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The Other Son

We are just half-way through this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, and I have been trying to see as many films, and attend as many press conferences as I can, which unfortunately is not nearly as many as I would like. It is a somewhat odd experience to see a film in a theater and then be sitting in front of the actors and filmmakers at a press conference 10 minutes later. But that is what happened to me today when I saw The Other Son.

The title refers to the realization of two young men that they were switched at birth and raised by wrong families. As if this were not difficult enough, one is Jewish and living in Tel Aviv, and the other is Palestinian and living on the West Bank following studies in Paris and they switched when the hospital where they were born in Haifa was bombed during the Gulf War. It is a wildly improbably story conceit, but one that doesn’t stand out, as the direction and performances are excellent, making for a moving tale rather than film with an obvious message to beat the audience over the head with.

Despite the setting and many scenes taking place at the tension-filled checkpoints between the two families homes, the film is not so much about politics as it is about emotions. The two young men, who have liberal outlooks from folk music and studying in Paris, are relatively quick to accept the earth-shaking news, although Joseph wonders if he is still Jewish even if he has been circumcised and Bar Mitzvahed. No, says his Rabbi. The mothers react emotionally, feeling new closeness with their biological sons and and renewed love for the boys they raised. The young sisters innocently welcome their new brothers and the fathers predictably react with anger, as does the older brother in the Palestinian family, who resents the occupying Isrealis. But everyone comes together in the end in a way that avoids too much sentimentality.

Although filmed in Isreal, this is essentially a French film, with the director, writers and lead actor hailing from France. This is reflected in the story which makes the mother of Isreali son French and the Palestinian son a student just returning from Paris. Even the Palestinian mother speaks a bit of French. The Francophone slant distracts a bit from the story, making it one of the few flaws in the film. Jules Sitruk, who plays the son raised as Jewish and who attended the press conference in Tokyo this afternoon, is a real talent and looks a bit like a young Adrian Brody. I am sure he has a great career ahead of him.

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Movie of the Day

The Last Shepherd

My favorite program in the Tokyo International Film Festival every year is “natural TIFF,” which presents documentaries and features on environmental and social issues. Usually I do not know anything about these films going into them, so they are always informative and education, but the best of them are also entertaining and moving. The Last Shepard covers all of these and is my favorite film in the festival so far.

The title refers to Renato Zucchelli, who claims to be the last roaming shepherd leaving in an urban area, Milan to be exact, and no one is likely to challenge his claim. Several sequences showing him bring traffic to a halt as he ushers a seemingly endless stream of sheep across the road make clear that he is the last of a dying breed. The film opens in the classroom of an elementary school in Milan, which the teacher asking the city kids if they know what a shepherd is. The subplot seems disconnected with the portrait of Zucchelli and his family until the last scene, when he makes headlines by bringing the kids into Piazza del Duomo to meet 700 sheep.

The message of the documentary is clear: urbanization is killing tradition. Indeed, Zuccheli is able to speak a lost language that was once used by nomadic shepherds. But the filmmakers never take themselves to serious, and the experience of viewing the film is entertaining rather than depressing. Zucchelli is an immediately likable person and many of the funny moments involve him trying to squeeze his ample frame into the small caravan he takes with him on the road, or using his good nature to overcome communication problems with Muslim butchers who are important clients. He also has a toothless friend who is constantly calling out for a dog who ran off years ago.

In the end, it is not completely clear if it is a good or bad thing that there is only one shepherd left in Italy, nor does the film urge that anything be done about it. Rather, it is an opportunity to step into the life of an interesting person, and reflect on if our lives might not be unnecessary complicated.

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Accession

The Tokyo International Film Festival is set to start next weekend, meaning my favorite time of year in Tokyo is just around the corner. Advanced press screenings started today, and I saw my first film of the festival this morning

Accession is a difficult to watch film on a difficult topic—AIDS in South Africa and the fear and superstition that surrounds it. The film starts with the sun rising over a dusty township as John (Pethro Themba Mbole) has his first sex of the day in an open field before walking away on his own. The camera stays tight on his face throughout the film. We do not see the other men he speaks to about borrowing money or the odd job repairing DVD players. It is an interesting way to compose a film, and jumpy cutting of John hustling his friends followed by long, tight shots of him walking give the audience of feel of what his day is like. The women he chats to and has casual sex with appear in the corner of the frame, out of focus and anonymous.

