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.

This is a great movie that should be seen by everyone!

Jane Eyre 2011

Jane Eyre 2011This adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel Jane Eyre was produced in 2011.  Directed by Cary Fukunaga from a script by Moira Buffini, this is clearly the best of the recent movie versions of the novel.  Ms. Buffini’s script is faithful to the novel, yet innovative in the way it tells the story, bringing a passion lacking in the other attempts.

For a detailed plot synopsis, please see my review of the novel at the link below.

The movie begins between the second and third sections of the book, when Jane  (Mia Wasikowska) runs away from Thornfield Hall and becomes lost on the moors.  This is a dramatic departure from the other adaptations, which tell the story in a straightforward manner.  To bring the single most iconic scene to passionate life at the very beginning is both clever and stirring.  After she is found at the doorstep of St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell), the first two parts of the story are told in flashback as Jane regains herself and settles into life with St. John and his two sisters, Mary and Diana.  The other two adaptations give the final third of the novel short shrift, but this version, by making it the “present day” of the movie, allows us to experience Jane’s new life and the relationship with St. John to the fullest.

The second innovation is that the script makes the deepest cuts in the first section, Jane’s childhood.  There are good and bad repercussions of this, but in this movie they are mostly good.  The abuse within Mrs. Reed’s (Sally Hawkins) household by both her aunt and her cousins is shown much more dramatically.  The child actress playing Jane at ten, Amelia Clarkson, does a terrific job.  The cruelty of the school is brought out more boldly in this version, as we actually see Jane’s friend, Helen Burns (Freya Parks) being caned by the headmistress.  So, even though this section is shorter, it is much more powerful in setting up Jane’s character.

After leaving Lowood as a 17 year old girl, Jane takes her position at Thornfield Hall.  In this version, it seems much older, more rustic and authentic, dark and brooding, becoming more the character that Brontë created in the novel.  The housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench) guides her through narrow hallways, dimly lit by candles.  Her pupil, Adele (Romy Settbon Moore), speaks mostly French and is very charming.  Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender) is offensive, brooding and Gothic.  The entire creation of Thornfield Hall is much spookier than the other versions.  This film also shows the process of Jane and Rochester falling in love, which makes it much more believable.  The script actually brings over some of the dialogue from the book where Jane and Rochester speak during the evening.  The viewer can see Jane challenging him intellectually.

The acting is superb.  Mia Wasikowska gives an extraordinary performance as Jane Eyre, even if she is quite a bit more beautiful than the character in the book.  They try to make her look plain, but Wasikowska’s eyes alone give her away as a beautiful woman.  Likewise, Michael Fassbender is terrific as Rochester, but he’s just a little too handsome.  Nonetheless, these two actors have an extraordinary chemistry that brings a great deal of emotion to the story.  The supporting characters are also very well drawn, again bringing a felicity to the book that is rare in film adaptations.  Jamie Bell is especially good as St. Johns.

Cary Fukunaga’s expert direction brings this wonderful script to life, from creating the rustic Gothic texture of the environment to the beautiful use of light and shadows throughout Thornfield Hall.  The film is full of a kind of shimmering beauty that makes it a wonderful viewing experience.

From almost every point of view, this is a delightful adaptation of a great classic novel.


Jane EyreRead my review of the novel Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte!

This 1847 classic novel both delights and confounds a modern reader.

Told mostly in first person past (with brief lapses into first person present) by the heroine, Jane Eyre, the book was originally subtitled An Autobiography.  It begins with Jane as a young girl of ten years as an orphan living with her Aunt Reed at Gateshead Hall.


Jane Eyre 1996Read my review of the 1996 Franco Zeffirelli movie of Jane Eyre.

Adapting a classic novel to the big screen is always a dicey proposition.  The screen writer and director have a limited amount of time, yet there is so much in a classic novel that readers depend on for a satisfying experience.  Indeed, there is so much that is germane to the internal logic of a novel of depth that the story itself is resistant to adaptation within a two hour format.


 

Samantha Morton2_Jane EyreRead my review of the 1997 ITV movie of Jane Eyre.

