The Hunger Games

Hunger Games 01The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, was already a huge success when producers began bidding on the film rights.  Clamor for the movie was both strong and at the same time a bit dubious.  It is a great story, but would some director muck it up by “making it his own” or changing things so dramatically that the original work lost its integrity?  Unfortunately, this has happened so many times that films of beloved novels must be met with some skepticism.

Hunger Games 02Fortunately, for this project, producers Nina Jacobson and Jon Kilik were already fans of the novel and they protected this film by making good, strong, and remarkable choices right from the beginning.  Veteran screenwriter Billy Ray was hired to do the first rendering and he produced a good script.  Next, they hired the amazing writer and director Gary Ross (“Big,” “Pleasantville,” “Dave,” and “Seabiscuit,” among others) to shepherd the production.  Ross brought his considerable writing skills to Ray’s script and began making it even better.  The author of the novel, Suzanne Collins, was brought into the process and joined Ross for several weeks working out many of the details of the transition from page to screen.  This respect for the original vision is almost unheard of in Hollywood, but the filmmakers were also fortunate in that Collins had written a very cinematic novel and she was open to making some changes to make it a good adaptation for the screen.

The following plot synopsis reveals information about the ending, so beware.

The Hunger Games deals with a future America in which 12 Districts exist under the brutal control of the Capitol, which is located in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  While those in the Districts work hard to provide for the Capitol, they do not enjoy its debauched luxury.  In fact, most of the Districts are on less than subsistence footing, with starvation and poverty the norm.  Nearly 75 years previous to the start of the story, a revolution occurred that the Capitol had to put down with force.  An original 13th District was utterly destroyed in that bloody fight and the Capitol created the Hunger Games as a way to remind their tributary Districts where the power lay.  Every year, a boy and girl, between the ages of 12 and 18 are randomly selected to represent their District in a fight to the death with representatives of all of the other Districts in a unique arena created for the occasion by a Game Master.

Hunger Games 03Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), an 18 year old girl from District 12, hunts illegally in the woods with bow and arrows just beyond the tatters of a fence designed to restrict movement.  Her friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), joins her on the morning of the Reaping for the 74th Hunger Games and after hunting, they go to trade their game.  Katniss finds a pin in the form of a circle with a Mockingjay inside.  These birds, hybrids between mockingbirds and jays, imitate sounds in the wild.  Her sister, Primrose (Willow Shields), who has just turned 12, worries that she may be selected, but Katniss reassures her.  At the Reaping, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), a powdered and wigged representative of the Capitol, pulls Prim’s name for the girl to represent District 12.  Katniss steps up and volunteers to go in her place and for that she honored by the others with a three fingered salute unique to their District.  The boy selected is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson).  On the train to the Capitol, they meet the only winner from District 12 in the entire history of the games, a drunk named Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) who is supposed to be their mentor.  Initially, his only advice to them is to get ready to die, but on further probing he also tells them that they need to be likable so they can get sponsors.  He has already decided that Katniss will fail being likable.

Hunger Games 04At the Capitol, they are assigned a stylist, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and they are introduced to the citizens and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in a parade of chariots.  Cinna has designed special costumes for them that leave a trail of fire as they blaze up a gigantic arena for the presentation.  Katniss gets her nickname “The Girl on Fire” from the Master of Ceremonies, Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci).  They begin their physical training and meet the other participants.  Districts 1 and 2 are more affluent than the others and spend a great deal of time and effort training their young so they are more equipped to win the games.  Their representatives are Marvel (Jack Quaid), Glimmer (Leven Rambin), Cato (Alexander Ludwig), and Clove (Isabelle Fuhrman).  The strongest is Cato.  During their final demonstration before they are given grades, Katniss misses her target and finds herself ignored by the Game Master, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), and sponsors.  To get their attention, she fires an arrow into their midst, neatly skewering an apple from a roast pigs mouth and pinning it to the wall.  She receives an 11, the highest grade of all of the contestants.

Hunger Games 07During their final television interview with Caesar before the games begin, Katniss demonstrates fire again by swirling her red dress, designed by Cinna, the hem of which crackles with flames.  Peeta, that last to be interviewed, reveals that he has always had a crush on Katniss and Caesar renames them “the star-crossed lovers from District 12.”  Angry at Peeta for blindsiding her, Katniss confronts him, but Haymitch, who has now taken an interest in them tells her that it will probably be good for them in terms of sponsors and that she should act the part.  As she prepares to go to battle, Cinna pins the Mockingjay onto her shirt.

The Games take place in a woodland as each Tribute enters on a small, round elevator facing a Cornucopia of weapons and survival gear.  When the countdown reaches zero most of them run for the Cornucopia and a bloodbath ensues.  While Peeta turns and runs directly into the woods, Katniss grabs a backpack before she takes off.  Twelve of the tributes are killed in the initial fight and a small band of Tributes join together, led by Cato and the other Tributes from Districts 1 and 2.  Surprisingly, Peeta joins with them in hunting Katniss.  She wanders far enough away from the main site that the Game Master creates a fire to push her back toward the others and she injures her leg.  Scrambling to the river, she is discovered by the pack and chased into a tree.  On Peeta’s recommendation, they decide to wait her out.  Haymitch arranges for a sponsor to send her an ointment that she applies to her wound and when she awakes, it is completely healed.  In a neighboring tree, the very young female representative of District 11, Rue (Amandla Stenberg) points out a nest of tracker-jackers, which Caesar explains to the audience are genetically engineered wasps whose sting causes hallucinations and sometimes death.  Katniss climbs up to the branch and saws it off, but she gets stung in the process.  The nest lands in the midst of the sleeping tributes and the aroused tracker-jackers begin stinging at random, killing Glimmer in the process.  Hallucinating, Katniss grabs the bow and quiver of arrows from Glimmer’s body and runs blindly into the forest, eventually passing out.

