Tuesday, 28 October 2008

My Man Godfrey

Movie Review: My Man Godfrey

Year of Release: 1936
Country of Origin: USA
ector: Gregory La Cava
Cast: William Powell, Carole Lombard, Alice Brady, Gail Patrick, Eugene Pallette

Plot outline: A scatterbrained socialite hires a vagrant as a family butler ... but there's more to Godfrey than meets the eye (IMDb).

Adapted from Eric Hatch's novel 1101 Park Avenue, My Man Godfrey is a screwball comedy set during the Great Depression. In those days - the mid 1930s to the mid 1940s - Hollywood's idea for escapism was the screwball comedy, with an emphasis in presenting how the privileged classes lived. Godfrey (William Powell) lives alongside other men down on their luck in the city dump. One night, snooty socialite Cornelia (Gail Patrick) offers him five dollars to be her "forgotten man" for a scavenger hunt. Annoyed, he backs her up until she falls on a pile of ashes. She leaves in a fury, much to the delight of her sister Irene (Carole Lombard). After talking with her, Godfrey finds her to be kind, if a bit scatter-brained. He offers to go with her to help her beat Cornelia. William Powell plays the title role very well. The other cast members are just as nutty and marvelous as the story: Carole Lombard gives her greatest performance as Irene, the histrionic and comedic daughter of Alexander and Angelica Bullock, played by Eugene Pallette and Alice Brady, both of whom play their parts very well too. Gail Patrick steals the show as Cornelia, the scheming and devilish sister of Irene. Jean Dixon and Mischa Auer adds comedic moments as the Bullocks' sardonic, wise-cracking maid, Molly, the only servant who has been able to put up with the antics of the family and Mrs. Bullock's protégé, Carlo, who does nothing but eat the family's food and pound the same couple of notes on their piano. They make us care about the characters they are playing. My Man Godfrey was nominated for six Academy Awards: Best Actor in a Leading Role (William Powell), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Mischa Auer), Best Actress in a Leading Role (Carole Lombard), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Alice Brady), Best Director and Best Screenplay. It was the first movie to be nominated in all four acting categories. It was also the only movie to receive nominations in all four acting categories and not be nominated for Best Picture, and the only movie to be nominated in these six categories and not receive an award. Between comedy and romance, a great moral and wise words are nestled. It's fun, witty and silly, with plot holes that can be seen from space, but ultimately a comedic fantasy.

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

Sunday, 26 October 2008

The Great Dictator

Movie Review: The Great Dictator

Year of Release: 1940
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie, Reginald Gardiner, Henry Daniell, Billy Gilbert

Plot outline: In Chaplin's satire on Nazi Germany, dictator Adenoid Hynkel has a double ... a poor Jewish barber ... who one day is mistaken for Hynkel (IMDb).

The Great Dictator is Charlie Chaplin's first talking movie and possibly his most well-known movie. It is a political satire with an important message. In this movie, Chaplin wants to give the audience more than just a slapstick comedy. He plays a double role as autocratic dictator of Tomainia, Adenoid Hynkel, who blames the Jews for all of society's problems and a simple Jewish barber who happens to be the spitting image of the dictator. Released in 1940, with significant fascist sympathy in the US and Chaplin himself being suspected as a communist sympathizer, this movie was a very courageous endeavour. Such risks in film-making would be almost inconceivable today. Imagine the fallout if someone were to make an equally political satire today which criticised US foreign policy? Aside from giving this movie its proper socio-historical credit as the first Hollywood movie which condemned Hitler and facism prior to US involvement in WWII, it's a great fun as well. It has many hilarious sequences, e.g. the scenes of Chaplin with Billy Gilbert (Field Marshal Herring) - in one scene Hynkel not only removes all of Herring's medals, but also removes all of his buttons on his shirt, revealing a striped shirt with suspenders, and then slaps him; the scenes of Chaplin with Jack Oakie (Benzini Napaloni) - the scene when Napaloni's train arrives and confuses where to stop, the scene when they try to outmatch each other and prove their superiority; and the most famous scene of Chaplin dancing with an oversized inflated image of the globe, fantasizing about his eventual conquests. The movie ends with six minute moving "Look up, Hannah" speech which though seems improbable coming from the timid Jewish barber, but nevertheless has a terrible strength, is still updated and plays very well. Chaplin succeeds in being both funny and witty, and yet at the same time provides a strong statement in his satire against fascism. This is really a masterpiece of humanity and a great demonstration of how courageous Chaplin was. This is a must see movie if you have any interest in history, film-making, politics or satire as an art-form.