This film adaptation of the classic novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë was originally aired on Great Britain’s ITV in March of 1997 runs approximately one hour and 45 minutes.  Obviously, a great deal had to be cut from the story in order to fit it into that kind of time parameter, but Kay Mellor’s script concentrates rightly on the romance between Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester and the Gothic suspense of Thornfield.

Fargo

Fargo Paul BunyanAlfred Hitchcock would have liked this 1996 Joel Coen and Ethan Coen quirky thriller that contains so much comedy it transcends genres.  It borrows a number of techniques from the master of thriller movies, including a clever McGuffin, a villain with empathy, horrific incidents that are hilarious, and a tremendous environmental atmosphere.

The following review contains plot spoilers!

Minneapolis car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is caught in a deep financial bind during the winter of 1987 and hatches a scheme to hire two thugs, Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrüd) so that her wealthy father, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell) will pay enough money to pay off the kidnappers and leave him high and dry financially.  At the same time, he has been working on a real estate deal that would leave him wealthy enough to quit the car business altogether.  He has been pitching this scheme to his father-in-law hoping that the man will loan him $750,000 to complete the deal.

Fargo William MacyHe drives to Fargo to give the prospective kidnappers a 1987 Oldsmobile Ciera to cement the deal, passing through the hamlet of Brainerd, Minnesota, home of Paul Bunyan.  Returning to Minneapolis, Jerry is shocked to find that Wade is actually interested in the real estate deal, so he hastily tries to contact the kidnappers to cancel the deal, but they are already on the road to the Twin Cities.  In a meeting with Wade and his financial officer, Stan Grossman (Larry Brandenburg), Jerry finds that they only want to pay him a finder’s fee and will not loan him the $750,000.  Although Jean puts of nominal resistance, Carl and Gaear wrap her up in a shower curtain (there are several reverential Psycho moments) and head back to Fargo.  When Jerry finds Jean missing, he tells Wade that the kidnappers want one million dollars for her return, thinking he can get the money for the real estate deal, but that the kidnappers will only deal with him.

Fargo Steve BuscemiOutside Brainerd, Carl and Gaear get stopped by a state patrolman because Carl has forgotten to put tags on the Ciera.  While he attempts to smooth things over with the officer, Jean moans under the shower curtain in the back seat and the trooper asks them to exit the vehicle.  On impulse, Gaear grabs the officer and shoots him in the head.  He tells Carl to move the body off the highway and while Carl is trying to drag the dead man out of the way, a car happens by and two people witness it.  Gaear puts the Ciera in gear, chases down the witnesses and shoots both of them after their car has flipped into a field.

Fargo Frances McDormandBrainerd Sheriff Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is awakened in the early morning hours by her deputies who need her at the scene of the triple homicide.  Her husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch), faithfully fixes his seven-month pregnant wife breakfast, jumps her patrol car, and sends her off.  Marge quickly figures out exactly what happens and launches an investigation that leads her to the Blue Ox Motel where the two men stayed on their way to Minneapolis.  She interviews the two girls who bedded the men and follows up on several phone calls made to Jerry’s mechanic, Shep Proudfoot (Steve Reevis) who had set the deal up for Jerry.  Following up this lead, she goes to Minneapolis only to find that Shep has disappeared.  She interviews an extremely nervous Jerry, ultimately growing suspicious of him.

Jerry’s plans are derailed when Wade takes the money and heads for a rooftop parking lot to meet Carl.  Jerry follows, but Carl gets annoyed by Wade and shoots him.  Wade gets in one shot that goes through Carl’s jaw.  Further annoyed, Carl empties his gun into Wade’s body and runs with the money, shooting the parking lot attendant on the way out.  Stopping on a lonely highway, he looks into the bag and discovers a million dollars.  He takes out enough to account for the original small ransom that Jerry had told him about and buries the bag in the snow along a fence, marking the spot with his ice scraper.

Thinking that Jerry may have lied to her, Marge goes back to the dealership, but Jerry storms out and disappears, so she puts him on the radar for the state police.  When Carl returns to their Moose Lake hideout, he finds that Gaear has killed Jean.  He gives the man his half of the money, but Gaear is upset that they were also supposed to divide the Ciera.  Carl yells at him, but on his way out, Gaear kills him, too.  A tip leads Marge to Moose Lake where she discovers Gaear feeding Carl’s body into a wood chipper.  She confronts him and when he tries to run, she wounds him and then arrests him.  On the way in, she adds up the deaths and remarks that the money wasn’t worth it.  Jerry is found at a motel and arrested.