When one of the women informs him that she is HIV-positive, his monotonous life takes a dark turn. He goes to a clinic, but only watches the line of people waiting to get tested from across the street. He visits a folk doctor to get some herbs and listens to his friend say that having sex with a virgin cures infections. This is when the unthinkable become the inevitable. The audience does not know or like John enough to sympathize with him, but he drags us into his desperation. What he does is something we have read about in newspapers, but it is very uncomfortable to watch on a movie screen.

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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Since I live in Tokyo, I am constantly being asked how many times I have been to Tokyo Disneyland, which is something of an obsession with many Japanese people. Whoever asks me this question never fails to be surprised that I have never been to Tokyo Disneyland, or any Disneyland for that matter, and hate all things Disney, including the movies and the theme parks, with the possible exception of Fantasia. My complaint against Disney films is a pretty common one—they take classic fairy tales that have existed for centuries and completely sanitize them in order to make them conform to a conservative view of “family entertainment.”

Recently I have been I have been reading The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, which mentions quiet a few recent Disney films, and I realized for better for for worse, that Disney adaptations have become part of the vocabulary used for talking about cinema and storytelling. So I somewhat reluctantly decided to set about on the project of watching every Disney animated film in chronological order, giving myself some breaks we I need them.

Disney’s first animated feature, and one of the first animated features in the world, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs certainly fall under the heading of my general criticism of Disney films. Many of the darker elements of the fairy tale as recorded by the Brothers Grimm have been sanitized or removed. The wicked queen in the original story demands the lungs, liver and heart of the fairest of them all, and actually has them cooked up and eats them, unaware that are actually the organs of a wild boar, as the huntsman was unable to slay the princess. In the end, she is punished by being forced to wear red-hot iron shoes and dance till she drops dead. These gory details are not surprisingly dropped from the Disney version.,

However, the biggest change Disney made to original tale was placing so much emphasis on the seven dwarfs. Contrary to popular belief, Walt Disney was not the first person to assign individual names to the little forest dwellers, which had been given different names in a 1912 Broadway play. But he did decide to center much of the story on them. From the very beginning of the development, what attracted Disney to the story was the seven dwarfs and their potential for “gags” and “screwiness.” While this certainly ups the cuteness factor, it has the disorienting effect of pushing the title character to the wayside. Lost are the semi-magical origins of Snow White, whose mother wished for a daughter with skin as white as snow after pricking her finger and noticing the contrast of three drops of blood on the white snow. The focus on the dwarfs is seen not only in characterization and screen time, but in the animation. The only place shading seems to have been used in the whole film are the jowls and bulbous noses of the dwarfs. Meanwhile, Snow White’s neck disappears every time she is seen straight on. This all adds up to denying the audience a clear central character to carry the story. Also lost is the fairy tale’s central theme of self-serving vanity and obsession with youth, which characterized Charlize Theron’s portrayal of the queen in Snow White and the Huntsman.

Despite these problems with the story line, it can’t be denied that the film was a remarkable achievement on the part of Walt Disney. He mortgaged his own house and ignored the pleas of his brother and wife to abandon the expensive project, which eventually ran up a budget of nearly $1.5 million, a huge sum at the time. But in the end he proved that an color animated feature film was not only technically possible, but was also commercially viable. The film made $8 million during its first of many theatrical releases. A shot early in the film of Snow White shown from below the water of a well she looks down into, as pebbles she drops cause ripples showcases the considerable talent of Disney’s teams of animators. While there are a few shots that reveal awkward movement or positions, there are just as many that reveal masterful technique.

If there is a single central character in the film, it is not the princess, but the vindictive queen, who is given the best animated sequences, including her first conversation with the man in the mirror and her transformation into the old witch. I have the feeling that this will not be the only Disney film in which the villain is far more interesting than the hero or heroine.

