Monday, March 31, 2014

Movie of the Week – The Fallen Idol

This week’s movie: The Fallen Idol (1948)

Baines is a butler working in a foreign embassy in London. He is trapped in a marriage with a cruel wife. He has met a new woman and desperately wants out to pursue this new interest. His wife is suspicious, however, and actively seeks out a confrontation with Baines. All the time, the young child (a boy) of the ambassador is witness to all that is going on. When the wife accidently falls to her death, the boy thinks Baines has pushed her down the stairs but also loves Baines too much to help out the police.

The film is directed by one of the great British directors of the 1940s: Carol Reed, who also made Odd Man Out and The Third Man (his best and most famous film). Reed worked with composer William Alwyn and very good cinematographer Georges Perinal on the film.

The film stars Ralph Richardson and co-stars Bobby Henrey. The supporting cast features Michele Morgan, Sonia Dresdel, Jack Hawkins, and Bernard Lee.

The Fallen Idol is a great light thriller/film-noir. It in many ways feels like an Alfred Hitchcock film, but not as melodramatic. Having seen Atonement prior to The Fallen Idol, this film reminds me of the first half of Atonement and the power that a lie can have or that a secret can have in the hands of anyone but especially a young impressionable child. Ralph Richardson is fantastic in the film. This is a must for fans of British cinema from the 1930s-1950s.

Trailer: Here
Available on: DVD and Video On-Demand

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

David Lean – Cinema Legend – March 2014

David Lean is one of cinema’s greatest directors (the BAFTA award for directing is named after him for example). He is known for his great epics and also for being the prototypical filmmaker tyrant, demanding much from his actors and crew. Lean directed sixteen films between 1942 and 1984, winning two Oscars for Best Director (while being nominated seven times; only William Wyler with twelve, Martin Scorsese, and Billy Wilder each with eight have more).

Early Career:

Lean was fascinated by cinema from a young age. He spent his free time in the evenings watching movies. In 1927, he decided to pursue a career in film. He started at Gaumont Studios in London doing odd jobs (like getting people tea), but he worked hard and found his responsibility increase. He had a talent for editing. By 1930, Lean was editing newsreels for Gaumont. He then began editing films from 1931 to 1941, including films like Pygmalion and the Archers49th Parallel. He developed quite a reputation as a good editor, leading to his promotion to director.

David Lean Directs Noel Coward:

For Lean’s feature debut as a director, he co-directed In Which We Serve with playwright Noel Coward (based on Coward first screenplay). Coward was famous at the time, being the primary conveyor of the concept of Englishness for the 20th Century, and yet he was nervous about directing his first film. He asked his friend actor John Mills to recommend someone to help him, and Mills recommended the best editor in the country David Lean. Coward also starred in the film (being a talented polymath).

With In Which We Serve being a critical and commercial success, Coward and Lean decided to embark on a continued partnership for three more films, in which Lean would direct and adapt Coward’s plays into feature films. The first of which was This Happy Breed, followed by Blithe Spirit and Brief Encounter. The latter proved to be their biggest hit, winning the 1946 Cannes Film Festival Grand Prize and earning Lean his first Best Director Oscar nomination. Brief Encounter endures today as a brilliant romantic drama with difficult emotions and themes.

Britain’s Most Acclaimed Director:

Now an established director in England, Lean moved on to more ambitious projects. He decided to adapt two of Charles Dickens’s most famous stories: Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. Great Expectations is a marvelous film with striking visuals and artistic design (including incredible cinematography from Guy Green). Lean also worked with actor Alec Guinness for the first time (Lean would later consider Guinness a good-luck charm and cast him five more times). The film was nominated for Best Picture, Director, and Writing Oscars and won Oscars for Cinematography and Art-Direction. It is my favorite adaptation of Dickens’ classic novel (and there are countless).

Oliver Twist is just as ambitious with its aesthetics (Guy Green’s photography is again fantastic), and Alec Guinness again makes an appearance (playing Fagin); however, the film does not quite capture the same magic as Great Expectations and thus, while still a hit with critics and moviegoers, it did not attain the same level of accolades as Great Expectations. I think they are both very good, but Great Expectations is superior.

Lean next returned to romantic melodrama with The Passionate Friends, which in many ways feels a lot like Brief Encounter (but not quite as powerful). He followed with two of his lessor films the crime drama Madeleine and the biopic/war drama Breaking the Sound Barrier.

