Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)

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I’ll lay my cards right on the table. I’ve never been a huge fan of Robert Montgomery. He just doesn’t have a charisma or a delivery that I much care for so as far as carrying a whole picture I’m not quite sold.

Still, with Here Comes Mr. Jordan, it all seems to work and it’s funny and clever in ways that would cause Hollywood to strive for storytelling that looked to think outside the box. Of course, the irony is, a new box gets created for people to work inside — a new style or sub-genre — but there’s little question that Here Comes Mr. Jordan feels very much the first of its kind. If not, I stand corrected.

It’s a story effortlessly built around quirky inventiveness. There are fantasy elements here that feel very much akin to the likes of Stairway to Heaven (1946), Random Harvest (1942), and Heaven Can Wait (both films from 1943 and 78).

Heaven is depicted as a kind of celestial processing center where human beings are plucked away from their life on earth to begin a new afterlife. Through intervention, by angelic beings, lovers can all but forget one another only to have some deja vu feeling that they’ve been together before.

And further still, the ideas of the heavenly and angels entering into everyday life soon became a staple of 40s and 50s Hollywood much in part to this picture. Without it, there’s a possibility that classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and the Bishop’s Wife (1947) would not have been conceived in their most remembered forms. After all, what would those films be without Clarence or Dudley? Or what would this one be without Mr. Jordan for that matter?

Elaine May must have thought the story was ripe for more exploration too when she penned Heaven Can Wait which expanded a great many of these ideas only in a different context.

Unequivocably this rendition proves to be far from a one trick pony, taking a main conceit that admittedly seems absurd at first — even gimmicky — and turning it into a fantastical comedy with continual possibilities.

Imagine just for one moment that a feisty boxer, Joe Pendelton (Montgomery), preparing for his next big bout flies to the site of the fight only to have his plane malfunction en route. He looks like a goner but he’s pulled from the aircraft too soon by 7013 (Edward Everett Horton). In fact, it’s 50 years too early, his date with the afterlife is not until 1991 (In case you were wondering, Montgomery actually passed away in 1981). Being the bullish personality that he is, Joe’s not going to sit by when he had such a good thing going on earth.

The genial Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains) grants his wish and inserts Joe back into life but they must find him a new body — you see his previous one has already been cremated which makes for added complications.

We plot his journey between two distinct individuals and their bodies and aside from the opening plane crash, a few puffs of smoke, and a few parlor tricks, the film doesn’t rely too heavily on any amount of special effects. For all intent and purposes, things are normal as they’ve always been. It’s just the parameters that have changed. Namely the fact that Joe can see Mr. Jordan and no one else can. First, he’s Bruce Farnsworth formerly a crooked magnate who was murdered in his bathtub by his wife and her lover.

Boy, are they surprised when he turns up again. Mr. Jordan and the audience see Montgomery but the others see and hear the man that they think they’ve done away with. Still, coaxed by Mr. Jordan, Joe or Farnsworth, turns this man’s life around, taking ownership of his past indiscretions and helping the father of a young woman (Evelyn Keyes) who was accused of fraud.

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Meanwhile, Joe, err, Farnsworth still has his sights on his previous shot at the boxing ring. It all comes off rather odd to those who used to know his alter ego but he calls up his old coach Max Corkle (James Gleason) and he’s finally able to convince him of his true identity due to his beloved saxophone always in tow.

Finally, it looks like he’s on the road that he wants but alas complications ensue. He finds himself falling for Ms. Logan and circumstances are such that he must find another body. He settles on a straight-arrow named Murdoch and subsequently gives the fighter a second chance in the ring while hiring on Max to be his coach so he can still actualize his dreams.

Mr. Jordan leaves Joe in this moment, seeing he has a version of the life he always wanted and the celestial being conveniently removes all of Joe’s memories of a previous life. Of being a man named Joe Pendleton. It makes for some goofy comedy with Corkle and supplies one budding meet-cute with Ms. Logan.

While the theology is probably sketchy at best, it’s a good-natured, comic interpretation of the afterlife that serves the world of the film well. The only thing in question is the ethical nature of angels removing human memories but surely Claude Rains knows what he is doing.

James Gleason is an absolute riot as the one human privy to the whole gag only to look like a complete nutcase when questioned by anyone else who is “normal.” He easily puts you in stitches and Edward Everett Horton has his flustered indignance down pat. He made a career out of it after all.

4/5 Stars

Matter of Life and Death (1946)

 

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Matter of Life and Death is planted in its era. It carries the vague notions of a war film, it’s certainly a romance, and it revels in the throes of fantasy. But on the whole Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s film functions outside the typical confines that are put on film as a medium. The scope it dares to take on is far more expansive.