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Made in Dagenham

I often watch films I know almost nothing about, apart from the title. One of the great pleasures of this kind of film viewing is being able learn about something that is entirely new to me. Now I am going through British films of the last 10 years, and probably never would have seen Made in Dagenham otherwise.  I had never heard of the Ford sewing machinists strike of 1968, in which scores of British women walked out of there jobs assembling car seat covers for the American company after they were reclassified as unskilled laborers and given lower pay than men in the same category. As the film started to get going, I had the strange feeling that I was watching a remake of Norma Rae—there is even a scene in which the main character stands up on a sewing table in the middle of a busy factory floor. But the nature of the strike, and the women behind it, was distinctly British. The strike started small, but had big repercussions, leading to the introduction of the Equal Pay Act of 1970 of Britain, with other countries soon following suit. The newsreel clips of the actual strike and video interviews with the women today which play alongside the closing credits were fascinating, and were enough to make me wish that this were a well constructed documentary rather than a ever -so-slightly fictionalized film.

On the other hand, there are some wonderful performances in this film. Miranda Richardson is as good as always as Barbara Castle, a pioneer of the British labor movement, although at first I mistakenly thought she was playing a young Margaret Thatcher. It is always a pleasure to see Bob Hoskins in anything, and seeing him a union leader grown jittery when the strike threatens to spiral out of control, it was enough to make me sad that the has announced retirement due to Parkinson’s Disease. Sally Hawkins, who I have only seen in a few minor roles, was able to carry the film as a composite character strike leader.

But the real stand-out performance comes from Andrea Riseborough. Having seen her as the mousy, timid Rose in Brighton Rock, I was surprised to see just how versatile she is, playing the tart with a heart of gold, who doesn’t mind a tumble with a driver in the back of his produce truck if it will get her some fruit for her girls to snack on while on the picket line. I haven’t seen her in Madonna’s W.E. yet, which is her first time in a main role, but Riseborough is definitely a very skilled actress, and I hope she will continue to get great roles in the future.

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Jezebel

As I continue to go through every Bette Davis film I can get my hands on, I finally come to Jezebel, one of her most famous roles right after All About Eve, which cemented her reputation as a big star at the time. My expectations were high, but I found this isn’t really among the best of her films that I have seen so far.

One of the myths about this film which has been so often repeated that is appears as a “fact” on the Turner Classic Movies website hold that Davis was given the title role of Jezebel as consolation after she was passed over for the role of Scarlet O’Hara. While Davis was a popular contender for the very coveted Scarlet role, this rumor hardly makes sense. The long casting process of Gone With the Wind was still ongoing when this film was completed, so the chronology is wrong. Furthermore, Gone With the Wind was David O. Selznick production, and Davis was under contract to Warner Brothers, so it is not as if her studio owed her any favors. But there is quite a bit of similarity between the two films, with Jezebel even being called “the black-and-white Gone with the Wind.”

Unlike Gone With the Wind, this film does not take part over several years straddling the Civil War, but in 1852-53. But the central character of the spoiled, head-strong Southern belle who can’t get over the man she believes belongs to her is the same. In this case what gets her in trouble is her insistence on wearing a brazen red dress to a New Orleans party where traditionally all unmarried women don only white. This embarrasses her fiance (Henry Fonda in an early role) who is at a loss as to what to do that he leaves town for a year and marries a Yankee. The whole red dress business was all too silly and inconsequential to make me care much for the character, as I was wishing she would at least make a stand about something that matters. Of course, later in the film she does, as a epidemic of yellow fever breaks out in the city, but it was a bit to late for me. Henry Fonda, who was a last-minute replacement for the male lead, seems slightly miscast as the impetuous Southern suitor. Davis is, of course, perfect in this film which was bought as a cheap property for her and molded to her talents. She excels at the temper tantrums at the beginning of the film, but is also able to handle the more somber scenes near the end of the film, foreshadowing the more dramatic roles she would soon be taking on.