Regaining his prior form, Lean adapted Harold Brighouse’s play Hobson’s Choice, starring the great Charles Laughton. The comedy/drama is about a successful boot maker who tries to rule the lives of his unruly daughters. To avoid the expense of it, he refuses to allow his daughters to marry, but his eldest Maggie has other ideas. She sets her sights on Will Mossop, Hobson’s very talented employee, snatching him up as her husband and partner in opening up her own boot making shop. The film was a big hit in England and won the 1955 BAFTA for Best British Film.

With the success of Hobson’s Choice and Lean’s Dickens adaptations, Hollywood came knocking. Lean wrote and directed the romance drama Summertime, which was co-financed by American and British backers and it also starred Katharine Hepburn (the biggest international star to appear in one of Lean’s films at the time). It also marked Lean’s first color film. Summertime is about a lonely American woman who un-expectantly finds love while on holiday in Venice, Italy. Lean was nominated for a Best Director Oscar for the third time.

Epic Cinema:

Lean decided to make the full transition to Hollywood in the late 1950s, signing a deal with Columbia Pictures and producer Sam Spiegel. He would make less films, but they would now be massive in scale and scope. He first epic was the war drama The Bridge on the River Kwai about British and American prisoners of war during WWII and the brutality they faced at the hands of their Japanese captors. In an effort to garner better treatment for his men, British officer Colonel Nicholson makes a deal with the Japanese prison commander: the British will help them build a bridge if they are treated well – however, are the British now helping their enemy win the war? The film was a massive success in every way. It won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Score, and Best Actor for Alec Guinness (who starred along with William Holden). It remains one of the greatest epics in film history.

For his second film with Columbia Pictures and Sam Spiegel, Lean decided to adapt the story of T.E. Lawrence, a famous British soldier who united the many Arab tribes to help fight the Turkish army during the Great War. Lawrence of Arabia was possibly an even bigger hit than The Bridge on the River Kwai. It too won seven Oscars (but was nominated for ten versus The Bridge on the River Kwai’s eight), including: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Art-Direction, Best Sound, Best Editing, and Best Score. It also introduced the world to the great actor Peter O’Toole (who criminally never won an Oscar for his acting, despite his eight nominations for Best Actor). Lean also formed a new collaborative partnerships with playwright Robert Bolt (who he would work with on almost all his future projects), cinematographer Freddie Young, composer Maurice Jarre, and production designer John Box. It is my opinion that Lawrence of Arabia is the epitome of grand Hollywood filmmaking at its absolute best and that it might possibly be the best film ever made.

Lean then moved to MGM to make Doctor Zhivago, a romantic drama about a Russian doctor/poet who falls for an unattainable woman (Lara) set against the tumultuous times of the Bolshevik Revolution. Doctor Zhivago proved to be an even bigger commercial hit for Lean with bigger box office numbers than Lawrence of Arabia; however, it did not attain the same level critical prestige. It only won five Oscars (on ten nominations), not including the most esteemed: Best Picture and Best Director. I would argue that it also does not hold the same level of distinction today as The Bridge on the River Kwai or Lawrence of Arabia. That said, it is still a fantastic epic. Interestingly, the film is maybe even more famous for its score than the film itself. Lara’s Theme was hugely popular at the time of its release in 1965.

Next, Lean decided to make a grand epic romantic drama set in Ireland, shooting extensively on location. Released in 1970, Ryan’s Daughter was met with harsh criticism. Many claiming that its long runtime and seemingly epic structure did not match the scope of its narrative (about a married woman in a small Irish village who has an affair with a troubled British officer). The film still won two Oscars but was not nominated for Best Picture or Best Director (when all of Lean’s previous three epics had been). Lean was very discouraged by the film’s reception, leading him to retreat from filmmaking for many years. I think Ryan’s Daughter works fairly well, but it is certainly not among Lean’s very best films.

Lean, working with Robert Bolt, finally had a project he was excited about enough to return to filmmaking. He wanted to make a new adaptation of Mutiny on the Bounty, the true story of the cruelty of a ship captain leading to a mutiny, as a two-film epic (part one focusing on the events leading up to the mutiny and the second focusing on the aftermath). Lean all but had the film ready when he faced two major setbacks: first Warner Bros. withdrew their financial backing and second Bolt suffered a major stroke and could not continue working on the film. Ultimately, Lean had to abandon the film, but its new producer Dino De Laurentiis finished the film (as The Bounty) with director Roger Donaldson (brought in by the film’s star Mel Gibson, as the two were friends).

Lean’s final film is A Passage to India, which he wrote and directed. The epic drama is about a friendship between an Indian doctor, an Englishwoman engaged to marry a city magistrate, and an English educator that is doomed by the cultural change in India as it rises up to gain its independence from British rule. The film was well received winning two Oscars (on eleven nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director) upon its 1984 release, but has not held up as well.

