Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Song Time.

A few years during the Oscars there was a special performance featuring some of the winners in the Best Song category.
I was more than surprised to realize that some of the most beloved English songs of all time actually came from the movies. Some of these songs have survived time even when the films they were featured in are practically forgotten. Watching "Swing Time" I remembered this all over when Fred Astaire sits to play the piano and the lovely "The Way You Look Tonight" comes out of his mouth.
The first time I remember hearing, and instantly falling in love with this song, was in "My Best Friend's Wedding" when I was eleven years old. And even though this post could steer into "Songs from movies featured prominently in other movies" (I'm looking at you "Ghost"), for now I'll just concentrate on the Oscar winning songs.
While it's true that Fred Astaire wasn't the best singer ever (neither was Gene Kelly), his performance has something extra; a little bit of melancholy and innocence that make the song feel more available to everyone who wants it.
We know not everyone can be Sinatra and his performances sometimes are better left off to be seen and heard, but with Astaire you wanna join him and sing.
That must be the reason why "The Way You Look Tonight" ended up winning the Oscar in 1936.
Here are some other songs I was stunned to discover came from films:
"I've Got You Under My Skin" from "Born to Dance" (1936)
"They Can't Take That Away From Me" from "Shall We Dance" (1937)
"The Last Time I Saw Paris" from "Lady Be Good" (1941)
"That Old Black Magic" from "Star Spangled Rhythm" (1943)
"Long Ago and Far Away" from "Cover Girl" (1944)
"I Fall In Love Too Easily" from "Anchors Aweigh" (1945)
"Mona Lisa" from "Captain Carey, U.S.A" (1950)
"A Kiss to Build a Dream On" from "The Strip" (1951)
"That's Amore" from "The Caddy" (1953)
"Unchained Meoldy" from "Unchained" (1955)
"Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Será Será) from "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956)
"All the Way" from "The Joker is Wild" (1957)
"The Look of Love" from "Casino Royale" (1967)
"Say You Say Me" from "White Nights" (1985)
"Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" from "Mannequin" (1987)

How long has it been since a song from the movies made it big?

- This post is part of "Musical of the Month" hosted by Nathaniel Rogers of "The Film Experience".

Friday, March 27, 2009

While Watching "The Paradine Case"...

...it became obvious to me that Alfred Hitchcock became known as the "master of suspense" not only because of his huge, fairly famous setpieces (think "North by Northwest" or "Rear Window" or the entire "Vertigo"), but also because he was able to create mystery in the smallest of moments.
In "The Paradine Case" Gregory Peck plays Anthony Keane, a London lawyer defending a woman, the seductive Mrs. Paradine (Alida Valli), accused of killing her husband.
During one scene Keane visits her house, interested in meeting the late Mr. Paradine's valet, Andre Latour (Louis Jourdan) who might be a key witness in the trial.
Everybody in the town where the house is mentions how odd Latour is and when we're going to see him for the first time, Hitch plays it out like this:

We never get a good look at his face, we can even assume Keane himself didn't see him well. He asks one of the servants "is Latour coming back?" she coldly answers "he might, he might not."
The film features a fantastic, innovative system of cinematography (Lee Garmes was DP; he photograhed the breathtaking train yard scene in "Gone With the Wind" but remained uncredited for his work in it) and the game of light and shadows Garmes uses in this sequence is perfect.
This mystery just makes us instantly assume Latour obviously is hiding something and we become desperate to see his face.
A few minutes later Keane spot his again and calls out his name from a window on the second story,

Only those with superhuman vision can make out Jourdan's mug from that distance.
Keane never gets to see Latour on that first visit and goes back to his inn.
Later at night while the wind blows, the tree branches hit the window and Franz Waxman's score swells, Keane proceeds to close his window.
We are sure he'll see something, but it doesn't happen.
A few seconds later he hears a knock.