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This Must Be the Place

If Sean Penn took the lead role in This Must Be the Place to prove that even after acclaim and an Oscar he is not afraid to take risks with his role choices, then it worked. This is an odd film, and Penn plays an odd character, a burnt out retired goth star.

But the film works, most of the time at least. At times the director tries a little too hard to make his film inscrutable and Jarmuschian. There is, for example, an elderly Native American who hops a ride in the pickup truck the rock star is driving across America, then just as unexpectedly hops out of the truck to wander into the desert. Although the quirkiness level veers slightly too high at times, the story is engaging and even moving at times. Having a depressed former pop star travel across America in order to root out the Nazi war criminal who tormented his father is an unexpected story decision, but it gives the audience a chance to see this frustrated artist and overgrown child finally grow up.

There is some wry humor, especially coming from the rock star’s long-suffering wife (Frances McDormand, who unfortunately disappears one third into the film). Judd Hirsch is excellent as a Simon Wiesenthal-like Nazi hunter, and it is good him still playing some good roles. There is lovely original music by Will Oldham and David Byrne, whose Talking Heads song gives the film its title and who appears as himself in the film. Penn’s high-pitched whisper threatens to get annoying, and fast. I was able stomach his portrayal from start to finish, but I could see how it might wear down the nerves of less-patient viewers. After, Penn, the second star of the film is the cinematography, which is absolutely gorgeous. The camera is always wandering to and fro, which can be annoying in a film like Slumdog Millionaire, but in this film, about travelling without a clear destination, it works to support the story.

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Of Human Bondage

For the past few weeks I have been going through every Bette Davis movie I can find. Some of them, it must be admitted, are not very good as Bette Davis movies. That is either because it was early in her career and she was given too small of  a part, or it was later in her career and she was not given enough to do as producers thought just having her name in the credits would be enough.

But Of Human Bondage is a truly great Bette Davis film, despite her having second billing and, actually, not all that much screen time. This entry in her long filmography is often credited as the film that made Davis a star. That is certainly true, but it did much more than that. 26 years old at the time and only three years from her screen debut, Davis’ performance  is a tour de force. It challenges the notion that is still held today that actresses during Hollywood’s Golden Age were simply normal girls with a pretty face whom studio moguls plucked out of obscurity and molded into screen stars. Davis relentlessly pursued the part despite resistance from her studio, dedicated herself to giving the best performance she could, and ignored those around her who said the role would ruin her career. It was a brave move, to say the least. Davis became one of the first glamour girls to act with make-up to make herself look worse,  in a scene of her character dying of tuberculosis (changed from syphilis in the Somerset Maugham novel). The sensation caused by her performance sparked a bitter rivalry between two major studios. And her Oscar snub—one of the worse in history—forever changed the way the Academy Awards are voted for and tallied.

The story of how Davis fought for the part of Mildred are legendary. In 1932 Michael Curtiz, later to become the director of Casablanca, cast Davis in the Southern Gothic drama The Cabin in the Cotton. Curtiz showed the finished product to fellow director John Cromwell, who was considering its star Richard Barthelmess for an upcoming project. Upon viewing the film, Cromwell forgot all about the actor and found himself intrigued by Davis, and she brought to mind the femme fatal from the Maughm’s novel. Cromwell knew producer Pandro Berman had just bought the rights for RKO as a vehicle for Leslie Howard in the lead role of the lovelorn medical student. Cromwell suggested Davis for the role. Curtiz had not gotten along with the young starlet—he called her “god-damned-nothing-no-good-sexless-son-of-a-bitch!” and she called him a “bastard”—but even the Hungarian director had to concede that she would be good for the role. Then even Maugham himself weighed in to agree, seemingly guaranteeing Davis would get the role. But things would not be that easy.

The problem was that RKO held the rights to the story and Davis was under contract to Warner Bros. Lending actors to another studio was a common practice at the time, as it could greatly profit the lending studio, who continue pay the performer a set weekly salary while collecting a large per-picture fee from the borrowing studio. But loan outs were usually instigated by studio heads, not the performers. In a move that foreshadows her highly-publicized legal battle with the studio in 1936, she begged Warners to lend her to RKO so she could take the role. She stuck it out while the studio insisted she complete a number of films she found frivolous, including Fashions of 1934. Probably what was closest to the truth was that the studio was also worried that the gritty role would ruin her glamorous image, the same reason Katharine Hepburn and Irene Dunne had passed on the role of Mildred.

When Warners finally agreed to lend Davis to RKO, her battle was not over. She would have to learn to speak with a cockney accent for the role. The star hired an English maid in order to study her. but didn’t tell her new her real purpose, knowing she would exaggerate her accent. The result is a London lilt that occasionally falters, but for the most part sounds strikingly similar to Angela Lansbury’s Oscar-winning debut performance in Gaslight. Davis also took the unique step of designing her own makeup for her last scenes in the film, when Mildred’s daughter has died and she is dying of tuberculosis. Davis later said “I made it very clear that Mildred was not going to die of a dread disease looking as if a deb had missed her noon nap. The last stages of consumption, poverty and neglect are not pretty and I intended to be convincing-looking.”

One person who was not impressed with Davis’ efforts to master a London accent was her co-star, the British actor Leslie Howard, who was upset that an American had been cast in the role. Davis later claimed that Howard would coolly sit in a chair on the edge of the set reading a book, feeding her lines for her close-up shots, but that changed when he was warned that the picture, which was intended to be a star vehicle for him, was being stolen by “the kid.” Indeed, watch the film today and what you will remember is Davis, not Howard, how is in every scene.

Those closest to Davis were unsure if the role was the best career choice. When she attended the premiere with her mother and first husband, they couldn’t find words to say about her performance after the house lights came back up. Her husband was worried that it might ruin her career. When her performance garnered critical acclaim, Warner Brothers were embarrassed that their star had scored a hit with another studio, and began aggressively suppressing any mention of it. This reverse Oscar baiting is probably why she failed to receive a much-deserved Oscar nod. When she was not nominated for Best Actress for the Oscars in 1936, the year that It Happened One Night swept the awards, angry voters wrote her name in and she came in third. The statuette went to Claudette Colbert for a fine performance in a light-hearted movie. Beginning the following year, write-in ballots were prohibited and Price Waterhouse is hired out every year to count the votes and keep the results secret.

Aside from Davis’ stellar performance, the movie well-made and hides the fact that the London-set story was actually filmed in Hollywood. The overall style of the film is British. There are several effective double exposure shots such as Mildred marrying a wealthy businessman while the club-footed medical student walks the streets, and the “good girl” he finally decides to marry, Sally, waiting patiently for his visit “next Sunday” while the calendar flips through a dozen Sundays. This brand of clever visual storytelling made me think I could have been watching an early film by Hitchcock.

 

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The Producers

I have been on an ongoing Bette Davis marathon and enjoying it, but needed to take a little break, and thought I would finally get around to seeing The Producers.

I put off seeing this music remake for some time. I never saw the Broadway stage adaptation of the film, but I probably would have if I had been in New York during its record-breaking run of 2,502 performances. It certainly looked like fun. However, when I heard that the musical was being made into a movie, making it a movie based on a play about a play, and based on an early movie about a play, well, I quickly lost interest. I had just seen the 1968 original around that time the remake was released, and I thought that the totally unique styles of Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel brought their own idiosyncratic performances to the roles of Bialystok and Bloom and really made them their own. I also didn’t think Uma Thurman is voluptuousness enough to play the sexy Swedish secretary Ulla.

But I knew I had to get around to seeing this eventually, because even though he didn’t direct it, this is (more or less) a Mel Brooks movie, after all. After the requisite opening musical number, the first meeting between the failed Broadway producer and his meek accountant seemed to drag on forever. Is this the chemistry of two actors who have played this scene literally thousands of times before on the stage? It was quite a disappointment to see Nathan Lane going to great lengths to do a Zero Mostel impression. Even though he shaved the top of his head to give himself an authentic comb-over, there was, and forever will only be, only one Zero Mostel. At least Matthew Broderick wisely avoids the stammering and long, contemplative pauses before apoplectic eruptions that were Gene Wilder’s trademark. Even Will Ferrell showing up as the oddball Nazi playwright does little to pick up the lagging pace. The fact that the character traits and much of the dialogue are taken directly from the original film seem to challenge the viewer, or me at least, to compare the two, and this one is seems destined to come up lacking.

