Thursday, August 25, 2011

When Ladies Meet


Director: Robert Z. Leonard

Starring: Joan Crawford, Greer Garson

A remake of the 1933 film of the same name, When Ladies Meet stars Joan Crawford as Mary, a writer who, during the course of writing her latest book, has fallen in love with her married publisher, Rogers (Herbert Marshall). This doesn't sit well with Mary's erstwhile (and still pining) sweetheart, Jimmy, (Robert Taylor) who, after a chance encounter with Rogers' wife Claire, (Garson) conspires to have the two strangers, who don't know their common bond, meet.

While watching this film, I kept getting the feeling that I'd seen this movie before, but there wasn't anything familiar about it beyond the actual storyline. When I realized that it was a remake the light bulb went on because I must have seen the Myrna Loy/1933 version. I really enjoyed When Ladies Meet; it is a perfect melodramatic vehicle with perfect casting. Crawford is strong but naive, and somehow, despite her awareness for what she is doing, is even a bit sympathetic. She's just so darn good at what she does. And Greer Garson... if she's played an unlikeable, weak woman I've never seen that movie. It was these two actresses that actually drew me to watch the film in the first place, and they didn't disappoint.

I'm also a complete sucker for melodramas, and while there were some lighthearted moments, usually provided by Robert Taylor, When Ladies Meet is a melodrama all the way, and considering the plot, how could it not be? Since the viewer knows what eventually has to happen, it becomes excruciating to watch Crawford and Garson become close friends during the course of the evening they spend together, and when the moment of realization happens, it's absolutely devastating. However, it's not a weepy film because the strength of the female characters don't allow it to become mired in treacle, and that is an admirable trait in a film, particularly one from the 40's, a decade which produced some of the best melodramatic films of the century.

When Ladies Meet is a great movie that should be seen by those who enjoy this genre of film, but it's a must see for Crawford and Garson fans.

4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

For a Few Dollars More



Director: Sergio Leone

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef

Full disclosure: With a handful of exceptions, I can't stand westerns. However, there is something about a Sergio Leone film that makes me positively giddy. After finally seeing For a Few Dollars More (I seem to be working my way backwards through the series, since The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was the first one I saw) that familiar giddiness was back because these movies are just so good.

For a Few Dollars More finds bounty hunters Monco (Eastwood) and Col. Douglas Mortimer (Van Cleef) chasing after the same target - El Indio (Gian Maria Volonte), a really bad guy who, along with his gang, are going to attempt to rob the most impenetrable bank that exists, in El Paso.

I really enjoyed For a Few Dollars More, possibly because it was kind of fun to see Van Cleef and Eastwood together before The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. For a Few Dollars More is full of Sergio Leone-isms: sweeping landscapes, minimal dialogue, that great Ennio Morricone soundtrack that is both awesome and comical at the same time and shot after shot of people looking at one another. Really, rereading that last sentence, it's kind of surprising that Leone's films work as well as they do because in a vacuum, those four elements don't sound all that favorable. But work well they do, because after about ten minutes, I was hopelessly lost in the movie and enjoying every minute of it. Eastwood actually has a lot more dialogue in this film than some of the others, and is sometimes a little goofy, yet maintains his status as badass. Van Cleef is full-on badass, however, and acts a little bit like Eastwood's mentor in the film. I actually really like Lee Van Cleef; he really looks like he has no business playing a tough guy, but he really embraces that role and pulls it off fantastically. One of the things I expect in a film that has a villain is that he or she be a good villain. It's really easy to get this wrong, but Volonte's "El Indio" is a really, really bad guy. Women, children, anyone innocent - they're all cannon fodder for this guy. To add a little touch of fun to the character, Volonte also threw in some nifty insanity and flamboyance which I think enhanced the role a lot.

Though not my favorite Leone film so far, For a Few Dollars More is indeed a great film. I really enjoyed it and it's definitely a must-see for anyone who enjoys the genre. Plus, I personally enjoyed the "what the hell?" casting choice of Klaus Kinski as one of Indio's gang members. I also think that it's accessible enough for people not familiar with "spaghetti westerns" to enjoy, perhaps even more than The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; despite being the superior film, there's a little more patience needed during Leone's infamous "we're looking at each other" scenes, which tended to go on for more than a minute, whereas For a Few Dollars More is a bit more straightforward. And it's just plain awesome.

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, August 22, 2011

My Neighbor Totoro


Director: Hiyao Miyazaki

Though I'm not usually a fan of animated films in general, I do have a soft spot for Studio Ghibli, who have produced some amazing films like Kiki's Delivery Service, Spirited Away and Grave of the Fireflies. Since I'd seen almost all of their films, I was excited to watch not only one of the very few I hadn't seen, but probably one of their most beloved, My Neighbor Totoro.

My Neighbor Totoro is about a father who moves his two young daughters to the country in order to be closer to their ailing mother, who is in a nearby hospital. Everything is an adventure for the two young girls, and one day young Mei follows a little rabbit-like creature she sees through a thicket and encounters Totoro, a giant rabbit-like creature from one of her picture books. Totoro then reveals himself to the older sister, Satsuki, and later helps her through a scary situation.

Unfortunately, with as much anticipation I had watching the film, I was terribly disappointed. There was very little story involved, and what few plot devices were revealed, I felt like I was missing some information that I should have known before going into the film. For example, when Mei encounters Totoro for the first time, the viewer has no idea what it is, but when Mei tells Satsuki about it, she refers to him as the Totoro from her picture book, and it almost seemed like I should have known that, so maybe it is some kind of famous story in Japan that I don't know about. Also, why was Mom in the hospital? Because of the lack of story, I was completely bored, almost to the point of wanting to just cut bait and stop watching the film, even just 30 minutes into it. Usually, Studio Ghibli films have an abundance of cuteness that I can rely on to distract me, since I suppose these films are made for kids and shouldn't have a complicated story, perhaps be merely visually entertaining, but other than a few cute scenes with a sleeping Totoro, I just found some of the surreal action kind of creepy. And frankly, the cat bus that so many people rave about is in the movie for about three minutes. It was a cool three minutes, but obviously it must have made quite an impression on some people. The music was kind of odd and annoying too; it was really typical annoying J-pop that I don't remember in a lot of other Studio Ghibli films.

Don't get me wrong: I understand why people like this movie, and the character designs were typical adorable Studio Ghibli. (Can they make a non-adorable little girl character?) And perhaps because this is one of Miyazaki's first films, it didn't have as much of a story line or adorable characters, or even the eccentricities that some of his later films did. However, despite the fact that My Neighbor Totoro just didn't click with me at all, I will still eagerly await and see the next Studio Ghibli film.

2 out of 5 stars

The Help


Director: Tate Taylor
Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis

Films about civil rights and race relations in the 60's are not uncommon; even 40-50 years after milestone events occurred, this theme has been not all that uncommon. The trick is to bring a different slant or perspective on the subject. In 2009, after a glut of films about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, The Messenger, a film about the men who are charged with informing the families of soldiers that their loved ones are deceased, was refreshing because it showed the effects of war from a completely different perspective. Similarly, Tate Taylor's The Help portrays a quiet civil rights movement among a group of women who were usually invisible: the domestic help in the deep South.

The Help stars Viola Davis as Aibileen, a domestic worker in Jackson, Mississippi who has taken care of many children, and has watched them grow from wonderful kids to being just like their parents; basically indifferent to loved ones and at the very least, latent racists. Aibileen and her many African-American female friends all work as domestics, raising the white peoples' children, doing their cleaning and cooking their meals, all for much less than minimum wage, and with no respect. Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, (Emma Stone) is a recent college graduate who grew up and is friends with the women who employ Aibileen and her friends, but has a different take on race equality than her friends, and, spurned on by her disgust over the initiative to require separate outdoor bathrooms for African-Americans her friend Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) is hell-bent on passing, decides to take action in the form of writing a book from the perspective of the domestics, warts and all, starting with Aibileen. With the contentious civil climate in the South, Aibileen is terrified, but determined to have her voice and the voices of her friends finally heard, with Skeeter's help.

The Help is based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, and though I think it is sometimes unfair to compare a book to its film adaptation, it's also human nature, and in this case, I enjoyed the book a lot more than I enjoyed the film. However, there are some pretty serious reasons for that, namely the fact that a lot more back story can be presented about characters in a book than in a film, and characters can be fleshed out more thoroughly, which was really my only big criticism between the book and the film. Though the characters felt less multi-dimensional on the big screen, it was really only because I had read the book that I felt this way. Davis and Stone were both wonderful; Davis' solemnity and stoicism was reminiscent of her small role in the 2008 film Doubt, but she also was able to easily show a lighter side among her friends. This is the first time I'd seen Emma Stone in a film, and really all I knew about her prior to this film was that she was kind of a teen sensation. I thought she did a great job in this role, deftly walking the very thin line between "white girl saves the day" and "good person who does the right thing" and coming out on the right side - there was nothing condescending about her character and her accomplishments. Also notable was Octavia Spencer who played Minnie, Aibileen's best friend. Minnie is a complex character that could very easily slip into caricature with the wrong portrayal, but Spencer was funny, endearing and fearless. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for Howard's performance. Perhaps it's more the adaptation of the character from the book, but the character of Hilly Holbrook is truly horrible, and though there were some smirks and narrowed eyes in the film, Howard basically vacillated between ice princess and foot-stomping harpy, which was more annoying and disappointing than anything. Her actions were terrible, but in terms of being a good villain, which she truly is, she fell short.

The Help isn't going to win any awards, other than perhaps some acting nods, but it was a decent film that gave another side of an oft-told story. It is a mainstream crowd pleaser, but sometimes that's okay, especially when it's quietly opening some people's eyes a little bit.

3 out of 5 stars