Hunger Games 06When she awakes, her stings have been neutralized by medicinal leaves put there by Rue.  The two become friends and form their own alliance.  They plan to destroy the weapons that have been gathered together by the career Tributes.  While Rue sets fires to distract the others, Katniss shoots an arrow into a sack of apples that spill over the gathered weapons and trigger mines that have been implanted around it.  Katniss runs to find Rue, but finds her caught in a net.  After cutting her out, they are interrupted by Marvel, who throws a spear, killing Rue.  Katniss shoots him with an arrow, then arranges a bower of flowers around the body of Rue, weeping as she mourns the girl’s death.  Before leaving Rue’s body, Katniss finds the camera broadcasting her image and she raises a three-finger salute to Rue’s memory.

That action incites the residents of District 11 to riot, which the storm troopers from the Capitol quickly stop.  Seneca Crane considers killing Katniss for the action, but Haymitch speaks on her behalf, convincing Crane that they should capitalize on the crowd’s desire for hope by altering the rules of the game to allow two winners, but only if they come from the same District.  That will allow people to root for “the star-crossed lovers.”  The rioting, however, catches the eye of President Snow, who calls in Crane to advise him to control the situation.

An announcement is made to the Tributes letting them know about the rule change, so Katniss goes looking for Peeta.  She finds him seriously injured, hiding by the river.  They find a cave and she kisses him for the first time, on the cheek.  When they get a package from Haymitch, she expects to find more ointment, but only gets a cup of hot soup, with the message, “You call that a kiss?”  Another announcement is made that there will be gifts from the Capitol for those who need help the next morning at the Cornucopia.  Peeta begs Katniss not go and she gives him a real kiss.  Watching at home, Gale, who is now working in the mines, reacts jealously.  The next morning, when she runs to grab the ointment for Peeta, she is caught and pinned down by Clove.  Before killing Katniss, Clove boasts about killing Rue, but she is overheard by the other representative from District 11, Thresh (Dayo Okeniyi) who then kills her in retaliation and lets Katniss go.

As they hunt for food, Katniss finds Peeta picking deadly Nightlock berries that kill instantly and they discover the dead body of Foxface (Jacqueline Emerson), one of the last surviving tributes, who died from eating Nightlock.  They decide to bring berries along with them in case Cato is hungry.  To create a finale to the Games, Crane has his people create large, vicious dogs.  Katniss and Peeta listen as Thresh is attacked and killed, leaving only three survivors: them and Cato.  The dogs chase Katniss and Peeta to the Cornucopia.  Climbing on top, they encounter Cato as the dogs snarl below them.  Holding Peeta by knifepoint, Cato threatens to kill him.  Katniss gets off one arrow that hits Cato in the hand, then Peeta pushes him off the Cornucopia where he is attacked by the dogs.  Hearing Cato beg for mercy, Katniss puts an arrow into him, ending his misery.

Crane turns on the lights in the arena, then makes an announcement that the previous rule change has been rescinded.  Peeta volunteers to let Katniss kill him, but she insists that the eat the berries together, leaving the Capitol without a winner.  Before they can go through with their plan, Crane relents and they are declared mutual winners.

President Snow takes his revenge against Crane by forcing him to suicide by Nightlock berries.  Haymitch warns Katniss that she has shown up Snow and that she needs to watch her back.

The second great decision, beyond hiring Ross to direct, was his decision to cast brilliant young actress Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss.  The entire movie revolves around her and Lawrence’s performance carries it in every way.  She has a strength of personality far beyond her ephemeral beauty and incredible voice and is Katniss in ever way.  All of the young people cast around her perform extremely well and work together with a kind of chemistry that elevates the entire endeavor.  In addition, Ross’s decision to cast well-known, award winning actors in the mature supporting roles, such as Elizabeth Banks and Donald Sutherland, was absolutely perfect.  Banks is magnificent as Effie.

The production design, by Philip Messina is amazing, especially the architecture of the Capitol, using broad, open spaces, that smooth limestone feel to the buildings, almost as if we were in a throwback Nazi Germany, rather than years into the future.  The relationship of the playing field of the Games to the Game Room itself with its gigantic computer simulation, a half dome on a large round table, is extremely impressive and utterly believable.

Hunger Games 05Costumes by Judianna Makovsky range from the throwback, monochrome dresses worn by the women in District 12 to the beautifully understated and functional to battle gear of the Tributes in the arena to the absolutely outrageous outfits worn in the decadent Capitol.  They display and wide range of skills are brought to bear on this challenging project.  In addition, the make-up on the Capitol citizens, also byMakovsky, really adds a dimension to their flamboyant and debauched lifestyle.

Most of the cinematography, by Tom Stern, is done in a cinema verité, giving it a very kinetic feel.  Just as Katniss always seems to be running, so does the camera, jumping from intimate close-ups to quick pans to fast tracking shots.  Like everything else about the production, this was designed from the beginning by Gary Ross, who planned and storyboarded each and every shot in his shooting script.

