Sunday, April 29, 2018


There are many interesting cinema stories from Occupied France, the period of WW2 when the Germans controlled the country and everything in it, including the film industry. There were fictional films made under Nazi supervision, some of them sneaky parables of the times (Clouzot’s Le corbeau), or later dramatizations. of those who resisted (Melville’s Army of Shadows [review]). Then there were the real stories, the nonfiction travails of those who labored under the watching German eye--touched on in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds [review] and examined in detail but without much insight in the documentary Sold Out!: Cinema Under Occupation (previously available on Filmstruck).

One of the more intriguing aspects touched on by Sold Out! is the popularity of light fantasies as distraction, serving a dual purpose of alleviating everyday woes while also pleasing the occupiers by not fomenting dissent. One of the more popular--though it actually went into production just after the liberation--was Sylvie et le fantôme (Sylvia and the Ghost), based on a stageplay by Alfred Adam and directed by Claude Autant-Lara, a filmmaker whose career blossomed during the Occupation. This period of the director’s oeuvre is the subject of the Eclipse boxed set Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France, of which Sylvie is the last.

An enjoyable romantic lark, the film features Autant-Lara’s regular star Odette Joyeux as the titular Sylvie, a sixteen-year-old girl fixated on the story of how her grandmother’s lover died in a duel with a man meant to be her husband via arranged marriage. The dead man, known as “the White Hunter,” was memorialized in a painting hanging in the family home. When Sylvie’s father (Pierre Larquey, Diabolique [review]) sells the painting the day before the girl’s birthday, he attempts to make up for the sadness it causes her by hiring an actor to play the ghost of the White Hunter to deliver her a birthday message and keep the magic the art inspired alive. Little does he know that he’ll get more ghosts than he bargained for--including the real Hunter, played by none other than Jacques Tati, M. Hulot himself, in his film debut.

Dear ol’ dad does get the real actor he hired to don the white sheets, an old man of the stage (Louis Salou, Children of Paradise), but his arrival is mixed up with two potential suitors for Sylvie--the art dealer’s son, Frederick (Jean Desally, Le doulos [review]), and a burglar he interrupts, a fellow called Branch (Francois Périer, Gervaise [review])--causing one fake ghost to become three. Never mind that Frederick was sneaking into Sylvie’s bedroom in the middle of the night when he catches Branch; or maybe do mind, since it’s this fact that prevents Frederick from admitting neither he nor the burglar are supposed to be there. Both boys meet Sylvie by chance--Frederick the day before, Branch the night of--and neither told her his name. Thus, when they are haunting their would-be paramour and compel her to admit she loves a man amongst the living, they can’t be sure which of them she is referring to.

Sylvie et le fantôme definitely has elements of farce and screwball comedy, but its tone and presentation lean more toward light costume drama than Hollywood slapstick. Even Tati is pretty subdued here, wandering the scenes as a transparent apparition, never engaging with anyone but the family canine, who barks at the Hunter’s own ghost dog. To Autant-Lara’s credit, he pulls off some pretty impressive practical effects, using double exposure to place Tati in the scene and have him manipulate “real world” props. The quality of the illusion helps sell the absurdity of the characters in the film not only believing what are obviously men in bedsheets to be specters, but also being frightened to see them. The best recurring gag is actually when Tati keeps trying on the costume himself, only to have it fall off when he walks through walls.

Outside of that, there are few laughs in Sylvie et le fantôme. And it’s not altogether romantic, either. The potential lovers don’t spend much time together and so never develop much chemistry. On the contrary, the relationship that gets the most screentime is Frederick and Branch’s. Even so, Autant-Lara’s light touch and likable cast means that Sylvie et le fantôme is charming regardless of its insubstantial script. It makes for a pleasant afternoon’s viewing, and should appeal to fans of other ghostly fair like Topper or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

Which makes it easy to understand why it would have been popular with French moviegoers in 1946. Ghost stories are often about yearning for something lost, and in this case, about simpler times, when it was easy to believe in something fantastic and forget everything else--even if just for 98 minutes.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018


This review was originally written as part of an overview of the Alfred Hitchcock Premiere Collection in 2008.

Based on a novel by Joseph Conrad, Alfred Hitchcock's 1936 spy thriller Sabotage seizes on the paranoia that was infiltrating British life in the preamble to WWII. Oskar Homolka (Mr. Sardonicus) plays Verloc, an immigrant who runs a movie house in London with his young American wife, Winnie (Sylvia Sydney, You Only Live Once). Verloc is rightfully suspected to be a saboteur, and a gregarious agent of Scotland Yard, Ted (John Loder, Lorna Doone), is staking out the theatre from the grocer's next door. He makes friends with Winnie and her little brother Stevie (Desmond Tester), getting closer to them as he gets closer to the truth about Verloc.

Sabotage has one failing, and that's that we maybe see too much behind the scenes as to what Ted and Verloc are up to, which in some cases takes some of the suspense out of the situation. At other times, it helps to amp up our tension, however, since we know, for instance, what is in the dangerous package that Verloc sends out with Little Stevie. Hitchcock's depiction of terrorism has a haunting, on-the-ground quality, with the threat placed amongst an unsuspecting public. It could be any of us riding the wrong bus on the wrong day. The director's visual representations of grief and guilt are also quite effective, with Winnie's nervous visions working quite well to create an aura of sadness and anxiety.

Sylvia Sydney is quite fetching as Winnie, giving her some of that American moxie we expect from movie heroines of the period, but also sublimated by her dependence on Verloc and the sacrifices she will make to take care of her brother. Oskar Homolka is also very menacing as the nervous, morally conflicted saboteur. His motivation is primarily money rather than any national pride (there is little indication of what country he is actually from), and his lack of belief actually makes him more despicable. John Loder is the weak link, trying too hard to be the amiable joker. Even if that's his agent's cover, it doesn't quite work.

Even at this early stage, Hitchcock is already honing his skill at building suspense, cutting back and forth from the various participants to keep us guessing as to what is actually happening. Verloc's main plot is staged with a time deadline, and as Hitchcock unravels the scheme, he ups the personal stakes for the audience to make us even more fearful of the outcome. He also has some fun taking jabs at the movie industry and the demands of its audience, noting our voyeuristic bloodlust and our belief in a new breed of hero through the choice of movies booked at Verloc's theatre.

Sunday, April 22, 2018


Released in 1999, The Virgin Suicides marked the beginning of the career of writer/director Sofia Coppola, who to my mind is the best American filmmaker to emerge in the 21st Century [for more of my reviews of her films, see the links at the end of this article]. Thought not as accomplished as what was to come--and really, all things solidified in Coppola’s second feature, Lost in Translation--this oddly compiled, dreamy coming-of-age tale--or, alternately, a failure to come of age--displayed the promise of everything that was on the way. The ethereal soundtrack, the fascination with sisterhood and youth, and a sense of isolation so contained that it at times feels (and is) otherworldly.

The Virgin Suicides is based on a novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, a male author, which is part of what gives this film such a unique vibe. Though a story with five young women at its center, Eugenides tells it from the point of view of the teenage boys observing them. In its way, it’s stereotypical of memoir-istic first novels of young men, approaching the female of the species as if they are an unknowable riddle. In this case, the boys view the Lisbon Sisters as elusive phantoms--and not just after their deaths, but also before--and even in their adult lives, they can’t shake the influence the sisters had on them. The scenes with a grown-up Trip Fontaine (played by Streets of Fire’s Michael Paré, who is believable as a hard-living adult Josh Harnett) reminiscing on his brief relationship with Lux (Kirsten Dunst, also Coppola’s muse in Marie Antoinette) is like a pitiable version of the Edward Sloane monologue in Citizen Kane. “She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl.”

In her staging of the narrative, Coppola embraces the male gaze while simultaneously jumping to the other side and looking back (particularly, again, where Trip Fontaine is concerned). Her Lisbon Sisters are not a mystery to her, and she is permitting us to view their private lives. As viewers, we are privy to things that the obsessed teen boys never would be, and the secret we share with the Lisbon girls is that we are just aware as they are that their increasingly knowing laughter over the boys’ behavior is justified. The men circling them are silly and obvious, their gaze nearsighted at best. Sadly, it’s also that awareness that means the Lisbon Sisters can’t carry on.

Backing up a bit: for those not familiar with The Virgin Suicides, the story is set in the late 1970s in an upper-middle-class Michigan suburb. Mr. Lisbon (James Woods, Videodrome [review]) is the high school math teacher, and Mrs. Lisbon (Kathleen Turner, Romancing the Stone) is a stay-at-home mom. They are the epitome of square parents who themselves grew up in post-war America (nerdy dad is totally obsessed with WWII aircraft). One can guess a devotion to their Catholic ideals is partly to blame for their having five daughters, each born a year after the next, now aged thirteen to seventeen. A strict upbringing has limited the social interaction the girls have had with the outside world, and the quintet has formed their own solid bond, moving and acting as a single unit, a troop of perfect skin, white teeth, and blonde hair.

After the youngest, Cecilia (Hanna Hall, also the young Jenny in Forrest Gump), attempts to kill herself, it’s recommended that the Lisbons loosen the apron strings. Unfortunately, this doesn’t quite get at what is bothering the sensitive young teen, and as their attempts to be more open go wrong, the parents clamp down harder. Put under permanent house arrest, the girls grow even more distant and more insular, while the neighborhood boys start to plot ways to communicate with them and, ultimately, save them.

The Virgin Suicides has the dreamy air of youth culture, with Coppola adopting the airbrushed aesthetic of the time period, including fanciful montages that mimic 1970s advertising. This creates a very real distinction between the perception of the Lisbon Sisters and their reality. Likewise, it plays into the delicate balance between drama and satire that makes The Virgin Suicides all the more special. Coppola’s script expertly skewers the overly manicured banality of suburban life. It’s given an added sharpness by her embracing of the standard model of adolescent stories: teenagers are more acutely aware of the world than the adults who make them miserable. Indeed, at the core of The Virgin Suicides is a belief that as the 20th Century wore on, things had grown more complicated and difficult to navigate for developing youth--a theory that has only gained traction in the new millennium.

Adding to this push and pull is how the girls alternate between being in control and having it taken away from them. This is the most pronounced in Dunst’s Lux, the most adventurous and also the most desired, whose actions bring the most consequences. Again, while the majority see Lux as carefree and rebellious, all sunshine and smiles, Coppola gives us glimpses of her many disappointments. The common pose of the pouty teenager smoking a cigarette gives way to a more knowing look of defeat, a replica of a much older woman, a femme fatale who has seen what beauty and seduction has gotten her. It is interesting to compare this with the role Dunst played in Coppola’s most recent picture, The Beguiled. In that movie, she plays Edwina,  a teacher who is on the cusp of becoming a spinster whose embracing of her own sexuality also brings despair.

There are actually many comparisons to be drawn between The Virgin Suicides and The Beguiled. Both are stories about women who are secluded by circumstance, who have reason to fear the intrusion of men from outside and are surrounded by death. There are even parallel dinner scenes where an unsuspecting man finds himself at a table full of women, suddenly awash in a subtext of competition and desire (in one, the student Peter Sisten (Chris Hale) invited over by his teacher; in the other, Colin Farrell looking for safe haven). It’s almost as if The Beguiled is The Virgin Suicides made with a more experienced eye, even if the characters are possessed of a similar naïveté.

The naïveté that the filmmaker seems to have had, as well. Though Sofia Coppola comes from a famous moviemaking family, The Virgin Suicides still has the innocence of a first film. Her willingness to experiment with both narrative convention and visual styles gives us something that isn’t entirely baked, yet showcases an emerging voice. It’s as if uncovering the truth behind the Lisbon Sisters and their short lives is her way of finding her own foothold in adult storytelling, making for a film that could use some polish, but whose mysterious pleasures run deeper than you might realize on your first encounter with them. (Not unlike, say, Donnie Darko, which was still two years away--though Sofia Coppola achieved a much better artistic payoff in her following efforts than Richard Kelly was capable of.)

Speaking of that famous family, a couple of them show up on the bonus features. Brother Roman (director of CQ, regular Wes Anderson collaborator, and second-unit director on The Virgin Suicides) teams with his sister to direct the amusing music video tie-in for Air’s “Playground Love,” taken from the score. And mother Eleanor Coppola, the regular chronicler of Coppola productions (most notably, Hearts of Darkness), shot the 23-minute Making of “The Virgin Suicides,” an illuminating behind-the-scenes press kit featuring on-set footage and interviews with cast and crew, including Jeffrey Eugenides, who himself sees the difference between the director’s interest in his characters and his own. There’s a whole section on what different family members that chipped in or participated, including Robert Schwartzman playing the gangster’s son, Paul Baldino. The image portrayed is of a fun, collaborative set. Though, the opening clip of James Woods declaring his “crush” on Sofia hasn’t aged as well as the rest...

Also included is Sofia Coppola’s 1998 short Lick the Star. This black-and-white tale chronicles the fickle ins-and-outs of seventh-grade social structures, focusing on a group of girls concocting a scheme to poison high school boys, inspired by their love of Flowers in the Attic. The cool contemporary soundtrack and the script’s shifting character allegiances prefigures The Virgin Suicides. Blink and you might also miss both Robert Schwartzmen and Anthony DeSimone, who show up again in Suicides, as well as cameos by filmmakers Peter Bogdanovich and Zoe R. Cassavetes, another second-generation director with a famous father.

For fans looking for more updated special features, Criterion also provides plenty of new interviews, as well as a retrospective by Rookie-creator Tavi Gevinson, a devotee who discovered the film in her own early life (she was three when The Virgin Suicides was released).

My other Sofia Coppola reviews:

Lost in Translation
Marie Antoinette theatrical
Marie Antoinette home video
The Bling Ring

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018


This review was originally part of a larger piece covering the Natalie Wood Signature Collection and published in 2009.

A film based on a Broadway musical based on a true story--like a game of broken telephone, something appears to have been lost along the way.

Natalie Wood stars Gypsy as Louise, the gawky teen that would one day become Gypsy Rose Lee, one of the most famous strippers of all time. Pushed onto the stage early in life by her domineering mother, Rose (Rosalind Russell), Louise was always second fiddle to her cuter, blonder, and more talented sister, June (Morgan Brittany as the younger version, Ann Jillian as the teenaged version). Louise is the kind of girl who is always doing for other people, never really thinking of herself, and thanks to her mother's antics, convinced she has nothing to offer anyway. It isn't until June makes a run for it (in the play, eloping with the boy her sister has a crush on; in the movie, for some reason, eloping with a different fellow) and leaves Rose with no other options that Louise is pushed front and center--and even then, doing something unexpected. The transformation from vaudeville singer to burlesque stripper is abrupt and accidental, and then the rise of fame glossed over in a montage of performances that shows the newly dubbed Gypsy going from tentative peeler to full-fledged sensation.

I was actually surprised that so much of this 1962 movie was focused on the years of trying to make a go of it during vaudeville's death throes (you can hear some of Broadway's resentment of the movie industry seeping out in the dialogue) rather than Gypsy's later fame. I knew it was a mother-daughter story, but I had no idea that, really, this is the mother's story more than that of her daughter. It fits, though, since there is much contention about whose dream is really being served in the non-stop musical touring, that of the young girls or of their envious, attention-starved mother. Rosalind Russell, who delivered two of cinema's greatest comedic performances in The Women and His Girl Friday [review], proved she was just as much a force of nature several decades later with her portrayal of Rose in Gypsy. She pushes the movie along by sheer force of will, practically shoving it forward through her own undeniable physicality.

Thank God, too, because there is not much else giving Gypsy momentum. The title role is a bit of a non-starter, with Wood forced into the meek background for most of the picture, saving it all for one bravura monologue when she asserts herself at last. The supporting cast is fine, including a rock solid Karl Malden, but the production is plodding. I know that the play is considered a classic, but I didn't find any of the Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim songs to be all that memorable (and dare I say that some of the lyrics were downright silly?). Though dance-legend Jerome Robbins choreographed the musical numbers with expected verve, Mervyn LeRoy's direction seems almost scared of getting too close to all that musical energy. He frames much of the movie in static shots taken from the middle distance or farther back, as if one were seated in a theatre watching Gypsy on a stage. Natalie Wood looks beautiful when she is finally allowed to dress up to dress down, but a near-sighted guy like me had to squint just to see her. I'm watching a movie, how the hell did I get stuck in the cheap seats? Maybe LeRoy was still shy from getting splashed on during that Esther Williams picture he directed.

Sunday, April 15, 2018


Given how prevalent and normalized divorces are nowadays (even moreso than when I was a wee lad), a romantic comedy that treats the act with such casual seriousness seems positively quaint. Yet, The Awful Truth is anything but. It’s funny and charming, and just as sharp now as it must have been in 1937, mostly droll in its wit but not afraid of a pratfall when necessary.

Written by Viña Delmar and directed by Leo McCarey, the team behind Make Way for Tomorrow [review], released that same year, The Awful Truth stars Cary Grant and Irene Dunne as Jerry and Lucy Warriner, a high society couple who have survived despite Jerry’s philandering. When Lucy decides to show Jerry that what’s good for the gander is good for the goose by orchestrating the perception of her own affair, the pair finally splits--only to discover they really do love one another once they see the other stepping out with someone else. First it’s Lucy getting cozy with Oklahoman millionaire Daniel (Ralph Bellamy, His Girl Friday [review]); then it’s Jerry making time with society girl Barbara (Molly Lamont). In the middle this whole time is Mr. Smith, a.k.a. Skippy, the fox terrier who is best known as Asta from the Thin Man series. A stand-in for the child they never had, Mr. Smith provides added comic relief while still keeping the lovers connected.

The structure here is rather clever, and probably owes much to the natural breaks from the stageplay by Arthur Richman. There are four essential acts: the introduction and break-up, Lucy’s time with Daniel, Jerry’s time with Barbara, and the inevitable reunion. Act Three gets the broadest comedic strokes, as Lucy pretends to be Jerry’s sister in order to insinuate herself into a gathering and meet the competition. Dunne is brilliant playing the posh socialite pretending to be a coarse showgirl pretending to be a posh socialite. That said, the funniest physical business in the entire movie is Grant and Dunne riding on the handlebars of police motorcycles. It’s silly and yet wonderfully hilarious. Delmar is equally adept at writing slapstick as she is the emotionally resonant scenes that give The Awful Truth weight; at the same time, my loudest guffaws came from the dialogue. Delmar inserts a wicked line into the script on the regular--often as an otherwise inconsequential aside, like Dan declaring man’s best friend to be his mother or Aunt Patsy (Cecil Cunningham) noting two quarrelers who race by failed to “touch second” (funny in the moment, if sterile in a review). While modern writers would likely make the Warriners overly caustic or sarcastic, Delmar strikes the right balance. Like Nick and Nora Charles, they are terribly witty, altogether glamorous, and yet ultimately relatable.

Of course, the performers have as much to do with this as anyone. Particularly given Leo McCarey’s penchant for improvisation and working without a script; without the right actors, The Awful Truth could have simply been awful. Cary Grant is at his comedic best, often hoisted on his own self-awareness, his knowledge that he’s smarter than the rest of the room never preventing him from being humiliated by his own hubris. As his foil, the great Irene Dunne is lovably assured, usually a step or two ahead of Grant’s buffoonery, but never really mean. Both manage to be endearing despite themselves, and the audience’s genuine affection for them makes it easy to root for their amorous reconciliation.

For his part, McCarey makes it look effortless. There is no punching up or punching down here, he approaches all characters equally, even if its Dan’s overbearing mother or the nigh tragic nightclub singer who doesn’t know how ridiculous her act is. (Or how ahead of its time; the same shtick worked for Marilyn in The Seven Year Itch!) There is a kind heart at work behind the camera, which is most likely what also keeps The Awful Truth from descending into bitterness and cruelty, two of the most common human fail-safes in any divorce. Again, the soft peddle of the split is endearingly old fashioned, even as the reinforcement of the marriage pact is slight earnest, playing up the romantic comedy trope of two people who everyone knows should be together even when they don’t.

Saturday, April 14, 2018


These reviews originally appeared on as part of a previous set of films released in 2011.

Ingrid Bergman is a genuine Hollywood icon thanks to her co-starring role in Casablanca and her collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock [review 1, 2. While many are aware of her later films, including the challenging Italian pictures directed by her husband Robert Rossellini, as well as her eventual pairing with the other famous Swedish Bergman, Ingmar, not as much attention is paid to her pre-Hollywood career. For a short period, Ingrid Bergman made her name as an actress in Sweden, and six of her m films from her home country are now collected in the Ingrid Bergman's Swedish Years boxed set from Eclipse--giving many of us our first chance to see a screen legend developing her craft in the earliest stages of her endeavors.

Though she had appeared in six features prior (including one uncredited role), one could argue that the 1936 version of Intermezzo was really what got things started. Directed by Gustaf Molander, who co-wrote the screenplay with Gösta Stevens, Intermezzo was the movie that brought Ingrid to the attention of famed producer David O. Selznick. He would soon bring her to Hollywood and cast her in the remake of Intermezzo, her breakthrough English-language role, in 1939.

In the movie, Bergman plays Anita Hoffman, a promising young pianist who ignores better advice and pairs up with concert violinist Holger Brandt (Gösta Ekman), joining the married man as both his musical accompanist and his lover. Brandt sacrifices his home life, leaving behind his wife and two children, to go on tour with Anita, who also gives up the tutelage of Brandt's former partner (Hugo Björne). The two are essentially happy, but they practically live in exile, with Anita in the subservient role of being Brandt's back-up rather than blossoming into her own as an artist. When an opportunity to study in Paris comes along, the two must ask themselves what is really important: the love for each other, or the love of music. Brandt must also face what he's already left behind. As he puts it, they are stuck with the irony that his past and her future can never be joined.

For a movie about two passionate artists locked in a scandalous affair, Intermezzo is surprisingly lacking in both passion and scandal. Its polite restraint is almost Victorian, like something akin to an Edith Wharton novel. Though solidly written, it never really gets much gas, and the inevitability of the melodrama more drifts toward its foregone conclusions than it relays any sense that there is a great force driving their fates. Thankfully, it's a film that is very well performed, with both Gösta Ekman and Ingrid Bergman making great use of their roles. They strike a fine balance, with Ekman's needy ego fitting in perfectly with Bergman's desire to please. The actress displays a sweet innocence at the start of the movie that is vastly different than some of her better-known, well-traveled roles. Intermezzo is also a pretty film to look at, with lots of intricate sets and a gorgeous wardrobe, presumably reflecting the style of 1930s Sweden.

Bergman teamed with Gustaf Molander a second time for the 1938 film A Woman's Face. Written again by Gösta Stevens, but this time adapted from a play by Francis De Croisset, A Woman's Face is a melodrama with a touch of noir. Bergman plays the villain of the piece--or at least, half a villain. At the start of the picture, she is the femme fatale of a blackmail ring, though her role tends to be more on the planning side than seduction. A childhood accident has left half of her face burned, and also left her bitter against the world.

Bergman plays Anna with a surprising anger, and also a pronounced vulnerability. She regularly reaches her hand up to her face, protectively shielding her scars. She projects her rage outwardly, pushing her crew to be tougher on their victims, and ends up taking one of the cases over herself. She is caught by the mark's husband (Anders Henrikson), who by no small coincidence is a doctor who fixed similar scarring for soldiers after World War I. He offers to operate on Anna's face, hoping it will warm her heart and inspire her to turn her life around. At first, she ignores the opportunity the healed visage offers, joining a previous scheme to cheat a young boy (Göran Bernhard) out of his inheritance, but posing as his governess helps her embrace love--particularly when she finds it with one of his uncles (Gunnar Sjöberg).

Anna's transformation from hard-bitten criminal to tenderhearted softie is a predictable one, but it's made believable by Ingrid Bergman's performance. She instinctively understands the various stages of Anna's metamorphosis and her work actually stands apart from the script, which I think expected the switch to be more automatic. Despite the fairly standard plotting, A Woman's Face avoids the treacle, never quite giving in to more conventional urges, instead settling on an ending that is more bittersweet than one might expect. I haven't seen the remake with Joan Crawford that came a couple of years after Molander's version, but knowing the Hollywood formula, it wouldn't surprise me if it took an entirely different exit than the Swedish production.

You can also read my review of Ingrid Bergman's final film, June Night, here.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018


In honor of Filmstruck and TCM naming Leslie Caron the Star of the Week, I'm de-archiving some old reviews. Original source from 2008.

Six years after An American in Paris [review], the Arthur Freed crew at MGM had perfected their special touch for making movie musicals. Returning to the scene of that spectacular success, Freed and director Vincente Minnelli turned to the Colette novella Gigi to give us another Paris-based film about an older gentleman falling for a bewitching French ingénue, once again played by Leslie Caron. The final product is not as special as the Academy Award-winning Gene Kelly vehicle, but it's good, light-hearted fun, and Gigi carried off a bevy of statues of its own on Oscar night, including the top prize.

Caron's Gigi is a fun-loving, nineteen-year-old girl who lives with her grandmother (Hermione Gingold, The Music Man) and remains blissfully unaware of the maddening social conventions of love affairs in Parisian society. She will eventually turn the head of her rich cousin Gaston (Louis Jourdan, Letter from an Unknown Woman), who is bored with the same old society dames and the games they play. After a disastrous affair with a dramatic paramour (Eva Gabor, Green Acres), Gaston becomes a scandalous figure in gossip circles, and though his skirt-chasing uncle Honoré Lachaille (Maurice Chevalier, The Love Parade [review]) tries to guide him through the treacherous waters of lovemaking, the women around Gigi have different ideas in mind. They look at Gigi and Gaston and see a perfect match.

Gigi is a visual sensation full of gorgeous things to look at. Vincente Minnelli shot much of Gigi on location in Paris, and we see the signature style of the city represented by its architecture and interior design. The fabulous Cecil Beaton designed all the costumes and also decorated the scenery to give Gigi a turn-of-the-century glamour that both captures the feeling of the Parisian spirit but also gives it his unique look, much like he did for London in My Fair Lady [review]. Preston Ames, the art director for An American in Paris, also joins with Beaton to bring Paris to life for the screen. The costumes are colorful and grand, and there are some breathtaking vistas, including gorgeously painted skies. Just take a gander at the horizon when Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold meet by the sea, framed by a purple colored sky that slowly turns red the deeper the couple drifts into memory. Never mind that the cutaways to Caron and Jourdan on the beach show blue skies and sunshine! What's it matter when the mood of the evening shot is perfect for the reminiscence of two former lovers?

During that seaside scene, Chevalier and Gingold perform "I Remember it Well," a marvelous comedic number with music by Frederick Loewe and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. It's one of several songs from Gigi that have since become standards. The most famous of these would have to be "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," performed by Maurice Chevalier at the start of the picture as he walks in the park amongst the many lovers who congregate there, some of them openly and some in secret.

Chevalier also has one of the best numbers when he gets to sing "I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore," addressing the audience directly as he compares the perils of youth and romance to the comfort of old age. In both of these scenes, Chevalier's character establishes one of the central conflicts in Gigi: the rift between the people who will not marry and the people who do not. Chevalier will not marry, whereas Gigi's Grandmother and Aunt (Isabel Jeans) have not. As Aunt Alicia says, some marry at once, some marry at last. The older women fear Gigi will suffer the same fate (Grandmother was once jilted by Honore), and that's why they are so determined to groom her for Gaston. But is it too much too soon? Can she handle the bonds of commitment? Will Gaston get over being a bachelor and accept these changes of Gigi's?

To be honest, it's when answering these questions that Gigi loses me a little. The character motivations in the final act seem muddled to me. Both Gigi's anxiety and Gaston's indecisiveness I guess could be good enough explanation for how quickly they change their minds back and forth, but when it counts, we are not privy to their internal processes. In particular, the very last scenes seem a bit rushed, with Gaston acting impulsively and leaving one with a feeling of narrowly avoiding a pile-up rather than the warm fuzziness that should come from the rush of love. The cynic in me thinks the script was bent in ways it shouldn't have gone in order to placate censors and drive home the idea that fidelity is better than tomcatting around.

Still, for a fluffy musical, Gigi is damn entertaining, with fine performances--particularly the always charming Chevalier--and memorable songs. The look of the picture is so drool worthy, you hardly have time to worry over the story, anyway. Plus, I think for the die-hard fans of musicals, a film is judged by how much it gets the toe tapping rather than the completeness of its plot, so it's likely a moot point in that regard. Sometimes you just have to pop the cork on the champagne, drink up, and let guys like me worry about the vintage. One can either sit at a computer and type, or one can enjoy the bubbles and the heady elation that comes with them, and Gigi has more than enough bubbles to go around.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018


In honor of Filmstruck and TCM naming Leslie Caron the Star of the Week, I'm de-archiving some old reviews. Original source from 2012.

The 1953 musical Lili is a pleasant vehicle designed to showcase Gigi-star Leslie Caron [review]. The French dancer plays Lili Daurier, a naïve country girl who, having lost both her parents, ventures to the city in search of a new life. Her initial plans don't work out, but when a handsome magician (Jean-Pierre Aumont, Hotel du Nord) plays the white knight, Lili falls for his illusion and follows him back to the carnival. There, another performer, a troubled puppeteer named Paul (Mel Ferrer, War and Peace) gives her a special puppet show to try to cheer her up. Seeing how good she is with the puppets, Paul decides to offer her a job playing frontwoman for his act. Unable to admit that he loves her himself, and finding it impossible to steer Lili away from the magic man, their performances become Paul's only outlet to describe how he feels.

That is the long and short of the plot of Lili, which is alternately a rather dispassionate love story and a somewhat music-less musical. Easter Parade's Charles Walters directs from a script by Helen Deutsch, who was also the writer for Walters' version of The Unsinkable Molly Brown many years later (not to mention a screenwriter on the original Valley of the Dolls [review]). Together they strive to give Lili the trappings of a fairy tale, placing their heroine in an environment where things are never what they seem as part of the design. It's a pretty good idea, only they don't go very far with it. The carnival lacks color, and the love story lacks fervor.

For a musical, Lili is also pretty short on music. Bronislau Kaper (Auntie Mame) won an Oscar for his score, and there is no denying that the music is intoxicating, but it seems odd that there is only one song in the whole movie, "Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo." There are also only two dance numbers, but once you see them, it starts to become obvious why Lili is still popular. They are both very imaginative. Each one takes place in Lili's head as she daydreams about different romantic scenarios. The first sees her as a waitress dancing in the audience of the magician's show; the second is the film's finale. It's Leslie Caron dancing with the human versions of the four puppets from Paul's show--a redheaded joker, a thieving fox, a beautiful woman of the world, and a shy giant. Each represents a piece of Paul's personality, and the key to Lili finally falling in love with him is her figuring out which of these pieces makes up the most of the man.

Leslie Caron is most alive when the dancing starts. Her coquettish persona doesn't seem quite so strained. (She was 22 at the time, and this was only her fifth movie; her debut in An American in Paris [review] had been three years prior.) She is lovely to look at, but she regularly appears lost, and not always as part of her character. Caron needs a strong leading man to, well, lead her, and Mel Ferrer just isn't up for the job. He overdoes the bottled-up routine here, though judging by how Walters directs them in the non-musical scenes, it doesn't appear to be entirely his choice. The director often seems to choreograph the lovers in the frame as if the whole movie is a dance, making Ferrer look more than standoffish. He looks like he's trying to stay on his mark, as if he's waiting for a cue that never comes. Caron has better chemistry with both Aumont and Ferrer's sidekick, the genial Kurt Kasznar (who was also in the original Casino Royale [review]).

Even with all those complaints, there is something undeniably likable about Lili. Its main elements never fully come together, but those elements are at least unique. It's almost as if the real Cinderella here is the movie itself, and our investment is really in hoping that it will turn into everything we think it can be. That it does so in the final dance with the puppet people is oddly pleasing. You kind of want to slap the film on the back and give it an, "Attagirl!"

Monday, April 9, 2018


In honor of Filmstruck and TCM naming Leslie Caron the Star of the Week, I'm de-archiving some old reviews. Original source from 2008.

An American in Paris is the movie that finally forced me to admit that I really did like musicals. Adolescent stubbornness had made me declare that all musicals were corny, and as a genre, I had no time for them. Even then, though, I had a few that I would insist were merely the exceptions to prove the rule. That changed when I saw some movie program or other, the source of which is now lost in my memory, that showcased the 18-minute-plus ballet sequence that closed the 1951 Gene Kelly vehicle. The commentators praised the guts that Kelly and director Vincente Minnelli displayed in asking their audience to watch a full dance sequence, with no dialogue or sung lyrics, based around a Gershwin orchestral piece. I was sufficiently intrigued to check the movie out, and An American in Paris forever changed how I viewed movie musicals.

As legend has it, George Gershwin's "An American in Paris" suite was the sole impetus for doing this movie. With the song and its title in hand, producer Arthur Freed went off to create a picture about an American artist living in post-War France, working in as much of the Gershwins' famous catalogue in as he could. One of the requests the songwriting duo made when setting up the deal for the adaptation was that "An American in Paris" remain intact and played in full, and this fit perfectly with the already in-place plan to include an extended dance sequence in the movie. Reportedly, Gene Kelly used the Powell & Pressburger film The Red Shoes [review 1, 2] to convince MGM that it could be done, and once everyone had signed off, a classic was born.

In An American in Paris, Kelly plays Jerry Mulligan, a veteran who stayed in France after the war to pursue a career in painting. Living in a Bohemian quarter of Paris, he is friends with other ex-patriots, including the jazz pianist Adam Cook (Oscar Levant). Adam provides Jerry with a comedic sidekick, as well as an added reason to launch into the occasional song-and-dance routine. Not that Jerry needs such a concrete reason to burst into song. Any everyday event will do. In one of the most memorable sequences of the film, he decides to turn an English lesson he's giving the neighborhood kids into a lesson in George and Ira's "I've Got Rhythm." The children chant the "I Gots," and Gene does the rest.

On a broke afternoon, Jerry takes some of his canvases to the open market to try to drum up some cash. There he meets Milo (Nina Foch), a wealthy American divorcee who takes a shine to his paintings and to their painter. She becomes Jerry's patron, though she has a little more than art on her mind. The pair agrees to disagree on the subject of romance, which doesn't mean that when Jerry becomes enchanted by tres jolie ingénue Lise (Leslie Caron), it doesn't cause trouble. Not only is Milo jealous, but Adam's friend, the French singer Henri Baurel (Georges Guetary), would have cause to be jealous, as well, if he knew what was going on. Lise is his girl. Cue the collision of dueling love triangles!

An American in Paris is at times a big, sappy romance, as well as a silly comedy trading on old vaudeville routines and Gene Kelly's rubber limbs. The story is as thin as the odor eater's in the stars' tap shoes, but it matters little. Vincente Minnelli keeps the pace moving, never taking too long between songs, giving us a variety of Gershwin numbers in a variety of tempos and styles. We get the slow and romantic "Our Love is Here to Say" when Jerry is serenading Lise along the Seine, as well as the peppy "Tra-La-La (This Time is Really Love)," with Jerry mugging alongside Adam while straddling his piano. Also quite funny is Oscar Levant's solo scene, playing every member of the orchestra in a daydream where he performs a Gershwin concerto to an enthusiastic crowd of people who aren't just like him, but are him. (Yep, he plays the audience, too!) The all-around tone of the film is jaunty, with gorgeous sets and likable actors strutting their stuff without a whiff of self-consciousness. Declaring that they don't make them like An American in Paris anymore wouldn't be a cliché, it's a simple fact.

And, of course, even if the first 94 minutes of the movie are two syrupy for your tastes, you can still appreciate the audacious artistry of the "An American in Paris Ballet." In an explosion of color and energy, Kelly recreates the entire movie as a ballet that plays out in his character's mind. Believing he has lost Lise to Henri, Jerry mulls over his short time with the girl, seeing Paris as a city alive with dance, and his romantic quarry as an uncatchable sprite leaping through its streets. It's as much a celebration of being in love with the city as it is a celebration of being in love with the girl. In fact, the whole movie is about being in love with the art, the food, and the freedom to live life according to one's passions. In the ballet, we see abstract representations of things that have made Paris great, from its personalities and architecture to sets and costumes that mirror the styles of famous French painters, including Kelly jumping into a Tolouse-Lautrec painting (Chocolat) and bringing it to life. It's a glorious summation of what preceded it, while also gently paving the way for the ending Jerry couldn't dare dream of.

Friday, April 6, 2018


The Criterion Channel, in addition to hosting a plethora of feature films, also has a varied collection of short films--live action, animated, fiction, documentary; comedy and drama; silent and talkies.

Short cinema--just like short stories--is a unique art form unto itself, employing different conventions, and bringing with it different expectations, but these pieces are no less worthy of consideration than full-length films. From time to time, I will take a look at a selection of what’s on offer. You can read the previous column here.

Lira’s Forest (2017; Canada; 9 minutes): An elderly woman on her front porch meets a boy wearing a fox mask, and he proves to be more than he appears. Simple in plot, a film of, essentially, only three or four actions, Connor Jessup’s tiny poem still manages to say something weighty about life and, more strikingly, relieving ourselves of our mortality. Beautifully shot, with no superfluous detail to speak of, it feels like a live action Hayao Miyazaki scene. I’d be curious what Jessup does with something more substantial.

(Note: Jessup is also the director of the Criterion Channel’s documentary on Apichatpong Weerasethakul.)

The Extraordinary Life of Rocky (2010; Belgium; 14 minutes): This black comedy about a boy who decides to give up loving his friends and family, believing that his affection is the reason everyone he cares about dies, aims for a tone and style not dissimilar to Jean-Pierre Jeunet, but its humor never sharpens and there’s no substitute for actual heart. Writer/director Kevin Meul has a whimsical eye for visuals, creating some fun rhymes throughout Life of Rocky (note how many times there is a helicopter of one kind or another), but it often feels like he accepted whimsical as being good enough rather than push his ideas further.

Daybreak Express (1943; USA; 6 minutes): Set to the music of Duke Ellington, documentarian D.A. Pennebaker’s art piece recreates the experience of a morning commute, capturing the light and the color of the city as the sun rises over the sky. More of a collage than a narrative, the montage nevertheless activates the right feelings, turning what was probably a daily slog for many workers into a thing of joyful beauty.

(Also available on the Criterion release of Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back [review].)

The Colour of His Hair (2017; United Kingdom; 22 minutes): A mix of documentary and fiction, The Colour of His Hair de-archives an unfinished script by Elizabeth Montague, written in 1964 for Britain’s Homosexual Law Reform Society. Montague’s brother, Lord Montague, had been involved in a high profile prosecution that sent him to jail for a year as punishment for being a practicing homosexual. The case sparked a movement in England to decriminalize being gay.

From what we see here, The Colour of His Hair looked to be a dramatic thriller, something along the lines of Basil Dearden’s Victim [review]. Two young lovers are being blackmailed and threatened with exposure if they don’t pay--a very real problem at the time. Though what exists of Montague’s script is just set-up, filmmaker Sam Ashby lends it gravity by splicing it together with archival footage about the Reform Society and testimony from men victimized in this way--both by opportunistic criminals and the law that empowered their crimes. At first I was hoping for less documentary and more story, but as Ashby carefully layers his narrative, including information about the Lesbian and Gay News Media Archive, where Montague’s script had been housed, he not only illustrates the heartache that many experienced, but the importance of the change that was brought about when the unctuous law was finally undone.

The Black Balloon (2012; USA; 21 minutes): A short from filmmaking brothers Josh and Ben Safdie (Good Time), The Black Balloon is the grown-up flipside to Albert Lamorisse’s children’s classic The Red Balloon [review]. In NYC, a gaggle of birthday balloons are accidentally released into the air, and a single black balloon drifts away from the pack. Searching for some kind of connection, someone to take its string and give it a life, the black balloon moves through the city, creating unique opportunities for various denizens of the metropolis to put it to use. One man (Larry “Ratso” Sloman, a collaborator of Bob Dylan and Howard Stern) instructs it to block a security camera so he can shoplift, another uses it to distract the daughter of his girlfriend, and a third to get the attention of his grown son. In each case, the adult abandons the balloon as soon as it served its purpose--the complete opposite of the little boy in The Red Balloon.

The Safdies have an agile shooting style that works well with the material and the locale. Stray, superfluous moments give a pretty good indication of how much the boys love New York, and you will marvel at how they pulled off some of the au naturale street scenes where the balloon bobs its way through the crowd. The characters all seem as if they are plucked straight from that mass, lending a credibility to what is otherwise a fanciful production. Though slight in its parts, the whole is effective.

(Side note: The Red Balloon enthusiasts should also check out Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon [review] to see an alternate update.)

Vingt-quatre heures de la vie d’un clown [Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Clown] (1946; France; 18 minutes): The first film from renowned auteur Jean-Pierre Melville is a long way from his more famous efforts like Le samourai [review] and Army of Shadows [review 1, 2]. This black-and-white documentary is exactly as advertised: a chronicle of what a famous clown, Beby, does between one night’s performance and the next. Narrated by Melville (there is little live sound), the film takes a rather lackadaisical approach to the reporting, embracing its subject and allowing for a little humorous staging--including an excellent sequence where Beby and his partner get inspiration from watching the mishaps of regular folks on the Parisian street (all staged, but don’t worry about it).

My favorite player, though, is Beby’s dog Swing, who goes wherever he goes. Try not to be completely charmed when Swing takes a prayer pose next to his master to say his blessings before bed. Just try!

(Note: Also available on the Criterion Collection release of Le silence de la mer, Melville’s feature-length debut.)