Tuesday, 30 September 2008

My Fair Lady

Movie Review: My Fair Lady

Year of Release: 1964
Country of Origin: USA
Director: George Cukor
Cast: Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Stanley Holloway, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Gladys Cooper

Plot outline: A misogynistic and snobbish phonetics professor agrees to a wager that he can take a flower girl and make her presentable in high society (IMDb).

Adapted from Lerner and Loewe's stage musical of the same name, based in turn on the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, My Fair Lady is the most intelligent musical ever made. It's not only extravagant in sets, but also deep in meaning. It's a musical with a brain as well as a heart. It's a treat for the mind as well as the senses. Even sceptics of musicals will enjoy it. Rex Harrison's Henry Higgins is a very interesting character. He holds himself in high regard, and to everyone else he's insulting and insensitive. And what makes him fascinating is he knows that he is like that. He treats Audrey Hepburn's Eliza Doolittle poorly, but no more poorly than he treats anyone else, including Eliza's father, his own friend Col. Pickering and even his own mother, therefore, giving Eliza equality with everyone else despite her lower class origins. Rex Harrison brilliantly pulls it all off and makes Higgins likable without betraying the character. Audrey Hepburn magically brings her sweetness, naive charm and juvenile pettishness which all prove what a talented actress she really is, e.g. watch her expression at the Ascot scene when she realises her opportunity to demonstrate her new-found mastery of the English tongue ... it's utterly sweet and hilarious. Her transformation from a flower-selling guttersnipe to a lady of high society is believable. Stanley Holloway is lovable as playfully mischievous Alfred Doolittle. Wilfrid Hyde-White is convincing as proper and understanding Col. Pickering. Gladys Cooper is impeccable as no non-sense mother of big bully Higgins. The script and dialogue are wonderful. The songs are unforgettable. Because of its theatrical origins there is an unavoidable stage-bound look to some scenes, e.g. the morning after the play scene where actors enter the scene in layers and freeze until the action is turned on and the Ascot scene - its black and white palate and stylized look add variety to the movie. Overall, My Fair Lady is romantic, but not sentimental - the word "love" is never mentioned at all and the two leads never even kiss. Two most stunning scenes are: 1) the Ascot scene which is beautifully surreal and 2) the Embassy Ball scene which is the climax where Eliza, now an enchanting lady of high society, charms everyone with her style and beauty. I must confess, she is breathtaking in every move and every syllable she utters. The ball gown designed by Cecil Beaton is without peer in modern cinema. The scene is lavishly elegant. With the dazzling splendour that director George Cukor offers: the designer's eye for detail, the painter's flair for colour, the artist's imagination and the delicacy of handling, My Fair Lady garnered twelve Oscar nominations and took eight statuettes for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Harrison), Best Music, Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography, Best Art Decoration and Best Sound. It's one of my personal favourites.

My judgement: **** out of 4 stars

Sunday, 28 September 2008

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Movie Review: The Man Who Knew Too Much

Year of Release: 1956
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: James Stewart, Doris Day

Plot outline: A family vacationing in Morocco accidentally stumbles on to an assassination plot and the conspirators are determined to prevent them from interfering by kidnapping their son (IMDb).

This movie is a remake of Hitchcock's own movie of the same name released in 1934. The two movies are very different in tone, setting and many plot details: the first version opens in St. Moritz, Switzerland, the second version in Morocco; the earlier version climaxes in a siege and shootout in London's East End, the later version during a concert at the Royal Albert Hall; and the kidnapped daughter in the 1934 version becomes a son in the 1956 version. Some people think the earlier version is superior, but Hitchcock himself considers the 1934 version was the work of a talented amateur, while the 1956 version the work of a professional. In my opinion, they are both excellent movies with a lot of strong points. Which one you prefer is mostly a matter of taste ... watch both if you have the chance. In this remake Hitchcock casts Hollywood's big names: James Stewart and Doris Day. He makes certain sequences longer (some people might feel that he drags them out), e.g. the opening sequence between Stewart, Day and their son (Christopher Olsen) - it allows you to get to know the family better, it also sets you up for the second and third acts; the climax sequence at the Royal Albert Hall - it builds the tension up slowly and by the end the suspense is gloriously unbearable. He also uses more lavish settings and better cinematography. Stewart throws himself vigorously into his role (as always). He conveys all the courage, conviction and heartbreak of a father who lost his child and would do anything to get him back. Day is very believable in her role. Her two best scenes are: 1) when Stewart gives her a sedative before telling her that their son has been kidnapped; they play off each other beautifully, especially her as she shows different emotions at once, 2) during the climax sequence at the Royal Albert Hall where she once again shows her conflicting emotions. Brenda De Banzie, Bernard Miles and Daniel Gélin do a great job in portraying their characters. Reggie Nalder is brilliant as the assassin ... his effusive portrayal radiates evil. Music plays an important part in this movie. Several times in the movie, Day sings "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)" which won an Oscar for Best Song, beating out "True Love" from High Society. During the climax sequence at the Royal Albert Hall, composer Bernard Herrmann, who writes so many great scores for Hitchcock's movies, can be seen conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, playing Arthur Benjamin's cantata of Storm Clouds from the 1934 version. The sequence runs 12 minutes without any dialogue (!), from the beginning to the climax when Day's character screams. Hitchcock beautifully brings us back to silent movie (!) ... the ultimate expression of his belief that movies should be stories told visually. As all of Hitchcock's movies are in my favourite list, this movie is definitely one of my personal favourites.

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Friday, 26 September 2008

Holiday Inn

Movie Review: Holiday Inn

Year of Release: 1942
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Mark Sandrich
Cast: Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Marjorie Reynolds, Virginia Dale

Plot outline: Lovely Linda Mason has crooner Jim Hardy head over heels, but suave stepper Ted Hanover wants her for his new dance partner after femme fatale Lila Dixon gives him the brush (IMDb).

This Irving Berlin's musical features Fred Astaire as an elegant, charming show business professional who is ambitious for success and Bing Crosby as a talented, but lazy partner who just wants a life of comfort and not to work more than he has to. Small wonder that soon after the opening sequence ends they go separate ways. The story then focuses on Crosby as he dreams up a great idea of a resort called Holiday Inn where he only works on holidays (which is only 15 days out of 365 days in a year). I think it's a great idea too ... what a wonderful life would that be (!) And then enter a complication, her name is Marjorie Reynolds ... they both get interested in her. Holiday Inn features songs (twelve new songs) for all holidays of the year. Obviously, some are omitted, intentionally or unintentionally, e.g. songs for Memorial Day and Labor Day. "Be Careful It's My Heart", the song for St. Valentine's Day, performed by Crosby and danced by Astaire and Reynolds was supposed to be the number one song. But, "White Christmas", performed in a duet by Crosby and Reynolds, surpasses the success of the song. It also gives Irving Berlin his only Oscar and Crosby the number one single of all time. Astaire, Crosby and Reynolds have great chemistry together: Astaire is cool but ominous, Crosby is laid-back but nervous and Reynold is charming and creditable. I very much enjoy the dancing sequence of "You're Easy to Dance With" (Astaire and Dale), "Be Careful It's My Heart" (Astaire and Reynolds) and especially "Let's Say It with Firecrackers" (Astaire) ... wow, only Astaire could dance with firecrackers (!) I also immensely enjoy the singing sequence of "White Christmas" (Crosby and Reynolds) ... it's timeless, it's utterly beautiful (!) Holiday Inn presents charm, wit, sincerity and freshness. It's an uplifting and heartwarming remembrance that is a legend in its own right.

Mu judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Dinner at Eight

Movie Review: Dinner at Eight

Year of Release: 1933
Country of Origin: USA
Director: George Cukor
Cast: Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow, Lionel Barrymore, Lee Tracy, Edmund Lowe, Billie Burke

Plot outline: Social climbing Millicent Jordan throws a dinner party for a bunch of New York society types, each of whom has much to reveal (IMDb).

Adapted from George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's play, Dinner at Eight is a dark drama comedy which is a study of people during the Great Depression - in a way, it's similar to Grand Hotel, only it's darker. It addresses topics like wealthy people dealing with the loss of money and prestige; relationships between men and women involving power, blind love, selfishness and unselfishness; and relationships between the wealthy and those who work for them. It consists of five subplots: 1) Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke), a shallow, wealthy socialite, the wife of shipping magnate Oliver Jordan (Lionel Barrymore). Totally oblivious to the human dramas whirling around the people on her guest list, she worries about nothing so much as how perfect the dinner party will be. 2) Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), an aging actress, an old friend and flame of Oliver Jordan. A bit down on her luck, she wants to sell her stock in his company. 3) Oliver Jordan (Lionel Barrymore), a good-hearted businessman. As his company is declining, he is concerned as someone is secretly trying to buy his company stock. Dan Packard (Wallace Beery), a politically connected wheeler-dealer. Circling around Jordan's bleeding empire, he is the shark who is secretly trying to buy the Jordan Shipping Line. 4) Larry Renault (John Barrymore), a washed-up silent movie star. Pestered by a 19-year-old girlfriend, he is haunted by the memory of fame and three ex-wives. Paula Jordan (Madge Evans), a rebellious daughter of Oliver Jordan. Engaged to marry her fiance, she has a clandestine affair with her idol, Larry Renault. 5) Kitty Packard (Jean Harlow), a lonely, conceited woman, the wife of Dan Packard. While waiting for her secret lover, she lounges in bed most of the day. Dr. Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe), a doctor, an unfaithful husband. Under the pretext of tending to Mrs. Packard's ailments, he comes to the Packard residence. All the subplots blend together nicely into one seamless, superb script. Dressler heads a large ensemble cast and shines brightest; while the rest of the supporting cast is as good as it gets. And most of the credit goes to director George Cukor who successfully makes this movie something that endures the passage of time.

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Queen Christina

Movie Review: Queen Christina

Year of Release: 1933
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Cast: Greta Garbo, John Gilbert

Plot outline: Queen Christina of Sweden is pressured to marry her cousin, Charles Gustav, but she falls in love with Spanish envoy, Don Antonio. As Protestant Swedes are aghast at the possibility of their queen marrying a Catholic, she must deal with the political realities of her society and make a fateful decision (IMDb).

Loosely based on the life of the 17th century Queen Christina of Sweden, this movie is Hollywood's interpretation of the character and events leading up to her abdication. The story does not make a serious distortion as it shows a lot of true facts about her life: e.g. her coronation when she was only five years old, her desire for peace, her inquisitiveness and her bohemian characteristics (she loves arts, books and paintings). The only fictitious event added is a clandestine love affair between her and a Spanish envoy, and this becomes a major plot that serves as a catalyst for questions about Christina's self identity, duty and perspective. Garbo's performance as Christina is something to behold, something you will never forget (!) It is a perfect blend of masculinity, passion and sensuality. It is a convincing portrayal of the queen's decisions, dilemmas and desires. It catches the audience's attention and holds it to the end of the movie. Consider these three scenes:

Christina (speaking in front of the Parliament when she argues an end to the Thirty Years' War): "Spoils, glory, flags and trumpets! What is behind these high-sounding words? Death and destruction, triumphals of crippled men, Sweden victorious in a ravaged Europe, an island in a dead sea. I tell you, I want no more of it. I want for my people security and happiness. I want to cultivate the arts of peace, the arts of life. I want peace and peace I will have!"

Christina (speaking to Chancellor Oxenstierna): "There is too great a burden you put on me. I have grown up in a great man's shadow. All my life I've been a symbol, a symbol of eternal changelessness, an abstraction. A human being is mortal and changeable with desires and impurities, hopes and despairs. I'm tired of being a symbol, Chancellor. I long to be a human being, this longing I cannot suppress."

Christina (speaking to Don Antonio): "I thought you would understand when you saw me again what had happened. That it had been so enchanting to be a woman, not a Queen, just a woman in a man's arms."

Garbo plays the role of Christina with majesty and vulnerability, she also presents assurance, clarity, determination and style of a great leader. What an outstanding performance! John Gilbert is great as Spanish envoy, Don Antonio; Ian Keith is good as wicked Count Magnus; but both don't come close to Garbo in charisma - who does? The cinematography is beautiful. The script is excellent - it is full of memorable dialogue, which is endlessly quotable. My favourites scenes are: 1) Garbo's speech in front of the Parliament, 2) Garbo's touching all objects in the inn's room in order to memorize them, 3) the final scene - Garbo's tight close-up while standing at the bow of the ship as it sets sail (this is possibly the most famous close-up in movie history). This movie boasts some of Garbo's most gorgeous close-ups you've ever seen. It has been 75 years since it was released but yet it is still a pleasure to see.

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Monday, 22 September 2008

Rear Window

Movie Review: Rear Window

Year of Release: 1954
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr

Plot outline: A wheelchair bound photographer spies on his neighbours from his apartment's rear window and becomes convinced that one of them has committed murder (IMDb).

Based on the short story It Had to Be Murder by Cornell Woolrich, Rear Window is Hitchcock's most sophisticated masterpiece and one of his best works. The first time I watched this movie, I was dumbfounded finding myself glued to the screen, from start to finish, watching out of L. B. Jefferies' apartment's rear window, across the courtyard and into his neighbours' apartments to see their goings on. It seemed so boring but yet I found it incredibly captivating. I didn't understand why. Later on, when I watched the making of this movie, I found the explanation to that "mystery". It is our obsession with voyeurism that keep our attention on what's happening inside those apartments. The effect of being able to see without being seen is spellbinding. L.B. Jefferies passes his time looking into his neighbours' apartments in an orgy of voyeurism. The camera tracks in through the windows, but never goes inside those apartments. We never see close-ups of the characters. We only see what he sees. We feel like we watch people through a window instead of in a movie. The main story takes place in his apartment (where the camera is), it includes he himself (James Stewart); his girlfriend, Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly); his friend, Det. Lt. Thomas J. Doyle (Wendell Corey); and his nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter). Looking out through his apartment's rear window he finds voyeuristic adventures (substories with their own plots and resolutions) of the ballerina, Miss Torso; the spinster, Miss Lonelyheart; the bachelor/the songwriter; the sculptor with hearing aid; the newlywed couple; the doting couple and their dog; and the salesman and his nagging wife. These substories are as equally important as the main story. Without realizing it L. B. Jefferies looks at different aspects of either himself or his relationship with his girlfriend. These people and their predicaments represent different sides of his (and to a lesser extent his girlfriend's) personality, offering glimpses of potential past, present and future selves; and it is not always a flattering picture. No wonder Stewart's character is reluctant to commit to his irresistible girlfriend! I love this movie - every frame and every dialogue is perfect. It rewards both careful attention and repeat viewings. I've seen this movie many times and every time I see it I always find something different. The fact that Hitchcock doesn't use any kind of music - we only hear the sounds of mere realism, e.g. natural sounds or live music played in the surrounding apartments - makes the movie even more realistic. Grace Kelly mesmerizes the audience with her utter elegance. Thelma Ritter almost steals the show with her wise-cracking dialogue. Wendell Corey is believable with his dismissive attitude. While Raymond Burr is great in one of his last villainous roles before Perry Mason. Three memorable scenes that etch into my mind: 1) Miss Lonelyheart, in her romantic dinner for two, raises her glass to her imaginary lover and Stewart from afar raises his glass too (with beautiful background song of "To See You is to Love You" performed by Bing Crosby), 2) Stewart and Kelly's smoldering kisses, 3) Stewart's fighting off his attacker with flashbulbs. Rear Window is a classic that will be enjoyed not only by thriller fans, but also anyone who appreciates carefully crafted movies with a lot of depth. It received four Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Writing, Best Cinematography and Best Sound. For me, it is Hitchcock's best movie and number 1 in my favourite list.

My judgement: **** out of 4 stars

Monday, 15 September 2008

Separate Tables

Movie Review: Separate Tables

Year of Release: 1958
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Delbert Mann
Cast: Deborah Kerr, Rita Hayworth, David Niven, Burt Lancaster, Wendy Hiller, Gladys Cooper

Plot outline: A look into the lives of several residents at a seaside hotel where guests have their meals at separate tables (IMDb).

Adapted and combined together from two one-act plays written by Sir Terence Rattigan, Separate Tables takes place in the Beauregard Hotel in the seaside town of Bournemouth on the south coast of England. The first subplot (originally the first play entitled Table by the Window) focuses on the troubled relationship between Lancaster's struggling writer John and his ex-lover Hayworth's fashion model Ann. Different worlds, different temperaments ... their mismatched personalities make it impossible for them to live together and yet their sexual attraction makes it impossible for them to live apart. The way they thrash out their past relationship is terrifically nerve-wracking. While Hiller delivers a splendid performance as the hotel keeper who smartly and sympathetically deals with the various crises facing her guests (she herself involves in an affair with Lancaster's character - when he passes her up for his ex-lover, she gracefully accepts it with dignity and pulls herself together as a grown-up with responsibilities). She surely deserved her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. The second subplot (originally the second play entitled Table Number Seven) deals with the touching friendship between Kerr's shy spinster Sybil and Niven's phoney Major Pollock. The way they are forced to examine their feelings and emotions when the scandal emerges is superbly heartbreaking. Kerr gives a moving performance opposite Niven's quiet desperation and crumbling character and Cooper's domineering character (the same role she did to Bette Davis in Now, Voyager). Kerr earned her Oscar nomination, while Niven got his Oscar for Best Actor. I particularly like the final scene when Niven enters the dining room and the guests one by one acknowledges him, and Sybil at last stands up to her overbearing mother and acknowledges him too. What a powerful finale ... the characters at last establish a humane connection across "separate tables" as the camera draws back through the dining room window, the theme song tugs at your heart and the guests resume their lives. Separate Tables is a powerful drama and a fantastic study of character. It won two Oscars (Hiller and Niven) and received five Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Writing, Best Music and Best Cinematography. Unfortunately, it seems to be a forgotten masterpiece.

