Tuesday, 29 July 2008


Movie Review: Casablanca

Year of Release: 1942
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains

Plot outline: Set in unoccupied Casablanca in western Morocco during the early days of World War II, an American expatriate meets a former lover, with unforeseen complications (IMDb).

The 1940s is the golden years of Hollywood and Casablanca is certainly the pinnacle of it and most likely of all time. What make this movie so great and timeless - it still captivates the audience even after more than six decades? I can see at least five elements that contribute to its greatness and timelessness: the story, the setting, the script, the characters and the performances. The story is multi-layered, people are always captivated by the story of hope and despair, which is perfectly set in exotic Casablanca and beautifully narrated at the beginning of the movie:

With the coming of the Second World War, many eyes in imprisoned Europe turned hopefully, or desperately, toward the freedom of the Americas. Lisbon became the great embarkation point. But, not everybody could get to Lisbon directly, and so a tortuous, roundabout refugee trail sprang up - Paris to Marseilles ... across the Mediterranean to Oran ... then by train, or auto, or foot across the rim of Africa, to Casablanca in French Morocco. Here, the fortunate ones through money, or influence, or luck, might obtain exit visas and scurry to Lisbon; and from Lisbon, to the New World. But the others wait in Casablanca ... and wait ... and wait ... and wait.

But not only that, Casablanca is also the story of love and sorrow, which is brilliantly performed by Humphrey Bogart as resilient, yet hurt and tough, yet sentimental Rick Blaine. The characters are also multi-layered, they real - not black and white, as mentioned before, Rick Blaine or Claude Rains as corrupt, yet independent Captain Renault, which is brilliantly performed and perfectly scripted in witty dialogue throughout the movie:

Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
Captain Renault: I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
Croupier [a croupier hands Renault a pile of money]: Your winnings, sir!
Captain Renault [sotto voce]: Oh, thank you very much.
Captain Renault [aloud]: Everybody out at once!

And who can forget the chemistry between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund? It's magic! Or Dooley Wilson with his classic songs: "As Time Goes By", "It Had to Be You" and "Knock On Wood". Or the legendary scene of "The Battle of the Anthems" when the German officers take over Rick's place and sing "Die Wacht am Rhein" and Paul Henreid as Victor Laszlo then goes to the orchestra leader and asks him to lead "La Marseillaise". It's mesmerizing! I found not even a thousand words can fully describe the greatness of this movie, from start to finish. It wins three Oscars and gets five nominations. It's one of my personal favourites.

My judgement: **** out of 4 stars

Sunday, 27 July 2008

The Great Lie

Movie Review: The Great Lie

Year of Release: 1941
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Edmund Goulding
Cast: Bette Davis, George Brent, Mary Astor

Plot outline: After a newlywed's husband apparently dies in a plane crash, she discovers that her rival for his affections is now pregnant with his child; she then makes a truce with her (IMDb).

If it had not been for smart writing and great performance by the two leading ladies, Bette Davis and Mary Astor, the movie would have been just like any other soapies. The writing wastes no time mapping out the plot and the characters, cutting out all the unnecessary sentimentality that is often found in melodramatic soapies. Bette Davis surprisingly takes a softer role as a gentle but hapless heroine, giving Mary Astor a meaty role as a cold, heartless, unmitigated bitch. The best scenes are when Davis and Astor confront and interact with each other, culminating in a marvelous bitch-fest in a shack in the middle of Arizona desert as Astor rebels against Davis' control. Davis' performance is great - as always, but Astor steals the show and walks away with an Oscar. I also like the swift ending that ends the movie on high notes. The choice of great classical Piano Concerto #1 in B Flat Minor by Tchaikovsky as the musical score that heightens the tension between the characters throughout the movie is superb too. I am giving this movie three stars solely because of their great performances.

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Sunday, 20 July 2008

People Will Talk

Movie Review: People Will Talk

Year of Release: 1951
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Cast: Cary Grant, Jeanne Crain, Hume Cronyn, Walter Slezak

Plot outline: While being subjected to a McCarthy-style investigation by a jealous colleague over his unorthodox medical views, Dr. Noah Praetorius befriends and ultimately marries a young woman who has become suicidal at the prospect of having a baby by a lover who has left her (IMDb).

Based on the German play by Curt Goetz and made during the hype of McCarthyism, this movie is a satirical comedy about bigotry. On one side we have a conservative doctor, Prof. Rodney Elwell (played convincingly by Hume Cronyn), who thinks caring for the human soul is a malpractice as doctors should only look at the cold facts of the human body, and a pregnant unwed young woman, Deborah Higgins (played by Jeanne Crain), who thinks her world has just ended. On the other side we have a loyal, trustworthy man, Shunderson (played by Finlay Currie), whose background is mysterious and a failed father, Arthur Higgins (played by Sidney Blackmer), who seeks redemption. While in the middle we have an unorthodox, yet pragmatic doctor, Dr. Praetorious (played charmingly by Cary Grant) and his hilarious sidekick , Prof. Barker (played brilliantly by Walter Slezak). The mix creates an unusual feeling of strangeness ... I was especially taken aback by the Shunderson mystery. This movie offers amusing dialogue, social insight, women's issues, enlightened views of science and ultimately the urge to destroy what we cannot understand.