At the time of his death in 1991, Lean was hard at work on a new film entitled Nostromo (an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel).

Career Highlights:

1)      Brief Encounter (1945)* – writer, director (Blu-ray Noel Coward-David Lean Collection, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
2)      Great Expectations (1946)* – writer, director (DVD, Trailer)
3)      Oliver Twist (1948) – writer, director (DVD, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
4)      The Passionate Friends (1949) – writer, director (Video On-Demand, Trailer)
5)      Hobson’s Choice (1954) – writer, director, producer (DVD, Trailer)
6)      Summertime (1955) – writer, director (DVD, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
7)      The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)* – director (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
8)      Lawrence of Arabia (1962)* – director, producer (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
9)      Doctor Zhivago (1965)* – director (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
10)   Ryan’s Daughter (1970) – director (DVD, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
11)   A Passage to India (1984) – writer, director (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
*Editor’s picks

Monday, March 24, 2014

Movie of the Week – The Great Dictator

This week’s movie: The Great Dictator (1940)

This is a story of two men: Adenoid Hynkel, a ruthless dictator who has risen to power during the economic collapse of the nation of Tomainia in the wake of WWI – which they were on the losing side, and a Jewish barber, who fought in the war for Tomainia but suffered an injury that caused him to lose his memory. Hynkel is set on expanding his empire while stealing the wealth of and imprisoning his country’s Jewish people. The barber desperately tries to avoid persecution. There is one curious thing, however, between them: Hynkel and the barber look quite similar. This fact might very well save the barber’s life and help change the world.

Writer-director-star Charles Chaplin decided to finally make his first  talkie in 1938 and started work on The Great Dictator after people had commented that his famous Tramp character had a resemblance to Adolf Hitler. Chaplin made a name for himself as probably the greatest silent comedian, with films such as The Gold Rush, City Lights, and Modern Times (my personal favorite), and one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. His fans at the time expected silent comedies from him even though film had fully transitioned to sound by the mid-1930s. This was a big change for Chaplin (though, there is a political undercurrent to his other films as well).

In addition to Chaplin, the film features Jack Oakie, Henry Daniell, Billy Gilbert, and Paulette Goddard (his wife at the time).

Chaplin saw Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (a film made to promote the idea of the German people and the Aryan race as superior), and took it to be unintentionally quite funny, using many of its elements for The Great Dictator. He carefully studied Hitler’s mannerisms to create his caricature. Chaplain aimed to make both a very funny satire of the Nazi Party and Hitler and a stirring call to arms to defeat this emerging evil (multiple years before the United States had entered the war). He saw the violence and repression directed at Jewish people by the Nazis and was horrified (and, at the time, he did not have any idea of the sheer extent that this violence was escalated). Chaplin would later say that if he had known of the atrocities that the Nazis were committing he would not have made the film. Filming began one week after the start of WWII. The film was very well received upon its release and very popular among American and British audiences. It became Chaplin’s highest grossing film of his career. The speech that concludes the film from the barber posing as Hynkel is magnificent. This is a must-see for all fans of cinema.

Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Video On-Demand

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Veronica Mars (2014) – Review

Review: Veronica Mars is something enjoyable for the fans of the Veronica Mars TV series, but not much else. The film finds Veronica nine years later living in New York and a law school graduate. She has moved on from her life in Neptune, California, as a teenage sleuth and is about to join a high-powered New York law firm. Her past comes crashing back into her new life, however, when she gets a call from her former boyfriend, Logan Echolls, who has been accused of murdering his pop-star girlfriend. Everyone believes he is guilty, but Veronica knows Logan is innocent and decides to come home and help him out, only to uncover a larger conspiracy.

The film plays as more or less a re-pilot of the initial series, solving its main mystery but leaving other questions lingering for future Veronica Mars installments (which I believe there are plans to pursue in some form). It never feels like a true feature film, both in its narrative and in its visual aesthetics (it basically just looks like one of the TV episodes). The narrative and character relationships also tend to rely on the audience having seen the series and knowing the characters fairly well. It is not a must, but someone new to Veronica Mars would probably miss a lot of the detail and jokes. The plot itself is self-contained however.

The film is probably most interesting because of how it came to be. Veronica Mars was a much beloved series, but only by a small group of fans. It was a great show that succeeded on having one of TV’s best protagonists. No studio would ever make this film, though, as the potential is just not there (at least in their eyes; I am still completely shocked that Universal made Serenity, although that does have greater crossover potential). Thus, the film was funded via Kickstarter. The first film to be successfully funded and produced, potentially opening the door for lots of other small projects with diehard core audiences.