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

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Dark Victory

Movie Review: Dark Victory

Year of Release: 1939
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Edmund Goulding
Cast: Bette Davis, George Brent, Humphrey Bogart, Geraldine Fitzgerald

Plot outline: A young socialite is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour and must decide whether she'll meet her final days with dignity (IMDb).

Based on the unsuccessful 1934 play of the same title by George Brewer and Bertram Bloch, Dark Victory is one of Bette Davis' quintessential romantic dramas. Edmund Goulding gets sensitive work from three central characters who virtually hold the movie together: Bette Davis' Judith Traherne - a young, carefree, hedonistic Long Island socialite/heiress with a passion for horses, fast cars and too much smoking and drinking; George Brent's Dr. Frederick Steele - a caring doctor; and Geraldine Fitzgerald's
Ann King - a reliable, trustworthy friend and personal secretary. Davis was at the top of her game when the movie was made. Despite her performance that displays a marvelous gamut of emotions which layer her facial features and body language, I found the movie somewhat too sentimental, too melodramatic. I guess it's a melodrama of a now unfashionable kind. Her performance seems a bit overacted, but maybe because of the style of the times. Her character, had the movie been made today, could be that unsympathetic rich bitch who parties hard, hasn't a care in the world and is a victim of her own whims much like Paris Hilton. Nevertheless, Judith is not without her good points - she's flighty and impulsive but not a mean person. Some of the dialogue sounds corny now, like the caring doctor saying, "Women never meant anything to me before." I found the final death scene too staged, too arranged. If you like romantic dramas with a substantial dose of sentimentality and melodrama, you might like this movie.

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

Sunday, 19 October 2008


Movie Review: Frenzy

Year of Release: 1972
Country of Origin: UK
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Jon Finch, Barry Foster, Barbara Leigh-Hunt, Anna Massey, Alec McCowen

Plot outline: A serial killer is murdering London women with a necktie. The police have a suspect, but he's the wrong man (IMDb).

Based on the novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square by Arthur La Bern, Frenzy is Hitchcock's penultimate movie. After many years working in the United States, Hitchcock returned to his native Britain to make this movie. After a pair of less successful movies about political intrigue and espionage, Hitchcock returned to his specialty, murder, with this movie. Frenzy opens with a wide shot along the Thames and then a zoom in to a ceremony on the banks of the river in which Londoners inaugurate legislation to rid the river of pollutants ... only to have the corpse of a naked woman wash ashore in the midst of it. Except for the scene of the rape and strangulation of Brenda that leaves the audience simply stunned, Frenzy has many of Hitchcock's trademarks: 1) The scene when the secretary comes back from lunch to discover what has happened since she left; the audience is made to wait what seems an eternity. 2) The scene when Babs goes into the killer's apartment; the camera then glides away from the apartment door, down the stairs, through the hall, out of the building, into the crowded and noisy streets, where the scene of the crime becomes just one room among many ... and we shudder with our own imagination that she is now having the same fate as Brenda. In suspense, as imagination is a very powerful thing, what you don't see can be a lot more frightening than what you do see. 3) The scene in the potato truck when the killer tries to retrieve the pin from Babs' dead fingers. To counter-balance the gruesome aspects of the movie, Hitchcock introduces a subplot story of chief inspector Oxford whose wife constantly feeds him nothing but gourmet meals that sound so foreign and look so horrible (!) In several scenes the detective and his wife discuss the case and the wife gently points the husband in the right direction with a series of simple but appropriate questions and comments. These scenes are so funny and charming (!) As in several other Hitchcock's movies, the audience is fully aware of the identity of the killer very early in the proceedings. Frenzy has a lot of suspense and humour - more sarcastic and sharper than ever. Hitchcock doesn't use big names, instead he chooses less famous names - they are all very good and effective. The setting, Covent Garden, becomes a "character" that constantly presses in upon the people that inhabit it. The last line of the movie should go down in history when chief inspector Oxford says to the killer: "Mr. Rusk, you're not wearing your tie." What a great finale (!) Though it's not a great classic like Rear Window or Vertigo, it's still a very good movie.

My judgment: *** out of 4 stars

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Father of the Bride

Movie Review: Father of the Bride

Year of Release: 1950
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Cast: Spencer Tracy, Joan Bennett, Elizabeth Taylor

Plot outline: A father of a young woman deals with the emotional pain of her getting married, and the financial and organizational pain of arranging her wedding (IMDb).

Adapted from Edward Streeter's novel, this movie is a sweet, universal and timeless story of a father's agony dealing with emotional pain of giving away his daughter and financial pain of arranging the wedding. Spencer Tracy perfectly plays the father of the bride with just the right amount of frustration, bemusement and adoration for his only daughter. He dominates the screen from beginning to end. He superbly holds together the clever script and the marvelous supporting cast. He was indeed at the top of his career. Joan Bennett delightfully plays the mother of the bride with patience and understanding to deal with both her husband and daughter who lose their minds to pre-wedding jitters. Elizabeth Taylor, though rather blank most of the time, commands attention with her youth and beauty. She is drop-dead gorgeous and no one can take the eyes off of her. Although Tracy is the main show, it is Taylor who makes this movie a box-office success. The movie contains not only comedy, but also moments of poignancy, especially in the scenes where Tracy and Bennett are in: e.g. 1) When he realises that his wife never got a church wedding she wanted, he gives in and splashes out for his daughter. 2) When they dance together in the post-party mess of their once-pristine house. This puts the movie above the ordinary and is exactly what is missing in the 1991 remake (Steve Martin does a great job in the 1991 remake, but it is difficult to top Tracy's performance here). This movie received three Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Screenplay. Vincente Minnelli deserves all the credit in directing this sweet comedy.

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Monday, 13 October 2008


Movie Review: Camille

Year of Release: 1936
Country of Origin: USA
Director: George Cukor
Cast: Greta Garbo, Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore

Plot outline: A Parisian courtesan must choose between the young man who loves her and the callous baron who wants her, even as her own health begins to fail (IMDb).

Based on the 1848 novel and the 1852 play La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady of the Camellias) by Alexandre Dumas, fils (French for son), Camille is a classic romance that teaches high respect for precious values in life. Alexandre Dumas, fils was the illegitimate child of novelist Alexandre Dumas. At that time, the law allowed the father to take the son away from his mother. As a result, in almost all of his writings, Dumas, fils was inspired by his mother agony to write about tragic female characters. Verdi's 1853 famous opera, La Traviata, was based on this Dumas, fils' play. The movie industry has also made a lot of adaptations of the play, but the one that usually comes into mind is the movie by George Cukor with Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor. Garbo is in her favourite role and one of her finest performances. She performs with her voice, body and face. She illuminates the screen from start to finish, from frolicsome flirtatious scenes to heartbreaking dying scenes. She is luminous, mysterious, cruel and weak at the same time. Robert Taylor is gorgeous as a love-smitten callow young man. But, he does not have the emotional depth to be a convincing love object for a woman of Garbo's dimensions. On the other hand, Henry Daniell is a perfect choice for callous Baron De Varville. His cruel strength makes him a more equal partner for Garbo than Taylor. Daniell continued on his career to be one of Hollywood's greatest villains. While Lionel Barrymore, though not given much screen time, is memorable in the scene of his meeting with Garbo. What a moving dialogue of two different worlds: Marguerite attached to love and emotions and Monsieur Duval to reputation and social ties. Great comic relief is provided by Laura Hope Crews as frivolous Prudence and Lenore Ulric as envious Olympe ... what a pair of vultures (!) Two great scenes that I cannot forget are: 1) The scene when Gaston, Marguerite's true friend, is putting a beautiful bunch of camellias at her side while she is dying in her bed ... what a touching moment. 2) The last scene when Armand holds Marguerite, her inspiring words about spiritual love and her last look to her beloved before she closes her eyes. It's rich with details, it's magic (!)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Sunday, 12 October 2008


Movie Review: Vertigo

Year of Release: 1958
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes

Plot outline: A San Francisco detective suffering from acrophobia investigates the strange activities of an old friend's wife, all the while becoming dangerously obsessed with her (IMDb).

Adapted from French novel Sueurs froides: d'entre les morts (Cold Sweat: From Among the Dead) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, this is the movie that competes with Rear Window to get to the top of Hitchcock's best works. Even though Vertigo is essentially a tale of sexual obsession, it can be viewed from many different angles: a love story, a detective story, a character study of an obsessed man and a supernatural thriller. While it lacks the humour of some of Hitchcock's other masterpieces, it is filled with complexity and suspense. Hitchcock uses splendid visual detail, calculated tempo and superb musical scores by Bernard Hermann to produce a mysterious atmosphere. The tension rarely lets up and the audience is completely caught up in it. As almost every moment is filled with significant detail, the movie repays careful attention. James Stewart is outstanding in a role far different from his usual screen persona. He enables the audience to sympathize with him, even as he does very strange things, e.g. he insists that Judy dress like Madeleine, walk like her, colour the hair like her, even wear the same hairstyle like her. Kim Novak is thoroughly convincing in a difficult double role. She switches from Madeleine's refined beauty to Judy's rather vulgar looks, speech and demeanour seamlessly. As a result, this is the ultimate role Novak will always be remembered for. Barbara Bel Geddes is excellent as she provides important insight into Stewart's character. While the performances of the lead stars are memorable, the music plays a very important role here. As the movie has the least dialogue compared to Hitchcock's other movies (most of the first half and a great deal of the second half are without dialogue), Stewart's growing obsession is solely told through his facial expressions and Bernard Herrmann's haunting musical score. In 2004 director Martin Scorsese described the qualities of Herrmann's musical score: "Vertigo is about obsession, which means that it's about circling back to the same moment, again and again ... And the music is also built around spirals and circles, fulfilment and despair. Herrmann really understood what Hitchcock was going for — he wanted to penetrate to the heart of obsession." My favourite scene is the extended segment (mostly without dialogue) when Stewart follows Novak for the first time. Nothing much happens, but the atmosphere is enough to keep you on the edge of your seat (!) Vertigo is a virtuoso piece from Hitchcock and a movie that will no doubt continue to inspire other filmmakers over the years to come. Vertigo is number 2 in my favourite list.

My judgement: **** out of 4 stars

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Mister Roberts

Movie Review: Mister Roberts

Year of Release: 1955
Country of Origin: USA
Directors: John Ford, Mervyn LeRoy
Cast: Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell, Jack Lemmon

Plot outline: Comedy-drama about life on a not particularly important ship of the US Navy during WW2 (IMDb).

Adapted from the play based on Thomas Heggen's book of the same name, this movie perfectly captures the life aboard a non-combatant ship. Far away from the action of the war, the ship provides a vital service, but rarely get recognized for it. Henry Fonda plays the title character, Lt. Douglas Roberts, who spends more time defending his crew from the tyranny of the ship's commanding officer than he does from the enemy. He remarkably demonstrates what true leadership is. James Cagney, in one of his best performances, plays the selfish and ambitious skipper, Captain Morton. He cunningly uses Roberts' work to advance his own career. With this motive in mind he blocks all of Roberts' requests and makes his life as miserable as possible into the bargain. William Powell, in his last appearance, plays the aging and quick witted sidekick, Lt. 'Doc'. His comic timing and sophisticated presence steal every scene in which he appears. Jack Lemmon provides the touch of comic frivolity as the good natured but lazy Ensign Frank Thurlowe Pulver. Lemmon was relatively new when the movie was made, but none of that seemed evident in his performance. He held his own against three of the best in the business and was awarded an Oscar for his efforts. It takes Mister Roberts a while, and a few lectures from 'Doc', to realize that what he and his crew do is an important job even as they sail "from apathy to tedium with occasional side trips to monotony and ennui," as he says in his letter to Pulver in one of the movie's last scenes. Its realism provides a good balance of comedy and drama throughout. This movie has the ability to touch everyone on at least one level.

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

A Matter of Life and Death

Movie Review: A Matter of Life and Death

Year of Release: 1946
Country of Origin: UK
Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Cast: David Niven, Kim Hunter, Marius Goring, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey

Plot outline: A British wartime aviator who cheats death must argue for his life before a celestial court (IMDb).

In the US the movie was released under the title Stairway to Heaven, which was derived from its prominent special effect: a broad escalator linking the real world to the other world. Reversing the convention of The Wizard of Oz, the switches between the bold colours of the real world and the stark B/W of the other world is ingenious. It works seamlessly and shows us visually just how much more vibrant life is. Special effects used are remarkable for a 1946 movie. The story is actually a bit cheesy and on paper it could be a disaster and in reality it could have been. But the movie is never clear if it is real or if it is all imagination and it doesn't matter. The plot allows plenty of nice touches as well as romance. David Niven is great as the squadron leader, Peter Carter. Kim Hunter is good as the radio operator, June. But the strength of the movie comes from its superb supporting cast: 1) Marius Goring as the soul collector, Conductor 71. He is by far the most interesting character, filling each of his scenes with his innocent lightheartedness, lightening up the movie. His charm contrasts so nicely with the seriousness of the rest of the characters. 2) Roger Livesey as his friend and also defender, Dr. Frank Reeves. He does one of the best performances of his career. 3) Raymond Massey as the prosecutor, Abraham Farlan. He is very passionate and convincing. The characters and plot development are very good and the attention to detail promotes a thoroughly believable fantasy. One scene that impresses me is the scene of the celestial court of the whole population of the other world ... when the camera zooms out, it reveals that it is as large as a spiral galaxy (!) It makes me smile, it makes me laugh, it makes me think, it makes me cry. It is as inspiring today as it was in 1946. Under rated on its initial release and by today's audiences, this movie is a beautiful piece of work. Watch it before you die.

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars