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It's a Great Feeling (1949)
In Search of the Next Star
Generally, actors at the infancy of their careers are saddled with material that range from grade-F to good, but unremarkable. Easy fluff. Light drama that doesn't quite showcase their talent -- until the right kind of picture comes along and thus, a major force of acting comes into play. Doris Day had the rare luck that even when the movies she was given at the dawn of her cinematography fall into this kind of frame, her presence alone, while tomboyish and maybe even a little off at times, was natural and at her best as such. ROMANCE ON THE HIGH SEAS had her do what Janis Paige was known for -- come and steal the picture right out of everyone's feet. Her allure (there) rose from a completely bare presentation of a lounge singer thrown into a comedy of errors, with no sudden affectation of language, or stiffness in performance, a thing another actress might have done in trying to impersonate Paige's upper crust character.
Here, Day continues on a rapid ascension in playing a rags-to (sort of) riches role which Joan Crawford had, and was still, taking into her own version of perfection. (Crawford has a hilarious, near surreal walk-on role in this picture -- as many actors and directors do here -- where she goes from being outraged at the treatment Day gets from those who want to groom her into the Next Big Thing (Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan) but inexplicably morphs into the impassioned speech Mildred Pierce gave her daughter Veda in MILDRED PIERCE, complete with two neat slaps -- one to each men -- and the quote, "I do that in all my pictures.") But back to Day: she's ideally cast in a role that doesn't demand a sudden speech inflection (although in one song she purposely dons a rather bad French accent) but has her playing a woman who wants to get into show business. It's the type of style that would come to characterize her: bare, earthy, sharply comic (note an early scene where she tries to impress with a dramatic scene), sweet, with occasional bursts of powerful emotion (later explored to full use in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH). It's somewhat ironic that the finale of the movie has Day marrying and living happily ever after in lieu of continuing her pursuit of Hollywood: Day would indeed quit the pictures but not because of a happy marriage (quite the contrary, a bad marriage would be the cause of her undoing). Even so, it's a fitting end to a movie that spends most of its time trying to groom her.
Romance on the High Seas (1948)
Despite getting third (or fourth, depending on which source you look into) billing, ROMANCE ON THE HIGH SEAS is Doris Day's show from the moment we get the first image of her -- or her back, as she stands pensively in front of the travel agency she is about to enter. Featuring a story that wouldn't have a need to exist had there been a little communication between its catalysts -- Janis Pauge and Don DeFore --, a married couple who even before their marriage is consummated see infidelity in all the wrong places; she from insinuations coming from the none-too-subtle secretary/blond bombshell her husband has hired (Leslie Brooks, in a nice but pat performance), he from the looks Paige gives the other men around her. Paige, from a random situation that stems from the moment she overhears Day's antics in the travel agency where they've crossed paths (Day plays Georgia, a lounge singer who has a thing for imagining elaborate trips to exotic locales she can't afford or as she states, "hasn't been to/didn't go to"), is amused at this, and decided to concoct a plan to send Day into the cruise she is slated to go on, to stay home and see if her husband will in fact, cheat on her. Paige's husband, also suspicious of his wife, sends a detective (Jack Carson) to do surveillance on her, unsuspecting that Day is impersonating Paige (rather badly, but what would he know? We do, and it's a great, breezy delight to see Day and Carson, who from here on remain on screen, play against each other, neither aware of the other's identity. An extremely silly comedy of errors, with cracking lines basically handed on a silver platter to Paige (who churns them out with real verve), also marking Doris Day's first appearance, and she basically saves this kind-of unmemorable feature from an otherwise different fate (of course, keeping in mind that director Michael Curtiz had brought Bette Davis and Joan Crawford into delivering fantastic performances in THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX and MILDRED PIERCE).
The Uninvited (1944)
The Old, Dark House
The concept of the haunted house is one of the most successful entries of the horror genre due to the fact that the very space we live in could harbor some "unpleasant horror from the world beyond". It's been morphed constantly to meet the demands of the times, and reached a pinnacle in 1979 when Ridley Scott released his now contemporary classic: ALIEN. And in that particular "haunted house" -- itself a spaceship -- you couldn't just get out and leave. And something very physical and hungry was out there within the shadows, waiting....
THE UNINVITED offers no such horrors: in fact, aside from the premise that the mansion overlooking the Cornish coast that a brother and sister (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) have purchased off a whim has its own turbulent history and an invisible guest, it's far from truly scary. Closer to a dark mood piece, it acquiesces itself with an extreme subtlety closer to the style that Robert Wise would utilize in THE HAUNTING (without any intrusive voice-overs, thankfully) and keeping its own touch light and dryly funny, it manages to lift some of the heaviness to a point where it's imperceptible.
As a matter of fact, THE UNINVITED is an unlikely template of the type of horror seen in Asian films such as RINGU (and most notably in its remake THE RING), where the story seemed to be heading one way, throws in a red herring that until the end seems to be a much bigger player than it really is -- here, in the rather sinister figure of Ms. Holloway, clearly patterned after Mrs. Danvers and played with deadpan silkiness by Cornelia Otis Skinner (herself physically similar to Judith Anderson and in a lesser degree, Claire Booth), and turns the tables on the viewer in a neat one hundred degree angle. For that, it's clever and awfully effective film filled with rich atmosphere in the Film-Noir style, even when its thrills are watered down to a lull.
Much has been made about the lesbian subtext that is referenced to in THE UNINVITED. In a way, I can see it and I can't -- the unnatural attraction that Ms. Holloway sustains to the unseen Mary Meredith and the none-too-subtle designs she displays towards young Stella (Gail Russell) must have rung a bell. However, it can also be seen as the type of fixation that is closer to a borderline personality disorder -- where a person's sole reason of existence depends on that of the object of his or her attraction, which is always with a tinge of the impossible. It's, as I said, remarkably similar to the premise controlling the passion of Mrs. Danvers in REBECCA, but to a lesser degree. Whatever it may be, it's one of those "hints" of a gay-lesbian presence in a Hollywood who had, by then, decided to ignore "those" people even when major movie stars carried movies and won Oscars.
My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006)
A Quick, Revolving Door
Would it that the producers and the director, Ivan Reitman, had chosen to take a darker path while still retaining a deadpan comic edge in telling their concept of a man who breaks up with his rather needy girlfriend who just happens to be a superhero a la Supergirl and sees his life become a living hell due to his misstep, MY SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND would have been much more. It's not saying that it isn't, or that it's something of a mess because it's not: like clockwork, or a color-by-numbers drawing, it follows its uber-calculated plot demands with robotic ease, offering no surprises along the way and a couple of funny scenes here and there (it looks much better as a trailer than an extended version of a trailer), and delivering the requisite finale in which the person winds up with the one he or she is meant to be with as opposed to the one he wants to. I would have preferred, however, an incursion into the morbid -- a touch of FATAL ATTRACTION would have helped. Consider this: Alex Forrest not only delivering her (in)famous line "I won't be ignored, Dan!" and then really proceeding to, with effective and stomach-churning queasiness, making her point. It's a hard premise to truly carry out in ways that wouldn't seem hokey, repetitive, or even tiresome. Because the movie literally takes no time to reach its "I think we need a break" moment, which allows Uma Thurman a lot of room to chew scenery and move from strictly jealous and possessive to flat-out zany, it doesn't seem to know where it should go from there and introduces the farce element under the form of Eddie Izzard who has a few tricks up his uber-villain sleeve. It's this that mires MY SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND in its comic-book origins (which is saying what is appropriate), but even with that being pointed out, its average enjoyment, like elevator music.
Portrait of Jennie (1948)
The Woman Without Roots
Before Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece VERTIGO, itself a tale of one man's romantic obsession with a fantasy woman, there was this beautiful, elegant and quite Gothic PORTRAIT OF JENNIE, directed by William Dieterle and starring Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones as the alluring Jennie. Eben Adams is the painter struggling to make a living in New York City whose life one day crosses the path of the somewhat enigmatic young girl known to him only as Jennie. They begin a liaison of sorts, strictly in the platonic, but this eventually comes to consume Adams life and very reason to exist until it becomes clear that Jennie might not even be a real person.
Artists have a heightened sense of reality and Eben Adams' is no exception: through Joseph Cotten's subtle performance we get to see a man tortured by a woman he cannot have but nevertheless pursues and enshrines in his mind, going to extreme lengths to retain every aspect of her existence, even when this existence might not be past his own imagination. Dieterle never truly establishes a clear moment when Jennie herself is -- enshrouding her in shadows and filtered light which make her appearances all the more disturbing -- but it's the music, taken from several compositions by Debussy enhanced by the use of the ghostly theremin that really gives this movie an extra ambiance in an early incursion into Musique Concrete and very early Ambient. Jennifer Jones also gives an extremely modulated performance, since she at the start of the movie looks more like a high-school girl who, every time Adams reconnects with her, ages just a bit, turning into a full-blooded woman with that gorgeous voice and haunting presence that almost drives his character over the edge. Worthy of more than one view, if at all for its innovative use of color for the climactic sequence, PORTRAIT OF JENNIE is an elegant mood piece that progressively seduces the viewer into its mystery and allure and lingers on after the credits roll.
I Married a Witch (1942)
Bewitched by Veronica
Rene Clair's ultra-magical I MARRIED A WITCH is a delight to see because it doesn't once try to take itself seriously even when it is, in fact, a romantic comedy with a dose of the surreal. The premise is simple: a burned witch returns to haunt and make a mortal fall in love with her via a love philter but in turn drinks the potion... and complications ensue. Veronica Lake is irresistible in her light role, clearly enjoying her part as a precursor to the role of Samantha who Elizabeth Montgomery would play twenty-odd years later in the television show (and rumors abound that this was, in fact, the inspiration for "Bewitched" but that has not been confirmed even when the links are rather clear). Despite the back story that she and Frederic March did not get along they seem rather comfortable in their roles and play against their characters with gusto. Susan Hayworth has a supporting role as March's snooty fiancée and her wedding reception, which Lake's character gleefully upsets into ridiculous levels, is a riot to watch. Towards the end, however, I MARRIED A WITCH loses just a teeny bit of steam, as if the concept of the witch moving about a contemporary society had reached its limit, but other than that this is a playful romp and one that confirmed Lake's status as a capable performer, even when her own career would come to a halt a mere five years later.
Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
It's to be said that sometimes the viewer -- us -- can view a picture and think, "How idiotic was that film's screenwriter to have had this-or-that character behave in this-or that way, or say those awful things? It completely stops the movie dead in its tracks." It's why there's a critic in all of us, writers and movie goers alike, it's why those who can watch will be able to judge accordingly even if we may not be totally right or even able to reproduce what we are seeing.
Now, the premise of BULLETS OVER Broadway is just that: a playwright finds a producer for his play in the Roaring Twenties. The catch is, the producer in charge for the plays financing is a mobster. The second catch is, he wants his outrageously stupid moll to play the lead. But the third has to be the strangest of them all: one of the mobster's henchmen happens to know this play better than its very own playwright. He thinks that the moll makes a terrible actress. He literally... takes over.
And that's it. Woody Allen thankfully is not present in this movie other than its writer and director -- it is becoming something of a stretch to see Allen, who is about as visually inviting as an eyesore and has those ticks in speech that were cute in the Seventies but now amount to little more than hiccups laced with mothballs. John Cusack, seen in SHADOWS AND FOG, takes over the "writer" in this story but doesn't try to act like Allen (a tendency every actor who's subbed for Allen has done since Michael Murphy mirrored Allen in MANHATTAN, Michael Caine did in HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, and so on). Chazz Palmenteri, however, really takes over and drives the movie through and through, being the brains behind the play in production and a thoroughly masculine presence that somehow becomes more and more feminine as the movie walks towards its conclusion. Jennifer Tilly, the moll patterned (at least in the likeness of) Clara Bow, is the bimbo and plays it to the hilt. Dianne Wiest is again on board, this time playing completely against type as a self-absorbed stage actress who throughout the entire movie makes "Don't speak!" hilarious. A fun ride with a shoot-'em-up finale, this was one of Woody Allen's best films of the Nineties after the Mia scandal, because after this one his movies began a sharp decline in quality and what had been up until then been an anticipated wait -- to see a release of the new Woody Allen film of the year -- had by the end of the Nineties been an "Eh... whatever" thing.
Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Courage Under the Threat of Extermination
Unless these tragic incidents take place in our own country, we will see them unfold through our very eyes courtesy of CNN, et. al, and go on with our lives while shaking our heads in horror and pity but not doing much else. This is exactly what a reporter played by Joaquin Phoenix tells Paul Russebagina, the hotel manager of Les Milles Collines as Rwanda begins its inexorable plight into the horrors of racial purification -- the war between the Hutus and the Tsutsis.
As a matter of fact, unless you saw the news back in 1994, you didn't and wouldn't even know of these events. It was virtually kept under wraps and only revealed when the death toll was unnaturally high. What HOTEL RWANDA attempts, and succeeds in doing, is bringing forth the absolute tragedy of a country driven to the extremes of decimating its own population in lieu of establishing the eventual dominance of the Hutus over the more "esthetically pure and therefore privileged" Tsutsis.
However, where the movie really makes its mark is when Paul Russebagina, the smooth talking, subtle Hutu man who as of now has been able to get people to eat out of his palms faces the stomach-turning horror: no one will come to his aid, no one will even attempt to intervene to stop the madness that is exploding all around him. The U. N. has turned its eye away from the situation. Belgian soldiers within the country are escorting only foreign citizens. Paul and those left behind will have to fend for themselves and hope to find a way out.
HOTEL RWANDA establishes the character of Russebagina as an essentially good person who gets caught in a situation that spirals out of control and forces him to face it head on: much like Clive Owen's character in CHILDREN OF MEN, or even Schindler in SCHINDLER'S LIST, his is a man who grows from being just an observer of sorts into a hero who goes beyond the call of duty while maintaining a brave face in the light of the sight of his people being massacred for the sake of genocide. Sophie Okonedo lends a strong support as Tatyana Russebagina, a role that could have been thankless but achieves a relevance all its own. Where Terry George's film succeeds is bringing a moral consciousness unto us, the people viewing this film which is a mirror of the events from over a decade ago without exaggerating the gore. It makes us aware that regardless of how distant these events might be unfolding, it's really unto us to lend a hand to those in need.
It has to be a crowning achievement for a movie to have entered into public consciousness to such a point that even when the average person may not even have a passing idea as to what this remarkable movie might be about, they assume, from the title, from the poster, that it has to be "one of those unforgettable love affairs between Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart". Of course, the more you do know about CASABLANCA the clearer the in-jokes and the subtle yet potent lines become: as a matter of fact, CASABLANCA has now become one of the most quoted pictures of the last one hundred years. With a convoluted story which is really a romantic love affair between Rick, Ilsa, and her husband Victor Lazlo as well as a denouncement of the Nazis in this otherwise relatively safe haven that is Rick's cafe in Casablanca, Morocco, CASABLANCA becomes a ferociously sophisticated tale that has overtones of film-noir and that overwhelming chemistry that both Bogart and Bergman possess, their romance surpassing everything else and being the barometer for which romantic drama has been measured up against. If anything, of the supporting cast, Paul Henreid, for all his third billing, is the more thankless since he doesn't get much to do other than play the somewhat befuddled Lazlo (although he does get to find out that Rick and Ilsa have a little more than common than they'd like to admit). Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre (who also appeared with Bogart in THE MALTESE FALCON), Conrad Veidt also appear here as well as Claude Rains who has one of the most memorable supporting parts as the general who is "shocked! shocked!" that any gambling is taking place at Rick's... as he smoothly takes his winnings from an employee. Also featuring one of the most deeply, lush ballads, "As Time Goes By" and that powerful scene of defiance as the occupants sing for France, CASABLANCA has become an emblem more than just another feature film -- the stuff that dreams are made of.
Stardust Memories (1980)
Through the Looking Glass
There comes a time in every director, every writer, every person who creates works of art, when he or she comes against the brick wall of re-evaluation which entails the need to look back and see the mistakes, the paths tread, the work that has been done, the detours, and do an assessment of where now is, where the future -- if there is one -- lies. Woody Allen, no stranger to homages and to the criticism his work -- and its progression -- had received as he went further and further away from the "earlier, funnier" movies he made, goes into Fellini's territory -- namely, 8 1/2 -- and sums up an array of images that could very well be a neat, carbon copy of what the Italian had made back in 1963. On his way to the Stardust hotel, Sandy Bates views another train filled with passengers (among them a "pretty lady" who blows him a kiss, none other than Sharon Stone making her film debut and sort of playing the wispy, fleeting role that Caterina Borato played in Fellini's masterpiece). Once he arrives to the hotel, everyone, including aliens, harass him on everything from his earlier comedies (which were much better according to them) to the most trivial of aspects, one of them which is his sister demanding that he take more charge of her life. At the same time, Sandy juggles affairs with several women, among them the blonde Isobel (Marie Christine Barrault, a neat substitute for Mia Farrow), Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling, a nice variation on Diane Keaton), and Daisy (Jessica Harper, ditto). STARDUST MEMORIES looks equally as great as MANHATTAN, being shot in the same textured black and white, but unless the viewer is in on the joke, this one may fall a bit flat on its face due to the very reflexiveness of its story. However, without resorting to the excesses that Fellini did in 8 1/2 (no scenes of women fighting over him, loudly, in a very Italian mode), it's darkly funny in that very personal Woody way that has become his staple. This is Woody facing his own career, his own life, even when it seems to have been done a little too early in his career which continues alive and well today, a quarter of a century later.