domingo, 22 de agosto de 2010

Review #41: Harvey (1950)



Harvey (1950)

Starring: James Stewart, Josephine Hull, Peggy Dow and Charles Drake

Directed by: Henry Koster

Released by: Universal Pictures

Synopsis: Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) is a seemingly nice man living with his sister and niece in a quiet little town. He is very calm, a gentleman above all and never one to act violently towards anybody. There is, however, one problem. He is friends with a 6 foot tall rabbit which he named Harvey, and only he can see this creature. This alarms Elwood's friends and family as they struggle to figure out what is wrong with him. Is this creature for real or is there madness brewing inside Elwood's mind?

Review: As I kept watching these classic films I noticed something peculiar in them. Many of them have one thing in common: they deal with the sanity of the every day man and woman. As crazy as that sounds (no pun intended) there truly were many movies that featured a very nice person who was so eccentric they wanted to put him or her in a psychiatric hospital, but when they get to know him or her they realized that he or she is not as bad as they appeared to be and thus gain important life changing lessons during the process. Harvey is perhaps the most popular out of all these stories, with many movies referencing this classic tale of a man and invisible rabbit friend.

Harvey first started life as a stage played written by Mary Chase in 1944. The play became a great success thanks to a mix of silly acting mixed with some genuine heart, and lucky for us the film follows this tradition very well. The film version honors the original play in many ways, most notably in how it is presented. The story is developed through dialog rather than elaborate events in the story, creating the illusion of a play that was filmed and presented in theaters. The performances are key in bringing the story to life, and I am very happy to say that they are, indeed, very solid. James Stewart may have been type casted as Elwood, but definitely gets the job done. You quickly warm up to him and even enjoy some of his eccentricity. But as is common with many of James Stewart's roles there's a depth to the character that is unseen during the first minutes of the film. When he explains the nature of his friend Harvey he does it in a very honest, sincere manner. At this point you will begin to believe that Harvey may be indeed a real creature that is locked directly onto Elwood's psyche, proving that a great performance can even make the most dysfunctional character into one we can easily root for.

The rest of the characters do well in their respective roles, but most of them are mainly reactive characters that exist to interact with the main character and offer their perspective on the situation. In other words, this is Elwood and Harvey's show. Regardless, the acting in quite solid overall, just slightly shadowed by the presence of an actor as legendary as James Stewart.

Going back to the story, for all its talk about perception of reality Harvey manages to be a very fun flick. It does explore a bit how a man's life can lead him to create a reality different from everyone else's, but doesn't forget that this is mainly a comedy, and thus we get many great scenes with mayhem or just plain old misunderstandings. And yet, it was the serious talk that impressed me the most. It told me a truth that I simply can't help but agree with, and that is that just because a man acts out of the norm it doesn't mean that he is crazy. Insanity is a term that is often loosely used to describe someone that is mainly eccentric or weird, and Harvey talks a lot about that. Elwood isn't a violent, aggressive or even dangerous man. Yet, people judge him hardly because of his actions towards Harvey rather than him as a person. It doesn't get very pretentious, but certainly has a mind regarding the situation.

There is, however, one flaw that bugged me a bit and that is the nature of Harvey himself. Throughout the movie, we are given hints that Harvey is indeed a real creature, and yet it goes back to saying that it is likely the product of Elwood's overactive imagination. It doesn't help that later in the story another character begins to see Harvey and the confusion just gets worse. The film switches back and forth with this train of thought and often makes it hard to follow. It certainly made me wish to just pick one rather than to play with both of them. It doesn't ruin the overall film as there have been other movies, both in the past and present, that try very hard to create a confusing storyline that just flies over most people's head and thus is neither fun or engaging. Still, the movie isn't quite clear what it wants to say about this issue.

In conclusion, if you are a fan of James Stewart or just want an overall fun film then Harvey is it. It has a lot of heart and provide an enlightening point of view about how we view reality while being very fun. It could have been a tad more clear about Harvey's real nature, but it's a rather small thing that doesn't stain what is at heart a great movie.

Rating: 4 filmstrips out of 5



martes, 17 de agosto de 2010

My Rating System


Hello everybody! I decided to slightly tweak my Filmstrip Memories rating system as well as explain them so everyone can get a better idea of how they work.

