Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Julieta

Life in itself often isn't fair to most people. Sure, there can be periods of good fortune but those are usually achieved by sheer coincidence. What's more likely to happen are moments of self-awakening, knowing that your existence won't go off without a hitch.

Pedro Almodóvar's Julieta in particular follows this belief. The titular character (Emma Suárez) is haunted by her past actions, wanting to understand why her daughter abandoned her all those years ago. To do so, she needs to delve into key moments she endured when she was younger. Will Julieta find the answers she's looking for?

As Almodóvar has shown before, he's compelled by complicated women of a certain age. (If only Hollywood felt the same.) He doesn't deny that we're a flawed species, how our emotions tend to get the better of us. And more often than not, those emotions are brought on by what life throws at us.

It isn't much of a surprise that Almodóvar had Suárez and Adriana Ugarte (who plays a younger Julieta) read Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking to better understand the story of Julieta. (He also had Suárez watch Elevator to the Gallows and The Hours for preparation.) It's those works that can best capture how women in difficult circumstances behave, be it for better or for worse in the long run. (As Frank Sinatra once sang, that's life.)

Julieta continues to prove that Almodóvar is the Douglas Sirk of the new century. The matter of melodrama can be rather fickle in general, and only a few properly capture its essence. And as the Spanish-born director has proven since his debut in 1980, he is one of those select few.

My Rating: ****

Hold Back the Dawn

Mitchell Leisen's Hold Back the Dawn opens with a bit of fourth wall breakage, perhaps not a surprise with Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder as the film's writers. In an attempt to earn some quick money, Georges Iscovescu (Charles Boyer) tries to sell his story to film director Dwight Saxon (Leisen). But what is his story?

Stuck in a Mexican hotel full of fellow immigrants, Georges waits impatiently for the paperwork needed to get into the United States legally. He learns from his former dancing partner Anita Dixon (Paulette Goddard) that she found a quicker solution; she simply married and quickly divorced an American to citizenship. Inspired by this, he finds a potential mark in visiting schoolteacher Emmy Brown (Olivia de Havilland). Will he succeed?

This being a work penned by Brackett and Wilder, there is cynicism all over the place in Hold Back the Dawn. (Certainly a stark contrast to some of Leisen's previous films.) Like their later works The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard, the only reason their embittered protagonist is still existing is that of an idealistic woman in their life.

And much like what she would later do for Leisen with To Each His Own, de Havilland enters into an atmosphere that would test her usual bright-eyed image. Having her in a project that makes her character fully aware the world she's a part of isn't made for someone like her shows audiences that there's more to de Havilland than being swept up by Errol Flynn's roguish charm. (Thankfully the years to come would continue to bolster this.)

Hold Back the Dawn is one of the overlooked titles from the 1940s, which says a lot since the decade is chock full of noted films. The trio of leads are solid (has Goddard done similar roles?), and Leisen is one of the more underappreciated directors of Hollywood's Golden Age. (Only a matter of time before he gets his due.)

My Rating: ****1/2

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Film and Book Tally 2017

Well, thank God another garbage year is done with. (Is it weird that it went by both too fast and too slow?) Anyway, I had a few bright spots in this otherwise crummy time: I had a job at a movie theater (which I left after four months because I got fed up with it), went to a few film festivals (my savings are now nigh depleted), and had my work pile up repeatedly. Oh wait, that last one isn't a good thing... (Some will be up presently, I promise.)

Anyway, you're all here to see what I saw and read this year but in comparison to the last few years, the lists are a bit shorter. (Oh, the joys of having depression: it always sucks out any motivation to see and/or do anything.) The lists start after the jump:

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Never Say Goodbye

The opening moments of James V. Kern's Never Say Goodbye shows Ellen (Eleanor Parker) and Phil Gayley (Errol Flynn) both separately buying a coat for their daughter Flip (Patti Brady). She buys a modest coat for Flip while he gets a flashier one. This establishes who the two of them are as parents.

Oh, and it's worth mentioning that Ellen and Phil are divorced. (The reason as to why their marriage ended isn't specified though Phil's wandering eye might have something to do with it.) As part of their settlement, Flip lives with Phil for half of the year and then with Ellen for the other half. This isn't an ideal situation for Flip so she tries to get her parents back together. But will she succeed?

By this point in Flynn's career, his film union with Olivia de Havilland had ended five years earlier, he tried to expand his screen image (with varying success), and then there were his legal woes. Obviously, he needed some serious PR, and Never Say Goodbye certainly helped a bit. (Was there anyone who oozed more charm than Flynn? Probably not.)

Something that's brought up throughout Never Say Goodbye is the effects of divorce on a child. Ellen mentions that Flip needs to accept that her parents will never get back together, obviously not taking into account how shuffling from household to household isn't the best scenario for her young daughter. (Bear in mind this was released the same year Benjamin Spock made a name for himself in similar matters.)

