Friday, April 29, 2011

30 Day Movie Meme: Day 22


I'm a sap when it comes to movies that pack an emotional punch. I can cry with the best of them and dozens of films have made cry (and continue to make me cry) over the years.

There's brave William Wallace (Mel Gibson) yelling for Scotland's "Freedom!" in Braveheart. There's Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) asking his father's ghost if he wants to play a final game of catch in Field of Dreams. There's the scene in Forrest Gump where Forrest (Tom Hanks) speaks to his beloved Jenny at her final resting place. Most recently there was the heartbreaking, yet understated, scene where George (Colin Firth) receives the news that his partner was killed in a car accident in A Single Man

My runner-up was the final film montage scene of big-screen kisses in Cinema ParadisoThat beautiful scene, combined with Ennio Morricone's stunning "Love Theme", kills me every single time. I saw it for the first time during Italian class in the eighth grade and I bawled in the classroom. But, in the end, it was a different Italian film that has the most emotional scene. 

While all of those scenes still make me cry each and every time I watch the movies, there's one that really stands out -- Vittorio de Seca's 1948 classic, Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette). This Italian neo-realist classic tells the simple story of Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) and his son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola) as they try to track down the men who stole Antonio's bicycle in postwar Rome. Antonio's job is to plaster the city with posters but, when thieves ride off with his bicycle, his only mode of transportation, his entire livelihood is at stake.

Neither Maggiorani nor young Staiola were actors when they were hired in their lead roles -- it was all in keeping with the neo-realist atmosphere of the film. De Seca insisted on using real people to accurately portray the characters in his film. Although both Maggiorani and Staiola went on to make more films for Italian cinema, the fact that this was their first role is a remarkable feat. Both of them were absolute naturals in front of the camera, which made the film so effective.

The most emotional scene, by far, is the final frame. Antonio, a solitary man who loves his family and feels like a failure if he can't put food on the table, is forced to commit a final desperate act -- steal someone else's bicycle so that he can go back to work. Bruno is shocked at what his father has done, but he doesn't have time to say anything before his father is engulfed by an angry mob who witnessed his act. Young Bruno flies into the crowd, trying to rescue his father. Eventually, they are let go by the bicycle owner -- but not before Antonio is verbally shamed in front of Bruno ("A fine example you set for your son.").

Antonio silently starts crying -- he was unable to recover his bicycle and will likely remain without a job until he can afford a replacement. He was, in the end, forced to stoop to the level of the men who stole from him. But, it's Antonio's realization that he lost the adoring admiration of his young son that was the real reason he was brought to tears. It's hard to watch such a good man so ashamed of his desperate actions. The pair don't exchange any words, but the visibly shaken Bruno quietly slips his hand into his father's and the two walk off together.

It's an emotionally raw scene, made all the more effective by the fact that it was portrayed by two non-actors. With very little dialogue, it accurately portrays the ruthlessness of others, the quiet desperation so many suffer through and the unconditional love we have for those who are most important to us. And, after spending nearly two hours with Antonio and little Enzo, the final scene is heartbreaking.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Classic Film Review: It Happened One Night

It Happened One Night (1934)
Directed By: Frank Capra
Screenplay By: Robert Riskin
Based on the Short Story By: Samuel Hopkins Adams
Starring: Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert

"You think I'm a fool and a spoiled brat. Well, perhaps I am, although I don't see how I can be. People who are spoiled are accustomed to having their own way. I never have. On the contrary. I've always been told what to do, and how to do it, and when, and with whom. Would you believe it? This is the first time I've ever been alone with a man!" 
~Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert)

The definition of a "screwball comedy" goes as follows: "slang meaning unbalanced, erratic, unconventional." As a film genre, the screwball comedy made its unofficial debut with Frank Capra's classic, It Happened One Night. Long considered the finest example of the genre, this 1934 Best Picture winner has continued to endure in popularity, thanks in large part to its sharp dialogue and wonderful performances. Comedies from "back in the day" don't always translate as well to today's audiences, but It Happened One Night remains just as fresh and relevant as it was back in the 1930s.

Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) is a wealthy socialite at a time when the majority of the world was suffering through the Great Depression. Frustrated with her overbearing father, Ellie runs away in order to be reunited with her slimy, money-loving new husband, King Westley (Jameson Thomas), whom she married despite her fathers protestations. While on the overnight bus headed for New York, Ellie encounters cynical reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable). Despite Ellie's attempts to shield her true identity, Peter figures out that she's the young runaway rich girl everyone has been talking about. Peter promises to keep her secret, allowing her to be reunited with her husband, so long as she agrees to give him an exclusive interview afterward.

During the 1930s, Hollywood churned out movie after movie featuring characters in despair over the Great Depression. While the issue of money, or lack of, arises throughout It Happened One Night, it is ultimately lighthearted at its centre. Screwball comedies tend to look down on wealth while the poor are deemed more noble and worthy of audience sympathies. With Ellie's naive outlook on life and money, she becomes more and more likeable as her purse starts to lighten as she slowly loses her money.

As the crabby, older (but not necessarily wiser) Peter, Gable's grouchy charm is on full display. His rapid-fire way of spitting out his lines of dialogue help endear him to the audience, even when his "know it all" attitude could potentially grate. One of the features of screwball comedies is speedy line delivery. Seeing as It Happened One Night is considered the first true screwball comedy, I wonder if that aspect has to do with Gable's performance? It wouldn't be surprising if he had influence on how other actors performed in the genre down the road.

The real star of the film is Claudette Colbert. The beautiful, doe-eyed French-born actress had a casual charm rarely seen in films of the 1930s. With a voice that was deeper than you'd expect and a slightly awkward goofiness to the way she carried herself, Colbert commands your attention in every scene. Unfortunately, the only other movie I've ever seen her in is another Capra film, Drums Along the Mohawk (1939).

However, the chemistry between the two leads is palpable from their first meeting. Their playful, cautious banter grows more affectionate as the film progresses, allowing the audience to slowly get used to the thought of them falling in love with one another. Both Gable and Colbert won Best Actor and Actress Oscars for their performances and their ability to balance one another so well on camera was likely a large reason for their wins.

It Happened One Night is a timeless romantic comedy from the days before there were "chick flicks" or gross-out comedies featuring one-note celebrities. Forget the sappy, formulaic drivel you see in too many romantic comedies today. Put two wonderful actors together, combined with a sharp and playful script and solid directing and it's the perfect recipe for a classic. You will, inevitably, feel the age of the film at certain points, specifically when we first meet crabby, know-it-all Peter when he squares off against the naive, innocent and seemingly helpless Ellie. But once the film works past those classic Hollywood gender cliches, it settles down into an enjoyable little film with the simple premise of two people just getting to know one another.

It Happened One Night is set over a period of three or four days, not one. So, which is the "one night" that the title refers to? Peter and Ellie embark on a series of mini-adventures on their trek together, allowing the audience to decide for themselves which "one night" was the most significant to the blossoming relationship of Peter and Ellie.


Thursday, April 14, 2011

30 Day Movie Meme: Day 21


I don't have many favourite Oscar speeches -- I find that they tend to go on for too long and sometimes seem a little forced. Or, maybe it has more to do with the fact that, come Oscar night, we already know who is going to win. That didn't used to be the case but now the mystery of who will win has been stolen from the Oscars by the slew of pre-Oscar awards shows (most notably the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild awards). The Oscars have never been more dull, predictable and overrated than they have been these last couple of years. But, back in the day, there were some great moments.

In 1972, after years of exile, Chaplin was welcomed back into the United States to receive his Honourary Oscar at the 44th Academy Awards. I wasn't born in when this happened but, as a big Chaplin fan, I saw this clip years ago when doing research on his life for a film essay. The clip of Chaplin stepping onto the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where the Oscars were once held, was memorable for a variety of reasons.

1) It was Chaplin's first public appearance in the United States in 20 years.
2) His appearance received the longest standing ovation in Oscar history, lasting for 12 full minutes.
3) Most importantly, Chaplin is genuinely humbled. The joy is evident on his face. Here's a man who likely had no idea how he'd be received by the audience when he stepped on the stage and his reaction is one of the most sincere I've ever seen at the Oscars.

Without ego, Chaplin steps up to the mike and say's one of the shortest thank-you speeches in Oscar history -- but it also happens to be one of its greatest ...because it's so genuine. Short and sweet, just like Chaplin.

"This is such an emotional moment for me. And words seem so futile, so feeble. I can only say, thank you for the honour of inviting me here. Oh, you're wonderful, sweet people. Thank you." 

The embedding is disabled on YouTube, but you can WATCH IT HERE.

What is your favourite Oscar speech?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Classic Film Review: Seven Year Itch

Seven Year Itch (1955)
Written By: Billy Wilder & George Axelrod
Directed By: Billy Wilder
Starring: Tom Ewell and Marilyn Monroe

"I think it's just elegant to have an imagination. I just have no imagination at all. I have lots of other things, but I have no imagination."
~The Girl (Marilyn Monroe)

I've been on a Billy Wilder binge lately, re-watching all those classics that made him a legend -- Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot, Sunset Blvd. and The Apartment. It was during this time that I realized I'd never seen Seven Year Itch. It was about time to finally see the film that brought audiences the famous image of Marilyn Monroe standing on that subway grate, dress billowing.

Every summer, the heat in Manhattan is so unbearable that husbands pack up their wives and kids and send them off to spend those months with in-laws. Meanwhile, the men enjoy their temporary bachelor freedom while working to support their families and flirting with single women. The always-soliloquizing Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) has just unceremoniously dumped his wife and son off at the train station. Within minutes, he's playing back-and-forth with himself over whether or not he should flirt with all the beautiful "dames" he passes in the streets. He's feeling that seven year itch -- marriage for him has become the ultimate sexual repression. One evening he meets the beautiful (and, apparently, nameless) woman who lives upstairs (Marilyn Monroe). The two forge a tenuous bond -- he's attracted to her, while she's bored of being all alone in the big city and seeks companionship.

Based on the play by George Axelrod, the film version of Seven Year Itch controversially played with the original source by eliminating the actual physical affair aspect between Richard and The Girl. Instead, the film has the two flirt and banter their way through the two hour running time. Considering Richard's vivid imagination (he envisions various scenarios with beautiful women and conjures up ideas on how conversations with his wife would go), I found it worked better that Richard and The Girl never followed through with an affair. It would be hard to fathom how a jittery, irritating man would land someone like The Girl. His full-blown imaginary conversations make Richard come off as a basketcase -- lucky for him, The Girl isn't too picky about her friends.

Seven Year Itch is, obviously, structured like a play. While there are secondary characters that make an appearance on occasion, it's all about Ewell and Monroe in long scenes of witty dialogue.

The Girl is unlike anyone Richard has ever met -- flighty and flirty, she thinks dipping potato chips in wine is "just elegant." Her infectious energy and naive curiosity is of the kind that only Monroe could pull off successfully without grating on the nerves of the audience. While Monroe will never be ranked as a talented actress of the calibre of, say, Katherine Hepburn, she had an undeniable screen presence -- and it was more than just her beauty that got her steady work in Hollywood. It was her knack for physical comedy and comedic timing, which is on full display throughout Seven Year Itch.

Ewell doesn't fare as well, bogged down by the fact that his character, Richard, is irritating and bizarre. Monroe shines on her own; however, Ewell doesn't have any real chemistry with her. The dialogue is sharp (which is to be expected in a Wilder film) but both failed to fully click with one another.

It's an enjoyable, if dated, peak at sexual repression in the 1950s. Although I'd hoped for more insight into the sexual politics of married people at the time, Seven Year Itch still serves as an enjoyable distraction, albeit not of the same calibre of Some Like It Hot. 


Question: What do you think? Has the film aged well, in your opinion?