Let's begin now, shall we?

1 filmstrip out of 5: A rating given to the worst movies ever made. There's nothing of worth in this film and should be avoided at all costs.

2 filmstrips out of 5:: The film has enough redeeming qualities that may make it a favorite among some fans, but the overall product is disappointing.

3 filmstrips out of 5: You may love or hate this movie. It is very well made but has some very noticeable flaws that lower its value down. Still it is worth seeing, though a rental is recommended.

4 filmstrips out of 5: The film is great. Despite a few obvious flaws the overall film is very well made and worth your time.

5 filmstrips out of 5: Nearly perfect in every way and more than deserving of the title "the best ever made", this means that the film MUST be watched if you are a movie fan. It may have some small flaws but its accomplishments far out-weight the bad. Must not be missed!

Hope this explains everything! Until then, see you at the movies!


domingo, 15 de agosto de 2010

Review #40: The Champ (1931)



The Champ (1931)

Starring: Wallace Beery, Jackie Cooper, Irene Rich, Roscoe Ates

Directed by: King Vidor

Released by: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Synopsis: Andy "Champ" Purcell (Wallace Beery) is a prizefighter. He is also an alcoholic, and his drinking problem has caused the collapse of his career. With his eight-year-old son, Dink (Jackie Cooper), Champ lives in squalid conditions and enters bottom-of-the-card matches with up-and-coming young fighters simply to put food on the table and feed his liquor habit.

Review: I confess that I am a sucker for underdog stories. Can you blame me, though? There is something amazing about seeing someone who has struggled throughout his or her life trying to achieve a dream and then despite all the circumstances they had to face, they manage to get what they wanted thanks to a lot of hard work and dedication. Hollywood knows this and thus has created some truly amazing movies with this train of thought. The Champ is a movie that tries to follow these basic concepts, but I thought it was too depressing for it to be an uplifting film.

Right off the bat, you see that the main characters are very flawed. Champ is a gambler and alcoholic that neglects his son, Dink, despite his apparent love towards him. This is where the first of my many issues with this film come in. Dink, played by Jackie Cooper, is extremely loyal to his father despite the fact that he does nothing but neglect in a manner that could easily be labeled as child abuse. I understand that some children idolize their parents to the point where they see the idealized hero first, the real human being second, and Dink’s case is no exception. However, it’s amazing that he manages to be so loyal and forgiving that he, being an eight-year-old, can take being lied to, accepting gifts instead of proper apologies and many other things.

Then there’s the Champ himself. In terms of overall performance, Wallace Beery does a really good job in the role. He was a very talented character actor, and as the Champ he is very convincing. As a character, however, I too have issues with him. Once again, he claims that he loves his son, but still puts him through some very harsh situations, like being so drunk that Dink has to drag him home, undress him and share the same rotten old bed. At times he realizes that he needs to be a better father in order to make him happy, but most of the time he goes throughout the movie making the same mistakes over and over again without anyone taking notice of the situation (except for one character in the movie which comes very late, I won’t spoil it).

Now, I get what they are trying to do here. The Champ follows dysfunctional people trying to get into more and more dreadful situations without any hope of salvation. That’s one of the most basic premises in many inspirational films. The key thing, however, is that there are other characters that try to make sense of the situation while the main characters themselves come to a realization and try to become better people. This does happen in the movie, but feels forced after it keeps showing us how rotten these people are in the end.

Then there’s the extremely depressing ending that comes out of nowhere and has no real reason whatsoever. I know that films don’t need a happy ending for it to be good. But here’s the thing: even if the ending isn’t completely happy what’s important is that the efforts of the characters are rewarded and inspire other people in the process. A good example would be Rocky, another underdog movie about the boxing world. Even if the ending isn’t what we expected we are very touched and inspired by Rocky’s desire to be the best. In The Champ, the film ends on a tragic note without any real reason to. It doesn’t have a build up to it nor does it prepare the audience for it. It doesn’t make sense and I don’t understand what they were trying to do with it.

Now, I wouldn’t call this the worst film ever made. It really isn’t thanks to some very solid performances and a great chemistry between Jackie Cooper and Wallace Beery. It’s just that for a film that has been labeled by experts as inspirational the story is far too depressing and dysfunctional for its own good. There have been many similar films like that, but even if the subject matter is really dark as long as they have a build up to something great it can be forgiven. The Champ doesn’t do this and instead we wonder why these characters care for each other so much and groan at the downer of an ending.

Rating: 2 filmstrips out of five



sábado, 14 de agosto de 2010

Reviews #39: Victor Victoria (1982)



Victor Victoria (1982)

Starring: Julie Andrews, James Garner, Robert Preston, Lesley Ann Warren, Alex Karras and John Rhys-Davies

Directed by: Blake Edwards

Released by: Metro Goldwyn Mayer

Synopsis: Victoria Grant (Julie Andrews) is a struggling soprano trying to find a job in 1930s France, spending many of her days starving herself to death while living in a shady hotel room. During an audition she meets Carroll “Toddy” Todd (Robert Preston), a gay performer who sees great potential in her. Together, they come up with a brilliant plan that turns the nightclub scene on its head: Victoria becomes Count Victor Grazinki, the greatest drag performer in France!

Review: When I first heard about this movie I was more than surprised. I learned that it was directed by one of my current favorite directors, Blake Edwards, starred the amazing Julie Andrews, was scored by Henry Mancini and dealt with topics of homosexuality and sexual identity. Hearing this, my curiosity peaked and decided to see the film. I was more than surprised by how great this film way despite its risqué subject.

I’ll be honest here. Reading about how the movie is about a woman posing as a gay man that performs in drag I was expecting something extremely comedic. While the movie does have an incredible sense of humor, it doesn’t mock its own concepts and instead treats it very seriously. The love story in this film is one that is rather complex. You have Victoria who is trying to masquerade as a man; she then falls in love with a man that expresses similar feelings thanks to her presence on-stage. This leads him to question his own sexuality as he poses to be the most suave man in town. Then there’s the character of Toddy, a gay man that decides to help a woman and become very close friends. Despite his own sexuality he comes off as a man that is very lively and quick to help a fellow performer. This is just a taste of how complex these character relations are. It knows that the plot deals with a touchy subject that people either ignore completely or mock very harshly. It’s more than just a “gay” story: it’s a deep story about how complicated human relations can get due to pride or society’s prejudice.

And best of all, it doesn’t lose any of its sense of fun. It gets to be serious about the characters’ sexual desires, but it still manages to have a lively spirit about it. This is pulled off thanks to Blake Edwards’s style for great comedy as well as Mancini’s talent for musical scores. You have these hilarious fight scenes where everything truly goes and are easily my favorite scenes in the whole movie. They remind me a lot of the party scene in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”; they both emphasize on very classy and elegant people being thrown at a very insane situation, creating a great comedic effect.

Victor Victoria is also a musical, with both the score and the songs being handled by Henry Mancini. Admittedly, Mancini doesn’t create a memorable theme here like he did with “Breakfast and Tiffany’s” and the Pink Panther films. Granted, the score is really good and manages to pull off 1930s France very well, but it doesn’t truly stand out as well as previous efforts. The songs, however, fare a little better thanks to some great performers. Once more, it’s presence as a full blown musical is somewhat lacking, especially when compared to other film musicals, but it is very good and do add a theatrical atmosphere to the whole film.

It should be noted that the songs actually tie in to the events in the story. “Le Jazz Hot” and “The Shady Dame from Seville”, for example, are songs that talk about Victoria’s stint as a man playing a woman at a nightclub, while “You and Me” talks about the relationship between Toddy and Victoria. The connection is very subtle, and can be missed watching it the first time, but it’s a great touch how songs are used to present the story.

Julie Andrews as both Victor and Victoria is amazing. She takes on a very daring role after making herself a household name playing “clean” characters like Maria Von Trapp in “The Sound of Music” and Mary Poppins in the film of the same name. She is clearly a character that is doing this because she is desperate, constantly hungry and struggling to find a stable home and career in show business. Never does she mock the character she is playing, thus she delivers a performance where she does an amazing job playing a man, who at the same time is playing a woman. Only an actress of the same caliber as Andrews could have made this role possible.

