December 31, 2010

The Year in Review: 2010

As usual, it has been difficult to access a lot of the movies of 2010 that were worth seeing. Most of the smaller movies seem to open only in New York and L.A., which is enough to leave you howling with despair if you happen to live in Jacksonville. I'm thankful for Five Points Theatre, which has managed to get some of the smaller movies our way. Sometimes I'm frustrated with their lack of imagination when they do retrospectives, but I'm thankful that because of them I was able to see Howl, which was a flaky little movie but featured some magnificent animation, and also Get Low, which was a wonderfully dark comedy that seems to have been lost in the shuffle of the awards season (like so many others). I'm also indebted to Netflix, which has a large number of 2010 movies available for online viewing, and that's how I was able to see the fascinating documentaries Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work and Casino Jack and the United States of Money.

Rants & Raves of 2010:
Robin Hood, so underrated, was fine entertainment. Russell Crowe was an obvious choice to play Robin Hood, but that didn't change the fact that he was the best choice. The director, Ridley Scott, managed to make something new and exciting out of the old legend. Perhaps people have been blinded by 300 and Gladiator and other movies of that sort, and think Robin Hood has nothing those movies don't have, for as good as it was, Robin Hood struggled at the box office. 

This summer there were a lot of baddies, but I managed to have a good time at The A-Team, which was stupid but often hysterically funny. It was probably one of the lightest comic book movies of late, and it had enough spy-thriller content to make it truly fun, particularly thanks to actor Patrick Wilson's performance as one of the rogue CIA agents. Salt, which featured Angelina Jolie as a rogue CIA agent, was equally fun entertainment, from the director of The Saint, Phillip Noyce. Salt was a lean, fast-paced thriller that brought out Jolie's strengths as an actress: her toughness, her litheness, and her ability to intoxicate the screen. I also liked the oft-maligned Knight and Day. It was a lot more enjoyable than people were willing to give it credit for, possibly because it's currently chic to dislike Tom Cruise. However, He and Cameron Diaz managed to make a fairly unoriginal plot into an amusing adventure. 

The biggest disappointment of the year for me was You Again. There were such wonderful possibilities with a cast that included Sigourney Weaver and Jamie Lee Curtis (and Victor Garber as Curtis's husband, who's a fine actor), who were set up in the movie to be going at it like cats in a box. The movie was simply inept. It plateaued within the first thirty minutes, and I was holding my breath waiting for it to kick into full gear. It never did. There were scattered laughs, but my increased disappointment with the bad writing and the bad acting made them less and less funny. There were better and more frequent laughs in Aliens and Halloween H20 than in You Again. It was probably the lamest movie of the year (possibly tied with Jonah Hex).

Then there was Easy A, a breath of fresh air. Emma Stone was so effortlessly funny as Olive that you were willing to oblige the movie's excessive need to enshrine teenage drama and 80s movies into one big sacred offering. It was Stone's character who undercut the phoniness of the pharisaic teeny-boppers who declared her a modern-day Hester Prynne. A very fun movie, and my favorite comedy of the year (and probably the most fun I had all year. I was rocking with laughter throughout the movie).

I suppose I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the most overrated movie of 2010, Inception. For everyone who wants to devote a day of fasting and celebration to director Christopher Nolan, I urge you to think through Inception again. Inception is the worst kind of inflated, bombastic nonsense because it tries to elevate itself to something greater, as though this were Nolan's attempt at Citizen Kane. Trashy, clunky movies like The A-Team succeed because of their refusal to take themselves seriously, but trashy, clunky Inception is deadly serious. It's so serious that it's become heresy to suggest that perhaps Inception was a misfire and not a masterpiece. 

Also on the worst list is the latest Twilight installment, the flickering, fluttering Eclipse, which somehow dulled a lot of people into thinking they were having a good time. People continue to chastise me that, "Twilight is meant to entertain teenage girls, and for them it's good." I disagree, because I don't think teenage girls should live with the assumption that Twilight is all there is, or that it's the best of what's new out there either in movies or in literature. They can think through a movie or a book if they're guided by someone with an affection for either or both, and they can see the relative merits and shortcomings of a piece of movie-making, given the right frame of understanding.

