REVIEW: “The Heiress”

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At times William Wyler’s “The Heiress” comes across as an extravagant stage production. That makes sense since it was adapted from the popular 1947 Broadway play. But the original story actually came from the the 1880 novel “Washington Square” by Henry James. Husband and wife playwrights Augustus and Ruth Goetz brought James’ book to the stage and were later convinced to write the film’s screenplay. Their familiarity with the material and their mellifluous writing style mixed perfectly with Wyler’s perfectionism. The result was a highly acclaimed that still garnered critical praise and several Academy Awards.

In many ways the film’s star Olivia de Havilland can be thanked for making the movie happen. She went to see the play based on a recommendation and before it was even finished she was making calls. She first convinced the wonderful William Wyler to direct the film. He was instrumental in getting studio support and in convincing Augustus and Ruth Goetz to write the script. Montgomery Clift added another popular face to the production and the wonderful Ralph Richardson, who had taken part in a London stage version, was also cast.

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The story is set in 19th century New York City and focuses on a plain and reserved young woman (de Havilland) from the upper-class Washington Square neighborhood. She lives with her wealthy and proper father (Richardson) who does a poor job of hiding his disappointment. Her shyness and naivety draws her father’s insults and disenchantment and her feelings of self-worth are practically nonexistent. But their relationship takes a worse turn when she starts a relationship with a charming young man named Morris (Montgomery Clift). Her father thinks Morris is after her inheritance and he certainly doesn’t believe she’s capable of attracting a decent man. This three-way conflict makes up the core of this story.

“The Heiress” is unquestionably talky, but when the script is so fluid and its placed in the hands of such great performers, it’s easy to get lost in it. The Goetzs have no problem moving the story from stage to screen and Wyler’s directorial fingerprints are everywhere. His calculated long takes and his precise attention to detail are just some of the things you’ll notice. The film moves at a wonderful pace and it always keeps its focus. It also takes some pretty heavy subjects and treats them with respect.

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And then again you have the marvelous performances. Olivia de Havilland is nothing short of fabulous and she would go on to win her second Academy Award for her performance. Ralph Richardson is simply perfect as the arrogant aristocratic father. His well-spoken eloquence and tinge of snobbery is exactly what the role demanded. And then we have Montgomery Clift who I think does marvelous work. Apparently he didn’t think so. It’s said that Clift disliked his performance so much that he left the premiere before the film ended. That is definitely a case of being your own worst critic because I thought he was excellent.

“The Heiress” is a true motion picture classic and it is crafted by the talents of some of the best filmmakers and performers to ever work in the business. It has a very stagey feel and rightfully so. But it’s great drama that dissects and exposes its characters while telling a dense and emotional story. This film may not draw the attention of some modern moviegoers but it should. If you love movies, treat yourself by seeing “The Heiress”.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Dark Passage”

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Bogart and Bacall. Those three words always bring a smile to my face. They point to an enchanting onscreen chemistry than spanned four movies and eventually into their offscreen lives. Bacall’s beauty and saucy smarts was always the perfect match for Bogie’s cool tough guy. “Dark Passage” was the third movie that the headline-grabbing couple made together and at the time Bogart was the highest paid actor in Hollywood. The great Delmer Daves directed and wrote the screenplay for this clever film noir that had several unique tricks up its sleeve.

This film opens with a tense and brilliantly crafted jailbreak. Actually we never see the inside of San Quentin but we spot a man hiding in a barrel being driven off in a truck. Just down the road from the prison the barrel rolls off and the man is loose. Through a number of cool bits of camera trickery we never see the face of the escaped convict although we do hear his voice. Instead everything in this opening sequence is shown to us in first person. This treats the audience to a number of tricky perspectives that Daves pulls off beautifully. We learn from a radio alert than the convict’s name is Vincent Parry (Bogart) and he’s wanted for the murder of his wife.

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Parry is picked up by a mysterious young woman named Irene Jansen (Bacall). We learn that Irene is sympathetic towards Parry after believing he didn’t get a fair shake during his trial. She sneaks him past roadblocks and into San Francisco where he sets out to find his one and only friend George (Rory Mallinson). He also connects with a back-alley plastic surgeon who attempts to alter his appearance. Now keep in mind, up to this point we still haven’t seen Vincent’s face. Bogart works in the shadows or strictly through voice work from the first person perspective. After the surgery we finally see him only in full facial bandages. It’s not until about an hour in that the bandages are removed and we see Bogie’s mug for the first time.

We see the few central players during the first half of the film but it isn’t until Parry’s new face is revealed (in the image of Bogart) that the story changes direction. It becomes Parry’s quest to clear his name and to find out who really killed his wife. While the unfolding mystery is an interesting shift it is also a weakness. For such a dramatic setup, the revelation itself is pretty lightweight and how things unfold seems a little too on the nose. It’s not that it’s awful, but there was clearly room for a stronger and better conceived mystery.

Despite that, “Dark Passage” is still a wonderful movie because of the cool and stylish camera work, the great San Francisco locations, and the sizzling chemistry between Bogart and Bacall. There are also some really nice supporting performances from Bruce Bennett, Tom D’Andrea, Agnes Moorehead, and Rory Mallinson. “Dark Passage” sometimes gets lost in the conversations about Bogart and Bacall’s collaborations, but it’s a clever noir that does several things to set itself apart. It may soften up a tad in the third act but it is still a ton of fun.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Play Time”

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“Playtime” may be one of the most difficult movies to categorize or review and it may be a difficult movie for some people to process. French filmmaker Jacques Tati is known for focusing more on people and communities and allowing his stories to be told visually through their interactions. He was much more interested in visual comedy through observation than presenting a structured narrative. With “Playtime” he takes this unique style and amplifies it. But with this film he has a different intention and much bigger expectations that may be hard to appreciate at first glance.

“Playtime” was Tati’s most ambitious project and at the time it was the most expensive movie in French history. It never made its money back at the box office and eventually drove Tati into bankruptcy. Much of the high cost went into the enormous set built by the filmmaker. Money issues made constructing the set drag out almost 4 years. But if you’ve seen the film it’s impossible to not be in awe of what Tati created. His set included an airport, skyscrapers, apartment buildings, office complexes, a downtown area, and several busy city streets. All of it represented the new futuristic Paris that Tati often spoke against in his films.

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This is also a movie intended to fade out Tati’s popular Mr. Hulot character. Tati was growing tired of him and used this as an opportunity to move on to something new. But some believe this is one reason the movie wasn’t as well received by the public as hoped. Mr. Hulot was incredibly popular with audiences and his limited appearances in this picture didn’t sit well with some viewers. But honestly, Mr. Hulot is only a cog in Tati’s big machine. This was never meant to be a Mr. Hulot picture in the same vein as “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” or “Mon Oncle”.

“Playtime” does incorporate several of Tati’s signature techniques in filmmaking and comedy. The gags often hinge on timing and some of them require careful attention or you just might miss them. There is no meaningful dialogue in the picture. Instead the voices of people are simply part of the important background noise that we hear throughout the film. Sound has often played a significant part in Tati’s films and it’s no different here. Everything from the loud heels clicking on the cold, hard floors to the flatulent noises from the hip office chairs has a distinct and intentional sound.

 

The movie is broken down into sections. It begins in what resembles a hospital but we soon find it’s an airport. It’s here that we are first introduced to some of the film’s reoccurring characters including a tour group of women from the United States and of course Mr. Hulot. From there the movie moves into Tati’s vision of where Paris was heading – a city of long, congested, assembly-line like streets with matching skyscrapers made of steel and glass. The city’s traditional beauty and history is gone replaced by a cold and sterile modernist future. Tati does give us quick looks back at the city’s glory but they are cleverly shown reflections seen in glass doors. The reflections of the Eiffel Tower and of the Sacré-Cœur Basilica on Montmartre hill are visions of a Paris that Tati sees as disappearing in the real world.

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Mr. Hulot is lost in this new world. The second big section of the movie takes place in an office high-rise where Hulot is set to have a meeting. Tati makes the place incredibly impersonal and goes to great lengths to portray the building’s futuristic technology as silly and pointless. There is a great scene that illustrates this right after Hulot enters the office building. He’s met by a little old doorman who sits him down while he calls upstairs. To do so the old fella has to work an overly complex intercom system, all the time grumbling to himself as he carries out his perfunctory, everyday duties. He refuses to let Hulot leave his seat, making him wait and wait until the executive he’s there to meet finally arrives from upstairs. But the executive moves him into an office 10 feet away from where he’s been waiting and has him sit down and wait longer. The doorman, the intercom, and the long wait were for the most part pointless.

Hulot ends up getting lost and he stumbles upon a trade show happening in another part of the building. This is where the next section of the movie takes place. It’s followed by some time spent gazing into an apartment complex before heading to an evening at a nice restaurant. Most of the film’s second half takes place in the restaurant. Hulot ends up inside but we really see very little of him. Instead we’re introduced to the new series of characters including a loud and obnoxious American businessman, a clever doorman, an embarrassed waiter who has ripped his pants, the antsy owner, a drunk, the aforementioned tour group, and a number of other people.

The restaurant sequence is a pretty impressive thing to behold. We watch as the night starts slow but as the crowd increases and several mishaps occur, things liven up. There’s really nothing else to the scene. There isn’t a deeper story angle to latch onto nor is there one central character to follow. It’s pure observation as the camera steps back and moves from one section of the restaurant to another. We simply watch everything as if we were sitting on a stool in the corner of the room. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen. It’s a bold and inventive experiment but it’s also laced with some really funny gags. And it doesn’t stop there. There’s a really good drugstore sequence and some time spent on the congested city streets before zipping us back to the airport.

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You can’t watch “Play Time” and not be impressed with the skill and the craft of Jacques Tati. And while it certainly has some funny moments, it lacks the playfulness of the previous Mr. Hulot films and I have to admit I missed that. The shelving of Hulot is obvious as Tati intentionally loses him in the concrete, glass, and metal world he created. In fact, at times it seems that Tati is rubbing it in our faces by occasionally throwing out men who walk and dress like Hulot but we find out they are not. By shortening the screen time of his beloved character he forces us to look at the bigger picture that he’s painted on his personal canvas. He makes us look beyond what we’re familiar with and what we expect.

There is nothing conventional about “Play Time”. It’s an ambitious project that also has that signature Tati humor. But it’s nothing like the filmmaker’s previous work and that took some adjusting for me. And personally speaking, this film just didn’t resonate with me like his other work. Staying with the movie can be a bit of a challenge and the humor is spread out and more subtle. But the craftsmanship behind this film can’t be questioned and the sheer scope of the undertaking is incredible. There is so much going on throughout this picture and for a movie with no substantial plot or direction that’s a pretty amazing accomplishment.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Sundowners”

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What is a sundowner you may ask? In this film from 1960 one character defines a sundowner as “someone whose home is where the sun goes down.” It was an Australian term used for roamers who traveled across the countryside taking one job at a time. They would pitch their tent wherever they were at the end of the day and that was their home for the night. Richard Zinnemann’s film follows a family of sundowners who move from place to place taking sheep herding jobs. The film bombed in the United States but did well overseas and would go on to earn five Oscar nominations including one for Best Film.

Robert Mitchum plays Paddy Carmody, a nomad at heart who has no desire to settle down in 1920s Australia. He is perfectly content with being constantly on the move and working small jobs here and there. But over time Paddy’s insatiable wanderlust begins to clash with the desires of his wife Ida (Deborah Kerr) and his teenaged son Sean (Michael Anderson). They believe the time is come to consider settling down. They’ve grown tired of constantly being on the go and Sean is at an age where he wants to experience life and set out on his own path. Paddy’s stubbornness and his family’s patience provide the film its central contention.

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Some critics pointed out that there isn’t a lot of plot in “The Sundowners”. That’s essentially true although the film’s intent is to be a sprawling tale of the family’s lives, love, and rugged endurance. We follow them along the Australian backcountry as they drive a large herd of sheep, contend with a sweeping wildfire, and live off what the land provides. This allows for some truly beautiful, sweeping scenes that vividly capture the Australian countryside. The film was originally set to be shot in Arizona, but Zinnemann petitioned hard to spend the extra money and shoot it on location. It was a good decision. The landscapes are anaccurate setting and the story feels perfectly in place. And some scenes, like the aforementioned wildfire are shot with such tenacity and skill. Simply put, the movie looks great.

The family encounters several interesting people along the way. They hire and befriend an Englishman and fellow roamer named Rupert. Peter Ustinov would receive an Oscar nomination for the role. There are also several other interesting faces that pop up when Ida convinces Paddy to take on a stint at a sheep shearing station. She hopes the time in one place will soften him to the idea of settling down here. It’s at this remote station that their family dynamic takes some dramatic turns which sets up the rest of the film.

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As for the performances, Mitchum is rock-solid as always. His Paddy is a tough, salt-of-the-earth fellow, but one whose stubbornness threatens to alienate the family the holds most dear. Mitchum fits right into the character although his Aussie accent is a bit erratic. Kerr is as brilliant as always. Her Isa puts off tough and rugged pioneer vibes but also maintains a distinct femininity. Kerr would earn one of the six Oscar nominations of her career for this role. Amazingly she never won an acting Oscar but the Academy did give her the honorary “Whoops, We Screwed Up” award in 1994. The supporting work was uniformly strong and it too gained critical praise.

“The Sundowners” does run a tad too long and there is an occasional lull or two. The absence of a more defined plot may be an issue for some as well. But the movie does a great job of selling its characters and drawing us to them. I really liked the family and I wanted to see how their story plays out. I also appreciated how grounded the story feels. The film never embraces the sentimentality that many family dramas are consumed by. It just wants us to get to know these people and to experience the life they live. Personally that was enough for me.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Casablanca”

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How is it that I have been movie blogging in some fashion for over three years yet I’ve never reviewed my favorite movie of all time? Well it’s time to remedy that. That opening line probably spoils any mystery about my final score, but that’s perfectly okay. To me “Casablanca” is a perfect film and I owe a lot to it for broadening my appreciation for classic cinema and for introducing me to my favorite actor of all time – Humphrey Bogart.

The world of cinema has long regarded “Casablanca” as a true classic. Often times I rebel against that kind of establishment recognition but in some cases they get it right. This is one of those instances. “Casablanca” is a classic in every sense of the word. Whether your talking about the flawless direction from Hungarian born Michael Curtiz, the brilliant screenplay brought together by a number of people including brothers Julius and Philip Epstein, Casey Robinson, and Howard Koch, or the spectacular cast led by the cool confident Bogart and the stunningly beautiful Ingrid Bergman. “Casablanca” not only has all of the ingredients for a true classic, but it doesn’t waste any of them.

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Warner Brothers didn’t have very high expectations for the film. In fact it was rushed through to its release in order to capitalize on the North African campaign of World War 2. The initial response was lukewarm but the film would quickly prove itself and ended up winning three Oscars including Best Picture. Over the years the appreciation for the film has only grown and with good reason. It truly is something special. Romance, patriotism, humor, suspense – “Casablanca” has it all.

Bogart leads the way as the complex Rick Blaine. He owns and runs Rick’s Café Américain, a popular nightclub in 1941 Vichy controlled Casablanca. He keeps his business flourishing during a tumultuous wartime by being neutral and “sticking his neck out for nobody”. He’s surrounded by a great assortment of supporting characters, many played by some of Hollywood’s best at the time. Claude Rains received an Oscar nomination for his turn as a corrupt Vichy Captain with a special interest in Rick. The great Sydney Greenstreet plays a rival club owner. Consummate character actor Peter Lorre plays a crook who is in way over his head. And there’s Dooley Wilson as Rick’s loyal friend and club piano player Sam. Fun fact – Dooley was a drummer and didn’t know how to play the piano at all. Yet his character’s singing and playing of “As Time Goes By” is unforgettable.

But Rick’s well controlled life takes a dramatic turn when the former love of his life Ilsa (Bergman) shows up at his club. Ilsa’s husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a well known Czech resistance leader and fugitive from the Nazis, is with her. They seek Rick’s help to get out of the country before the Nazi Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) catches up to them. Rick is reluctant due to the bitterness of having his heart broken and his desire to maintain his establishment’s neutrality. Does he risk it all for the woman he once loved?

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“Casablanca” captures and utilizes so many things well. There’s a high level of suspense. There’s a small touch of humor. There is a great realization of wartime tensions. And right in the middle of it all is what may be the best romance in cinema history. Bogie and Bergman have a sizzling chemistry and the looming threats and high stakes all around them adds such a pop to their relationship. Bogie is a hurt man hiding behind a convincing facade of tough coolness. Bergman is brave but torn and she was never more beautiful than in “Casablanca”. It’s impossible not to be completely absorbed in these two and the intense circumstances surrounding them.

There isn’t a bad performance in “Casablanca”. There isn’t a wasted line or wasted shot. There’s never a down moment. It’s pacing its absolutely perfect. The camera work and stage design is impeccable. The romance simmers. The story is smart and fluid. I could go on and on. As I said, “Casablanca” is rightly called a classic. It accomplishes so much that modern movies with their massive budgets and greater technologies seldom lay hold of. It’s beautiful storytelling with one memorable line after another and a Bogart performance that forever etched his name in film history. It’s my favorite movie and I can never see it enough.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5 STARSs

5STAR K&M

REVIEW: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”

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After its release in 1969 “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” made a lot of money and garnered a lot of critical praise. It’s been called the ultimate buddy movie and some give it credit for reinventing the Western genre for a new generation. It received a total of seven Academy Award nominations, winning four of the golden statues and it has been lauded by many as a bonafide classic. But over the years there have been a few critics who have looked at the film through a more critical lens. Could it be that “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” hasn’t aged well or are there some legitimate issues that have always been there?

For me “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is a terribly uneven film in several ways. It features several great and truly memorable moments but it also has stretches of redundancy which grinds things to a halt. Then there are lines of dialogue that are crisp and snappy but others that are glaringly lame or simply don’t feel like they belong in a western of its time. This movie rides a tonal roller coaster which made it feel a bit scattered and difficult to take seriously.

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Paul Newman was a megastar at the time and he was intended to be the centerpiece playing Butch Cassidy. This annoyed Steve McQueen who was set to play Sundance. After a disagreement over who got top billing, McQueen said adios which opened the door for a young Robert Redford. This turned out to be Redford’s star-making role and his performance was the standout. Newman is obviously a fine actor but surprisingly I didn’t see the usual charisma he brings to a role. Newman certainly has his moments but I feel he could have offered more especially considering the substantial investment in him.

Things certainly start off on a high note. We get a great scene showing Sundance being accused of cheating at a card game (a scene which features Sam Elliot’s big screen debut). There’s also a fun bit where Butch and Sundance return to their gang’s hideout and face a small mutiny (In the movie they were called The Hole in the Wall Gang because Cassidy’s real gang name The Wild Bunch was the title of the Sam Peckinpah film also due out that year). After squelching the uprising, the gang takes to holding up trains. The first robbery goes well but after botching their second attempt in a hysterical sequence, Butch and Sundance find themselves being pursued by an über-posse put together by a wealthy railroad tycoon.

Up to this point everything is popping. The movie sets itself up well and with the exception of the well-known bicycle scene filmed to B.J. Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” (which I feel is overly long and oddly out of place), it’s impossible not to be taken in by the story. But then the movie hits a wall. We get a long, drawn out series of shots features the pair on the run from the posse of all posses. We see them riding across the Badlands, running up rocky cliffs, and then stopping to see if they have lost their pursuers. With a near mystical-like presence, the posse is always in the distance. We go through this cycle several times before finally moving in a new direction.

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Realizing the severity of their wanted status, Butch and Sundance round-up Etta (played by Katharine Ross), a young lady with an unusual relationship with the boys, and the three head to Bolivia. Once there the story follows almost the same blueprint as the first half – some really funny moments, some memorable scenes, and a dull stretch. And that is what makes “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” such a hard film to score. It has those times where it’s an absolute blast. It has its funny moments and the chemistry between Newman and Redford shines at certain points. Conrad Hall’s Oscar-winning cinematography is outstanding and it’s hard not to be smitten by the look of the film as a whole.

Unfortunately it’s hard for me to overlook the inconsistencies found in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. There are some obvious missteps which make me question how this film can be considered an all-time classic. But it certainly isn’t a terrible movie and I definitely recommend seeing it. Redford’s star launched from this flick and it still made a significant mark on movie history. It’s just not a movie that will find its way into my pantheon of all-time favorites.

VERDICT – 3 STARS