Overall, Veronica Mars takes what would have been a bigger story arc on the show and condenses it into about two episodes (time wise), but leaving the door open for future installments, which is always something smart if the plan is to continue with the character. But, on the other hand, it does leave the film feeling again like just another TV pilot: an introduction to a character (or set of characters) and their world, with lots of story threads left dangling to be address in the future. The film in a sense is both self-contained and not. Yes the main story is concluded, but it feels like merely the beginning and not a full narrative, and it is dependent to a large degree on the viewer being a fan (probably a big fan) of the original series as well to fully appreciate and understand the characters and their motivations. Thus, the film exists as sort of a made-for-TV style bonus for fans of the character that they will enjoy with promises for more; but as a standalone feature film (especially for newcomers to the character) it is a fairly average crime mystery drama. As a fan of the series I did enjoy the film (it would have made a good, not great season finale), but objectively it does leave a lot to be desired when considered as a true feature film.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: The creator of Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas, co-writes and directs the film. Again, it looks pretty much like just another episode of the series aesthetically. Thomas does do a good job of giving the fans what they want while still telling a solid mystery narrative. There are lots of cameos and throwbacks to the series. And, of course, the writing is a lot of fun, filled with pop-culture references and sass. Fans will like what Thomas has made.

The cast is good overall. Many are used merely as “oh look its ____” but a few have some good moments. Returning from the series, Percy Daggs III, Tina Majorino, Krysten Ritter, Ken Marino, Ryan Hansen, and especially Enrico Colantoni are strong in smaller roles, while Martin Starr (playing off-type for a change) and Gaby Hoffmann are good too as newcomers. The main stars here, however (and of course), are Veronica Mars and Logan Echolls, played by Kristen Bell and Jason Dohring. They both hit all the right notes, bringing back everything fans loved about their characters. Although, even though nine years have passed and they have grown up a bit, they really have not changed much as characters, leading to the film’s conclusion making all the sense in the world. For Bell, Veronica is a signature role, and one that she brings to life so fantastically.

Summary & score: Veronica Mars is a film made for fans with money from fans, and thus fans will find it amusing, gratifying, and probably satisfying but those new to the character will likely be not overly enamored (and I suggest they watch the series first). 6/10

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – Review

Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel is a delightful adventure comedy/drama that encompasses all the intricacies and indulgences of (its writer, director, and producer) Wes Anderson’s style and puts them to their best use, creating a film that feels utterly joyous to behold. The film is about Zero Moustafa, the owner of The Grand Budapest Hotel and former Lobby Boy for the very same hotel. Now retired, Zero recounts his adventures with the hotel’s extraordinary concierge M. Gustave to an inquiring writer who is staying at the now rundown hotel. Their adventures took place during the early 1930s as Europe was about to be once again engulfed in war.

The narrative structure of the film is multilayered (reminding me of The Hours a bit – for those who have not seen the film, it takes place in three different time periods, all centered around Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway; the first sees Woolf struggling to write the novel in the 1920s, the second features a melancholic suburban wife reading the novel in the 1950s, and the third revolves around a woman who very much encompasses the character and story of Mrs. Dalloway set in the present). The prologue and epilogue that bookend the film feature a young woman in present day paying her respects to the statue of a famous author, carrying a book entitled The Grand Budapest Hotel. The next layer sees the author in the 1980s making a recording of how he came upon the story of The Grand Budapest Hotel, leading to the next layer in which the author, now much younger, is having a conversation with Zero. The final layer sees Zero as a young man working as a Lobby Boy in the hotel. There are also two narrators, as there are essentially two perspectives: the first being the author’s and the second Zero’s. This all sounds complicated and very easily could have ended up a confusing mess, the narrative jumping around in time; yet, writer-director Wes Anderson skillfully manages the narrative and his use of two distinct narrators enables the audience to follow the story with ease.

The differences in time period are also expressed in a cool artistic/aesthetic manner. The aspect ratio changes depending on the time period, which does create some pretty striking cuts between time periods. That said, the change in aspect ratio is probably something that is only “cool” to students of film (I am curious if average moviegoers even notice the change). Anderson also uses special effects (miniature models, rear projection, and other older techniques) to give the film a feel similar to films from the 1930s. All in all, the whole thing looks and feels a bit like it takes place in an elaborate children’s book, but with a sharp edginess, startling violence, and cursing.

Like Anderson’s other films, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a treat of brilliant and colorful aesthetics. Anderson has created a quirky romantically nostalgic world – a world that maybe only ever existed in the imagination/memory of those classic films from the 1930s. While Anderson does borrow from others (the film has elements from Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo/Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, and Yasujiro Ozu, among others), he makes it all his own. The film has a unifying style that is very evident and specific.