Every year I am tempted to write some treatise on the demise of movies, but then I realize that someone has written about that subject just about every year for decades. I encourage curious readers to seek out Pauline Kael's essay, "Why Are Movies So Bad?", which examines the way money has corrupted movies. If you look up the ten most financially successful films of 2010, they're all big productions, mostly geared toward younger audiences. It makes you wish that there was more intelligent stuff being marketed to them (with the possible exception of the Harry Potter movies). However, there are always good movies to seek out if we'll simply take the time to do so, and I hope you found this article insightful and interesting. Here's to 2011 and the good movies--not the bad ones--it will bring.

My favorite movies of 2010: The Social Network, Robin Hood, The King's Speech, The Ghost Writer, The Fighter, Get Low, The Town, True Grit, and Easy A.

Standout performances (in no particular order)
1. Bill Murray in Get Low
2. Emma Stone in Easy A
3. Cate Blanchett in Robin Hood
4. Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech
5. Helena Bonham Carter in The King's Speech
6. Olivia Williams in The Ghost Writer
7. Melissa Leo in The Fighter
8. Jeremy Renner in The Town
9. Barbara Hershey in Black Swan
10. Naomi Watts in Fair Game
11. Jeff Bridges in True Grit
12. Matthew Broderick in Wonderful World



December 30, 2010

Black Swan

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) wants to be the lead in Swan Lake. Her obsession with being a perfect ballerina leads to some kind of psychological breakdown a la Roman Polanski's Repulsion. It's the weirdest movie of 2010, one that leaves you feeling cold and disturbed by its bizarreness. Director Darren Aronofsky keeps us up close and personal with Nina throughout the movie, and I don't think there's a single scene she's not in. Her creepy, conniving nemesis, Lily (Mila Kunis), seems innocuous except for the fact that movie keeps telling us over and over again that this is about Nina's destruction in order for another ballerina to take her coveted place. It's like All About Eve in terms of the mousy young novice snatching the spotlight from the aging star. Except, there's a scene in a bar where Nina tells a young man that she's a ballerina and he's completely disinterested in ballet and doesn't even know Swan Lake. So, Nina is obsessed with and being torn apart by something that no one cares about. It's an attempt at marrying "high" art (ballet) with "low" art (movies), and I think in the process they're both taken down a few notches.

The movie has moments that make you think Nina is possessed by a demon. Is this The Exorcist all over again? Then Nina takes some ecstasy at Lily's urging and it seems more akin to Aronofsky's earlier Requiem For A Dream. Black Swan is a movie about how truly beautiful and perfect art can only be so if you are willing to die for it, to be completely consumed by it. And the act must be completed to truly work. There is no half-hearted attempt at perfection. Perfection is death, we are told. Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) as the director of the ballet company, seems convinced of this, but it really just seems like he wants to get laid. He's been feeding such fiddle faddle to the previous ingenue Beth (Winona Ryder), who's forced into retirement by her age (and she's not content to exit the stage in a graceful manner). Beth winds up being hit by a car and disfigured, rendered ugly and useless. And so only the young can truly experience the perfect beauty of art. Those past their prime can die by their own hand but not by the perfection of their craft. 

Meanwhile, Nina has a really sordid relationship with her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), who reminds you of the mom in Carrie (Piper Laurie). The mother-daughter relationship seems to contribute to Nina's madness, but then Aronofsky doesn't seem convinced about what the cause of her madness is. Perhaps it's simply a combination of Nina's unhealthy relationship with her mother and her obsession with being perfect, of being the Star. Regardless, we are being prepped for some kind of Jeckyll and Hyde transformation throughout Black Swan. You spend the entire movie so mired in Aronofsky's cold, freakish world that you experience a feeling of relief when it's all over and done with. Sure it's affecting, but it's also pretty dismal.

