Archive for February, 2012

You know when occasionally you watch a film, and you think it sounds okay, but then it totally exceeds your expectations and you’re just blown away by it?  Well, Sunset Boulevard (aka Sunset Blvd.) was just such a film for me.

William Holden – who also narrates the film – plays Joe Gillis, a small-time screen writer, down on both money and luck; as we find out right at the beginning of the film, Gillis won’t be alive by the end of it.  He meets former silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who cannot and will not accept the truth that her star has long since faded into obscurity and she has been all but forgotten by both the film industry, and movie-goers.  Determined to have another hit film, she hires Joe to help her edit her self-penned script, but she soon becomes obsessed with him, and Joe finds himself less a guest, more a prisoner, at her dilapidated home, with only Norma and her mysterious butler Max for company.

As you may have guessed, I loved this film.  The storyline is a caustic and witty dig at a fickle Hollywood.  The fact that viewers are informed by Joe’s voice-over right at the start of the film, that he will not survive to the end, fills the ensuing scenes with a bitter sense of doom, and the contrast between Joe the narrator, who knows his fate, and Joe the character who we see on camera, who is unaware of what will befall him, is very effective (A similar idea was used years later in American Beauty, also with excellent results, although Sunset Boulevard was, for me, a much better film.)

Gloria Swanson was excellent as Norma Desmond, and at times was difficult to watch.  I disliked her character, but couldn’t help feeling great sympathy for her.  Deserted by her fans and her colleagues, she is losing her grip on reality.  At times, she was manic and unpredictable; at other times, she showed tenderness and extreme vulnerability (the scene where she entertains Joe by dressing up as Charlie Chaplin is both sweet and disturbing, as her happy mood turns to anger).  Swanson was nominated for an Oscar for her performance; the same year Bette Davis was nominated for her role in All About Eve – both lost out to Judy Holliday for her role in Born Yesterday, which also starred William Holden.  He was also nominated for Sunset Boulevard.

William Holden shows his real talent for acting here.  A not altogether likeable character at the beginning of the film, he nevertheless gets the audience on side, as he and they come to realise the untenable situation in which he has found himself.  He imbues his character with passion, tenderness, ruthlessness, and resignation – oh, and he’s darkly funny too.

Eric von Stroheim is perfectly cast as Norma’s taciturn and mysterious butler – this role could easily have been a caricature in different hands, but he plays the part brilliantly.

The main cast is rounded out by Nancy Olsen as Betty Schaefer, a young writer who wants Joe’s help on a script; she is perfectly cast as a feisty but tender young woman who is dragged into Joe’s nightmare world.

In short, my opinion for what it’s worth, is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this film.  It’s gripping – I felt unable to turn my eyes away from the screen; it’s sad, it’s tragic, and it’s bleakly funny.  It was a real victory for director Billy Wilder, and it’s the best film I’ve seen in a long time.  Very highly recommended.

Year of release: 1950

Director: Billy Wilder

Writers: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman Jr.

Main cast: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olsen

Read Full Post »

In 1965, Annie Cradock is a 10 year old girl, living in the quiet village of Muningstock with her strict parents, and spending most of her free time with her best friend and next door neighbour, Babette.  When a series of murders rocks the village, and Mrs Clitheroe, a local lady beloved of both Annie and Babette, is a victim, Annie’s world turns upside down.

More than 30 years later, Annie is a music teacher, living in London with her second husband Alan, who wants to move to New York.  Annie’s marriage is in trouble, she cannot make up her mind whether to stay in London or move to the USA, and the strange events of 1965, still haunt her.  Only when Annie has come to terms with what happened in her past will she be able to face her future.

Annie narrates both the events that happened when she was 10, and the problems which she is facing as an adult, and the narrative cuts between the past and the present.

I quite enjoyed this book, but cannot say that it was one of those occasional, almost magical reads that you fall in love with.  I liked the character of Annie, both as an imaginative child, and an intelligent woman, but sometimes I did feel like shaking her and telling her not to be so silly.  The author did portray the confused mind of a frightened child very well however, and I preferred the parts of the story that were set in the past more than those set in more recent times.

The mystery of the murders is not fully solved until the end of the book.  I won’t give away the ending, but suffice to say that while I was confident that I had worked it all out, the story threw me a curveball, and I was surprised when the story resolved itself.

Despite the subject matter, the book is not a depressing or miserable read.  There’s actually a lot of humour within, thanks to Annie’s narration, but while some parts did actually make me laugh out loud, at other times the humour seemed somewhat forced.

So, while this was not a book that set my world alight, there was quite a lot to enjoy in this story.  It’s a book that I liked, but which I doubt would make any lasting impression in my memory.

Read Full Post »

For anybody who has ever thought Shakespeare dull or dry, this book is perfect reading!  It gives a brief introduction to Shakespeare’s life and work, and provides a short synopsis of all of his plays.  It also provides other interesting information such as words that Shakespeare created (assassination, luggage, moonbeam, cater – to name very few of a long list!) and phrases that he coined – if you’ve ever thought of jealousy as a green-eyed-monster for instance, then you have Shakespeare to thank!  It also provides a list of all of the main characters in Shakespeare’s plays, and a brief description of their roles.

The book is written in a clear, easy to understand, and often amusing fashion, and even for someone who is not particularly bothered about Shakespeare, it still makes for interesting reading!

As an academic book, I probably would not recommend this – it is really only the briefest introduction to The Bard’s life and work, but if you have ever seen a film adaptation of one of his plays and would like to learn more, this would be a great place to start.  It is only a short book – I read it in two sittings, but it could easily be started and finished in a couple of hours.  So while it may not cover it’s subject in great depth, it certainly opens the door to learning more about Shakespeare, and left me wanting to know more.  Definitely recommended!

(Author’s blog can be found here.)

Read Full Post »

Of the ten films that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers starred in together, Swing Time was the sixth, and certainly one of the most popular.  At this point, I’ve only seen four of their collaborations and I’m torn between Swing Time and Carefree as my favourite.  In this film, Astaire stars as Lucky Garnett, on stage dancer and off stage gambler, who is due to marry his fiancee Margaret.  Due to some shenanigans and dirty tricks by his fellow stage dancers (who don’t want Lucky to marry because it will ruin their careers), he turns up very late for the wedding.  Margaret’s father says that the couple can only get married once Lucky has proven himself and earned $25,000 dollars.  Lucky heads off to New York to make his fortune, and there meets dance instructor Penny Carroll (Rogers).  The two soon fall for each other, but their romance is hindered by Lucky’s prior commitment, and band leader Ricky Romero, who is in love with Penny.

Well, I loved this film.  It had some fabulous dancing (obviously), and lots (and lots and lots) of humour.  Fred Astaire is probably at his best here, and Ginger is just beautiful.  It’s no wonder that the film studio wanted to keep pairing these two up – their chemistry on screen is undeniable.  I particularly liked their first dance together (which is in the clip I’ve posted).

The two other main characters are played by Victor Moore, as Lucky’s dad – always ready to try and make an easy dollar, and is not above petty theft or deceit; and Helen Broderick as Mabel Anderson, Penny’s fellow dance teacher and best friend.  They prove to be an excellent addition to the story and between them provide a lot of laughs.

There was one scene which jarred slightly; the Astaire dance ‘Bojangles of Harlem’ where Astaire wears ‘blackface’ make-up.  The dance itself is visually stunning, and the use of shadows behind Astaire is imaginative and effective.  I just do not like to see white actors in blackface make-up, but I accept that when the film was made (1936), it was considered a perfectly legitimate form of entertainment.

Aside from that one scene, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of this musical, and it will be one that I will certainly be watching again in the future.

Year of release: 1936

Director: George Stevens

Writers: Howard Lindsay, Allan Scott, Erwin Gelsey, Ben Holmes, Rian James, Anthony Veiller, Dorothy Yost

Main cast: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Helen Broderick, Victor Moore, Georges Metaxa

Read Full Post »

Cary Grant was one of the biggest movie stars in Hollywood in the mid-20th century.  He made 72 films in his career, and was – and is – loved by fans the world over.  However, there was another side to Cary Grant.  He married five times, experimented with LSD, and was constantly the subject of specualtion over his alleged homosexuality.

This book charts his life, and attempts to compare and contrast the persona of Cary Grant with whom audiences are so familiar, with the private Cary Grant behind the scenes.

I actually found the first half of this book intensely irritating.  It is the job of a biographer to give the details about their subject’s life, not to take speculation and discuss it as if it is fact.  After a good description of Grant’s troubled childhood, and his start in showbusiness with an acrobatic troupe, with whom he went to America and decided to carve out his future in the movie business, Eliot seemed to become preoccuppied with Grant’s alleged homosexuality (this being at a time when being homosexual could destroy an actor’s career).  Grant always denied any attraction to men, yet the author seems to ignore that fact, and give details of relationships with men that Grant apparently had (although he is unable to cite any sources for his information).  When discussing the friendship between Cary Grant and Randolph Scott, Eliot describes the domestic set-up in the bachelor pad which the two men shared, and muses that “sex was an afterthought.”  But where did he get this information?!  (There were also a few minor factual errors elsewhere in the book.  For example, when discussing Director George Cukor, Eliot states that Clark Gable had Cukor fired as Director of Gone With the Wind, because he didn’t like the fact that Cukor was gay.  Although this has been erronously stated elsewhere, it is simply not true.  Cukor actually lost the job because of he found Producer David O. Selznick hard to work with, or get along with.)

The book did improve the further along I got.  There was lots of information about many of Grant’s films, goings on behind the set, and the casting processes.  Most films also have a fairly detailed synopsis (some readers may want to skip these parts if they have not seen the films, because the synopses generally give away the endings to the films).

Grant’s marriages and the possible reasons for the breakdown of four of them are given.  Again, some of this is speculation, but much of it can be verified.  However, I did get the impression that the author spent too much time on the less savoury aspects of Grant’s life – for example, towards the end of the book, casual mention is made of the extensive charity work that Cary Grant did for numerous Jewish charities.  However, this is not mentioned elsewhere in the book at all – surely, such extensive charity work should warrant more than one throwaway line?  Instead, there are numerous references to Grant’s apparent meanness with money – I sometimes got the impression that Marc Eliot did not actually like Cary Grant very  much!

Eliot’s writing does flow well – he would probably make a great novelist – if at times, he does tend towards the cringeworthy – when describing the dimple on Cary Grant’s chin, he says, “…whose two smooth and curved bulges resembled nothing so much as a beautiful woman’s naked behind while she was on her knees in sexual supplication before the godlike monument of his face.”  I’m not making this up!  Fortunately however, there aren’t too many of these kinds of statements.

My overall feeling after reading this book was that it seemed somewhat mean-spirited towards its subject, but there were some interesting aspects – mostly about the movies which we love Cary Grant for giving us.  In fact, had Eliot written a book solely about Grant’s film career, it would have probably made for terrific reading.  This book isn’t awful, but such a major celebrity certainly deserves better.  Grant always tried to keep his personal life private, but he left his legacy of 72 films behind – and maybe those are how he should be remembered.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

Read Full Post »

This is quite an appealing, but badly dated film, starring Ginger Rogers and Joel McCrea, neither of who are in the kind of role for which they were famous (Rogers isn’t dancing and McCrea isn’t being a cowboy). Rogers plays Ellie May Adams, a young girl who falls in love with young beach cafe owner Ed Wallace, and is desperate to hide her family from him, because her father is an alcoholic, and her mother is a prostitute (this is never explicitly stated, but is very clearly implied). However, she cannot keep her two worlds seperate for long…

The acting by Ginger Rogers in this film was really quite revelatory. She is obviously best known for her dancing, especially with Fred Astaire, but this film (as well as Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman) shows that she had a real talent for dramatic acting. Joel McCrea is less convincing, but his performance is still fine for the role he plays.

The storyline did move a little fast – no sooner had Ellie May met Ed than she was declaring her love for him, and twisting his arm into marrying her – and it all feels a little ‘cramped’ somehow. It’s not often that I think a film could benefit from being longer, but this is a case where a little extra time spent on the early relationship between the two main parts would have benefitted the story.

Supporting roles were played by Marjorie Rambeau, as Ellie May’s mother (she was excellent, and won an Oscar nomination for her portrayal), a surprisingly sympathetic character; Miles Mander, as ELlie May’s educated alcoholic father; Joan Carroll as Honeybell, Ellie May’s little sister; Queenie Vassar as Ellie May’s cruel, spiteful and altogether horrible grandmother; and Henry Travers as Gramp – the kindly elderly man who first introduces Ellie May and Ed.

I do not think that this film has aged particularly well – some of the characters are stereotyped, and a lot of the smart wisecracks made by Ellie May do seem obviously scripted (which of course they were, but the film never quite lets you forget that). Nonetheless, it’s worth seeing for Ginger Rogers’ performance, and overall it’s fairly entertaining, if slightly predictable.

Year of release: 1940

Director: Gregory La Cava

Writers: Robert L. Buckner (play), Walter Hart (play), Victoria Lincoln (novel), Gregory La Cava, Allan Scott

Main cast: Ginger Rogers, Joel McCrea, Henry Travers, Marjorie Rambeau, Miles Mander, Queenie Vassar

Read Full Post »

This British made film stars Gregory Peck as Squadron Leader Bill Forrester, stationed in Burma in World War II. Forrester no longer cares whether he lives or dies, after his wife died in a bombing raid. When he visits a missionary’s house in Burma, he feels a connection to a young Burmese woman who lives there. Shortly afterwards however, Forrester, his navigator Carrington and another colleague named Blore, crash land in Japanese territory, badly injuring Carrington in the process. A long walk across hostile and unforgiving territory is the only possible chance of escape.

I wasn’t too sure whether I would enjoy this film. War movies are not a favourite genre of mine, and I wouldn’t have considered watching it, if Gregory Peck hadn’t been in this film. However, I’m glad I did. The Purple Plain is less a war movie, and more a film about the human condition with the war as a backdrop.

Gregory Peck was at his most beautiful in the early-mid 50s, and he certainly looks stunning here. His looks do not detract from his excellent performance however, and he really captures the two sides of Forrester – the lost and hopeless side we see at the beginning of the film, and the somewhat more optimistic side of him that develops. Having found a reason to live, Forrester has to face the very real possibility that he might die, and this is all shown very well.

Win Min Than plays Anna, the young Burmese girl who Forrester falls for. She is luminous in the part, and very appealing. (This was the first and last film that the actress ever made – she had not previously pursued a career in acting, and had fallen into the role almost by chance. She decided against a career as an actress, in order to concentrate on her marriage.) Maurice Denham is also good as the irritating but well-meaning Blore. The only patchy acting was down to Brenda de Banzie, who played the missionary at whose house Anna lived. De Banzie plays the part with a Scottish (I think) accent, which is pretty bad, and ended up distracting me whenever she was on screen.

Overall though, this is a great little-known film, and one that is definitely worth seeing if you get the chance.

Year of release: 1954

Director: Robert Parris

Writers: H.E. Bates (novel), Eric Ambler

Main cast: Gregory Peck, Win Min Than, Bernard Lee, Maurice Denham, Brenda de Banzie

Read Full Post »

At the start of this book, it is 1923, and the acclaimed magician, Carter the Great, puts on a grand show, in which President Harding comes on stage to take part in the final illusion.  Hours after the show, the President is dead, and Carter is under suspicion of causing his death, and has to flee the Secret Service.

After this tantalising peek into the life of Charles Carter the adult, the story of his life begins, from his childhood, where he turns to magic to defeat loneliness and a servant who bullies Charles and his brother.  His rise to fame is not without problems, and he suffers professional and personal triumphs and defeats.

As the story progresses up to and beyond the night of the President’s death, layer upon layer is added, including such story lines as the invention of television, and the book becomes a sprawling novel, with Carter right at it’s heart…

This is a hard book for my to review, because I have such mixed feelings it.  It started promisingly and I felt certain that I was going to love it, but as it progressed I started to feel underwhelmed, and – while I cannot say that I didn’t enjoy lots of it – I was slightly relieved to finish it.  Carter the Great was a real person, although this is a highly fictionalised account of his life.  Further, President Harding did indeed die under unusual circumstances (or rather, the way his death was immediately handled raises questions), although again, this book deals with it in a fictional manner.

I did think that Carter was an extremely likeable and enjoyable protagonist.  He was witty and clever, but also surprisingly vulnerable, and carried a sadness about him, the reason for which is explained in the story.  I also liked his brother James, who is a recurring character throughout the story, and Carter’s assistant Ledocq.

The reason that I did not enjoy this book as much as I hoped to, was that at times there just seemed to be too much going on.  From Secret Service agents (some corrupt, some incompetent, and some under-appreciated) who were trailing Carter, to an old friend who pops up throughout the story, to Carter’s rivalry with fellow magician Mysterioso – there were just so many elements to the story, some of which detracted from the part I was most interested in, which was Carter’s life story.

However, on the plus side, the author had clearly done lots of research about the era, and the popularity of vaudeville shows, where magicians such as Carter made much of their living, and I did enjoy that aspect of the story.

Overall, I would say that there was probably a terrific 400 page book contained within this 500+ page book, and it has certainly received many glowing reviews, but it perhaps wasn’t quite the right fit for me.  There was enough here though, that I would certainly read more by this author.

(Author’s blog can be found here.  For more information about Carter the Great, please click here.)

Read Full Post »

This film probably gave its stars Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman their most famous and celebrated roles.  In unoccupied Africa in the early days of World War II, Rick Blaine (Bogart) is a cynical and disillusioned exiled American, who runs a popular gin joint.  When Czech underground leader Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid) arrives at his premises, he brings with him his wife Isla (Bergman), a woman who is well known to Rick, and who reawakens feelings that he thought he had put behind him forever.  Rick may be in a position to help Victor, but he has to choose whether he will use this position to his own advantage or not.

Have you ever watched a film that is called a classic, and been a bit let-down?  Well, this is not one of those films.  To put it bluntly, Casablanca is awesome.  It demonstrates the changes in people’s characters and lives that are caused by war, it has a beautiful romance at it’s heart (I cried a number of times throughout), and it’s a blindingly brilliant story.

I particularly liked the fact that Rick’s rival for Ilsa’s love, Victor, was not a bad guy – in fact he was an extremely good guy, who was fighting for people’s freedom and human rights.  It would have been so easy to have the audience rooting for Rick, by making Victor an unlikeable character, and it made the film all the more powerful for the script not taking this route.

The lead actors – Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid were just wonderful, and the chemistry between Bogart and Bergman was electric.  I also thought Claude Reins as the French officer, Captain Renault – a man who was loyal to whichever side served his own interests best, and Dooley Wilson as Sam, the piano player at Rick’s bar – were excellent.

Certain scenes stand out in my mind, in particular the ending, but I’m not going to reveal any details here as I would not want to spoil it for any first time viewers.

In short, this film is well worth all the accolades it received.  If you still haven’t experienced Casablanca, I strongly recommend that you watch it.

Year of release: 1942

Director: Michael Curtiz

Writers: Julius J Epstein, Philip G Epstein, Howard Koch, Murray Burnett, Joan Alison, Casey Robinson

Main cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains

Read Full Post »

Set in 1941 (and made in 1959), this comedy is about the Captain (Cary Grant) of a newly commissioned submarine, which gets damaged.  The Captain insists that he can get it to a dockyard, despite the damage, but as most of his crew are sent elsewhere, he finds himself with a con-man Supplies Officer (Tony Curtis) and a group of army nurses, who prove to be a distraction to the crew.  And how on earth is he supposed to cope when the submarine is painted bright pink?!

Prior to watching this film, I had read various reviews which suggested that it was very sexist, and would probably offend many females viewing it nowadays.  Maybe because of this, I was expecting to find it offensive, but actually there was nothing here that I could imagine really bothering viewers, male or female.  Sure, there is the odd gag that could have come out of a Carry On film, but the jokes were all pretty harmless and played for laughs, not insults.

The film was very funny, with lots of visual and verbal jokes.  Cary Grant was perfect as the frustrated Captain Matt Sherman, who just wanted to get his vessel fixed so that he could continue his role in the war.  And had Tony Curtis not been playing opposite such a genuine professional, he would have stolen the entire movie, with his pitch-perfect portrayal of the loveable but incorrigible Lieutenant Nick Holden.  This film also reminds viewers of what a beautiful looking man Tony Curtis was.  The two lead actors have huge amounts of charisma.  Able support is provided by Dina Merrill, Joan O’Brien and Gavin MacLeod.

All in all, a very funny and entertaining movie, and one that is well worth watching, especially for fans of Cary Grant and/or Tony Curtis.

Year of release: 1959

Director: Blake Edwards

Writers: Stanley Shapiro, Maurice Richlin, Paul King, Joseph Stone

Main cast: Cary Grant, Tony Curtis, Dina Merrill, Joan O’Brien, Gavin MacLeod

Read Full Post »