Weekly Round-Up: June 12-18, 2016

Last week, I saw:

  • Finding Nemo (2003) – First time watching with Cine-Explore, a terrific commentary-esque feature with visual pop-ups including concept art and storyboards. The filmmaker’s insights on the parallels between father Marlin and son Nemo’s journeys were particularly compelling. REQUIRED.
  • Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) – This story of an aging actress and her dedicated assistant started off an an engaging foot, but I grew tired of these unlikable characters and scenes of wraparound dialogue that didn’t progress the story in a meaningful way. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • The Damned Don’t Cry! (1950) – I love a good Joan Crawford vs. the world flick as much as the next guy, but this quasi-noir was a tough Doll to swallow. Joan Crawford goes from complacent, impoverished housewife to confident, sizzling seductress seemingly overnight… really? NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Female Trouble (1974) – Wacky John Waters tale of a disturbed young lady who balances being a mother with a rise to stardom as a violent supermodel. Not sure if I like this as much as Pink Flamingos, but still an outrageously fun time. Special shout-out to the theme song, sung by Divine herself! RECOMMENDED.
  • Mommie Dearest (1981) – One of my absolute favorite, could-watch-this-everyday kind of movies, and finally got to see it on the big screen. Terrific audience, shrieking with laughter at all the right times and even reciting entire scenes of poetic dialogue back at the screen. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Finding Dory (2016) – This immensely worthy sequel is more painful, devastating, and emotionally satisfying than its predecessor. An absolute knockout. REQUIRED.

What did you see last week?

 

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Weekly Round-Up: January 17-23, 2016

Oscar season is now in full swing, and I’m steadily working towards my goal of seeing all the Best Picture & Screenplay nominees by The Big Night. This week also saw the Blu-ray release of one of my most beloved classic films.

Last week, I saw:

  • Sunset Boulevard (1950) – The inimitable classic Hollywood nightmare about fame, redemption, and resignation. There’s a reason this appears on everybody’s list of best movies. REQUIRED.
  • The Big Short (2015) – Amateurish farce satirizing the evil banks who started the financial crisis and the good people who whine about it. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) – Thoughtful drama about a divorcing couple battling out custody for their son. Starts out very by-the-books and turns very compelling for its second half. RECOMMENDED.
  • Ex Machina (2015) – Sci-fi meets film noir in this spellbinding thriller. Once this triangle of power between a tech genius, his employee, and his Artificial Intelligence creation gets going, it never stops – fueled by a wicked script. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Joy (2015) – Not David O. Russell & Jennifer Lawrence’s best work, but an interesting and at times, very entertaining business drama about the life and struggles of Joy Mangano and the Miracle Mop. RECOMMENDED.
  • Gilda (1946) – Remarkably rich tale of a demented love triangle between two former flames and a Nazi, set in postwar Buenos Aires. Equal parts film noir and “woman’s picture,” not to mention one of the strongest films of the 1940s. REQUIRED.
  • Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) – Oscar Isaac gives a knockout performance as a struggling folk musician: a victim of circumstance, the music industry, and mostly himself. Terrific soundtrack to boot! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week?

Salome & The Teacher: Two Women Navigating the Entertainment Industry in Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard”

In Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, arguably the ultimate Hollywood movie, struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis falls into professional & personal relationships with two women: Norma Desmond and Betty Schaefer. Each of them represent different takes on the Hollywood experience – two strategies to navigate the twisted, labyrinthine world of show business. Norma ignores the status quo altogether, operating on her own terms, while Betty proactively driving her career forward within the confines of the system.

The film’s first act gives us a glimpse at what the world of show business is like for everyday stakeholders like Joe. He struggles to maintain his relevancy,”grinding out original stories[…] only [he] seem[s] to have lost [his] touch. Maybe they weren’t original enough. Maybe they were too original. All [he] know[s] is they didn’t sell.”

He’s also in a financial jam, so he goes to Paramount to “take advantage” of his friendship with producer Sheldrake to weasel his way into a job, but Sheldrake doesn’t take the bait. His agent doesn’t help either, insisting “the finest things in the world have been written on an empty stomach.”

Joe’s Hollywood is a world of manipulation and exploitation, where friends and partners won’t help a guy in need. He is disappointed in this response, though not surprised; from Joe’s reaction, this seems to be “business as usual” and nothing new.

