Archive for the ‘Romance’ Category

Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)

“Before Sunrise” was an incredible exercise in on-screen chemistry and depiction of youthful romanticism as Julie Delpy’s Celine and Ethan Hawke’s Jesse, two twentysomethings traveling across Europe, meet on a train, decide on a whim to explore Vienna between trains, and personify all that is good about mutual attraction and falling in love without a care about the next day. Now, nine years later in this sequel, Jesse is in Paris promoting his novel about that fateful night, happens to glance to his right while answering questions during a book signing, and there sees his lost love. After tongue-tyingly cutting his Q&A short, he walks over and says hello, she says hello back, and off they go, continuing the odyssey they hurriedly cut short with an unfulfilled promise to meet in Vienna in December on that train platform nine years earlier. Jesse’s complete lack of surprise upon greeting Celine is striking and telling, as indeed later on he’ll admit that he thinks he wrote his book partly to draw her back to him. This is their reunion in Vienna in December after all.

“Before Sunset” essentially shares the same format as its predecessor, as Celine and Jesse traverse the city discussing topics far and wide, profound and petty, with some differences. “Before Sunrise” sprawled over the course of a night, while this sequel occurs essentially in real-time. Ironically, I sensed more time-based desperation between the two in the first film, as an impending sense of doom, as the sun would act as harbinger to their inevitable separation, contributed to their headlong passage into love as much as their sheer chemistry did. Here, they’re nine years older, more jaded, and at least at the outset have no illusions about rekindling that spark, as they’re looking back at that night with fascinated amusement as much as anything. That they do rekindle that spark once again should hardly come as a surprise, an outcome that is delightfully inevitable, yet that sense of idealized reverie I felt after the first film was lacking here. I’m struggling to remember a large majority of what Celine and Jesse discuss in both films – a flaw in the second film, a virtue in the first. In their first meeting, their inherent chemistry and body language speak leaps and bounds over what they happen to be speaking with their mouths, never more apparent than during my favorite scene in the first film, as they share a listening booth in a record store, listening to a record while both incessantly sneak glances at one another, never daring to meet each others’ gaze. Does Jesse want to kiss Celine, does she want him to? Their attraction is depicted flawlessly in those eyes, and that attraction carries them towards sunrise and an unknown tomorrow. I thought “Before Sunset” relied more heavily on dialogue, but damned if I could give a damn about the random crap they’re talking about. Yeah, it’s natural and organic, moreso than the endless dreck of most romance movies in this day and age, and maybe I’m unfairly looking for that once-present youthful spark in these two that’s, like their youth itself, simply no longer there, but for the first time while watching these two incredibly-written characters, I grew bored, and that cannot be discounted.

If nothing else, this film is an incredible technical achievement by Linklater, for his minutes-long single tracking shots, and by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke for never missing a beat during said shots, walking and talking as fictional characters in a very real city, the difficulty of which I cannot imagine. Ultimately, I was often admiring those technical accomplishments of a film director and actors more than the story – I was admiring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke rather than Celine and Jesse, and that lack of immersion that the first film practically bathed in left me wanting. But, maybe I as a 27-year-old who would like very much to meet and fall for a beautiful french woman on a train to Vienna am just yet to experience the perspective of these two now-older people, revisiting, and perhaps re-becoming, those different people they once were. After all, we don’t even learn into well into the film that **SPOILER** Celine is seeing a war photographer and Jesse is in an unhappy marriage and has a son he idolizes **END SPOILER**. I was startled by these revelations, but to Celine and Jesse, and to the screenplay, it’s just another topic amongst the many covered by these two. If I can’t identify with such momentous life changes, I can at least hope to examine them with the delicate grace that these two do. I can’t wait to be as unprepared for Before Midnight as I was for this.