And voilá!
It's interesting to note that while Jourdan became world famous for his matinée idol looks and that certain "je ne sais quoi", "The Paradine Case" is the movie that first introduced him to English speaking audiences.
The opening credits announce the introduction of both Jourdan and Valli (who just went by her surname back then) so for modern audiences wtaching the film it's obvious that someone named Latour can't be anyone other than Jourdan.
But back then, when people were seeing him for the first time Hitch made sure they were left with an unforgettable first impression.
The rest of the film is excellent as one would expect (the fact that in the end it has nothing to do with the "main" trial is yet another of the master's incredible nuances) but the first scenes with Jourdan and Peck are the definitive highlights.
I also asked myself what was it in the 40's with Hitch and sinister, loyal house servants?
The scene in the Paradine manor practically screamed "Manderlay!" and Latour felt a tad like Mrs. Danvers, including a bizarre love triangle of sorts between two living people and a ghost.
"The Paradine Case" was Hitch's last collaboration with David O. Selznick, one that had began almost eight years before with "Rebecca".
Can it be that Latour was Mrs. Danver's bookend?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

It Looks Like Something Out of a Bjork Video But...

...it's none other than the first still released from Lars von Trier's upcoming "Antichrist".
That's Willem Dafoe on top of Charlotte Gainsbourg and who knows what's all the rest going on under the tree.
Simply can't wait for this to come out, I'm happy he didn't stop working like he'd said he'd do a few years ago. Now if only he'd get to working on "Wasington"...
(Click on picture for source)

Forget Your Troubles, Come on Get Oscar!

If Anne Hathaway wants an Oscar she's being quite proactive about it. According to Screen Daily (read article here) she's attached to play none other than Judy Garland in an upcoming biopic for the Academy friendly Weinstein Company.
Harvey referred to Anne as "a class act" and who can argue about this? (Who would you have cast?) She proved she has singing chops at the Oscars this year, she showed she can play very dramatic in "Rachel Getting Married", bubbly fun in the "Princess" films and after Amber Tamblyn (and Tammy Blanchard who won an Emmy for playing young Judy) she's perhaps the closest lookalike to the tragic legendary performer.
So everybody go ahead and place your bets, Anne Hathaway for Best Actress whenever it is this film is released...

Monday, March 23, 2009

While Watching "Notorious"...

...I couldn't help but feel elated by how brilliant Hitchcock's symbolism is and how it serves as a delicious disguise for his truly wicked subconscious.
A lot has been made about how his trademarks became as expected as his cameos, but in what I consider to be his greatest film, even after a million viewings they provide new layers and ways of reading what's going on with his characters.
For example the stairs in "Notorious" have such a key role that they could easily spoil the plot, but instead help the actors and hint at things we never saw coming.
I was struck in particular by the scene where Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) finds out what his wife Alicia is up to. He climbs the stairs of his home with a mixture of anger, thirst for revenge and selfpity.
Hitch however turns things upside down for him in the last, so-good-it's-worthy-of-the-whole-film, scene where he has to go down those same stairs feeling the exact same opposite as before.
This time the steps are aiding Devlin (Cary Grant) who is the film's central character and whose see-saw of a heart is the real storyline we're supposed to follow. Grant was never better than in this scene and the way Hitchcock makes those steps almost grin at us is nothing if not extraordinary.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I Just Can't Get Enough!

Apparently I can't get enough of thinking, eating and writing film, which is why I'm now also contributing with pieces to Culturazzi a very interesting arts collective based in India and the U.K. which features literature, music and film reviews.
I just popped my cherry for them with a brand new review for Pedro Almodóvar's "All About My Mother", so those of you so inclined to read me more, click here.

"The prettiest cab driver I've ever seen".

Natasha Richardson 1963-2009

In a tragic turn of events, actress Natasha Richardson has passed away following a skiing accident two days ago.
Richardson, who was 45, won a Tony for her portrayal of Sally Bowles in a Broadway revival of "Cabaret" ten years ago.
She was married to Academy Award nominee Liam Neeson and was daughter of Academy Award winning legend Vanessa Redgrave who were with her at the time of her passing according to The New York Times (full story here).
A combination of British grace and wordly charm, her filmography included a Patty Hearst biopic, the last Merchant Ivory film and "The Parent Trap" which was the first time I ever saw her onscreen playing mom to Lindsay Lohan's separated twin sisters.
May she rest in peace.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Rudo y Cursi ***1/2

Director: Carlos Cuarón
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna
Guillermo Francella, Dolores Heredia, Jessica Mas, Adriana Paz