Often in the past, critics of Anderson’s work have called his specific style alienating, as if he were merely creating pretty lifeless dioramas. With The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson’s style is again in full swing, but the film seems to have a broader appeal than his past works. Is this due to the momentum building off the breakout success of Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom (which both also saw general moviegoers take a bigger interest)? Is it the film’s fantastical world that just glistens with Golden Age nostalgia (something that worked well in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris)? Or, is it the film’s overall jovial feel, mixed with elements of adventure, mystery, and romance/friendship? Probably all three. The film, too, resembles Anderson’s own work, particularly The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited (other examples of Wes Anderson style adventure films); yet, those two were not nearly as well received (however, I do love them both and count them among my favorite films). The Grand Budapest Hotel, however, feels a bit more accessible than those two.

In many ways, The Grand Budapest Hotel feels like a grand film: almost like a tall tale of larger than life characters leading extraordinary lives (other modern examples would be The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Life of Pi). Anderson does a fabulous job mixing biting humor and absurdist humor with a tone that is light and creates a fun experience for the audience, but also has an undercurrent of sadness to it. Much in the way we look back at fond memories. They were happy times, but they have come and gone and we can never go back.

The set of eccentric characters that is featured in the film is also a lot of fun. M. Gustave is just electrically dynamic. It is hard not to be pulled in by his charisma. Meanwhile, Zero makes for a great straight man and in for the audience. Although the characters are all a bit off, Anderson still makes them relatable, because the themes of the film and the desires of the characters are all very much relatable. The audience is dazzled by the aesthetics, charmed by the humor, but left satisfied by the development of the central characters and their relationships with each other.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is wonderfully compelling not just because of its visuals, tone, characters, or ambitious narrative but because Wes Anderson weaves all these elements together, creating what feels like a magical world; yet, one filled with relatable characters (even though they are all a bit fantastical) and emotions. It is probably not too early to call it a strong contender (if not lock) to be among 2014’s ten best films (it is that good).

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Wes Anderson has now made eight feature films; each film seemingly becoming more and more steeped in Anderson’s all-consuming style (a style that is part French New Wave and part Ozu with a few other things thrown in too). It is a style that I really enjoy because it is clear that Anderson cares about and is very much in tune with every aspect of his narrative, actor performances, visuals, and accompanying music. Every detail is specifically designed. This is a trait of only the truly great filmmakers, whom I consider Anderson among. I also love Anderson’s sense of humor, a dry crisply edgy wit. Upon one viewing it is difficult to name The Grand Budapest Hotel as his best film as a few have (for me, at present, it probably stands number four); however, it is so rich and spectacular that I can see it only blossoming with even more radiance with each additional viewing (there is also apparently a George Clooney cameo I missed – though this is unconfirmed).

Wes Anderson is known for his aesthetic, but he is a very collaborative filmmaker. He often works with the same people over and over (both actors and other technical crew members). Composer Alexandre Desplat scores the film – his third collaboration with Anderson – turning in his best score with Anderson to date. It is a wonderful mix of infectiously festive/lighthearted pieces, rousing adventurous pieces, and somber dramatic pieces, all with a very Prussian feel (while also seemingly somewhat building off his score for Moonrise Kingdom). His score sets the tone for the film very well and perfectly accompanies the visuals – and it needed to more than past Anderson films, as this film only sparingly uses found music (and they are all classical pieces). Robert D. Yeoman returns as Anderson director of photography, their seventh collaboration. As always, the look of the film is perfect – from the lighting to the framing and camera moves. Here, however, Yeoman has to create a film that feels both classic and modern in its visual approach, and he pulls it off splendidly. Production designer Adam Stockhausen, working with Anderson for the third time (second as production designer), does his best work to date with the filmmaker as well. Some of the credit does go to the beautiful locations that the film takes advantage of, but for the most part it is Stockhausen, working with Anderson and his art department, who creates the magnificent sets and mise en scene. The film is a visual splendor.

The film is also stuffed with fun performances from a stellar cast (most appearing in brief roles). The highlights among the small roles include: Tilda Swinton who is quite remarkable as the elderly Madame D. (can you be nominated for an Oscar for less than five minutes of screen time?), Edward Norton who is funny and endearing as Henckels, Tom Wilkinson who is just right as the older version of the author, Jude Law who is great as the young version of the author, Mathieu Amalric who is sniveling as Madame D.’s head servant Serge X., Adrien Brody who is wonderfully snide as Madame D.’s awful son Dmitri, Willem Dafoe who is the embodiment of a classic henchman as Jopling, F. Murray Abraham who is touching and mannered as the older version of Zero, and of course Bill Murray who is a lot of fun as the concierge of another grand hotel. Saoirse Ronan plays Agatha, a local cake baker and candy maker, who gets wrapped up in the adventures of Zero and M. Gustave after she falls in love with Zero. Ronan plays Agatha to be a little more pragmatic than the other characters in the film, not as quick to just jump in; but, she is very brave and very lovely. Ronan’s strong performance is a crucial element in fully pulling the audience into the narrative on an emotional level. Tony Revolori gives what could be a breakthrough performance as the younger version of Zero, and arguably the film’s main character (though he is not as flashy as M. Gustave). Revolori acts almost as a wall, allowing the other characters (primarily M. Gustave) to bounce off him. He grounds the film and gives the audience a way into the world. It is very good work.  And then there is Ralph Fiennes who is completely and wonderfully brilliant as M. Gustave, giving one of his best performances to date (up there with his characters Amon Goeth, Charles Van Doren, Count Laszlo de Almasy, and Lord Voldemort). M. Gustave is played to be exceedingly charming, always pulling all focus towards himself. He is the biggest and loudest presence in a position in which most might consider small and quiet. It is certainly to be among this year’s best performances.

Summary & score: The Grand Budapest Hotel encompasses everything fans of Wes Anderson love about his films, while incorporating just enough nostalgia, humor, and positive buzz to attract the masses as well. This very well could be Anderson’s biggest critical and commercial hit to date. 9/10

Monday, March 17, 2014

Movie of the Week – Hamlet

This week’s movie: Hamlet (1948)

This is Laurence Olivier’s adaptation of the William Shakespeare play about the Prince of Denmark, who believes that his uncle murdered his father to marry his mother and become King.

The film is directed by Olivier who also stars as Hamlet. It features wonderfully moody aesthetics, as Olivier worked with cinematographer Desmond Dickinson and art director Carmen Dillon (who won an Oscar, as did costume designer Roger Furse). The score from William Walton is also very good.

In addition to Olivier, the cast features John Laurie, Esmond Knight, Anthony Quayle, Peter Cushing, Eileen Herlie, Basil Sydney, Felix Aylmer, and Jean Simmons. For those really paying attention, Christopher Lee and Desmond Llewelyn have tiny roles as well.

Laurence Olivier is one of the great British actors. He came to prominence in the 1930s, playing both Romeo and Mercutio in alternate performances of Romeo and Juliet on the London Stage. With 1940’s Alfred Hitchcock film Rebecca, Olivier was an international star. He turned his focus on bringing Shakespeare to cinema, first with Henry V and then with Hamlet and Richard III. Hamlet is phenomenal. It won four Oscars including Best Picture and Actor (for Olivier); however, it was not well received by purists who did not like his “modern” interpretation and staging when it was initially released. Today, the film feels like a classical take on the play, given the many versions we have seen since, but in its day it was quite edgy. Olivier is able to make the play come alive like no other film adaptation. It is my personal favorite (followed by Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet).

Trailer: Here
Available on: DVD and Video On-Demand

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger – Cinema Legends – March 2014

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger worked together on twenty-four films between 1939 and 1972, with their main creative period during the 1940s. Together they are known as The Archers, after the name of their production company. Powell and Pressburger are usually billed as co-writers, directors and producers, but Powell usually handled the directing and Pressburger the writing – and they produced their films together, often working with executive producer J. Arthur Rank. Between the two auteurs, they only won one Oscar (Pressburger won Best Story for 49th Parallel, which while very good is not considered one of their five masterpieces), but they are now considered among the greatest filmmakers in cinema history (thanks to the preservation work of Martin Scorsese, AFI, and BFI, allowing a new generation to find their films).

Early Careers/Collaborations:

In 1925, Powell began his career in film sweeping the floors of Victorine Studios in Nice, France, where he father owned a hotel. But, he soon found himself moving up the ladder into better jobs, even acting. In 1928, he returned to England where he worked with Alfred Hitchcock as a still photographer on his silent films Champagne and Blackmail. The two men remained friends throughout their lives. Powell continued to move his way up in British cinema, honing his directing on a number of small films. In 1939, he was hired by Alexander Korda to begin work on some new projects (like the Thief of Bagdad). Through Korda, he met Pressburger.

Pressburger made his early films in Germany and France. As a Hungarian Jew, he decided to leave Germany in 1932 as the Nazi’s came to power. And again in 1935, the threat in Europe for the Jewish people seemed to be mounting causing him to leave France for England. There, he worked with fellow Hungarian Korda.

Korda had contracted Powell to direct a new film called The Spy in Black, but thought that the script could use some rewrites. So, he introduced Powell to Pressburger. The two gone on right away and there was a creative spark between them. There first real collaboration came with their 1940 film Contraband. Both films performed well as WWII-set anti-Nazi propaganda.