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Friday, 12 September 2008

Meet Me in St. Louis

Movie Review: Meet Me in St. Louis

Year of Release: 1944
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Cast: Judy Garland, Margaret O'Brien, Mary Astor, Lucille Bremer, Leon Ames, Tom Drake

Plot outline: In the year before the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, the four Smith daughters learn lessons of life and love, even as they prepare for a reluctant move to New York (IMDb).

Adapted from a series of short stories by Sally Benson, originally published in The New Yorker magazine and later in the novel 5135 Kensington, this movie is one of Judy Garland's most successful movies for MGM. When you feel a bit down and need to lift up your spirits, this movie is definitely the antidote you should take. The Smith family is a perfect picture of a perfect family: the father is industrious, the mother is devoted, the children are playful yet impeccably proper, the housemaid is true-hearted, even the grandpa is healthy and happy. The neighbourhood is also a perfect picture of a perfect community. It's like a fairytale (!) And this fairytale exerts our emotions far stronger than any real story could command. I found many funny, beautiful, charming and touching moments in this musical classic: e.g. the telephone-call-from-New-York scene, the switching-off-the-lights scene, the trolley scene (Ms. Garland debuted "The Trolley Song" which became a hit even before the movie was released), the Halloween scene, the moving-to-New-York scene (the resistance by the family and subsequently the make-up between the father and mother at the piano are believable and beautiful) and of course the window scene (Ms. Garland debuted "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" which became popular among American soldiers serving in World War II); she wholeheartedly sings the song to her little sister Tootie when she is upset to learn that she has to leave all her snowmen behind ... it's very touching. While Judy Garland's Esther is certainly the star of the show, seven-year-old Margaret O'Brien's Tootie is also the centre of most of the fun ... she sometimes steals the show (!), for which she won a special juvenile Oscar. All in all, Meet Me in St. Louis is a sheer delight from start to finish.

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Thursday, 11 September 2008

The Year of Living Dangerously

Movie Review: The Year of Living Dangerously

Year of Release: 1982
Country of Origin: Australia
Director: Peter Weir
Cast: Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver, Linda Hunt

Plot outline: A young Australian journalist tries to navigate the political turmoil of Indonesia during the rule of President Sukarno with the help of a diminutive photographer (IMDb).

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Christopher Koch, director Peter Weir is not entirely successful in weaving all the plots and characters together, leaving a few gaps between them. This is a complex story with several plots going on at the same time: the first, which is the background of the story, is the impending political turmoil involving the Communist Party of Indonesia; the second is the group of western diplomats and journalists who fail to make sense of what's happening around them; the third is the romance between young and ambitious Australian journalist Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) and British diplomat Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver); and the fourth, which is the most important and intriguing - where the movie's point of view is based on, is the diminutive Australian/Chinese photographer named Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt). The group of westerners doesn't attract much of the audience's sympathy. Mel Gibson is very good, his performance is fresh and energetic - quite convincing as a rookie journalist. Sigourney Weaver is equally very good, but the script somehow doesn't allow her to show her true ability. Between them, there is genuine chemistry ... you can feel the heat (!) But the dialogue is awkward and stiff ... and the movie drags almost half of its time on them. Linda Hunt, on the other hand, steals the show with her remarkable gender-bending performance as enigmatic and passionate Billy Kwan. Her performance is seamless and of immense heart and honesty. She perfectly nails down a very complex character. It won her a well-deserved Oscar. But, Hunt's remarkable performance is not enough to save the entire movie. Meanwhile, the setting looks authentic, it certainly looks like Jakarta: the people, the atmosphere, the buildings, and yet, they were shot in the Philippines with mainly Filipino cast. Overall, the movie is rather subdued.