The plot is made in the first few minutes when a pilot looks to eject amid the fog engulfing his failing bomber. It’s in that single moment where he picks up the signal of a radio dispatcher down below and their lives are never the same. Believable or not they fall instantly in love — in that moment of heightened emotion — they find a connection. She, never to see his face and he, never to make it out alive.

The Conductor (Marius Goring) from the other side is already looking to pick him up. Except something goes terribly wrong, or terribly right for the pilot, depending on your perspective. In other words, he doesn’t die. He escapes death. It causes a bit of a stir and Conductor 71 must try and rectify the situation.

But of course, Peter David Carter (David Niven) quite by chance is reunited with the woman from the other side of the wire, the American named June (Kim Hunter) and they are allowed a happy life together. Except with his reservation with the afterlife still up for contention, Peter finds himself being visited by the Conductor who coaxes him to accept his death. Instead, Peter calls for an appeal and his case is set to be brought before the highest authorities to decide once and for all if he must accept his death as ordained or have it postponed so that he might continue to cement his love for June.

It evolves into a wonderfully fantastical courtroom drama, wrapped up in romance, with a bit of time travel, purgatory, special effects, and color all mixed together in a tirelessly imaginative arc.  It’s true that the ambitions of the conceptual narrative are really unlike any other cinematic creature as it cycles so lithely through time and space. Freezing images, moving characters about this way and that, and cutting back and forth between worlds most easily differentiated by their color schemes.

Still, in some way, I was gripped more with the furious emotion of The Red Shoes (1948)and yet with its phenomenal conception and immaculate staging, A Matter of Life and Death manages to be an extraordinary picture by most accounts. If its waves of romance did not seize me instantly, its sheer inventiveness was nevertheless breathtaking.  And if the concept enthralls me even more than the narrative does then so be it. It shares a world akin to Seventh Heaven (1927) or Wings of Desire (1988) and that alone is worthy of praise — carving out a place in the pantheon of transcendent films — featured on the conveyor belt that makes its way through the years.

Fantasy films were made to be like this, arguably functioning in a realm that only films could facilitate and Powell and Pressburger examined near unfathomable realms. Not only with scripting but the selection of shots, and developing fascinating spectacles out of the Other World from the stairway to heaven to the infinite courtroom where Peter’s case is debated. Jack Cardiff’s photography takes on the monumental task of balancing two worlds with equal import — the world we know and the complete other realm that has yet to be revealed to us who are still among the living. It leaves us feeling enamored with both. Not simply because of beauty but sheer size and scale.

The storyline comes down to the final moments where Peter and June are asked to make the kind of choices we have been expecting. Right about now we can hear the words ringing in our ears, there’s no greater love than to lay down one’s life for the ones you love. Their actions say as much. But as we might just come to find, give and it will be given back to you more abundantly than you could ever imagine. Sacrifice all that you have and you will find yourself gaining so much more.

It brings to mind a dialogue that emerged from the courtroom when the prosecutor (Raymond Massey) notes that “nothing is more important than the law. The whole universe was built on it.” But his learned opposition (Roger Livesey) ascertains that “this is a court of justice not of law.” The implications being that the law is good and must still be fulfilled but justice is the key here, where right is done by all men and love reigns supreme.

There are a plethora of interesting topics that arise from The Archers’ film but one of the foremost is the sentiment of not only the post-war but of an entire millennium. It’s a belief that could arise from many marginalized points of views suggesting that there is a great deal of prejudice and ill-will that could be exacted against the English (and certainly Americans too), anyone who has been a major world power.

The jurors put up against the defendant all have grievances they could hold against the English people, but then again, we are not our fathers’ fathers and we cannot necessarily turn back the clock on their past sins. But what this film does suggest more powerfully still, relevant in a post-war era or any age really, is the idea that people can reach out across the sea and really across the world to be united by something. We’ll give it a name to it and call it love in its many forms — more specifically as the Greeks might call them, storge, philia, eros, and greatest of all agape.

4.5/5 Stars

Note: My entry in the Time Travel Blogathon

 

The Princess Bride (1987)

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Few films can please the restless masses that inevitably gather at some unfortunate souls home for a movie night. Because as varied and diverse individuals of a myriad of backgrounds we very rarely agree on anything especially given the proliferation of content that is available to us at any given time. But most can agree on one thing. The Princess Bride is one of the great crowd pleasers of its generation and for good reason.

If quotability was the sole parameter for a great movie then The Princess Bride has few equals and it also happens to be the most fun you’ll have in a single sitting because all that it does, it does with an unquenchable zeal. There’s a spirit to the film full of romance and humor and adventure, even playing to those who will forever be skeptical.

