15
Oct
14

Ministry of Fear

Poster

Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) gets released from a mental institution where he’s lived since he was charged with euthanasia of his sickly wife. His train makes a stop in a country town and at the urging of a kind conductor he steps out and goes over to the nearby country fair. He sees a fortune teller and wins a cake. This leads him to getting in trouble with Nazi’s who chase him and frame him with murder. He can’t trust anyone as everyone he meets — even a pretty, warm-hearted woman who runs a charity for widows and orphans with her brother — seems ready to turn him in.

Set during WWII Franz Lang’s Ministry of Fear (1944) is brimming with tension and suspense. The plot moves quickly and takes Neal to one creepy, yet sophisticated experience after another. Nothing is what it seems. While I read that Lang wanted to make an overtly anti-Nazi movie, the script writer didn’t provide him with the sort of horrible Nazi he could rail against. Based on a Graham Green novel, I found the film compelling. Green wouldn’t agree, I’ve learned. He thought it was awful, but then Green’s a perfectionist and master.

12
Oct
14

Words & Pictures

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Starring Clive Owens and Juliet Binoche, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2380331/?ref_=nv_sr_1 focuses on two talented and cranky high school teachers. Owens teaches English while Binoche teaches art at an élite private school. Both demand a lot from their students and are disappointed with their own ability to produce the excellence they once did. Owens’ alcoholism is the main cause of his writers’ block, while Binoche’s rheumatoid arthritis hinders her painting.

They’re neither warm nor fuzzy ever rather they’ve embraced the “genius must be prickly loners” philosophy.  They are rather interesting and the film moves along quickly. Owens likes to compete and when his students tell him that the new art teacher believes “words are lies,” he dreams up a Words vs. Pictures competition, which all characters do acknowledge is a false dichotomy.

The leads and Amy Brenneman, who plays the head of the school board, are compelling. I thought the students’ acting didn’t ring true. I’ve seen better chemistry and half way through most romantic films, I’m rooting for the opposites to work things out. Here I thought well, I wish these people well, but if they part company perhaps that is better.

All in all, it’s an okay movie, but it could have been better. It did make me think I wish Amy Brenneman had another TV series. I miss her down-to-earth appeal.

07
Oct
14

Vlogbrothers on Hong Kong

A fast-paced concise overview of Hong Kong’s protests.

06
Oct
14

Désiré

Released in 1937 starring Sacha Guitry, Désiré is a comedy about a French woman and her household staff. Odette is a former actress who’s beau is a government Minister. Her staff includes a cook, a maid, a chauffeur we never see, but lacks a valet. The night before Odette, played by Guitry’s wife at the time, and her beau are to leave for the countryside, a chatty, meticulous valet comes to interview for the job. His references are impeccable and he’s hired. God forbid the couple goes to the country without a valet.

In the kitchen Désiré gets to know the maid and the cook. He’s very professional about his job and the hardest worker of the group, but also shares lots of observations about employers e.g. in a couple days a servant knows his employer well. In a year the servant can predict the employer’s every move and thought, yet after employing a servant for 5 years the employer probably doesn’t even know the servant’s last name. Touché.

Désiré’s previous employer intimates that while he was impeccable at his job, he made sexual overtures and therefore was let go. Odette is ready to send him packing but he persuades her to trust that it’ll never happen again.

All goes well until madam starts having dreams of Désiré making overtures. Her beau hears her calling out his name. Meanwhile Désiré also has dreams and the maid hears him calling out. Both don’t know what to do and try to hide the problem as best they can.

Désiré is a farce done with wit and intelligence. It makes some good points and is something of a counterpoint to Downton Abbey. Here the characters smoke and joke and toy with each other.  Guitry is a fine comic actor who held my interest from start to finish.

03
Oct
14

Bicycle Thieves

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I’ve heard that Bicycle Thief is a classic film but never saw it — till now. I got the DVD, and see that the title’s been correctly translated to Bicycle Thieves, which makes more sense. (Bravo, Criterion Collection!)

I wasn’t sure what I expected, but I didn’t expect the emotional power this simple movie packed.

In a nutshell, Bicycle Thieves shows the poverty of post-WWII Italy. Many men stand in line for job opportunities. Only a couple will get anything. Since he has a bicycle, Antonio Ricci is lucky enough to get a job putting up posters. He must have a bike. The first problem is that his bike has been pawned. It recoup it his wife Maria pawns the family’s sheets, sheets they got as wedding presents. Since this job will pay well and steadily and since there’s nothing else of value, pawning the sheets seems sensible. Though I did have a feeling of apprehension as soon as they got their money.

Antonio uses most of the money to recover his bike and starts work. As the title suggests it isn’t long before some ne’er-do-well, someone just as needy as Antonio steals the bike. The rest of the movie is the search for the thief and the bike. While it seems like little can be done with such a simple problem, director DeSica presents a journey through impoverished Rome that breaks your heart and shows you the self-absorbed rich, the dangers of pedophiles, the ties between a father and a son and the longing for better by people who’re more than willing to work for what they get.

The ending is particularly moving and well earned. The emotional journey we’re taken on is real. As a neo-realistic film Bicycle Thieves portrays life as it probably really was for many. I could definitely watch this again and again.

23
Sep
14

Brief Encounter

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Written by Noel Coward and directed by David Lean, Brief Encounter tells the story of a man and woman whose paths cross in a train station tea room and then again in town. Both married, contentedly, they are drawn to each other. Laura Jesson (played by Celia Johnson) comes to the town of Milford every Thursday for a day away from housekeeping. On one excursion Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) helps her remove some grit from her eye. Every time he bumps into her he pours on the charm.

The movie is narrated by Johnson who’s thinking about this four week relationship while sitting in front of her husband who’s working on his crossword puzzle. The plot is compelling and Laura especially because there’s so much danger of bumping into people they know and the main characters carefully weigh the cost of the lying and secrecy demanded by their affair. I’ve never seen such thoughtful characters on the precipice of starting an affair.

Another Criterion Collection DVD, it’s enriched by a documentary on David Lean and mini-documentary on the film. Both were worthwhile.

15
Sep
14

Modern times

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I loved Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times with Paulette Goddard. A year ago, I wouldn’t have bothered to watch, but I’ve gotten intrigued, if not hooked on silent films from the Criterion Collection.

Released in 1936, in a time when the Marx Bros. and W.C. Field’s films were full of jokes and dialog, Modern Times isn’t completely silent. A distant boss speaks in broadcasts to alienated factory workers and Chaplin himself sings. Still there’s no dialog and remarks are conveyed with cards. That seems risky for a studio in the 1930s. I hadn’t realized there was such an overlap between silent films and talkies.

As some experts have pointed out, the film is more like a series of short films (2 reelers) rather than a story with one arc. We see Chaplin as his famous Tramp for the last time he’ll play that character. He gets a job in a factory and in scenes that are similar to À Nous la Liberté ecomically exposes the system as dehumanizing as the Tramp gets caught in the gears of the machinery. In another scene the Tramp tests out an eating machine with disastrous effects. (Since workers have taken to grabbing lunch at their desk there’s little need for this machine.) Inadvertently, the tramp gets arrested and mixed up in labor disputes. The cops’ violence against the workers shows us how times were back then. It’s a part of history rarely taught.

Along the way the Tramp meets a “gamine” played by Goddard, who’s stunning and joyful, yet ever bit an outsider. I can’t think of an actress today who could play this role. The gamine has two siblings, who’re rounded up by the police and put into an orphanage, she barely escapes their clutches. There’s a sweetness and affinity between the Tramp and the Gamine, the only two who are on each other’s wave.

The Criterion Collection DVD’s contain lots of extras: a home movie made on a boat during the shooting of the film trailers, commentary and a separate film commentary with more background on the making of Modern Times. Watching that I saw how dapper the gray haired actor was without his Tramp suit. While I expected a certain élan from Chaplain in his real life, I also expected dark hair. Nope he was gray and distinguished in real life.

All in all, it’s a delightful thoughtful film. hard to imagine that Chaplin still entertains.




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