Right from the very beginning of the movie, the atmosphere is stark and it sets up the cold northern winter that is the blanketing background of the movie.  A wash of white fills the camera and only fleetingly do we see Jerry’s car moving through the hazy bleak whiteness.  The cinematography is extraordinary and the use of color is truly dazzling.

The script and the editing are extremely tight, leading to a film that runs only one hour and thirty-eight minutes, yet tells a completely compelling story.  The dialogue is crisp and taut, full of the deep northern dialect that lends a comedic feel from the first time Jerry opens his mouth.  Each scene is so succinct and well written that the story moves inexorably to its conclusion.  There is only one plot element that slows it down: a subplot with an old acquaintance of Marge that makes her think Jerry might be lying.  It takes up more space than it probably warrants, but it is the only detraction from an intricate, well balanced script.

The acting is amazing, beginning with Frances McDormand and William H. Macy.  Although McDormand doesn’t even make an appearance until nearly 30 minutes into the movie, her presence takes it over.  Marge is a pretty simple character and she keeps everything in perspective, casually adding up the elements of the crime while dealing with her pregnancy.  Her Minnesota dialect is pitch perfect and it keeps the comedy always working for the good of the film.  Macy, a relatively unknown character actor before Fargo, is terrific as Jerry, a character that we instinctively don’t like, yet we feel his terror as the situation gets further and further out of hand.  It is a brilliant performance.

All of the supporting actors are great, from Buscemi and Stormare as the kidnappers to Lynch as Marge’s supportive wildlife artist husband, Norm.  Presnell is truly funny as Jean’s father.  Everyone works together to create a wonderful ensemble of acting that all goes back to support the script.

Fargo was amply rewarded with seven Academy Award nominations, with Oscars for Frances McDormand for Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay for the Coen brothers.  It was also up for Best Picture (Ethan Coen), Director (Joel Coen), Best Supporting Actor (William H. Macy), Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins), and Best Editing (Roderick Jaynes).

It remains the best of a deep and impressive body of work by the Coen brothers.  In spite of the violence, it is a film that can be enjoyed over and over.  It is a classic of American cinema that should have a place in every serious film buff’s collection.  The DVD special edition contains a “making of” featurette, as well as a Charlie Rose interview with the Coens and Frances McDormand.

As I said at the beginning, Hitchcock would have loved this one!

Shadow of a Doubt

Shadow of a DoubtIs this Alfred Hitchcock’s best movie?  The Master thought so.  Of all the films Hitchcock made in his lifetime, this was his very favorite.  It combines many of his best filmmaking techniques, it is tremendously suspenseful, and the very heart of the movie is loss of innocence.  This review contains plot spoilers, so beware reading the entire summary below if you want to be surprised!

The opening credits show a ballroom with couples dancing to “The Merry Widow Waltz,” an image that will be reprised throughout the movie.

Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotton) lies on his bed in some nameless Eastern city, a pile of money laying on his bedside table.  His landlady tells him that two men have been looking for him, so he languidly gets himself together, goes downstairs and immediately loses the two men who are following him.  He sends a telegram to his family in Santa Rosa, California, informing them that he will soon arrive for a visit.

His niece, Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright) lies around her bedroom bored to tears with her life in the small town and wonders if anything exciting will ever happen.  Her father, Joseph (Henry Travers) can’t understand her, but promises that things will get better.  Charlie decides to send a telegram to her uncle Charlie hoping that he will come visit them to make things more exciting and she is stunned when the telegram from her uncle arrives–she calls it mental telepathy that they were thinking of the same thing at the same time.  Uncle Charlie’s sister, Emma (Patricia Collinge) is young Charlie’s mother and the family is completed with brainy little sister Ann (Edna May Wonacott) and a younger brother.  When Uncle Charlie arrives by train, they are all excited to see him, especially Charlie who feels that they are like twins, partly because she was named after him and partly because he seems to bring that excitement that she really wants out of life.  During dinner that night, Emma begins to hum “The Merry Widow Waltz,” but no one can remember what it is called.  Uncle Charlie distracts them so that no one does actually give us the title.

Uncle Charlie gives everyone gifts, including a ring to Charlie that has an inscription inside, but one from someone else to someone else.  A neighbor, Herbie (Hume Cronyn) shows up to discuss crime fiction with Joseph.  Uncle Charlie finds something in the newspaper that disturbs him.  He pretends to play a game with Ann where he tears up the section of the paper he was reading.  Stuffing it into his pocket, he goes upstairs, but Charlie is curious.  Claiming that they have nothing to hide, she steals the bit of paper, but can’t make anything out of it.  Ann tells her that the library is open until 9 PM, so Charlie runs down and finds the paper.  There is an article about the “Merry Widow Killer,” a man who marries rich widows and then kills them for their money.  When two government agents, Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey) and Fred Saunders (Wallace Ford), show up posing as a national survey team, Uncle Charlie gets nervous and refuses to have his picture taken, but Charlie agrees to go out with Jack to show him Santa Rosa and he admits that he is a detective on the trail of the “Merry Widow Killer.”   Uncle Charlie is one of two suspects they are investigating.

Suspicious and torn between family loyalty and fear that Uncle Charlie really is the killer, she proceeds cautiously.  When the suspect on the East Coast is killed trying to run away, it is assumed that the man was the killer, but Uncle Charlie begins to arrange “accidents” for Charlie, including a broken stair step and finally locking her inside their garage with the car running and the key in his pocket, trying to kill her with carbon monoxide poisoning.  The family all go off to a speech that Uncle Charlie is giving, so Charlie tries to call the government agents to no avail.  Later Uncle Charlie announces that he is leaving.  He has carefully arranged to run off with a family friend, who just happens to be a rich widow.

As the train moves off, he holds Charlie prisoner and tries to throw her off the moving train, but as the struggle, he loses his balance.  A little push from Charlie and he falls into the path of an oncoming train.  The final scene shows Charlie talking with Jack at Uncle Charlie’s funeral.  She remarks that Uncle Charlie thought the world was an evil place, but Jack tells her that there is only some evil in the world.

One can understand, especially from a thematic point of view, why this would Hitchcock’s favorite film of his entire canon.  The story develops Charlie’s arc from being an innocent, bored with her simple hometown life, to understanding that evil can lurk in the most unexpected places.  The viewer sees her grow as a person from an immature girl into a mature woman and that is always eminently satisfying.  But the film offers much more than this.  Uncle Charlie and Emma’s wistful view of the past as a beautiful waltz contrasts sharply with his perception that the world has grown into an awful place, full of stupid people who only eat and talk and display their jewelry.  His own bitterness at the world fuels his murder spree and when he sees his hope of that innocence of youth, his niece Charlie, turning cold to him, he can only respond with the despair that leads him to try to kill her.

In addition, the suspense is so finely crafted in this film that the viewer is pulled to the edge of their seat, waiting to see what happens to the girl Charlie.

The performances are uniformly good, but Joseph Cotton is magnificent as Uncle Charlie.  He leads us through all of his moods, from that painful yearning for innocence to the fear of being caught, to the despair of losing his niece’s good graces.  It is a powerful performance.  Teresa Wright is wonderful as the girl Charlie, capturing the essence of a soul at the turning point of her life between childhood and maturity.  Hume Cronyn is delightful as the family friend Herbie, who is always trying to find the perfect murder.  One of the best performances in the film is given by Patricia Collinge as Emma, who may miss the innocent past even more than Uncle Charlie and whose love of him creates the central challenge to Charlie’s struggle about revealing her uncle’s identity as the killer.

However, Macdonald Carey failed to make an impression on me as Jack.  Perhaps the character was written with too many contradiction or maybe I just didn’t buy his romantic interest in Charlie.  For whatever reason, his performance did not ring true for me.  It is the only blip in an otherwise great cast.

All of Hitchcock’s best film techniques are present in Shadow of a Doubt, some of them never more finely executed, and it will remain as one of the best films he ever made.  His best?  That question is still open for debate.

The Lady Vanishes

The Lady Vanishes (1938)Set in the fictitious European country of Bandrika, this 1938 British comedy-mystery  remains one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best movies.  Based on the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White, the script by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder is truly funny, even the suspenseful parts.  Enhanced by Hitchcock’s own wit, it emerges as a truly entertaining popular film that reaches well beyond his normal confines of mystery and suspense.

A group of English tourists and businessmen is trapped at an inn in Bandrika by an avalanche that has covered the railroad tracks.  Young, beautiful Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) has been visiting her friends, Blanche (Googie Withers) and Julie (Sally Stewart) before returning to England to marry a blueblood with lots of money.  She isn’t terribly excited about the prospect, but at the same time she can’t really find anything to get excited about.  Two apparently gay British businessmen, Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) are desperately trying to get back to England to see a cricket match.

Upstairs from Iris, a young English folk music enthusiast, Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) has several Bandrikans clogging a folk dance.  Along with her neighbor, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), a governess also returning to England, Iris complains about the noise and has Gilbert evicted from his room.  In retaliation, he comes to her room with his things and announces he’s moving in.  Forced to capitulate, she calls the manager and gets his room back.  In the meantime, Charters and Caldicott can’t get a regular room, so the manager has to put them up in the maid’s room, with the lewd suggestion that the maid will have to change her clothes there.  The two men are appalled and go out of their way to avoid seeing the young woman naked.

The next day on the train, Miss Froy befriends Iris who has been hit on the head by an object falling from a window.  The coach they are sitting in includes a Baroness and a magician.  After Iris takes a nap, she wakes up to discover that Miss Froy has disappeared.  The others seated in the coach deny having ever seen Miss Froy at all, so Iris begins to canvas the train trying to find anyone who remembers seeing the woman.  Along the way, she meets back up with Gilbert, who is determined to help her, even if he isn’t convinced that such a woman existed.  She meets Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas), a Bandrikan neurosurgeon who tries to convince her that she’s been hallucinating, but she can’t let herself believe that Miss Froy wasn’t real.  When Gilbert sees a porter throwing out the trash and notices the brand of tea that Iris told him Miss Froy gave to them, he becomes convinced and helps her to turn the train upside down looking for her friend.  The trains stops to pick up a special patient for Dr. Hartz and Gilbert begins to suspect that Miss Froy has been substituted for the patient.

Part of what makes the movie special is the terrific chemistry between Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave.  A noted actor on the British stage, this was Redgrave’s first starring role and he definitely made the most of it.  His offbeat humor teamed so well with Lockwood that the two are completely engaging throughout the movie.  The rest of the cast is also quite good, but Radford and Wayne as Charters and Caldicott practically steal the show.  Their stiff British correctness, combined with their obviously gay relationship and obsession with cricket, despite the hijinks going on around them is hilarious.  In fact, the two went on to reprise their characters in other British movies after The Lady Vanishes.

Coming as it did, after several unsuccessful films, this major box office hit was what convinced American producer David O. Selzni,k to sign Hitchcock to a contract that would bring him to America and lead him to become one of the most respected directors in film history.

The Lady Vanishes contains many of the elements that were staples of Hitchcock’s movies: the uncertainty of relationships, a long train ride, slanted camera angles to emphasize important objects in the frame, long takes contrasted with fast montage, his fascination with spies, his fear of the police, and, of course, the humor that colored many of his later American films.  This film also carries more political weight than most of his movies, as it was made during the period of time that Chamberlain was capitulating Czechoslovakia to Hitler and the situation is alluded to obliquely throughout the film, but especially near the end when the English on board the train must make a decision to either capitulate to the Bandrikian government or to make a stand.  The one man who decides to capitulate is shot dead holding his white flag, while those who hold fast persevere.

The film showcases many of the great filmmaking techniques that Hitchcock had learned and mastered.  It was given a low budget and restricted to a very small studio at Islington.  No matter.  Hitchcock built one train car in the studio and shot virtually the entire train footage, which takes up most of the film, on his one set, using superb rear projection, camera angles, and masterful dissolves to keep the film moving and make it realistic.

With its great humor, charismatic cast, fine script, and showcasing most of the plot elements and camera techniques that were Hitchcock staples, this stands out among the best of his British films and one of his best films over all.

I highly recommend this movie for all audiences!

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

 

mr and mrs smithThis 1941 “screwball comedy” was the first of two comedies that Alfred Hitchcock directed during his long and distinguished career, the other being the black comedy, “The Trouble with Harry.”  The script, by Academy Award winning screenwriter Norman Krasna, found its way to Carole Lombard, the actress who actually gave the name “screwball” to this kind of comedy, and she backed the project.  Before leaving England, Hitchcock had expressed a desire to work with Lombard and he got his wish in this film.

David (Robert Montgomery) and Ann (Carole Lombard) are a devil-may-care married couple in New York City.  He is a partner in a law firm with Jeff (Gene Raymond), but is sometimes absent for days as the couple holes up in their bedroom trying to make up after an argument.  It’s one of Ann’s rules that they have to stay in the bedroom until they make up.  When the film opens, they have been there for three days and they finally reconcile.   Over breakfast, she asks him if he would marry her if he had it all to do over.  Following her rule of complete honesty, he tells her that he wouldn’t.

However, when David goes to work, an official from Idaho, Harry Deever (Charles Halton) informs him that because the county they got married in is actually in Nevada, their marriage is null and void.  David calls Ann and asks her to dinner at Momma Lucy’s, a restaurant they used to eat at before they were married.  Mr. Deever, an old family friend of Ann’s stops by their apartment and tells her what he’s told David.  Certain that David will ask her to marry him again at the restaurant, she meets him full of expectation.  When they arrive at the restaurant, they find that Momma Lucy has gone back to the old country and it is now a seedy dive.  They arrive back home and David gets ready for bed, putting champagne on ice.  Upset that he still hasn’t asked her to marry him, she throws him out of the apartment and he has to go sleep at his club, the Beefeater.

Without Ann’s rule in place to keep them in the bedroom, they cannot make up.  David, regretting his earlier statement that he wouldn’t marry her if he had it all to do over, begins to follow her around begging her to forgive him and remarry, but perversely, it is Ann who likes her new freedom.  She takes a job, which David gets her fired from.  He tries to get Jeff to talk to her, hoping they can work something out, but Ann simply hires Jeff to be her attorney and then accedes when he asks her to go out with him.

At the Beefeater, David makes friends with Chuck (Jack Carson), who has also been thrown out of his home.  Chuck sets him up on a double date with a couple of low end dames and when they appear at the restaurant, David sees Ann with Jeff and tries to make her jealous.  Desperate, he follows them to Lake Placid and begins a series of machinations designed to pull the couple apart and bring him back together with Ann.

In spite of Hitchcock’s very capable direction, there are several things in the movie that are bothersome and I believe the issues belong to the script.  For one thing, it seems very cold of Ann to simply turn away from David the way she does.  I expected to see her plotting to intentionally wound him with the objective of getting him back eventually, yet it isn’t until the very end of the movie that she capitulates and realizes that she really does love him.  If she had, for example, discussed with Jeff her plan for getting him to apologize and re-marry her, it would have made perfect sense.  Krasna (or Hitchcock) leaves us to guess at her motivation for wanting to marry Jeff.  Toward the end, we see that she is fighting against her instinct to love him, but it is actually Jeff who pushes her back toward David.  It seems a little weird to me.

Another problem is that aside from a very few moments, I didn’t find the movie to be particularly funny.  At times, it goes begging for laughs.  Carole Lombard’s superb comic timing is never really used to great effect in the script and Robert Montgomery actually mugs at times looking for laughs.  This was Lombard’s next to last movie before her life ended in a plane crash while on a War Bond tour.  It’s really too bad, because Hitchcock and Lombard would have made a terrific combination.

I guess it says something that Hitchcock himself was disappointed in Mr. and Mrs. Smith in spite of its big box office success.

It’s not a bad movie, but I was hoping for a lot more than I got.

G

Graduate 01The Graduate

One of the best films ever made, this 1967 classic, directed by Mike Nichols, features great performances by Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft and Katherine Ross in a story about a young man considering his future and the mother and daughter who most heavily influence his choices.  A brilliant comedy featuring great songs by Simon and Garfunkel, this is a true classic!


Gravity Sandra BullockGravity

Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 science fiction film Gravity is extremely well-made, a tight thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat for an hour and twenty-four minutes holding on for dear life.  It is almost a perfect movie.

 

The Birds

Hitchcock The Birds 01I was thirteen years old in 1963 when I went to a movie theater to Alfred Hitchcock’s latest move, The Birds, and I can still remember the effect it had, the tension it engendered, the thrill of fright, and my jangled nerves when I left the theater and stepped out into the sunlight. Based on the novella of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, it is one Hitchcock’s best films. When I watched it again over fifty years later, I was surprised that it created exactly the same effect as when I saw it in a movie theater for the first time.

Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) stops into a pet store in downtown San Francisco on a Friday afternoon to pick up a minah bird as a gift, but it hasn’t arrived at the shop yet, so she writes down her name and address for delivery. As she stands at the counter, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), asks her if she can help him. He’s looking for a pair of lovebirds as a birthday present for his little sister. Pretending to be a clerk, she shows him around the store, making up stories about lovebirds, even though she hasn’t the slightest idea what they look like. When a bird accidentally escapes, he traps it under his hat and addresses her by her name. A lawyer, he had actually recognized her from the first, but wanted to show her what it was like to be the butt of a practical joke. Angered, she follows him to the street, gets the number of his license plate, and calls her father’s newspaper to get his address. She then purchases a pair of lovebirds and tries to deliver them to his apartment, but a neighbor informs her that he will be in Bodega Bay all weekend visiting his family. Undeterred, she decides to deliver them there and drives the sixty miles north the next morning, Saturday.

Finding out that the Brenner family home is directly across the bay, she decides to take rent a motorboat and make a surprise delivery by sneaking up on the house from the water, but she doesn’t know his sister’s name. A local store owner directs to her to home of the school teacher, Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette). When the two women meet, it is obvious that Annie is sizing her up as a rival for Mitch’s affections. The sister’s name is Cathy, so Melanie makes out a card, gets in her boat and sets out across the bay. Seeing Mitch go out to the barn, she sneaks inside, leaves the birds with a note and returns to her boat. She watches as Mitch goes back inside then comes outside, surprised and looking around for her. He spots her in the boat and as she goes back across the bay, he gets in his truck and drives around to meet her. As she nears the dock, a gull shoots out of the sky and scratches her head badly enough that she is bleeding. Mitch takes her into the Tides restaurant to clean and bandage the wound. His mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy) meets Melanie rather coldly, but everyone is curious about the bird attack.

When Mitch smugly remarks that she drove all that way to see him, Melanie lies and says that she was actually coming up to see her old friend Annie. Mitch invites her to come to dinner that evening and she meets Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), who begs her to attend her birthday party the next day. Melanie likes Cathy immediately, but Lydia seems to be almost jealous of her budding relationship with Mitch. As they sit down to eat, masses of sparrows fly down the chimney and fill the house. Mitch opens the windows and doors and tries to shoo them out. After they have fought them off, Melanie returns to Annie’s house to spend the night. As they discuss Annie’s former relationship with Mitch, a gull crashes against the door and dies.

On Sunday morning, she attends the birthday party, intending to drive back to San Francisco immediately afterward, but the party is attacked by a flock of gulls, diving and purposely trying to injure the children. As the family recovers from the attack, Melanie is persuaded to spend the night there. The next morning, Monday, Lydia goes to a nearby farm to investigate a problem she is having with her chickens, but discovers that the farmer is dead, his eyes picked out and his home destroyed by birds. In a panic, she returns home and the sheriff is called in. Mitch leaves with him to investigate further, but Lydia is so worried about Cathy at school that she sends Melanie to pick her up and bring her home.

