Monday, 25 July 2016

Movie Review: Action In The North Atlantic (1943)

A World War Two merchant navy war film, Action In The North Atlantic suppresses most of its propaganda tendencies to deliver a rollicking seaborne adventure.

World War Two is raging and the merchant marines are doing their best to supply the war effort in Europe. Commanding an oil tanker, Captain Steve Jarvis (Raymond Massey) and his first officer and friend Joe Rossi (Humphrey Bogart) tangle with a German U-boat and are sunk, their lifeboat rammed for good measure. Steve's men make it onto a raft and drift for eleven days before being rescued.

Awaiting their next assignment, Steve recuperates with his wife Sarah (Ruth Gordon) while Joe meets and marries lounge singer Pearl O'Neill (Julie Bishop). The two men are then paired up again and placed in charge of the new Liberty class SS Seawitch. They join a large multinational supply convoy on the way to the Soviet port of Murmansk via a stop in Halifax. Despite a navy escort, the journey across the North Atlantic will be perilous.

Most of Action In The North Atlantic is directed by Lloyd Bacon, although a contractual dispute meant that he did not complete the film. Byron Haskin and Raoul Walsh, both uncredited, were brought in to complete the project. At just over two hours, this is an ambitious, visually rich war adventure, and the pace never slows down. While there are a few scenes undoubtedly geared towards rallying the troops and encouraging recruitment, between them the directors create an impressive war film, with a commitment to quick pacing, tension build-up, regular doses of action and plenty of variety.

Action In The North Atlantic spends most of its running time on water, and features an assortment of engagements: stealthy sub attacks, survival in lifeboats and rafts, a battle between a sub wolfpack and a large convoy, a prolonged one-on-one chase across the high seas, and seaplane attacks. Using a combination of stock footage and models the special effects and scenes of wanton destruction on the ocean are excellent. Large ships are torpedoed, set on fire, attacked from the air, and abandoned, while subs are destroyed with depth charges, rammed and sunk.

The enemy is portrayed as committed without being dehumanized. All the scenes featuring German combatants and their commanders are in German with no subtitles, adding a welcome sense of authenticity.

The scenes on dry land are relatively few, and are used to effectively sketch in the backgrounds and love lives of the key characters. The relationship between Captain Jarvis and first officer Rossi underpins the story, and the film avoids any superfluous dramatics, complexities or buddy tendencies, with Raymond Massey and Humphrey Bogart delivering typically dependable performances. Jarvis and Rossi respect each other and work well together towards the same cause, and there isn't much more in their dynamic.

The film invests plenty of time with secondary characters, the seamen who have to unquestioningly obey orders, endure boredom and bad food, question the likelihood of their own survival, and then jump into sudden action within seconds of the alarm sounding. Alan Hale Sr., Sam Levene and Dane Clark are among the grease-stained actors who bring the crew to life while adding some comic relief.

Action In The North Atlantic delivers what it promises, in a quality package brimming with wartime verve.

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Sunday, 24 July 2016

Movie review: The Male Animal (1942)

A romantic triangle drama-comedy with a competing sub-plot about academic freedoms, The Male Animal is never exactly sure what it is and ends up being not much of anything.

Midwestern University is gearing up for the big football game against rivals Michigan. Bookish English professor Tommy Turner (Henry Fonda) has no interest in the frenzy of football-related events, but he is married to former cheerleader Ellen (Olivia de Havilland), and she wants to get into the swing of things. Ellen's ex-boyfriend and the school's legendary former quarterback Joe Ferguson (Jack Carson) shows up for homecoming week, and his immediate rapport with Ellen further sours Tommy's mood.

Meanwhile, the university administration under the leadership of Ed Keller (Eugene Pallette) is on a witch hunt to label professors as "reds" and weed them out. When the school newspaper reveals that Tommy will be reading a letter from deceased anarchist Bartolomeo Vanzetti as part of his next lecture, he is immediately dropped into a controversy about academic freedoms. With the big game approaching and his marriage comprehensively falling apart, Tommy has to reassess his life's priorities.

