Thursday, February 22, 2007

Romance, mostly

REMINDER: The Brattle Movie-Watch-a-Thon is in progress. Drop me a line if you would like to sponsor me, go here to make a donation, and check back on a near-daily basis to see how well I'm doing. With these films, I reached 18 Brattle films seen and 19 elsewhere, which means 55 "points" total (or 27.5, depending on whether Brattle films count for two or other films count for ½)

Romance became more of a theme than I intended, with the non-Brattle films sort of fitting into the category if you push had enough. Okay, you have to push real hard.

Ugh. Late, and I've still got the end of the Watch-a-Thon period to write up. G'night.

The Princess Bride

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 9 February 2007 at The Brattle Theater (Classic Romance II) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

I suppose that there are people out there who need The Princess Bride described to them, but I find that difficult to conceive. The film is a good-natured fairy tale packed with memorable characters and performances, along with swashbuckling fun. It's got just the right level of self- and genre-awareness, always able to dance around where things seem silly by virtue of good pacing and characters who refuse to be grimly serious just because that's the convention.

I find I've grown to appreciate the Peter Falk/Fred Savage bookends a bit more; identifying the story so definitively as something a grandfather tells to his grandson gives it a little more leeway for anachronism and self-referentiality, but William Goldman and Rob Reiner are always careful to never overplay that hand or even specifically connect the two. They're content to be clever without hitting the audience over the head with how clever they are.

The Mummy

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2007 at The Brattle Theater (Classic Romance II) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

I'll say it - I rather like the Stephen Sommers remake better than this original. It's not a bad movie, by any means, but at times it moves as slow as its title character (who suffers from rigor mortis), and its Western heroes are rather stiff themselves. It's difficult to get too terribly frightened by some of its threats.

On the flip side, it does have Karloff, tall and imposing and wearing an excellent makeup job to make him seem convincingly re-animated, dried out like a mummy but still able to walk and function in the living world. Zita Johnson is easy on the eyes as the target of both the hero's and villain's affections, not much of an actress but a striking presence. And even when it's at its most ludicrous, The Mummy at least seems to be making an effort toward believability, or at least cohesiveness, enough so that its trips into the realm of the macabre do have an edge of genuine creepiness.

The Bride of Frankenstein

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2007 at The Brattle Theater (Classic Romance II)

Bride of Frankenstein starts off kind of slow, with an annoying old woman and a demonstration of Dr. Pretorius's successes in making miniature people that seem even more designed to pad the film's running time to seventy-five minutes than the opening scene with Shelley, Mary Wollestencraft, and Lord Byron. I admit, there are times when I watch it and wonder why I've always liked it so much.

But, man, does this movie pick up a head of steam. Its simple premise, that we all need love to survive and thrive, manifests itself in a number of ways, from the Monster growing smarter and more articulate from the friendship of the blind hermit to Frankenstein's wife fighting for his soul as Pretorius and the Monster try to harness his genius. In the end, it's unselfish, giving love that wins the day, and even the Monster knows it.

Dreamgirls

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2007 at Belmont Studio Theater (second-run) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

I'm no big fan of musicals; as I've commented before, they need to be perfect or they're just not going to work. Dreamgirls is a surprising exception to that: It's not perfect, but it avoids crashing and burning. Maybe it's because Dreamgirls is about a topic that specifically interests me.

I think part of it is that it's got more soul than most musicals. "Showtunes" is recognized as a specific genre, and it's a frequently insipid one, with hokey call-and-answer structures, dull orchestration, and bland, declarative lyrics that make for poor pop. Dreamgirls isn't just trying to tell a story with its songs, it's trying to capture a sound, and Motown is a great sound to capture. It doesn't hurt that a movie starring Beyonce Knowles openly snorts at "R&B" and features a fantastic scene where Eddie Murphy's character has a scene that epitomizes the evolution of pop music during the past forty years - James Brown soul buried under Lionel Richie blandness eventually bursts out as prototypical hip-hop. It doesn't end well in the story, but it's a beautiful thing to see.

As much as I don't much like musicals, I wish Bill Condon would stop being such a wuss and let his musicals be musicals. Chicago took pains to stage its musical numbers as the fevered imaginings of its main character, and even when Dreamgirls allows its characters to burst into song, it's often contained in a stage or some other venue where the audience might find singing "acceptable" or not out of place.

Babel

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2007 at AMC Boston Common #19 (first-run) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

Babel is a clever movie, though not nearly as painfully satisfied in its cleverness as the filmmakers' previous English-language film, 30 Grams. It hits its point hard - unless we communicate, the collisions of different cultures has the constant potential for disaster - but makes each of the individual stories compelling. Each story could probably be expanded enough to fill a movie on its own, but the tapestry is greater than the sum of its parts.

