Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"Sunset Blvd." deserves spot in the sweet sixteen

In the final scene Norma Desmond (Gloria Swans...Image via Wikipedia
"I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille."
If you haven't seen many Billy Wilder films, I urge you to check some out from your local library. Sunset Blvd. (1950), number 16 on the AFI Top 100, is one of his best. His look at the shallow nature of Hollywood was considered groundbreaking in 1950, and it still has significance today. Along with The Player (1992), it's one of the best movies about Hollywood.

William Holden plays the down-on-his-luck Hollywood writer Joe Gillis who, while avoiding the repo men, blows a car tire and drives into what he thinks is the driveway of an abandoned Sunset Blvd. mansion. Much to his surprise, he discovers that the mansion is occupied by faded silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Desmond has written a script for her "return" to film and hires Joe to polish it. Joe can't believe his luck but soon discovers that things are not quite what they seem.

I love the plot, but I have one small quibble: revealing the ending at the beginning of the film. I suppose that it was unique in the 50's, but by now it seems cliche. I'm also not a big fan of first person narration, which figures prominently in the film, but on the "Making of" featurette, Wilder explained that he loved narration because it allowed him to put a lot of exposition in a short amount of time and it allowed him to make social commentary on what was happening in the film. Looking back on the film, the narration does seem to fit that purpose.

Swanson won the Oscar for her performance, and deservedly so. Desmond is one creepy character. Holden shows Gillis's conflicted heart well. I like the performance of Nancy Olson as Betty Schaefer, the aspiring writer who falls for Gillis. She's a perfect foil for Desmond - fresh, wholesome and lovable.

Cover of Cover via AmazonAgainst Wilder's other films in top 100 (The Apartment, Some Like it Hot and Double Indemnity), Sunset Blvd. holds its own.
Next up: either The Last Picture Show or On the Waterfront, which ever one comes in to the library first.

Movie Poster for Image via Wikipedia

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Thursday, July 14, 2011

"Singin' in the Rain" showcases Kelly, but not much else

Singin' in the RainImage via WikipediaAs I continue to work my way through the films I have not seen in the AFI Top 100, Singin' in the Rain (#5) was the highest rated on the list. I understand that the singing and dancing was something special, but as far as musicals go, this one would not be at the top of my list. For my money, White Christmas would be at the top of my musical list.

To me, Singin' in the Rain is a star vehicle for Gene Kelly and not much else. Debbie Reynolds is underused and the buddy relationship between Kelly's character and Donald O'Connor's (Cosmo Brown) never materializes. Both O'Connor and Reynolds get too little screen time compared to the annoying Lina Lamont, played well by Jean Hagen.

One thing this film shares with White Christmas is the EXTREMELY long dance sequence which essentially serves as intermission. Perhaps it's just because I'm not into dance, but to drag the number out for (what seems like) ten minutes is painful. The "Singin' in the Rain" dance number is just long enough to hold my interest and make me appreciate Kelly's talent, but the "Gotta Dance" marathon drove me to get a snack. 

Needless to say, this one didn't do it for me. For it to be #5, and White Christmas not to appear at all is just plain wrong.

Screenshot taken by me (Icea) from the trailer...Image via Wikipedia
Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd.
I've put #16 Sunset Boulevard (1950) on reserve at the library. Unless I find something else on the shelves before then, that will be my next project.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Snappy dialogue and strong performances dominate "All About Eve"

Cover of "All About Eve (Two-Disc Special...Cover via AmazonAs my summer tour of the AFI top 100 continues, watching 1950's All About Eve (#16 on the list) was one of the most enjoyable experiences so far. It still holds the record (now tied with Titanic) for most Oscar nominations, and I can see why.

Both female leads - Betty Davis as Margo and Anne Baxter as Eve - are excellent, but neither won the Oscar. They split the "Best Actress" vote. If Baxter had submitted her name as "Best Supporting Actress", they probably would have both won. The only acting prize for this film went to George Sanders as the manipulative theater critic Addison DeWitt. He was great to watch and looked like he was enjoying every minute of his role. He even got to be one of the first actors to appear with one Marilyn Monroe on screen as she makes her major debut in this film.

Davis's performance as the insecure aging stage legend looked like a lot of fun to play as well. The script was fantastic as it revealed Eve's scheming graduallly. There was very little action in this film, so the dialogue had to carry the audience's interest and it did so beautifully.This might be heretical to some, but the snappy dialogue reminded me of the television shows "Cheers" and "Moonlighting."

Even though Margo is the ultimate theater diva, we see just enough of her vulnerability to feel sorry for her as people (knowingly and unknowingly) scheme against her. Even though she didn't win the Oscar, her performance is better remembered than the one which won (Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard).

Of the films I've seen so far this summer, All About Eve and The Apartment have been the best. At #16, I'd say Eve deserves her top 20 status.

Cover via AmazonBack to the musical next with Singin' in the Rain (#5 - the highest rated one I haven't seen).

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

"Double Indemnity" shows off early American film noir

Cover via AmazonDouble Indemnity appears to overflow with movie cliches, until you realize they weren't cliches in 1944. The femme fatale, the stilted dialogue, the narration are all common tools now, but in '44, they were something new.

Fred MacMurray plays a cynical insurance agent who sees an opportunity to bilk the company he works for and run away with a frustrated housewife, played by Barbara Stanwyck.

For movie buffs, the film noir effects are all in play - the lighting, the use of shadow, the cynical characters. MacMurray's Walter Neff is pretty unscrupulous considering the time period. He cheats his company, hits on a married woman and later conspires to kill her husband - talk about an antihero! As the unfaithful, murderous wife, Stanwyck doesn't quite do it for me. She doesn't have that touch of evil she needs to convince the viewer she can go through with the plot.

One plot line I would have liked to have been explored further was the relationship between Neff and Lola, the step daughter of  Stanwyck's character. Lola comes to Neff (who sold her father the insurance policy) to accuse her step mother of murder. Neff tries to steer her from that suspicion and gradually develops a relationship with the girl. If the film was made in the 21th Century, I'm sure that love triangle would have been more developed. Neff does the right thing with her, and it's about the only noble thing he does in the whole film.

At #29 on the AFT top 100, Double Indemnity ranks with Chinatown as the two film noir entries in the top 30. Considering that it was one of the groundbreakers of that genre, I think it deserves that high a placement.

Cover via Amazon

Next up: All About Eve (1950)

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Songs for an Alternative 4th of July

We were at a baseball game (Nashua Silver Knights) and listened to the same old patriotic songs. If I was running the show, here are some alternatives I'd play:
  1. For those of you who understand that "Born in the USA" is NOT a patriotic song, try this one Bruce wrote after 9/11 - The death of Woody Guthrie led to the foundati...Image via Wikipedia"The Rising"
  2. Instead of "God Bless America", how about the song Woody Guthrie wrote in response to it - "This Land is Your Land"?
  3. While we're on protest singers, how about Bob Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom"?
  4. For a more traditional song, try Ray Charles's version of "America the Beautiful".
  5. When someone criticizes the President and suffers because of it, here's the proper way to respond - Dixie Chicks "Not Ready to Make Nice". Here's to the power of the freedom of speech.
  6. Why this one isn't played more this weekend, I don't know. Might be the only rock song with the word "patriot" in it.- Little Steven "I Am a Patriot"
  7. The Man in Black goes patriotic - "Ragged Old Flag"
  8. You might think "R.O.C.K. in the USA" should be the choice here, but Melloncamp's "Small Town"  has a more patriotic feel to it. 
  9. Even the biggest cynic has to get misty with this one - SSgt. Barry Sadler, "Ballad of the Green Berets"
  10. Don't need to explain this one - "4th of July" by X
Johnny CashImage via Wikipedia