Robert Preston as Toddy is magnificent as well. While clearly an openly gay man he is far from the stereotype. He is very elegant in all of his affairs, yet has an edgy side that he uses to both his advantage as well as Victoria’s. In the end, he is a good guy at heart and just wants to get ahead in life regardless of the struggles he has to face. He has good chemistry with Julie Andrews as partners in crime, playing off each other very well, especially during the grand comedic scenes. James Garner as King Marchand is also great. He gives the film a lot of complexity when it comes to straight and gay sexual relations. He is a straight man, a gangster who is supposed to be a tough guy. And yet, he finds this appeal in Victor that drives him crazy and wonders who he truly is as a man. This could have been a great vehicle for gay jokes, but Blake Edwards instead plays is very smoothly and treats his characters as human being first, stereotypes last.

Other highlights in the performances include Lesley Ann Warren, who plays Norma, Marchand’s frustrated girlfriend, and Alex Karras as Marchand’s burly bodyguard that comes out of the closet during a scene in the movie. Blake Edwards knows how to get the most out of his actors regardless of what film genre he is taking on and Victor Victoria is definitely no exception.

In conclusion, I honestly do see Victor Victoria as a guilty pleasure for many. The film itself is far from bad. It does have many a campy moment thanks to its exuberance in gay and nightclub culture, but it is well written and well presented. But the idea of Julie Andrews playing a man who performs in drag and the gay tendencies of the plot may be a potential turn off for fans who find the subject a bit too touchy for their tastes. All I can say is that don’t judge the movie based on its premise alone. Blake Edwards is a really good film director, and Victor Victoria is a really fun film with a great cast and outrageous comedic sequences. If you can look beyond the story Victor Victoria is trying to tell you might be surprised, much like Marchand was when he saw Victoria for the first time.

Rating: 4 filmstrips out of 5



Review #38: You Can't Take it With You (1938)



You Can’t Take it With You (1938)

Starring: Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold

Directed by: Frank Capra

Released by: Columbia Pictures

Synopsis: Alice (Jean Arthur), the only relatively normal member of the eccentric Sycamore family, falls in love with Tony Kirby (James Stewart). His wealthy banker father, Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold), and his snobbish mother (Mary Forbes), strongly disapprove of the match. When the Kirbys are invited to dinner to become better acquainted with their future in-laws, things do not turn out the way Alice had hoped.

Review: I would say that out of all the Frank Capra films, You Can’t Take it With You may be the most underrated film of them all. While doing research for this blog project I had seen people mention movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Arsenic and Old Lace”, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “It Happened One Night” as being the best of the director’s career. It wasn’t until I further investigated these movies that I stumbled upon You Can’t Take it With You. I decided to watch it and I was very surprised at how fun the movie is despite its somewhat obscure presence in Capra’s film work.

As the synopsis describes, this is a “two families from different worlds” story in which one family learns about the virtues of the other through many circumstances. This isn’t the most original idea for a story ever created, but as I have stated countless times in my reviews it is not the story you are telling that is important, it’s how you tell it that does, and Frank Capra is a master at telling stories featuring very likable characters, and You Can’t Take it With You has them by the dozen!

The Sycamore family is very charming in their eccentric but ultimately innocent affairs. They clearly enjoy their life and are trying their hardest to get the most out of it, whether by writing a theater play or trying to become a Russian ballet dancer. From the minute these characters appear on-screen you quickly grow to love them as they are meant to embody the ideal family; one that may not have the most material possessions, but sure love to look at life through a different point of view. While Frank Capra had tackled colorful characters before, You Can’t Take it With You may be the best when it comes to this fact. Most of Capra’s films incorporate dramatic characters that even out the silliness of some of the main characters (most notably seen in “It’s a Wonderful Life”). But this film decides to have fun with it while trying to teach us an important lesson (something I will touch upon later on).

Then you have the Kirbys, the wealthy family that meet the Sycamores through their children (played by Jean Arthur and James Stewart). Obviously, this is the family that focuses more on the material gain rather than the overall life experience. As you may recall in some of my reviews of Frank Capra films, one common problem the director has is that his antagonists tend to be very cartoony and over the top, being very greedy, selfish and at times very disturbing in their train of thought. You Can’t Take it With You mostly avoids this obstacle with the Kirbys. Even though they still portray some stereotypical mannerisms that come with the rich family archetype, they tend to be much grounded; some of their concerns are actually somewhat founded. Ultimately, they do learn to become better people thanks to the antics of the Sycamores, but the key word here is “learn”. Basically, rather than have them go through an entire transformation that changes their lives through extraordinary circumstances they become better people by seeing how the other side of the fence lives, leading to a sweet conclusion. It feels more satisfying this way than in something like “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

This leads to the moral of the story. Frank Capra is famous for directing movies in which the virtues of the everyday man is put to the test in some rather incredible events, and are highly celebrated when they triumph over their enemies. This lead to the belief that his films tend to be overly preachy and thus harder to swallow thanks to an apparent “pretention” that wants to educate film goers rather than entertain. You Can’t Take it With You is no exception to the rule, but actually does it very differently from other films. It definitely celebrates the life of the average man as being one that is far more fulfilling that one of a man who has gained his heart’s material desires. But never did I think it was being forced on me. That’s because the movie tells the story rather than stopping it just to deliver a message. This is done through character dialogue and the events we see on-screen. It is also fair in that it says that neither lifestyle is perfect. The Kirbys may be more financially stable and more prone to responsibility, but they sure take themselves very seriously. The Sycamores, however, may be happier than some other families because of how they decided to pursue their dreams, but the movie shows us that they too have issues when it comes to responsibilities and accepting when you are bad at something. In the end, both families learn that rather than being divided by their differences they should unite to make a family that is stronger together than apart, and I think that’s a great lesson for us to learn.

The film casts some really big name actors for this seemingly simple film, many who have already collaborated with Frank Capra. James Stewart as always gives us a sweet and earnest performance as the heir of the Kirby Empire. Jean Arthur gives us a warm performance the only member of the Sycamore family that has her feet grounded in reality, even if she still has a couple of quirks of her own. Lionel Barrymore is also another member of the Sycamore family that is slightly more grounded than everyone else. This actor is known for playing far more serious roles in other movies, so it was surprising to see him play such a wonderful man. As a fun fact, in this movie he is seen with a sprained leg. This isn’t because the story demanded it, it’s because the actor suffered an injury in another movie, and thus his character had to be written as if he was recently injured in one of his escapades.

Regarding the technical elements of the film, You Can’t Take it With You is very similar to Arsenic and Old Lace in that both were based on theater plays, and thus are shot to resemble the plays they inspired. But unlike Arsenic and Old Lace, however, You Can’t Take it With You aspires to give use more inspiring vistas and locales, making it a far more ambitious movie than Arsenic and Old Lace (in which the majority of the movie is spent in the living room). Easily the biggest technical accomplishment is when the Sycamore house gets attacked by random fireworks. Not only is the scene funny it really does look good in terms of use of pyrotechnics.

In terms of flaws, the film has very little of them, but there are still some. Despite trying it’s hardest to be more of a movie and less of a lesson it still can get pretty preachy, especially by the end of the story. This wasn’t a bother to me, but those that haven’t accept this quirk of Capra’s they might find it harder to accept than anyone else. Another problem is that some of the characters are rather stereotypical and thus might offend some audiences (note that compared to other films of the era the stereotypes are a tad gentler, but are stereotypes nonetheless).

Regardless, You Can’t Take it With You is a really fun Capra film that sadly hasn’t gotten enough credit. It has some very lovable and sweet characters, avoids most of the traps Capra falls for in other movies and the story is very satisfying. If you loved any of Capra’s films and have yet to see this film I highly recommend it.

Rating: 4 filmstrips out of 5



Review #37: Psycho (1960)



Psycho (1960)

Starring: Anthony Perkins, Marion Crane, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Janet Leigh

Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock

Released by: Paramount Pictures

Synopsis: Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) seems like a normal Motel owner who just wants to please his mother. But when a young woman (Marion Crane) goes missing a dark side hidden in this man’s life suddenly gains a life of its own.

Review: I’ll admit right away that I am not a big fan of the “slasher” horror genre, simply because many of them feature very terrible stories and even worse acting that fail to create characters to root and care for. Call me a film snob if you must, but very few movies get this right. I am more than glad to say, however, that Psycho, regardless of its age, may be one of the best films ever made under the “slasher” genre, thanks to the fact that avoids many of the issues that plague these films in a manner most simple.

Psycho’s story, based on the 1959 novel of the same name, is a very basic murder story, one that had been done way before this film came to be. But what makes the movie so successful in this area, however, is how it is told. From beginning to end the movie is very haunting and filled to the brim with tension. You realize that not everything is what is seems and it quickly grabs your attention, never letting go until the ending credits roll. This is something that director Alfred Hitchcock would perfect throughout his career, delivering stories that proved that it isn’t the story that matters; it is how you tell it that does.

The characters are also very interesting. One common problem in most horror films (especially in many modern horror films) is that the characters often tend to be very unlikable and with highly exaggerated emotional/social issues. Psycho’s characters may not be groundbreaking in their archetypes, but they are appealing enough that we care for them and want to know about their fates at the end of the story. Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates shines above all thanks to an earnest but awkward performance that makes us wonder who he really is in the end. He is believable as both the victim and the prime suspect in these series of unfortunate events. Characters like these are often hard to pull off because they tend to have very deep emotional scars that are hard to portray on film. With Norman Bates, however, we see that he is a decent guy, but one that has likely suffered many scars due to how he was raised.

Marion Crane as Janet Leigh also does a good job in playing a character that is guilty of a crime, and is trying her best to hide her true intentions. Best of all, she knows that what she did was wrong, creating a conflict deep within her character, giving us some great moments of tension, and when two emotionally traumatized characters get together the quickly becomes a test of patience for the movie audience. This does lead to some rather awkward scenes that some film fans may not like due to the pacing and how uncomfortable these characters are around each other. To me, though, it added to the haunting atmosphere of the film. You have to realize that these aren’t normal people with regular problems; these are characters that are going through a near mental breakdown due to the sins they have committed throughout their lives. If they were forced to experience a moment in which they must hide their mental scars of course it’s going to be an awkward situation, and Alfred Hitchcock did this very, very well, almost to a near fault really.

The rest of the characters do well in their respect roles, but to me Anthony Perkins and Marion Crane give the film its brilliant story. Their internal struggles give the story a reason for existing, and what the other characters mainly do is follow it in order to come upon a conclusion. Again, that doesn’t mean that their performances are bad, but when you spend time with these very chilling leads everything else will appear rather tame and somewhat forgettable.

On the technical side of things, Psycho is a film that dazzles thanks to its simplicity. Like the story it is telling the camerawork is very simple most of the time, only being dramatic when it needs to be. This lends an element of surrealism to the film, especially when the crimes are being committed. Basic tricks such as ceiling shots, close-ups, spinning shots and quick shots lend the film a lot of cinematic flair that have made it one of the most beloved classics in the horror film genre.

But the one element that easily triumphs and gives the film presence is the musical score by Bernard Herrmann. It’s very likely that even if you haven’t seen Psycho you have heard the famous “Shower Scene” cue, either in movies presenting similar scenes of carnage or movies that are either paying homage or mocking the famous shower scene. This scene is heard throughout the film, never letting go of our subconscious even after the film is over. Like the rest of the movie, the musical score is rather simplistic but used to great emotional effect. The film composer used strings to reflect on the film’s smaller scale, but instead comes up as something that is amazing and continually jarring for the movie audience.

As you may have noticed, the word “simple” comes up a lot in this review. Alfred Hitchcock had done far bigger dramas and stories before he tackled Psycho. So much so that back when the film premiered some critics weren’t pleased with the overall content of the film. And yet despite its humble creation Psycho has went on to become one of the most chilling thrillers Hollywood has ever offered. In many ways, it’s the simplicity of the film that made it far more accessible for some and more terrifying for others. It goes to show that sometimes you don’t need the most elaborate productions to tell an exciting story, it may even help it become one of the greatest ever told.

In conclusion, Psycho the film is a lot like its lead characters Norman Bates: seemingly tame at first glance, but you quickly realize that there’s more to it than meets the eye, and when you realize the truth behind the madness it’s too late for you turn back and return to a safer reality. The road is a scary one, but boy is it a fun ride!

Rating: 5 filmstrips out of 5