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars

Thursday, 17 July 2008

The Lady Eve

Movie Review: The Lady Eve

Year of Release: 1941
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Preston Sturges
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda

Plot outline: Returning from a year up the Amazon studying snakes, the rich but unsophisticated Charles Pike meets con-artist Jean Harrington on a ship (IMDb).

This classic romantic comedy starring Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda is a scintillating battle of the sexes, as writer and director Preston Sturges shows us the terrors of sexual passion and the unattainability of the romantic ideal. Barbara Stanwyck gives one of her best performances. The scene - an unbroken shot that lasts three minutes and 51 seconds - where Stanwyck toys with Fonda's hair as he reclines, uncomfortably, on the floor beside her is incredibly seductive. Henry Fonda, without looking like a loser - he trips over four times, get spilled over by food trays twice and nibbled by a horse once, plays his role absolutely straight. No tongue in cheek, no winks at the audience. He plays it straight and sincere. The dialogue is sharp and witty ("Don't be vulgar, Jean. Let us be crooked, but never common."). And all other characters are equally as scintillating as the lead stars. After almost seven decades the story still rings true and the movie remains thoroughly enjoyable.

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

The Thin Man

Movie Review: The Thin Man

Year of Release: 1934
Country of Origin: USA
Director: W.S. Van Dyke
Cast: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O'Sullivan

Plot outline: Comedy-mystery featuring Nick and Nora Charles: a former detective and his rich, playful wife. They solve a murder case mostly for the fun of it (IMDb).

Based on Dashiell Hammett's detective novel of the same title, this movie is still as exuberant as it was 74 years ago! What's the secret to its enduring success? First and foremost is the lead characters Nick and Nora Charles and their wire-haired fox terrier named Asta. As they endlessly drink and wittily banter back and forth, their equally hopeless dog completes the pair as the screen's best chemistry couple of all time. The supporting characters are equally as eccentric as the lead stars. The script is sharp and the dialogue is witty. All elements in this movie are so ahead of their time; which is probably the secret why after more than seven decades it is still thoroughly enjoyable and engaging and remains on many critics' lists.

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Monday, 7 July 2008

No Reservations

Movie Review: No Reservations

Year of Release: 2007
Country of Origin: USA, Australia
Director: Scott Hicks
Cast: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart, Abigail Breslin

Plot outline: The life of a top chef changes when she becomes the guardian of her young niece (IMDb).

No Reservations is Hollywood remake of Mostly Martha (Bella Martha). One thing I don't understand about Hollywood is: Why does Hollywood have the need to remake a movie - in this case, a foreign movie - that's already so good, so perfect? Why would they do that, knowing that people will always compare the remake with the original one and they know that it's virtually impossible to top the original one? And not only that, Hollywood has always had a tendency to make everything a little bit over the top. Catherine Zeta-Jones seems too comfortable with her sexuality as a cold, perfectionist Kate. Aaron Eckhart, who plays the part of Kate's opposite Nick, therefore doesn't have the charm as warm as Mario's in the original version. While Abigail Breslin is too grownup for an 8-year-old girl Zoe:

Kate: "You know, I was thinking the other day, I know so little about you. I mean, we're family, but I don't even know what your favourite colour is."
Zoe: "Red."
Kate: "Red? See, I didn't know that. I love red. Red's a great colour. What's your favourite number? "
Zoe: "You know, you don't have to do this."
Kate: "Do what? "
Zoe: "Try so hard."

Do you think an 8-year-old child would be able to deduce like that? Everything that's a little bit over the top finally adds up to something that at the end spoils all the things that make the original version so delightful. Not to mention the ending that's so typical Hollywood ending.

My judgement: *1/2 out of 4 stars

Sunday, 6 July 2008

The Kite Runner

Movie Review: The Kite Runner

Year of Release: 2007
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Marc Forster
Cast: Khalid Abdalla, Atossa Leoni, Shaun Toub

Plot oultine: After spending years in California, Amir returns to his homeland in Afghanistan to help his old friend Hassan, whose son is in trouble (IMDb).

Based on Khaled Hosseini's debut novel and national bestseller of the same title, the story is very touching and binds us all to a common humanity. But I found the entire movie rather melodramatic and melancholic, the musical scores during Amir's return to Afghanistan are also rather distracting. Despite all these, I do like the performance of Zekeria Ebrahimi who plays the part of young Amir and especially Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada who plays the role of young Hassan. They're great!

My judgement: ** out of 4 stars