Adapted from his own novel, the venerable William Goldman carries over his framing device of a grandfather reading to his sick grandson and it works marvels to bring us into this tale. Especially when the two actors in question are a precocious Fred Savage (Pre-Wonder Years) and the inimitable Peter Falk (Post-Columbo) slipping seamlessly into the role of a grandpa with a twinkle in his eye.

The story unravels like many great fables with a love story torn asunder by circumstance. A young man who goes off to seek his fortune only to die (or more likely take on the identity of the Dread Pirate Roberts) and a young maiden who is made a princess and remains unhappy all the same without her true love. Of course, she does not understand the nefarious intentions of her soon to be husband Humperdinck nor that her love is going to great lengths to find her. And amidst the fantasy, swordplay, trickery, and rampant humor, love conquers all as it has a habit of doing in fairy tales with everyone of note living happily ever after.

This unabashed tale also boasts near pitch-perfect casting. Cary Elwes as Westley does embody a certain quietly confident charm that while not quite Flynn or Fairbanks still manages to guide the film with similar charisma. He can be the hero, handsome and witty, made to play perfectly off all the intriguing figures who inhabit this fairy tale.

In her debut, Robin Wright glows with a radiant beauty and stubborn defiance that’ s enduring and which in many ways has remained a defining moment in her career and it’s certainly not a bad film to be forever remembered for. Meanwhile, Mandy Patinkin plays the vengeful Spaniard Inigo Montoya with the perfect amount of bravado, honor, and charm in his lifelong search for the six-fingered man who killed his beloved father. He’s the perfect accompaniment for Andre the Giant’s lovable brand of brawn and Wallace Shawn’s hilariously irritating turn as their cackling leader.

But what makes the film even better or the odd sorts who pop up here and there including Miracle Max (Billy Crystal) a curmudgeon wisecracker like no other and The Impressive Clergyman (played by the oft-underrated Peter Cook) who single-handedly ruined the solemnity of wedding vows for all eternity.

Rob Reiner is rarely considered a masterful director but if anything it’s easy to make the case that The Princess Bride remains years later his greatest achievement because it has so much life provided indubitably by Goldman’s superlative script and the very figures who dare to fill his world. And Reiner captures it all with a clarity that comprehends the humor but very rarely goes for that at the expense of characters or story (unless they are villains or Billy Crystal). After all, this isn’t a Mel Brooks film.

By this point, it’s a disservice to call The Princess Bride a parody or mere homage– simply a cult classic that’s garnered widespread affection. The reason people love this film is connected to those aspects but also the very fact it stands on its own.

As Falk sings the praises of the story early on, so we can affirm, it has “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…” If that’s not exciting nothing is and it’s quite easy to forget that the film is continuously hilarious but there’s something remarkably moving about its story.  It plays the comedy well but simultaneously builds its own road through the mythology and fantasy of fairy tales that have captivated all people for eons.

In The Princess Bride, there’s not simply roots in comedies like The Court Jester but swashbucklers like The Adventures of Robin Hood or the magical journeying of the Wizard of Oz. It covers the spectrum of entertainment which is part of the reason it’s so satisfying.

It has scenes, moments, lines, those little idiosyncrasies and quirks that have left an indelible mark on viewers and as a result our culture as a whole. Lines like “As you wish,” “INCONCEIVABLE,” or best yet, “My Name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father. Prepare to die.” Each has its special place within the context of the film and is still imbued with that same meaning hours after.

If I write about this film more from my heart than my head you’ll have to forgive but it truly is a weakness. I can envision being little Fred Savage enchanted by the sheer magic of fairy tales. I wouldn’t begin to care about romance until years later but swashbuckling and humor always had me enthralled and they continue to capture my imagination to this day–no more powerfully than in The Princess Bride.  It’s sheer magic in all the best ways.

5/5 Stars

Review: 8 1/2 (1963)

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Is the subject of this film a religious one? – A Religious Leader 

Yes, well, in a manner of speaking. – Guido

It famously opens with a dream. Our main character stuck in a silent traffic jam, completely disillusioned by the scene around him until he’s able to escape everything inhibiting him and soar into the upper echelons of the atmosphere. But it hardly lasts. Soon he finds himself tethered, being brought back down to earth.

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Our protagonist of sorts turns out to be Guido (the famed Italian icon Marcello Mastroianni), a film director who is going through a spell of director’s block. His most recent activities include an extended stay at a luxury spa at the behest of his doctors. It’s also early on in the film that someone asks him if his next film is also going to be one devoid of hope. It’s a very quick statement but in some sense, it sets the groundwork for Fellini’s entire film.