Beautiful Technicolor – Creating a Series of Masterpieces:

The Archers, however, were truly born with 1943’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. It is a magnificent Technicolor epic about a brash military man who is does not change with the times. Powell and Pressburger formed their production company and created their joint credit: “Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger” to notify that they were the creative force behind their work, subject to no studio or other producers. They also created a manifesto with five points:

“1) We owe allegiance to nobody except the financial interests which provide our money; and, to them, the sole responsibility of ensuring them a profit, not a loss. 2) Every single foot in our films is our own responsibility and nobody else’s. We refuse to be guided or coerced by any influence but our own judgment. 3) When we start work on a new idea we must be a year ahead, not only of our competitors, but also of the times. A real film, from idea to universal release, takes a year. Or more. 4) No artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does. We have proved, at any rate, that they will pay to see the truth, for other reasons than her nakedness. And 5) At any time, and particularly at the present, the self-respect of all collaborators, from star to prop-man, is sustained, or diminished, by the theme and purpose of the film they are working on.”

Typically, Pressburger would write the first draft of each new script. They would then pass it back and forth until it was ready. They did not like to work on the script together at the same time in the same room. They both worked as producers, but Powell was very frank and often would ruffle the feathers of financiers and Pressburger was very good at smoothing things over. Under Rank, however, they had a lot of freedom. Powell handled most of the directing, but Pressburger was always on-hand and present on set. When principal photography wrapped, Powell would go on holiday in Scotland and Pressburger would work with the editor and composer to craft the final product. Then Powell would return to take over to promote the film. They also often worked with the same crew and actors on their films, including: actors Anton Walbrook, Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, David Farrar, Marius Goring, Kathleen Byron, and Moira Shearer (among others), composers Allan Gray and Brian Easdale, production designers Alfred Junge and Hein Heckroth, editors John Seabourne Sr. and Reginald Mills, and cinematographers Erwin Hillier, Jack Cardiff, and Christopher Challis.

Getting back to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, the film came under heavy attack by the British Government (and most notably by Winston Churchill) for the use of a sympathetic German officer (albeit a Jewish, anti-Nazi one – he was an officer during WWI, and a refugee during WWII) who is seemingly more reasonable and realistic than the British officers. As a result, the film did not come out in the States until 1945 (the film being reduced from its original 163 minutes to 150 and then 90 for TV). The film was later restored in 1983. Today, many consider it the greatest British film ever made.

Their next foray into Technicolor came with 1946’s A Matter of Life and Death, which used both Technicolor and Black & White photography. It is about a British squadron leader who should have died, returning from a raid over Germany, but somehow he lived. An angel comes to Earth to retrieve him, realizing the mistake, but the man has since fallen in love and believes he deserves to stay on Earth. He must present his case in Heaven. Interestingly, the film was commissioned by the British government (though they had no creative involvement) to improve Anglo-American relations between US soldiers stationed in the UK and the locals. To do this, Powell and Pressbuger reversed the stereotype. In A Matter of Life and Death, the British soldier gets the young attractive American girl (instead of the American soldiers getting all the young British women).

Black Narcissus was The Archers’ next film, debuting in 1947. It features some of the cinema’s most beautiful photography and production design, as well as being brilliant in every other way. The film is about a group of nuns who try to set up a new monastery in the Himalayas, but the beauty and wonder of the location gets to them and they soon leave. In the context of history, the film can be read as the British acknowledging the end of their empire (which mostly crumbled during WWII), as the film was released a few months before India achieved its independence. It was a critical success upon release, thanks to its vibrant colors and themes. Though shot entirely in an English studio, many believed that it was shot on location in India. It is artistically way ahead of its time, feeling very much like the films of the late 1960s/early 1970s when Hollywood auteurs reveled in the freedom of a cinema world without the Production Code.

The Red Shoes, The Archers’ next film, however, might be their best and most aesthetically proficient and magnificent (and is at present, my favorite film). It is about a ballet company who puts on a production of the Hans Christian Andersen story. Within the company, there is a struggle for the affection of a young ballerina. The film is utterly beautiful in every way. Even without strong promotion, due to Rank’s financial problems, it was a big success at the British box office, and even bigger in the States. It is probably the most famous and best known of The Archers’ films, and yet it too was mostly forgotten in time. It was not until 2002 that the film was saved and underwent restoration, taking seven years to complete. It is a film that every film fan must see, along with the other Powell and Pressbuger classics.