Directed by Elliott Nugent and based on a play, The Male Animal has a few good ideas, some witty dialogue, and a typically principled performance from Henry Fonda. The prescient look ahead towards a near future when thoughts are scrutinized and leftist tendencies signal career death is also commendable.

But the film suffers from an identity crisis and an overcrowded agenda. About half the story focuses on the Tommy-Ellen-Joe romantic triangle, while the other half is distracted by the seemingly more serious narrative about defining and defending academic freedoms. By the end of the film the muddled intermingling of the two plot lines means that neither is dealt with satisfactorily.

There are other issues that stand in the way of Nugent's success. Olivia de Havilland is simply unconvincing as a former cheerleader seeking to relive the fun times of youth. de Havilland comes across as too prim and proper, and other than reciting lines from a script, never genuinely reveals an inner fun girl wishing to break out. As the critical corner of the triangle, her miscasting fundamentally weakens the movie.

The Male Animal is also littered with poorly defined ideas and fragments of characters. There is yet a third sub-plot revolving around the next generation of students, including a young nerdy student following in Tommy's footsteps, a dim current member of the football team who idolizes Joe, and a couple of girls vying for their attention. This maybe romance among the young is never properly defined and is eventually unceremoniously discarded. Meanwhile, Tommy's character spends a long time drunk and dragging out literary references about how animal mating and turf protection rituals apply (or not) to human relationships. A drunken fistfight is thrown in for good measure.

The Male Animal is not devoid of points of interest, but it's a scattershot of poorly handled ideas rather than a cohesive package.

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Movie Review: The Devil's Advocate (1997)

A supernatural courtroom drama, The Devil's Advocate takes a fiendish look at the world of high-stakes corporate law to find a literal hell on earth filled with souls for sale.

In Gainesville, Florida, Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) is a handsome and cocky hot shot defence lawyer. Raised by his deeply religious single mother Alice (Judith Ivey) and married to the vivacious Mary Ann (Charlize Theron), Kevin has never lost a case. Facing his worst crisis as he defends a pervert school teacher against charges of sexual molestation, Kevin pauses in the men's room to gather his thoughts before proceeding to shred the testimony of the young victim. He secures a stunning not-guilty verdict.

Soon after, Kevin is recruited by a New York City law firm headed by John Milton (Al Pacino), and is quickly sucked into the lavish corporate culture alongside Milton's fellow executives Eddie Barzoon (Jeffrey Jones) and Christabella Andreoli (Connie Nielsen). But despite being handed the keys to a highly coveted apartment overlooking Central Park, Kevin's marriage to Mary Ann starts to suffer as she struggles to adapt to their new life. With Kevin's career soaring under Milton's mentorship, he is provided with the opportunity of a lifetime to defend real estate tycoon Alexander Cullen (Craig T. Nelson), accused of a triple murder. With his wife and marriage falling apart, the young lawyer begins to understand the price to be paid in return for tainted courtroom success.

Directed by Taylor Hackford and based on the Andrew Neiderman book, The Devil's Advocate is glossy fun. The mix of adult themes wrapped into a devil's agenda narrative and plonked into the world of criminal law could have been a righteous mess, but Hackford maintains good control, helped by a polished screenplay co-written by Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy.

The Devil's Advocate carries many parallels with the equally good legal thriller The Firm, and inflates the cost of morally vague legal quests to its ultimate conclusion. Hackford brings in Alice's religious extremism as the counterweight to devilish desires, and includes liberal doses of crime, sexuality and extremes of wealth to create the domain where evil thrives.

The film quickly gets down to the business of justice versus ethics, and the moral dilemma of proving innocence in a legal system that requires lawyers to stand by their clients no matter how putrid. It's a small step from there towards discarding principles of right and wrong and simply chasing the winning outcome at all costs, an apt description of selling the soul to maintain ever higher charge-out rates. If the devil and his acolytes were to choose a profession, defending the indefensible is a better choice than most.

The Devil's Advocate hurtles towards Kevin coming to terms with his own destiny from the perspective of Milton's reality, with Christabella equally thrust into a central role as far as humanity's future is concerned. In a wild climax Hackford does lose some discipline, with the lure of the supernatural and Pacino's tendencies to veer towards excess overpowering the more cerebral aspects of the material.

But to its credit, The Devil's Advocate does not shy away from the human responsibility to be accountable for each decision. As Milton insists to Kevin, there are choices at every step, and indeed Milton on several occasions offers up failure and withdrawal as viable options. It is up to Kevin to decide how far he will push himself into the moral morass; the devil just sets the stage for man's foibles to flourish.

In a career littered with performances that resemble sleep-walking, Keanu Reeves is much more animated as Kevin Lomax, finally unshackling some passion and emotional depth. In her breakout role Charlize Theron is a revelation, the character of Mary Ann having the longest arc and traveling from joyous small-town wife to a big-city victim struggling with her husband's increasing work obsession and sinister colleagues.

Equally campy and creepy, The Devil's Advocate makes a compelling case for demonic entertainment.

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Saturday, 23 July 2016

Movie Review: Chapter Two (1979)

A romantic drama with some wit, Chapter Two is an autobiographical story about second chances from writer Neil Simon. The film is talky and stagy but nevertheless saved by earnest intentions and good performances.

In New York City, George Schneider (James Caan) is a writer still coming to terms with the death of his wife Barb after 12 years of marriage. His brother Leo (Joseph Bologna) arranges a series of disastrous blind dates, but eventually one of them works: George meets and falls in love with stage actress Jennie MacLaine (Marsha Mason), a recent divorcée.

The romance between George and Jennie is fast and idyllic, and within days they are talking about marriage, although George does suffer episodes of withdrawal and guilt as he continues to process the loss of Barb. In the meantime, Leo's marriage appears to be wobbling, and Jennie's best friend Faye (Valerie Harper) also seeks something beyond the confines of her marriage. Despite Leo's warnings that the couple are moving too fast, George and Jennie do get married, but there is trouble ahead for the seemingly happy couple.

Directed by Robert Moore and based on Simon's play, Chapter Two is a retelling of Simon's romance with Mason, his actual second wife. With Mason effectively playing herself under the guise of Jennie MacLaine, the film has undoubted passion and agony anchored in the writer's real experiences.

Moore does his best to disguise the stage origins of the material, locating events around New York City and keeping the actors moving even within the confines of George and Jennie's apartments. There is even a longish honeymoon interlude thrown in, showcasing the Caribbean. The initial romantic pursuit scenes between George and Jeannie, featuring numerous phone calls culminating in a five minute date, are genuinely awkward and cute. But at 124 minutes the film is too long, and many scenes carry on with long monologues that work well on paper and perhaps the stage, but appear contrived on the screen.

However, Simon's prose is witty enough to ride out most of the bumps, and the film's highlight is a passionate soliloquy delivered by Mason confirming her desire to stand and fight for herself, her man, and their relationship. It borders on wince-inducing, but Mason finds enough fire in her heart to make it work, and wraps the evolving status of feminism, women's aspirations and the embrace of second chances in one epic pitch.

Caan is less engaged, and other than his initial passionate pursuit of Jennie, the character of George Schneider is written as generally passive. For long periods Caan just has to play at morose and silently stare out into the distance, an understandable stance given his profound loss, but not great cinematic drama. Joseph Bologna and Valerie Harper provide stronger than usual support, and the characters of Leo and Faye get their own side stories to add texture to Simon's commentary about the status of relationships among sophisticated urbanites in the late 1970s.

Although the film is obviously self-obsessed, the euphorias and miseries of hearts struggling through emotional rollercoasters carry enough universal appeal for Chapter Two to create and maintain interest.