The music, by James Newton Howard is very good.  Except for the martial sounds of the Capitol, it is fairly austere, never forcing itself on the action or calling attention to itself.  However, the short fanfare played when a Tribute dies, is extremely memorable.  The sound, created by Christopher Assells is truly amazing–and again, Gary Ross played a big role in the design–especially the use of silence during the initial bloodbath in the arena, the quick rush of sound out of silence, the cross-fading during the hallucinations, the gasping and breathing, the sharp sounds of battle.  It adds an element that really brings the action to life and at times even comments on it.

The editing, by Christopher S. Capp, Stephen Mirrione, and Juliette Welfling, under the supervision of Ross, really knits the movie together in very special ways.

The DVD also has two marvelous special features, “Game Maker: Suzanne Collins and The Hunger Games Phenomenon” and “The World is Watching: Making The Hunger Games.”  The first one isn’t very long, but it looks at the adaptation process, using interviews with the publisher, the producers, teachers, and teen readers to show how special the book is.

“The World is Watching: Making The Hunger Games” is a feature-length documentary that examines every facet of making the film, from the adaptation process to the finished print, featuring extensive interviews with the director, the producer, the cast, and the technicians.  Most of the time I don’t really find “making of” documentaries to be very enlightening, but this one, because of the length, the depth, the access to all of the movie makers, is truly remarkable and so entertaining in itself that it makes a great evening’s entertainment.

When Nina Jacobson, Jon Kilik, and Gary Ross first got to work on this project, I don’t think any fan of the book would have believed that a film could do such a fine novel justice, let alone actually improve on it in creating a new work of art, but these three, along with their cast and technical collaborators have succeeded.  Gary Ross deserves most of the credit for his work on the script and his powerful vision as a director, but truly this group works in harmony.

And the vision is so strong that it makes The Hunger Games a film that can be enjoyed over and over again, and probably makes it an instant classic.


Hunger GamesRead my review of the novel The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins!

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Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About NothingIf you buy the cliché that young people who argue and harp at each other are actually flirting, then William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing might have been the first great play to use it.  In Joss Whedon’s modern dress adaptation, he has whittled the play to under two hours and presented it in a witty original format.

The story concerns two young lovers who are both possessed of too much wit for their own good and their sharp tongues frequently cut others to bits, but none moreso than themselves, for Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) constantly cut each other to ribbons.  After sleeping together, the two part ways, then, when the victorious army returns from the war, they continue as if nothing had happened.

Beatrice lives with her uncle, Leonato (Clark Gregg), who is the Governor of Messina.  Although they are excessively wealthy, she shares a room with Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese).  The Prince of Aragon, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) comes to visit, bringing with him his disgraced brother, Don John (Sean Maher), and the celebrated war hero, Count Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Benedick.  No sooner have they arrived at this beautiful villa than Claudio reveals that he is deeply in love with Hero.  Now that the war is over, he wants to marry her and asks Benedick’s advice.  A confirmed bachelor, Benedick can only speak of himself, stating that he will never get married, that it is an odious state that can only ruin a man.  Unperturbed, Claudio tells Don Pedro about his love and the Prince volunteers to intercede with her at the costume party later that night.  He is successful and the marriage is set for a week later.

Don John has brought along two of his associates to help him plot revenge on the lot of them, his girlfriend, Conrade (Riki Lindhome) and a vicious young man named Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark).

For his own amusement, Don Pedro hatches a plot to bring Beatrice and Benedick together: he and the men will have a conversation that Benedick will overhear in which they opine about Beatrice’s secret love for Benedick.  Meanwhile, Hero and her maidservant, Margaret (Ashley Johnson) will do the same for Beatrice, letting her know that Benedick is desperately in love with her, but is afraid to tell her because of her acid tongue.

When Don John hears of the intended marriage between Claudio and Hero, he tries to find some way to derail the marriage.  Borachio has the answer.  He has been involved in a relationship with Margaret and he can set up a scene where she dresses in Hero’s clothing and they make love in Hero’s room, so that Claudio will believe Hero is unfaithful.

The night before the wedding, local security chief, Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) has set out the night watch.  Claudio, Don Pedro, and Don John all witness what they assume to be Hero making love with a stranger and Claudio decides to humiliate Hero by exposing her at the wedding.  Later that night, Borachio and Conrade are smoking a joint outside as Borachio brags about how he set up the Count Claudio for a fall, when Dogberry’s watch finds them, having overheard Borachio’s confession of villainy.  Arrested, Borachio and Conrade are brought in for questioning.  Dogberry has a few problems with English in that he frequently says exactly the opposite of what he means, thus confusing the two during their “interrogation.”

Intrigued by what they have heard, each of the other’s secret love, Benedick and Beatrice come together and discover that they really, truly are in love.  They pledge themselves to marry.

At Hero’s wedding, Claudio goes through with his threat and roughly accuses Hero of infidelity before the entire assembled wedding party.  He and Don Pedro race away and Hero collapses of shock.  The minister comes up with a plan that Hero should pretend to be dead, then Claudio will regret his actions and when he finds out she’s alive, they’ll marry anyway.  Beatrice, livid with anger over Claudio’s actions, forces Benedick into a duel with Claudio to prove his love to her.  Benedick confronts Claudio, telling him that Hero is dead and challenging him to a duel which will take place later.

Before there can be more mayhem and mischief, Dogberry brings Borachio and Conrade to Leonato and reveals that Hero was not immoral on the night before her wedding.  And so, there is a double wedding at the end.