At the school, Melanie waits for the children to finish their lesson. As they sing a children’s song, she waits outside, smoking a cigarette in front of the jungle gym, which slowly fills up with crows. Alarmed, she goes inside and she and Annie organize the children to leave in a mock fire drill. As the move down the road, the crows take flight and attack them as they run toward the village. Inside the Tides, she calls her father to alert him to the danger in Bodega Bay and everyone becomes concerned about the situation. A local fisherman reports that one of his boats was just recently attacked by gulls. An ornithologist, Mrs. Bundy (Ethel Griffies) tries to tell them that it is impossible for birds to work together in such a way, but if they did, there was no way humans could fight against the millions of birds in the world. A mother, with two young children, is panicked by their discussion and tries to flee, but the birds attack again, knocking over a man filling his car with gas. As the gas runs down the street, another man, lighting a cigar, ignites it and cars and the filling station all explode in fire as the birds corner Melanie in a telephone booth. Mitch gets her back into the restaurant and the mother accuses her of bringing on the bird attacks, crying out that none of it started until her arrival.

Hitchcock The Birds 03The attacks of the birds steadily escalate into an unforgettable conclusion to the movie.

When Hitchcock hired Evan Hunter to write the screenplay, he told him that the only thing there were keeping from du Maurier’s story was the title and the menace of the birds. With that freedom, Hunter moved the location from England to Northern California, an area that Hitchcock loved. The two of them then worked together to create an original story. The decision was made early on that they would make no attempt to explain the strange behavior of the birds, but Hitchcock suggested the scene where the townspeople discuss the situation.

The Birds follows Psycho in Hitchcock’s chronology of films and he had strongly considered not using a score for the previous film, but eventually worked with his musical collaborator, Bernard Herrmann in making his shocking fright film. For The Birds, he called in Hermann as a consultant, but actually used electronic sounds (by Sala and Remi Gassmann) and silence to create the terror in the film. All of the sounds of the birds are semi-artificial. They are natural bird sounds that have been input a mellotron-like keyboard system and played directly into a sound recorder. This was highly experimental for the time and a stark departure from the heavily scored films of the day.

The story is developed in pure Hitchcock style. It begins very lightly, with a comedic feel to it, an almost like the screwball comedies of the 1940’s, with a flighty society woman and a straight-laced lawyer, but it gradually becomes serious as small incidents with birds escalate into the terrorizing attacks that build steadily in intensity until the very end.

With the exception of a few uncertain moments from the young Veronica Cartwright early in the movie, all of the performances are very natural and believable, even Tippi Hedren who was acting in her first movie. Rod Taylor’s character wasn’t written with any depth, so he stands out as a man who reacts to the situation around him, which makes him a typical Hitchcock hero. Jessica Tandy and Suzanne Pleshette both bring incredible nuance and detail to their characters and so does Tippi Hedren. The women are created with the deepest detail, not only in this film, but in most of Hitchcock’s movies.

The technical detail and difficulty makes this a very unusual film for the master of suspense. Although he normally used the “blue screen” effect so that he could shoot most of his films in a studio, under controlled lighting, almost all of the effects using birds, both real and mechanical, were “sodium yellow screen” effects used in the film’s print, created by Ub Iwerks of Walt Disney Studios. In addition, he used many matte paintings that were printed into the final cut. For instance, in the scene where Hedren takes the boat across the bay, the entire village of Bodega Bay in the background is a painting. The same technique was used in the famous shot of the burning village from high above, with birds in the foreground. Part of the screen is live action on a limited stage, part is filled in with matte painting, and then the birds were actually painted onto the negative. All of these effects were quite radical for the day and today could all be done effortlessly using computer generated CGI effects.

The DVD contains a wonderful documentary called “All About the Birds” in which many of the principals, including Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, and Veronica Cartwright are interviewed. Evan Hunter provides great insight into how he developed the script with Hitchcock, technical wizards explain the special effects, and the original ending is discussed in some depth, using pages from Hunter’s original script. Hedren also discusses the psychological effect of how Hitchcock shot the scene in the upstairs bedroom using real birds that terrorized her and exhausted her to the point where she could no longer perform. That incident was featured in the derivative film, The Girl, which portrayed Hitchcock as a lustful man who inflicted that terror on Hedren for her refusal to have an affair with him.

The film will always have a place among the most frightening films ever made. Watching it at home on DVD, even on a big screen television, will never duplicate the effect it had in a theater full of people, all grasping their popcorn, gasping, sitting on the edge of their seats and even screaming, at times, together.

Nevertheless, it packs a huge punch and I highly recommend it!