The Baron of Arizona (Samuel Fuller, 1950)

Vincent Price just rocks as James Reavis, an ambitious and motivated (to say beyond the least) forger and con-man willing to go to downright stupefying lengths to acquire the entire territory of Arizona through fraudulent land claims and lineages. The first portion of this film is a spectacle of deranged tenacity on Reavis’ part that would require an incredible suspension of disbelief if this weren’t, incredibly, based on a true story. Reavis finds an unassuming girl from the backwoods of Arizona and culture-fies her, in a kind of foul twist on My Fair Lady to groom his own unknowingly fake heiress to a vast Spanish legacy with whom he can marry into the rights to Arizona itself, creates fake messages in stones, and goes so far as to spend years – years! – at a Spanish convent going through all the rites of becoming a monk, just so he can eventually find a brief opportunity to alter a land grant in the library to further validate his fictitious family tree. It’s an impossibly complex and ambitious scheme, and most if not all of the fun of this film is derived from trying to get into the head of this man, as you can’t help but think, is acquiring Arizona worth this staggering amount of deceit and risk? He’s well-spoken, charming, obviously intelligent, and apparently a man of means, able to afford a years-long trip to Spain as if it’s a trip to the supermarket, surely that’s enough to build a respectable life? If anything, you can’t help but admire his ambition and drive, even if that ambition and drive are completely deceitful and self-serving. You get the feeling that he is simply reveling in the process, in putting his admittedly incredible skills of forgery and duplicity to work, rather than looking towards the end-game of essentially becoming the king of a vast desert, and indeed, Vincent Price excels at this, his combination of suavity and humility completely fooling both his fellow monks and his ward-turned-wife, while a certain degree of sliminess reminds us of the sheer immorality behind it all. We dare not root for this ruthless snake, all while we almost must root for him nonetheless, just to see whether this impossibly cruel, impossibly incredible scheme can actually come to fruition.

As in-his-element as Reavis seems while putting this ridiculous scheme together, he seems just as out-of-his-element, and utterly lost, once he’s gotten what he wanted. And so too does the film itself lose its way. I was having a blast watching Vincent Price act the snake, charming his way through forged documents and using rube-like monks as his playthings, but then as heavy became the head that wore the crown and stereotypically redneckish displaced landowners and the bland common girl-turned-baroness (whose undying devotion to her husband is both baffling and irritating…if we the anonymous viewers of a film can see the reptilian underside of this Baron of Arizona, surely his own wife can, after a while…) and the government powers-that-be who smell a rat replaced the fascinating James Reavis as the focal point of the narrative, things got more conventional, and interest is lost. To compound that, Fuller cheats and gets a bit lazy in his storytelling, using a bunch of wealthy old white guys sitting in a parlor to reflect on the life and times of James Reavis and narrate the proceedings and give us a rather needless guide to what we’re seeing with our own eyes (although, to be fair, their explaining Reavis’ backstory at the film’s outset was helpful). But, at the very least, most of the footage of these men is set at a fixed mid-angle shot, not all that close to these men and indeed with some of their backs turned to the camera, making these indistinguishable wealthy old white guys seem even more indistinguishable and wealthy and old and white – pretty much the polar opposite of Vincent Price’s Reavis, who literally emerges from the rain one night and works his degenerate ass off to get to the top, only to in all likelihood stick out like a sore thumb in the presence of men such as these – a dark mirror image of the American dream. His eventual shot at redemption feels like all kinds of false and unsuitable and reeks of Hollywood conventions at the time demanding a, if not happy then at least tidy, ending. But, at least his clear and somewhat amusing surprise at such an outcome leads to all kinds of opportunity for speculation about his character. He clearly knows he’s a shameless scoundrel, but whether he’s actually repentant or merely relieved is a fun question to ask during an otherwise disappointing conclusion to a film that started with great promise.

Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961)

No wonder X wants to escape this torturous present and focus on his past affair with A.  Or maybe it’s a fantasy of an affair with A.  Or maybe the present we’re seeing is fantasy.  Damned if I know.  Hell, this isn’t a luxurious vacation place of a hotel so much as Madame Tussaud’s wax museum.  As the creepy organ music blares and the rich snobs stiffly trudge along like Molly Shannon in that Seinfeld episode, it’s all like a funeral procession for androids.  The dialogue irritated me, even as X intriguingly describes this supposed past affair that A has no memory of; but then again, the formal, flowery words are perhaps the most robotic aspect of all, which may serve to further the dehumanizing atmosphere of this place.  Amongst the statue-like robotic rich people standing still in that garden or slowly trudging through those hallways towards nowhere, one image that really stuck with me was everyone watching a concert, a small group of string players; we watch it too, but we don’t hear it.  As we watch the bows eagerly and furiously moving back and forth on the violins and cellos, we don’t hear the music those instruments give birth to; we hear the same funeralistic organ music that’s pervaded this hotel and this film from the opening moments.  Under the visual facade of decadence and nobility, these so-called people aren’t living at all, they’re not-so-living proof of Macbeth’s soliloquy, of life being “but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more.  It is a tale / told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (had to do it after my shitty Macbeth write-up).  I didn’t give a shit about A’s supposed husband or lover or controller or whatever he is M, other than the really cool card game he beats everyone at, or about the supposed affair between X and A, or the semi-poetic language that pervades it all.  Hell, this could’ve been a silent film for all I care, the atmosphere alone is what stuck with me, one that for the sake of humanity I hope is just one part of X’s grand and elaborate fantasy.

7/10

Play Misty for Me (Clint Eastwood, 1971)

Pretty terrifying, and almost exclusively because of Jessica Walter’s acting. An Ally-like obsessive psychopath to be sure, but I like how little to no effort is made to explain, say, her past or any other reason for that madness. All we see is a quirky but cute girl who mixes an impossibly innocent/childlike smile and laugh with terrifying verbal outbursts and a surprising sexuality that contrasts completely with that innocence at the drop of a hat, all of which gradually descends into outright mania when she becomes more and more obsessed with Eastwood’s radio DJ Dave the more he pushes her away. The mystery as to why she’s so crazy makes the crazy that much more interesting. Eastwood doesn’t do his film any favors with his acting, with the same whispery/raspy voice as his Man with No Name just not really fitting in contemporary California, other than seeming custom-made for a radio show. However, look for instance at the odd little Adam and Eve, Roberta Flack interlude that sticks out like a sore thumb amongst all the Jessica Walter-centric suspense, as Eastwood and his girlfriend feel safe at last and make love in the woods. The whole time during this long, drawn-out sex scene, I was expecting Clint to lean his head down and kiss his girl, only for him to lift his head up and for us to see that it’s suddenly Jessica Walter, and then he wakes up all sweaty in his bed. That never happens, which arguably makes this scene out of nowhere seem even more out of place, but at the same time, I applaud Eastwood for refusing to use the long-unoriginal it-was-all-a-nightmare gag. In fact, that I was expecting something terrible to happen in this scene of utter idyll is testament to how Clint, directing a film for the first time, was able to combine a truly creepy performance out of Jessica Walter and a simple yet incredibly effective air of suspense (combining ‘is she watching him just off in the distance?’ stretches with sudden moments of jarring, shaky-camera, exploitative violence) to keep your attention from start to finish. Eastwood’s transition of power from the front of the screen to behind it made a great beginning here.

8/10

High Sierra (Raoul Walsh, 1941)

It had potential to be, and often is, more than a typical one-last-heist story because of a particularly interesting sub-plot involving an old farmer and his crippled granddaughter that Bogart’s Roy “Mad Dog” Earle keeps going back to in the midst of planning that one last heist. Never mind the creepiness factor of the older Bogart wooing the obviously much younger girl through small talk, paying for her surgery without asking for a penny in return, etc., I’d say it was sweet if it wasn’t utterly bizarre…but it’s effective. Earle may say he wants to marry the girl and that he loves her, but that’s probably not true. He doesn’t want the innocent, naive girl, he just wants to get out of the fast, crime-ridden lifestyle he’s been drowning in. Ida Lupino’s wannabe-mob girl Marie won’t give him that ticket to the good, easy life, and he knows it, so the next best thing mustbe the young girl and her poor but honest family, by his logic. Marie, and Earle’s cohorts in the upcoming hotel heist, grow increasingly confused at Earle’s behavior as he keeps going back to that family, and indeed it sticks out like a sore thumb in the midst of all the heist planning and mobbish threats as penned by John Huston (the scene where Earle tells the job’s inside man the story of the gun, punctuated by the ‘taptaptap’, is great, showing a terrifying side to Earle that we’ll learn may be little more than a mask of his true self). That family is the specter and the symbolic embodiment of a good life, of the good person that Earle is fascinated by the prospect of becoming, that may even want to be…but is not to be. It’s upsetting that that subplot is all but abandoned as it soon becomes little more than Ida Lupino crying in the passenger seat with the dog in her lap while Bogart acts all manly and shut up-y, but in a way it makes sense. In a surprisingly disappointing screenplay by Huston, complete with the token dog, token black indentured servant with the funny voice and lazy eye, and the farmer’s family coming right out of a Rockwell painting, at least it’s bleak when all is said and done. Earle, from a philosophical and psychological sense, is arguably one of Bogart’s more interesting characters – desirous of a good, crime-free life as seen by his seemingly inexplicable fascination with the granddaughter and her family, and even seen as a good man despite being a criminal, the way he defends a lady’s honor when he sees a black eye, or honors an agreement with his superior despite that superior lying dead on his side, or has an unremovable soft spot for that pesky dog (Bogart’s dog in real life…makes sense when you see how attached it is to the man). Chivalry lives, but crime never pays.

7.5/10

The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949)

There’re so many little, seemingly throwaway things going on here that make this story of 19th century courtship and deceit so much more real than it ought to be. Things like Montgomery Clift fumbling with his pen before writing something in his faux date book when he first meets the plain doctor’s daughter Catherine, or awkwardly coughing before serenading her on the piano, or the way Olivia de Havilland’s hands are fumbling and dancing all over the place with nervous energy as her Catherine is unexpectedly courted and receives words of passion for the first time in her life, or stares off into space when she returns Morris’ declaration of love – again, seemingly for the first time in her life – or how Ralph Richardson simply stirs his tea calmly yet intently, quietly enraged that his daughter has innocently fallen head over heals for a man he claims is no more than a penniless fortune hunter. In fact, it’s that quiet, inward rage that his daughter’s suitor can’t provide the ever-important $30k a year, and petty need for possession, and arguably a forbidden sexual tension not unlike the one displayed by, say, Judy’s father in “Rebel Without a Cause”, by Ralph Richardson’s Dr. Austin Sloper, along with a general expectation of a woman’s submissiveness in the face of a providing husband being more important than a little something called love, that ruins de Havilland’s Catherine. And her transformation about halfway through this film, seemingly at the snap of a finger, is downright startling. Her sexual and communicative innocence when we meet her is almost too much to bear, but her reaction to the charms of Clift’s Morris Townsend are so incredibly believable as a result – we absolutely expect her to dive headlong in accepting his advances with both surprise and humility and childlike exuberance. Perhaps the sudden change in character is to the film’s detriment and takes away from the realism of it all, but it’s still nearly terrifying in how absolute it is, how her father and her role and expectation as a wealthy young woman ripe to taken away by an equally wealthy provider and the perceptions of her father and society in general towards men like Morris who dare to be poor, turn her into a jaded, cynical, humorless, stone-cold monster. It’s both sad and frightening, and de Havilland essentially plays a dual role in the same character’s body to pull it off. In a film that initially gives off the impression of a nice romance between a charming young man and an innocent, childlike woman beating the odds, men like Dr. Sloper and settings like 19th century aristocratic New York are there to throw a bucket of cold water in our faces, and the face of a young woman who would never be the same.

8.5/10

Three Colors: White (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1994)

The plot – namely Karol’s rise from the gutter to prominence seemingly at the snap of a finger and his revenge (a nice and refreshing surprise of a plot twist, I must admit) going down without a hitch – is completely and utterly implausible and ridiculous, but somehow Kieslowski makes it work by doing what I guess you could call deadpan directing. Even though Karol gets shit on by a bird, is sexually humiliated on the phone by his ex-wife, is smuggled into Poland in a suitcase and gets kidnapped by mobsters while still in said suitcase, and wears a suit and slicks his hair back Pat Riley style to try to act all suave and sophisticated when he comes into money, Kieslowski never plays it up for straight-up laughs. I wouldn’t even call it a dark comedy per se, but just a series of unfortunate events for an impotent, suddenly-homeless hairdresser whose completely implausible adventures are presented about as realistically as you could hope for, with even a hint of moving pathos when it comes to his relationship with a well-dressed, well-spoken, suicidal man who takes him under his wing (there was just something truly special about Janusz Gajos’s performance as Karol’s benefactor Milolaj that I can’t quite put my finger on – probably has something to do with how his noble, almost fatherly deadpan style fits with Karol’s (Zbigniew Zamachowski) almost effeminate, but endearing and sympathetic patheticness, like a glove). Morbidly funny, deeply ironic and cynical, and admittedly unpredictable, “White” was a nice change of pace from the unbearably heavy likes of “Blue” and “The Double Life of Veronique” (both of which were very good films in their own right, and probably ‘better’ than this film, but even with the same director at the helm, it’s like comparing apples and oranges that came from the same fruit basket) – refreshingly light fare, this was, or at least as close to ‘light’ as you can get when it comes to Kieslowski.

8/10

Marnie (Alfred Hitchcock, 1964)

It’s crap. Which is a shame, because it definitely has the feel of being one of Hitchcock’s more personal films, simply because it oozes his well-publicized misgivings towards women, particularly a kind of deep-seeded desire or need to downright control women and put them in his back pocket, just by how vulnerable and susceptible to her psychoses Marnie is. So with all that, there’re definitely some interesting ideas here (and an interesting performance by Sean Connery, as a character who you want to like by how obviously intelligent he is, but can’t bring yourself to do so by how obviously sleazy he is by basically forcing Marnie to marry him and seeing her as his own personal science experiment or something – perhaps he’s a stand-in for Hitchcock himself), but that all becomes lost in a mess of boring backstory, too many visual cues (the flashes of red meant to hearken to Marnie’s psychoses and repressed memories are particularly offensive as an overly-easy storytelling method), an unacceptably and irritatingly bombastic score by Herrmann, and a shrill-as-fuck Tippi Hedren, particularly when she goes into wide-eyed Southern Belle hypnosis mode. I think this would’ve been a lot better if there had been no easy explanation for Marnie’s klepto/man-fearing behavior (as in no color red and no ‘she does this because THAT happened, and she does that because THIS happened’ revelatory finale) and we were simply left to speculate what the hell happened to this girl to make her so painfully vulnerable as an adult, or more specifically, a girl in an adult’s body. Rather than having Hitchcock’s directorial stamp, “Marnie” has Hitchcock’s personal, psychological stamp, making it a kind of “Vertigo”-lite. But with all the egregious directorial and storytelling shortcuts, it’s “Vertigo”-REALLYlite.