And it is a very personal film and a fascinating exploration of the art of filmmaking — the thing making it the most compelling is the strange suspicion that parts of Fellini himself dwell inside of Guido. Perhaps Guido shares a bit of his philosophy and stance or more precisely Fellini is like his main character.

The film within a film soon becomes evident and in that sense, it’s also a personal picture. Its title being derived from the number of pictures the Maestro had directed thus far. And numerous meta qualities come to the fore, most obviously when Guido is going through the screen tests his producer (Guido Alberti) and wife Luisa (Anouk Aimee) among those viewing the proceedings.

But going back to that issue of hope, the film’s finale has always been striking to me but I realized that it takes on new meaning put in the context of higher issues altogether. In some respects, Guido or Fellini, whichever you prefer, is trying to derive some sort of higher meaning, whatever that means to him.

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That’s in part why he has his legions of characters join hands in an almost communal dance of absurdity. Simultaneously, a journalist can be heard throwing his questions out, “Are you for or against eroticism?” and in the same breath, “Do you believe in God?” Because this is Fellini’s answer — the solution he has drawn up for himself. There is a sense of grandiose absurdity which is full of dreamscapes — where the distinction between reality and fantasy hardly means anything. Because in the eye of the beholder they are hardly different.

On purely a level of spectacle, it’s indubitably a fascinating set-up. Fellini is known for his quintessential style. To be Felliniesque is to be wrapped up in the surreal and the fantastic. But the philosophical conclusions that go hand in hand with such a provocative approach to film are rather disheartening. If this is part of what Fellini is trying to grapple with as it pertains to love and ultimate truth then 8 1/2 does fall back on a rather dismal ending.

As Guido explains to the man of the cloth, he is looking for some flash of understanding, some obvious moment of truth, like Saul at Damascus. He, like all his peers, carries the foundations of a Catholic upbringing. The religious authorities tell them that there is no salvation outside the church. His strict Catholic school told him what was wrong. Likewise, Guido plans to have a spaceship in his next film — humanities “new Noah’s Ark.” And it’s true that space exploration has been the final frontier, a beacon of potential hopes and truths. You see that in later works like 2001 and Solaris.  However, Noah’s Ark was also a vessel to escape destruction as much as it was a ship of exploration.

In drawing other cinematic comparisons, Fellini’s film revolves around a pointless MacGuffin (the phrase Asa Nisi Masa) rather like Welles famed Rosebud. Truthfully, this is a comedy in the same way perhaps Citizen Kane is a comedy. In a similar way, Guido seems isolated, but his mind, in particular, is twisted up with fantasies.

The most divisive scene in the film is yet another fantasy conjured up by Guido that is either extraordinary humorous or sadly indicative of his state of being depending on how you view it. He dreams himself in the stead of all the women he has crossed paths with thus far. — all ready and waiting on his whim — his personal harem of sorts — totally and completely objectified for his pleasure. Again, it’s played for truly comic effect but what are the implications?

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As the eternal beauty Claudia (Claudia Cardinale) notes, “He doesn’t know how to love.” She speaks of Guido’s protagonist but as the meta-ness suggests, this protagonist is Guido himself and going down even a layer further maybe even Fellini too. It’s precisely these problems that tie back into Guido’s disillusionment. “There’s no part in the film. And there’s no film. There’s nothing anywhere,” he says to Claudia.

Chaos and nothingness. True perfection is nothingness. His final conclusion? Life is a celebration. Let’s live it together. In essence, it’s true but the carnival showmanship and parlor tricks cannot obscure the bottom line here. As Francis Schaeffer once noted someone like Fellini “has no way to distinguish between right and wrong, or even between what is objectively true as opposed to illusion or fantasy.” That’s a terrifying world to come to terms with. During filming, Fellini supposedly kept a note on his camera to remind himself that this was a comedy film. But much like Citizen Kane, perhaps there’s a need to label it a Tragicomedy. You cannot deal with such issues without elation being matched with some amount of melancholy.

5/5 Stars

Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

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“How many times is a man so taken with a woman that he walks off the screen just to get her?”

This line spoken by one of Jeff Daniels’ characters is really the key to opening up the fantasy that is Purple Rose of Cairo. Here is a film where Woody Allen most blatantly gets to parade his love for the movies and it revolves around the Depression, a love story, and a movie theater. Cecilia (Mia Farrow) is a woman who gets by working in a diner with a bum of a husband (Danny Aiello) who beats her more than he loves her. Her one getaway is the escapist thrills derived from the weekly romances and melodramas found at the local theater. She’s one of the most faithful attendees making it out to the movies religiously and she goes back out into the world reciting all that she has seen to anyone who is willing to listen.

And there is a bit of Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. here as well. It’s not as inventive visually but several scenes that include the firing off of dialogue between the screen and reality work to great effect.  That’s something Keaton could not do in a silent picture, have his movie characters and audience members interact so directly.

It’s striking that the scenes that have been constructed as “film” really do look like films of old. There’s an attention to the craft rather than the shoddy caricature of grainy black and white that we’re often accustomed to. Even the striking resemblance of Edward Hermann to Edward Everett Horton as well as the makeup work complete with black eyeshadow lends itself to the whole charade.

And Purple Rose of Cairo is literally about a man coming off the silver screen to interact with one of his viewers — one of the people who is devoted to him — and he loves her. The woman is, of course, Cecilia, and the man off the celluloid is Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels the first time around) a man who was written as a supporting character, an archaeologist.

That in itself might be enough to play with but Allen takes his story a step further so it’s not simply about this unlikely romance of worlds colliding. But it gets even more intriguing when the famed actor who plays Tom in “real life,” the man Gil Sheppard (Jeff Daniels again) crosses paths with Cecilia. At first, he’s interested in her because she has a way to assist him in his predicament since she knows his unruly alter ego. However, over time it turns into a certain amount of awe because she is devoted to his characters and by a certain amount of transference, him as well. The question that is then raised rather obviously is, do you take the perfectly constructed fantasy man or do you go with reality? That which is right in front of you, both living and breathing and fully human.

It’s also a commentary on the rigid conventions that storytellers are often forced to adhere to. Aside from “art-house,” there can be little to no films with people talking or dealing with philosophical issues. That’s too mundane. Of course, Allen is notably one who matches his comedic delivery with his own philosophical quibblings. And this film is light but it still raises some of the questions he is often preoccupied with. Whether or not he comes to a satisfying conclusion is for only the viewer to decide, and if the film itself is any indication they are the ones who must decide. The viewer, in this case, has great agency. They are the focal point of this film, again, in the literal sense.

As is Woody Allen’s penchant, the film opens with an old standard, in this case, the crooning voice of Fred Astaire knocking off a few bars of “Cheek to Cheek.” And the story ends with Astaire & Rogers dancing the night away. While Purple Rose of Cairo cannot quite top Top Hat, it’s a bittersweet dose of 30s nostalgia all the same. It shows once more that Woody Allen truly does love movies with a passion. That’s one thing that’s difficult to take away from him, but it does beg the question, can movies really be your be all, end all?

Some of the implications are rather troubling as we leave Cecilia completely immersed in a film, her real life completely ripped to shreds without a marriage or a job or really anything else. But she has a movie. Except movies can only go so far in how they emulate reality. They cannot replace it or perfectly replicate what is real. They can only help us understand it better. That is why, while movies can and should be entertainment at times, they should not only be pure escapism. Because the reality is that life is still right outside our door. We cannot get rid of it or lose sight of our role in it — both in good times and bad.

We are probably all just as messed up as the next person and perhaps little better than Woody Allen in some ways, still, if we don’t simply love movies but hope to glean a little from them about life then we are better off. They cannot be the ultimate thing in life but they can direct us towards the important things.

3.5/5 Stars

La Belle et la Bete (1946)

La_Belle_et_la_Bête_film.jpgChildren believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim, and that this will cause him shame when a young maiden takes up residence in his home. They believe a thousand other simple things. – Jean Cocteau 

From the outset director Jean Cocteau entreats his audience to have a “childlike sympathy” and as a viewer, you do well to heed his advice. Because, that posture is exactly what becomes the guiding force behind this entire fairy tale that he has developed, in some ways so planted in reality and in others very much the purest of fantasy stories.

Though simple, the film’s special effects are surprisingly mesmerizing with magically opening doors, mirrors and human columns spewing smoke. You half expect to see strings or some other obvious cue to signal that this is all a facade, all hokey tricks, but a moment like that is never obvious. The film maintains much of its magic even after 70 years.

The Beast’s castle shines with the opulence of goblets and jewel, while the farmhouse of Belle and her family is humble, characterized after the artistic works of the great Flemish master Jan Vermeer.The atmosphere is equally gripping and Cocteau stages some of his shots in invariably interesting ways interrupting the plane of view with candles, smoke and anything else that suits his fancy. And that’s the beautiful things about fairy tales. You are not tied down to any sort of logic or narrative convention. His film is free-flowing, pacing itself as it sees fit. Even it’s ending is enduringly perplexing, hardly as straightforward as a Disney adaptation, but there is still immense power in that.

There are also an equal number of familiar reference points like evil sisters, who are blinded by their own avarice and then, of course, their humble sister, Belle, played so exquisitely pure by Josette Day. Her face beams with a radiance not often equaled and whether clothed in rags or the finest robes, it’s her humble elegance that shines through.

But it’s Jean Marais’s performance that is perhaps even more noteworthy if that were possible as he takes on a dual role. The first is more obvious, as Avenot, the man that Belle secretly loves, but it looks like it will never be due to their circumstances. However, Marais also takes on the monumental role of the beast and hidden behind tireless amounts of makeup and fur, it’s easy to lose him in the role. What would have been lost if he was animated or computer-generated, is betrayed in how he carries himself and even how he talks at points. Certainly, he is a creature prone to barbarism and violence, but innate in a performance such as this are those human characteristics. Thus, the perfect fairy-tale ending that we all know by now — probably thanks to Disney — is also a striking reminder. Yes, the fate of the prince of becoming a beast was due to spells and incantations, but we can just as easily be beasts now.

Without trying to go too far with the idea, it’s easy to recognize moments when we act almost inhuman. In fact, that’s the constant struggle of mankind, fighting against our more animalistic desires to do what we actually perceive to be upright. So you see, the Beast is not just a fairy story or the Beast is not simply someone else acting out in a horrid way, but the Beast can just as easily be you and me. In Cocteau’s film, a lot is made of the mystical mirror. Belle looks absolutely divine under its gaze but her sisters show up as an old woman and then a cackling monkey. If each one of us was to peer into that same mirror what would we show up as? What characterizes our lives? Beauty or bestiality? If this story is any indication, at least there is a chance at redemption. But that’s enough of that. La Belle et la Bete is a sublime fantasy deserving airtime alongside Disney’s more well-known adaptation.

4.5/5 Stars

Pleasantville (1998)

pleasantville 1This was not the film I expected from the outset, and oftentimes that’s a far more gratifying experience. Nostalgia was expected and this film certainly has it,  even to the point of casting the legendary funny man and cultural icon Don Knotts in the integral role as the television repairman.

However, with this there was a degree of apprehension, because while paying homage to the past, Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Andy Griffith and so on, there seemed to be a certain amount of denigrating of such classics– a tongue and cheek way of approaching the quaint television past of the 1950s. There was little reverence for these admittedly quaint but still respected programs.

My fears were seemingly confirmed minutes later with black and white imagery being equated to repression as the beautiful colors of the town became unfurled with greater enlightenment and personal expression. But that’s not quite right. The story goes both ways. And to understand that we have to take a closer look at our two diverging main characters.

When Garry Ross’s film begins in the present day, David (Tobey Maguire) leads the life of a bookish TV nerd, watching old reruns and cataloging trivial factoids in the cavernous crevices of his mind. At this point he’s relationally stagnant and based on this social life, he looks to be going nowhere fast. His sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) is on the complete opposite spectrum, infatuated with boys, imbued with sexual freedom, and dare we say a tad superficial.

But to make a long story short, these two siblings get thrown into the life and times of David’s favorite TV show Pleasantville, complete with black and white cinematography and vintage ’50s lifestyles. The interesting part is watching them learn how to find another part of themselves contrary to what they initially found their identity in. It means freedom of not only body but mind too and that extends to all the other people who they influence.

In a pinch, it also makes for a handy allegory on race, with literal color being of such a high concern among the paranoid townsfolk. Because as more people become “colored” it creates a degree of unrest in the community. They hold to the belief that “different” is not good — to be “other” is to be frowned upon. It’s Jennifer first and then David who begin to change the status quo, including their mother (Joan Allen), the local diner owner (Jeff Daniels) and many of the other teenagers.

So on second glance, Pleasantville is a film that says television reruns and nostalgia are quite alright, but then again, there’s so much to be lived and experienced in the present moment too. There will be bad just as there was bad before and there will be good things that will manifest themselves still more abundantly like previous generations. Those are the universal rhythms of life, and they should free us up to live with supreme confidence in who we are, breaking out of the tedium that is our comfort zone. And that’s a lesson that not only revels in the glories of previous generations but still gives us hope for the future millennium, now well underway over 15 years after Pleasantville was originally released.

It’s not a story without flaws, but it’s the fact that it has flaws that actually make it worth watching. We need a little bit of rain in our lives — the inconsistencies and the idiosyncrasies to add greater depth, not only to our character but in turn to our relationships. It then becomes absolutely necessary to come up with a clear definition of pleasant or even to concede that not everything can or should be pleasant. Because you need the darkness to bring out the full spectrum of colors — all those colors commonly referred to as human emotions.

4/5 Stars

Midnight in Paris (2011): Lessons in Nostalgia

midnightin1Midnight in Paris begins with scene after scene of the Parisian landscape. It gives off the feel of a lazy vacation, strolls in the park, sidewalk cafes aplenty, and even romantically rainy afternoons. For those who have never been to Paris, it makes you fall in love with the city in only a matter of minutes. Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is such a person who would easily be content with the Left Banke, Baguettes, and a chance to write his latest novel.  There is an air of wonderment that pervades his very being. He’s often naive and unassuming — hardly someone you would peg for a big Hollywood success story.

He’s about to be hitched to Inez (Rachel McAdams), a young woman who epitomizes the affluent American girl who was used to getting everything she wanted from dear old dad. Now she’s going to marry rich and maintain her lifestyle. Her life is a continual conveyor belt of first world problems. Such as buying a pair of 20,000 euro chairs in an antique shop. Meanwhile, she is easily impressed by puffed up pontification.

When she runs into an old school friend Paul (Michael Sheen) and his wife, all Inez wants to do is listen to him talk. After all, he knows about painting, philosophy, wine, and about anything else a stuffy intellectual should know. To coin a phrase he’s a contemptuous, conceited bag of hot air,  or as the museum guide (Carla Bruni) so aptly puts it, “a pedantic gentleman.”

midnightin4For obvious reasons, Gil cannot stand spending time with his wife’s friends. Instead, those breezy, absent-minded walks down the lanes are more his taste. Inez can’t begin to understand why he does it, but one night he’s in for a big surprise. One minute he’s  out for a stroll and then the clock chimes twelve. All of the sudden something a la Cinderella happens. A coach pulls up, Gil tentatively gets in not knowing what he has just stumbled upon, incognizant of the adventure ahead of him.

What follows are the most whimsically joyous moments of the film. Gil has wandered into 1920s Paris, and it’s beyond his wildest dreams. It’s practically paradise with the music of Cole Porter, dancing, pretty girls, and the biggest names you could ever hope to meet. In fact, you can tell Woody Allen has great pleasure in bringing to life such visionaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Piccaso, Salvidor Dali, Luis Bunuel, and so on.

It’s too much fun to be critical of historical accuracy. After all the Fitzgeralds throw wonderful parties, Hemingway gives Gil romantic advice, and he gets his fledgling novel read by none other than Stein. All the while Gil returns to the present giddy with excitement about what he has experienced, but Inez has none of his appreciation for nostalgia. She’d rather go dancing with Paul because he’s so refined.

midnightin2The linchpin of the whole story is really the ravishing French beauty Adrianna (Marion Cotillard), the muse of Picasso, the desire of Hemingway, and a new-found friend of Gil. He cannot help but be enraptured by her grace and the time they spend together is wonderful, that is until he tells her that he is pledged to be married. Although, it looks like he and Inez will not be together much longer as they continue to drift further and further apart.

It’s in one of his last visits to the past that Gil makes the startling discovering that Midnight Paris hinges on. He realizes Adrianna dreams of the turn of the century as he dreams for the roaring twenties. Toulouse Lautrec, Gauguin, and Degas dream about the majesty of the Renaissance. In such a revelation lies a valuable lesson (“I was trying to escape my present the same way you’re trying to escape yours, to a golden age”).

In doing so Gil comes to appreciate his present, because life may be unsatisfying at times, but perhaps maybe that’s the way it should be. Otherwise, we would never know what true joy or excitement or love is. There would be no change, no threshold to truly experience life as it is. Gil can go back to his nostalgia shops and Cole Porter hit parades and that’s alright. But now he’s found a Parisian girl (Lea Seydoux) who shares his affinity for long walks in the rain. This is certainly a fairy tale ending, but then again this whole story is a fantasy. In getting a little bit sentimental Woody Allen really gifted his audience something unmistakably special. Owen Wilson was fantastic as was Marion Cotillard.

4/5 Stars

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

Cary_and_the_Bishop's_Wife_posterAlthough its theology probably isn’t sound, rather like It’s a Wonderful Life, The Bishop’s Wife nevertheless utilizes its central plotting device wonderfully.

Imagine if on a whim an angel came to your rescue, and then imagine that the angel is named Dudley and looks and acts like none other than Cary Grant. In this case, the person in need is a distraught Bishop named Henry Brougham (David Niven). He is right in the middle of a major undertaking to build a new cathedral, and his primary benefactor Mrs. Hamilton (Gladys Cooper) is being a thorn in his side. The building project has consumed all his time and efforts, causing him to neglect his radiant wife Julia (Loretta Young), their little daughter Debbie, and the people from their old parish.

Director Henry Koster crafts a whimsical and rather sentimental film much in the same mold as Harvey (1950) which came three years later. This time Dudley is the character who exists outside of worldly convention. He is constantly kind, always patient, never hurries, and is always helpful to everyone in need be it blind man or bishop. In truth, everyone adores him, because after all, he is an angel. Everyone, that is, except Henry who needs him most. Henry unwittingly asked for help and now he has an angel in his midst, but Dudley will not allow that to be revealed to anyone else. It’s an unnecessary detail, and besides, he has much more pressing matters like attending to Julia and assisting Henry with his work. To her, he is purely a radically pleasant and good-hearted individual. With such positives, there hardly needs to be any explanation, only wonderment.

He takes Julia through the old town she used to live in happily with Henry. They meet old friends like the blustering Professor Wutheridge (Monty Wooley), who Dudley also happens to give inspiration to. He makes little Debbie a ringer in a snowball fight, and he and Julia are joined by a chipper taxi driver (James Gleason) in an ice skating adventure. Even a check in on the humble cathedral at St. Vincent’s leads to an angelic rehearsal by the local boy’s choir. Meanwhile, Henry is absent attending to other matters.

Of course, he is as bitter and distressed as ever by his plight — his attention still skewed in the wrong directions. Even when Dudley goes to grumpy old Mrs. Hamilton and totally redeems her perspective in order to feed the hungry, Henry hardly seems pleased. His artifice, his tower is now even farther from being completed.

The final scenes of Bishop’s Wife are key because it’s in these moments where we see the change in Henry. Cary Grant might seem obviously miscast for this role, and in truth, it was originally supposed to go to Niven who was to play opposite the equally angelic Teresa Wright. But Grant’s debonair side is important for this final act because it makes sense when he makes a pass at Julia. It fits his screen persona as the suave bachelor, angel or not. You can debate whether he was actually in love with the beautiful mortal, or if he was just doing it to get a rise out of Henry. Whichever way you see it, for the first time Henry is driven to fight for his wife out of love and because of the human emotion that still pulses through his veins. Finally, he drops the peripheral and looks at what is central, his family and friends. Dudley, or Cary Grant, takes one final approving look and walks off in the snow. His work here is done. Peace on Earth and Goodwill towards men.

4/5 Stars

“We forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled, all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. Its his birthday we’re celebrating. Don’t let us ever forget that. Let us ask ourselves what He would wish for most. And then, let each put in his share, loving kindness, warm hearts, and a stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shinning gifts that make peace on earth.”

~ Final Message given by Henry (David Niven)

I Married a Witch (1942)

I_Married_a_Witch_posterDirected by French emigre Rene Clair, I Married a Witch is a surprisingly cheeky comedy for the 1940s. The plot opens up with the Salem Witch Trials where a male and female witch are both to be burnt at the stake. However, before dying they cast a curse on the lineage of one Jonathan Wooley (played in Puritan garb by Fredric March), and so going forth all his ancestors are doomed to accursed marriages.

Now in the present (1942), the current ancestor Wallace Wooley (March) prepares for a run at the governorship as he also prepares to marry his disagreeable fiancee (Susan Hayward) to bolster his appeal on the campaign trail. Meanwhile, the spirits of Jennifer (Veronica Lake) and Daniel (Cecil Hathaway)  are finally released from their prison and they head out ready to cause all sorts of mischief. At first, they travel as smoke floating through the air and residing inside bottles. However, Jennifer has the brilliant idea of taking on human form so she can torment Wooley even more.

They follow to burn down the Pilgrim Hotel and then Jennifer gets Wooley to unwittingly rescue her from the burning remains, a hero. Little does he know what’s he’s done. She pulls all sorts of pranks on him that leave a bad impression on his housekeeper and are bound to get him in the doghouse with his fiancee. Veronica Lake is very alluring in a sing-song sort of way as her character tries to playfully seduce Wooley. She even crafts a love potion, but plans go awry when she actually ingests it. Now she’s hopelessly in love and she must try and crash Wallace’s wedding to win him back.

Joined by her father in physical form, they put the proceedings to a halt with a gust of wind and then Daniel tries to impede Jennifer by turning her into a frog, but he ends up drunk instead. Of course, Wallace is caught in yet another awkward spot with the witch. The wedding is off (along with the dreadful song “I Love You Truly”) and the campaign is done for…or is it?

imarriedawitch1

In the end, it looks like Wallace might lose his new found love, but she comes back to him, the moral of the story being, “love is stronger than witchcraft. It conjures up a Frank Sinatra song right about now.

This film has a whimsically absurd scenario bolstered by simple special effects that allow buildings to burst into flame, Jennifer to slide up the banister, and Daniel makes the car levitate. This is an obvious precursor to a pair of 1960s sitcoms. Veronica Lake’s performance is very reminiscent of Jeannie in I Dream of Jeannie and the plot feels like a plot line out of Bewitched since our heroine is also a witch. Too bad Robert Montgomery was not in this film. His daughter was a witch after all.

3.5/5