There are many things to be loved in this modern day version of the Shakespeare classic.  For one thing, many aspects of the story are clear as a bell, rather than buried in pages of language.  Whedon has created a beautiful black and white modern world for this play to be set in and it looks beautiful, more like a classic French film than anything American.  The actors are all extremely sharp and the characters are extremely well-drawn.  Good, young actors contribute a  great deal to the success of this movie.  Both the men and women are incredibly handsome or beautiful throughout the movie.  I don’t think there is one “normal” looking person in the film, which is something that normally bothers me a great deal.  Does everyone always have to be supernaturally beautiful?  Apparently so.

The movie is quite funny, for the most part, although at times the black and white medium makes it feel like the story is a bit darker than it actually is.  Some of the parts are a bit overdone, such as Benedick’s extremely foolish eavesdropping on the conversation that sets him up with Beatrice.  Fillion plays Dogberry a little low-key for me and many of the lines that are funny in Shakespeare just look a little dumb with Fillion’s dry delivery.

As with all modern dress versions of Shakespeare, language is a problem.  I give full credit to Joss Whedon for doing an excellent job of cutting and compressing the play to get it down into very good length, but when when someone who is apparently modern gives out with “thee” and “thine” and “by my troth” it just doesn’t remotely ring true and frankly, it seems ludicous.  From the DVD special features, it seems that this project was put together very quickly using Whedon’s friends who had often read Shakespeare together as a fun thing to do.  Perhaps if it had been given a little more preparation, Whedon might have rewritten Shakespeare even a bit further and brought the language into line with the way we talk.  But if they just wanted to film friends doing Shakespeare, I guess it wouldn’t be Shakespeare without the language.

This isn’t really Whedon’s fault.  Many others have attempted to set Shakespeare in a modern day environment and each of them ultimately fail because Shakespeare’s language is over 400 years old and it sounds archaic and looks dumb when spoken by people dressed like us.  Much Ado About Nothing is far more successful than most attempts and I found it to be a highly entertaining, well-acting, well-cut film.

Even so, it requires a willing suspension of disbelief that is way beyond my own rich fantasy life.

All is Lost

All is Lost RedfordA man sleeps peacefully aboard his small yacht when it suddenly bangs into some sea debris, tearing a hole in the side.  This begins a great survival story where one problems piles upon another as he is tossed across the Indian Ocean toward shipping lanes and possible rescue.  But he must first face storms, sharks, and other menaces.  And even when he reaches the shipping lanes, will anyone see him?

Robert Redford gives a dynamic, riveting performance as the man fighting for his life in this 2013 film written and directed by J. C. Chandor.  With virtually no dialogue, the viewer is constantly engaged with the action, watching Redford’s eyes to see what he is feeling, trying to figure out from his actions what he is trying to accomplish in all of the little tasks that he takes on to try to survive.  It creates an inner dialogue that glues the viewer to the story, caught up in this extremely honest, thrilling film.

The cinematography by Frank G. DeMarco is extraordinary, catching all the moods of the sea and the storm.  The music, by Alex Ebert, is restrained, working within the overall sound created by Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns of wind, waves, thunder, rain, grunting, and gasping.

Although the movie won various awards worldwide, it was seriously snubbed by the Academy Awards, though I can’t figure out why.  Clearly, it is one of the best movies of 2013, with a brilliant, gut-wrenching performance by Robert Redford, skillful directing, terrific special effects, great sound, and a story that is completely engaging from beginning to end.

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Notorious

Notorious 03The sexiest and most mature of all Alfred Hitchcock’s films, Notorious is also one of his most suspenseful movies.  It’s a torchy love story set among dangerous ex-Nazis in Rio de Janeiro, with Ingrid Bergman putting her life in danger to prove to the American agent she loves that she has become an honest woman.  Beautifully shot in black and white, all of Hitchcock’s mastery drives a story that is thrilling right up to the end.

This review contains plot spoilers.

When her German immigrant father is convicted of treason in 1945, beautiful Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) goes on a binge.  Her reputation as a party girl has been well earned, so American agent T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant) tries to keep some distance as he prepares to recruit her to spy on her father’s old friends, but he can’t seem to help getting involved with her.  Although she claims not to care about it, Devlin has wiretapped proof that she is a patriot and so he gets her to fly to Rio de Janeiro for a job.

By the time she is settled in Rio, Alicia is in love Devlin and she goes off of alcohol and dedicates herself to him, but he doesn’t quite believe her.  He is still suspicious that she will take another lover when she can.

Her job is to hook up Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), one of her father’s friends who made advances to her in the past.  She practically begs Devlin to tell her not to take the job, but he thinks that she should refuse it on her own.  This test of wills leads her to accept the challenge.  She is successful with Sebastian, but he keeps seeing her with Devlin and suspects that she may not really love him.  He dares her to prove her loyalty by marrying him.  Alicia brings her dilemma to the American agents, all of whom want to leave the decision up to her, except for Devlin.  In love with her and angry that she has actually taken Sebastian for a lover, he advises her to go through with the marriage.

Notorious 01Alicia becomes convinced that whatever Sebastian is hiding is kept in his wine cellar, but he has the only to it.  On Devlin’s urging, she steals the key and plans to investigate during a large party.  She invites Devlin and the two of them sneak away during the party to look in the wine cellar.  He accidentally breaks a wine bottle and it is full of uranium.  Although he cleans up the mess and they make their escape, Sebastian has discovered that his key is missing when he goes to get more wine.  He sees Devlin and Alicia together and they kiss to cover their escape from the wine cellar.  Sebastian sees them and realizes that Alicia doesn’t really love him, then, when his key appears on his key ring the next morning, he realizes that she is a spy.