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Friday, 22 July 2016

Movie Review: What To Expect When You're Expecting (2012)

A multi-story ensemble cast romantic comedy, What To Expect When You're Expecting is as bad as can be expected. The concept of adapting a pregnancy guidebook into a movie was only ever going to result in a trivial experience, and the outcome is the blandest from of purée.

Five stories unfold in parallel. Jules (Cameron Diaz) is a celebrity television fitness instructor who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant after sleeping with her dance partner Evan on a reality television show. Both are type-A personalities and clash over every detail. Freelance photographer Holly (Jennifer Lopez) is desperate to adopt a child and makes plans for an overseas adoption from Ethiopia. Her husband Alex is less ready to start a family.

Wendy (Elizabeth Banks) runs a maternity shop and becomes pregnant after years of trying with her husband Gary, who is locked in a lifelong competitiveness contest with his ex-racing car champion dad Ramsey (Dennis Quaid). Sure enough, Ramsey's much younger trophy wife Skyler (Brooklyn Decker) is also pregnant, and with twins. And food truck operator Rosie (Anna Kendrick) finds herself pregnant after hooking up for one night of sex with former high school flame Marco, who runs a competing truck.

Directed by Kirk Jones, What To Expect When You're Expecting borrows the title from Heidi Murkoff's go-to pregnancy guide but is otherwise a banal exercise in stars cashing cheques for doing little. The film predictably follows the five mini-stories from conception to delivery, with plenty of bare but fake baby bumps, barely any laughs, no depth of character and nothing new to offer.

The best that Jones can come up with in terms of surprises is one pregnancy that terminates early, one inconvenient loss of employment causing financial stress, and routine plot devices involving dads feeling not ready for the major upcoming change in lifestyle. It's all dealt with in the most superficial, obvious manner with no style to cover up the lack of substance.

The performances are uniformly overexcited, with Dennis Quaid suffering the most embarrassment as the insufferable dad engaged in a perpetual hobby of humiliating his son. In relative terms, Anna Kendrick emerges with some credit, and it's no surprise that her role aims for more drama and less fluff. Chris Rock makes an appearance as part of a group of dads who meet in the park with their kids to try and provide comic relief, and Rebel Wilson plays store owner Wendy's sidekick.

What To Expect When You're Expecting is as tedious as that eighth diaper change at the end of an exhausting day filled with baby poop and burps.

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Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Movie Review: The Sixth Sense (1999)

A ghost story with heart, The Sixth Sense is a gem of a movie. The story of a deeply troubled young boy being helped by a child psychologist rides a wave of emotion, jolts and twists to a rousing climax.

In Philadelphia, Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is a celebrated child psychologist happily married to Anna (Olivia Williams), although she does believe that he has placed his career ahead of their marriage. One night the couple's house is invaded by the deranged Vincent Grey, a former patient of Malcolm's. Claiming that the doctor failed him, Vincent shoots Malcolm in the stomach and then kills himself.

The following fall, Malcolm takes on his next case, 9 year old Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment). Cole lives with his divorced mother Lynn (Toni Collette), and is a social outcast, hiding out at the local church, barely communicative, made fun of at school, and exhibiting signs of abuse on his body. Malcolm, whose relationship with Anna has disintegrated following the shooting, tries to help Cole by delving into his background to understand what triggered his social withdrawal. Eventually, Cole reveals his shocking secret to Malcolm: he can see dead people. Malcolm at first struggles to believe the young boy's story, then desperately tries to find a way to help him.

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, The Sixth Sense thrives on a sense of understated foreboding. With a slow but effective build up triggered by the opening interruption of a happy marriage and the introduction of Cole as a troubled child, the film reveals its increasingly disconcerting secrets slowly and steadily, offering little relief along the way. Cole's big reveal that he sees ghosts unleashes a torrent of more horror-oriented scenes, and the film combines strong elements of both psychological suspense and straight-out spookiness to excellent effect.