For their next Technicolor film, The Archers worked with America’s biggest producer David O. Selznick, making Gone to Earth. The film is not easily available, and thus I have never seen it. I am waiting for and hoping that the Criterion Collection releases it at some point (as well as A Matter of Life and Death). It is about Hazel, a girl who feels more comfortable among nature than with humans, often turning to a book of spells when she has problems, a remnant of her gypsy mother. Hazel becomes the object of affection of two men, and she finds herself in the middle of their struggle to possess her. The film is thought of as one of the most beautiful every made with wonderful cinematography of the English countryside. O. Selznick, however, did not like the finished film and greatly altered it for its American release (known as The Wild Heart). It was restored in 1985, but it is a shame that it is not readily available.

The Archers’ troubles continued with their next film The Elusive Pimpernel (which I have also not seen). Neither Michael Powell or star David Niven wanted to make the film, but were threatened by Alexander Korda that if they did not make it their contracts would be suspended (greatly hurting their careers). The film is an action/adventure narrative, but it did not turn out well, likely due to the lack of interest by all involved. It was not a critical or commercial success, which contributed greatly to the decline of The Archers (who made the best British films of the 1940s).

The Tales of Hoffmann saw The Archers return to ballet. The film is split into three sections, each telling a different story through visuals, music, and dance without dialogue (much like a ballet). Basically, it is like a full feature version of The Red Shoes’s ballet sequence.

Powell and Pressburger made three more films together (Oh… Rosalinda!, The Battle of the River Plate, and Ill Met by Moonlight) between 1955-1956 before dissolving their partnership to pursue solo careers. They remained lifelong devoted friends.

Smaller Black & White Films:

Like 49th Parallel, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing was a propaganda film, made to forward the moral of the British people. The film exhibits a striking naturalism, heightened by the lack of scored music. It garnered Powell’s only Oscar nomination of his career (for original screenplay, which he shared with Pressbuger).

Their follow up to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, saw The Archers return to black & white photography and a much smaller scale. A Canterbury Tale is a very light film, and yet it is transformative. It is about three people on their way to Canterbury who get stuck in a small town. In the town they get wrapped up in the mystery of the Glue-Man, who puts glue in the hair of young attractive women. The three, a land girl, a British soldier, and an American soldier (played by actual American GI Sgt. John Sweet), take it upon themselves to discover the identity of the Glue-Man. The film was a failure upon release and Powell and Pressburger had to greatly rework it for its American release after the war. It was restored in the late 1970s and is now considered a masterwork (much like most of their work).

For their next film, Powell and Pressbuger decided to make a romance film; while contemporary, it feels very far away from the war. I Know Where I’m Going! is about a strong willed woman who knows what she wants and is going to go out there and get it. Only, she meets a man on her way to her own wedding that throws her for a loop. It was critically acclaimed upon its release, many praising its naturalistic style and beauty.

The Archers would then go on to make many of their great Technicolor masterworks; however, they returned to a smaller black & white narrative in 1949 with the thriller The Small Black Room. It is about a British military scientist named Rice who is working on an efficient and safe way to dispose of bombs and mines employed by the Nazis across England. The Nazis have a new explosive that is tricky, having killed four people so far who tried to disarm them. Rice turns his attention to this new device. He also struggles with depression and alcoholism. It is a much darker film than any of the others by The Archers. Rank, who The Archers had worked with for a few years, was now in financial crisis, leading Powell and Pressburger to return to working with Alexander Korda – a move that marked the end of their best period of filmmaking, as the 1950s saw their decline. The Small Black Room was a success upon its release, winning a nomination for Best British Film at the 1950 BAFTA Awards.

Late Careers:

Powell and Pressburger did not really do much significant solo work – the highlight being Powell’s Peeping Tom. The two did, however, reteam for two more films in the late 1960s/early 1970s: They’re a Weird Mob and The Boy Who Turned Yellow. Neither is anywhere close to as good as their previous work together. The Boy Who Turned Yellow is also the last feature film either worked on.

Career Highlights:

1)      49th Parallel (1941) – writers, directors, producers (DVD, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
2)      The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)* – writers, directors, producers (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
3)      A Canterbury Tale (1944)* – writers, directors, producers (DVD, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
4)      I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) – writers, directors, producers (DVD, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
5)      A Matter of Life and Death (1946)* – writers, directors, producers (DVD, Trailer)
6)      Black Narcissus (1947)* – writers, directors, producers (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
7)      The Red Shoes (1948)* – writers, directors, producers (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
8)      The Small Black Room (1949) – writers, directors, producers (DVD, Trailer)
9)      Gone to Earth (1950) – writers, directors, producers (Trailer)
10)   The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) – writers, directors, producers (DVD, Trailer)

*Editor’s picks