Never Say Goodbye is predictable in spots but as Flynn showed previously with Four's a Crowd, he was just adept at comedy as he was with swashbuckler pictures. (Parker, in turn, serves as a sort of straight woman to the film's antics.) It's not the usual fare for its leads but they're enjoyable nonetheless.

My Rating: ****

Monday, December 18, 2017

Bell, Book and Candle

In 1958, James Stewart and Kim Novak teamed up for Vertigo, With his traditional ways and her allure, they made for an ideal pairing for Alfred Hitchcock. But did you know that the two actors were in another film that year?

That film for the record was Richard Quine's Bell, Book and Candle, and their roles here were actually similar to those in Hitchcock's. Stewart's Shep Henderson is your average Joe: good-paying job, quiet life, plans to get married. All of that goes right out the window when he crosses paths with the (literally) bewitching Gillian Holroyd (Novak).

Obviously, Bell, Book and Candle and Vertigo are two completely different films (the former a supernatural comedy, the latter a thriller). But aside from their lead stars, there are some similarities between the projects, the most telling being Stewart getting drawn to Novak's aloof nature.

Alongside Stewart and Novak in Bell, Book and Candle are the likes of Elsa Lanchester and Jack Lemmon, both as members of Gillian's family (she as her aunt, he as her brother). Obviously it's interesting casting (Lemmon in particular sports one hell of a manic grin most of the time) but of course this show belongs to Stewart and Novak.

Bell, Book and Candle may have gotten lost in the shadow of Vertigo but it has its own charms (so to speak). Stewart and Novak work wonderfully together, and Lanchester and Lemmon do much of the same. And with this being Stewart's last foray as a romantic lead (even the leading man can be affected by age), it provides one final glimpse of the performer from his prime. (It also serves as a reminder for the changing of the guard when it came to Hollywood's stars.)

My Rating: ****

Holiday Affair

It's made clear early on in Don Hartman's Holiday Affair that Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh) has a lot on her plate. A war widow with a young son, her longtime suitor Carl Davis (Wendell Corey) has recently proposed to her. But things get more complicated when Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum) enters her life.

Admittedly lighthearted fare like Holiday Affair was typical for Leigh at this early stage of her career. But this was decidedly a change of pace for Mitchum, having recently been released from jail for marijuana possession. (His casting was a deliberate move on RKO head Howard Hughes' part.) And it was a good opportunity for Mitchum to move beyond his usual "baby, I don't care" image.

Indeed, a number of Steve's scenes has Mitchum playing a caring figure, not something one would expect from the actor in either Crossfire or Out of the Past. But as later roles like Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison and The Grass is Greener showed, he could be as compassionate as any of his male contemporaries. (Does anyone know if Mitchum did similar work beyond the mentioned titles?)

Upon its release, Holiday Affair wasn't much of a hit (though subsequent showings on TV have vindicated it in later years). But why wasn't it successful? It was released at a good time (read: the holiday season), its leads were generally bankable (though more in the years to come for Leigh), and the premise was easy to follow. Maybe it wasn't promoted properly but we may not know for sure.

Anyway, Holiday Affair is an enjoyable little yarn despite its overall predictability. Leigh and Mitchum connect very well in their scenes, almost making one wish they had done another project together. With her at the start of her career and him being a recent Oscar nominee, there was nowhere to go but up for the both of them.

My Rating: ****

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Man Who Came to Dinner

The minute radio personality Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) opens his mouth in William Keighley's The Man Who Came to Dinner, his disdain for, well, everything knows no bounds. And after he breaks his hip, his caustic tongue doesn't take it easy like the rest of him. God help those who cross both him and his path.

Alongside this misanthropic figure is his ever-patient assistant Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis), who serves as a sort of translator for those unfamiliar with Sheridan's barbs. (Amusingly, Davis of all people has only one line with an ounce of venom in it.) This being her follow-up to The Little Foxes, she was drawn to the original play's light ambiance. (She succeeded in convincing Jack Warner to buy the rights but not as lucky in getting John Barrymore as her leading man.)

Throughout The Man Who Came to Dinner, there are traits that were also seen in farcical comedies of the time: jabs at the upper class, a vamp who's constantly on the prowl, Billie Burke as the ditzy society lady...you know, the usual specs. (Hey, give the people what they want.)

Now Keighley had various ups and downs as a director prior to making The Man Who Came to Dinner. (He worked at Warner Bros. so he had worked with the likes of Davis, James Cagney, and Errol Flynn.) It's more than likely that the higher-ups had some doubts on the director as a whole (film critic David Thomson certainly thinks so) but that doesn't reduce the worth of his many films.

The Man Who Came to Dinner is a breezy comedy of manners, its release being at perhaps an ideal time. (The attack on Pearl Harbor was only the month before.) If the following years proved anything, Woolley was more than warmly welcomed to Hollywood as a result of his work here.

My Rating: ****