Shyamalan demonstrates plenty of style to go along with the stimulating content. The camerawork is showy but playfully potent, a red balloon in the middle of a spiral staircase as example of an exclamatory opportunity to introduce an episode of horror. The film's palette is dominated by the muted greys and blues of the ghostly world, with red often used as a punctuation.

Haley Joel Osment delivers an outstanding child performance, in turns vulnerable, resilient and scared. Osment grows with the character over the duration of the film, and once Cole comes to understand his conundrum and what to do about it, Osment's evolution is subtle but essential. Bruce Willis creates one of his most complex roles in Dr. Crowe, and proves his serious abilities in a dramatic yet subdued context. Toni Collette contributes strong support as Cole's mother Lynn, and reaches an unforgettable highlight in a late revelatory scene with Osment at the scene of a car accident.

Thematically The Sixth Sense assembles a puzzle about missing fathers, unfinished business, life's truncated journeys, the need to properly close chapters, and the regrets that haunt both the living and the dead. The film unfurls a blanket of sadness where none of the main characters are remotely happy, Malcolm, Cole, Lynn and Anna all harbouring deep sorrows and imbedded fears. But just underneath all the grief lies a reservoir of good will and potential relief. The story of Cole and Malcolm is all about approaching scary challenge from a different perspective to unlock the pathway to contentment.

The Sixth Sense ends with one of Hollywood's most famous twist endings. Although possible to foresee, the sting in the tail in nevertheless deftly handled and adds a layer of reciprocal depth to the relationship between child and doctor. Without the twist, The Sixth Sense is brilliantly poignant ghost story; with it, the film is a cinematic masterpiece.

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Monday, 18 July 2016

Movie Review: Foxcatcher (2014)

A somber drama about wrestling and egomania, Foxcatcher is a quietly powerful examination of human relationships. The story of one rich man's need to be admired on his own terms is unsettling in its normalcy, and the film enjoys three excellent central performances.

It's 1987, and brothers Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo), both Olympic wrestling gold medalists, are training for the upcoming world championships and the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Having endured a difficult upbringing in a broken household, the brothers have a tight relationship, with the older Dave acting as a mentor and inspiration to the younger, moodier Mark. Dave is now settled and raising a family with wife Nancy (Sienna Miller); Mark remains a loner.

Out of the blue, Mark is contacted by billionaire John E. du Pont (Steve Carell), who offers an annual salary and training facilities as part of Team Foxcatcher at his expansive estate in Pennsylvania. John is single and living under the shadow of his mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave). He claims to be a patriot and wrestling fan, and imagines himself as a coach and a mentor, wanting to nurture and celebrate America's heroes. Mark accepts the offer and relocates to the du Pont estate for training with other wrestlers. Dave initially refuses a similar offer, not wanting to disrupt his family. With continued success in the wrestling ring, a bond develops between John and Mark, but gradually John's increasingly bizarre behaviour begins to cause tension between the brothers.

Directed by Bennett Miller and based on real events, Foxcatcher is a disconcerting story about the insidious forces that lurk within a damaged psyche. Filled with pregnant pauses, quiet moments and awkward interactions, the film burrows into the soul of three men and finds plenty of opportunities for victimization. Foxcatcher never shouts its intentions; Miller allows the characters to speak for themselves through often subdued actions, and creates remarkable heights of drama from nothing but stares and silence.

The triangular relationship between the two wrestlers and the billionaire heir is at the centre of the film. John du Pont is severely damaged, but his scars are not on the surface. A man who owns everything but is yet exceedingly needy, his faults emerge gradually like an invisible vaporous poison seeping slowly and infecting his surroundings. Once Mark understands that John is not a well man, he is in too deep, entangled in a soul-destroying relationship. Dave is more settled, more secure and therefore more able to resist John's money and superficial pablum about patriotism. But driven at least partially by the need to help his brother, even Dave is not fully immune and he is also sucked into John's orbit.

The men are individually fascinating. Drawn together, they create a new, volatile dynamic, their co-dependencies built on an unstable mixture of deep family bonds, exceptionally easy money and unpredictable narcissism.

Miller demonstrates noteworthy control over the material and uses an economy of words and scenes to build complexity. The causes of John's character issues are dealt with in a few effective strokes featuring his mother and the family background. One devastating sequence has John pathetically trying to convince himself and the unimpressed, wheelchair-constrained Jean that he is indeed a coach. In another exceedingly uncomfortable interlude, John celebrates with the wrestlers by clumsily attempting to joke-wrestle with them, the privileged loner trying in vain to be one of the guys.

Foxcatcher needed three exceptional performances to thrive, and Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum deliver. Carell is a revelation, leaving far behind his comic persona and finding a dangerous place for John, where reality slowly detaches and drifts away from a seemingly normal mind. Ruffalo and Tatum create a wining pair of brothers, their relationship filled with a mosaic of tension, mutual admiration and layered dependencies.

Foxcatcher is a unique and captivating achievement, a stunning and unforgettable story told with muted authority.

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Sunday, 17 July 2016

Movie Review: My Darling Clementine (1946)

A loose retelling of events leading up to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, My Darling Clementine is a gorgeously filmed but curiously paced Western. The black and white images are stylish and evocative, but the story gets bogged down in lengthy nothingness for surprisingly long stretches.

Former lawman and now cattleman Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and his brothers tangle with Newman "Old Man" Clanton (Walter Brennan) and his sons on the outskirts of Tombstone. When Wyatt's brother James is killed and his cattle stolen, Wyatt accepts the offer to serve as Marshal of Tombstone. He imposes law and order, including reigning in the coarse behaviour of resident gambler and local legend "Doc" Holliday (Victor Mature).

Doc's former love Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) unexpectedly shows up in town having traveled all the way from Boston, much to the disgust of Doc's current girl Chihuahua (Linda Darnell). Wyatt takes a romantic interest in Clementine, but his attention turns back to the Claytons when proof emerges that they were involved in James' death.

Directed by John Ford, My Darling Clementine is a feast for the eyes but a strain on the concentration. Ford invests heavily in look and feel, and captures a lyrical, poetic vision of the west, with carefully constructed framing and astute use of lighting. The scenes unfold at a leisurely pace and linger long enough to luxuriate in saturated beauty.

Less impressive is the narrative thrust and character definitions. Despite the shortish 97 minutes of running time, Ford struggles to find a focus. The Clantons effectively disappear almost entirely from the heart of the film, leaving Wyatt Earp to tangle off and on with Doc Holliday, and it's never clear if the men settle down to being friends, rivals or something vague in-between.

Clementine plays a big role in the title but barely contributes to the actual events of the film. She and Chihuahua represent two versions of the west, Clementine a more civilized future and Chihuahua a more earthy present, but they are more catalysts than well-defined characters, standing to the side as the men sort out their conflicts. Little is known about any of Earp brothers, and the Clantons remain faceless bad guys with no objective except to cause harm.

Henry Fonda makes for a serious, respectful Wyatt Earp, Fonda's screen persona as the stand-up guy in the group ensuring that Wyatt is all good and fully on the side of due process and the law. As usual Doc Holliday is the more nuanced and interesting character, and Victor Mature is fine in interpreting the once-doctor (he was actually a dentist) and now hard-drinking, harder-coughing gambler with appropriate complexity.

The final showdown, once it arrives, jerks the film back into its center of gravity, and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral is well handled, if far removed from historical outcomes. Clementine may be a darling, but the film works better when the good guys get down to the business of tangling with the bad guys in the west's most famous horse enclosure.

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Movie Review: Some Like It Hot (1959)

A madcap comedy and romance, Some Like It Hot is a brilliantly constructed celebration of romance at its most complicated, incorporating gender politics, criminals on the loose, and an audacious anything goes, nothing to lose attitude.

It's 1929 in Chicago. Penniless friends and musicians Joe (Tony Curtis), a risk-taking saxophonist, and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), a more cautious double bass player, narrowly escape a police raid on an illicit nightclub run by mobster "Spats" Colombo (George Raft). Still reeling, Joe and Jerry are next unwilling witnesses to a St. Valentine's Day-type massacre perpetuated by Spats on informant "Toothpick" Charlie (George E. Stone) and his men. Desperate to leave town to avoid Spats' wrath, Joe and Jerry dress up as women, adopt the personas of Josephine (Joe) and Daphne (Jerry), and join an all-girls music band heading to Miami.

Jerry: [in high heels] How do they walk in these things, huh? How do they keep their balance?
Joe: It must be the way the weight is distributed. Now, come on.
Jerry: It's so drafty. They must be catching cold all the time, huh?
Joe: Will you quit stalling? We're gonna miss the train.
Jerry: I feel naked. I feel like everybody's staring at me!
Joe: With those legs, are you crazy? Now, come on.
[They see Sugar Kane]
Jerry: Look at that! Look how she moves. That's just like Jell-O on springs. She must have some sort of built-in motors. I tell you, it's a whole different sex!
Joe: What are you afraid of? Nobody's asking you to have a baby.

On the train, they meet singer and ukulele player Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), and both men fall madly in love with her. Sugar confides in Josephine and reveals all her hopes and aspirations, including exactly what she desires in a man. Joe uses the information to take on the new persona of young intellectual millionaire Junior, heir to the Shell Oil fortune, and starts a serious pursuit of Sugar. Meanwhile Jerry (as Daphne) finds himself the target of lecherous eldery millionaire Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown). With Spats still seeking to eliminate witnesses to the Chicago killings, Joe and Jerry frantically try to sort out their increasingly complex romantic entanglements and save their lives.

Jerry: Dirty old man...I just got pinched in the elevator.
Joe: Now you know how the other half lives.
Jerry: Look at that. I'm not even pretty.
Joe: They don't care. Just so long as you're wearing a skirt. It's like waving a red flag in front of a bull.
Jerry: Really. Well I'm sick of being the flag. I want to be a bull again.

Directed by Billy Wilder, who also co-wrote the script with I.A.L. Diamond, Some Like It Hot is one of Hollywood's perfect comedies. The laughs are derived from the ridiculous situations, the wild pacing and lust made troublesome by mixed-up genders.  The dialogue is filled with zingers, the cast is deep with talent, and the script finds a loony groove and does not stop. The two hours are filled with frantic moments, and the antics of Joe and Jerry keep piling up. By the end of the film Joe has three personas, Jerry is still pining for Sugar but being pursued by both a millionaire and a bellboy, gangsters are at war with each other, and somehow it still all makes sense.

Osgood: You must be quite a girl.
Daphne: Wanna bet?

With the 1950s about to turn into the 1960s, Wilder and Diamond push the boundaries of sexual innuendo well past typical expectations for the era. With the plot device of an all-girls band providing the excuse for plenty of barely-dressed women to parade past Joe and Jerry in drag, Wilder deploys Marilyn Monroe as his weapon of mass distraction. Although apparently a horror on the set due to pill addiction, Monroe has never looked or acted better as the explosively innocent woman unaware of her impact on men. As an added bonus she also performs three songs at her breathiest best. For most of the second half of the film Wilder dresses her in daring possibly see-through dresses (impossible to tell in black and white) with just enough coverage to get past the censors.

Sugar: Water polo? Isn't that terribly dangerous?
Junior: I'll say. I had two ponies drowned under me.

And with Joe-as-Junior pretending to have lost interest in women and daring Sugar to cure him on Osgood's yacht, she needs no further invitation to unleash all her expertise to get a rise out of the millionaire of her dreams. Meanwhile, back on shore Jerry-as-Daphne and Osgood dance up a storm all the way until dawn to the tango tune of La Cumparsita, and in the morning Jerry is quite convinced that he will be marrying Osgood.

Jerry: Have I got things to tell you!
Joe: What happened?
Jerry: I'm engaged.
Joe: Congratulations. Who's the lucky girl?
Jerry: I am!
Joe: WHAT?!
Jerry: Osgood proposed to me! We're planning a June wedding.
Joe: What are you talking about? You can't marry Osgood.
Jerry: Why, you think he's too old for me?

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon have rarely been better and perfectly complement each other. Curtis as Joe is more cerebral, more adventurous and much more likely to get the pair into trouble, while Lemon as Jerry is more of a worrier but also more willing to follow along and complain about it. George Raft provides the counterbalance by playing it straight as mobster Spats, and Wilder again breaks ground by mixing comedy with brutal massacres and Tommy gun violence.

Some Like It Hot has fun at the expense of both genders and all ages. The film ends with a classic exasperated admission that while love can be hot and messy, no relationship and no one sex is perfect, which is exactly why there is so much fun to be had.

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Saturday, 16 July 2016

Movie Review: The Stepford Wives (1975)

A suspense drama, The Stepford Wives is a grim parable about women's struggles in a male-dominated world, and a reasonably effective surreptitious thriller.

Aspiring photographer Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross) reluctantly joins her lawyer husband Walter (Peter Masterson) in relocating away from noisy New York City to the quiet community of Stepford in suburban Connecticut. Walter quickly settles in and joins the shady Stepford Men's Association, but Joanna finds all the women of Stepford strangely demure, obsessed with the trivia of housework and uninterested in any intellectual pursuits. The only friend she makes is fellow new arrival Bobbie (Paula Prentiss).

With Walter spending more time with the men and exhibiting increasingly odd behaviour, Joanna and Bobbie try to drum-up interest among the other women in issues related to feminism and women's liberation, but the Stepford wives stubbornly adhere to 1950s stereotypical definitions of what a woman's role should be. An increasingly frustrated Joanna starts to worry that something is very wrong in the community, and that she may be under threat.

Directed by Bryan Forbes and based on the book by Ira Levin, The Stepford Wives does suffer from what appears to be a limited budget, with production values just a notch above made-for-television fare and a secondary cast hampered by inadequate talent and underwritten roles. Forbes is unable to inject anything resembling panache or tension into a story that is intended to be at least moderately unsettling.

It is left to Katharine Ross, in one of her better outings, and Paula Prentiss, happily vivacious, to brighten up proceedings, and they deliver all that is good about The Stepford Wives. Ross as Joanna perfectly captures the struggle of women to stand by their husbands despite growing misgivings, and she conveys the internal push and pull between self-fulfillment and adherence to established rules of domesticity. Bobbie in the hands of Prentiss is provided with fuller freedom to step into modernity, and she represents women less constrained by the past and ready to more fully participate in today's societal challenges.

As a drama, the film is a pessimistic view of gender relations and specifically what men desire from the women they theoretically love. Outside of the cosmopolitan city, the wealthy suburbs remain docile grounds where men govern, their meetings off-limits to women, and wives are subjugated into strictly defined household duties defined as cooking, cleaning and delivering sexual satisfaction to their husbands. They are not asked to think, participate or contribute in any other way. It is a static world divided along gender lines, utopian for the men and dystopian for the women, ironically enabled by the proliferation of technology supposed to improve human connectivity and interaction.

The suspense elements are less impressive. It takes a long time and plenty of repetitive hints, some as obvious as Joanna being asked to record thousands of dictionary words into a recorder, for her journey to reach its climax. Then the conspiracy is barely explained before she has to endure a confrontation with her fate. It is all passable entertainment, but beyond the concept, the film never threatens to deliver truly memorable moments.

The Stepford Wives became a catchphrase for women caught in an old fashioned time warp. Like the wives themselves, the film fulfills its role but is otherwise uninspired.

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