Monday, 30 November 2009

The Wizard of Oz

Movie Review: The Wizard of Oz

Year of Release: 1939
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Victor Fleming
Cast: Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke

Plot outline: A Kansas farm girl dreams herself into a magical land where she must fight a wicked witch to escape (IMDb).

The Wizard of Oz is a lavish, beautiful movie. The painted backdrops are stunning. The sets are vibrant and colourful. The Emerald City is a marvelous Art Deco wonder, and the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West is a dark, forbidding place guarded by green faced, chanting halberdiers and colourfully uniformed flying monkeys. While the narrative is engaging in its own right, its appeal is greatly enhanced by the movie's visual beauty, which so captivates the viewers that they are drawn into the movie's unique world and are readily excited and fascinated by the events depicted. The movie does, however, have a number of faults. Both the script and the acting are annoyingly smarmy and falsely adorable. From the cute turns of phrase frequently employed to the affected, syrupy mannerisms adopted by the actors, the movie wallows in its own mawkishness. The Munchkins, in particular, are grating. They speak in excruciating, artificially high pitched voices and ooze saccharine from every pore on their waddling frames. Dorothy's companions are only marginally less irritating. While they are visually well conceived, their forced cuteness quickly grows tiresome. Although the movie's constant adorableness is certainly its most severe problem, the movie is further weakened by its distracting conceit that the events depicted as occurring in Oz were a dream. Even for a child, this particular element is forced, silly, and trite. To make matters worse, the director has used this device to imbue the movie's concluding scene with a false sentimentality that can leave the viewers with a foul, sugary aftertaste. Visually enthralling and narratively engaging, The Wizard of Oz could easily have been a truly great movie, but it is so self consciously sweet that it is frequently unpalatable. (KA)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Movie Review: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Year of Release: 1958
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Richard Brooks
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Burl Ives, Jack Carson

Plot outline: A Southern house is divided by patriarchal dominance and the marital problems between one of the sons, a heavy drinker, and his wife (IMDb).

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was originally a successful play by Tennessee Williams, who had earlier created a sensation with A Streetcar Named Desire. For the movie adaptation, some changes had to be made to get past Hollywood censors, and to prevent Paul Newman from playing a character with homosexual overtones. Williams' exaggerated characters and situations create a tumultuous soap opera plot involving latent homosexuality, suicide, terminal illness, gold-digging, and alcoholism. The movie is hard to watch yet hard to turn away from. The story provides the frame for a script loaded with impassioned speeches and vicious arguments; the final outcome amazingly creating a happy ending with Newman's personal demons apparently cured. While never boring, the intense drama is sometimes overblown. Newman constantly drinks but, except for the opening scene, is never drunk. It is also difficult to believe Taylor's faith in her embittered husband, and that she would repeatedly throw her gorgeous self at him despite his rejection. (BK)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Tora! Tora! Tora!

Movie Review: Tora! Tora! Tora!

Year of Release: 1970
Country of Origin: USA, Japan
Directors: Richard Fleischer,
Toshio Masuda, Kinji Fukasaku
Cast: Martin Balsam, Sô Yamamura, Joseph Cotten, Tatsuya Mihashi

Plot outline: A dramatization of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the series of American blunders that allowed it to happen (IMDb).

Unlike the comparatively dramatic Pearl Harbor (2001), Tora! Tora! Tora! interprets events from both the U.S. and Japanese perspectives. From a dramatic perspective, there are too many American officer characters - it's difficult to tell exactly what the responsibilities of Balsam, Cotten, Marshall, Robards, etc. are - they all seem to be doing the same thing, trying to avert a catastrophe, and all run into the same brick wall of American complacence: It can't happen here. Unfortunately, much that couldn't have happened actually did during World War II. In a way, Tora! Tora! Tora! is two (and perhaps even three) different movies. Richard Fleischer directed the American scenes. The Japanese portions were supposed to be directed by the legendary Akira Kurosawa, but the marriage with Twentieth Century Fox went poorly, and the divorce brought in two Japanese directors to replace him. Fast worker Toshio Masuda filmed the indoor scenes, while a second crew led by action specialist Kinji Fukasaku completed the scenes staged the aerial and naval sequences. The movie bravely faces a great human tragedy. If the invading Japanese planes had been stopped in 1941, perhaps there would have been no need for the U.S. to drop bombs throughout Japan in 1945, killing a half million civilians. (BK)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Wednesday, 25 November 2009


Movie Review: Patton

Year of Release: 1970
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Cast: George C. Scott, Karl Malden

Plot outline: The legendary general's rebellious behaviour almost costs him his command during World War II (IMDb).

As befits a soldier like few others, George C. Scott (in his Oscar-winning role) delivers a performance like few others in his lengthy and illustrious career - his interpretation of Patton is such that it's startling to watch actual newsreel footage of Patton; Scott nailed not only the physicality but also seemingly the psychology of this ageless warrior trapped in World War II but truly at home in the conflicts of ancient Rome or Greece. Working from a screenplay by then-wunderkind Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North (which was based upon "Patton: Ordeal and Triumph" by Ladislas Farago and "A Soldier's Story" by Omar N. Bradley), Franklin J. Schaffner's vivid biography of one of America's truly great generals rarely, if ever, flags - Patton pulses with a life and authenticity often missing from conventional Hollywood biopics. By tracing Patton's efforts throughout his various World War II campaigns, Schaffner manages to paint a portrait of both a man and his battles - it's a mammoth war etched in miniature as seen through the poet-warrior eyes of Patton. Scott is surrounded by a terrific, if minor-key, cast including Karl Malden as Omar Bradley, Patton's long-suffering compatriot, Karl Vogler as Patton's nemesis, German general Erwin Rommel and Frank Latimore as Lieutenant Colonel Henry Davenport, representing the British - but it's Scott's show the entire way. He doesn't so much command attention as sear the very screen with his presence. Volumes have been written about Scott's performance as Patton but it still somehow doesn't do it justice - this is world-class acting of a rare and magnificent scale. Patton the movie is every bit as enduring and compelling as the man who inspired it. (PJ)

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

Sunday, 22 November 2009

The Anniversary

Movie Review: The Anniversary

Year of Release: 1968
Country of Origin: UK
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Cast: Bette Davis, Sheila Hancock, Jack Hedley, James Cossins, Christian Roberts, Elaine Taylor

Plot outline: A very possessive matriarch uses the excuse of a family reunion to strengthen her grip over her relatives (IMDb).

60-year-old Bette Davis is in rare form here as the hideous matriarch of Bill MacIlwraith’s darkly comedic play. With her colour-coordinated eye patches, relentless demands, and constant stream of vitriolic put-downs, she emerges as one of cinema’s true villains. The words coming out of this anti-mother’s mouth are almost beyond belief - to her daughter-in-law (Sheila Hancock) she says matter-of-factly, “I don’t think you are a good mother, but it’s not my place to say so”, and “Natural good manners told me when to put the plug in.” To her youngest son (Christian Roberts) she states, “I promise you I’ll have your skin for rags, and wipe the faces of your children with them!” McIlwraith’s play is clearly a black comedy, but one which unfortunately doesn’t offer quite enough relief to redeem its overriding negativity. The narrative trajectory is relentless - while mother Taggart’s children try their best to stand up to her, she’s constantly one-upping them, and the effect is disheartening. There are many moments of shocking, laugh-out-loud humour, but ultimately this movie is more unpleasant than enjoyable, and one keeps watching simply to see what ghastly action or statement the incomparable Davis will come up with next. (FF)

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

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Movie Review: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Year of Release: 2008
Country of Origin: Spain, USA
Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz

Plot outline: Two young American women come to Barcelona for a summer holiday. They're then drawn into a series of unconventional romantic entanglements with a charismatic painter who is still involved with his tempestuous ex-wife (IMDb).

In this movie, Woody Allen is in a sensual mood, taking on the role of tourist in a passionate land. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is an aimless diversion, even for the notoriously unfocused Allen, but retains expected performance momentum, and positively sells the hell out of a lusty Spanish vacation. It is a sensory experience, not a dense piece of drama. Allen appears in perfect concert with the Spanish locations, graciously revealing the beauty of the land through the master shooting of cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, filling the frame with golden Euro delights. It is suffused by Spanish sunlight, a dreamy setting for what becomes something of a crooked fantasy involving inescapable infatuation and questions of emotional self-preservation. Allen doesn’t create any traditional arcs for the characters to follow, instead the movie chases passions to their logical conclusion: DISASTER. Following Vicky and Cristina around Barcelona, and later Oviedo, Allen gives the camera two women eager to learn about themselves, using Jose as transport to new experiences that quickly roll into serious questions of yearning. Allen leads with these characters, using little explosions of lovemaking and combat to keep the experience lively. As usual, the actors make the experience worthwhile, with Johansson, Bardem, and Cruz creating a believable trio of frustrated lovers. While Hall has the least showy role, she’s a great asset as the moral center, so to speak, conveying the great eroding sway of infidelity with minimal indication. Much like the vacation itself, Vicky Cristina Barcelona doesn’t hunker down with much of a climax, ending the movie the same instant the ladies leave Spain. It’s a fitting conclusion for such a whirlwind sexual adventure, leaving the characters and the audience breathless and unsure where the road will lead to next. (BO)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Movie Review: Slumdog Millionaire

Year of Release: 2008
Country of Origin: UK
Director: Danny Boyle
Cast: Dev Patel, Anil Kapoor, Irfan Khan, Madhur Mittal, Freida Pinto

Plot outline: A penniless, eighteen year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai, Jamal Malik is one question away from winning a staggering 20 million rupees on India's ''Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" But when the show breaks for the night, suddenly, he is arrested on suspicion of cheating (IMDb).

Orphaned after his mother is killed during an anti-Muslim riot, seven-year-old Jamal Malik is left to fend for himself in a decidedly Dickensian Mumbai, where he, Salim and Latika soon find themselves working for a Fagin-ish exploitative villain. Danny Boyle’s relentless energy and kinetic style do a good job of glossing over that fact, making the movie feel much more substantial than it really is. But the good performances, brilliant editing, and pulsating soundtrack can’t cover up the movie’s crucial failure. The story revolves around Jamal and his love for Latika, a girl he meets when he’s just a boy. Before he can reach adolescence, they’re separated, and he spends the rest of his life searching for her, only to lose her yet again after one night once he does find her. From that point on, his whole life revolves around this girl, who he feels he’s meant to be with, but we, the audience, can’t understand why. She may have charmed Jamal, but she never charms us. In fact, we never find out anything about her, and so she remains just a pretty face. And thus, we reach the movie’s biggest conceit. That Latika is still the girl Jamal remembers from his youth. That they’re meant to be together despite knowing practically nothing about each other. That it’s not only okay, but even profitable, to live your life solely in pursuit of a single woman you don’t know. If you buy into this, you’ll go for it in a big way. The flash, the energy, and the feel-good nature are there in full force, capped off by a memorable closing-credits sequence. But if the conceit’s too great, then you’ll see it as a well-done fairy tale and nothing more. (FML, NS)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Secret Ceremony

Movie Review: Secret Ceremony

Year of Release: 1968
Country of Origin: UK
Director: Joseph Losey
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Mia Farrow, Robert Mitchum

Plot outline: A woman and a girl she insists is her long-lost daughter are caught in a web of insanity and deception in this psychological thriller (IMDb).

This psychological thriller of mistaken identities, mental disturbance, and sexual deviance - based on a prize-winning short story by an Argentine civil servant - received reasonably positive reviews upon its release, but has since been criticized by most as either campy and/or “ill-conceived”. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between: while the convoluted narrative occasionally defies belief (and completely devolves by the end), it remains bizarrely compelling until then, thanks in large part to the brave performances given by both Farrow and Taylor. From her first appearance on screen, Farrow - wearing a long, black wig and tights - is completely convincing as a 22-year-old with the mind of a child; but it’s Taylor who really cements the story: while her performance gets off to a bumpy start, we’re soon captivated by her increasingly nuanced portrayal as a self-sufficient prostitute who knows a good deal when she sees it, yet can’t help feeling genuine maternal concern for Cenci. Despite its flaws, Secret Ceremony offers enough provocative moments to make it worth checking out. (FF)

My judgement: ** out of 4 stars

Monday, 16 November 2009

Of Human Bondage

Movie Review: Of Human Bondage

Year of Release: 1934
Country of Origin: USA
Director: John Cromwell
Cast: Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Frances Dee, Kay Johnson, Reginald Denny

Plot outline: A medical student risks his future when he falls for a low-class waitress (IMDb).

Bette Davis appears miscast in early scenes, she struggles with a cockney accent, but her enormous, predatory eyes are well suited for the role. When she rails at her now-aloof benefactor, calling him a "gimpy-legged monster", she does so with a frightening intensity. Leslie Howard's gentle character is compared with that of fellow doctor Griffiths (Reginald Denny) and salesman Miller (Alan Hale). Mildred prefers these men because they are more like her, hedonistic and fun-loving. She is bored to tears by Howard, who prefers to spend his evenings serenely reading medical texts. Davis, in turn, is compared with beautiful, selfless wallflowers Sally (Frances Dee) and Norah (Kay Johnson), who throw themselves at the feet of Howard to little avail. The moral of the story seems to be that opposites attract, perhaps because we only want what is virtually impossible to have. Try as they might, our sensitive leads lack the pluck to simply take what they want instead of begging for it. Miller may be hopelessly shallow and conceited, but he is also more successful in his career. In early Hayes Code fashion, however, things do not work out as well for bad girl Mildred. (BK)

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

Sunday, 15 November 2009

The Letter

Movie Review: The Letter

Year of Release: 1940
Country of Origin: USA
Director: William Wyler
Cast: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson, Gale Sondergaard

Plot outline: A woman claims to have killed a man in self-defense, until a blackmailer turns up with incriminating evidence (IMDb).

W. Somerset Maugham's play was translated to the big screen by Casablanca's main scribe, Howard Koch; and while the story still retains classic film noir elements of adultery, murder, and guilt, The Letter also preserves a depiction of the English that's amusingly melodramatic: in spite of the emotional turmoil and mortal danger, Bette Davis (with an affected snotty accent) and weak-willed hubby Herbert Marshall remain tightly reserved; yet these veneers of wily restraint help maintain audience suspicion that every character seems to harbor a dark secret, best kept buried. (MRH)

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

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The Nanny

Movie Review: The Nanny

Year of Release: 1965
Country of Origin: UK
Director: Seth Holt
Cast: Bette Davis, Wendy Craig, Jill Bennett, William Dix

Plot outline: A disturbed young man, Joey, tries to prove his nanny is out to kill him (IMDb).

The Nanny is a rather quiet, cautious thriller that gives Bette Davis more room for characterization than most of her later movies. She does a marvelous job of keeping her psycho nature under control for the movie's first half. As a "barmy" governess hiding several dark secrets, she starts out with a benign expression under incredibly silly beetle brows, with subtle, sinister flashes of malignancy underneath her severe composure. Director Seth Holt lights her harshly, and lingers over the interesting, very British faces of the rest of the cast, especially William Dix's Joey. Holt creates an atmosphere of gray ominousness and is content to let his measured compositions build atmosphere, but when the plot revelations start, the movie's careful psychological detail is abandoned for melodrama, and Davis is filmed like a ghoul (or "Boris Karloff in skirts," as she once laughingly described herself in this period). The last scene is perfunctory and unbelievable, but the movie is worth seeing for its tense first half, and for Davis' carefully controlled performance of joyless, sometimes sadistic servitude. (DC, DS)

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