My judgement: ** out of 4 stars

Wednesday, 10 September 2008


Movie Review: Papillon

Year of Release: 1973
Country of Origin: USA, France
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Cast: Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman

Plot outline: A man befriends a fellow criminal as the two of them begin serving their sentence on a dreadful prison island, which inspires the man to plot his escape (IMDb).

Based on a memoir of the same name by convicted felon Henri Charrière, the first time I watched Papillon it had a profound effect on me, especially the final set on Devil's Island where Steve McQueen's physically and mentally abused, but spiritually refused to be defeated Henri "Papillon" Charrière and Dustin Hoffman's shattered and on the brink of insanity Louis Dega are reunited again after their failed attempts to escape. Watching Papillon's thin figure, gray hair and rotten teeth and Louis Dega's also thin figure and talking to pigs moved me to tears. Their roles must be physically demanding. Both actors perform with total conviction - one of the finest acting of their careers, as they create quirky but sympathetic and believable characterizations. Brutal treatment of prisoners has been explored on the screen before, e.g. I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, but this movie present a graphic expose of the conditions prisoners must face under the worst sort of environment. It certainly has a lasting effect on me, the similar effect I felt when I watched the 1968 Planet of the Apes by the same director, Franklin J. Schaffner. He surely gives rise to some of the great epics of human courage and fortitude. The setting is great and Jerry Goldsmith's musical score is arousing. The first half of the movie is deeply compelling (e.g. the sequence of Papillon in the isolation perfectly depicts loneliness and boredom). The middle part is a bit sluggish in pacing (the sequence of native villagers runs too long). But it gradually reaches the high notes again toward the end with the final sequence of Papillon trying to convince Louis Dega to make one last attempt for freedom ... it swells the emotions within me (!) It also represents one of the movies' most moving and effective sequences. Unfortunately, except for Jerry Goldsmith's musical score, this movie was grossly overlooked by the Academy and became one of the most underrated movies of the 1970s. Most critics attacked it on it's released, accusing it of being too long. I can forgive that, as that's a minor fault. Overall, Papillon is an outstanding movie. It's one of my personal favourites.

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Friday, 5 September 2008

The Diary of Anne Frank

Movie Review: The Diary of Anne Frank

Year of Release: 1959
Country of Origin: USA
Director: George Stevens
Cast: Millie Perkins, Joseph Schildkraut, Shelley Winters, Richard Beymer, Gusti Huber, Lou Jacobi, Diane Baker, Ed Wynn

Plot outline: A harrowing World War II real-life chronicle of a young Jewish girl who, with her family and their friends, is forced into hiding in an attic in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam (IMDb).

Like other based-on-the-book movies, as the book is usually better than the movie, more often than not if you read the book before you watch the movie, you would be disappointed with the movie. I heard people who have read the book, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, are disappointed with the movie because the movie is apparently inaccurate (!) I fully understand them. For me, I haven't read the book, so I don't have any problems with the movie, in fact I do enjoy it. Instead of being directly adapted from the book, this movie is based on the 1955 Broadway play of the same name - which is based on that book, written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. The same writers then wrote the script for the movie. Director George Stevens, while having Audrey Hepburn in his mind to portray Anne Frank, decided that it would be more effective to use a fresh actor - one with whom the public would have no preconceptions. His choice went to unknown model, Millie Perkins, because of her expressive eyes. With no acting experience, Mr. Stevens was confident that he could teach Ms. Perkins to act, at least for this movie. Still, it was a huge gamble, since her role was the pivotal role in this major production. Well, the results are now history. For me, Millie Perkins is just great (!) The story has been made into movies more than a dozen times, but this production remains the definitive version. With running time of around 170 minutes, director George Stevens skillfully keeps the suspense high and your eyes glued to the screen to see what happens next. From time to time, to keep the audience from getting claustrophobic, Mr. Stevens provides us with shots of the outside street and canal. I like the way he moves the camera from floor to floor. The script: as the story could easily become very sad, I like the way the script focuses on spirit and hope even in the darkest times: ordinary people trying to live an ordinary life even in an extraordinary condition, e.g. Joseph Schildkraut as Anne's father makes sure that even under these circumstances, the education is not neglected. The cast: they are excellent. Millie Perkins, although about twenty-one years old at that time, has an excellent performance and a brilliant narration. She has chemistry with Richard Beymer who plays Peter Van Daan, the boy from the other family. Shelley Winters deserves her Oscar as the ultimate Jewish mother, Mrs. Van Daan. Lou Jacobi is superb as Mr. Van Daan. While Ed Wynn is brilliant as fusspot Mr. Dussell. The black and white cinematography is beautiful and creates tension. Alfred Newman's musical score is mesmerising, it's definitely one of his finest. The extra music in Overture and Exit is a sweet treat. The first kiss scene gives me goosebumps and the final scene just before the Nazi officers knock down the secret door brings me tears. The person who betrayed Anne Frank, her family and their friends has never been discovered. The movie received five Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Ed Wynn), Best Music, and Best Costume Design, and won three Oscars: Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Shelley Winters), Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration. It was unfortunate that this touching drama was released in the same year as Ben-Hur ... who could stand a chance against the "mighty" Ben-Hur?

