lucille Ball in the lead. The fact that Ann Miller managed to fake a birth certificate to get the role (she was only 14 here!) and pull off the dancing scenes with Rogers as an equal is simply admirable.

Scene: 14 year old Ann Miller and Ginger Rogers doing their dance routine. A slimy Adolphe Menjou keeps his eyes on the blonde one.

Hepburn, Ball and Rogers.

And after C. K. Dexter Haven's constant lovestruck babbling about Gail Patrick [see here and here], I have come to aknowledge her too - so cool, down-to-earth and charmingly insulting. (I have to admit that I think she manages to steal every scene from the melodramatic Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey, 1936, and that is something to admire!)

And Adolphe Menjou! I always thought he was such a gentleman, but what an unsympathizing upstart he was as the producer Anthony Powell! I felt sick when seeing how he did "his routine" on the hopeful actresses - inviting them to his flat, giving them champagne, turning off the light, talking about how their names are going to be written in lights... Aweful! And amusing.

Gregory La Cava was nominated for an Oscar for Best Director and Best Picture, and the screenplay got a nomination too. I can't really see why they didn't win. (I can't believe Hepburn wasn't nominated for her "The calla lilies are in bloom again" rehearsals! It can't be easy for a good actress to play a bad one.)


Terry: I see that, in addition to your other charms, you have that insolence generated by an inferior upbringing.
Jean: Hmm! Fancy clothes, fancy language and everything!
Terry: Unfortunately, I learned to speak English correctly.
Jean: That won't be of much use to you here. We all talk pig latin.

Jean: Do you mind if I ask a personal question?
Terry: Another one?
Jean: Are these trunks full of bodies?
Terry: Just those, but I don't intend to unpack them.

Eve: [after a dinner where Terry Randall has evidently spoken very eloquently about Shakespeare] Well, I don't like to gossip, but that new gal seems to have an awful crush on Shakespeare!
Susan: [jokingly] I wouldn't be surprised if they get married!
Mary Lou: [with genuine naiveté] Oh, you're foolin'! Shakespeare's dead!
Susan: [Feigning surprise, playing along to entertain the others] No!
Mary Lou: Well, if he's the same one that wrote "Hamlet", he is!
Eve: [playing along, too] Never heard of it.
Mary Lou: Well, certainly you must have heard of "Hamlet"!
Eve: Well, I meet so many people.

Eve: A pleasant little foursome. I predict a hatchet murder before the night's over.

The character that probably fascinated me most was Kay Hamilton, played by the Olivia De Havilland-lookalike Andrea Leeds. (Two years later she read for the part of Melanie in Gone With the Wind, a part that went to De Havilland.)
Kay plays an actress, who already had her success and is now forgotten. She has gotten her eyes on a part in a new play and puts all her energy in getting the part (at one point leading her to faint of exhaustion and malnutrition), but that part goes to Hepburn's Terry Randall.
Andrea Leeds received an Academy Award nomination for her performance as Kay, well deserved.
When I saw her in Stage Door I was so fascinated with her acting, that I simply couldn't understand why I hadn't heard of her before. She was obviously a pretty popular actress in the late 1930's, but she left her film career in 1940 to become a housewife. I think the motion picture industry really lost something there.

Andrea Leeds - the one that got away: