Sunday, April 14, 2013

Great Performances In Film: Marlon Brando - On The Waterfront (1954)

And the sole contender for the title of the greatest male performance of all time is...

Do shush, you are
Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront

 Everybody knows how much of an acclaimed actor Brando is. My watching his movies were a means by which I could analyze for myself his worth and his talents. This was only my second Brando film after A Streetcar. I was more than impressed with his work in the previous film and did not expect him to be able to top it. Yet, a few minutes into On The Waterfront, I completely forgot that I was watching Marlon Brando act. He did not only inhabit that character. He was that character.
   There are two main reasons for such a successful career turn. For one, Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy in Waterfront looks very different from his Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar and from how Marlon usually looked in his day-to-day life. This is mostly due to the film's makeup department. They literally transform Brando's face into something that is now dull but retains the marks of a bygone beauty, befitting Malloy's past as a boxer. Second, Brando is so natural in this role! His body language, mannerisms, voice inflection and general demeanor are so drastically different from his work in A Streetcar.  He presents Terry Mallow as a sensible soul hidden behind a rough exterior. As we journey through the film trying to uncover the corruption of the seedy dock town, we in turn uncover Terry's inner sensitivity and his naive soul. Ever seen those movies where a character tries to shoot his enemy as the enermy wrestles underwater with the character's friend/ally/bestie/main squeeze? Well, the audience becomes that character. In On The Waterfront, it's as if both evil and good are hidden under a body of water, each trying to drown the other. Every once in a while, evil (the plot) and good (Terry) brush the surface only to be submerged again, leaving us in suspense as to who will come out on top. Our minds work frantically to determine where evil and good lurks in the movie, in fear that we might pull the trigger in the wrong direction. We sure hope Terry emerges from that murky water, though at times we may doubt his true motives.
     Terry Malloy is a guy who seems to really want the best but, as he's only lived through the worst, he merely accepts his fate and carries on. He does not know that he is equipped to fight evil and that he has the potential to conquer. Marlon Brando's Terry is one of the most root-able and endearing characters in cinema. He seems to be content to just continue on as a dockworker, his dreams of becoming a boxing legend dashed by the very powers whom he answers to. Yet, we get a glimpse into the man underneath when he continuously cares for a family pigeons and tries to make amends for what he's done. Brando communicates all of these attributes to the audience, retaining a certain boyhood naivete about Terry. Brando's Terry knows who and what he is. He is not just some simpleton who can be pulled in different directions. He is aware of what life is about and is still willing to continue living.
    And it is for this extraordinary performance and three more that Marlon Brando has not only my favorite male performance of all time, but remains my favorite actor of all time.
That they do

Thursday, April 11, 2013

In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008)

   After accidently killing a kid during a hit gone awry, a hitman, Ray, and his partner, Ken, are forced to hide in Bruges under orders from their boss. Ray feels increasing guilt over shooting the young kid and loathes his time in Bruges. Ken, meanwhile, enjoys sightseeing in Bruges and soaking up the local culture. Things begin to clear up when Ray makes the acquaintance of a young woman working as an assistant on a film shoot. He also becomes obsessed with one of the actors, a dwarf. Just as things seem to get better, the two men find their new world crumbling around them as their past continues to pursue them and their present proves to be a lie.
  I can now add McDonagh to my list of directors to watch. I have so much love for his Seven Psychopaths. In Bruges is equally as good, if not better. I also have to commend a film that can make me respect Colin Farrell as an actor. It's not that I didn't like Farrell before. It's just that I've never been wowed by a performance of his. He did solid in Seven Psychopaths, but mostly as the straight man in a cast full of crazies. But in In Bruges, Farrell delivers a truly outstanding performance. His Ray is moving, socially awkward, self-loathing, endearing and very much complex. He definitely deserved his Golden Globe and should have been nominated for an Oscar as well.

  The other actors in the film are also strong. Matter fact, I'm now enamored with Clemence Poesy. She has such strong screen presence. She stood out to me in 127 Hours for that scene where she turns back from the passenger seat of a car to whisper 'I love you' at James Franco and into the camera. Despite very minimal screentime in 127 Hours, she remained one of my favorite things about the film. She accomplishes the same thing in In Bruges but on a much grander scale as she is given more screen time to showcase her acting chops. Brendan Gleeson gives a heartfelt performance, making his final sacrifice that much more heart-wrenching. Jordan Prentice as the dwarf actor and Ralph Fiennes as the crime lord also help embellish the film.
   The film's cinematography is quite interesting. It lingers on the beauty contained in Bruges' monuments, canals and cathedral, yet still possesses a morose feel. Perhaps, it is because Bruges is being represented onscreen through Ray's eyes. The film's script is simply brilliant. There are some scenes that overall do not contribute in moving the plot, but they succeed in building the correct atmosphere for the film. I never knew where the story was going and I am still unclear as to how it continues past the credits.
    In Bruges is a fantastic film deserving of much more praise, of which it has already received plenty. It's charming, eclectic and oh so worthwhile.

Ludovico Rating

Monday, April 8, 2013

Great Performances In Film: Vivien Leigh - A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

The 'Great Performances In Film' series will be an ongoing feature highlighting great achievements in cinema by actors and actresses. 

So, why not kick off this feature with what I consider to be the single greatest female acting performance of all time and one of the best earned Oscars of all time? Miss Vivling in A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Elia Kazan in 1951 and based on the play of the same name by Tennessee Williams.

"She had a small talent but, as work progressed, I became full of admiration for the greatest determination to excel of any actress I've known. She'd have crawled over broken glass if she thought it would help her performance." -- Elia Kazan on Vivien Leigh In A Streetcar

  That's utter baloney, Kazan. Determination is indeed key in creating a successful performance but there also needs to be other ingredients at play. Sheer talent that is. And of that Vivien Leigh brought plenty of in her portrayal of Blanche DuBois. I think Kazan was probably at the time biased against Leigh. For one, the other three major actors had originated their respective roles on Broadway with Kazan. Thus, Leigh, casted as a way to bring in a famous name into the production, was at a disadvantage with Kazan, with whom she reportedly did not get along with well. The other three actors (Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden) were Method-trained actors, something else that placed Leigh in disfavor in Kazan's eye. At that point in time, Leigh was mostly known for her role as Scarlett in Gone With The Wind, during a time when classic melodrama reigned and was yet to disappear in favor of Method acting. She was also renowned for her appearances on the British stage, where actors were viewed as being too proper and distinguished for the earthy American roles such as those in A Streetcar. So, in short, Elia Kazan was no fan from the get go and no doubt had more of a rapport with his other actors (even though Leigh previously played the role of Blanche in a British adaptation of A Streetcar).
   But, Method or no Method, Leigh was hands down the best performance in the film. She would herself later comment that playing Blanche is what tipped her over into madness, worsening her bipolar condition. Leigh's Blanche is a total phony. She assumes airs (hiding her alcoholism and her past debauchery) and proves to be quite manipulative. When she meets her brother-in-law Stanley (Brando), she finally finds somebody unwilling to play along with her pretenses and who is determined to break down the last pillars of the pedestal on which she'd positioned herself. Leigh's Blanche is such a pathetic figure, grasping at straws, that she even borders into comical territory at times -- something that perhaps helps appease the audience's would-be loathing for her character. Throughout the film, just as Blanche never knows where she stands, we too are trying to figure out where we stand with her. Who is the real villain in A Streetcar Named Desire? Leigh continues to ride our emotions and expectations as the film progresses, resulting in one of the most heart-breaking finales ever. By the end, we have now assumed a position on Blanche. We want everything to be all right with her. We feel bad for we have now become the villains since for most of the film we've secretly been rooting for her demise. Yet, we never knew it would be so disconcerting. A determined actress would only be able to expose the skeleton behind the complex character of Blanche. Vivien Leigh gives her flesh and makes her live. It is a performance that once seen will remain forever emblazoned in one's mind, such is its strength. Due to Vivien Leigh's pure genius, Blanche DuBois lives on in our mind, tormenting us still.
    Vivien Leigh will forever be remembered for her characters of Scarlett and Blanche. I love comparing and contrasting the two characters. In a way, Blanche is what Scarlett could become. That both characters are played by the same actress gives an odd sense of continuity and closure to cinema. Vivien Leigh was born with Scarlett and died as Blanche. No matter if all of Leigh's other performances are overshadowed because in A Streetcar she delivers the best female acting performance of all time. Dammit, the best acting performance of all time if I were to compare hers to my favorite male performance. I am glad that she will be remembered for this role and this outstanding performance.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945)

  Al is a piano player in a New York nightclub where he is involved with the singer Sue. He dreams of leaving the nightclub scene behind and making it in Carnegie Hall. One night, Sue informs him of her intent to travel to Hollywood and try her luck there. He opposes the idea, but Sue has made up her mind. After she's left, he finds himself in a slump. Soon, he calls up Sue and asks her about her fortune. When she admits that things aren't going as well as she'd hoped, he tells her he has decided to come live with her in Hollywood. He begins to travel across the states to reach California, hitch-hiking on the way there. He is offered a ride by a man named Charles Haskell who promises to take him all the way to Los Angeles. Haskell, who is constantly popping pills, seems to take Al under his wing, buying his food and even allowing him to drive the car. During heavy rain, Al pulls the car over and tries to prop up the top. He realizes that Charles is not moving. He opens the car door and Charles falls out, hitting his head on the ground. The man is dead, possibly from a heart attack that would explain all those pills. Fearing that the police will pin the death on him, Al hides the body, takes the dead man's money and flees with the car. He has effectively assumed the identity of a deceased. However, on his journey to LA, he comes across a woman, Vera, who has connections with the real Charles Haskell and tries to blackmail him for her own, seedy purposes. His dream to reunite with Sue seems to evade him at every turn.
    Boy was I happy to discover that this film, which has now been on my watch list for quite some time, was only 67 minutes long. I decided to give it a go at 2  in the morning. Also, the film is now in the public domain and is available for free on YouTube here. The perfect kind of movie for a frugal, financially insecure college student short on cash and time. Seriously, go see the film right now! It's so good, technical flaws and all. I absolutely loved the plot. It may not have that many twists and turns, but its atmosphere is what makes it so special. It engulfs everything in its path; a path of destruction similar to the one that Al is forced to go down. Tom Neal, the actor behind Al, is barely noticeable in his role. He is not a character that one can easily root for. Matter fact, I barely felt any pity for him at the end of the movie.
Not in a million years would I give this woman a ride, neither kind

  That, in my opinion, is because Detour is a film that is focused mostly on its story and the aura it creates rather than the people that populate said aura. Those people are engulfed by the film's haunting aura, eaten alive and are never spitted out. They are forever consumed by the noir, never to see the light. Ann Savage as Vera manages to deliver a brilliant performance. In fact, she is perhaps the only person in the film who fights to claw out of the film's throat, her neediness to be heard and obeyed almost a match for the film. Savage's Vera is vile, scrupulous, loud, and aggressive. Her increasing demands belie her original appearance as a lost soul on the side of the road. Her motives shift gear. She is always trying to find a way out. Her struggle is admirable and makes her the most identifiable character in the film.
   That being said, Detour does have its flaws. For one, there is the fact that some of the shots are flipped. I was confused at times by the fact that, when hitchhiking, Al would get into the driver side of the car, with the driver now sitting behind the wheel on the passenger side. For a second, I thought that maybe Detour was a British production. But then, the next shots would show the driver on the correct side and Al now in the correct passenger side. After seeing the film, I immediately googled information about this continuity error and found that the film's low budget prevented the director Edgar G. Ulmer from filming new scenes that would have fixed this problem. In a way, those technical goofs add to the film's success. The world that these characters inhabit is a world void of rules and grotesquely different from our own. It's as if all of the darkness and seediness in our world has made its way into that specific world created by Ulmer. We are able to recognize our surrundings in Ulmer's world, but only through a tainted shard of looking glass.
    Detour is a film that I will continuously revisit. It is film noir at its best. Highly recommended. My faith that there are more amazing Old Hollywood films out there has been restored with my recent screening of Ball Of Fire and Detour.

Ludovico Rating

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Ball Of Fire (Howard Hawks, 1941)

  A group of eight professors, each in a different field of study, are working together to complete an encyclopedia on all world knowledge. They are currently on the letter S and are being pressured to hurry and finish up their work by the daughter of their now-deceased financier, Mr. Totten. Thankfully, the daughter of Mr. Totten has the hots for the youngest professor,  Professor Potts (Gary Cooper), and is willing to continue financing them. The professors are tended to in their home by their brash and bossy housekeeper, Miss Bragg. One day, the professors are visited by a janitor who wants an answer to a question regarding Cleopatra. They are able to discern exactly what the janitor is asking after several efforts to pierce through his prominent usage of slang. Professor Potts, the grammar nazi of the group, states that working in their secluded home has prevented him from amassing knowledge of slang words for the encyclopedia. He decides to venture out into the world and gain an understanding of the outside world's use of slang. During his adventures, he ends up in a nightclub where he becomes fascinated by the singer, Sugarpuss (lol, dead ass) O'Shea and her mastery of slang words. Backstage, Sugarpuss is informed by two of her mafia boyfriend Joe Lilac's associates that the police wants to subpoena her to testify against Joe Lilac for information she may have concerning a murder he may be involved in. The two associates tell her she needs to hide. In her dressing room, Sugarpuss is visited by Professor Potts who asks for her help in his research. She turns him down and flees with the two associates, looking for a place to hide. However, when the going gets tough, she decides to take the professor up on his offer. She shows up at his doorstep and forces herself into the house, demanding to be allowed to stay as an aide in the research. And so it happens that the eight professors' home is upturned with the sudden appearance of an attractive and vivacious young woman in their boring lives. They are unable to classify her like much of the things around them; unable to fathom the real reason for her stay with them. Only Miss Bragg seems against Sugarpuss staying at the house. The professors, for their part, take an immense liking to the young woman, most of all Professor Potts.

   Ball Of Fire was a hell of a ride. I mean that. A true roller coaster ride. It started off so strong and promising. I was extremely giddy, given that lately I haven't been enjoying classical Old Hollywood films as much (looking at you Laura). Then, around the halfway mark, as the romance aspect begins to gain more prominence, I felt that the film was getting off its rails. I did not like where the film was headed at all.  "Oh no, not this sappy, doomed love story shit again". I really felt that the film was milking the blooming relationship between Stanwyck and Cooper, a relationship that pretty much did not show any believable progress towards true romance -- could hardly call it blooming. Then, after those thirty-something minutes of lost hope, the film more than picks up its pace and regains its former stature. The formed romantic relationship finally makes sense and befits the characters, their motives and their ever-growing nature. The laughs come back aplenty. I mean, I was completely blown away by the finale. Ball Of Fire has been included in AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs; It more than deserves to be a part of that list. Still, for those last few minutes alone where comedy, crime and suspense are perfectly blended into one of the best scenes committed to film, Ball Of Fire should also have been included in AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers as well.
    Gary Cooper who I've only thus far seen in my beloved High Noon does a great job here. I expected him to be as stiff as his character in High Noon (something that was required for that role and which he did a great job with) but in Ball Of Fire he exhibits such awkward charm that I cannot help but root and feel for his character. His clueless-ness is never irritating but rather endearing. While Barbara Stanwyck no doubt is supposed to be the focal point of the picture, it is Gary Cooper's character that I gravitate towards more. This is not just a result of the story or the way the character was written. This is all Cooper's fantastic acting at play, making a potentially stereotypical geeky type character work wonders onscreen. Cooper gives a nice balance to the picture, having to be the bridge between his kooky professorial associates and the criminal aspect of the story. Speaking of which, the actors playing the other seven professors were for the most part effective in their role. At least two (one of which is the oldest professor, the only one who's being married before) are annoying for the majority of the film but manage to win me over by the end of the film. Some also manage to stand out and draw a lot of laughs, like the guy who played the angel Clarence in It's A Wonderful Life (Henry Travers) and Oskar Homolka. Two of the other professors appeared in Casablanca, S.Z. Sakall and Leonid Kinskey. Of the two, only the former manages to make an impression. Ironically enough, Dana Andrews who appeared in my loathed Laura stars here as the main antagonist Joe Lilac. And boy did he do a good job. Very menacing and believable, much more so than his bland character in Laura. Now to Barbara Stanwyck. My adoration for this woman will never cease. I rank her behind Marilyn Monroe and Vivien Leigh as my favorite actress from Old Hollywood. The magic she brings to her role here is otherwordly. Her character's past is never revealed, but in Stanwyck's face you can read the entire story of a little girl lost. She tries to portray herself as hard but deep down she's frightened and yearning for love. Stanwyck nearly steals the picture from everybody else, where it not for Cooper's performance abridging the spectrum. Her comedic timing is on point, but she under-layers her performance with a subtlety for drama and at humanity that is deserving of more recognition. Stanwyck is a boss.

   Final point: the publicity shots for this film are so misleading! I thought Barbara Stanwyck was going to prance through most of the film in her nightclub singer outfit. I wouldn't have minded at all. I would be willing to suspend my disbelief and let her wear the same outfit for four days straight. Lady had a figure!
    Ball Of Fire is a film that started strong and ended strong. Thirty or so minutes of it smack dab in the middle threatened to go in a direction that would have cheapened the rest of the production. I doubt this was done on purpose to mislead audiences. But that the film refused to go there and decided to get back on track makes me love it even more. It made me applaud the direction. Howard Hawks has yet to disappoint me. So, it should come as no surprise that I am awarding Ball Of Fire the highest honor despite this nminor flaw.
Get it gurl.

Ludovico Rating

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Volver (Pedro Almodovar, 2006)

  How do I even begin to describe Volver without giving too much away? For one, I definitely think most of the plot or the premise should be unknown prior to watching it. Then again, some basic knowledge of what the film is about should exist prior to watching it. The reason I say that is because halfway through Volver, I was wondering what the hell I was watching. I could not properly pigeonhole the film into a specific genre (the film is a mixture of so many!); I had no idea where it was going. I think some people would easily give up on the film as a result of this general confusion. Still, I loved what I'd seen so far, no matter my disorientation, and stuck it out till the end -- also because Mr. Rumsey at Mr. Rumsey's Film Related Musings recommended it so highly. After the credits started to roll, I seriously, dead ass was left mouth agape. How everything was tied together in the end is simply put mind-blowing. Few movies have left me as shocked as Volver and it's not necessarily the story (which is amazing in itself) but Almodovar's fantastic direction. This being only my second foray into the man's filmography after The Skin I Live In has already made of me a major and converted fan. That says a lot, no?

What's it about, pussycat: Ok, first off, don't call me that. Second, fine. Volver is an exploration of a family of women and how they, and the women around them, deal with death and life's tragedies that lead up to it. The women are two sisters Raimunda and Soledad "Soli", Raimunda's daughter Paula, the sisters' deceased mother and aunt, their former neighbor Augustina, and the sisters' friends, neighbors, clients and acquaintances. No male character plays a major role in the film, though much of what happens to the women sometimes relates to men. The story also seems to be in a constant circular motion as much of what happened in the first generation of women reoccurs in the successive generations. History repeats itself. Furthermore, Almodovar showcases Spanish culture at its richest in all its superstitious splendor; people cleaning/decorating the tombs of the deceased, the dead coming back to life and watching over the living, and kisses. Boy, the kisses in this film. One of the things that really stuck out to me about the film is how women kiss each other once on each cheek when they see each other. This idiosyncrasy, along with many others, lend a sense of charm and authenticity to the film.
   The cinematography is rich, and the story is so elaborate and just so damn good! I really wish I could talk about it more. So many twists and turns. Everything you believed up until the near end is overturned, and yet not really because when you look back it all makes sense and fits neatly into the puzzle delivered by Almodovar's wondrous mind. The acting in the film is also so strong. I was reminded of Cries And Whispers in that they both have a female-centered cast and there is not a weak performance in sight. I'm generally not a fan of Penelope Cruz, although I did love her in Vanilla Sky. But in this film, she killed her role as Raimunda. Cruz is able to bring out all of Raimunda's complexities. Such complexities are not explained. To Almodovar, the being cannot really be explained; that would be too categorical. It can however be given more depth and unveiled. And it is this unveiling that Cruz manages to accomplish through her character. She lays her character bare, showcasing her flaws and igniting her inner light. She gives life to the character.

 The other ladies are also on point. Lola Duenas does a job equally as amazing as Cruz given her almost thankless role as the dumpy sister. She shows us Soli's fragility and her drive to live. Carmen Maura and Yohana Cobo should also be commended, Maura especially given how she's mostly talked about during the film. She manages to embody everything said about her and yet show other facets to complete her character's humanness. Yet, the actress that almost stole the film from Cruz is to me no doubt Blanca Portillo. Her character of Augustina is already one of my favorites in the history of cinema. The character could have gone either two ways with a lesser actress: sappy or overtly nice. Portillo also manages to show different aspects to her character and she is the one I related to the most out of everybody in the film. I think all these multi-faceted performances go hand in hand with Almodovar/the film's themes of complexity. Almodovar shows us that in death the deceased can live anew. He shows us that life itself can even be affected by death's own complexities, perhaps not even in ways we would expect. Only in death can we begin to see and appreciate life, a key theme of the film I believe.
   In closing, Volver was so drastically different from The Skin I Live In. I would never have thought both came from the same director. Volver contains more key elements from different genres: humor, mystery, supernatural. The only similarities are the way in which the films' latter portions shed meaning on the earlier scenes. This is a film I would recommend to everybody, even people who do not really appreciate foreign films or only adhere to action movies. Because I feel Volver is a film celebrating life. It's very much a film about life. It has something for everybody in it. To sound either stupid or snobbish (the two can sometimes go hand in hand), Volver is real. Seriously, thank you Mr. Rumsey for encouraging me to see this one. Come time for my updating my movie list, this one's going to be ridiculously high.

Ludovico Rating