Aronofsky loves playing with the imagery of the Double. The movie is full of mirrors. We're beaten over the head with the doppelganger image. And pink seems like the color of death in Black Swan. A pink cake incites a bit of tension between mother and daughter. The hospital curtains in Beth's room are pink. The flowers filling the floor of her room are pink. The towel Nina uses to cover up an increasing pool of blood is pink. Pink, the most obvious and disinteresting symbol of innocent girlhood, becomes a cinematic device just like the mirrors to insinuate things that eventually come to the surface. It's all about Nina's sexual coming of age. The movie's much-celebrated eroticism is something out of a college fraternity boy's wet dream. Nina must find herself via sexual experimentation. She needs to "loosen up" in order to perfect her art. Her skill is brilliant but it's too forced, too skilled in fact, to really propel her into the realm of total emotional abandon. But it's all so creepy that you feel like the worst kind of voyeur for watching.

December 29, 2010

Wonderful World

Wonderful World is a movie about a man named Ben Singer (Matthew Broderick) who's really cynical and expects disappointment and negativity at every turn. Apparently he didn't always view the world this way, but then he got divorced and felt himself becoming alienated from his daughter and bored with his copywriting job (not to mention irritated at the perceived level of idealism of those around him). His only real glimmer of hope is his roommate, Ibou (Michael K. Williams), an African immigrant who goes into a diabetic coma early in the film, initiating Ben's journey down the road of not being such a grumpy pessimist. He meets Ibou's sister when she comes from Africa, and they enjoy a little romantic relationship while they're waiting for Ibou to wake up. It's The Accidental Tourist all over again, except they've replaced flakiness with foreignness. Sanaa Lathan, as the sister, is quite beautiful, and she has a natural warmth about her that makes her character really rather charming.

Matthew Broderick seems to gravitate toward parts where he's a perpetual loser. His pasty, frowning demeanor served him well in movies like Election and You Can Count On Me. In Wonderful World, there are moments when you wonder why on earth you're supposed to care about this schmuck, but his supreme annoyance with the world is somewhat understandable, and he's very believable as a grump. He just can't connect, but he's reawakened by African exoticism and values. Perhaps it's a bit much to believe, but okay.

Wonderful World has a remarkable slightness about it, although you feel compelled to watch anyway, if only to see what becomes of Ben. There's such an inclination that he will dig his own grave and bury himself too, and there's an inkling of belief that in fact Ben gets a kick out of being kicked when he's down. When he gets fired, he's forced to take a job as a pizza delivery man. He faces an uncomfortable moment when he delivers dinner to his former boss (William Ragsdale), who doesn't even seem to recognize him. It's humiliating and degrading, but even more it's a victory for Ben, confirming all of his worst notions about human nature. He's a man in search of such victories, and it's all too easy for him to discover them. He tries to sue the city for neglecting his roommate Ibou--another such search for confirmation that the world is vile and heartless. We're told that, yes, the world is heartless, but we shouldn't give up the ghost so easily. We should put on a happy face regardless and make the best of things.

It's a bit of a Hallmark message for a movie that wants so desperately to be an "indie" drama. Broderick's character, in one of his rants, makes an interesting comment about movies that they're only valued by how much money they make. Indeed, this little film has gotten virtually no notice by critics or audiences, and I think it deserves to be seen. Not because it's a great movie, but because it's interesting. Even as flawed as it is, it was more affecting than most of the high-grade junk that's produced from the studios. It's light even when it's heavy, and it's charming even as it reproduces scenes from other movies we've seen a million times. The movie is downright repetitive at times, but we're pulled into its games rather easily.

With Phillip Baker Hall, as the Man, who keeps turning up in Ben's dreams and marijuana-induced hallucinations. Written and directed by Joshua Goldin.

December 28, 2010

The Fighter

For me, boxing is about as uninteresting as good taste is to Kathy Griffin. I liked Cinderella Man but it's such a bland subject to me that much more is needed than the back and forth of the two prizefighters and the ever popular theme of an underdog triumphing over insurmountable odds. Apparently entire cities of people can rally behind a boxer as though he's a symbol of all their hard work, blood, sweat, values, etc., but how many times do we have to sit through a movie that's made of such subject matter before we're asleep with boredom? Director David O. Russell makes The Fighter less about boxing and more about the family of sleazy, opportunistic worms and their selfish investment in the career of son/brother Micky Ward, whose brother Dick had his time in the limelight in the 1970s against a fighter named Sugar Ray. Dick is now a crack addict, and the addiction keeps pulling him apart from his brother as both a friend and a trainer and mentor. Nevertheless, Dick's mom Alice, who manages Micky's boxing career, is blinded by Dick's past glory and is convinced that he's necessary to Micky's success. She's waiting for Dick to make his big comeback, and biding her time with Micky's boxing campaign. They're thrilled that HBO is doing a documentary on Dick until they discover it's a documentary about the horrors of cocaine addiction.

As Micky, Mark Wahlberg does a formidable job playing the emotional center of the movie. Wahlberg will probably not get the recognition he deserves for initiating The Fighter and for his performance, but he's quite good. The problem is he's not really playing anything new for himself as an actor. He's basically a nice guy. We feel confident that he can do what is needed to win, and we trust Wahlberg as an actor to carry the film. Christian Bale, as Dick, has the more extreme character. His glassy-eyed stares and wobbling swagger make him seem a bit nightmarish--he's trying to show us the ravages of addiction and in the process becomes something increasingly hideous. I wasn't even particularly sympathetic towards him. He seemed like a leech sucking away his younger brother's potential, urged on by the Mama Leach, Alice (Melissa Leo), whose part is probably the most delicious one in the movie (along with the parts of her seven dried-up, spaced-out daughters, who do pretty much whatever Mama tells them).

 This is probably one of the funniest movies of the year. Russell gives us such a bleakly comic look at this royally f***ed up family that it has the effect of watching an episode of Jersey Shore. They revel in the gutter as though it were lined with satin and roses, and their opportunism is so unveiled that you can't help but laugh at their efforts to protect their turgid family unit from outside invasion. Amy Adams, as Micky's girlfriend, represents the first real threat to the family's shell. She sees how much they're ruining Micky's chances to really succeed as a prizefighter, and she has the audacity to stand up to their "us verses the world" act.

The relationship between Dick and Micky is truly what drives the film's story. Without Micky's fear of letting go of his brother--of essentially betraying him by realizing how destructive Dick is to Micky's career and his life--he could easily move on to brighter pastures and recognize his potential. However, it's not as simple as Dick being a useless leach. He's got instincts that can't be ignored when it comes to boxing, and Micky realizes that he does still need his brother's help. Perhaps the dramatic tension is a bit predictable, but the movie's comic realism helps to lighten the load of the drama. We're already enjoying the juicy scenes of the family in-fighting more than the boxing anyway.

Overall I'd say The Fighter exceeded my expectations because it went so much against the grind of the typical boxing movie, and I was very thankful that David Russell and everyone else involved in making the movie took the care to be funny and realistic in their approach. With Jack McGee and Frank Renzulli. Written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson.

December 27, 2010

The King's Speech

My expectations going into The King's Speech were low. It looked like Oscar-bait. It looked like a lot of scenes of Colin Firth making animalistic stammering noises to show us how painfully he struggled to improve his speech. While the movie had moments where it seemed to be aiming for an Oscar, the story it told was fascinating, and didn't need to be elevated into awards material. It's about British royalty, particularly British royalty in the 1930s, and so what it needed was to be taken down a few notches. Geoffrey Rush gives the movie this necessary derailing. He plays Lionel Logue, a speech therapist to whom the Duke of York (soon to be King George VI) goes for help with his impediment. Lionel is not impressed with the pomp of George's royal status and doesn't afford the future king any extraneous privileges.

Firth is somber looking in another tasteful performance (he was very somber and tasteful in 2009's A Single Man, as an English professor), but he manages to break through the clinched veneer of his character to let a little humor and a lot of vulnerability into his performance. As his wife, a young Queen Mother, Helena Bonham Carter has such a high amount of potential within her as an actress. You can sense the wit she carries inside herself as it comes through in little movements, facial expressions, and in the way she carries herself. It's quite fun watching her leading her husband around like a shepherd with one of his sheep, and yet never overtaking his station. She's quite lovely, and quite an intelligent, fiery actress. Watching her keep that fieriness in check is fascinating because she seems to be in such command of her performance.

The movie cannot resist giving us a bit of the World War II treatment, tapping into the tension that was stirring in Europe in the 1930s. Of course it's obvious that England needed a king who could get his way through a sentence without stammering incoherently, especially during a time of war, so WW2 gives the story weight and significance. After all, why are we to care about a privileged royal son's speech problems? Surely the sympathy belongs to the underlings of the empire who cannot afford the luxury of a speech therapist. Surely we are better off caring for Rush's middle class dwelling and his middle class family. And yet the Logues are never portrayed as greedy, pining opportunists trying to glom onto the king's prestige. They are content with who they are much more so than the king himself. There's a scene when the radio carries the news of impending war, and you get a sense of the fear in their faces that one or both of their sons may be summoned to fight for the Crown.

Colin Firth may get the bulk of the award recognition for this picture (and he is good here), but I believe it is Geoffrey Rush who carries The King's Speech, and Helena Bonham Carter as well. Their performances were among the highlights of the movie. The cinematography of Danny Cohen was another. At first I groaned because I was afraid the murkiness of the exteriors--London is known for its rainy, foggy days--would make the movie a dull, depressing drag. But Cohen manages to make it visually interesting and gives the material a fluidity that it desperately needs. You can't squeeze much juice out of crusty upper-class British drama without a little help, and it's partly to the cinematographer's credit that The King's Speech is so watchable. It's not only watchable, it's quite funny, with a particularly amusing scene of the king shouting profanities at the top of his lungs as a vocal exercise.

Also starring Guy Pearce as David, the eldest son of George V and briefly his successor (his philandering ways force him out of the throne), Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill, Claire Bloom as their mother, Michael Gambon as George V, Eve Best as David's American lover, and Jennifer Ehle as Lionel's wife. Written by David Seidler. Directed by Tom Hooper. 111 minutes.

December 26, 2010

The Tourist

The Tourist is an American remake of the French film Anthony Zimmer (2005). It stars Angelina Jolie as a British woman who meets an American tourist (Johnny Depp) while on a train from Paris. Depp's character, a banal, unwitting math teacher from Wisconsin, becomes the fall guy in Jolie's plan to help her lover, a career criminal named Alexander Pearce, escape from both Scotland Yard and a greedy gangster (Steven Berkoff) from whom Pearce stole around 800 million dollars. It's a simple adventure story, botched by three writers (Christopher McQuarrie, Julian Fellowes, and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck) who don't seem to know what they're doing or how to make a good romantic adventure pop with suspense and charm. They don't seem interested in giving us a good time so much as filling time. Perhaps the writers were just sloppy in their construction of the story, or perhaps they merely translated a sloppily constructed story from French into English. Either way, what you have is a movie that is entertaining for a while until you start to think through it and become frustrated with the laziness with which it was all thought out.

Some random Scotland Yard agent is apparently an informant to the gangster mentioned earlier: he leaks the information about the man Jolie claims is Pearce (but is really the schoolteacher played by Depp). The movie rests on this little mishap and on the incompetence of another Scotland Yard agent, played by Paul Bettany, who keeps botching operations because he fails to do his homework thoroughly. At the climactic scene where the gangster is about to kill Jolie and Depp, it is this agent who refuses to let his men fire on the gangster and his goons because he's waiting for Pearce to show up. When Bettany's superior (Timothy Dalton) miraculously arrives on the scene, he orders them to fire on the villains, and the heroes are saved by a modern-day deus ex machina.

The Tourist reminded me of several movies. It seemed a little reminiscent of Charade and even North By Northwest, and more recently of another Angelina Jolie movie, Salt, and Knight and Day (also from 2010) which starred Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. That movie was mindless but more engaging because the stars were I think a bit more relaxed. Jolie seems as inaccessible as ever with her cynical, exotic version of Audrey Hepburn-esque elegance. While I can totally buy their being a romantic pair, the movie doesn't give us enough of them together where they're actually able to fall in love with each other. In the end we discover why this seemed unnecessary to the writers, but until that time it's just bad writing and even worse disinterested writing. They didn't bother with a better script, possibly because they knew it would be Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp playing the parts. Depp is so reserved that you wish some of the magnetism of which he's capable would shine through, but he's forced into playing the inept, charmingly clumsy American tourist, so he's likable but boring. He becomes a puppy following Jolie's character around out of blind love. The movie is passably entertaining, but you long for so much more than that, and it becomes quite a disappointment in the end.

There were things I liked about The Tourist, however. There's a lightness to the movie that is much appreciated in an era when most filmmakers' approach to subtlety involves a megaphone and a sledgehammer. The simplicity of Depp's motivation is perhaps what drives his charm. As far as we know he's been deeply hurt before, and it's like he's a lost soul wandering through the city of love. Jolie's character, on the other hand, is ambiguous. We wonder what she's really up to, and her duplicitous behavior is the right contrast to Depp's character. The movie tried to use its Venice locale well, particularly during an exciting boat chase where Depp's character is handcuffed to the railing of one boat, and Jolie is rescuing him from Berkoff's goons. It's a marvelously well-done scene. I think it outshined the finale, which should have been even more exciting given the build-up with the chase scenes in the middle of the movie. It's the writing that messes everything up. The star appeal and the basic elements of the plot are alligned for a better movie than is given to us in the end.

December 23, 2010

True Grit

A plucky fourteen-year-old girl--who looks like Anne of Green Gables with brown hair--nags a grizzled old marshal into hunting down the man who killed her father in cold blood. Jeff Bridges takes Rooster Cogburn (the part that garnered John Wayne his only Oscar for the 1969 version of True Grit) and turns him into a comical force to be reckoned with. He banters back and forth with Matt Damon, who plays a Texas ranger who's hunting the killer for a different murder. You can tell Bridges was having fun with his part, and Damon's natural likableness comes through in his role even after a scene where he repeatedly welts the pesky little girl for her stubborn refusal to let them take care of her vengeance. She's determined to see justice served.

The Coen Brothers never fail to let the brutality of their characters come through. They seem to have a morbid fascination with bodily disfigurement, as I recall the knife in M. Emmett Walsh's gloved hand in Blood Simple. It's not just that he gets stabbed. Frances McDormand plunges it into his hand while he's stretching his arm out of one window and into another, so that he's stuck in that position in excruciating pain, and as sleazy as his character is, the audience groans in agony right there with him. In No Country For Old Men, we squirmed in our seats as Javier Bardem repeatedly dealt his own sadistic brand of "justice" with that strange oxygen tank device, which left little holes in people's foreheads. In True Grit, it's like the Greatest Hits of Movie Disfigurement. Hands stabbed, chests stabbed, eyes pecked out by birds, a tongue bit through, teeth yanked out with abandon, serpents nesting in a rotting corpse. There's a scene of a hanging early on in the movie, and we see the brutality of execution matched by the creepy fascination of the spectators who've come to it like it's a carnival show. The audience watches as the man in the middle makes a pathetic speech about being raised improperly and pleads for mercy with tears streaming down his face, and then has his head covered by one of those black sacks. When the native American on his right is about to speak, the executioner simply pulls the sack over his head and he's denied even the slightest bit of dignity.

It's like a Western mixed with Grand Guignol, and yet there's a consistent thread of humor that topples the brutality over like a heavy statue on loose, grainy soil. One minute we're absolutely frantic with the grotesque horror of it, the next we're laughing because Bridges is giving Matt Damon shit about being a Texas ranger who mounts sheep instead of horses or one of a hundred funny zingers that he slings at Damon's character (and vice versa).

As the girl, Hailee Steinfeld pulls off the difficult task of being the emotional heart of the picture. Her naive idealism and her stick-to-itiveness is charming even when the cynical reality is evident in the facial expressions and the words of the men. Josh Brolin plays Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father, and his entrance into the story is well-timed because it is so unexpected. He's totally scummy, an interesting change from his last Coen Brothers movie, where he was the hero we rooted for (even though he was an idiot at times).

The suspenseful scenes are well-crafted. They tug at our emotions and heighten our senses in a calculated sort of way, and the directors seem to have everything carefully in place emotionally speaking. The images are pretty--there's a lovely shot of the girl as an adult (Elizabeth Marvel, who also narrates) walking away from a field and her black silhouette is set against the sky. It's striking even if it's a deliberately cinematic shot. The opening shot is the gradual reveal of a clapboard house at night that's glowing from the oil lamps inside. It's very beautiful, and it captures the rustic image the directors were going for with this.


Cary Grant was 59 when he played opposite Audrey Hepburn (25 years his junior) in Charade, but his age isn't as much of a hindrance as you'd think. He's still able to pull off the image of a suave leading man (he'd also done remarkably well four years earlier in North By Northwest). He plays a stranger who comes to the rescue of a young widow in Paris (Hepburn) whose husband was the target of three ruthless goons (James Coburn, George Kennedy, and Ned Glass) who are after 250,000 dollars that he swindled them out of. Her husband is murdered (and his body thrown from a train) before the opening credits, and so Hepburn becomes the central focus of the goons' continued quest for the elusive money. (They're cartoonish and yet menacing, like sociopathic Coyotes and Audrey is the Road Runner.)  

Charade is like a vacation from the stodginess of Audrey Hepburn's other movies that seem to hoist her on a pedastal like Galatea (Roman Holiday, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Sabrina and then later My Fair Lady). She's at her best when she's allowed to be fun and intelligent, but also accessible. She's always one-upping Cary Grant, but she's never too good for him. She's wholesome without being a prude, and she's game enough for the fun of this movie, which is set completely in Paris. The city becomes a labyrinth for us to try and find our way out of, but once we become engrossed in the movie we're hard-pressed to want to leave.

Along with the comic suspense that makes Charade so engaging is Henry Mancini's music score. Mancini's music is positively creepy (it's so slick and sophisticated and yet incredibly menacing) when it comes to thrillers. So many early thrillers didn't get the music right. It was as though the composers were told to de-emphasize the terror and the suspense, so their music takes a frightening or exciting scene and turns it into sentimental corn. Mancini, on the other hand, isn't afraid to take the material and run with it. His work on Experiment in Terror and Wait Until Dark is fantastically freaky, and in Charade  he captures something of the allure and the magic of Paris and Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant and of the entire genre itself, and for that Charade is a better movie. It's the loveliest kind of trashy entertainment, and ironically enough it was not a hit when first released.

Directed by Stanley Donen. With Walter Matthau.

December 11, 2010


Alfred Hitchcock's first American film, based on an English novel (by Daphne du Maurier) with an English cast (Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, Judith Anderson, George Sanders, Nigel Bruce, Reginald Denny, Gladys Cooper and Florence Bates) and set in Cornwall. It's a modern-era Gothic and a camped up, tighter version of Jane Eyre. Fontaine is a pathetic little thing who falls in love with a millionaire in Monte Carlo named Maxim De Winter (Olivier). Maxim's first wife, Rebecca, died tragically a year before. When Maxim takes his young bride back to Manderley, his lavishly decorated family estate in Cornwall (right on the sea), she finds herself constantly being compared to Rebecca by the staff, especially the sinister head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) whose long black dress accentuates her long arms and tall figure, making her a shape right out of Dracula or The Monk.

Rebecca is a story that displaces its heroine (she is awkward and naive and clumsy in such an elegant, sophisticated milieu) so that she can rescue respectable English society from wild women by being submissive and trusting to her husband, who may not have loved his wife as much as is indicated by popular gossip and speculation. The second Mrs. De Winter (she has no other name in either the book or the movie) pretty much goes along with things as they are, and while she doesn't fit in on the basis of her class and her mannerisms, she is forthright and obliging and caring. Perhaps breaking class barriers isn't as bad as marrying a woman who's completely deceiving and adulterous and insincere. Well, which is it? The movie is ambiguous, but the house burns down and Rebecca is dead before the story even begins, so perhaps it's a tie.

Regardless, Rebecca the movie is a fascinating and visually exciting tale, one that accentuates the creative style of its director Alfred Hitchcock, and is propelled by a finely crafted tale of suspense from the pen of Daphne du Maurier and the writers who adapted it for the screen (Philip MacDonald and Michael Hogan). It's such a good example of the Gothic that one can hardly care about its histrionics--they are part of the fun, and Hitch seems to be having quite a good time with the scowling Olivier and the simpering Fontaine and the positive uncanniness of Judith Anderson's performance. Franz Waxman's music score provides a perfectly syncopated pulse to this body, which is one of the best examples of 40s Hollywood gloss. 1940