5.5/10

The Man Who Laughs (Paul Leni, 1928)

Much of it was parlor politics, rightful heir, inheritance bullshit I couldn’t be bothered to care about, but my god Conrad Veidt was amazing. Sure his performance is aided by a prosthetic, much like Lon Chaney’s performance in The Penalty, but even then, you consider the way he had to emote solely with his eyes as his mouth was stuck in that haunting uber-smile, and he passed with flying colors. This film is awash with swashbuckling melodrama, especially towards the end when Homo the dog comes to the rescue, but there’s something awfully moving and relatable about the plight that Veidt’s Gwynplaine has been put in. Granted, the job market for men with severe facial deformities probably wasn’t very expansive in the 17th century, so performing as a sideshow attraction was the only way to go, and the show proprietor Ursus, though pretty much exploiting the poor man is kind and like a father to both Gwynplaine and his beloved, the blind Dea, and the common folk laugh at Gwynplaine but almost in a loving, entertained sort of way, but it’s still sad that a very real romance between the smiling freak and the blind girl can only be seen through the prism of a comical side show. The way Veidt and Mary Philbin share a tender moment, only to be interrupted by laughter from the unknowing crowd, and how Veidt crudely uses his hands to try to cover his ever-smiling mouth while his eyes convey more sadness than I may have ever seen before in a film performance, is just as, if not even more melodramatic yet unfathomably moving than the way Lillian Gish uses her fingers to force a smile on to her despaired face in Broken Blossoms. There’s also plenty of weird stuff going on, with the Duchess forced to marry Gwynplaine to retain her fortune – upset with the prospect of being made to look a fool, but also clearly intrigued and even sexually titillated by the deformed man in a disturbing scene that must have been very edgy and questionable in 1928. That scene, and the just as bizarre scene where Gwynplaine, decked out in regal, lordly attire, is introduced to the royal court, are the ones in which this film transcends the quasi-horror, common melodrama to come before and afterwards in the story, and the way Conrad Veidt’s eyes express unfathomable embarrassment, fear, and despair behind that eternal smile make this performance, and this film, into something special.

8.5/10

Man’s Castle (Frank Borzage, 1933)

The plot goes all over the place after a while, including an incredibly bizarre ending (instant inebriation? 😕 ), and the whole subplot involving the singer who essentially seduces Spencer Tracy is just there to…i dunno, throw a wrench into the budding romance between Tracy and Loretta Young? Regardless, it is thrown in there and practically forgotten about, and that’s fine by me since it did absolutely nothing for me (other than show me an incredibly creative way to serve a summons ). All that matters here is the rise and fall of the romance of, and the chemistry between, Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young as two penniless shantydwellers. His courting her during that fateful night with the skipping out on paying the tab and the light-up tuxedo and the skinnydipping is wonderful, and real, and following that, the relationship between the cynical Bill and innocently naive Trina runs the gamut of highs and lows, and all of those highs and lows are great. The fear in Bill’s eyes when Trina tells him that [spoiler]she’s pregnant[/spoiler], followed by the sheer awkwardness of their makeshift wedding (they can’t even look each other in the eye, and Bill looks like he just wants to bolt out of there at lightspeed). And then on the flipside, the moment when Bill finally caves and buys the stove that Trina’s been pining for, going against his anti-establishment laurels, and rather than some sappy thank-you, she simple looks up at him wide-eyed, he looks down at her with begrudging generosity, and neither can come up with the right words, but the way they look at each other says it all. And then the walking toy, the makeshift sunroof where Borzage gives us long moments to simply admire and contemplate the heavens as Bill and Trina do, and the final scene – all somewhat kitschy, but impossible not to move you. Other than some early sermonizing by Spencer Tracy, thankfully there wasn’t much by way of overtly and patronizingly trying to educate you on the unemployment rate and Hoovervilles and other 1930s-era issues a la Hawks’ “Scarface”, as other than the plot meanderings that I already said were to the film’s detriment, Borzage kept it simple in terms of telling a story about a man and a woman getting by. She ain’t the sharpest crayon in the box and he at best doesn’t know what he has in this naive but devoted girl, and downright treats her like discarded trash at worst, but what’s plain as day, even if you can’t put it into words just why, is that they’re made for each other. This was lovely, I should probably seek out more Borzage

8/10