Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Breakfast at Tiffany's

Movie Review: Breakfast at Tiffany's

Year of Release: 1961
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Blake Edwards
Cast: Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard, Buddy Ebsen, Mickey Rooney

Plot outline: Struggling writer Paul Varjak moves into a New York apartment building and becomes intrigued by his pretty, quirky neighbour Holly Golightly who in public flits through parties with a sexy, sophisticated air, but when alone changes into a sweetly vulnerable bundle of neuroses (IMDb).

Loosely based on the short novel of the same name by Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany's is Audrey Hepburn's signature movie. Her portrayal of confused and lost Holly Golightly - with the black dress, black broad-brimmed hat, black sunglasses and long cigarette holder - is considered to be her most memorable and identifiable role. People who have read the novella might think that the casting of Ms. Hepburn was somewhat miscast (the writer himself wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the role of Holly Golightly). Nevertheless, she successfully made it her own and in the process created an image that is considered one of the iconic images of 20th century American cinema. Her character is actually dark and disturbing, but she somehow manages to bring a gleam of innocence and sweetness to it - I guess, this is what Audrey Hepburn is all about: grace and magic! The opening scene when Holly gets out of a taxi in front of Tiffany's, drinking coffee and eating pastry, while staring through the window at the famous jewelry store as Henry Mancini's melancholy strings of "Moon River" wash over everything is a classic (!) It instantly and perfectly sets the tone of the entire movie that follows. I heard many complaints about Mickey Rooney's stereotypical portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi. Yes, I agree ... it's politically incorrect (!), nevertheless I still think that his character is hilarious. Watch the movie carefully as the story contains many allegories: e.g. Holly keeps losing the key to her apartment, and so does Paul; Holly is a phony but a real phony, while Paul is a writer but hasn't been writing for a very long time; the cat who doesn't have a name, while Holly Golightly turns out to be a false name. Other than the opening scene, there are many memorable moments in the movie: e.g. the wacky party at Holly's place, Holly and Paul doing things they've never done before - the scene when Holly and Paul pinch cat masks (another allegory) and the scene when they are at Tiffany's, and of course the ending scene. Instead of gritty and vulgar, in the hands of director Blake Edwards and together with the magical persona of Audrey Hepburn, the movie becomes a candy box of style and sweet redemption. It received three Oscar nominations: Best Actress, Best Art and Set Decoration, Best Adapted Screenplay, and won two Oscars: Best Musical Score and Best Original Song. It's one of my personal favourites.

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Blithe Spirit

Movie Review: Blithe Spirit

Year of Release: 1945
Country of Origin: UK
Director: David Lean
Cast: Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings, Kay Hammond, Margaret Rutherford

Plot outline: Seeking material for his new book about psychics, author Charles Condomine and his second wife Ruth invite a medium to their home to perform a séance. During the séance, Charles' first wife Elvira accidentally returns from beyond the grave ... and she has a purpose: to possess Charles forever! (IMDb)

Based on Noel Coward's play of the same title, even though I don't like this movie as much as other David Lean's masterpieces, it is good fun for the whole family. Never has a movie about death been so funny. It is original, spunky and entertaining. While Rex Harrison and Constance Cummings take the roles of the normals, Kay Hammond as the blithe spirit of the first wife Elvira and especially Margaret Rutherford as the eccentric Madame Arcati take every advantage of their characters' unusual behaviour to demonstrate their acting ability. Unfortunately, Ms. Rutherford's performance was overlooked at the Oscars. She is by all means the star of the movie. It was also incorporated some of the most sophisticated special effects yet seen in a movie (it won an Oscar for Best Special Effects). I particularly like the ending ... it's a good surprise and well within the theme of the movie.

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

Friday, 22 August 2008

Sergeant York

Movie Review: Sergeant York

Year of Release: 1941
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Howard Hawks
Cast: Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, Joan Leslie, Margaret Wycherly

Plot outline: A hillbilly sharpshooter becomes one of the most celebrated American heroes of WWI when he single-handedly attacks and captures a German position using the same strategy as in turkey shoot (IMDb).

Based on the true story of WWI hero, Alvin York, and released during WWII, even if it were for propaganda, Sergeant York is a classic and moving war movie. Gary Cooper is convincing as the title role who goes through transformation from a drunken good-for-nothing country bumpkin to a solid man of values and ideals. His performance in expressing his character's confusion and emotions throughout the changes - naive but intelligent - is incredible. For this, Cooper got his first Oscar for Best Actor. Cooper's performance is backed up with a fine supporting cast; two you will remember are: Walter Brennan who brilliantly juggles three roles as a preacher, a postmaster and a shopkeeper (he earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor) and Margaret Wycherly who inspirationally brings a matriarch's knowing instincts to the part of Mother York (she got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress). Director Howard Hawks beautifully weaves the story's many threads together and cleverly adds good humour in it.

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Sunday, 17 August 2008

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang

Movie Review: I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang

Year of Release: 1932
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Cast: Paul Muni, Glenda Farrell, Helen Vinson, Preston Foster

Plot outline: Wrongly convicted James Allen serves in the intolerable conditions of a southern chain gang, which later comes back to haunt him (IMDb).

Released over seventy years ago, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang still holds true today. Based on the autobiography of Robert E. Burns, who ended up on a chain gang after he stole less than $6 so that he could eat, tells the story of a miscarriage of justice. If you believe that the justice system is infallible, or perhaps good enough (when it's being tested on someone else), what if you are the one who falls victim to the glitch in the system? Paul Muni gives a stirring (Oscar nominated) performance as James Allen, capturing all of the confusion, despair, pain and anguish of his inexplicable situation. One scene that stands out is when he is awaken by one of the guards to be told that his pardon has been overruled and that he will have to serve out his original ten-year sentence. Unshaved and dirty, he stares into the camera with tears slowly running through his eyes with the expression of disgust and betrayal, making fists with his hands before resting down his head on the pillow. But the most memorable scene is the ending scene where he finds himself chained for life as a fugitive and he is forced to descend into the darkness: (Helen) "How do you live? " (James) "I steal." ... and then the end credits roll, leaving you gasping "My god, what will happen to him now?" You'll never forget his final words.

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Thursday, 14 August 2008

San Francisco

Movie Review: San Francisco

Year of Release: 1936
Country of Origin: USA
Director: W. S. Van Dyke
Cast: Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy

Plot outline: Leading up to the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake, a Barbary Coast saloonkeeper and a Nob Hill impresario are rivals for the affections of a beautiful singer, both personally and professionally (IMDb).

Sixty years before James Cameron set a love story against the backdrop of the Titanic disaster, W. S. Van Dyke tackled the same challenge with the same results, if not better. San Francisco has a great deal of interesting story, real and fascinating characters, excellent performances, beautiful cinematography, meticulous and authentic sets and superb special effects (yes, special effects!). Blackie Norton (Clark Gable's best role of his career) is a marvelous example of the duality of human nature, a bad guy who does good deeds in secret - just like a good guy who does bad deeds in secret; Father Mullin (Spencer Tracy's first Oscar nominated performance) is a minor yet important supporting role, Blackie's best friend and conscience of the movie, giving good male bonding chemistry between Blackie and him; while Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) is a magnificent opera singer, a preacher's daughter tormented between two lovers. Please don't overlook her part ... her singing was incredible! Many times I was stunned by her voice, it accentuates the movie at several key moments. You get so wrapped up in the story that you even forget that there's an earthquake coming ... until it hits, and right in the middle of the human drama. The special effects are very well done, considering the time the movie was made, with crashing walls, tumbling buildings, cracking ground and the inevitable fire. Meticulous and authentic. But the story takes precedence over the special effects and when the special effects do come, they are in service to the story. Unfortunately, the ending is rather theatrical, but I can forgive that.

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Friday, 8 August 2008

The Sound of Music

Movie Review: The Sound of Music

Year of Release: 1965
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Robert Wise
Cast: Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Eleanor Parker, Richard Haydn, Peggy Wood

Plot outline: Maria had longed to be a nun since she was a young girl, yet when she became old enough discovered that it wasn't at all what she thought. Often in trouble and doing the wrong things, Maria is sent to the house of a retired, widowed naval captain, named Von Trapp, to care for his seven rowdy children (IMDb).

Based on the memoir of nun-turned-baroness Maria Augusta von Trapp, "The Story of the Trapp Family Singers", The Sound of Music is the greatest musical of all time and sadly Hollywood's last great musical. Every aspect in this movie is a triumph. I sometimes believe that Julie Andrews' presence in the movie is divinely prearranged, because she is so perfect as young and disobedient Maria - I could never imagine other actresses play this part. Her charm is so magical and her voice is so unique. This is definitely the defining moment of Ms. Andrews' career. Since then I can only think of her as Maria (!) ... her role is even bigger than herself. Christopher Plummer is also perfect as regal and handsome Captain Von Trapp. His performance as a complex and sophisticated man with a sly dose of sarcasm is wonderful. It's an absolute delight to watch a real romance - one where I can watch the characters slowly fall in love - how his steely, stern persona is gradually and eventually melted down by the irrepressible Maria. But it is Eleanor Parker who almost steals the show as catty and glamorous Baroness Elsa Schraeder. She got all the best lines, e.g. (to Maria) "If you have any problems, I'll be happy to help you," (to Max) "Why didn't you tell me ... to bring along my harmonica," (to Maria) "Good bye, Maria. I'm sure you'll make a very fine nun," or (to Captain Von Trapp) "Somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun. Auf Wiedersehen, darling." The Austrian Alps are breathtaking - the opening scene is probably the most beautiful aerial shot in all of movie history, while the closing scene takes you higher than the clouds. The cinematography is beautiful. The art and set decoration is stunning. The costume design is lovely. The musical scores and the songs are unforgettable (!): "Maria", "Sixteen Going on Seventeen", "My Favorite Things", "Do-Re-Mi", "The Lonely Goatherd", "So Long, Farewell", "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" and who can forget "Edelweiss" (director Robert Wise cleverly captures the scene where Maria watches the Captain sing the song with the children and falls in love with him ... but, for me the most romantic scene is when Maria and the Captain dance a ländler, an Austrian folk dance). The Sound of Music is a timeless masterpiece which keeps bringing generations of viewers to its attention. It got ten Academy Awards nominations and won five: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Music, Best Editing and Best Sound. It's one of my personal favourites.

My judgement: **** out of 4 stars