Gloria Swanson in -1950-Sunset BoulevardOne car chase and a flat tire later, Joe finds himself at the home of former silent star Norma Desmond. It’s been years since she last partook of the inner workings of Hollywood, making her either oblivious or subversive, or both, to the laws that govern show business. She presents the script she’s drafted for her amateurish passion project Salome to Joe, who warns her to “Never let another writer read [her] material; he may steal it.” She carelessly dismisses this claim, “I’m not afraid.”

A crafty orator, Joe sets himself up for a job by telling Norma the script could be stronger if someone did an editing job. Norma sighs, “Who? I’d have to have somebody I can trust. When were you born — I mean, what sign of the zodiac?” Joe is a Sagittarian, an astrologically trustworthy sign. “I like Sagitarrians. You can trust them,” Norma insists. The stars, not Joe’s talent or credibility, make him a qualified candidate to take on Salome.

As her delusions for a triumphant career return continue to grow, she visits Paramount Studios, uninvited and unannounced, to visit Cecil B. DeMille, a past collaborator whom she has pegged to direct her new masterpiece. At the entrance gates, a guard asks whether she has an appointment, to which her butler/driver/(and more) Max replies “No appointment is necessary” for Norma Desmond. She needs not adhere to the procedural courtesies and rules of show business. After all, “without [Norma] there wouldn’t be any Paramount Studio.”

Norma’s utter dismissal for the governing laws of Hollywood are foiled by the other woman in Joe’s life, Betty Schaefer. Betty is a young talent in the Readers’ department, reviewing incoming scripts and advising on which stories to produce for the screen. Unlike Norma, ignoring the rules altogether, Betty leverages the studio system to propel her career.

bettyschaeferHer career kick-start even comes from rejection from the studios. Betty tells Joe about her background, as the third generation of show business in her family, and as such she was expected to become a great star. “Ten years of dramatic lessons, diction, dancing. Then the studio made a test. Well, they didn’t like my nose […] I went to a doctor and had it fixed. They made more tests, and they were crazy about my nose — only they didn’t like my acting.” Joe teases her how sad her story is, and she replies “Not at all. It taught me a little sense. […] What’s wrong with being on the other side of the camera? It’s really more fun.” Betty acknowledges, and grows from, her rejection from the studios; she doesn’t recluse herself away from show business, but finds another avenue within which to grow her career.

She’s not in love with her current job as a Reader, and aspires to be a studio writer. She leverages her relationship with Sheldrake, a Paramount producer, to pitch story ideas and generate buzz for what she’s working on. After work hours, she and Joe meet to collaborate on a past work of his (Dark Windows, a love story about two teachers) to develop it into a fully fledged script to be produced. When she initially offers this idea to Joe, he declines, but she insists, making herself “completely at [his] disposal.” Hers is a proactive, flexible attitude – willing to do what she must in order to take this next big step as a writer.

Betty and Norma offer two very different takes on the entertainment industry. Betty redefines herself, taking opportunities to develop herself and her career within the ever-evolving studio system. Norma, however, exiles herself altogether and operates in her own world. At a time in Joe’s life when he finds himself defeated by the Hollywood machine, these two women offer new strategies on how to get back in the game: one proactive, one ultimately destructive.

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This post is part of the Backstage Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently & Sister Celluloid. Check out the other entries from the full rosters listed on their sites!

Special thanks to Daily Script hosting the Sunset Boulevard screenplay available here.

Weekly Round-Up: December 06-12, 2015

 

  • A Night to Remember (1958) – Considered by many to be the definitive Titanic movie, this drama tells the story of the ship’s fateful last hours from the perspectives of RMS officials and passengers of all classes. While visually impressive and there were several elements that clearly inspired James Cameron’s version, I found its narrative unfocused and couldn’t make an emotional connection. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Aparajito (1956) – This second film of the Apu Trilogy sees the Ray family relocated to urban Benares. Apu enters school and excels in his education, as his relationship with his mother grows in complexity. At once more joyful and more tragic than its predecessor Pather Panchali, I am very eager to see how Apu’s story concludes in the third and final film Apur Sansar. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Holiday Inn (1942) – Cute musical about a retired showman (Bing Crosby) who opens a Connecticut club open only 15 days a year – the holidays. Several memorable numbers (some for the wrong reasons) including the introduction of the classic “White Christmas” make this film RECOMMENDED.
  • Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997) – Offbeat comedy about two pals who pretend to be successful at their high school reunion. Driven by strong performances from the two leads (Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow) plus a dry sense of humor, it’s easy to see why this has become a cult classic. RECOMMENDED.
  • The Woman in Question (1950) – A sort of Laura meets Rashomon, this drama unfolds the mystery of a murdered fortune teller from multiple perspectives – both admirers and enemies. The keystone (the victim herself) is portrayed terrifically by Jean Kent, essentially playing multiple characters in the hyper-stylized flashbacks. Unfortunately, this movie loses steam about halfway through but the first half is wholly compelling. RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week?

Orpheus (1950)

Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus is a wildly imaginative, yet wholly confusing, interpretation of the Orpheus in the Underworld myth. It is clearly well thought-out, with layers upon layers of meaning waiting to be discovered, though upon this viewer’s first experience, the film was overall muddled and unclear.

Not to say this wasn’t intentional – on the contrary, Cocteau is a director who definitely knows what he’s doing. Even though I didn’t understand a lot of it, oddities and unexplained phenomena manifested themselves (however obtusely) later on in the film. For instance, mysterious radio transmissions received quick, somewhat explanatory references about two-thirds through; and quite a few anonymous characters took scenes and scenes to identify and develop.

Like Orpheus himself, we are thrust into a confusing, murky environment with little explanation. Clues manifest themselves throughout, though even the most disciplined viewer might grow impatient with the lack of clear answers and structure.

Cocteau acknowledges this, however; the constant motif of mirrors and the film’s climax of entering a mirror into A) an alternative reality or B) some time before the events of Orpheus began, invite us to re-think and re-visit this work, and go through the motions again.

Like the bizarro Night of the Hunter, I’m not quite ready to rate this one yet – hard to say whether I enjoyed it or not, but I was definitely intrigued and I know this requires additional viewing. This is surely a film which shall reward repeat visits and journeys back through the mirror.

Stromboli, terra di dio (1950)

Stromboli, terra di dio is the moody, deliberate character study of a desperate yet stubborn woman, played to perfection by Ingrid Bergman, who is pushed to the brink of madness (and possibly beyond).

It begins with uncharacteristic romanticism from director Roberto Rossellini, with a dreamy, idealized love affair between woman and man in a refugee camp, separated by a barbed wire. They agree to wed, and the two leave together to his homeland, the small island Stromboli.

She quickly discovers this is not what she had envisioned, despising every aspect of married life from the rugged terrain to her ancient, crumbling home to her husband’s measly wages. Her one companion is in the village priest, a friendship she destroys when she reveals her disturbing past and even makes romantic advances toward a man of God.

From this shocking midpoint, all bets are off as we realize our “heroine” is a seriously troubled woman led by her momentary passions, not by her heart. The film is not a moving journey of her learning to adapt to a new lifestyle, but watching to see how far she will unravel.

The heart-pounding finale leaves a great amount of ambiguity and room for interpretation, an exciting ending for a mostly neorealistic work. Rossellini expertly weaves together the natural landscape of the island with the narrative and thematic structure to underline the isolation and danger Bergman’s character has gotten herself into.

While slow at times, Stromboli packs a punch when necessary, and becomes an engaging and informative look at rural life in postwar Europe and how far a woman will go to escape her past life.

The Flowers of St. Francis (1950)

Actually the first film I’ve ever seen by Roberto Rossellini, The Flowers of St. Francis is the sweet biopic of sorts about St. Francis of Assisi and his followers (or flowers, if you will).

It is told in a serious of interesting, sometimes humorous, vignettes, such as St. Francis meeting a leper in the countryside, and the antics of the Saint’s followers. It is actually very interesting to see what their lives were like during this time period, showing their charity work and collaborations with St. Mary of the Angels and her respective followers.

It is almost more the story of these disciples, particularly Brother Ginepro, than of Francis himself. We don’t see him go through the typical hero’s journey of growth and redemption. We do, however, see his followers learn how to effectively embody and teach the word of Christ, making this more “their” movie in my opinion.

While engaging, The Flowers of St. Francis does not carry emotional poignancy until the very end; when St. Francis bids his followers goodbye and instructs them to go forth and preach, it is a very moving and inspiring moment to see his disciples, excited yet scared, work on behalf of not just their Lord, but also the Saint and man they admire so much.

It might be my Catholic upbringing talking, but The Flowers of St. Francis is an informative, surprisingly unpretentious, and truly heartwarming portrait of the People’s Saint.