At the urging of his mother (Leopoldine Konstantin), they begin a slow process of poisoning Alicia.  When she grows more and more ill, she cannot make a meeting with Devlin and he becomes suspicious.  He goes to the house to investigate and finds her deathly ill.  Confessing his love for her, he takes her from the house right in front of all of the Germans.  Sebastian begs to go along with them, but Devlin refuses, leaving Sebastian to face the wrath of his ex-Nazi friends.

In its restored version, this black and white film is absolutely beautiful.  Ingrid Bergman was made for the black and white film medium and the camera certainly loves her beauty.  Alicia is a very complicated role and her performance is dynamic and powerful.  Likewise, Cary Grant plays Devlin as a very complicated man and gives probably the best performance of his career, nuanced and detailed.  Hitchcock uses his camera masterfully, creating some of the best shots of any of his films.

Notorious 02The suspense in this movie is palpable, at times so thick that it is almost impossible to watch, but the story is so compelling it is difficult to turn away.  The kisses between Bergman and Grant are incredibly sexy.  In one shot, they kiss, nuzzle, talk, and kiss over and over again for minutes.  The movie also contains one of Hitchcock’s most well known shots, a long crane shot from the second floor of the house, moving inexorably down to a close-up of Bergman’s hand, behind her back, holding the key.

Written by Hollywood’s legendary screen writer, Ben Hecht, Notorious is a masterpiece that must be included among the very best of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies and it should be seen by everyone!

To Catch A Thief

To Catch a Thief 01This is Alfred Hitchcock’s most visually beautiful movie.  Filmed on the French Riviera, the gorgeous hills, dotted with old mansions overlooking the Mediterranean Sea vie with the stark beauty of Grace Kelly and chiseled features of Cary Grant to provide enough eye candy to last a lifetime.  The following review contains plot spoilers.

The story is simply an excuse for the beauty.  American ex-patriot John Robie (Cary Grant) is a former jewel thief who was known as “the Cat” before World War II.  He paid his dues by fighting in the French Resistance, killing over 70 Nazis proving his loyalty to France.  After the war, he put aside his thieving ways and lives respectably and very well, thank you, in a villa on a ridge overlooking the Mediterranean.  This idyllic life is disturbed when a copycat burglar begins stealing the most expensive jewels on the Riviera.  When the Police come calling, thinking he has renewed his life of crime, he evades them in a breathtaking car chase through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.  Turning his car over to a woman on the street, he hops a bus and sits next to Alfred Hitchcock.

He goes to see his old friend from the Resistance, Monsieur Bertani (Charles Vanel), who runs a restaurant that is manned by head waiter Foussard (Jean Martinelli) and more of their old Resistance buddies, who are all suspicious that the Police are right about Robie.  Bertani helps him escape with the aid of Foussard’s daughter, teenager Danielle (Brigitte Auber) who has a crush on him.  She takes him across the water to the Hotel Carlton, where beautiful American tourist Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly) sees him.  He makes contact with a British insurance company representative, H. H. Hughson (John Williams), and pleads his case, that he is innocent and only wants to catch the thief to clear his name.  Caught by the Police, Robie is released due a lack of evidence and convinces Hughson to give him the names of his clients who have the most expensive jewels waiting to be stolen.  Abashed at having already had to pay out huge sums, Hughson agrees, also sharing the list with the Police to hedge his bets.

To Catch a Thief 02He begins by meeting rich American tourist Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis), mother of Frances, and posing as a rich Oregon timber man.  After a stimulating evening, he escorts the two ladies back to their rooms, but before he can depart, Frances gives him a passionate kiss and arranges to meet him the next day.  While swimming, he runs into Danielle and Frances becomes jealous.  She and Robie take a drive to look at villas and are followed by the Police.  When he asks her to drive a little faster, she speeds up considerably, taking a kind of devilish delight in tempting fate.  They safely evade the Police and find a nice spot overlooking the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean and she tells him that she’s figured out that he’s actually John Robie.  He denies it, but after lunch the end up kissing again.  She tells him to meet her in her room to watch the fireworks or she will reveal who he really is.

That night, she seduces him again, proposing that they go into business together as burglars.  He continues the façade of being a tourist, but when she goes to sleep, he keeps watch in her bedroom.  During the night, however, the burglar robs Jessie of all her expensive jewels and finally Robie reveals himself to them.  Frances calls the Police on him and he departs over the rooftops as they arrive to search for him.

Hiding out, he stakes out what he thinks is the next target, alerting Hughson and putting the Police on notice.  As he waits in the dark, he is attacked by a man dressed in black.  Struggling, he throws the man over the cliff.  The Police find the body of Foussard in the Sea and announce that he was the burglar, clearing Robie of charges.

At her father’s funeral, Danielle becomes distraught and calls Robie a murder.  Chagrined, Frances again hooks up with Robie and he tells her of his plans to capture the real burglar by attending a fancy costume ball.  The Police follow and also stake out the ball, which Bertani is catering, with Danielle’s help.  After changing disguises with Hughson, Robie waits on the roof for the burglar to show up, but when he does, it turns out to be Danielle.

To Catch a Thief 03On Robie’s hillside villa, Frances kisses Robie again, remarking that her mother is going to love the house.

From beginning to end, the cinematography is stunning, so much so that the film won Robert Burks, Hitchcock’s longtime associate an Academy Award.  Although nominated for her incredible costuming, especially of Grace Kelly, Edith Head did not win.

This film has a different feel than most of Hitchcock’s work.  Although it contains a lot of humor, the film is not a comedy.  There is certainly some mystery as to who the real burglar is, but the film lacks the tension and suspense that mark most of Hitchcock’s movies.  In truth, this is a feel-good romance, concentrating, as it does, so intensely on beauty.  This was the last film he made with Grace Kelly before she married Prince Ranier of Monaco and gave up acting and it is appropriate that she shows so well.  Stunning in an array of dazzling Edith Head costumes, the three gowns she wears are all breathtaking.

It moves at a really good clip, coming in at under two hours, and you never notice the time passing because there is always so much beauty for your eye.  It is a fun movie, something you can’t really say about too many Hitchcock films and it transports you to a time and place full of such charm that it can honestly be said to elevate one beyond the every day.

A stunning film!  I highly recommend this movie for all audiences.

Waste Land

Waste Land 01One man’s trash another man’s art?  One man’s human scum another man’s hero?

Brazilian artist Vik Muniz works with “natural materials” such as sugar and garbage.  He has been so successful that he has relocated his studio to New York, but in 2005, he decides it is time to give something back to the country where he grew up poor.  He picks as his subject the largest landfill in the world, Jardim Gramacho, an island just outside Rio de Janeiro, where hundreds of humans comb through the newly arrived trash.

At first, his main concern is for his own welfare.  Would it be safe to work there?

When he arrives at Jardim Gramacho, he is quite surprised that the pickers.turn out to be the perfect subjects for his art.  Far from being abject poor, struggling to live off of the garbage, they are honest workers collecting plastic and metal to recycle and earning $20 to $25 a day for their labor.  Most of them found their way there through unemployment.  Although it took a “while to get used to the smell,” most of them don’t even notice after a while and Muniz goes through the same process.

In fact, their occupation is not only honest, it provides decent livings for most of them in this impoverished land, and it contributes environmentally as well.  Followed by documentary filmmaker Lucy Walker, Vik spends a great deal of time interviewing and getting to know the catadores, choosing seven men and women to work with specifically as his subjects, including a man named Tiao who has organized the workers into an association.  As representative of the catadores, he lobbies the government to make sure that they are provided for and that laws enacted for the improvement of their neighborhoods are carried out.  A friend of his picks up books from the dump and they are collecting them to form a community library.

Waste Land 02Posing Tiao as Jean Paul Marat, in an abandoned bathtub found at the dump, Muniz shoots photographs, then he systematically goes through the catadores that he has selected and puts them in famous poses.  Hiring them away from the dump, he brings them a warehouse where their photos are projected from a height onto the floor.  The workers then select garbage and use it to create the picture over the projection.  Muniz then takes photographs of the picture made of garbage.

Flying Tiao to Berlin, he watches as the photograph is sold at auction for an astounding price and all of the money goes back to the association to help the catadores to expand their center, buy computers and begin teaching adults and children how to build a better life for themselves.  Sale of the art raises over $250,000 for the catadores.

The experience is transformative for all of the workers as they try to make better lives for themselves and their children.  The association expands into a major recycling player in Brazil.

Walker does a masterful job of assembling this film, creating a work that is in itself transformative.  What started out as a film about a socially conscious artist turns out to be about a people who learn, grow and make better lives for themselves.

This is a truly powerful film that accumulates emotional punch as it develops until by the end, the viewer is pulled deeply into the lives of the catadores.  Sometimes all it takes is one person who cares deeply about something to make the world a better place and in this regard both Vik Muniz and Lucy Walker elevate the world around them, using as their tools human beings, cast-offs from society, and their art.

To enjoy more, please visit Artsy’s Vik Muniz page: https://www.artsy.net/artist/vik-muniz.

Friends with Kids

Friends with KidsThis 2011 movie written, produced and directed by Jennifer Westfeldt is about a group of shallow, sex-obsessed Manhattan Yuppies who start having children.  I’m going to discuss the full plot in some detail, so if you don’t want the ending spoiled, you probably shouldn’t read this review.  On the other hand, the story is quite predictable and if you haven’t figured out the entire plot in the first five minutes, then all cylinders aren’t firing anyway.

Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Westfeldt), are both well-paid professionals in their mid-30s.  Best friends for many years, they live in the same building in Manhattan and have long telephone conversations usually involving a choice between grisly ways to die.  Julie asks Ben if he’d rather die a long, painful death by cancer or to see a loved one die the same way.  Ben chooses to watch the loved one die because he would still be alive.

They gather regularly with married friends Alex (Chris O’Dowd) and Missy (Kristen Wiig), who are obsessed with having sex, and Ben (Jon Hamm) and Leslie (Maya Rudolph).  Not interested in each other Jason and Julie continually seek their own romantic relationships, the success measured in sexual happiness.  Their friends have children, but they continue to seek permanent mates themselves until one evening they decide to have a child of their own.  Seeing the misery that their friends have experienced, they decide that they can raise a child and still search for their own soul-mates.