Writer Vernon Young once said "[Ingmar] Bergman is the only practicing director who can make an eloquent film from a rag, a bone and a hank of hair."
Vernon was probably not being literal about the elements but about the ability
a good film has to go beyond the boundaries of theme, subject and whatever interest the audience might have in them to find something they can connect and identify with.
That is the case with Carlos Cuarón's debut film "Rudo y Cursi" which had at least three different possibilities it could've been tagged, and boxed, within but cleverly escapes them all.
The film opens in a Mexican coastal town where brothers Tato (García Bernal) and Beto (Luna) work in a banana plantation.
Besides a job, they also share a home with their mother (the superb Heredia), Beto's wife (a wonderful Paz) and children, plus the dream of leaving their town to pursue their ideal careers.
Beto wants to be a professional goalie for a football team, while Tato, who is just as good playing football, dreams of becoming a singer. Their dream becomes possible when Batuta (Francella), an Argentinean talent scout, accidentally runs into them when his car is being repaired in their town.
He asks to become their manager and when they agree has them move to Mexico City where they end up playing in opposing football teams and obtain the title nicknames; Beto is "Rudo" ("Rough") and Tato "Cursi" ("Corny").
Their consequential rivalry only serves as canvas for an elaborately satiric landscape of modern Mexican, and Latin American, society in general where the illusion of easy wealth and love of the sport have become interconnected.
Cuarón's screenplay ably mixes the right amount of humor and drama in a way following the formula used in his famous work for "Y Tu Mamá También"; this film also has offscreen narration, provided by Batuta who delivers wise parables and parallels about football and life.
Most of the film relies on contrasts to work at its best, some include the perils of confusing game and war, being disappointed by the discrepancies between talent and passion and the ever present inadequacies present in fast social class change.
Therefore, the funniest parts in the film come when the lead characters' ways scream "nouveau riche" as they buy the fanciest cars, wear the oddest clothes and hairstyles and pursue dreams which had been limited by their lack of economic means.
It's also curious, and admirable, how Cuarón never lets Rudo and Cursi become aware of these facts; should we feel less by what our dreams are?
García Bernal and Luna provide splendid work; at first their rural accent might sound affected by those who can perceive them stressing their acting chops. Eventually these slightly distracting elements give path to fully realized performances.
García Bernal releases a contagious energy that makes Cursi's dilemma between who he is and who he wishes he could be, more heartbreaking than funny.
When he becomes involved with a notable TV celebrity (Mas) he represents the realization of the hopes who for most remain unfulfilled (Cuarón has a hard time avoiding his story to become a morality tale though).
Luna's Rudo, who got the nickname for the aggressive way he acts on the football field, embodies a very masculine need to overpower everything. That he has problems with his wife serves as an appropriate balance to his volatile persona.
It's funny how the way Cuarón sometimes drives his characters to extreme, almost caricaturesque, opposites doesn't ever get out of his hands.
And in the same way the entire movie relies on contrast, its real beauty lies in the balance found in the overlapping situations.
This becomes more obvious with Francella's character (that he is an Argentinean narrating a movie that revolves around Mexican soccer is a delicious inside joke), Batuta (which literally means "conducting baton") is a man that directs other lives, perhaps because he lacked purpose in his own, or perhaps because this was what he always wanted.
Early on the film paints him a bit like a devil figure, in one of the first scenes where he watched Rudo and Cursi playing (offscreen to us) his eyes light up in such a way that they represent both "ka-ching" and a childlike joy in finding people who would be perfect for his orchestra of sorts.
Throughout this Francella steals every scene as he exists on three different levels: as who Rudo and Cursi know, as what he knows himself to be and as our link to everything (he breaks the fourth wall on a couple of occasions).
People who watch the movie ignorant to the Latin American sociopolitical context will enjoy it for its effective storytelling, ultimate values and engaging characters.
Audience members however don't need to have a clue about what football is about (most of the matches are offscreen and we barely see Rudo and Cursi actually kicking or grabbing a ball, the sport is merely a McGuffin perhaps?) which is why this can't qualify as a "sports movie".
In the end it's slightly surprising that some people will find themselves biting their fingernails as the movie leads to its final, life defining match.
Those who have a clue about the universe where the film takes place in will probably be even more delighted for the way everything about it defies conceptions.
"Rudo y Cursi" could've steered into an offensive parody about the Latin American way of life, a sports film or a star vehicle based on the audience draw of its two leads.
That it doesn't encompasses the ultimate melancholic spirit of a movie meant to show us that what we want isn't always what we need.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Watchmen **

Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode
Carla Gugino, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson

It is 1985, the United States have won he Vietnam war and Richard Nixon is elected to run his third presidential term.
The ongoing Cold War with Russia has led the U.S government to create something known as a "doomsday watch" leading to an impending nuclear holocaust.
Masked superheroes known as the Watchmen also exist in this alternate universe and it's mostly because of them that history has been so different.
There's Nite Owl (Wilson) who masters advanced technology, Rorschach (Haley) a mysterious man who finds patterns in unexpected things, Ozymandias (Goode) the world's smartest man who has turned into a business mogul, Silk Spectre (Akerman) who is preserving the legacy of the name after her mom (the effortlessly wonderful Gugino) retired and then there's Doctor Manhattan (Crudup) a man who suffered an accident that has turned him into a nuclear entity that can manipulate energy and see the future.
But the Watchmen have stopped working after the President (when in doubt blame Nixon...) passed a bill that deemed them unnecessary.
Things change when the Comedian (Morgan), a former superhero, is murdered, leading Rorschach to believe there's a conspiracy behind it and reuniting the other Watchmen to uncover the hero killer, deal with their own personal demons and save the world from nuclear war.
Zack Snyder's adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's graphic novel is a perfect example of how you can, almost, never have it all.
With a reverential tone meant to pay homage to the source material without offending the feared fanboys, the film loses the rest of the audience who had never heard about these heroes before.
And with a combination of forced comedy, satire, gruesome violence and gratuitous sex meant to entice a larger audience, it's easy to detect that the film is losing whatever profound meaning was in the original.
Because if there is something obvious is that "Watchmen" isn't as much about plot, as about ideas.
Part cautionary tale, part satirical fantasia, the ambiguity of the actions by who we consider heroes and villains is suggested by larger story connections, not by Snyder's directorial efforts.
His characters come off as singularly one dimensional and erratic. Wilson's Nite Owl is dull and uninteresting, while Akerman's Silk Spectre's mommy issues never justify her bizarre choices and her Cameron Diaz pout. Most of the performances lack the energy to feel as if they deserve to be off the novel's pages.
Crudup's Doctor Manhattan is fairly interesting, even if the actor's forced indie-ness tries too hard to turn him into the next quotable Buddha figure, a la Yoda.
Snyder takes away most of the seriousness from the character by playing around with his blue penis which dangles threateningly across the screen as if to defy what skin color you need to avoid triple X rating.
Jackie Earle Haley gives the film's best performance as the slightly sadistic Rorschach with whom the whole neo-noir spirit finds its best ally.
It doesn't matter that the lines he's forced to narrate with sound like Raymond Chandler parodies, Haley's enigmatic take on his character give the whole movie its only signs of relevance and humanity.
Curious, considering that the discourse behind the heroes' plight is for others to find humanity in them (Doctor Manhattan even leaves the planet in a very adolescent rant to find himself).
It's sad that while Snyder has the visual skills to keep the audience watching, he lacks the depth to engage them and involve them in what's going on up there.
The director prove to be a master at evoking the feeling of reading an actual graphic novel providing the film with long, slow scenes, filled with detail that remind us of the square by square process involved with the source material.
But his artsy attempt is made seriously dull, because he seems to have forgotten that film goes at twenty four squares per second.
Viewers can not invest the same energy into mediums as different as these, a novel can be closed at any time, a film playing in a theater can't.
And with a selfindulgent running time of almost three hours, the movie is an endurance test that never achieves the feel of movies like "Zodiac" instead dragging us back and forth in time because it doesn't know just when to stop.
Whatever postmodernist wonders could've been extracted from a political comic book movie "borrowing" elements from other pop culture elements (there's an "Apocalypse Now" reference that should be kitschy but actually works!) are just disposed of.
"Watchmen" is at its worst when it goes and tries to shake off what we've been watching for two and a half hours; when a character declares "I'm not a comic book villain" you can almost see the speech bubble.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Bizarro World.

Apparently (according to Wikipedia) there is a parallel universe where even "Slumdog Millionaire" haters would be appalled at the other possibility and agree with the film's Oscar sweep.
One where not only was Bruce Springsteen snubbed in "Best Song" all over, but "write-ins" seem to be back in business as the Academy was suddenly overcome by tween fever.
Click on the image (or here in case someone already fixed it) to read the rest, it's hilarious.


Was I watching the same Oscar telecast?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Best TV Opening Credits.

Television isn't something I discuss much here due to a couple of things: for starters the site isn't supposed to be about TV (it says "Movies" in the title), then there's the fact that I don't actually see as many TV shows as I used to and then there's also the slight incomprehension towards the medium that's a "must" for film snobs.
As a member of the aforementioned category, I actually have to acknowledge that even when cinema has taken a turn for the worst of sorts, television is actually going through a renaissance of sorts. With the internet, video games, DVDs and all the kinds of things that easily grab people's attention it's become true that TV shows now have to fight to gain someone's interest and even more maintain it.
Unlike movies where we have the chance to walk out of the theater mid-projection even if we've paid the ticket, with television it's important that we come back week after week and then wait for months, and sometimes years, between season and season.
I'm witness of how easy it is to lose interest in a show, "Lost" lost me after I missed three episodes and I really wasn't that interested in catching up with everything that happened while I was gone. Perhaps they don't care, but for every mammoth show like this one, there's a million "30 Rock"s that actually crave audience numbers.
How then do you maintain a constant between episode and episode? Most of the time a good opening credits sequence won't only help, but will enhance the viewing and the waiting.
How many of us hummed "I'll Be There For You" constantly? How many of us remember what happened to Carrie Bradshaw whenever we pass a bus with a huge billboard on it? How many of us feel like kings of the neighborhood just by playing a great song on the car radio like Tony Soprano? You get the idea...
Great screen titles were once a thing films were interested in. Mentioning Saul Bass is a cliché of sorts when it comes to this subject.
But as movies lose more and more interest in making a great first impression, TV has been delivering some outstanding work.
With that in mind I set out to look for some of the best TV opening credits; is it odd that the ones I found happen to belong to some of the most critically acclaimed shows on the air?


After "Battlestar Galactica" is gone in a few more weeks, I'll be bold and proclaim that this FX show will grab its title as "Best Television Show on the Air". A great combination of legal thriller and backwards drama, "Damages" has one of the most powerful opening credits as well.
Showing images of a dark New York City and alternating them with shots of the lead actresses (Glenn Close is perfection!), the credits reveal little by little pieces of something bigger, or merely hint at that.
Powered by the thump thump of The VLA's brilliant "When I Am Through With You", the credits roll by and you only wish you saw more. The lyrics are wicked and will put a smile on anyone who's ever had a dark thought and that shot of a bloodied pair of hands holding a purse could very well describe what the entire show is about.

"Mad Men"

They went with Saul Bass and spiced it up with a tongue-in-cheek nod at the terrors of the advertising world.

"30 Rock"

Even when the titles might seem too generic, truth is that three minutes into the show you're craving that they appear. The theme song is mischievous and clever and when the titles reach their end you understand what the hell the title means, but they're worthy if only for that maniacally sexy shot of Alec Baldwin who in a split of a second makes you understand why the show's energy is so contagious.

"United States of Tara"

Most elaborate screen titles? Absolutely.
The pop up book aesthetic makes for a delightful nod at the secrets lying in suburbia and the show about a woman with multiple personalities needs this sort of charm to avoid seeming too serious. Watching how each character, err personality, appears from an unexpected place resumes what each episode will be like and the indie vibe of the theme song screams "Diablo Cody" was here.
But as the last seconds show, this isn't about her as much as about the magnificent Toni Collette who rightfully gets the last shot, even if it's in animated form.


Made me wish I watched the show...
Its combination of "saw" and breakfast is a hell of a tease and the smile Michael C. Hall throws us near the end is perhaps creepier than any single thing we saw before.

Shows that need better opening credits:
"Battlestar Galactica"
It might be effective, but it's also kind of lazy the way it sums up the whole episode in 20 seconds near the end. With this show we don't want to see what will happen, we need to be surprised!

"Gossip Girl"
It seems more like a teaser from a Skinemax flick than a show about horny, vapid teens in Manhattan.
Then again those two kinda go together right?

"Desperate Housewives"
It had the greatest credits sequence since perhaps "The Simpsons" and it went and spoiled it by reducing it to one of those dull title card things lazy shows do. Again it does make sense considering how dull the show has gotten by the season.

Although I have some troubles with the "Ugly Betty" opening credits, I'm not sure what exactly is it.

So, what about you guys? Anyone loves a particular credits sequence or is TV too last century?