But then Uma Thurman walks through the door to sing “If You Got It, Flaunt It,” and, as Max Bialystok would say, “bowowoowowoaw!” Thurman’s Ulla and Roger Bart’s Carmen Ghia (the assistant to the worst director on Broadway) are the two bright spots in the film, even though they are relatively minor characters. Broderick does an admirable job with all of the singing and dancing he is asked to do, and it is hard to believe this is the same person who played the puny computer geek in War Games.

After a while, I decided to give up trying to compare this to the Wilder/Mostel film and just enjoy it for what it is, but by that time it was almost over.

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Three on a Match

I came uponThree on a Match as I am trying to get through as many Bette Davis movies as I can find. Unfortunately, it was only one year since Davis’s screen debut, and she has the smallest role of the three women of the title. She was mainly just asked just to look sincere and pretty, and supply some cheesecake by wearing a skimpy (for the time) bathing suit in a beach scene and changing her stockings in another. Reportedly director Mervyn LeRoy didn’t care much for Davis’ acting. The feeling was mutual, with the actress calling LeRoy a “hack.” Davis had the last laugh, though, as she would quickly become one of the in-demand actresses in Hollywood over the next few years. Aside from Davis’ talents being underused, this is a noteworthy, at times startling film that was only possible in the brief period between the Hays Production Code being adopted in 1930 and it actually being enforced in 1934.

The title comes from the superstition, popular in the ’20s and 30s, that if three people light cigarettes off the same match, the third person will die soon. It was thought that the belief started in World War I, when keeping a match alight long enough to light three cigarettes would attract enemy fire. But as one of the many newspaper clippings shown in the film explains, the rumor was actually started by a match manufacturer to boost sales. The film opens in 1919, with Prohibition set to start. A montage of newspaper and magazine clippings and newsreels sets up the period before the film focuses in on a middle school on the first day of class. One girl is the bad girl of the school, letting her bloomers show when she swings on the playground swing and sneaking cigarettes with boys, another is a goody-two-shoes and teacher’s pet (Anne Shirley, who would go on to adult roles in noirs like Murder My Sweet), and a third is shy and earnest. Every few minutes, the film skips ahead a few years, with a montage combining a popular song of the age, magazine articles, and news items such as the Hindenburg disaster. While these interludes are fun to watch, they are not entirely necessary to the plot.

When we get 1925, the bad girl Mary (now being played by Joan Blondell) is trapped in a reform school why the good girl Vivian (Ann Dvorak) is dreaming of romance in an exclusive boarding school and the shy one (Bette Davis) is training hard to become a secretary. Skip again to 1930, and the three bump into each other in a beauty salon. They are invited to lunch on Vivian, who has married a rich lawyer. It is here that they light the fateful match, with Vivian being the third to use it. She is rich and successful, but bored with her life.

At this point, Ann Dvorak seems to be the weak link in the film, as some of her line reads are rather stiff. But things are about to change for her character. Big time. There is a very clever shot of her coming home with her husband and pretending to imediately fall asleep on the bed, only for him to catch her open her eyes in a mirror. They argue, and they agree he will not join her for their planned cruise. When she meets a handsome, passionate young man on board, she see an opportunity to escape her own life. She kidnaps her own child and runs off on a champagne and drug fueled bender with her good-for-nothing lover. Concerned about the young boy, Mary rescues him and sends him back home. This is where the film really starts to get good. A speakeasy operating gangster (Edward Arnold, who usually plays jovial types) puts pressure on the boyfriend to cough up his gambling debts, backed up by by his sadistic henchman Harve (Humphrey Bogart). This leads to a very cringe-inducing kidnap scene in a park. This was Bogart’s first gangster role and he is quite frightening. When Junior (prolific child actor Dickie Moore) pleads “you mustn’t hurt my momma!”, Bogart deadpans “OK, I’ll bear that in mind” with a chuckle.

The gangsters hole up in a little apartment, keeping the boy and his mother hostage while plotting how to collect the ransom. No secret is made of fact that she is suffering from drug withdraw, and there is great scene when Bogart sees her paranoid state and brushes the underside of his nose with his finger. In the most effective closeup I have ever seen in a ’30s film, another member of the gang (Allen Jenkins) slide open the bathroom door to leer at her histrionics as she struggles to find a way to save her son. The situation spirals out of control to a truly shocking ending.

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Snow White and the Huntsman

So far, I have successfully avoided the entire Twilight series, and so did not have any preconceptions about this film, which is obviously trying to ride on the popularity of the teen vampire films and their goddess Kristen Stewart. Because I had no expectations, I was somewhat surprised to find myself actually enjoying this.

Although this adaptation diverges at times from Snow White as written by the Brothers Grimm, it is considerably more faithful than the Disney version, and also has an appropriate fairy tale feel. The British locations and beautiful, subdued cinematography certainly make for a good-looking film. The sets and costumes by the always brilliant Colleen Atwood have much to add to the atmosphere. The only thing marring the visuals are some occasional badly-done CGI shots.

Although this decision raised the ire of the Little People of America, full-sized actors were cast as the seven dwarves. I was surprised to see Nick Frost, whom no one would describe as a small man, playing a dwarf. The dwarves are the true highlight of the film, especially Bob Hoskins as their blind seer. Most praise has been given to Charlize Theron’s performance the the wicked and powerful queen obsessed with youth. She is indeed creepy, and her role reflects the current obsession with anti-aging cosmetics, but she does tend to go a bit over the top at times with her royal temper tantrums.

The weak link here is ironically the biggest box office draw of the film. Kristen Stewart is not particularly bad as Snow White, but she doesn’t bring a whole lot of life to the role. And I was never sure if she was actually trying to do a British accent or not. If she was, she didn’t try very hard.

Although the direction was fine, I continued to be surprised, and a bit disappointed, that big movies with budgets of $100 million or more like this and TRON: Legacy are given to directors with no previous credits to their name.  This is probably done because studio executives believe they are easier to control. Meanwhile, master filmmaker such as Terry Gilliam can’t raise the money to get a project off the ground.

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Miss Congeniality

A week ago, I had only heard the title of this film, and had successfully avoided seeing anything starring Sandra Bullock. But I’ve been reading the book Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, in which the author gives this film as an example of a $100 million hit that follows his theory of screenplay structure. I decided to watch it in order to get a better grasp on the book. I could also justify watching a “chick flick” by telling myself that I need to work myself through every entry in Michael Caine’s filmography, even the bad ones.

It turned out that I quite enjoyed this film. There is the requisite romance for any film starring Sandra between her and her FBI supervisor, but thankfully that is pushed to the background and the focus is on Sandra’s transformation throughout the film, and some biting satire of beauty pageants. There is very little storytelling subtlety as we are introduced to Sandra as a slovenly tomboy FBI agent with bad table manners and split ends. When she is determined to be the only federal agent suitable to be sent undercover to the Miss USA pageant, which has had bomb threats, Michael Caine shows up as a disgraced beauty adviser who turns the slob into a beauty overnight. Caine, naturally, steals the show, and has all the funniest lines, delivered with moderate helpings of camp. But we also have Candice Bergen as the queen bee organizer of the pageant and William Shatner doing quite a funny send up of Miss America host Bert Parks. Heather Burns is hilarious as the ditsy Miss Rhode Island, who replies to a question about her ideal date with “I’d have to say April 25th. Because it’s not too hot, not too cold, all you need is a light jacket,” evidently taken from an actual beauty pageant.

Going back to the book that prompted me to watch this, yes, the film is tightly structured, and, yes, that does help us identify with Sandra’s character and hope she pulls through, but it also makes the film rather predictable. I suppose you don’t watch this kind of film to be surprised, though.