The Philadelphia Story

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2007 at The Brattle Theater (Classic Romance II) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

The Philadelphia Story is darn-near perfect, a breezy romantic comedy from an era when such films were appreciated as more than simply disposable entertainment - it was nominated for and received several Academy Awards, and it may have deserved more. A part of me doesn't think it ends with the right pairings (or, indeed, that it needed to finish with pairing-off), but any disappointment I felt over the last couple minutes is of small magnitude, not nearly enough to tip the balance against the joy brought by the previous hundred and ten.

Two years ago, Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) and C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) had an acrimonious divorce. Now Tracy intends to marry George Kittredge (Josh Howard), a very serious former coal miner who worked his way to upper management, the polar opposite of the well-born and laid-back Haven. As the Lord family is one of the northeast's most prominent, Spy magazine wants pictures and a story from the wedding. To that end, they intend to send writer Macaulay Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) in undercover - introduced by Haven, who will claim they are friends of Tracy's brother, an ambassador to a South American country who cannot make it back to the wedding. Tracy, being no dummy, twigs to the plot almost immediately, and has no interest in making their job easy.

Donald Odgen Stewart has famously claimed that the screenplay for The Philadelphia Story was the easiest money he ever earned, since there was nothing about Philip Barry's original play, which also starred Hepburn during its year-long run on Broadway, that needed changing. Whether that's true or false modesty, the film is filled with fast-paced, funny banter, opportunities for characters to steal scenes, and earnest observations on how relationships can fall apart. Director George Cukor and his cast take this material and fashion a movie whose comedy stops just short of zany (except when zany is really called for), but which can quickly take things down a notch to make sure the characters are taken seriously.

Full review at HBS.

Breaking and Entering

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 February 2007 at Landmark Embassy Theater #3 (Classic Romance II) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

Who would ever have thought that Anthony Mingella would direct a movie with parkour sequences? Seriously, that blows my mind. Almost as surprising is that Mingella directing a movie that feels less that seven hours in length.

Pretty decent little movie; nice performances by Jude Law, Robin Wright Penn, and Juliette Binoche.

Breakfast at Tiffany's

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 February 2007 at The Brattle Theater (Classic Romance II) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

A few years ago, I gave a set of cousins movie posters for Christmas presents. It'd been a while since I'd seen the film, so I was mostly choosing based upon the fantastically stylish design. Catching up with it, I wonder what my aunt and uncle thought about my pointing their sixteen-year-old daughter at a film about a gigolo falling in love with a call girl. It's a fantastic film, but, still...

The gigolo is Paul Varjak (George Peppard), a once-promising writer who moves into the apartment above Holly Goloightly (Audrey Hepburn). Holly probably enters "actress" or "model" on her tax returns (just as Paul likely enters "writer"), but supports herself one a hundred dollars a week to visit jailed mafioso Sally Tomato (Alan Reed) and pass a "weather report" on to his lawyer every Thursday, along with occasional fifties for "trips to the powder room". The two of them hit it off immediately and become fast friends, but their situations prevent them from acting on their attraction: Paul's "patron" (Patricia Neal) wants him to herself and Holly intends to land a millionaire for a husband, so that she can support her brother when he leaves the army (he's a bit slow).

Audrey Hepburn had several memorable roles in her career, though this is undoubtedly her signature part. Holly Golightly requires both cheerful pluck and fragile sadness, and part of what makes the film such a rewatchable delight is that even after the second time through, we can still take her simple, child-like enthusiasm at face value. There's a funny scene toward the end, well after we've learned that her history is darker than her flighty party-girl persona would suggest, where she lights up like a lantern upon seeing cameras, and it elicits simple, genuine laughter rather than thoughts on how being so chipper might be some sort of front. Hepburn presents Holly to us as sad, scared, and lonely, but doesn't let those traits entirely define her. She's genuinely charming and funny, and like Paul, we fall in love with her all over again every time we meet her.

Full review at HBS.

Annie Hall

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 February 2007 at The Brattle Theater (Classic Romance II)

Normally, old Woody Allen movies just make me upset with Woody Allen, for the vast amount of crap and mediocrity he's produced in the last fifteen years or so. Annie Hall is especially annoying in that regard - it's a very good movie, but it also brings into sharp relief what Diane Keaton's career has become. Annie Hall is a genuinely interesting, amusing, eccentric character. And now she just plays a succession of smart but flusterable mothers distinguishable primarily by which young actress with half the personality she had at their age plays her daughter. It's dispiriting, really.

It is interesting to notice that these earlier Woody Allen movies are more the work of a comedian than a filmmaker; Allen is basically telling jokes, stringing them together like a rambling stand-up act even as he uses filmic devices to make his jokes. I often wonder if the disappointment of Allen's later films is in part because as he became more of a filmmaker, he strayed from his roots as a comedian, and as good a director as he became, he was a great comedian.

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