While Ben and Leslie manage to make their marriage work, Alex and Missy’s relationship falls apart, further evidence that they’ve made the right decision.  As time passes, Jason becomes involved with a dancer, Mary Jane (Megan Fox), while Julie finds Mr. Right in the form of Kurt (Edward Burns).  When Alex gets drunk at a New Years skiing getaway for the eight of them, he comes down hard on Jason and Julie for not thinking through the effect their decision will have on their child.  Jason strongly defends the decision, declaring how much they love each other and how much they love their little boy.

Taking this to heart, Julie realizes that she really does love Jason more than Kurt.  When they get together to celebrate her birthday, she tells him how she feels, but Jason recoils, explaining that he loves her as a friend and is already in a deep relationship with Mary Jane.  Julie decides to move to Brooklyn to get away from him.  Both of their relationships end and Jason then realizes that he actually loves Julie, too.  It ends with him telling her that he’s changed his mind: he’d rather die himself than to watch her die of cancer.  She is reluctant at first to accept this change of heart, but when he promises great sex, she changes her mind.

There are moments in this movie that ring true and come close to being genuinely touching, but the predictability of the plot makes it very hard to become attached to story.  The characters are genuinely shallow.  Self-obsessed relationship-junkies who have probably never had an original thought in their lives, their elevation of sex to the be-all and end-all of human love comes across as pathetic and self-serving.

Maybe this is the present or the future of American ideals, but I sure hope not.  One can admire Westfeldt for her hard work in doing the project, but I really wish she had taken the time to put some thought into it.  I can’t really recommend this movie to anyone.

The Graduate

Graduate 01“Hello, darkness, my old friend… I’ve come to talk with you again…”

Packed like a factory assembled doll among a throng of passengers, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) sits anonymously on an airplane about to land in Los Angeles.  As “The Sound of Silence” plays, he steps up onto a conveyor belt, his figure black against a white wall, as if he were on an assembly line about to be delivered for final packaging.

A recent graduate of a prestigious east coast college, Ben has no idea what to do with himself, no idea what he wants to do with himself.  He feels lost, adrift.  His parents (William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson) hold a party to celebrate his graduation, but it is attended only by their wealthy friends, not one person his own age.  Lying in bed, in front of his fish tank, he stares blankly out into the world.  Forced to attend the party, he searches for some escape, but is cornered by a man who has only one word for him: plastics.

Retreating to his room, his privacy is broken by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of his father’s law partner (Murray Hamilton), who nearly forces him to give her a ride home.  Getting him inside on the pretense that she needs the lights on, she fixes him a drink.  Ben figures out that she’s trying to seduce him and attempts to escape, but can’t seem to get away.  Mrs. Robinson then invites him up into the bedroom of her daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross) to see the girl’s portrait.  She is currently away at school attending the University of California-Berkeley.  Mrs. Robinson begins to undress in spite of Ben’s obvious nervousness, but is interrupted by the return of Mr. Robinson.  Ben quickly runs downstairs and sits with his drink when the man comes in the front door.  Mr. Robinson encourages him to date Elaine when she returns to L.A. on a school break.

Graduate 02At her request, Ben calls up Mrs. Robinson and she agrees to meet him at a hotel.  Overcome with nervousness, Ben goes through with his tryst and begins a summer of laziness, lying around in the pool during the day and meeting Mrs. Robinson for sex at night.  Gradually, he begins to want more from their relationship and forces Mrs. Robinson to begin talking about herself.  When the conversation comes around to Elaine, she forbids him to date her.  Ben rebels and they each say hurtful things, but when Mrs. Robinson begins to dress to leave, he apologizes and they continue their sexual meetings.

After Elaine has returned, Ben’s parents force him into dating her, over Mrs. Robinson’s objections.  In order to make it a horrible date, Ben takes Elaine to a strip joint and the stripper on stage twirls her pasties directly over Elaine’s head as silent tears fall from her eyes.  Humiliated, Elaine runs out and Ben follows her, feeling horrible about what he’s done.  He catches her, apologizes profusely, and they go out for burgers.  Whether through guilt or genuine attraction, Ben falls for Elaine and she seems to be falling for him.  He makes another date with her, but when he pulls up at the house, in a rainy downpour, Mrs. Robinson gets into his car instead, once again forbidding him to see Elaine, this time with the threat that she will tell Elaine about their affair.

Graduate 03Ben runs back to the house and reveals to Elaine that he has been having an affair with her mother.  Appalled, she throws him out and tells him she never wants to see him again.  Ben watches from a distance as she returns to Berkeley, then he follows her there and finally gets her to admit that she loves him, too.  Mr. Robinson shows up at Ben’s apartment and forbids the relationship, leading Elaine to leave school and marry her boyfriend.  Frantically driving back and forth, Ben finds the church, but he can’t get in.  Running up to the second story, he looks down as the wedding vows are concluded and begins to scream her name.  Seeing the vicious faces of those around her, Elaine screams back Ben’s name.  Using a cross to fight off the angry wedding party, Ben and Elaine escape, getting into the back of a bus and riding away.

The Graduate, released in 1967, still stands today as one of the best films ever made.  The screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry is based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Charles Webb.  Produced by Lawrence Turman and directed by Mike Nichols, the movie was delayed for several years because they simply could not find the right cast.  Almost every big name in Hollywood was considered for every major role, but no one seemed to fit.

Actresses considered for the role of Elaine included Patty Duke, Faye Dunaway, Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Raquel Welch, Joan Collins, Carroll Baker, Candice Bergen, Goldie Hawn, Jane Fonda, Ann-Margret, Elizabeth Ashley, Carol Lynley, Sue Lyon, Yvette Mimieux, Suzanne Pleshette, Lee Remick, Pamela Tiffin, Julie Christie, and Tuesday Weld. 

Robert Osborne of TCM said, “Mike Nichols wanted Doris Day for Mrs. Robinson, Robert Redford for Benjamin Braddock, and Gene Hackman for Mr. Robinson.”

Other actresses considered for Mrs. Robinson included Jeanne Moreau, Joan Crawford, Lauren Bacall, Audrey Hepburn, Patricia Neal, Geraldine Page, Claire Bloom, Angie Dickinson, Sophia Loren, Judy Garland, Rita Hayworth, Susan Hayward, Anouk Aimee, Jennifer Jones, Deborah Kerr, Eva Marie Saint, Rosalind Russell, Simone Signoret, Jean Simmons, Lana Turner, Eleanor Parker, Anne Baxter, Shelley Winters, Angela Lansbury, Natalie Wood, and Ava Gardner.  All were either turned down, refused to appear nude, or were unimpressed with the part.  Anne Bancroft, an accomplished stage and screen actress, wife of director Mel Brooks, took the part even though she was only seven years older than Dustin Hoffman

Graduate 05Hoffman and Ross were both chosen as Ben and Elaine when they tested together.  He was a 29 year old New York actor who was virtually unknown outside the live theater, but Turman brought him to Los Angeles to test.  Even though he was very much against the type they wanted for Ben, Nichols liked him very much and gave him the role.

The Graduate was also Nichols’ first film, although he was very well known from his Broadway successes.  It is surprising that a stage director should create one of the best films ever made in his first effort.  Maybe the long wait while they searched for the right cast gave him the extra time to craft the film into the beauty that it became.  Every single shot is lovingly assembled and extraordinarily powerful.  Hitchcock had mastered the art of framing long before this film was made, but Nichols uses camera angles in an even more powerful way.  The most iconic shot in the film is, of course, the one that shows Ben framed behind Mrs. Robinson’s leg, sheathed in a black stocking, but it is only one of hundreds of nearly perfect shots.

The creative use of dark and light in a color film was nearly unprecedented at the time.  For example, there is a scene early in the seduction when Mrs. Robinson is sitting at the bar in her home and Ben nervously paces back and forth in front of her.  It is shot from behind Ben who appears only as a black silhouette moving with a kind of nervy relentlessness back and forth, revealing Mrs. Robinson sitting with one leg propped on a bar stool, allowing Ben a tantalizing view.

Mirror shots are used to extreme advantage, the most obvious one when Mrs. Robinson takes Ben to Elaine’s room to seduce him.  As he looks at the portrait of Elaine, Mrs. Robinson appears nude in the reflection off of the glass.  Brilliant!  Not only is it a visually stunning image, but it also points up the terrible situation that Ben will be in later when he has to choose between the mother and daughter.

The use of music and sound is also brilliant.  “The Sound of Silence” is such a perfect representation of Ben’s state of mind at the beginning of the movie that the simple image of Ben’s head framed against the aquarium as it plays tells a whole story without any dialogue whatsoever.  The other Paul Simon songs, performed by Simon and Garfunkel, are super appropriate and set the mood wherever they are used.  The song “Mrs. Robinson” was adapted by Paul Simon especially for the film and it went on to become a huge hit.  Quite often Nichols uses silence itself to punctuate that deep, dark mood that Ben brings into the movie, relieving it with the beautiful Paul Simon melodies.

The acting is all superb.  Dustin Hoffman is wonderful as Ben, creating all kinds of great little mannerisms that make him a complete person, not the least of which is the short falsetto “Humpf” that comes out when he is particularly nervous.  Anne Bancroft gives a great performance as Mrs. Robinson, terribly restrained, yet allowing the viewer to see how great her own boredom is and how much her affair with Ben means to her, despite the fact that it is exclusively sexual.  Although Katherine Ross’s part is not huge, she does a great deal with it, especially in the scene where Ben reveals he’s been having an affair with her mother.

In addition, the supporting roles are extremely well done, most especially William Daniels as Mr. Robinson.  The cast list isn’t dense, but there are also a large number of cameo appearances, including Buck Henry, Alice Ghostley, Elaine May, Mike Farrell, and Richard Dreyfuss.

In spite of Ben’s heavy attitude coming into the film, it is really a first rate comedy and also a feel-good movie.  Although it was made in 1967, the comedy isn’t dated at all.  In fact, it could have been made last year and still hold up to scrutiny.  The only real reference to the time it was made was when Ben gets a room in Berkeley, his landlord tells him that he won’t tolerate any “agitators.”  In places, the costumes or hairstyles may give away the time, but they are nearly invisible, unlike many other period movies where they are obvious.  It comes in at under two hours and it doesn’t feel long at all.  In fact, it moves really fast.

The only “error” I found in the movie is that when Ben is driving north to see Elaine in Berkeley, he crosses the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, which he wouldn’t have done without a specific purpose.  It doesn’t really make sense in an otherwise perfectly crafted movie.

All of the parts of this film work so harmoniously that it should stand the test of time going forward in the future.  Many other good films may be made, but I believe that The Graduate will remain one of the best films ever made.  It certainly makes my Top Ten.  Because of the adult situations, I will recommend it for mature viewers.

A brilliant, long-lasting movie with great comedy, great angst, and a feel-good ending!

Graduate 04