Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Classic Film Review: The Apartment

The Apartment (1960)
STARRING: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray
DIRECTED BY: Billy Wilder

"Ya know, I used to live like Robinson Crusoe; I mean, shipwrecked among 8 million people. And then one day I saw a footprint in the sand, and there you were." ~C.C. "Bud" Baxter (Jack Lemmon)~

I credit Sunset Blvd. for my current obsession with the filmography of the late, great Billy Wilder. I credit Some Like It Hot (the greatest classic film I viewed for the first time last year) for my current obsession with the late, great Jack Lemmon. And, finally, I credit Mad Men for being the incredible television series that ignited my interest in the sexual politics and social history of the 1960s. If you watch Mad Men, then you are aware that it is, in part, an homage to The Apartment; most obviously in the scene in which Joan Holloway references the film directly and more subtly in the smoky atmosphere and office politics of Sterling Cooper.

C.C. "Bud" Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a career man. Clacking away on a typewriter in the same room as at least 50 other employees, just another face in row after row of office drones, Bud will do anything in his power to advance his position at the office. As Bud soon learns, he holds the key to his own success. Literally. Bud "rents" out his apartment for a few hours a day to his male superiors in the office so they can carry on their affairs in private. The key to Bud's apartment travels around the office in a manila envelope. Unlucky at love himself, Bud remains an eternal optimist and gets it into his head that the quirky and pretty "elevator girl" Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) will fall for his charms in due time. Little does Bud realize, his womanizing boss, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), wants to use Bud's apartment too, so that he can carry on his own affair with Fran.

Wilder's screenplay is an extraordinary blend of comedy and drama, something he deftly combines to balance the varying emotions of his central characters. The film is structured like a stage production with lengthy scenes that are dialogue-heavy, however, the moments never feel too long and each one manages to sustain the intensity of the situation. Rarely can a film make you laugh out loud one moment and contemplate love, life and death the next. This film is often categorized as a comedy classic, however, its themes deal with loneliness, vicious corporate environments, sexual harassment in the workplace, adultery and suicide. It's all sex and money and betraying one another.

As Bud, a young man compromising his principles in order to get ahead in life, Lemmon is at his charismatic best. Despite his quiet desperation to connect with a woman, in an attempt to dispel his overpowering loneliness, Lemmon never allows Bud to become self-loathing or irritating. Bud rarely wallows in his own misery, instead trying to see the good in every situation. He may be naive and too eager to martyr himself in the name of lusty affairs (his neighbours assume Bud is the one who is wooing all those woman who move in and out of his apartment) but Bud is never anything but completely likeable.

Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray are both excellent in their roles as Fran and Mr. Sheldrake. Their scenes exhibit how different they truly are from one another. Sheldrake wants nothing more than to carry on his affair with Fran without any strings attached, although he claims to love her. Fran, on the other hand, thinks she's in love and wants him to leave his wife. Fran and Sheldrake emotionally disconnect on each and every encounter they share. MacLaine, in particular, is wonderful in her portrayal of a woman who feels like a piece of trash who is just another notch on the bedpost for Sheldrake and his revolving door of women. Her emotion is always visible right under the surface.

Bud and Fran are two people who have been jaded by love in the past and watching their interactions in the apartment works so well because of the performances and chemistry between Lemmon and MacLaine. In the capable hands of Billy Wilder, The Apartment and its themes are still relevant today. The film has aged remarkably well and should be admired for addressing these issues up front. The screenplay is still fresh and witty, even 50 years later. It's a classic film that lives up to the praise.


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Movie Review: The Hurt Locker

DIRECTED BY: Kathryn Bigelow
STARRING: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse and Guy Pearce

Iraq, 2004. Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) is the reckless new leader of the Bravo Company elite Army bomb squad after the death of Sgt. Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) in the line of duty. James joins JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) with just over a month left of the Bravo Company's rotation. The film tracks those remaining few weeks as Sanborn and Eldridge struggle to cope with James' unconventional and dangerous leadership qualities.

Unlike most recent war films, The Hurt Locker focuses on a select group of men (mainly James, Sanborn and Eldridge) which actually allows the viewer to appreciate the characters and their development. Unlike Black Hawk Down, for example, these men don't just become another face in a big cast of characters, without a memorable personality. In focusing on a specific, elite group of combatants, Bigelow is allowing an attachment to form between the characters and the audience. James, Sanborn and Eldridge also lack the typical macho war mentality often found in these types of films. These three men are just average guys who happen to have incredibly dangerous careers, which makes them all the more likeable and sympathetic. They fear for their lives but understand that what they are doing is important.

Kathryn Bigelow has just as good a chance at winning Best Director at this years Oscars than anyone else. She can make as solid, intense and exciting a war film as any of the big league boys. The film is visually compelling, whether the focus is on something as small as a tangled web of bomb wires or as grand as a massive, devastating explosion. Bigelow provides a nice balance of quieter character scenes and grandiose gun battles. Amidst all the violence and chaos, her startling images of death and destruction, and the characters in the middle of it all, really resonate.

Jeremy Renner, as adrenaline-junkie Sgt. James, gives an excellent performance in one of his first starring roles. Despite the fact that he has a wife and baby son back home, James' main focus in life is his job of dismantling bombs. However, through Bigelow's direction and Renner's excellent performance, James also comes across as someone who would make a great father (in a memorable scene where he bonds with a young Iraqi boy named "Beckham", who loves soccer and sells burned DVDs) and a genuinely capable and respected leader (illustrated in the scene where a dehydrated James gives the last of his juice to Sanborn in the midst of a sniper battle). Those smaller moments that develop character, paired with the intense action scenes, makes James a great and, more importantly, likeable hero.

The supporting cast is also solid, specifically Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty as Sanborn and Eldridge. However, there are some great cameos as well, including Guy Pearce as the doomed Sgt. Thompson, David Morse as Colonel Reed and Ralph Fiennes as an unnamed British "Contractor Team Leader."

The Hurt Locker is definitely one of the years standout films; an intense and emotionally charged war film. It's heart-stopping action scenes and little character details and quirks will likely draw in any viewer who appreciates a well-rounded film. While it's not quite Best Picture of the year material, it is arguably great enough to at least merit Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director and Actor, all of which is likely to happen.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Classic Film Review: Sunset Blvd.

Sunset Blvd. (1950)
Directed By: Billy Wilder
Starring: William Holden, Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim

With the recent resurgence in my quest to watch all the major Hollywood film classics, I purchased Sunset Blvd. on a whim last year knowing very little about the movie itself other than the infamous line uttered by Gloria Swanson; "Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."

Struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) is down on his luck in Hollywood, having run out of original ideas for a new film to present to various major studios. He owes money to creditors and, while running from them in his expensive and shiny white car, a flat tire leads him to make the quick decision to park his car in the garage of a forboding mansion on the outskirts of town. Once inside the oppressive building Joe meets Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), the aging former silent screen star and her solumn German butler, Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim). Together, actress and butler, the two live a life of almost complete isolation, surrounded only by the relics of Norma's celebrity past. Norma shows Joe a script she has written based on the story of Salome, which she plans as her "return" to the silver screen. Despite the tedious script, Joe agrees to edit it for a fee, which would help him with the creditors. Norma goes above and beyond, showering Joe with jewellery, expensive suits and cigarette cases made of solid gold. What unfolds is a drama about a young struggling writer and the sudden riches he aquires from the older, emotionally unstable and lovestruck Norma who wishes for nothing more than to be a cinema icon once again.

Stylistically, the film is flawless. I haven't seen enough of Billy Wilder's work to compare it against, but it's easy to see why he is considered one of the cinematic greats. This is film noir to perfection, complete with a witty, all-knowing narrator. The script remains clever and fresh, despite the familiarity of the story and the passage of time. It includes references to Gone With the Wind ("Who wants to see a Civil War picture?" asks one producer), Charlie Chaplin, Rudy Valentino and features cameos by Buster Keaton and Cecil B. De Mille, as themselves. With Paramount Studios, as an entity, acting as a co-star in the film one can't help but feel the authenticity of Old Hollywood within the film. As a result, Wilder's film feels like a genuine glimpse into the lives of the Hollywood elite and those former talents long forgotten by their audiences.

Although Wilder originally wanted to cast Mae West and Marlon Brando in the leads, his choices are quite remarkable when one considers the back story of each cast member. At the time of production Gloria Swanson had been absent from the silver screen for several years, much like her alter ego. It marked her "return," just as Salome should have been the breakthrough for her on screen alter ego, Norma Desmond. William Holden's career mirrored that of Joe Gillis as, after a successful start in film, his career was struggling when Wilder approached him. Nancy Olson, who plays Betty Schaefer, the object of Joe's affection, was just stating out in Hollywood, much like the ambitious young screenwriter she portrays in the film. Then, of course, there is Erich von Stroheim who, playing the butler and former director Max, was formerly a silent film director in real life. He made "Queen Kelly" back in 1929 with his future co-star, Gloria Swanson. In fact, the film Swanson's Norma screens for Joe in Sunset Blvd. is an actual clip from "Queen Kelly." This is inspired casting, on all counts, and each actor is remarkable and memorable in their respective roles.

I love when a classic film lives up to all the hype that surrounds it. Sunset Blvd. manages to still be original, crisp and a facinating look at Hollywood life, despite the passage of time. I plan on watching it again soon so that I can catch all the little details and character nuances I may have missed upon my first viewing.


Saturday, January 9, 2010

Movie Review: A Single Man

Directed By: Tom Ford
Starring: Colin Firth, Matthew Goode, Julianne Moore and Nicholas Hoult

It's November 30th, 1962. Set in Los Angeles, the film tracks a day in the life of a British university professor struggling to return to a sense of normalcy after the sudden death of his lover eight months earlier. The audience follows George (Colin Firth) as he gives a lecture on Aldous Huxley to his students, interacts with his neighbours, bonds intellectually with a student named Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) and visits his longtime friend Charley (Julianne Moore), all the while thinking of Jim (Matthew Goode) and contemplating suicide.

Above all else, this film is a meditation on love and loss. Anyone who has lost someone close to them can emphasize with George's disconnection with his surroundings. What few can relate to is the manner in which George is forced to grieve for his lover: in private, lest someone discover he is a homosexual.

Because this is a Tom Ford film, one can expect plenty of beautiful men in beautiful suits, however, behind every perfectly manicured front lawn or well-cut suit or stylish living room furniture, lies hidden secrets and unhappiness. While aesthetically pleasing to behold, the characters are walking dead and masking their interior pain.

This is one of the few films that actually captures the "gay experience." Usually the focus is on a crisis of sexual identity and confusion (Brokeback Mountain) or being openly gay in a repressive society (Milk). A Single Man, on the other hand, is about love, lust and longing as a gay man. Despite being forced to keep his sexual orientation private, George notices beautiful men in public, desires physical and emotional comfort from men and yearns for an overall deeper connection with men. George knows who he is and what he wants, he just must carry on in private.

Invisibility as a theme comes up on occasion throughout the film. George lives in a glass house, completely vulnerable to prying eyes. He lived there with Jim, openly. However, his neighbours never said a word about their living arrangements, nor did anyone treat him any differently after Jim's death. If they were aware of George's homosexuality they never said it in public. Even in a glass house George and Jim were invisible. They didn't exist as a couple in the eyes of society. When George reluctantly goes skinny-dipping with Kenny late at night, Kenny points out that no will notice because they are invisible. Even when learning of Jim's death in a phone call from Jim's cousin, George is not invited to the funeral, despite the fact that he and Jim had been together for fifteen years. George was invisible to his lover's own family.

Colin Firth, known for being typecast as the droll yet charming Englishman in romantic comedies, gives his finest performance in A Single Man. He instills George with a sense of quiet grief, which lingers just below the surface, as though he could snap at any moment. His narration verbally illustrates the loss and isolation he feels by Jim's death, however, no words are actually needed. Firth manages to convey every minute of George's heartbreak in even the simplest of his daily tasks, whether he is observing his seemingly happy neighbours through a window while sitting on the toilet or discovering an intimate photo he once took of Jim. Firth's performance is not only one of the best of his career, but one of the best of 2009.

Julianne Moore, as George's British friend, Charley, is wonderful in a secondary role. Charley is aware that she is an aging, divorced woman with little contact with her children, yet she dresses and acts as though she were twenty years younger, living in happier times. She loves George and, despite the fact that she is aware that he's a "poof," she resents the fact that she couldn't have him all to herself. Charley and George are both aware of the fact that they will never be with their true loves again and their shared sadness is evident.The rest of the supporting players, specifically Matthew Goode and Nicholas Hoult, are well cast and give strong performances in smaller roles.

The film is visually stunning, once you get over the fact that Tom Ford has the tendency to make some scenes play more like a perfume ad than a film. The costumes and sets perfectly capture and contextualize the 1960s. The pace is leisurely, but always intriguing. It's a wonderful film which places its emphasis on human loss and suffering as seen through the eyes of one man.

Grade: A

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Book Review: Gone with the Wind

Margaret Mitchell's 1934 masterpiece is the epitome of the sweeping epic.

Set in Atlanta during the American Civil War and subsequent Reconstruction, Mitchell chronicles the successes and struggles of Scarlett O'Hara, the daughter of an Irish immigrant plantation owner. Scarlett watches her beloved house, Tara, fall into disrepair as her household disbands upon the outbreak of war. Making the occasional appearance at both the most convenient and most inopportune moments is Rhett Butler, the dashing, albeit socially ostracized, gentleman who, if nothing else, lusts after Scarlett like no other.

I've always been a fan of the 1939 David O. Selznick film version, in all its technicolour glory. However, when reading the novel, I was struck by how much the novel is an actual history lesson. I was going on the assumption that the novel was more of a romance, as the film suggests, yet it's much more powerful and shouldn't be brushed off as such.

Scarlett O'Hara is the most complex female character I've ever encountered in a novel. Vivien Leigh is beautiful and charming, however, the film didn't do complete justice to this vibrant character. While reading the novel I couldn't believe how much of an anti-heroine Scarlett really is in Mitchell's writing. She speaks her mind, regardless of its consequences, openly loathes Melanie Wilkes, a woman so kind she practically has a halo around her head, and will use any man at the drop of a hat should she need money to provide for herself and her beloved Tara.

Even when I didn't agree with something Scarlett was doing, saying or thinking, I loved her to pieces. It astounded me that this vibrant, controversial character was created in the 1930s. I found myself rooting for her, even when her actions called for her to be taken down a notch. Unlike her youngest sisters, when the O'Hara riches began to disappear Scarlett fought tooth and nail to scrounge what she could, regardless of its cost to others. Scarlett O'Hara is a complete original. Perhaps when Charles Darwin wrote his theory on the "survival of the fittest" he had a woman like Scarlett in mind.

Rhett and Scarlett were made for each other, however, they were both equally too stubborn to really embrace the concept. Even though Rhett was the one who more openly adored Scarlett in the relationship, he had his moments where he almost threw his love for her to the wind. Scarlett was too oblivious and wrapped up in her own individual struggles to realize the looks Rhett gave her were looks of love and respect. I love open-ended finales and I admire any author who can leave their audience hanging and wanting more without giving everything away and leaving nothing to the imagination. We have no idea whether or not Rhett ever came back to Scarlett. I like my fiction with a dose of realism so I kind of like the unsatisfactory idea that Rhett never returned. What Scarlett said to him was the final straw and Scarlett was left trying to fill a void in her life that no amount of money could fill.

Ashley Wilkes was much more compelling in Mitchell's writing. He's a bit of a drip in the film; scrawny and not particularly worthy of Scarlett's unwavering devotion. However, in the novel, he was much more of a stud and I found that I understood his character a lot better. He was a man broken by war and what he witnessed and his pride prevented his ever feeling comfortable with Scarlett's generosity towards him and Melanie. He had his masculine pride and, like all men in the novel besides Rhett, he felt threatened by the obvious success of Scarlett, a woman. In the film I always thought Ashley truly did love Scarlett. After reading the novel I realized that he was "in lust" with her the entire time. He didn't love her temper, her savvy money skills, her brashness, her opinions or her mind the way Rhett did. He (and its sad in its own way) married a woman he didn't love simply out of an obligation to family tradition.

It made me realize Scarlett and Rhett were so ahead of their time, in their personalities and belief systems. They threw caution to the wind and dared to be themselves in a time still steeped in old traditions and separate and distinct gender roles. I love that Scarlett had no desire for motherhood. It completely casts aside the notion that every woman desires to become a parent one day to a large brood of children. Scarlett would have fit in well with today's career-oriented, independent world.

I never knew much about the American Civil War, however, Mitchell's novel gave me a great history lesson in and of itself. Her novel is jam-packed with vivid details on war trails, crushing battle fronts, famous generals and intricate societal expectations. She displayed admirable attention to detail in describing the fashion of the time, the destruction of towns, the freedom of black slaves and the subsequent creation of the Ku Klux Klan, among other issues.

The descriptions of the tragedies of war and the desolation of its aftermath were compelling and profoundly moving.

I read this giant, epic, 1200 + page tome in about a month. I was swept up in the tragedy, the romance and the overall greatness of Margaret Mitchell's stunning novel. It's one of the few novels you will read in your lifetime that you can credit as being absolutely flawless in every regard.


Friday, January 1, 2010

Method Men: Marlon Brando and Jimmy Dean

About six years ago I caught Rebel Without A Cause on t.v. late one night. I was exhausted that day. I had planned to go to bed but I was struck by the image of James Dean, lying on the ground with a wind-up toy monkey, in the opening credit sequence for the film. I recognized the iconic red jacket. It was around this time that my obsession with classic film was just starting to really peak and take off so I decided, despite my exhaustion, to watch this much-beloved teen classic. I hadn't counted on actually being able to stay wide-awake into the wee morning hours.

The film itself is significant to 1950s film history. While parts of it may not have aged very well it still deserves its place amongst the Hollywood elite. This, in large part, is thanks to the performance of Dean. I was intrigued by his performance. He had reminded me so much of a young Marlon Brando.

Around this time I'd only recently become enamoured with Marlon Brando (the previous year I'd watched The Godfather for the first time and fell in love with Brando's talent). Dean reminded me of Brando, despite their differences in acting style. Dean clearly idolized and tried to mimic Brando, yet he managed to make all three of his film performances unique. From the inspiration he got from Brando he came up with his own style and helped revolutionize acting in film in the 1950s. Drawing from real life experiences and tragedies, Dean utilized these emotions when creating a character so that the audience could relate and sympathize with someone like Cal Trask in East of Eden, my favourite Dean film and performance.

Brando and Dean were both amongst the first to use the Method Approach in film acting. It originally started out as a theatre movement in the 1930s in which actors attempt to seek out the emotional "truth" of the character they are portraying. In order to effectively present these emotions and psychological torment, actors were often forced to look to themselves and their personal lives for inspiration. Brando was famous for remaining in character on set, even going so far as to remain in the character of Terry from On the Waterfront for the duration of filming, both on and off set.

Rarely do I watch a film only to walk away from it absolutely fascinated and in awe of the talent before me. Young actors today rarely go out of their way to bring something fresh and original to their performances, which is why they (hopefully) won't have the enduring cult power of Jimmy Dean. Or have millions of loyalists who declare Brando as the greatest actor of all time.

Marlon Brando and Jimmy Dean embodied the charisma, beauty and talent that most actors can only dream of achieving for themselves. They were the epitome of masculine-cool. Both were ahead of the game in the way they portrayed conflicted young rebels. They helped make it okay for male characters to cry in film. Gone were the days of the alpha-male, like John Wayne; all blazing guns and snarls. Dean and, especially, Brando helped usher in a new generation of young, Method actors who saw performance as an art form worthy of sweat and tears. With trailblazers like Brando and Dean, would we have had the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis and Viggo Mortensen today?

It's been fifty-four years since Dean's death in a car accident, yet time has not diminished his star. To some people he may be a product, just another young dead celebrity face on a poster or a purse, but to his real fans he was a first-class movie star.

They don't make celebrities like Marlon and Jimmy anymore.