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Thursday, 4 September 2008

She Done Him Wrong

Movie Review: She Done Him Wrong

Year of Release: 1933
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Lowell Sherman
Cast: Mae West, Cary Grant

Plot outline: New York singer and nightclub owner Lady Lou has more men friends than she can handle (IMDb).

Based on her own successful Broadway play Diamond Lil (1928), this is the movie to watch if you want to know what the fuss was all about. Her bawdy double entendres (spoken phrases that can be understood in either of two ways) make Mae West the queen of sexual innuendo, e.g. "A hard man is good to find," "Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly," "Why don't you come up some time and see me? " All these great lines were not only said by her, they were also written by her. Even though Cary Grant had appeared in half a dozen movies, this was one of the movies where he got his first major role, which boosted his career. Ms. West had spotted him at the studio and insisted that he be cast as the male lead, as he combined masculinity with the bearing of a gentleman - "Hello there, warm, dark and handsome." And how right she was (!) Along with I'm No Angel, which was released the same year and also co-starred Grant, both movies earned Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, were tremendous financial blockbusters and saved Paramount from bankruptcy. In a time when sex was seen as either evil lust or sacred matrimonial act, her bluntness was indeed subversive (!) She was definitely a woman ahead of her time. The movie is full of legendary May West one liners, e.g. (other than what's already said above):

"When women go wrong, men go right after them."
"Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me? "

The movie is rather light on plot, but heavy on Ms. West, and frankly, who cares about anything else? Even though she's not pretty then and much less so now, her presence commands every man's attention. I like Ms. West's versatility - she sings, acts and writes, her personality - she's funny, sexy, brave and blunt, and the twists and turns in the story, especially the ending. She Done Him Wrong is by all means a funny and entertaining movie.

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

Monday, 1 September 2008

Play It Again, Sam

Movie Review: Play It Again, Sam

Year of Release: 1972
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Herbert Ross
Cast: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts

Plot outline: A neurotic film critic tries to get over his wife leaving him by dating again, much by the help of a married couple and his alter ego, Rick Blaine from Casablanca (IMDb).

Before I continue, I have to say that I'm a fan of Woody Allen's movies. But, I fully understand those who don't like his movies and this movie probably won't change your mind. His work is always best when he himself stars in it, because his neurotic persona is his trademark. Based on his own play, even though he didn't direct it, this movie is very much his work - he writes the script and he stars in it. The dialogue is dry and witty. The humour is awesome and believable. I have a good time watching him blunder his way through series of blind dates: the desperate preparation, the pathetic introduction, the unexpected response of an attractive woman at a museum, the cruel rejection by a gorgeous woman in a night club, the silly demonstration of authentic Chinese rice-eating technique with chopsticks and the hopelessly uneven fight with two "hairdressers" in a pub. It feels so funny maybe because we've all been through the similar experience. Woody Allen is always best playing a neurotic, insecure, clumsy character ... his audience expects this (!) Diane Keaton is beautiful and gives a good dose of reality and sensitivity. Tony Roberts is unassumingly hilarious with his deadpan delivery of all the phone numbers he can be reached at (regardless you were born before or after the invention of mobile phones). This is the first movie and the beginning of a long working relationship between Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, which in time bring them both fame and Oscars. Play It Again, Sam is by all means a funny and intelligent movie.

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars